A new year, a new skill – playing the saxophone

Learning to play the sax was hard work, but it was one New Year's resolution that was worth the effort.

By

How many of us have abandoned our New Year's resolutions by now? How many never made it past the end of the first week? I don't make that kind of resolution anymore. I try to learn and grow all the time.

But I wasn't always willing to be a beginner. I remember that the year I wanted to learn to play the soprano saxophone, I discovered that the biggest impediment to learning was me.

This musical lark hit me in my late 30s out of nowhere. Haunting me at the time was a backup riff played by Jim Horn on "I Can't Tell You Why," Vince Gill's cover of the Eagles' classic song. To me, the riff was both sensual and ethereal. Wouldn't it be great to be able to re-create that sound at will? And make more sounds like it?

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My history with musical instruments was thin – a reluctant year of piano when I was 10 (and would have preferred riding horses) and a year of clarinet (which I never wanted to practice). But the idea grabbed me and wouldn't let me go.

A local music store located a soprano sax for me after four months of searching (yes, this was before the instant availability of anything on the Internet).

When I first laid eyes on it, I was dazzled. The sax was a straight, brilliant brass instrument sprouting what seemed like a zillion keys and levers. (What I didn't know when I started is that it takes more finesse to make sweet notes on a soprano sax than on a tenor sax.)

Feeling reckless, petrified, and clueless about saxophones, I signed up for lessons and the rent-to-buy plan for the instrument.

When I got home, I immediately removed the gleaming beauty from its case for a test blow. All I remembered from my grade-school clarinet lessons was that you have to wet the reed.

After twisting the mouthpiece on the end, I blew with all my might. Nothing! All that money I put down and not even one horrible-sounding note!

Eventually, I figured out how to close my lips around the mouthpiece more firmly and got, well – it sounded like wild geese being tortured. I spent the next few evenings before my first lesson trying to make some noise that resembled a musical note and hoping the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals wouldn't call.

Lesson day finally arrived, and Ed, my instructor, welcomed me to his tiny, carpeted lesson room. Ed was a technical writer by day, played tenor sax in a band on weekends, and taught kids and adults to play the saxophone and clarinet.

"So, where do we start?" Ed asked.

"Well, I took a little clarinet when I was a kid," I said.

"Do you remember the fingering?"

"Start at the beginning," I said. "Assume I know nothing." There, I admitted it! The older I get, the less I like to admit that I don't know something.

He just smiled and walked to the front of the music store. I followed. He pulled out "Elementary Method Saxophone" from the rack that held the instruction booklets.

In the same series were an intermediate book and two volumes of advanced instruction. Good, I thought. Someone has laid down a path through this forest of music. But at the moment, I felt lost and rather silly. I was the only adult in sight. A child in the store asked me if I was his classmate's mother.

Ed started me off with the most basic of sight-reading notation: staff, measure, treble clef, whole notes, and whole rests.

First up, the note "B." And hold it for four counts. It's tough to hold that long. My lungs were stretched and felt like an overfilled balloon. Ed assured me it would become easier.

Then I bumped uncomfortably up against my perfectionism. I needed to let myself be a beginner and progress at my own pace, to know nothing about a subject and approach it with no preconceptions.

But that was much easier said than done. I recalled the idea of "beginner's mind" that I learned about when I started to learn meditation. In the book, "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind," Shunryu Suzuki explains it this way: "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few."

I was learning this instrument, I realized, for possibilities – the possibilities of making beautiful sound.

Over the following months, I crawled slowly up the staff lines and spaces like a rock climber, taking a toehold, or, rather, a mouthhold, on each newly learned line and space. I attempted to tap my right foot to the beat so I'd have some clue as to how long to hold the notes.

Still, it's awkward and comical trying to tap, blow, finger the notes, and read the music all at once. But I learned the fingering for each note and the lengths of the rests. Each rest has a different symbol. It's like learning European road-sign symbols, except that the rest symbols aren't as intuitive.

I practiced just about every day and made painstakingly slow progress. My Siamese cats fled the room at practice time, while my husband retreated to the basement. I persisted in practicing my tentative, strained notes in the loft. Eighteen months later, my husband commented one night, "Hey, you sounded like a musician!"

And yes, I did finally play the riff that inspired me to start the whole journey. It sounded – OK, good, but not ethereal and sensual at the same time. I realized that to sound like Jim Horn, I would have to practice day and night for many lifetimes.

But by then, my initial motivation to play that particular riff had bloomed into the joy of playing a musical instrument. Knowing I could play a song or two was success enough.

And now that I had let myself be a beginner, what would I try next?

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