Choosing instructional materials for beginning saxophone students

Importance of appropriate materials

Choosing the right method books and materials—or choosing not to use them—can be a deciding factor in a beginning saxophone student’s success. A student assigned page after page of boring finger exercises will lose interest quickly, but a student given only “fun” assignments may fall behind in development of sound technique.

Different approaches

Russell Pizer, in a 1971 article in The Instrumentalist, compares different types of published methods. The first he terms the “whole note approach.” This apt classification refers to method books that start with several pages of whole notes and whole rests. Though a challenge to the motivation of even the most enthusiastic student, this scheme has several benefits. First, it builds a firm embouchure and breath support from the first lesson by encouraging the practicing of long tones. It also allows a more methodical approach to adding articulation and fingering changes.

The second approach described in Pizer’s article is the “melody approach,” in which fingerings are presented and explained. Melodies are provided that reinforce the new fingerings. This method allows students to quickly begin playing simple tunes, but may cause students to neglect basics of tone production.

A third style of published method is the “rote-to-note” approach that draws upon the Suzuki method. In methods of this type, students learn to play melodies or exercises without using traditional staff notation. Music reading skills are taught later. This approach encourages the development of ear training and intuitive playing. It may prove a disadvantage, however, to students who are involved with a school band program and find themselves lacking music reading skills.

Is a published method necessary?

Paul Berler, in a 1997 Saxophone Journal article, asks, “…but what happens when there isn’t a method book that suits the student? What happens then? Well, you do one thing saxophonists over the years have been able to do very well: improvise!” A bookless approach allows for more individualized instruction, but places a greater burden on the teacher to develop a cohesive, logical program of study. It also leaves the student without written material to use as a reference while practicing during the week.

Evaluating published methods

Pizer provides a detailed chart to use in rating published methods. He encourages teachers to decide how well each of several dozen topics is covered by a method book. Topics under the heading “Introductory Materials” include music theory, terminology, suggestions to players, instrument care, and a fingering chart with accompanying explanation. Pizer also suggests the teacher look for illustrations showing the instrument, proper playing position, hand position, and correct embouchure. It may also be appropriate to find out whether a piano accompaniment book is available.

With regard to topics like embouchure and playing position, Berler addresses the notion that these items are unnecessary in a printed method because they should be demonstrated by the teacher. In opposition to this view, he points out that many students have a saxophone and method book well before they have a private teacher. Though clearly a far from ideal situation, it is common enough that a good method should make provision for it. Students with private teachers may also find text and illustrations on these topics useful as a reminder during the week.

Pizer also suggests that a method book should include exercises covering scales (including chromatic), arpeggios, familiar and unfamiliar tunes, sufficient range of the instrument, and a variety of rhythmic figures. Under “Miscellaneous Fundamentals” he includes topics such as key signatures, accidentals, common meters, dynamic and articulation markings, tempo, repeats, first and second endings, and fermatas.

Marvin Blickenstaff, in a 1998 Keyboard Companion article, explores the elements that make a method book appealing to young students. (“Who would dare teach something the students do not like?” he asks.)

Is student appeal mostly visual layout and colorful illustrations?

Is student appeal mostly musical—familiar tunes or pieces which can be learned easily and feel good technically?

Does student appeal lie in the pacing of the book—having enough time to feel secure with one idea before moving on to the next?

Does student appeal result from the success they feel at each step of the learning process?

Does student appeal reflect the enthusiasm of the teacher for the materials at hand?

Recommended method books

In The Instrumentalist in 1989, Bill Perconti and Ronald Tyree suggest the Eugene Rousseau Saxophone Method (in two volumes) or the first two volumes of Arthur Hegvik’s Modern Course for Saxophone. They describe the Rousseau method as a “traditional approach” with a good balance between melodic excerpts and technical studies. Rousseau also receives favorable marks for his special exercises for awkward high- and low-note fingering exercises and his fundamental information on embouchure and breathing.

The Hegvik method gets a favorable review because of its flexibility in lesson planning. Perconti and Tyree also call attention to its use of familiar folk tunes and its unique approach to breath support. The first two pages are exercises with notes slurred, and tonguing is not introduced until page three.

The Rousseau and Hegvik methods are also the only books marked “highly recommended” by Larry Teal in The Art of Saxophone Playing. He does note, though, that the ubiquitous Hovey method published by Rubank is “excellent.” Teal suggests that different methods may be appropriate to different age groups, suggesting the Anzalone “Breeze-Easy Method” for very young students and Bichon’s Jouez du Saxophone for the high school beginner.


Although it may be impossible to write a beginning saxophone method that is universally appropriate for every student, several tried-and-true method books may serve as a starting point. The Rousseau and Hegvik methods are recommended highly by noted saxophonists and pedagogues. The Rubank method is also solidly assembled and more readily available than most competing books. Whichever method the saxophone teacher decides to use, he or she will find it necessary to adapt the material to the student’s specific requirements and provide supplements as needed.


Berler, Paul. “Young Teacher, Young Student,” Saxophone Journal 22, no. 1 (July/August 1997): 64-65.

——————. “Young Teacher, Young Student, Part II” Saxophone Journal 22, no. 2 (September/October 1997): 62-63.

Blickenstaff, Marvin. “When Choosing a Method for Your Beginning Students, What Role Does the Repertoire Play in Your Decision?” Keyboard Companion 9, no. 1 (Spring 1998): 42-44.

Perconti, Bill, and Ronald Tyree. “An Annotated Course for Traditional Saxophone Study,” The Instrumentalist 43, no. 10 (May 1989): 54-59.

Pizer, Russell A. “A Beginning Method Book Evaluation System,” The Instrumentalist 26, no. 1 (August 1971): 28-29.

Teal, Larry. The Art of Saxophone Playing. Miami: Summy-Birchard, 1963.

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