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Learning to Double

I learned the play the saxophone a couple of years ago, in an effort to better serve my community. I live in a small, rural town with limited access to high quality instruction. I assumed that since the clarinet and saxophone were both single reeds, that it wouldn't be too difficult to pick up. Thankfully, that was mostly accurate and I have enjoyed working with the saxophone players both at the local school district, as well as in my private studio.

Now, two and a half years later, I have decided that learning the flute will once again provide value for the community that I serve. So I've started teaching myself (with the prospect of a flute lesson from a colleague in a couple of weeks). As of this writing, I have only had three days of practice and I am quite surprised at how quickly I am picking up the flute, even though it is significantly more different from the clarinet than the saxophone.

I've realized, that when I learned to play the saxophone, not only did I learn how to play the instrument, I also taught myself how to learn another instrument. With these few tips, I think it will help YOU as well.

  1. Above all else, play musically. It's so easy to make learning the instrument about learning the correct technique and fingerings, but the quicker you make it musical, the easier it will be. So when you play Mary had a Little Lamb (or whatever tune you start with), make it expressive. Showcase the tune.

  2. Sing & audiate. Really, really hear the music in your head. One of the biggest challenges I've found on the flute so far is getting a clear tone in the register I want. But when I sing out the note that I want to speak on the instrument, immediately the tone becomes clearer.

  3. Don't think about the instrument as a different version of the one that you already know. I highly recommend approaching it as a new instrument. For example, one of the biggest challenges with learning the saxophone was remembering that "open" is C# not G. With the difference of a tritone, this was a very obvious rookie mistake. But when I think about the instrument as a saxophone, not comparing the fingerings to the clarinet, the tendency for that mistake goes away.

  4. Have people in your corner. Use your network. Or build a network. When it was time for me to purchase a saxophone, I had a friend selling an instrument. It seemed like a pretty good deal and a solid instrument, but I wanted to be sure that my investment would be worthwhile (and last a long time!). So I contacted an old colleague and asked for his professional opinion about the instrument. Once I had his endorsement for the Yamaha saxophone, I decided to go ahead & buy it. And the prospect of a flute lesson from another colleague is a huge blessing that I know will be fruitful. I choose to wait a few weeks, to maximize what I am able to develop on my own before receiving feedback from the pro.

  5. Use whatever resources are available to you. There are tons of YouTube videos, websites, and books available for you. I purchased Woodwind Methods by Charles West a while back and this book has been very helpful for me.

  6. Experiment and explore... and don't expect perfection. And as I am practicing on the flute, I am working to keep a balance of both refining my skills and expanding my skills. After I have a degree of competence (but not mastery) with one skill, I move forward. I know that expanding my skills, will allow me to improve the skills I already started developing. For example, I am currently working through Standard of Excellence Book 1. While I might move forward to lines that expand my range on the instrument, I continue to work on pieces earlier in the book to work on a consistent tone and developing dynamics. As I expand my range on the instrument, I refine my technique which helps with the tone and dynamics.

  7. Record yourself. It might seem a little premature for me to record myself on day three of practicing a new instrument, but it was SO helpful to whoop out the video recorder today, expand my awareness on this new instrument. Immediately, I was able to see inefficiencies in the way I was holding the instrument, my neck positions, and the quality of the sound. This enabled me to improve much quicker than I would have otherwise.

It's been a fun adventure to learn a new instrument. And it's encouraging to hear that even my husband thinks I'm picking up the flute faster than the saxophone. This isn't because it's easier (it's not!), but because of my approach to learning the new instrument is shaped, above all else, by playing musically.

I'd love to hear your tips for learning a second (or third!) instrument. What has worked well for you?

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