Saxophone and Clarinet Practice tips … suitable for any instrument

Creative practice for difficult technical passages. 

I am a clarinet and saxophone teacher in Sydney, and have also performed at a high level around the world. Over the years, I have developed a number of practice techniques that have been helpful for my own development on clarinet and saxophone, and my students have also benefited greatly from them. You can download the whole article HERE or read the summary below!

Here is a synopsis …

Are those nasty little technical passages, getting you down? If so, it is time to apply some other practice strategies that might help overcome that feeling of frustration. These are useful saxophone and clarinet tips for advanced players, but you can use these practice tips for any instrument at any level of playing!

Over my years as a musician, I have come to believe that learning music is as much a problem solving exercise, as time spent “wood shedding” or, “PP” (Personal Practice), as a colleague of mine calls it.

As a teacher, I feel that one of the most valuable things I can give my students is an orderly approach to practice, when they leave my studio, I hope that my students have tools that they can use in a pragmatic way, so with those technical problems solved, we can get on with thinking about the music! With a problem solving approach, students can develop their own strategies that can be adapted to different situations. However, before we continue, it might be helpful to look at the ways our minds process information when we learn a musical task.

Simplify the passage

The main principal here is to simplify a passage so that your brain can manage smaller chunks of information, and then gradually build up to the full version. This can be at a micro level of only an interval of two notes, or a larger chunk depending upon the difficulty. When looking at how you are going to work on a passage, always try to find out any discernable patterns. These can be sequential intervallic passages or passages that are recognizable as a scale. This is a way of seeing the music in a larger context, again moving form a micro to macro view.

It is of vital importance to commence work on a passage at a realistic tempo, it is time wasted if you work at a tempo that is too fast. A good clue is to do a mental check in of how you are feeling, if you are the least bit on edge, fingers feel stiff, take it easier.

The aural concept of the sound

When we learn a musical passage we are taking in information on different levels:

  • Ideally you need to be able to imagine and pre-hear what is going to be played.
  • You need to develop ‘mindfulness’ about the way you practice, a quality of listening that is in touch with every aspect of what is happening / has happened while you are playing.

To develop this concept the idea of a ‘Process Loop’ is most helpful. This is simply the process of setting an objective, ‘what will I do’, performing it, then feedback, ‘what did I do’ and finally, ‘what will I do next’. This simple, but powerful method of working is the key to achieving your objectives.

Key listening points are: Co-ordination between your fingers, breath, tongue and consistency in the sound/tonal balance.

 Muscle memory

Our bodies have their own intelligence, consider all the steps that go to producing a sound on a musical instrument. So many things must happen so quickly that we cannot consciously think about each step. This is where muscle memory comes into the picture. On this level, you are programming your muscles to do certain tasks that will eventually become automatic.

Here again breaking a task into small chunks is vital to this process. This is not just the tactile feel the fingers have on the instrument, but what our body needs to do in terms of oral cavity, breath control, to produce the sounds that we imagine.

Things happen in their own time at this level, be patient, and focused. Once one task is mastered, there are always lots more things you can do to develop your playing, especially if you have been honestly working with your ‘Process Loop’.


All of these exercises can be creatively adapted for variety and to make your saxophone and clarinet practice fun. Whatever you are working on, keep in mind that you are always working on your control of the sound, use this time to focus on the way you use the air. You can work on many levels.

Contact me for advanced saxophone or clarinet lessons in Sydney