The electronic tuner can be something of a divisive piece of equipment when used by sax players. Simply put- a lot of people use these units wrongly. Its remarkably easy to make this incredibly useful tool into one extra thing to worry about and it end up being completely counter productive.
Firstly- something of a positive affirmation; if you’ve got a reasonable set up and your ear is alert then, chances are you can play in tune. Particularly if you’re playing with a backing track or other musicians playing in tune develops as a fairly intuitive skill as your experience on the sax progresses. The sax is a surprisingly bendy instrument when it comes to tuning, shaping the exact pitch of each note is all part of the skill set which the advancing student learns as they go. Bad tuning will tend to sound bad and you’re likely to notice if anything is significantly out. Having said that, there are some excellent ear training books and apps out there which will help fine tune hearing skills.
Now on to the electronic tuner. In many ways an incredibly useful tool but one which can lead to a few pitfalls. Firstly- the screen of a tuner gives visual information (obviously), the sound of your horn is acoustic information; if your concentration is on the needle it can be at the detriment of actually listening to the pitch of the horn. This is a very common problem for those not used to using a one- blowing a note while applying their concentration not to the sound but to the needle on the screen; stress level goes up, confidence erodes and the ‘I can’t play in tune’ or ‘this sax is out of tune’ gremlin is out of the bag. Another thing is the fact that, if you’re using a tuner in a quiet room (technically the best way to get an accurate reading) then there’s no reference tone to tune to. In any normal musical context this would be quite an unusual environment t be working in, again adding to the stress potential.
Once a player has a degree of experience and confidence the tuner is a very handy tool and an excellent addition to the practice regime, for the less experienced they are useful but should be approached with care. Here’s a basic exercise which gets round some of the issues above. Use a tuning fork or tone generator app to play a note, then play the pitch of that note, only then- when you’re playing that pitch do you look at the tuner needle. If its in tune- look away or close your eyes- play the octave up and then look back to confirm that you’ve hit it cleanly in tune. Repeat throughout the range of the horn. This can be also part of a ‘long tones’ regime and should serve well to help build up a strong personal tone as well as sensitivity to the pitching of the instrument.
By the way, the above is particularly handy for taming the notoriously awkward soprano.
One last thing- it’s incredibly obvious but also quite easy to forget, saxes aren’t in concert pitch. Always remember to reset to Bb or Eb before tuning, or be aware that the needle reading is going to be two (or three) semi-tones out.