"I was seven when I started playing the clarinet, fourteen when I picked up a saxophone. I was fairly desperate to give the saxophone a try. My parents hired me a saxophone for my fourteenth birthday. I absolutely loved it. Those things that I'd started to find a bit tricky on the clarinet, or couldn't quite develop, seemed easier on the saxophone. Luckily they bought it for me, a Bundy Alto.
"I had a good teacher right from the start, Melanie Fitzgerald, who was part of Sheffield Music Services. She was strict and precise, good in her approach. When I produced this saxophone she put me through all my grades. When I needed a better saxophone, she let me use hers, which was a Selmer Mark VI. Then she let me buy it from her, in instalments, because I couldn't afford to buy it straight off. When I took my Grade VIII, she said: 'You have to go to a specialist teacher.' She'd heard about Richard Ingham, so she packed me off to him. Melanie was wonderful; I've been lucky. In Sheffield at that time I was given free lessons, a free clarinet, and a great teacher.
"Melanie's a vicar now, in Sheffield. She decided to take a break from peripatetic teaching at the time I left Sheffield to go to music college. She travelled, ended up in America, then trained to be a vicar. Melanie was the one who married Patrick and me. So I was married by my clarinet teacher! She christened our son, Isaac, as well." Isaac will be six at Christmas.
"I went to Richard Ingham in October 1987. I was seventeen, starting to apply to music college," she says. "Richard helped me through my auditions. I was offered a place at the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM). During the next few months with Richard I worked hard through some of the standard repertoire, before I went to Manchester.
"I was a normal person from a comprehensive school. I was surprised when I reached the RNCM to discover how many students seemed to have done nothing but music for such a long time. The other weird thing was that I was the only saxophone player in my year. I found it tough to start with. I was a first year when the Apollo boys were fourth years. These were early days in the saxophone world. There wasn't much for me to do. Initially, I wasn't put in the wind band. All of the orchestral things had gone to the other people. After a while I joined a quartet with some second years, and started to find my feet. I must say I didn't really enjoy the first couple of years at the RNCM. I found it hard. I went home a lot!
"During the third year we went on a wind band tour to Scotland, a brilliant tour. We all had fun, with good music, and nice venues. That was when I thought: 'I really want to do this.' I didn't know quite how. At that point I became serious about it. I worked hard, and was doing a lot more playing at college. I decided to audition to study abroad. I looked at going to France, or America, and ended up studying with Lynn Klock at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. At that time there was the American School and the French School. Now there's a British sound. I was interested in the French School, but when Lynn Klock rang me up to invite me to become his teaching assistant, I thought: 'Massachusetts is a great place to be - let's go there.' I didn't know what I was letting myself in for, but I thought: 'Well, I'll try'. That was a two-year Masters degree. I loved it. I cried for the entire flight getting over there - I was nervous.
In my first lesson with Lynn I played a C major scale. He said: 'You're out of time, out of tune, and I don't like your sound.' For the first three months I tried to convince him that I could play C major - in time, in tune, and with a decent sound."
Klock was strict and insistent. "He's one of those teachers who can't bear to let an error go by," she says. "You'll do it wrong, he'll correct you. You do it wrong again, he'll stop and correct you. Sometimes, some teachers think: 'Well, they'll work on it.' He almost can't. It's tough. It's hard work. But I remember when I suddenly got it. I understood what he said. I did start to play better. I could hear it. My technique was fine, but he made it sit properly. I worked hard. With my own teaching, I'm quite tough, quite insistent, but I try to be nice about it.
"An interesting thing about Amherst is that the town has 18,000 residents, but the university has 22,000 students. There were usually sixteen saxophonists in the class, with a few second studies. I played soprano in a quartet, with two post-grads and two third years. We remained together in that quartet for two years, which was good. Every week we had a lesson with Lynn, plus a quartet coaching session, plus a masterclass. He worked us hard, and expected us to rehearse together as a quartet at least three times a week. I also helped him do the saxophone technique class, which is where the music educationalists have to learn to play the saxophone in a semester.
"The students worked so hard. I was probably the best saxophone player while I was out there, but I never felt as though I was. I always felt that someone was going to overtake me, so I worked really hard, practised really hard. My scale programme with Lynn never took less than an hour. He was strict about playing with an even sound, rhythmically at different speeds. I would practise at five or seven different tempi to get the neat articulation."I was ready to leave America, to come back to Europe. I went to live in Germany, in Karlsruhe. I picked up bits of teaching, and ended up being the jazz saxophone teacher at the Jugendmusikschule Bretten. I really loved my teaching, and got to learn how to speak German. While I was living in Germany I came over to England in 1995 for the Royal Overseas League competition. I won the wind and brass section. At that time I started working with pianist Paul Turner. We won an Eric Falk Trust prize for our playing together. I felt as though we jelled together really well. Since then I've always worked with Paul. He's a fabulous player. I returned to England in 1996, to lots of concerts and playing, including the World and British Congresses, concertos, recitals, radio, and touring with shows."
With the Adelphi Quartet she recorded an EMI CD in 1997. Markham joined the Northern Saxophone Quartet on Baritone, following the death of Nick Turner, who was the last of the founder members. Recently she has become a Yamaha artist. Now married to Patrick ('a very fine clarinettist', and the man behind Prologue Records), she teaches at the Royal College of Music Junior Department on Saturdays, Leeds College of Music, Sheffield, Huddersfield and York universities, and has recently begun as a consultant at the Royal Welsh College in Cardiff. She has also taken on the role of Artistic Director for the Saxophone Classics record label.
Sarah Markham smiles gently. She adds: "Maybe I have done something during these last forty years."