The Princess and the Pea

A couple of weeks ago my alto saxophone wasn’t working properly. I’d tried adjusting it to make it better, as I always do, it’s a kind of prevarication to delude myself that the instrument is working. I fiddle with the G# mechanism and the long Bb adjustment, and mess around with the front high F. All to no avail. Then I carry on regardless trying to ignore the obvious delay on low notes, the stuffy mid-range D, and the general resistance in the instrument. I was practising and things weren’t going well, expletives were rife.... Sarah left what she was doing in another room, walked into our studio, took my saxophone and tried it. “Your saxophone doesn’t work, you have to get it fixed, I’ll text Tom, use mine”. I played Sarah’s saxophone for a few days, magical, everything just worked.

The trouble is I’m always hesitant about handing my saxophone over to be repaired or adjusted. In fact, even though it’s not the best thing to do, I hardly ever get my instruments serviced. It’s because they never feel the same afterwards, even though the instrument has been ‘set up’ as though it’s just left the factory. I have a very light touch, probably too light, a hang-over from my years as a clarinettist focusing on a light touch with fingers moving as little as possible. My saxophone always feels ‘clunky’ when I get it back from a repairer; it still doesn’t work, but doesn’t work in a different way to how it didn’t work before I had it repaired. ‘The Princess and the Pea’; that’s what Sarah sometimes calls me.

Quite a few years ago I took my instrument to be repaired (I was playing a Selmer Series 2 then) and decided on a full overhaul. There had been a gap of a few years since it had been looked at and I was promised it would be ‘like new’ when I got it back. It wasn’t, well the new pads, corks, and springs were, but it was incredibly difficult to play. I had to press quite hard to produce notes cleanly. It seemed incredibly sluggish. I went back to the repairer and asked if anything could be done.

“Oh you’re not one of those people that press really lightly are you!??!! Press harder!”.

He might have had a point. Although I remember when my Selmer was new, I didn’t have to go to the gym to be able to get the pads to seal.

Anyway, this week I had a lovely experience. There is a repairer that makes me feel less anxious; Tom Rodgers. He’s based at Windstruments near Bingley. He’s a Yamaha trained technician (I play Yamaha), and he’s rescued me a few times over the last few years. I took my alto to Tom to work his magic. The difference between Tom and quite a few other repairers is that he trained as a classical saxophonist, and Sarah (Markham) was his teacher. He not only knows about the technicalities of the instrument, but has experienced the subtleties of performing at a high level. With Tom, it’s not just mechanics, engineering, and resetting things to the factory defaults.

While he was setting up the key action he offered insights into how he could make my saxophone play as I wanted it to. He had no problem making sure my pads seated with the lightest of pressure, even taking out the slightest annoying movement I could feel when I pressed a particular key down. I am recording works by Ryo Noda which involve trills at very low dynamics, and so Tom made my keys absolutely silent to ensure only the trill is heard not the key movement. He talked about how the saxophone ‘felt’, and that the pads would feel positive and be airtight, but he could create different levels of response from the instrument. The key action could result in a harder response from the pads, or a softer feel. The options Tom offered me moved out of the field of repairs and more towards ensuring that the player had a greater affinity with the instrument. Such a privilege to spend time with someone with the skills and insight to shape my instrument into the saxophone that I want. Thank you Tom.

Oh, in case you don’t get the reference to The Princess and the Pea, it’s a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen (1835).


Isadora, Rachel and H. C. 1805-1875. Andersen. 2009. The Princess and the Pea. New York, N.Y.: Puffin Books.

Windstruments: 3 Croft Avenue,Crossflatts, Bingley BD16 2DT.

Categories: Instrument

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