Exploring The Health Benefits Of Playing The Saxophone
I should begin by saying that this is relevant to the majority of woodwind and brass instruments but I'll be exploring the health benefits of playing the saxophone. Specifically, how playing has helped me maintain a level of fitness, particularly as someone who suffers from migraines and isn't able to do intense forms of exercise.
PLAYING SAXOPHONE FOR LONGER
One of the main things about the saxophone, like all woodwind and brass instruments, that makes it a physical instrument is the need to practice your breathing and gradually increase your stamina. The longer you have to play between rests, the more you need to hold and focus that air.
Anyone who practices mindful breathing will tell you there is a difference between breathing from your 'chest' and your 'belly'. This may sound weird, but we naturally don't use the full cavity of our lungs when we take a breath and haven't done so since we had our first shock, as a 'chest' breath is quicker to inhale.
The way to retrain yourself to breathe from the 'belly' is to try placing your hand there and, as you breathe in, focus on pushing your hand away from you with the air you're inhaling (into which is technically the bottom of your lungs). It might feel a little uncomfortable at first because the air is pushing other organs out of the way but this isn't anything to worry about.
As your learning progresses, you'll start playing longer songs. For me, what was initially half a page of music, is now sometimes anywhere from four to 10 pages (on average) in one piece, with no break except for the rests. To cope with some of the longer and slower songs, I warm up with long notes at the start of every practice session (circular breathing still eludes me), making a note of the length each time. My best has been one minute and twenty-one seconds on the alto saxophone.
SAXOPHONE WEIGHT TRAINING
There are four main variants in the saxophone family, all of which carry some weight to them and are advisably held with either a neck strap (which can put a strain on your neck over time with too much playing) or different forms of harness, which spread the weight evenly across the shoulders and back. Many types of these can be found on sites like Amazon and eBay, but also at your local music shops.
Weight will vary depending on the metal alloy used in making the instrument but I'll list an average. In order of lightest first, the soprano saxophone can weigh around 1.3kg, the alto saxophone 2.5kg, the tenor saxophone 3.5kg, and the baritone around 6kg.
I started on tenor saxophone at the age of 12, playing half an hour a day to begin with, and even a year later noticed how strong my upper body muscles were getting. The muscles you instead tend to notice improve over time are your lip muscles (embouchure) and diaphragm and, yes, 20 years later these two have indeed improved a lot but, paired with longer practice sessions, my back, chest, arm, and neck muscles feel stronger and leaner too.
Having said all this though, you need to be sensible with your practice routine, taking plenty of breaks, and stretching when needed. If you're beginning to feel a strain on your neck, shoulder, or back muscles, it's a good idea to book in with a physiotherapist to make sure you aren't causing yourself any damage as playing for too long at a time could do so.
THE HEART'S HEALTH
So, breathing, holding one's breath, and exhaling in a controlled way, all while carrying a heavy instrument, are all great health benefits of playing the saxophone. The longer you play, the more it pushes you. Before you know it, you're out of breath. The show must go on though, and we have to finish the song.
I was gifted a smartwatch for Christmas and was curious to see just how intense this could get on my heart. I know it isn't entirely accurate, but I measured before starting a three-movement solo piece at a heart rate bpm of 70. At the end of these songs, I'm often short of breath, sometimes sweating, and feel my pulse going, which makes sense since this time, when I measured after playing a 14-minute, 21-page piece, my heart rate was hitting 101bpm.
Now, I'm not a medical professional but, based on these results, it feels great knowing that I'm able to do the thing I love, playing the saxophone, and keep myself healthy while doing it without worrying whether it's going to bring on the next migraine attack. Let me know if you've noticed any health benefits from playing the saxophone or any other musical instrument.
If you're looking for clarinet lessons or a saxophone teacher near you, I offer face-to-face music lessons in Wells, UK and online music lessons to anyone worldwide. Feel free to get in touch!