One of the key things any new saxophone player needs to know is how to hold their instrument the right way. I’ve seen too many students in my years learn something the wrong way and then have to relearn it.
As a general rule, there are 9 steps to check when holding a saxophone the right way:
- Check your sitting posture
- Adjust the neck strap length
- Right-hand placement anchored by the thumb rest
- Left-hand placement on top
- Move the sax to your right side or center depending on your height
- Right hand provide the upward force
- Left hand balances
- Check mouthpiece alignment
- Keep your head straight and balanced
I’ll go into each of these steps in more detail below, so don’t skip out and miss something critical!
Video On How To Hold A Saxophone
This video is a quick representation of holding an alto sax. Make sure you also read the steps below for details the video doesn’t go into.
9 Steps For Holding A Saxophone The Right Way
Let’s dig into these steps now! It may seem like a lot at first, but when you make these things a good habit, you’ll be able to get going within minutes.
Read carefully. Poor posture and holding position may end up causing limits in your playing, good sound, and cause pain in your body and fingers down the line.
Note: This assumes you already assembled your saxophone. Click the link for more details.
#1 Check your sitting posture
Always remember: humans came first; musical instruments came second.
It seems like an odd and obvious thing to say, but here’s my point. I see students (adults and kids) moving their bodies to fit the sax all the time instead of balancing their bodies and bringing the instrument to them.
This is the biggest mistake, and it causes a ton of pain, especially in your back.
Start by sitting in a comfortable position in your chair. Scoot 1-2″ inches toward the front of your chair, so your back doesn’t rest on the back of the chair (this encourages slouching).
Imagine your spine, neck, and center of the crown of your head have a single string running through it, like a puppet. Reach one hand to the top of your head, pull the invisible string, and lengthen your body.
Feel your hips, spine, neck, and head come into a comfortable alignment, each resting perfectly balanced on top of the other.
Release the string and let the lengthening tension release but keep the balance and space in your body.
Note: If you’re a shorter player who will put the sax off to the right when you hold it to play, you may need to sit slightly to the right of center on your chair.
#2 Adjust the neck strap length
Put your neck strap around your neck if you haven’t already. Pick up your alto by the bell and put it on your right knee, so the bell is on the bottom and facing to the left.
Attach your neck strap to the clip on the back of the woodwind instrument.
We need to adjust the length of the neck strap to the proper length now. When the horn is resting on your knee, a good rule of thumb is to have the strap just tight enough there is no slack.
Too tight is when it pulls on your neck. Too loose is when you’re able to wiggle it around.
The exact method of doing this depends on your specific neck strap. Most of them have a clip or button to push and then pull the strap to a smaller or longer size.
#3 Right-hand placement anchored by the thumb rest
Make a C shape with your right hand. Locate the thumb rest toward the bottom of the sax’s body.
Put your thumb up against the rest with the inside of your thumb against it. Keep your open handshape as your fingers move over the keys.
For the lower groups of keys near the thumb rest, place your index finger on the uppermost keypad of this set. By uppermost, we’re talking about the pad closest to the neck of the lower (toward the bell) set of keys on the side of the saxophone.
Align each finger with a key. The pair of smaller keys is controlled by your little finger; rest it on the upper of the two while unless playing the other one.
#4 Left hand placement on top
Locate the button just over halfway up the back of the saxophone. This button doesn’t do anything, but it is where you want to rest your left-hand thumb.
Some alto saxophones (and other types of saxophones too) have another hook to use as a thumb rest here, but it’s not guaranteed.
Keep the same C-shape as with the right hand to relax your fingers and keep the palm open. Put your thumb on the back button and bring your fingers around to the top set of keys.
With these fingers, you’ll want to put your index finger on the second big fingerpad. From there, put your middle finger and ring fingers on the pads below those.
Your little finger or pinky finger is going to rest on the smaller key located somewhat underneath these.
Above your thumb will be the octave key. This is used to make your saxophone player higher notes.
Note: With fingering on a saxophone, you don’t want to strain or collapse your knuckles or hold them stiffly open. Keep your fingers naturally flat or slightly curved.
This video may help with the fingers specifically.
#5 Move the sax to your right side or center depending on your height
There are two positions to hold the saxophone when you bring it up to play.
If you’re a person with a smaller torso or a younger student, you may want to rest the saxophone off to the right side of your body.
If you’re of average height, it’s best to bring the saxophone up and right in between your legs.
The key is in your head. If you need to raise your head or extend it to play, you’re too short; put it to the right.
This is only an option for the alto saxophone players.
The soprano saxophone is small enough everyone should have it in between their legs. The tenor saxophone and baritone saxophone are both so large they need to be held off to the right.
Though I suppose if you’re quite tall, a tenor player may test out in the center position, but most don’t.
#6 Right hand provide the upward force
With our hands in the proper position and position decided, use your right-hand thumb and the crook between the thumb and other fingers to provide the upward force to move the sax into position.
Some beginner sax players will pull up with the left hand too. This makes it harder to play the fingerings with this hand.
Your neck strap provides the pivot point. Make sure it stays taught.
#7 Left hand balances
Use your left hand to balance and align the saxophone mouthpiece to your lips (you may also want to check out our guide to cleaning a sax mouthpiece) (you may also want to check out our guide to cleaning a sax mouthpiece). The left hand should not bear any of the weight at all.
The weight is actually born in your neck strap.
#8 Check mouthpiece alignment
As the saxophone mouthpiece comes up, check to see it comes straight in at your mouth. Loosen the neck screw slightly and adjust to make sure it does without you needing to turn your head.
The mouthpiece should go right in the center of your mouth. This sets you up for a successful embouchure or mouth shape for playing and making a great sound.
#9 Keep your head straight and balanced
At this point, you’re essentially ready to play, but I’d still double-check a couple of things at this point.
In bringing the sax up, did you extend or move your head? Make sure it’s balanced, just like we did before getting out the saxophone.
It shouldn’t be bent, turned, twisted, or moved at all out of the comfortable center position. The angle should be straight.
A tense head creates a tense mouth which creates a tense sound.
You may also want to double-check the neck strap length. You should be able to bring the mouthpiece right to your mouth without leaning forward or backward.
If you lean forward, tighten it up. If you lean back, loosen the saxophone strap.
Congrats! You now know how to hold your saxophone.
Check these things every time to make sure you always have the best posture so you don’t end up hurting yourself in the long run.
Warning! Saxophones need a quick clean after every playing session. Make sure you know how to clean a saxophone to prevent saxophone lung and wear on your woodwind instrument. (Click the link to check our guide.)
How do you hold a saxophone when not playing? – Make sure you use your neck strap to bear the weight and prevent accidental dropping.
If sitting, rest it on your right leg. If standing put the body of the saxophone horizontal and rest one or two hands underneath it to help hold it up.
Is it difficult to play the saxophone? – The sax is a great starter musical instrument, though it gets difficult at the highest levels of music.
For more details, check out our article on Is The Saxophone Hard To Learn?
Can I teach myself to play the saxophone? – As a rule, we recommend private lesson teachers and/or joining a band as the best options for learning the sax.
However, if you want to save money, there are a few good programs out there. I recommend checking out Alto Saxophone Lessons For Beginners on Udemy.
You actually get to hear the good sound of the teacher with this lesson too.
Are there left-handed saxophones? – Saxes aren’t right-handed or left-handed. The left hand always goes on top, and the right hand always goes on the bottom.
This answer is pretty straightforward. It doesn’t change per person.
Is saxophone easier than trumpet? – In the first few months of playing, the saxophone is easier than the trumpet, but then they equal out with each other. Both are great beginner wind instruments.
For more details, check out our detailed saxophone vs. trumpet comparison.