Getting The Right Saxophone For University

Getting the right saxophone for university isn’t as easy as picking one out on eBay or Craigslist. It takes some time, careful planning, research, and yes, in the end, money. I’m hoping this article will provide some help for both students and parents alike, before some costly mistakes are made.

The Backstory

A little over a month ago I started playing baritone in a new symphonic band that formed about a year ago. One of the members of that group is our young lead alto player—a grade 11 student—who has plans to continue studying music in university. He is currently in the process of picking out what school to attend for his music degree.

Last week Dave (not his real name) started up a conversation with me during our break, and told me a bit about himself. He explained that he is a tenor player first, and that the alto he is using actually belongs to a friend of his. He was hoping to get my input into what kind of alto saxophone he should buy.

The first question that I asked him is what kind of tenor he has. It turns out that he’s got a late 1940s Buescher. Vintage Bueschers are great horns, but was it the right saxophone for university? So I asked him: What university are you planning on attending? He told me which one, and why. I found his choice interesting, because I didn’t even know that the school had a music program.

My next question was this: Have you contacted the saxophone professor at the school to find out what saxophone brand(s) are acceptable, or if it matters to them? Some schools/profs are brand-specific in their requirements, and don’t like/accept anything other than brand X in their programs.

Silver Sonic, King Super 20, tenor saxophone, tenor sax, not the right saxophone for university, no sax, no saxophone

King Silver Sonic, Serial # ? Source: Randy Cole on eBay.com

I gave him an example of a personal experience that I had when I first attended university. I didn’t check with the prof before going there, and soon found that my King Super 20 was not welcome in the classically oriented performance program. It was most definitely not the right saxophone for university. Only a Selmer Mark VI would do. Not even the Selmer Mark VII, or the Super Action 80 (Series I) were acceptable.

I strongly suggested to Dave that before he buys an alto sax, he check with the saxophone prof at the university, and see if he/she has a preference or requirement in the brand department. This simple step can avoid nasty surprises down the road, and ultimately save quite a bit of money.

What’s the best way to get the right saxophone for university?

When I was actively teaching, I had lots of students who wanted to pursue music in university. Speak to the prof before deciding on what horn to buy, was always the first thing I said before helping my students decide on what model of professional saxophone to upgrade to.

Last summer, saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist, Dr. Bret Pimentel—an Assistant Professor of Music at Delta State University—wrote a very good article about just this topic for his website, Bret Pimentel Woodwinds. In Buying a new instrument for college-level study, Bret explains the reasons why discussing the purchase with your would-be prof ahead of time is so important. Included in his reasons are the following:

  • Often the prof will be happy to work with students when they arrive on campus to help them pick out the horn that is both right for them, and right for the program.
  • Professional grade instruments are a must for university/college grade studies. That said, not all “pro” level horns are created equal. Some pro horns aren’t “pro” enough to withstand the rigors of pro use. As I once stated:

 I’ve started to liken the use of the term “pro horn”, with the use of the word “show dog”. It’s all pretty subjective. One breeder’s show dog is another’s pet stock, just as one manufacturer’s “pro model” is another’s “student model”.

  • Also, a pro horn from decades ago might no longer be considered a pro horn by universities today.
  • Your future prof’s opinions might not be the same as those of your current saxophone instructor, band teacher, or yours. You have to be open to going with your prof’s way of thinking during your time in school, and then using the knowledge/skills learned in university/college to make informed choices once you’ve graduated.

How to not get the right saxophone for university

I don’t know what Dave is going to do. I hope he takes my advice to heart, but ultimately it’s up to him. Last night he mentioned to me that he had checked out some stuff on eBay. Don’t even get me going on that one… Been there; done that; bought the friggin’ T-shirt. My retort, as always, was: Make sure you are able to try the horn first.

Besides, Vancouver has lots and lots of horn choices. Sometimes you just have to be patient for the right one to come along. It’s not like we’re living in the freakin’ Maritimes!

…this is just my blog. My “real” website is www.bassic-sax.info. If you’re looking for sax info, you should check it out too.There’s lots there!

© 2014, Helen. All rights reserved.

Helen

Helen Kahlke is a professional horn player and sax teacher who lives in Abbotsford, British Columbia. She plays soprano, alto, C melody, tenor, baritone, and bass saxophones.

4 Comments:

  1. @Paul: Yes my friend. We are very much on the same page when it comes to tastes in our horn choices. I just picked up a lovely Committee III baritone that has a beautiful dark, yet quite complex tone. You know, that tone that Martins are known for.

    Ergos are fiendish compared to my Mark VI, but the tone is so completely different, and the Martin so much more flexible, that I can bend it and shape it to almost anything I want. With the Selmer D scroll shank that I have, I can get the Martin to sound almost bassoon-like. The Mark VI, not so much.

    @MontyMac: Since the Mark VIs were out of production for over 10 years already when I attended university, the profs weren’t getting any kick-backs for their requirements. At that school, the head of the department really liked Mark VIs, and felt that they were the way to go for classical performance. The Super Action 80s had just come out a couple years previous, and weren’t being that well received, while of course the VIIs never did gain any traction in the classical world.

    Although I balked at first at getting rid of my Super 20, in the end, it was the best thing I ever did. It was one of the last 20s made. I sold it privately after I found the Mark VI tenor I still have.

    In 2009 I finally got another King, but this time it was a 1950 Zephyr that I hand picked from Sarge’s rather substantial King inventory. My Super 20 was OK, but this particular Zeph, is a killer. It is now my main tenor for everything other than classical or section playing.

    @Pete: Mmmmm… A YBS-52 a tad brighter than a Buescher. :scratch: Who would have thought. :mrgreen:

  2. Regarding band directors requiring specific instruments/mouthpieces/etc., I’d think that’s more of a requirement at the high school level. That’s probably going to be where the director is not a saxophone specialist and is trying to save the parent and himself some grief: “Yes, I know there are a billion saxophones out there. Buy a Yamaha 23 and get a Vandoren mouthpiece.” Or something along those lines. Exceptions should be made for talent and/or economic reasons. In other words, if you’re playing just fine on that Cleveland with a plastic Bundy mouthpiece and can’t afford better, I wouldn’t enforce a “you must buy this” rule. But if you’re a beginner and show up with a sax that’s falling apart, I’d probably would enforce it.

    In any event, the point of, “Check with your professor before you buy,” is a solid one.

    BTW, my private instructor was a grand-student of Rascher. My college instructor, a student. I played on Sigurd Rascher mouthpieces. I generally used my Yamaha YBS-52 in college. It’s a tad brighter than a Buescher :).

    Hi, Paul!

  3. REALLY?
    {QUOTE} Only a Selmer Mark VI would do. Not even the Selmer Mark VII, or the Super Action 80 (Series I) were acceptable. {/QUOTE}

    I personally would have to question not only the Professor’s ethics, (checking into said person’s portfolio, endorsements and other commercial connections) but also whether I would want to attend a university that allowed such unabashedly draconian requirements. It’s bad enough that in university, especially graduate school, many of the faculty require text books be purchased in the hundreds of dollars, that they themselves write, then revise every 3-4 years resulting in another level of personal enrichment.
    I had a somewhat similar situation, albeit public school vs. university, when my daughter started band in 6th grade in the semi-rural school district we lived in. The band director required all the students purchase upgraded mouthpieces, brass and woodwind alike. For the saxophone players this meant a Selmer Soloist C @ $90+. Not only did this represent 1985 U.S. dollars but the entire region was in an economic downturn known as the Oilfield Bust. 7 out of 10 families were at or below the poverty level, including our own.
    My daughter had already been playing my 1962 King Cleveland, with its original mpc, for a time and was not having any difficulties with it.
    After a couple of perfunctory exchanges I sent him a letter stating that if my daughter’s continuation in his class was predicated upon what I considered an unecessary purchase he could choose from the following:
    a) He could purchase this piece of equipment himself, as he was the one requiring it.
    b) My daughter no longer needed to be in his class, in which case I would also be present at the upcoming “Open House” to discuss this with as many of the other first year band parents and faculty as was humanly possible.
    Or
    c) He could accept that this saxophone was going to be played by this student with its original mouthpiece.

    He chose c.

    Three weeks later my daughter was First Chair and retained it for the next year and a half. She switched to Bari in Junior High.

    As an addendum: about 2 years later my daughter learned that that Intermediate School director had financial ties to the local Music Store where he recommended the mpc purchases be made from.

  4. Helen, I too am a strong proponent of vintage Bueschers, Conns, and Martins. But I also understand the pressure for students to be on the same page equipment-wise as their profs. Unfortunately, the only university programs I know of where you could keep playing a Buescher alto are those where the instructor is a student, or “grandstudent,” of Sigurd Rascher.

    Besides the fact that none of these schools are in Canada, Rascherian programs require more specialized playing than most. You’ll develop beautifully as a player – the repertoire requires much contemporary and atonal music and a complete command of altissimo playing – but you’ll need to model a rounder, darker tone than even typical classical players. Your tone will be considered “tubby” or “guttural” in many contexts, and you will usually have to keep your jazz or commercial chops up on your own time.

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