What really went wrong? Leaning into problem spots

I have a recurring teaching challenge with my saxophone students who are tackling the altissimo register for the first time. They play a passage, and when they get to the altissimo note, if it doesn’t respond perfectly, they immediately stop playing. When I ask why, they look puzzled. “The note didn’t come out.”

“Well, what did come out?” I might ask.

More puzzlement. Sometimes I have to prompt them to play it again, and remind them to play it long enough to really hear it.

“A weird honk,” they might finally conclude. Or “a terrible squeak.”

“That’s a note,” I point out. It might be too low (honk) or too high (squeak). But it has a pitch, right? It isn’t the note we wanted, but it was something. And understanding what something it is helps us know what to try next. If it was a honk, the instrument responded at a too-low partial, and if it was a squeak, it responded at a too-high partial. There’s work to do to fix it, but we’re much farther along than we were the diagnosis was only as specific as “failure.”

This approach is helpful with a variety of woodwind-playing problems. Don’t bail and declare failure at the first appearance of a problem. Try leaning into it. What does the problem really sound like? Can you make the problem happen again, on purpose? If you change something about your approach, does the sound change (even if it just changes to a different problem)? All of this information is potentially useful in finding a reliable, repeatable solution.

Additionally, this approach encourages an attitude of curiosity and exploration, rather than self-judgment. That’s a much more fun and productive way to practice. It lets you finish your practice session eager to try again tomorrow, rather than dreading more failure.

Run toward your problem spots, not away from them, and see what they can teach you.

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