Deliberately Practicing the Saxophone (2017)

Per Anders Nilsson

About this exposition

A point of departure in this exposition is the author’s experience of practicing and playing on the saxophone for more than 30 years. In particular, three aspects of practicing a musical instrument are discussed: firstly, development and maintenance of general skills; secondly avoiding stagnation and so-called arrested development, and thirdly practicing for specific events. These aspects of practicing are elucidated thru long time personal experience from playing and practicing the saxophone. The saxophone is an acoustic instrument where its properties are given by design and acoustics, and it is up to the player to master and perhaps extend its playing possibilities to its physical limits. Noteworthy, parts in this article is taken from the author’s thesis A Field of Possibilities (Nilsson, 2011), however practicing examples are either reworked or new, and reformatted for this context. In my thesis, which treats designing and playing digital musical instruments, the purpose of discussing the saxophone was about to create a background, something else, as contrast to the main subject. In this exposition practicing the saxophone is at the forefront, however written with more than 15 year’s experience of deliberately practicing electronic musical instruments of various kinds as a background.
typeresearch exposition
keywordspractising, saxophone, improvisation, musical instruments
last modified07/06/2017
share statusprivate
affiliationAcademy of Music and Drama, University of Gothenburg
licenseAll rights reserved
published inRUUKKU - Studies in Artistic Research
portal issue7.

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id name copyright license
307129 Sopranlåda PA Nilsson All rights reserved
293756 Sopran 1 PA Nilsson All rights reserved
293751 Bari3 PA Nilsson All rights reserved
293745 Bari2 PA Nilsson All rights reserved
293734 Bari1 PA Nilsson All rights reserved
293507 Diatonic Exercise1 PA Nilsson All rights reserved
293501 Sound Exercise 1 PA Nilsson All rights reserved
293492 Pee Wee Chords PA Nilsson All rights reserved
292838 Pee Wee Per Anders Nilsson All rights reserved

RUUKKU portal comments: 2
Mikko Raasakka 04/06/2017 at 23:25

Per Anders Nilsson’s exposition Deliberately Practicing the Saxophone is a well written, thoroughly researched and clearly structured text that offers important insights to the process of practicing a musical instrument. The author’s experience in playing the saxophone for more than 30 years is tangible. Nilsson bases his exposition firmly on numerous reliable sources. The title itself is not perhaps very idiomatic English: I would have recommended something like Deliberate practicing on the saxophone.


                  Nilsson has divided his exposition into four chapters and a conclusion. In the first chapter he explains the main concepts of his text and tells about his own personal history as a musician, first saxophone player and later as a digital music instrument player. In the core of Nilsson’s exposition is the concept of deliberate practice, which means to be able to ”design challenging exercises that improve skills with respect to specific conditions and skills necessary to master within a certain field”. The arrested development, or stagnation, is the opposite of the latter. It is “generalized automated behaviour, a habit of only practicing and performing the already known.” 


                  In the second chapter, Nilsson describes the conceptual methodological framework of his study. He presents the idea about two modes of music making: design time and play time. I find the similarities with the design process particularly interesting. Nilsson sees both as spiral-like, three-stage processes: “to know is to understand the relation between doing and caused effect, to do is about bodily activity and to feel is to perceive effects of doing.”


                  The third chapter is about practicing the saxophone in general and the chapter four, which is perhaps mainly targeted for jazz musicians, he presents a detailed example how he himself prepared for a performance. The provided sound example (writer’s own version of a jazz-standard) demonstrates the text nicely.


                  I can warmly recommend Nilsson’s exposition not only for researchers but also for everybody interested in the process of practicing an instrument. Nilsson’s style is accessible also for readers not accustomed to scientific writing. 

Stefan Östersjö 05/07/2017 at 09:41

The exposition draws on the long-term experience of the author as a professional improviser. While not immediately based on an artistic research process on practicing, it draws on material from the author’s doctoral thesis, in which practicing is one important element. The empirical example to which the exposition refers dates back a long time and there is no documentation of process. Hence, the argument is based on now rather distant recollections of practicing. An important feature of the exposition is how it attempts to unpack the preparations that precede an improvised performance and identifying a number of rather different processes that contribute towards the being-in-the-now, in the game of playtime. Practicing, then, is understood as a complexly interwoven activity, in which the affordances of the instrument, and also its resistances, are a strong factor (see further Coessens & Östersjö, 2014, Evens, 2005, Östersjö, 2013).


The exposition’s theoretical ground is built on design theory, from which the author proposes a division of musical practice in “design time” (“outside time”) and “play time” (“in time”) respectively. However, it may be argued that the diverse tasks of practicing do not immediately fit in one single category. In the author’s thesis, the same concepts refer essentially to the division between the slower and considered processes of composing or of building an instrument on the one hand and the creation in the moment of an improvised performance on the other [1]. One could argue that much of the activity of practicing is not similar to composing, and not “outside time”, but instead related to the precise timing of musical materials and therefore carried out “in time”, in the moment of practicing.


In the author’s thesis it is argued that ”for the improvising musician, practice consists of exploitation, exploration, and experimentation, which aims to develop, refine, and maintain improvising skills” (Nilsson, 2011, p. 275). But aren’t both exploration and experimentation rather ”in time” actions? Nilsson further argues in his thesis that ”Play time is to be in the moment, the now, to be in the midst of the flux of time, to act and re-act with the body, and to think with the body.” (Nilsson, 2011, p. 324) But such ”thinking with the body” is equally important for a practicing musician. Perhaps a better conclusion could be that practicing takes shape in both categories?


Further, by reference to the design process, the author refers to a model in three steps: ”know, do, feel”. It can be argued that the action-perception loops [2] in musical performance more typically start with the action, which—if we were to apply the same tripartition—would suggest, a different chain of events articulated as “do, feel, know”. Further analytical reflection on this model could open up for a more in-depth understanding of these processes. In these ways, the present exposition opens up for further inquiry into the function of practising in the creative process of improvising musicians.



Coessens, K. & Östersjö, S. (2014a). Intuition, hexis and resistance in musical experimentation (2014) in Crispin & Gilmore, (Eds), Handbook on Musical Experimentation, Leuven: Leuven University Press


Coessens, K. & Östersjö, S. (2014). Kairos in the Flow of Musical Intuition (2014b) in Crispin & Gilmore, (Eds), Handbook on Musical Experimentation, Leuven: Leuven University Press

Evens, A. (2005). Sound Ideas: Music, Machines, and Experience, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press

Nilsson, P.A. (2011). A Field of Possibilities – Designing and Playing Digital Musical Instruments. Thesis at University of Gothenburg.

Östersjö, S (2013) The resistance of the Turkish Makam and the Habitus of the performer.

Contemporary Music Review, (32) 1, pp. 201-213


[1] Also, rather than contrasting” practicing” and “playing”, the latter logically should be called “performing”, since arguably, practicing does involve playing but would never be intended as a performance.

[2] For a further discussion see Östersjö (2013) and Coessens & Östersjö (2014b). 


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