“I’m getting headaches when I play for a while.”
“The back of my neck hurts all the time.”
“My upper back and shoulder blades hurt.”
This is a sampling of the complaints that some saxophonists have expressed during their playing careers. These pains are not exclusive to beginners; some professionals I gig with have said the same things to me. In fact, I didn’t realize my own headaches were coming from my neck strap until my colleagues spoke about their own situation.
Many beginning students slump in their chairs because they can’t adjust their neck strap to bring the instrument higher. They end up ducking their chin to try to reach the mouthpiece, instead of bringing the mouthpiece to them. They also slump because it is less painful on the neck, especially if their strap has no padding.
I have always known about the importance of having a padded neck strap; one that helps to take a lot of the weight of the instrument off the neck and right thumb. I have always used them and recommend them for my students.
So why doesn’t the padded neck strap alleviate this problem? The first thing to look at is posture. Are you seated or standing up straight with your shoulders back and relaxed, or are you hunched over? When your shoulders move forward, more stress is felt in the upper back and shoulder blades. More weight is felt on the back of the neck as a result. Your shoulders may be back, but are they down and relaxed? Shoulders that are up towards your ears also put undue stress on the neck and upper back, as well as affecting breathing.
The next area to examine is the quality of your neck strap. Many times, when a student rents a saxophone, a stock neck strap is placed in the case. This strap is basically just a strap; there’s no padding at all. This I feel is not sufficient for beginning saxophonists.
I always recommend the Neotech
brand for beginners because of the added the padding. This strap is a very good choice for beginning alto sax players. This neck strap will work great for you if you are also mindful of your posture and shoulder position.
Alternatives to the Neck Strap
For those of us playing the larger saxophones (tenor, baritone), the quality of the strap is crucial. But here is where alternatives may need to be explored.
Some players, especially those on the baritone sax, use a harness instead of a neck strap. The idea behind the harness is that the weight of the instrument is distributed evenly across the shoulders and back. Some popular harnesses are made by Neotech and BG. These are great products, but one consideration is that these harnesses are not made to accommodate smaller people, often beginners with narrow shoulders.
A new harness system was produced by Van Doren, the famous reed manufacturer. The Vandoren V System Harness uses aerodynamic technology and ergo-dynamic design to distribute the weight in such a way that you barely feel the saxophone on you at all. This is a big deal for Bari sax players, where the instrument can feel heavier as you play for long periods of time. It’s also great for tenor and bari sax players in marching bands. For a smaller person like me, I think this system works great. I use it on tenor sax and even alto if I am doubling on a gig. It fits perfectly and is very comfortable. You can find this on the Woodwind and Brasswind site by clicking on the link above.
Another new type of harness, the saXholder is made by Jazzlab. It is designed to distribute the weight across the shoulders, and it fits smaller players. I have also used this, and it is very comfortable. My only concern about this harness is that it if you lean forward too far (i.e. when picking up something you dropped), it will fall off your shoulders. This may be a good choice for more agile students and adults only for that reason
I currently have a student who was recently diagnosed as having epilepsy. Any kind of pressure on the back of the neck could be an issue for her. A good quality harness that fits well is very important in this situation. The saXholder fits smaller people really well, and can be disassembled in one move, which for this medical condition may be crucial if the student has a seizure.
As a teacher, it is important to be in tune with your students (no pun intended!) and check to make sure that they have the proper neck strap. If you observe their posture, and notice forward protruding shoulders, the chin being ducked to reach the mouthpiece (instead of bringing the mouthpiece to the student) or slumping in the chair, check to see if the neck strap is padded and can adjust up or down. Listen to what the student is saying; they may outright state that it hurts to play the instrument.
As a performer, be more aware of how you physically feel before and after you play. Feel the back of your neck and see if there are knots (very tight muscle lumps). Notice if you experiencing headaches after you perform for extended amounts of time. Notice if your shoulder blades hurt more after you perform.
Through careful observation, we can prevent that “pain in the neck” when we play our great instrument, the saxophone!
Donna Schwartz has been teaching Band and Jazz Band in public elementary and middle schools in New York for over 13 years, and has been teaching brass and saxophone students privately for over 26 years. She has a website at http://donnaschwartzmusic.com, where she offers weekly blogs on teaching music and videos for solutions to common performance problems.