27 October 2016
Music teacher Stephen Cheung says almost anyone can learn to play the saxophone. Photo: Music Shop Co.
Music teacher Stephen Cheung says almost anyone can learn to play the saxophone. Photo: Music Shop Co.

Sax is really cool and easier to learn than you think

Whenever some South Korean drama featuring the main character playing saxophone is on, or when a sax-themed movie is showing, there’s typically a surge in people trying to learn the instrument.

Many Hongkongers associate sax, developed by Belgian Adolphe Sax in the 1800s, with romance.

Sax is also synonymous with cool.

While many love the sound of a saxophone or aspire to be a sax player, the reality is that they think it’s too hard to master the 23-key instrument.

Which explains why there are fewer sax students and instructors than piano players and teachers and why more people play the violin.

Music Shop Co., a 15-year-old business, wants to change that.

Founders Stephen Cheung and Jacky Ko have been looking for ways to make learning sax easier and more enjoyable, even if it means thinking out of the box, which in their case is adapting to technology.

Students are encouraged to submit their homework through Whatsapp. Instructors then go over the recording and point out areas where the students should improve or make corrections.

The duo have also designed their own saxophone app, which enables users to tune their instruments with a smart phone and check if the basic notes sound right.

The app is proving useful for parents who want to keep track of their children’s progress.

Parents who can’t tell C major from D minor, can simply touch the smartphone screen to see the keys in action and how they sound then compare notes with their children later on.

Music Shop, a winner in the SME category of the Hong Kong Association for Customer Service Excellence Award 2015, spends a lot of effort making life easier for students.

To save students the trouble of carrying a 6-8 pound saxophone (they come in different shapes and sizes), the school provides the instruments.

Students need only bring their own mouthpiece.

“Frequent transportation can cause damage to the saxophone. This arrangement can avoid that,” Cheung said.

Mindful that different teachers have their own strengths and weaknesses and that students take saxophone lessons for various reasons, Music Shop tries to give learners the kind of teachers that best fit their purposes.

“Some people do it for fun, some just want to learn a specific song and perform at wedding parties, some use it to de-stress. There are also students who are serious about passing exams and getting a qualification,” Cheung said.

Teachers also vary. Some know all the key tricks to get good grades, others know how to give their students a good time. Some specialize in jazz.

Matching teachers with students accordingly is the best approach.

Customers may also worry the schools could suddenly close due to financial problems. Music Shop takes care of that, too.

“We try to keep our expansion pace under control. We also partner with other music schools by subleasing their spaces for a certain number of hours each week,” Ko said.

“This allows us to offer more lessons but free us from the fixed costs and inflexibility of long contracts.”

Against usual misconceptions, almost anyone can learn to play the saxophone.

One can start as early as three, but Music Shop has also taught many elderly.

“If you are a heavy smoker, or someone with a cleft lip, it would be a challenge, but otherwise, it is pretty much an instrument for everyone,” Cheung said.

It would be nice to have a big, strong lung but breathing techniques, facial and lip muscle skills are more crucial in playing saxophone.

Given the short supply of sax instructors, Music Shop decided to develop its own teachers years ago.

After a student has reached Grade 6, which is quite good already, the school will see if they want to turn professional and become teachers themselves.

Cheung has designed a teaching manual to serve as a reference and benchmark to ensure instructors meet certain standards.

Cheung oversees the teaching part while Ko handles marketing.

Asked about their biggest hurdles, Ko said “getting more people to know about Music Shop”, while Cheung said it’s “building up the students’ confidence”.

The school arranges for their students to participate regularly in charity shows, an excellent way to get their name out and give learners more live performance opportunities.

Expanding Music Shop tops the to-do list but the two have bigger dreams.

Cheung said they are working on a music nursery, where children can learn saxophone at an early age.

This will not only give them a solid musical foundation but also create an environment conducive to mental development.

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EJ Insight writer

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