Marching with the Band of the Ceremonial Guard

When I describe my summer job to people, I often say, “The government pays me to play saxophone and wear a silly outfit,” or, “You know those bearskin hats and red tunics? Yeah. I do that with a saxophone,” or, “It’s sweaty.”

This was my third summer playing with the Band of the Ceremonial Guard, and it was a great season. During one of our last parades, a clarinet player set his instrument aside, strapped a GoPro to his chest, and filmed the entire event! He was directly behind me, so you can get a taste of a day at the office. I’d love to answer any questions about the ceremony or what the job is like in the comments section below!

Changing of the Guard

Check it out on CG’s Facebook page.

The Sticky Key Treatment


It happens to every saxophone player at some point. You’re playing your heart out, approaching a triumphant arrival on a G#…and a G comes out. Curse those sticky keys!

In my experience, a proactive approach is the best way to prevent saxophone pads from sticking. My saxophone repairman (who may actually be a wizard) gave me few tips.

Oral Hygiene: According to my repairman, the number one cause for incessantly sticky keys is playing with a dirty mouth. The solution is simple. If you are going to play your instrument within a half-hour of eating or drinking, brush your teeth. With a travel toothbrush in my case, I find this to be an easy habit to keep.

Sometimes keys still stick. The guilty parties are often keys that stay closed when the horn is not in use, such as G# and low C#. If brushing your teeth before each playing session isn’t helping, what then?

Hair End Papers for Perms: Another gem that only a repairman with decades of experience would know to recommend. Many people use dollar bills or powdered paper. However, both of these leave unwanted residues behind that can damage the pads and cause leaks over time. Perm End Papers, on the other hand, remove the moisture that causes sticking without doing any damage. Slide the paper under the pad, hold the pad down, and slide the paper out. Voila!

If problem persists, you may need to…

Replace the Pad: Talk to a knowledgeable repairman about what options are available. I have had success with using Roo Pads on my G#.

Hopefully with a few proactive steps, sticky keys will become a worry of the past!

Beginner Saxophone Gear

Beginning to learn the saxophone is an extremely exciting and rewarding experience. I can still remember my first lesson when I was nine years old. It was such a thrill to put the instrument together for the first time and make a sound!

Now, I frequently have the opportunity to be on the teaching side of this special moment. I get to see a student’s eyes light up as they learn how to assemble the instrument and hear themselves play their very first note. But before all this can happen, you will need an instrument to play on!

When it comes to beginner saxophones, not all equipment is created equal. Students who begin their studies with proper equipment often advance more quickly and enjoy playing more than students with a lesser instrument. Additionally, many students (myself included) find it more exciting to practice on a better instrument. When squeaks and squawks don’t impede your playing, you can really focus on making great music!

But you’ll need more than just a saxophone at your first lesson! Here is my list of essential beginner saxophone equipment:

  • Yamaha YAS-280, YAS-23, or other Yamaha Student Model. I strongly encourage all new saxophone players to begin on a Yamaha instrument. While there are a wide variety of excellent intermediate and professional saxophone makers, I have found that Yamaha’s student horns cannot be beaten in quality and consistency. Students starting on these instruments have the opportunity to learn what a horn with quality mechanics and reliable intonation feels like. This is hugely important for future development and enjoyment!
  • Yamaha 4C Mouthpiece. Again, Yamaha is the unrivaled choice around the world for beginner mouthpieces. A beginner needs a mouthpiece that seals properly with the reed, plays in tune, and is free blowing. The 4C is a relatively cheap and consistently excellent option. I strongly discourage students from playing on “stock” mouthpieces as I have repeatedly seen the frustration it can bring.
  • Properly fitting ligature. While more advanced and professional players may seek the unique timber of a particular ligature, a beginner simply needs one that fits the mouthpiece and holds the reed with even pressure. Simple is good.
  • Cleaning Kit. Pull through swabs are great. Never leave a long, fuzzy cleaning rod in your sax. They collect moisture and bacteria and damage the instrument.
  • Pencil. Essential for all musicians, always.


While there is no substitute for regular, deliberate practice, the right gear can make a noticeable difference in sound quality, intonation, and technical facility. The equipment described above will give any student an excellent start. However, if there is room in your budget, below are my recommendations for a serious beginner or intermediate player. You can mix and match items from either list and will have great results.

  • Yamaha 480, 475, or equivalent. Again, Yamaha gets my vote. My students who play these horns sound great!
  • Vandoren Optimum AL3 Mouthpiece. I recently switched to this mouthpiece (after playing its big brother, the TL3, on tenor of years) and could not be happier. Historically, it was recommended that students switch to a Selmer C* when looking to upgrade mouthpieces. While the C* is famous for its consistent intonation, the AL3 offers a more open, colorful sound in addition to quality response. I’m a big fan!
  • Rovner Dark or Vandoren Optimum Ligature. These are two options I’ve had success with at different stages of my own development. Today I do all of my professional work on the Vandoren Optimum. However, as long as a ligature fits the mouthpiece and holds the reed evenly, it’s acceptable. Make a fieldtrip to your local music store, try out what they have, and discover what you like!
  • Vandoren Blue Box. Another staple among professional players. A great choice for students looking for more consistency as they develop their tone.
  • Protec Case. Better protection and convenient for transportation.
  • Cork Grease, Cleaning Swabs, and Pencil as above!


Unfortunately, many new musicians trying to be penny-wise end up pound-foolish. If you’re starting an instrument as a new hobby, it should be a source of great enjoyment, not frustration. Invest in yourself by choosing equipment that is fun to play and will help you grow.

When considering how to make all of this equipment fit in your budget, there are several options besides buying new. Many music stores offer rental and “rent-to-own” programs. This is how I began. Other students may look at used instruments. For this option, get the damage/repair history of the instrument. Most instruments will need a professional tune up after purchase. If possible, ask a professional player or your teacher to try out the instrument in order to determine its quality.

Congratulations on choosing to play the saxophone!


Disclosure: Please note that the links included are affiliate links. At no additional cost to you, I earn a small commission if you decide to make a purchase. I am not sponsored by any of these companies, but I have experience with all of them and recommend them because I truly believe they are the best (not for the small commission). Please do not buy these products unless you believe they will help you achieve your goals.

Weird and Rare Saxophones

“This one time…at band camp…”

The summer before I entered my junior year of high school, I attended the New York Summer Music Festival where Dr. Paul Cohen is director of the Classical Saxophone Institute. Dr. Cohen is the owner of one of the world’s largest private collections of saxophones. Having the opportunity to learn about and try some of his rare and one-of-a-kind instruments stands out in my memory as a highlight of the Institute.

I recently came across a video of the U.S. Army Field Band Saxophone Section talking with Dr. Cohen (who grew a sweet goatee) and trying some of his instruments. Check it out for some saxophones that belong in a Dr. Seuss book! Which one do you want to play most?

How to Sound Good on Saxophone (or any Wind Instrument)

For wind instruments there are 5 elements that affect tone quality. In no particular order:

  • Breathing
  • Embouchure
  • Equipment
  • Imagination
  • Physical attributes

Which do you consider the most important in your playing? Why?

Don’t Hate, Rotate!

Opening my reed case used to be an emotional roller coaster. Not the fun type of roller coaster, but the type where eating a chili-dog two minutes before was a bad idea. I hated feeling that I had no control over how the reed I selected would play. Would it sing or be stuffy? Would soft notes speak or run and hide?

Learning to break in reeds properly was the first step off of this anxiety inducing ride. Then I upgraded to a humidity controlling case. Finally, I focused on how I cycle through reeds. I’d like to offer three simple practices that have made a big difference in the life and performance of my reeds and hopefully can be helpful to you too!



Labeling reeds is a simple method for keeping track of their age and condition. I’ve been using this system for a long time and felt pretty smug when David Shifrin (one of the the world’s top clarinet players and music educators) recommended this exact method in a master class. Every time you start a new reed, record the date in pencil at the base of the back of the reed. The reed in the picture below was started April 24. If you start more than one reed on the same day, add letters. For example, if I began breaking-in additional reeds on April 24, they would have been labeled “4/24B”, “4/24C”, and so on. Dating your reeds (how romantic) will help you keep track of when a reed is broken-in as well as micro- and macro-rotation (described in the sections below). Additionally, if a reed is particularly firm I will write a “+” and if it is particularly soft a “-”. I refrain from doing this until after a reed is fully broken-in because so much can change during that process.


Reed started on 4/24



While you’re probably thinking this section describes hula-ing with a very small hoop…Micro-rotation addresses reed use choices during a single playing session. The main idea here is to play more reeds for shorter periods. I like to switch reeds every 30 minutes during a practice session and during breaks in an ensemble rehearsal. By limiting time on each reed, it becomes easier to avoid water-logging and maintain ideal reed humidity. This prevents good reeds from wearing out too quickly and extends the life of reeds in general.

Pairing labeling with micro-rotation makes it easier to remember characteristics of different reeds. For instance, I might think, “I’ll start my warm up on 4/22(-) because I know it’s a softer reed,” or “5/2b will be great for the recording session tomorrow because it plays with an open, singing tone.” By playing more reeds for shorter periods each day, it becomes easier to remember the qualities (good or bad) of each reed, to be more attuned to subtle differences between reeds and in the same reed over time, and to make reeds last longer. Woo!



While micro-rotation deals with day-to-day reed selection, macro-rotation looks at the entire lifecycle of a reed: from out of the box to into the trash can. The number of reeds in rotation at a time and how long each reed lasts will vary based on performance needs and practicing habits. I have found that eight reeds (per instrument) works well and conveniently is how many reeds my favorite case holds. Playing an average of three hours a day, most reeds last about six weeks. However, the performance of the reed varies over that lifetime.

Reeds can potentially progress through five stages:

  1. Newbie: All reeds start by being broken-in. I usually have 1 or 2 new reeds in my case.
  2. Playable: These are reeds that can be used for practice and rehearsals with confidence. Typically 2 or 3 of my reeds are in this category.
  3. All-Star: These are the best reeds in the case. They can very confidently be used to perform. If you have any upcoming performances, shoot for having 3 of these ready to go!
  4. Exiting: Over time, reeds stop playing as effectively. Reeds in this category are still Playable, but will soon be replaced with Newbies. Often a reed or two in my case will be at this phase.
  5. Trash: At some point, all reeds must die. Some reeds were doomed out of the box and others play fantastically for months, but as soon as it’s clear that a reed is causing stress and eating up precious practice time, it’s time to make way for some new cane.

The key point of rotation is between Newbies and Exiting/Trash. With eight reeds, I find one becomes Trash every week or two. At that point a Newbie enters. What I’m trying to say is… Regularly replace Trash reeds with Newbies.

The one problem I occasionally run into is having too many good reeds. While this is only a dream for most wind players (and is certainly a high quality problem to have), it presents the risk of having multiple reeds become Trash simultaneously. The key here is to be proactive and always have a few All-Star reeds. Keeping a high standard and being fastidious in deciding which reeds will stay in the rotation will ensure a case full of helpful reeds, rather than a case full of fear.



  1. Label each reed with the date it was first used. Add a “+” or “-” to indicate extremes in firmness.
  2. Develop a habit of micro-rotation by switching reeds every 30 minutes or so.
  3. Consistently start new reeds as old reeds expire.
  4. Strive to have at least three performance-ready reeds available at all times.

Stating My (Reed) Case

Update on 26 July 2015: I recently discovered it is possible to get 10 humidity packs for the price of one! Check it out here. I’m very excited I found this!

“I feel prepared for my recital,” I told my teacher, “I just hope I have a reed that works!”

“You should have at least three good reeds to choose from for a performance,” she responded matter-of-factly.

Three good reeds?! All at once? At the time, I was shocked. I felt I had no control over the quality of my reeds and that all I could do was hope. Now, I regularly have more than three performance-ready reeds on hand. So what changed?

In my last post I wrote about breaking in reeds, which led to my biggest advance down the path to reed mastery. But what do you do once a reed is broken in correctly? How do you make sure your reeds continue to play well?  One answer is proper storage. Ideally, a reed case does three things: protects the reed tip, prevents warping, and controls humidity.

Level 1: Protect the Tip

The most basic level of reed storage is protecting the tip of the reed. If the tip chips, you can start drafting another reed eulogy. Luckily, protection is easily found with any case and even the plastic sheath most reeds are packaged in can suffice at this level. Remove the reed from the mouthpiece after each playing session and carefully place it in a case. This is a starting point, but a good case can offer much more!


Level 2: Prevent Warping

While a warped tip doesn’t toll the same death knell as cracking, it is generally a sign that a reed is in (rapid) decline. There are some tricks to flatten a warped reed, but I find a proactive approach to be the most effective. Basic reed cases like the Rico Reed Guard are an inexpensive option that can maintain a flat tip a bit better than the generic packaging.


Level 3: Control Humidity

Here’s where a case can go from passively holding your reeds to actively improving their consistency and longevity. In a case that maintains constant humidity, reeds are always ready to play, rarely warp, and are more dependable from playing session to playing session. Most serious saxophone and clarinet players I know are now using the Rico Multi-Instrument Reed Storage Case. I have a case for each of my saxophones and one for my clarinet. (Clearly I’m a fan!)

Each case contains a humidity pack that helps maintain homeostasis. I use the 72% packs which are intended from “minimal wetting.” With this humidity level, I barely need to moisten both ends of a reed and it is good to go. The Reed Vitalizer packs must be replaced every 45 to 90 days. If the pack feels like it contains a solid rather than a fluid, it is time for a new one. Each pack’s lifespan depends on a number of factors which can include external humidity and temperature, altitude, frequency of case use, and how moist the reeds are when they’re stored.

A note on drying: With the 72% humidity pack, I find I get the best results when I wipe off excess moisture with my fingers before storing. This also prevents any mold from developing.



  1. Reed storage plays a real and important role in managing your reeds.
  2. Ideally a case protects from damage, prevents warping, and controls humidity.
  3. The Rico Multi-Instrument Case is my top recommendation for successful storage.



Break-in Reeds… Before They Break You

I’m not sure how to start this post without sounding like a cheesy infomercial, so here it goes: Are you tired of reeds sounding bad? Do you hate it when a reed is great one day and completely unresponsive the next? Then boy do I have good news for you pal! With these simple steps, all your reeds will play great, all the time, forever!

Ok, that last line was a bit of an exaggeration, but learning how to break in reeds properly has exponentially improved the consistency and quality of the reeds I use. With better-behaved reeds, practicing is more enjoyable and performing is less stressful. If you feel like you’re spinning the roulette wheel every time you set up to play, read (reed?) on!

The most frequent mistake when starting a new reed is using it too much, too soon. Reeds are made of porous cane, which must seal properly.  During this sealing process, it is crucially that the reed does not get oversaturated and become waterlogged. Waterlogging a new reed is like dropping an ice cream cone on the pavement. There’s so much potential and then…whomp whomp. The solution: only play a new reed for 3 minutes per day for the first full week of playing.

In addition to sealing the reed properly to avoid waterlogging, breaking in a reed is an opportunity to improve responsiveness and consistency for the life of the reed. To do this properly, you will need a piece of flat glass or plastic. Before and after each three-minute session, you will need to massage the vamp and polish the back.

To massage the vamp, place the back of the reed on the flat glass, hold it in place, and vigorously massage the filed part of the reed with your thumb for a few seconds. (Check out figure numero uno.) I find it helpful to focus on any rough patches and smooth them out over the course of the break-in.

Massage the Vamp

Massaging the Vamp

After massaging the vamp, place your fingers on the reed and, applying equal pressure with each finger, rapidly slide the reed back and forth on the glass to polish the bottom.  (Figure deux.)

Polish the Back

Polishing the Back

With this simple process, I hope you will experience the same jump in reed quality that I have!


  1. Only play the reed for 3 minutes per day. Use a timer.
  2. Do this for one week.
  3. Massage the vamp and polish the back of the reed before and after each playing session.


In my next posts, I will go over how to store and cycle your reeds to make sure your reeds are always in great playing condition.