Is the Saxophone a good instrument for developing good breath control?
November 18, 2015 12:40 AM   Subscribe

I don't have asthma, but I do have problems with shallow breathing and poor support. The doctor said there was no medical reason for it, but rather poor habits that I developed in childhood.

He recommended that I exercise more and do breathing exercises. I've heard that kids with Asthma will sometimes be recommended to learn a wind instrument and though I'm in my 30's and have never learned an instrument, it seems like a fun way to go about it.

I thought the tenor saxophone would be good. Unlike a trumpet, I'd be able to practice it at home without disturbing next door neighbors. I'm a 5'2 female though and I'm not sure if that's good for my body type.

Though Ideally it would be nice to be able to be good enough to entertain guests, the real goal is to help gain more breath control and support. Is the tenor sax a good choice? Or should I go with something else? If I go with the Sax what should I know when buying what would be my first instrument ever? If I were to put in 30 minutes a day of practice how would that work for me?
posted by manderin to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I'm not sure about the specifics, but I can offer an anecdote.

I played the sax from 4th grade (1987) through my final year at undergrad which was in 1999. I was an alto sax player not a tenor, but there isn't much difference. In fact I would recommend alto and not tenor for starting off because it would require slightly less breath but in the grand scheme of things it doesn't make much difference. If you can play one sax you can play them all the others will just feel a bit weird.

Fast forward to 2006 and as part of my postdoc I was sent for lung function monitoring because I was using HATU/HBTU to form peptide bonds and they have been shown to reduce lung function. As part of the test the determine total lung volume where you take in a big breath and then push as much air out as possible. I was well over 5 liters of volume, and the nurse said that normal was about 3. Remember this is 7 years after I stopped playing sax.

So while I'm not that type of doctor I bet that playing sax wouldn't be bad for your lung function.
posted by koolkat at 1:07 AM on November 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

I was athsmatic and played clarinet. Swimming and voice lessons (singing) are good too. The flute requires an absolute ton of air, if you're feeling ambitious!
posted by jrobin276 at 1:24 AM on November 18, 2015

More anecdotal material: Way back I lived in a dorm for music students. Next door neighbour in the house (a double brick wall between my room and his) was a saxophone player.
Plus side: when we took to jogging at the beach, he totally outran me, even though it was his first time jogging and I had some practice. So yeah, you're on to something here.
Minus side: I SO could hear him practice through that wall...
posted by Namlit at 1:48 AM on November 18, 2015 [3 favorites]

For sure this will help with breath control! Also it will be super fun.

If you want to play tenor sax, you'd perhaps be better off starting with a clarinet or an alto sax - where I live, kids who want to play sax all start on clarinet, just because it requires less OOMPH so it's much easier as a beginner instrument. This counts doubly as a smaller person and with existing breathing issues. Once you've got the hang of it you can easily try out a bigger instrument and see how you go. I was at a gig where a tiny old lady played baritone sax (standing up!) so your size doesn't have to be a barrier in the long term. Unless you get fed up of lugging the thing about, which is worth considering. A tenor sax case is pretty big.

I also contest your suggestion that a tenor sax will annoy your neighbours less than a trumpet. As a beginner it's very hard to play a sax quietly - the larger the sax the harder you will find it. HOWEVER, for both saxes and brass you can buy a "practice mute" which will damp the sound for the benefit of the neighbours.

If you're choosing an instrument and you like the idea of playing in a group some time, do a bit of research into the groups in your area that take relatively low-level players and check that those groups have parts for your instrument of choice. For instance: near me, for mining history reasons, a lot of the amateur music scene is brass bands, and they don't have sax parts. Playing in a group is SUPER fun, especially while you're relatively beginnerish, because the music the group can play can be way more satisfying than the music you're able to play by yourself at this stage.

Check whether it's possible to rent an instrument. This is what a lot of kids do here, at least for the first few lessons while they see how they get on with it. It's really hard to buy an instrument that you can't try out because you don't know how to play it yet.
posted by emilyw at 2:10 AM on November 18, 2015 [4 favorites]

I'd recommend alto sax over tenor as well; the instrument itself is less expensive, and you're more likely to find beginner-level resources. All wind instruments are pretty loud, especially when you're just beginning, so if your main consideration is not bugging the neighbors you'll be disappointed.

I developed better breath control when I played oboe, but I had to specifically work on my breath in addition to practicing the instrument. My teacher gave me this doohickey to work on my breath, and it was pretty hard even after years of playing. You might want to get one even if you don't start playing sax.
posted by Metroid Baby at 3:52 AM on November 18, 2015 [3 favorites]

One good place to start might be a melodica. They're very inexpensive and because they have a piano keyboard, much easier to grasp for beginners than horn fingering. They're also much quieter than any "real" horns (including tenor sax).
posted by raisindebt at 5:14 AM on November 18, 2015

Alto Sax will be more accessible in terms of instrument availability and cost, and then if you decide you want to play the tenor, go for it. I played alto and then soprano sax (so I went the other direction).

As for noise, yes, the saxophone is not quiet, but neither is the flute or anything else that is a wind instrument. You can use a mute or a muffle to be nicer to neighbors and of course only practice during times when noise is expected.
posted by Medieval Maven at 6:12 AM on November 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

Another (former-ish) saxophonist weighing in with, yeah, wind instruments are a great way to develop lung capacity and breath control. Some more thoughts below;

- You don't mention taking lessons, but if you're not considering it yet, you really should. Not just for the basic "How do I work this thing?" aspect, but all of my various teachers were definitely aware of and helpful with posture and breath control and breathing exercises.

- You absolutely definitely can and should look into renting an instrument. You'll want to find a local music instrument shop, the big chains like Guitar Center and Sam Ash usually don't do this. It's likely some of these stores will have a rent-to-own program (quite possibly a no-interest program.) Saxes are expensive - I've no idea what the quality of $400 horns is these days, but way back when the big name in $400 student instruments was Bundy, and even semi-serious players moved past Bundy as quickly as they could because a better instrument can be a big leap up in playability and tone, and Bundys seem to be around $800 to $1000 these days, so . . . either Bundys have gotten much better, or the price of instruments has shot way up. In either case, renting will get you started without a big cash outlay right at the start.

- Although if you rent you're far more likely to find altos than tenors, I think. But go ahead and try the different sizes if you can and see what's comfortable. Most of the weight hangs around your neck, so you might find the smaller and lighter alto is best for you, but there's no hard and fast rule, try tenors and baris and sopranos too.

- If you want to play sax I think you should start with sax rather than another woodwind. Flutes and double-reed instruments like oboe and bassoon use a different embouchure (mouth and lip shape and technique) than clarinets and saxes, and the sax has its own set of fingering positions. When I expanded from sax to flute and clarinet I had no small trouble switching from sax fingering to the other instruments, and that was when my brain was still young and pliable.

- Nthing that unfortunately no instrument is really super-quiet, and that beginners can make some horrible noises. You may have to look into finding somewhere to practice besides your apartment, depending on how forgiving your neighbors are.
posted by soundguy99 at 7:12 AM on November 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

DaughterR is 5'3" (in the morning) and marched with a tenor sax, so it's probably not too big. (I'm 5'5" and currently play baritone sax after marching with a tenor in HS and college.)

Any wind instrument will help with breath control -- singing is good, too. Flute is even better than saxophone. Oboe is best, but so very much not a good place to start. Don't worry about starting on sax -- kids start on clarinet or flute to make it easier on the teachers, not because sax is harder to blow. FWIW, neither DR or I had much trouble swapping between flute and sax -- the fingerings are nearly identical. (I still play flute on occasion.)

Certainly rent if you can. And lessons! even just a couple of lessons at the beginning will help you do it right, and avoid fundamental mistakes.
posted by jlkr at 7:32 AM on November 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

If it's less about learning a particular instrument and just improving your breathing, you can try a recorder. Mind you, there are still no guarantees a neighbour won't be bothered by your practising, but the sound shouldn't carry as much.

The trick with playing any wind instrument isn't how hard you can blow, but how much control you have over your breathing. You want to increase your capacity, and ration how much air you are expelling at any one time to get the maximum effect. While a recorder may seem like a simple instrument, you can still play complicated pieces that require good lungs and solid breathing technique. Plus they're considerably cheaper than a sax (or trumpet).

Soundguy99 is absolutely correct about everything, but in particular about lessons. A good instructor will help you learn how to breathe and how to phrase things (which requires breath control). Even something as simple as diaphragm breathing makes more sense if somebody can watch you and show you how it's done. (It's actually stupidly simple, but if you have somebody keeping an eye on you, they will catch you when you slip and go back to normal breathing.)
posted by sardonyx at 7:39 AM on November 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

Another instrument used for pulmonary therapy is a harmonica because you have to use both inhale and exhale to play. They're also small, cheap, and reasonably quiet.
posted by angiep at 8:34 AM on November 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

Make sure you are renting vs rent to own. My school district rents, but our school does rent to own. If the kids turn in instruments over summer they "lose" what they paid into on RTO contract.
posted by tilde at 9:46 AM on November 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm a flute player, not a sax player, but I have opinions, most of which are similar to the ones above.

The best instrument is the one you want to play. No instrument is going to help if you grow to dislike it. If the tenor sax intrigues you, go for it.

I don't know if breathing technique matters for the side benefits you are interested in. Instrumentalist and singers are taught to use their diaphragms. One wants to tighten one's belt when breathing in.

My experience with the flute is that expensive instruments are easier to play than inexpensive "student" instruments. It's probably a good plan to minimize the outlay for the first beginner instrument and buy the best instrument you can in a year.

Almost all music (except what's written for practice) is written for groups, if only piano accompanist. If your playing crosses the line from therapy to music-making, you are going to want to find some sort of group. Band music for tenor sax is going have a lot harmonies and a lot of rhythmic back beats, with very few melodies and/or exposed passages.
posted by SemiSalt at 10:02 AM on November 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

I've played several instruments both brass and woodwind. I also have asthma.... but it never really effected playing stuff (though ironically have an above average lung capacity) but playing definitely helps breathing.

Tenor sax may be too big for you - both overall body size and mouth size. A saxophone is fairly loud, so it might still bother your neighbours depending on the insulation, thickness of wall, wether you have the window open etc.

I'd recommend getting lessons / trying it out before spending money on a sax. It's pretty hard work to learn - mainly training the muscles in your face (the embouchure) and controlling your breath so you can produce a consistent and decent sound (no squeeking and honking) plus the fingering and tonging to produce the notes. Plus you have to keep it or you loose muscle tone. If you've never played anything before it can be slow and frustrating business on simple tunes (twinkle twinkle rather than baker st). Though it is easier than the clarinet or other wind instruments (and imho brass instruments too). And being really keen to learn will help.

You might want to try a penny / tin whistle... they are cheap, quietish, and a lot easier to play and you can get a decent sound very quickly. There's tons of fun tunes written for it as well. Also everything you learn you can apply to the sax.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 11:57 AM on November 21, 2015

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