Making Magic

When I was young and heard saxophone players like Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, Cannonball Adderley, Johnny Griffin, Joe Henderson and Michael Brecker, I was astonished at their fluidity and range of technique. It sounded like magic. I wanted to have that same quickness and liquidity to my playing, but I didn’t know how to get there.

In college, when I finally learned how to practice, going slowly and consistently was my method of choice.

Mastering Fundamentals

Fundamentals are the building blocks of musicianship, and technique is a byproduct of working on fundamentals. Scales and arpeggios make up the backbone of harmony, which is an essential area of study.

I encourage students to practice slowly and consistently using a metronome because your brain remembers everything you put into it. Recalling these things can sometimes be difficult, however. If you play a scale or arpeggio incorrectly three out of five times, when it comes time to recall the information, your brain wonders, “Which one do you want?”

By practicing slowly and consistently, you literally set up pathways in your brain that are like paths on a hiking trail; it’s easy to get through once the groove is there. It’s called muscle memory. Brushing your teeth or tying your shoelaces was a challenge when you were first learning; now, you’re a master!

Building Technique

In regards to working on a solo piece, etude, school band music, etc., it’s important to apply the same concept of practicing slowly and consistently. Isolate your problem areas; slow down the tempo, so you can play consistently correct, then work your way back up. You can also sing the rhythms out loud, then put the notes in.

If you practice slowly and consistently, your technique will dramatically increase, and you and others will be amazed at how quickly you improve. I read somewhere once that “through repetition comes magic,” … so, OK, maybe there is a little magic in there somewhere too. See if you can find it.

About author

Jeff Coffin

Jeff Coffin is a three-time Grammy Award winning saxophonist, composer, educator, and author. He has been a band member of Dave Matthews Band since 2008.  Jeff also teaches at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Jeff has published “The Saxophone Book,” co-wrote “The Articulate Jazz Musician” with Caleb Chapman, and released “The Road Book” in late 2019. Jeff is a Yamaha and D’Addario Performing Artist and Clinician.  Visit and for more information.

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