Adult Students

I taught an adult saxophone student for the first time in well over two years today. I’ve taught many before and it definitely seemed unusual to me to be doing so when I was still a teenager. Now I’m, ummm, 13 years beyond that and it’s no longer a big deal.

My new adult student is a complete beginner, about 30 years old (maybe; I’m a terrible guesser) and tinkered with a piano as a child but never really learnt anything as such. That means that beats, rhythms and all the different dots and lines mean nothing to her. This is going to be oh so great fun.

The first lesson demonstrated just how different teaching an adult is from a child. The children essentially do what they’re told by listening intently and just doing it. Adults tend to over think things a little and to be honest, I’m doing more than enough over-thinking for the both of us as I try and analyse why all the weird honking sounds are not sounding like a saxophone. Here’s a short list of some of the difference between teaching an adult and a student

  • Adults talk lots. Kids tend to be quite a listen, especially in their first lesson where I’m this really tall stranger who’s got this amazing shiny instrument that makes cool sounds. They’re understandably shy.
  • Adults are physically stronger so the required reed strength is a little more ambiguous. 1 1/2 reeds are really designed for kids so an adult playing one will likely have so much air power that the reed seizes up, or their mouth strength and associated squeezing of the mouthpiece will close the reed up against the mouth piece. No gap equals no sound. Thankfully my student had a Rico 2 1/2 and that worked quite well.
  • Adults tend to have a slightly different expectation as to what they can achieve (which is too much at first). This is a generalisation and thankfully didn’t actually happen in today’s lesson.
  • There’s two way dialog with an adult whereas with the youngsters they tend to just be ‘instructed’. I instruct, they listen and play, I think of way for them to fix the sound, tweak the instructions and the student has another go. With the adult, they’re a bit more curious about things and so there are lots of questions. This can be okay, but when you’ve got to cram basic playing into a 30 minute lesson, time runs out.

Time expired pretty quick in today’s lesson but there was no one after her and so the lesson blew out to 50 minutes. Lucky her. So where was the trouble spot? Tonguing. Teaching the tonguing turned into a disaster because I added some detail which totally confused the student. I even dedicated an entire post to tonguing ( and overcomplicated my step 2. Yes, the tongue is under the reed at all time but I added a little detail that I should have excluded for simplicity. First, a little about advanced playing…

An experienced player will have optimised their technique:

  • fingers are close to keys and never move very far in order to navigate around the instrument.
  • Breaths are managed so that they’re sufficient for the phrasing and are not taken too often.
  • The tongue also doesn’t move very far from the reed, to the point where it’s actually always touching the reed.

This is where I confused the student. They’d played some good long notes but as soon as I mentioned that small always-touching detail, their tongue started interfering with the airflow and the notes kept stopping. She began second guessing where her tongue was actually going when she was just playing a long note (and was working) and it ended up being a massive distraction. It suddenly became very difficult to get her to focus on just playing a long note first then disrupting the airflow by hitting the reed with the tongue. The solution?

  • First I said forget about what I said about touching the reed and got her playing long notes again.
  • I re-explained the too too too (or doo doo doo) technique and that we’re essentially saying too doo but with a reed (and mouthpiece) in the way, as opposed to our tongue touching the top of the mouth
  • Thankfully my student had actually formed quite a good embouchure with the advice of
    • use smile muscles
    • dimple the cheeks a little
    • tuck the bottom lip in just a little
    • squeeze the mouth piece just a little

The result was that when it came to tonguing, it’s too difficult for the tongue to do something stupid like go above the mouthpiece or roll back so that tonguing is at the tip of the reed with the back of the tongue as if saying loo loo loo.

When it came to ‘whack the reed with the tongue’, it all worked again, although I still had to stress the importance of keeping the air moving.

Phew. After 50 minutes my adult student had enough to get her going with some basic exercise pieces to practise for the week.


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