The modern saxophonist: The changing career climate of the concert saxophone artist

The neglected saxophone

Despite the saxophone’s widespread acceptance in jazz and popular music styles, its acknowledgment as a viable solo instrument in classical music has been slow. Few composers have included it in orchestral scores. Only in recent years have conservatories and university music departments begun to recognize the saxophone on a somewhat equal footing with, say, the flute, the piano, or the violin.

Perhaps this neglect was a lingering byproduct of the instrument’s chronology. After all, by the time of its invention by Adolphe Sax in the 1840’s, the instrumentation of the modern orchestra was already becoming somewhat standardized. Maybe the inattention had something to do with the saxophone’s longstanding reputation as a “jazzy horn” and association with burlesque1. Or maybe the upsurge in amateur interest since the 1920’s had spawned too many inferior saxophonists for anyone to take the instrument seriously2.

Whatever the reasons for the saxophone’s neglect in the realm of concert music and music education, it is experiencing a remarkable upturn. An increasing number of prominent composers are writing works for saxophone as soloist or orchestra member, as well as for saxophone quartets or mixed chamber groups3. The hiring of saxophone instructors by colleges has also increased dramatically during the last few decades4.

But what effect will these changes have on the 21st-century classical saxophonist and his or her career?

Solo repertoire

The saxophone, invented in the 1840’s, had a distinct disadvantage in terms of repertoire. Its chronology doomed it never to be written for by Monteverdi or Handel or Bach, nor by Mozart, Haydn, or Beethoven. This disadvantage continues to affect concert saxophone soloists, though composers’ increased interest in the saxophone has been a major factor in the saxophone’s growth in recent decades.

The rise of three virtuoso saxophone soloists—Frenchman Marcel Mule, German Sigurd Rascher, and American Cecil Leeson—led to exciting developments in saxophone repertoire by the 1940’s. Each inspired a number of new solo works by major twentieth-century composers. Henri Tomasi, Alfred Desenclos, Eugene Bozza, Pierre Dubois, Heitor Villa-Lobos, and a multitude of others wrote solo works for Mule. Alexander Glazunov and Jacques Ibert wrote for Rascher, and Paul Creston, Leon Stein, and Burnet Tuthill dedicated works to Cecil Leeson. All of these works have become part of the standard saxophone repertoire and are studied and performed extensively by saxophonists today.

But in a 1982 interview, Mule pointed out that the saxophone’s repertoire might continue to face challenges:

I would say that the one most evident element of discouragement was that composers of the time [the 1940’s] did not write enough for the saxophone. I believe that they really thought there were not enough good saxophonists available. What a pity!

Today there are many excellent saxophonists, but composers are not writing interesting music5.

If the repertoire lacks exciting new works, interest in the saxophone will die out. Saxophonists depend on great composers to breathe new life into concert programs.

The saxophone in orchestras

Due to the saxophone’s late addition to orchestras, none of the works of the great classical composers included saxophone parts. The composer Hector Berlioz, a champion of the saxophone and a friend of Adolphe Sax, was a likely candidate to include the saxophone family in a symphony or two. Unfortunately this never came to fruition.

Other composers of the time took interest in the saxophone, but lack of available saxophone education in the instrument’s early years made it difficult for orchestras to find skilled saxophonists. As a result, few saxophone parts were written. When they were written, they were most often doubled with other instruments, perhaps so they would not be missed as much if unavailable. Richard Strauss marked the saxophone parts “ad libitum”6 in his Sinfonia Domestica (1903) due to lack of satisfactory saxophonists to perform the parts7.

Gradually the saxophone began to make symphonic appearances, most often as a cameo soloist in programmatic works. The early 1870’s produced two examples of orchestral saxophone scoring by major composers: Bizet’s L’Arlisienne Suites (nos. 1 and 2, 1872) and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (1874). The 1920’s and ’30’s brought another short burst of orchestral saxophone parts, including Milhaud’s La Creation du Monde (1923), Ravel’s Bolero (1928), Gershwin’s An American in Paris (1928), and Prokofiev’s Lt. Kije Suite (1934)8.

Though most major orchestras still have yet to hire and regularly utilize saxophone sections, more opportunities for orchestral saxophone playing are becoming available. By 1983, an estimated 2,000 operas, ballets, and symphonies used saxophone parts (the vast majority written after 1900)9. During its 1999-2000 season, the New York Philharmonic performed a surprising 15 works using saxophones, including two new commissioned works. Phillip Glass’s Concerto for Saxophone Quartet and Orchestra (1995) put a full saxophone section in the spotlight and was one of the most-performed orchestral pieces of the 1990’s10.

The increasing popularity of orchestral works using the saxophone is good news for saxophonists, but saxophone chairs in symphony orchestras are still scarce compared to other woodwind instruments. One positive side effect of this scarcity is that competition for orchestra positions has raised the standards of orchestral saxophone playing to very high levels—which may prove to be a benefit as conductors and composers take note of the saxophone’s elite.


The increasing acceptance of the saxophone in concert halls and conservatories has dramatically changed the face of saxophone education. The availability and quality of saxophone-specific musical training is of concern to the aspiring saxophonist, and demand for teachers impacts the career climate of the saxophone studio graduate. If more students seek qualified teachers, more teaching jobs are available. But if more students are taught, competition for jobs increases.

Examining past trends in saxophone education may be the best way to predict its future. The first formal saxophone instruction was by Adolphe Sax, inventor of the instrument and its first virtuoso performer. He organized the first saxophone class at the Paris Conservatory in 185711. Thirteen years later, Sax’s position was terminated after the Franco-Prussian War led to budget cuts at the school. Saxophone instruction would not be reinstated at the Conservatory until 1942, when Marcel Mule was hired as professor of saxophone12. In the interim, little formal education was available to prospective saxophonists. Most of the early prominent saxophonists were self-taught.

Mule’s father, a musical hobbyist, introduced him to the saxophone13. Mule later joined the French Garde Républicaine military band, receiving on-the-job training from the band’s saxophone section. His reputation began to grow, and he was eventually awarded Adolphe Sax’s long-empty position at the Paris Conservatory14. His tenure there began a new era of saxophone teaching. During his career, a staggering eighty-seven of his students won first-place prizes as soloists. He retired from the Conservatory in 196815.

Sigurd Rascher was also largely self-taught as a saxophonist, though he studied clarinet at the Academy of Music in Stuttgart16. Ridiculed by a flutist colleague for choosing an instrument with such a limited pitch range, Rascher used clarinet playing techniques to virtually double the instrument’s range-completely unaware that Adolphe Sax had taught the same method nearly a century earlier17.

Saxophone instruction in the United States was first offered in New York City in 1882, and spread slowly-the first West Coast school to offer saxophone classes was the University of Oregon in 191418. By 1940, only seven American universities had at any time taught saxophone19.

In the early 1920’s, Cecil Leeson sought out formal saxophone study at Dana’s Musical Institute of Warren, Ohio, the only school he could find that offered saxophone coursework leading to a degree20. His only previous saxophone study had been of sheet music and recordings by popular saxophonist Rudy Wiedoft21. Before his graduation in 1925, Leeson was assisting in teaching. He established a saxophone studio at Northwestern University in 1955, and one at Ball State University in 196122.

The high standards of saxophone playing and teaching set by Mule, Rascher, and Leeson, as well as increasing demand from students, made college music departments take notice. Membership in the College Music Society in 1967 included 88 saxophone teachers, which increased to 511 by 198623.

The proliferation of college saxophone studios has given thousands of aspiring saxophonists opportunities to study the saxophone at an advanced level. Unfortunately, the number of performing opportunities for classically-trained saxophonists, though increasing, does not provide enough jobs for the graduates. Thus far, the economic salvation of the classical saxophonist has been the instrument’s popularity in colleges, where the saxophone professor has become something of a self-perpetuating species.


Saxophonists must have more and more diverse skills to survive. To be competitive in the professional saxophonist’s job market, a saxophonist must be skilled at playing any member of the saxophone family—soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, and sometimes bass. He or she may be called upon to play multiple saxophones during a performance, or even to “double” on other woodwinds. Jazz saxophonists are expected to play flute and clarinet parts in big band charts, and the expectation has spread to orchestras and recording studios.

Since the early days of the saxophone in orchestras, many composers wishing to use the saxophone have written it into other musicians’ parts. The attitude that the saxophone is a secondary instrument, played as an afterthought by performers of other woodwinds, is evident in at least one publication as late as 1978. A book of compiled orchestral saxophone excerpts mentions in its forward, “These excerpts are especially helpful to those seeking orchestral clarinet where the ability to play the saxophone is another asset.”24 George Kleinsinger’s Plymouth Rock (1949) assigns tenor saxophone duties to the oboist. John Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra (1958) combines the bassoon part with baritone saxophone passages25. Saxophonists must be highly skilled doublers to be eligible for these parts.

A saxophonist must be skilled at playing in a wide range of styles. Chip Williams points out that orchestral saxophone parts range from Alban Berg’s atonal opera Lulu (1937) to Gershwin’s jazz-influenced An American in Paris26.

The saxophonist who can play a battery of instruments in an assortment of styles has a better chance of making a living by performing. The tendency of saxophonists to develop this versatility has advantages and disadvantages. One advantage is that saxophonists may be more likely than other woodwind artists to get studio recording jobs, which are notorious for demanding wide adaptability. On the other hand, a saxophonist may find him- or herself being spread too thin, trying to maintain virtuosic levels in too many areas.

The future of the classical saxophonist

Though the saxophone is gaining ground in classical music, the modern concert saxophonist still faces many hurdles. The majority of works programmed by major orchestras still predate the saxophone. The saxophone quartet seems to attract little attention outside saxophone conventions and college music departments. Would-be solo performers have to compete with flutists, pianists, and violinists and their expansive repertoire libraries.

The demands placed upon saxophonists are also continuing to grow. Saxophonists must achieve high standards on their own instrument plus several others to qualify for recording sessions and commercial orchestras. They must be fluent in a wide variety of classical styles, not to mention jazz, rock and roll, and others. The dearth of steady performing jobs also requires saxophonists to become expert teachers in order to make a living.

The now-widely-available college-level study in saxophone performance will be important in the saxophone’s progress. As excellent classical saxophonists become easier to find, demand will increase. Composers will use the saxophone more often in their work and orchestras will hire saxophonists as soloists and ensemble members.

The saxophonist will find his or her niche in modern concert music.


1. Paul Lindemeyer, Celebrating the Saxophone (New York: Hearst Books, 1996), 15.

2. Ibid., 45.

3. Claude Delangle and Jean-Denis Michat, “In Praise of Saxophonists,” trans. Peter Nichols, in The Cambridge Companion to the Saxophone, ed. Richard Ingham (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 161-171 passim.

4. Reported by Joseph Murphy, “Saxophone Instruction in American Music Schools after 1940,” NACWPI Journal (National Association of College Wind and Percussion Instructors) 46, no. 1 (fall 1997): 8.

5. Eugene Rousseau, Marcel Mule: his Life and the Saxophone (Shell Lake, Wisconsin: Etoile, 1982), 78-79.

6. Latin “As one wishes.” In this context, the phrase indicates that the parts may be omitted if desired.

7. Chip Williams, “Orchestral Saxophonist,” The Instrumentalist (April 1978): 129.

8. Chris Vadala, “Tips on Doubling: Saxophone Vs. Orchestra & Other Doubling Bits & Pieces,” Saxophone Journal 243 (Jan.-Feb. 2000): 7-9.

9. Stephen Trier, “The Saxophone in the Orchestra,” in The Cambridge Companion to the Saxophone, ed. Richard Ingham (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 101.

10. Paul Cohen, “The Saxophone Redefined: Henry Brant-Composing for the Saxophone,” Saxophone Journal 244 (Mar.-Apr. 2000): 16-21.

11. Thomas Liley, “Invention and Development,” in The Cambridge Companion to the Saxophone, ed. Richard Ingham (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 8.

12. Ibid., 9.

13. Dryer-Beers, 43.

14. Ibid., 44.

15. Rousseau, 30.

16. “Sigurd Rascher.”

17. Leland A. Lillehaug, “A Tribute to Sigurd Rascher,” Instrumentalist 51, no. 10 (May 1997): 56.

18. Joseph Murphy, “Saxophone Instruction in American Music Schools after 1940,” NACWPI Journal 45, no. 1 (fall 1996): 8.

19. Ibid., 7.

20. Gee, 121.

21. Ibid.

22. Ibid.

23. Murphy, 8.

24. Bruce Ronkin and Robert Frascotti, The Orchestral Saxophonist (Cherry Hill, New Jersey: Roncorp, 1978). Quoted by Steven Mauk in “Instrumental Solo and Ensemble Music for Saxophone: ‘Orchestral Saxophonist,’” Notes (September 1983), 162.

25. Williams, 129.

26. Ibid.


7 responses to “The modern saxophonist: The changing career climate of the concert saxophone artist”

  1. Sarah Cosano Avatar
    Sarah Cosano

    I believe Berlioz did use the saxophone in his Chant Sacre, just a few years after the bass saxophone’s creation.

  2. Mussorgsky’s Tableaux d’une exposition was indeed written in 1874, but orchestrated by Ravel in 1922; so the saxophone only appeared in that piece in 1922.

    1. Good catch. Thanks!

  3. Giselle Goad Avatar
    Giselle Goad

    Being a highschooler that loves the saxophone (especially alto), it’s hard to hear that I could be putting all of these practice hours (where I could be doing homework) to waste. It was inspiring to read this and know that the saxophone will become more prominent in the future. At least I know the practice hours aren’t going to complete waste…

    1. Making a living playing the saxophone, especially in classical music, is a tough road. I think professional performance standards will continue to get higher and higher.

      But if playing the saxophone is what you love to do, then I don’t think the practice hours are wasted!

      1. Giselle Goad Avatar
        Giselle Goad

        Thanks. I know that it’s a tough road ahead, but music is my passion. Since being committed is a big part of making it, I think I have a good shot at doing something someday. Then again, I’m only a 9th grader that is pretty good on the regional level. For now, I play for pure enjoyment.

  4. What we really need is a sax in F so woodwind quintets can be played with saxes instead of French horn. And with the paucity of horns, it would be great if sax could fill in.

    I listen to Q2 radio a lot, and it’s still very rare I hear saxophones. I hear loads of bass clarinet, but still not a whole lot of sax.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comments that take a negative or confrontational tone are subject to email and name verification before being approved. In other words: no anonymous trolls allowed—take responsibility for your words.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.