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Pay the Piper
Frequently Asked Questions
People often contact us
with queries about buying, selling and playing instruments, and we
always try to help if we can. Here is a selection of the more
interesting and tricky questions we have been asked recently, with our
replies. We will add to this list as time goes on.
Q. It has been a long-term wish to play the saxophone but I need
some assistance in making the right choices.
First of all, I cannot read notes at all so could you please advise
whether I should start learning to play at all or whether it is best
to start learning how to read notes first. Preferably I would like to
learn to read notes and play at the same time.
A. No, don't try to learn the notes first. It is quite normal
even for quite young children to learn the notes as they learn the
instrument - in fact, that's probably the best way to do it. Don't let
reading music be too big an issue. Once you get into it, it's not that
hard and it's not that important. 90% of all the musicians in the
world don't read music. It's just us European classical types that get
hung up about it.
Secondly, I want to teach myself how to play, initially without
help from a teacher. Taking into consideration I will have to learn to
read notes as well can you please tell me whether this is advisable
and if so, which literature would be best using to start.
(This answer will offend many established saxophonists and
saxophone teachers, and I would always say that ideally one should
seek a good teacher for any instrument. However, the question is
frequently asked and I must answer it truthfully - it can be done, and
often is. Remember we are dealing with an intelligent, literate,
articulate and motivated adult here ...) It is perfectly possible
to teach yourself and many people have done so. The hardest part is
getting started, and learning how to control the reed and the
mouthpiece (and therefore the sound) with your mouth. The fingering is
easier and can be learnt from a book. What I would suggest is that you
should find a local saxophone player or saxophone teacher (or a
clarinet teacher would be just as good as the two instruments are so
similar) and have just one or two lessons to get you started. Then
work on your own for some time, but after a couple of months go back
and have another lesson just to make sure that you are not developing
any bad habits, and to sort out any problems you may have encountered.
A suitable book would be Learn As You Play Saxophone - you can buy it
online through the link on our Saxophone page. I also strongly
recommend that you get The Rough Guide to the Saxophone - it will
probably answer nearly all of the questions that may crop up in the
first few months. The same publisher has a good book about learning to
read music. There is another "tutor book" which I have used
in the past and found excellent. It is called Tune a Day for Saxophone -
it's rather old-fashioned now, but has nice pictures to demonstrate
every step, and introduces new notes and the notation to read them, in
Thirdly, would you advise to buy a new saxophone or would a second
hand one suffice as well?
With most instruments, secondhand is fine - in fact, some
instruments are actually better bought secondhand. However, the
saxophone is a very popular instrument and is often bought by people
whose attraction to music is rather transitory, and fades as soon as
the task gets difficult. This means that there can often be secondhand
instruments on the market that have not been very well looked after,
and may need repair or maintenance once you have bought them which can
be expensive. For instance, one routine repair that has to be done
every few years is to replace the pads that close the holes, and this
can cost anything between £50 and £120. It's quite hard for
an amateur to look at a saxophone and tell whether it's in good
condition or not. Therefore I think you might be better advised to buy
a new instrument.
Last but not least, what would be the best place to buy a
saxophone? There are loads on offer on the Internet but I am not sure
whether it would be advisable to go to a music shop or whether buying
online is fine as well. If so, which websites would you advise.
So long as you make sure you are buying a saxophone made by one of
the big, well-known manufacturers there should be no problem buying
online. The shops on our links page are reliable and experienced and
will always replace the instrument if it proves faulty, although on
the whole musical instruments are themselves pretty reliable. The
advantage of buying from a local music shop is that it's much easier
to take the thing back if there is any problem, but you will pay more.
If you do buy locally, you should still make sure you are buying a
well-known type of instrument (Jupiter, Yamaha (good but expensive),
Conn, Corton (cheap), Selmer, Buffet, Trevor James (very popular with
beginners in the UK). Don't buy from a manufacturer that isn't
featured on at least two of these shop websites, then you should avoid
any poor quality cheap imports (although almost all woodwind and brass
instruments are imports these days - whichever firm makes them,
they're all actually built in Taiwan or China, and none the worse for
that). I think if I were in your position I'd buy a new Trevor James
or Jupiter from John Myatt. Almost all beginners start on the alto
saxophone - it's easy to change to one of the other types later on if
I hope that's helpful. I wish you luck. I had an email yesterday from
someone who said "your site is most pessimistic. I am Grade 5 on
the flute and want to work in a professional orchestra. Now I feel
like giving up. Thanks a lot!" I didn't reply, because I didn't think they would welcome anything I had to say. If I had
replied, I would have had to say "Grade 5? Professional orchestra? Get
real! I'm not pessimistic, I'm just not telling you what you wanted to
hear!" I know a young flautist who got Grade 8 with Distinction when she was 13; she's now 25 and still hasn't managed to get a job as an orchestral musician. It IS going to be harder than you imagined, and there WILL
be times when you feel quite discouraged, and it WILL take much longer
than you expected .... and .... and .... But if it was easy, everyone
would do it, wouldn't they? Some things are worth a little pain.
Q. This one is not a question at all, but a comment on what we
have said in our "Piano" page. We thought it was an
interesting view, so here it is: "I must comment on digital
pianos. I too find them unbearable to play using the internal speakers
or even through my fairly good hifi. However, I was fortunate to be
persuaded to buy some Grado headphones. At about £100, not cheap
but worth every single penny. When I plug these into my Roland HP-237
with the reverb on, the sound is awesome - a thousand times better
than what you hear through the awful internal amp/speaker system. You
seem to have full control over the keys compared to that when playing
through the speakers.
Combined with the obvious benefits of not disturbing neighbours, no
tuning necessary, a uniform keyboard etc., a beginner or intermediate
student could do no better for this price. All the new pianos I've
heard costing £1200 (the cost of my digital and headphones) sound
nowhere near as good as mine does for private practice".
A. We're sure you're right. But what we object to is not the
sound so much as the feel. Any very experienced pianist will tell you
that on a really fine acoustic piano (say, a Bechstein or a Bluthner
grand) you find you can play things that normally on an ordinary old
nail you can't get your fingers round at all - it just raises your own
performance in some mysterious way. To me, electric instruments fall
somewhere below the average village hall piano in this respect. I am a
pretty good pianist but find my own performance deteriorates markedly
on an electric instrument. I don't know why this is, although sometmes
I have wondered whether it's the depth of the keys - on an acoustic
piano the keys are a few millimetres longer from front to back than on
some electric ones. Why this should make a difference is beyond me, as
you never use the back bit of the key, but there we are. It's a
mystery, but all our pianist friends agree.
(An extra comment, added a few months after this reply. In
connection with my work with The Harmony Girls' Choir which often
performs abroad in churches that have no conventional piano, I have
recently bought a Yamaha Clavinova. I am forced to admit that it is
very pleasant to play, although to get the best tone you need to play
it quite hard which takes some getting used to. However, I find I can
play just as well on it as I can on an ordinary piano, which is
marvellous. So I have to eat my words. It still sounds like a piano in
a box, though!)
Q. I have been playing the acoustic guitar for a few months now
but I really want to move on to the electric guitar. I know chords and
stuff and want to know is the transition between acoustic and electric
guitars that big or would it be easy to change?
A. To be honest we know very little about the electric guitar,
but yes, so far as we have learned the transition should be easy. We
believe that in some ways the electric guitar is actually easier - for
instance, because all the amplification is done by electronics, the
finger pressure of the left hand can be much less. We fancy the
strings may even be made of softer material. And the right hand
probably has to do less work for the same reason. Certainly the tuning
of the strings and therefore all the hand-shapes will be exactly the
same - but beware, the bass guitar is quite different - it's tuned
like an acoustic double bass.
It seems to us your main problems will be (a) getting the right
equipment and connecting it up satisfactorily, and (b) deciding what
style of music you want to play. Music shops, especially those that
specialise in rock instruments, often have a shop assistant who is a
would-be rock star and therefore well able to give you advice. And
there are a number of books available to help - try going to
and using the search box to search "books" for "electric
guitar". There are probably a lot of websites that will offer
advice, too. I'd go to Google
(our favourite search engine) and search for "electric guitar
tips" or "electric guitar hints" - something like that.
Q. How important is "flaming" to the sound quality of a
A. "Flaming" is the symmetrical pattern produced,
usually in the back of a violin or 'cello, by the careful use of two
pieces of wood from the same tree with identical grain markings. The
patterns are produced by medullary rays in the structure of the
timber. Timber which has been cut from the tree so that its surface
lies in the plane of the diameter of the tree ("radial cut")
will have more flame, and since this cut is more stable (i.e. is less
affected by changes in temperature and humidity) it is desirable in
instruments. The flame is thought attractive by some but is irrelevant
to the quality of the instrument as a tool for making noises.
Q. I have recently heard of a bass trumpet. Does it use the same
size mouthpiece as a baritone horn?
A. A bass trumpet is really in the trombone range. It needs a
mouthpiece of trombone size. There are two shank sizes on trombone
mouthpieces, standard and large. We assume that the standard shank
would fit a bass trumpet and a cup size somewhere between Vincent Bach
6 to 12 depending on the player. The bass trumpet is usually played by
Q. I am a keen supporter of Rock 'n' Roll and Rockabilly music and
want to learn to play the upright double bass, but "slap bass",
not with a bow. What type of double bass is suitable?
A. "Slapping" a bass is playing the strings pizzicato
(plucking them with your fingers) but doing it quite hard so that the
string actually "slaps" or "snaps" against the
fingerboard. The instrument normally used for folk/jazz/rock music is
exactly the same as the one for classical music - you just slap it
instead! So you need to look for a fairly robust (let's face it, it's
going to have a .... lively sort of life, isn't it?) bass of
three-quarter size, no bigger. Don't overlook plywood instruments -
for your purposes they'll be fine. We played one ourselves for many
There's a wonderful website full of double-bass links, especially for
slap bass, at www.gollihur.com/kkbass/basslink.html.
Q. I am an older learner returning to the music I started in my
childhood. Is it best to learn as an individual with a tutor or maybe
at a college with other learners? Which is best for the beginner, lone
attention or group work? How much difference is there between Grade 3
and Grade 6?
A. We suspect you would be better off with individual lessons
rather than a class. In our experience there are two major differences
between children and adults learning music. One is that adults have a
much clearer idea of what they want to know or to do next, and are
more capable of taking charge of their own learning. The other is that
adults lack confidence when doing something new and need a lot of
reassurance. We think a sympathetic teacher in a one-to-one situation
is more likely to be successful.
So far as finding a teacher is concerned, look at the website
and then try and make contact with the local schools' music service.
If neither of those works, go to a concert by your local amateur
orchestra and buttonhole one of the orchestra members during the
interval. Musicians tend to know each other - the "musical mafia".
Exams - who cares what the difference is beween Grade 3 and Grade 6?
It's only going into a room and playing a couple of pieces and some
scales in front of some strange bloke. How important can that be?
Exams are just a (very crude) way of measuring your progress. Sadly
some teachers and their pupils make them into an end in themselves,
which I think is a great mistake. But if you must know, there's quite a big difference between Grades 3 and 6 - about four or five years' worth for most people.
Q. I am a university student and want to learn the 'cello. A
friend says I should start on a three-quarter size 'cello - is that
correct? I am six feet tall.
A. No, at your age and height you definitely need a full-size
'cello. We worked for many years in an organisation lending
instruments to thousands of school pupils and sending the instrumental
teachers into the schools to teach them, so we know very well that
most of our young 'cello pupils moved from a three-quarter to a
full-size at approximately age 12 to 14 - depending on their physical
stature, of course, but long before they reached 6 ft.!
Q. Can you play the trumpet left-handed?
A. Yes, it's quite possible although very few people do.
Many instruments can't be played with the hands the wrong way round -
for instance, all woodwind instruments have the keys laid out so that
the right hand is furthest away from your face, and this can't be
altered. It is possible to play string instruments the wrong way round
- you have to get a luthier (violin maker/repairer) to take the
strings off and put them back in the opposite order, and reverse the
bridge - not a major operation. However, very few people do it for the
simple reason that if you sit in an orchestra and play left-handed,
your bow will keep clashing with the bow of the person next to you.
You'll also have a job to see the music, since sharing a music-stand
is normal. Guitarists don't have this problem, of course, and there
have been some very well-known "wrong way round" guitarists
- Paul McCartney for one.
In general, if you're left-handed you should just learn the same as
everyone else. Loads of fine musicians are left-handed, and if they
can do it so can you. Whichever hand you use, the actions and
positions are going to be strange at first, and eventually you'll get
used to it.
Q. I am a violinist but am interested in taking up a brass
instrument. Which one should I try, and would I be able to get to a
high standard relatively quickly?
A. I am not a proper brass player, but did have a half-hearted
try many years ago. It may be the particular formation of my mouth,
but I got the distinct impression that the larger the instrument the
easier and quicker it is to get the hang of the embouchure and make an
acceptable sound. In my opinion you should avoid the trumpet, cornet
and french horn (a notoriously tricky instrument). They have small
mouthpieces and to make the sound you need to "smile" the
mouth into considerable tension and achieve quite a bit of air
pressure. The larger instruments seemed to me to require less tension
and less air, too, surprisingly. Those that are larger but still easy
enough to carry are the trombone, baritone horn and euphonium. The
last two are only suitable for use in brass or wind bands, so if you
have a preference for orchestral playing or jazz that narrows it down
to the trombone.
The trombone has a slide of course, rather than valves, but really
that's the least of your worries - everything about brass playing
revolves around the mouth, and things like the shape and disposition
of your teeth, the thickness of your lips, the relative strengths of
the different muscles in your face can all affect your ability to
play. You will also have to learn the bass clef for orchestral
playing, but I shouldn't think that'll take you long.
As to how fast you will learn, I hesitate to make a prediction
because there are so many imponderables, but I have known young people
make astonishing progress if they were prepared to put plenty of time
into it on a very regular basis. I should have thought that two grades
a year ought to be quite easy for someone dedicated, intelligent and
musical (and whose mouth turned out to be suited to the instrument,
but you won't know that till you try). You ought certainly to progress
much faster on a trombone than you ever did on the violin.
Another thought. On any brass instrument you need to know in your
head what the note you are trying to play actually sounds like. Do you
have a good ear? Can you sing? (I don't mean have you got a good
voice, but do you sing in tune?) Can you look at a piece of printed
music and know roughly what it will sound like when it is played? Or
is the reason you want to try another instrument because you find it
difficult to play in tune on the violin? If so, you might have
difficulty with brass as well.
Q. How do you make the sound on a clarinet?
A. The sound of the clarinet is made by the air from your lungs
passing over the reed (thin slip of cane, shaved down and fastened to
the mouthpiece by a metal band or "ligature"). This causes
the reed to vibrate several hundred times a second in the same way the
wind passing over a flag makes it flap to and fro. The vibrating reed
makes the air in the tube of the clarinet vibrate as well, and it is
this vibration we hear as sound - ALL sound is just vibrating air,
which makes our eardrums vibrate in turn.
To make the sound, put the clarinet mouthpiece in your mouth with the
reed resting on the bottom lip which is drawn in to cover the bottom
teeth. Firm the lower lip against the reed, place the top teeth on top
of mouthpiece to hold it in place, and in the shape of a forced smile,
blow without puffing your cheeks.
By covering and uncovering the holes with your fingers you
effectively alter the length of the tube, because the air escapes from
the first uncovered hole it comes to. As short tubes make higher
sounds and long tubes make low ones, this is how you produce different
Other instruments that use a reed to make the sound are the oboe and
the bassoon (their reeds are double pieces of cane) and the saxophone
which is very similar to the clarinet. The flute gets a similar effect
by passing the air over a sharp metal lip instead, which is called the
"fipple". In brass instruments there is no reed, but you
make your lips vibrate which has the same effect.
Q. Where can I buy a violin?
A. It might be a good idea to rent a violin to start with. Try
- this is a shop in London that has an excellent rental scheme, quite
cheap and they are prepared to send instruments all over the country.
If you want to buy, any music shop can get hold of the type of
instrument beginners use in schools - the best-known make is Stentor -
expect to pay somewhere in the region of £100. If that's too
much, try the local paper or Exchange and Mart magazine - there are
always people trying to get rid of violins their children have given
up playing. If you can afford more, once again your local music shop
can supply better quality new instruments.
Q. How do I find a violin teacher?
A. To find a teacher, try
Friend. Failing that, contact the local Education Authority
Music Service. They won't help you directly as they exist to serve
schools only, but they must employ a lot of violin teachers many of
whom will be interested in giving private lessons in their spare time.
Q. How can I teach myself music theory?
A. I don't know an easy answer to this one, mainly because music
theory is, frankly, really difficult - hard to understand, hard to
learn and hard to explain! I am seriously considering trying to write
an eBook on it myself.
The most common theory texts in the UK are
The AB Guide to Music Theory Vol.1 and
by Eric Taylor, published by the Associated Board. They are thorough
but by no means easy to read and learn. There's also something called
"the little red book" published by Associated Board which is
supposed to be simpler but I don't have a copy.
I did a search on Google
for "really easy theory music" which gave some interesting
results, particularly a CD-Rom by someone called Gary Ewart - try the
same search and see what you think.
Q. Can you sell me a small violin for my daughter?
A. I'm afraid we aren't a shop and don't sell instruments, we
just give free advice. Almost any music shop should be able to sell
you a NEW violin for about £100 - you don't need very good
quality for a 4-year-old - frankly she won't know the difference! Ask
for a make called "Stentor" - they are basic but cheap and
Q. I am teaching myself the flute, and don't read music. What are
scales and keys?
A. "Scales" and "keys" are pretty much the
same thing in music. If a composer writes a tune using only the notes
of the scale of C major (which are C, D, E, F, G, A, B and high C)
then that tune is said to be "in the key of C major". A tune
"in the key of D major" would use only the notes of the
scale of D major which are D, E, F sharp, G, A, B, C sharp and high D.
You can construct a scale beginning on any note you please if you know
how, so there are major scales of C, C sharp, D, D sharp, E, F, F
sharp, G, G sharp, A, A sharp and B.
To make matters worse there are also "flats". E flat, for
instance, is actually the same note as D sharp so you can have a scale
of E flat which will be the scale of D sharp only written differently!
There are also "minor" scales of different types - a scale
of C harmonic minor goes C, D, E flat, F, G, A flat, B, high C. All
very complicated, I'm afraid.
Fortunately any tune can be written and played in almost any scale
(again, if you know how) so you can get away with knowing only a few
scales - C, F and G will be plenty to be going on with.
Q. How do I know what key a tune is in?
A. You won't have too much trouble finding a book that tells you
what the key signatures are. The most common ones are ....
No flats or sharps = C major or A minor
One sharp = G major or E minor
Two sharps = D major or B minor
Three sharps = A major or F sharp minor
One flat = F major or D minor
Two flats = B flat major or G minor
Three flats = E flat major or C minor
Sharps are little hash signs like this "#", and flats are
little pointy lower-case B things.
To tell whether a tune is in the major or the minor key, find out
what note it ends on. If it has one sharp and ends on G it's probably
in G major, but if it ends on E it's probably E minor. Minor tunes
tend to have more accidentals (sharps and flats) sprinkled about than
major ones. Tunes also "gravitate" round their key-notes, so
if the tune has an awful lot of E's in it, that suggests it may be in
E minor rather than G major.
Q. How do I know what chords to use with a tune?
The chords of 1, 4 and 5 will be enough for a great many tunes.
It works like this ..
The scale of G major goes G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, G. In this scale, G
is therefore 1, C is 4 and D is 5 - obviously. You make a chord by
taking the "root" - so the "root" of the chord of
1 or G is therefore G itself. To this you add the note three steps up
(remember that in music we always count inclusive) which is B, and the
note five steps up which is D. The chord of 1 or G is therefore GBD.
The chord of 4 will be CEG and the chord of 5 will be DF#A.
These three chords will do for perhaps 70% of all tunes that are in
the key of G major - especially blues, folk, rock or traditional jazz
tunes, but less so in classical music or modern jazz. Of course that
still leaves you having to decide which of the three chords to use at
any point in the tune - that is mainly a question of trial and error -
if the note you are singing is F# it will sound awful to play a chord
of 1 (GBD) against it, so what you need at that point is the chord of
Q. Is there a website that will tell me how to play the high notes
on the flute?
A. I am not a flautist myself (I'm a string player, mainly,
although I can get a tune out of quite a lot of instruments) so I
can't advise you about actual flute technique like getting the high
notes. Nor do I know of a website that gives this kind of detailed
advice. If you were to find a flautist who would give you just one or
two lessons, that might be enough to get you started on the higher
register and you could go on from there by yourself.
There are books - called "flute tutors" - that would help.
a Day Flute is a little out-dated these days and most flute
teachers would look down their noses at it, but it does take you along
in easy stages and gives you the fingerings you require at each stage.
It will probably give advice about getting into the higher register
too. Naturally it uses conventional music notation, but reading music
is really not difficult - start at the beginning of the book, do a
little at a time and be patient and you'll soon get the hang of it.
Q. I have a very old cello which I am told is worth quite a lot of
money. How do I go about selling it? (I am in the USA)
A. If I were you, I would try to get in touch with one or two
string players from the major orchestras in your state. Good string
players need good string instruments, and they need good dealers to
buy them from. So if you were able to find websites of your local
orchestras on the net (I did this recently and found eight
professional orchestras with websites in one state) and contact them,
they might be able to come up with a name or two. Your local
university music department might be able to do the same. In this
country (and I presume the US is the same) musicians tend to know each
other and gossip a lot - if you can get to one, you'll probably get to
One further suggestion - if you write or phone or email any of these
people and say "I've got a cello for sale, are you interested?"
they'll run a mile. If you say "I'm urgently trying to contact a
dealer in fine orchestral string instruments" they'll be more
sympathetic. People who deal in high quality old instruments use the
words "fine violins" or "fine cellos" a lot to
distinguish themselves from ordinary music shops. Don't look for a
'cello dealer - they're very rare indeed - most violin dealers will
deal in cellos too.
(Postscript: I heard from this lady again a few weeks later. She followed my advice to the letter, found a buyer without difficulty and got a very good price, too. Score one for Pay the Piper!)