Practicing away from your instrument! Part 1

I had a lesson the other day with a student and I realized that he was really having a hard time coming up with melodic ideas and phrases.  I asked him “Do you ever sing?”  “No!”  “How about humming?”   “No!”  “How about in the shower?”   “No!” This really got me thinking about things and are started asking my other students about this.  The thing that I’m noticing is that the students that hum and sing a lot are the ones that have an easier time improvising and creating melodic ideas.  Why is that?  Well I think the answer is that they are spending hours everyday practicing creating melodic ideas and improvising.  Hours that the other students are using.

To be honest,  when I practice something on my sax for an hour or two,  you will usually find me humming or singing what I was practicing for the rest of the day.  I noticed this last week when i was practicing a tune that I didn’t know.  It was “I remember you” I  played it for about an hour and was really trying to memorize the melody and the changes. Later that day as I was taking a shower I was humming the tune and  scatting a little improvised solo over the changes. Later in the car I was doing the same thing!  It suddenly struck me that I do this all the time without even thinking about it.  It’s a way to practice what you love all the time.  The more you sing and hum a melody the more you will internalize it and be able to reproduce it.  The more you practice coming up with melodies and scatting solos the better you will become at playing them on your sax.

I have had many students over the years that refuse to sing or even try. I think they are doing themselves a great disservice.   I freely admit and tell people that I am one of the worst singers I know.  I can sort of carry a tune and match pitches but it isn’t pleasant to listen to.  Sometimes I’m a little flat, sometimes I’m a little sharp………the point is that I don’t think that’s important.  The important thing is to practice these melodies that we are learning and to practice creating melodies by ear.  Sometimes I will sit at the piano and just play the changes to a tune I’m working on and try to sing the melody while I play.  Sometimes I sing guide tone lines to it.  After that I will try to sing a little solo and try to hit the changes. The thing is, improvising is creating  something musical from the ideas in your mind. the fastest way to do this is by singing.  It’s right there coming out of your mouth.

I have also learned through the years that if I can sing a song then I can figure it out and play it.  If I can’t then I don’t have a chance.

If your serious about music and jazz improvisation then sing a little.  Maybe you’ll like it. Think of it as self improvement and a way to improve you playing while you are away from your horn.  It will do you a world of good (even if those around you can’t stand it.)

Steve About Steve

Steve Neff has been playing and teaching saxophone and jazz improvisation around the New England area for the last 30 years. He is the author of many effective jazz improvisation methods as well as founding the popular jazz video lesson site


  1. This reminds me of a story one of my college professors would tell about me. She once asked me why I had difficulty singing. I responded that it was hard to find the “buttons” to push on my voice but easy to find the right keys on my sax. She realized many music majors had similar issues. I wanted to improve my vocal technique, so I changed to a vocal major for a semester. It definitely helped me find the pitch buttons in my voice to sing on key. It would be interesting to include singing as a part of instrumental pedagogy.

  2. Hey Steve, I’ve come to a point where time has been a struggle with music. I double on the saxophone and bassoon and it’s been a struggle keeping up with both. On the bassoon I’m just a beginner. On the sax I’m more advanced. What’s your view on doubling? Is the only thing I can do be to suck it up and make the time? Or is there some balance you find that works? Thanks,
    – mike

    • As far as i know, you just have to suck it up and spend the time. there is no shortcut or easy road to being a great doubler. It takes a lot of discipline and self control to spend the time you need on each one of the horns you play.

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