Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Michael Brecker International Saxophone Competition

For those of you who haven't heard, there is a new sax competition starting this year in memory of Michael Brecker. There has been an extension on the application process, so you can enter until April 30. There is serious prize money involved ($12,500 first prize), and a chance to perform at the Red Sea Jazz Festival.

To be eligible you need to be 30 or younger as of July 1, 2019, and you cannot have had a signed record deal. See the website for more details.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Basics of Voicing

In my last post I wrote about the a data-rich, super-awesome saxophone book, From the Inside Out. In that post, I explained the basic concept that adjusting your tongue and vocal cord position affects the sound and pitch of the saxophone. Many players, including my past self, have the misconception that air speed or air direction are the fundamental processes in voicing, but as the book shows, it's actually tuning the resonance of the vocal tract that is important. What everyone was right about all along is that you accomplish this through tongue and vocal cord position.

What is Voicing?
Voicing consists of adjustments done inside your mouth and body that affect saxophone playing. These adjustments include tongue positions, vocal cord position, and how open or closed your vocal cords are. Voicing is necessary to get a stable and good tone across the range of the saxophone, and it's important to developing a personal sound, virtuosity, and extended techniques.

For the low notes the tongue is high in the back of the mouth, similar to saying a long u vowel (as in "you"), but the front and middle of the tongue are lower than the back. Obviously, the front of the tongue needs to be below the reed. As you move higher the tongue pivots towards the reed. From the fluoroscopic images (basically x-ray) in From the Inside Out, it's clear that the back of the tongue also lowers for the middle register and then comes back up a bit for the palm keys.

The vocal cords are a bit more elusive, but there are some tendencies. Perhaps most importantly, there are tendencies across the saxophone family for how open or closed your vocal cords are. For example, for low notes the vocal cords are more open, like when you take a deep breath, inhaling through your mouth. For the middle register, the vocal cords are somewhat open. For the palm keys they move very close together, like whispering an "h" sound.

The vocal cords also pivot up and down. It's notable that most of the saxophone's range across all the saxophone family generally have a higher than at-rest or relaxed vocal cord position. For example, while playing low notes the voice box is generally a bit lower than the middle register of the saxophone (the exception being the soprano sax), your vocal cord position should still higher than the voice box's relaxed or at-rest position. Following are the tendencies for vocal cord position throughout the entire range. Focusing on just the first register (without the octave key), on tenor and baritone, the voice box raises as you ascend through the first register until you switch registers and engage the octave key. On soprano and alto, the voice box does the opposite and lowers as you ascend through the first register. As you ascend and switch registers to D with the octave key, all of the saxes except the alto show the voice box lowering (the alto has the voice box rising at this transition). As the saxophone ascends towards the palm key register, the soprano maintains a similar vocal cord position, the alto and tenor both show slightly lowering voice box position, and the baritone shows a raising voice box.  For the palm keys, all the saxophones, except soprano which shows a raising voice box, show the voice box lowers in comparison to the middle range. Needless to say, it's complicated and it's certainly not uniform across baritone, tenor, alto, and soprano.

Octave Jumps
One way to introduce manipulating voicing is to change the octave of a note without the octave key using either tongue position or vocal cord position. Try the following exercise:

Start with a low E or F, and then as you play move your vocal cords close together, like you are whispering an "h" sound. Simultaneously, move your tongue closer toward the reed. As you combine these two movement the upper octave will sound without engaging the octave key.

There you have it, two basic movements of voicing. Of course, it's much more complicated then these two exercises let on, but they are a good start to understanding the flexibility you have. Practicing these independently for just a few minutes today made me more aware of my voicing and allowed me to get up to 4th octave Bb (4 octaves above low Bb), using conventional alissimo fingerings, something I've never done comfortably before.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Tongue and vocal chord position: Myth vs. Reality!

I've recently read From the Inside Out, a book that I feel is one of the most important contributions to saxophone playing and teaching ever. The author, Mark Watkins, has spent 23 years researching the inner workings of saxophone playing. He's taken myriads of fluoroscopy videos, essentially x-ray videos, showing what happens in your body as you play the saxophone. He also used in-mouth cameras and sensors to measure airspeed to investigate the physiology and physics of sax playing. The book was just published last year, and Watkins has also made a series of videos accompanying the book available which show the inner workings of various fundamental and extended techniques.

Myths: Airspeed and Direction
In the first chapter of the book, Watkins challenges the common conceptions of speeding up the air or changing the direction of the airflow with the tongue or vocal cords. Changing airspeed with the tongue has always been my go-to explanation of voicing. Like many others, I've always thought that you raise the tongue to speed up the air, essentially shooting it at the mouthpiece. Watkins destroys this misconception and argues that tongue and vocal cord position, instead of affecting airflow speed or direction, affect the acoustics of the vocal tract with a resulting effect on your saxophone playing. It's an argument rooted in physics and his research that proves itself even more useful to saxophone playing than traditional voicing pedagogy (i.e. the traditional take on tongue and vocal cord position).

For example, the typical pedagogy is that the higher the note, the faster the air needs to be. Essentially, the tongue should be high enough to create a fast enough airstream to execute high notes. Meanwhile back in reality, sensors close to the reed show that airspeed does not increase for higher notes. In fact, for some professional saxophonists, the airspeed slightly decreases in the upper register. Using fluoroscopy imaging, Watkins also shows that the tongue isn't necessarily getting higher in the mouth for high notes. Similarly, he shows that the idea of changing the direction of the air with the tongue doesn't work physiologically, and references acousticians who demonstrate that the diffusion of air before it reaches the reed makes airflow direction negligible. However, both of these mistaken notions point to the very correct idea that moving your tongue is essential for good saxophone playing.

Reality: Tuning the Vocal Tract
What research has shown is that the position of your tongue and vocal cords tune the vocal tract, meaning the space in your mouth and throat back to your vocal cords. That tuning affects the sound, pitch, etc. that the saxophone produces. If the tuning is bad enough the notes won't sound (think low or high notes that don't speak nicely).

To very briefly sum up the general tendencies Watkins found, for low notes the back of the tongue is high in the mouth, and as you ascend in pitch the tongue moves forwards towards the reed and lowers for the middle register and raises a bit for the palm keys. The vocal cords are somewhat open for low and middle register notes and very close together for high notes. I found this very interesting because I'd arrived at fairly similar conclusions for tongue position, but I was pretty ignorant of how the vocal cords operated.

In a future post, I'll go into more specifics on the research on voicing and what I've found in practicing and teaching. For now, just obliterating the common idea about airspeed is good enough for one post!

Friday, February 15, 2019

Some Cool Saxophone Books: The Saxophone, Planet Sax, Developing a Personal Sound

I've been checking out a bunch of sax books recently, and I wanted to share a few.

The Saxophone: The Art and Science of Playing and Performing
This is a very interesting book. It was just published a couple of years ago, and it introduces quite a few new concepts and methods for learning and playing saxophone. Some of the concepts, new and familiar, that I've enjoyed include:

  • Readying abdominal support before starting to play.
  • Using your vocal cords to help start a note cleanly (especially helpful for the low register).
  • Using your vocal cords to double tongue.
  • Practicing with a double lip embouchure to encourage a high tongue position.
  • Using concepts from singing to learn voicing.
There are lots more, but those have been my favorite so far.  Some of the concepts seem to overreach in terms of too much specificity. For example, Harle suggests that you need to direct your air in very specific ways for each note, but the overall concepts are beneficial. I should also say that while Harle's pedagogy is very interesting, it's not up to date with the current research on acoustic processes involved in playing saxophone. For example, there is no evidence that saxophonists can meaningfully direct their air while playing, though there is a lot of evidence that the actions players take to 'direct' their air affect the acoustics of the vocal tract and resulting sound and response. That being said, there's plenty to take away and learn here.

It's also worth mentioning that this book is written from the perspective of a classical saxophonist, Not only that, but it's written specifically with soprano and alto in mind. While the author, John Harle, does say that the book is meant for saxophonists of all styles, there are some parts that I haven't agreed with. For example, Harle suggests that a clarinet-like angled entry for the mouthpiece best supports airflow and results in your best sound (think higher neck strap position and pulling the butt of the sax towards you). However, it's difficult to get the crisp, flexible, and vibrant sound jazz players get using that angle, though Dave Sanborn would beg to differ. In short, the book has a few concepts that lend towards a classical saxophone school of thought.

The book available in a very nice 2 volume box set, and it's definitely worth checking out though.

Planet Sax: 26 Etudes for the Maturing Student
Sam Tobias sent me a copy of his new and very fun book to review. It's intended for middle school and high school saxophonists, but adult intermediate students will find that it's a good challenge and good music. The etudes explore lots of rhythmic aspects, large interval leaps, various registers of the horn, lots of key signatures, some unfamiliar modes, and each etude has its own unique style. I'll personally be using these etudes with students who are working on improving their reading skills, as it's a great fit for that. My only complaint with the book is that some of the swing etudes feel like they aren't fluent in the actual style, though I think that may be a result of the concepts the etudes are focusing on. Overall, I highly recommend this book for intermediate level saxophonists looking for a good musical challenge.

Developing a Personal Saxophone Sound
This book is a classic that I've been revisiting. The author, Dave Liebman, intended it as a summary of his experience teaching and playing and his time with Joe Allard, an important teacher for many jazz and classical saxophonist and clarinetists. If you haven't checked out Joe Allard's teaching, you definitely should. Liebman, of course, has his own take and a very easily understood approach.

Highlights from the book include breathing exercises based in yoga, tongue position and voicing, overtone exercises, an Allard-inspired concept of embouchure, and an approach for learning jazz-centric expressive devices. While some of Liebman's explanations of how saxophonists voice notes are outdated, all of the exercises are very good. I highly recommend this book to jazz saxophonists working on developing their sound and technique.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Review: Aaron Drake Mouthpieces

I've recently had the opportunity to play a number of Aaron Drake's tenor mouthpieces. It was a fun opportunity, and the mouthpieces were all easy playing, solidly designed, and generally free-blowing. One of Aaron's interesting design features is a metal ring around the back, which is used on all of the mouthpieces I played except his Reso model. Interestingly and probably not by coincidence, the sound of these metal-ringed mouthpieces is a bit streamlined, somewhat similar to the compact but beautiful sound of a good metal Otto Link. It's also worth noting that each of the mouthpieces come with its own ring ligature. The ligatures were easy to use and secured the reed nicely, though you'll see in the video that I preferred my two-screw metal ligature sound-wise.

Note on perspective: Because mouthpieces can sound different while playing it yourself versus while listening to a recording or listening to someone else play it, I'll focus my tone-related comments on what I heard from behind the horn while playing. Then you can, of course, compare my comments to the tone of each mouthpiece on the video.

NY Jazz
The New York Jazz model is a great mouthpiece. It's designed to be versatile across R&B, Funk, and Jazz. It's very comfortable to play, and it has a balanced resistance, not too much or too little. The altissimo comes out easily enough, though some of the other mouthpieces sing a little better in that area. The tone has a nice core to it. There are a good amount of mids and highs in the sound that give it a solid presence, and it's easy to hear the definition of the tone while playing. I felt that the timbre lies just on the brighter side of the dark-to-bright spectrum, and it has plenty of edge or punch to it. I'd play this mouthpiece on a gig without thinking twice.

Drake's Reso model is meant to recall the Otto Link "Reso Chamber" mouthpiece (Seamus Blake & Ben Wendel play Reso Chambers). The mouthpiece is really fun to play, in that it allows you to put a lot of air through the horn and makes it feel like you can really push it hard playing-wise. I played a number of gigs on this mouthpiece, including one outside, and it was always up to the task. That's a big ask for a large chamber mouthpiece. Besides having plenty of power, the mouthpiece also stays true to the original Reso Chamber with a big spread sound. While it does have warmth, I didn't perceive the sound as dark per se, more a flexible middle-of-the-road timbre, which can also be pushed brighter. The altissimo register was easy and responsive. Overall, this is a very fun mouthpiece to play.

"Son of Slant"
The "Son of Slant" model is Drake's take on the classic Otto Link "Slant Signature" mouthpiece. I played both the medium and large chamber models, and as I preferred the medium chamber, that's the one I included in the video and the one I'll focus my comments on. This mouthpiece has a free-blowing resistance that akin to a vintage hard rubber Otto Link. The resistance is comfortable and on the lighter side. The tone is spread, with a nice mix of core and edge that give the sound definition. Importantly, the sound also has some power and volume to it. The mouthpiece really accomplishes its design goal of delivering a "vintage feel with a modern delivery."

Bergonzi Master Series Mouthpieces
I also played both of Drake's Bergonzi Master Series mouthpieces. One of these was the Bergonzi Master Series "EB" model, which is based on Jerry Bergonzi's personal Early Babbitt Otto Link mouthpiece. This mouthpiece is fun to play, but because the sound is so spread, I'm not sure I'd be comfortable playing on it long term. Of course, Jerry Bergonzi gets a big, dark, and spread sound, so that's really what you're expecting. The resistance of this mouthpiece feels comfortable, including the altissimo register which sings easily. If you're looking for a piece of equipment that will bring you closer to Bergonzi's conception, you should definitely check this piece out.

The Bergonzi Master Series "Slant" model is its own unique design. It has a warm, spread sound, though not as spread as the "EB" version. The sound has some core to it giving the sound a bit of focus making it easier to hear while playing.  Similar to the "EB," the timbre is on the darker side. Also similar to the "EB," the altissimo feels very easy to play.

I really enjoyed playing these mouthpieces. My favorites were the NY Jazz and the Reso, but each mouthpiece has been designed to appeal to players looking for a different type of sound and response. For those of you who are still on the search for a mouthpiece, I highly recommend checking out Aaron's work.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Instrument Materials Can Make a Difference

There has been a long going debate about whether the type of material an instrument is made out of makes a difference in the produced sound. Some great musicians have argued that they hear a difference, but there have also been studies that have not been able to prove or corroborate that. In terms of saxophones, this debate affects discussions on hard rubber vs. metal vs. other types of mouthpieces, lacquered vs. delacquered vs. relacquered saxes, and whether or not the alloy of the saxophone metal matters. Basically, the discussion starts with someone saying, "I hear a difference," and then someone responding, "That's the placebo effect." Well, that conversation can now change.

  • 2003 study: demonstrated that "the magnitude of the induced wall vibration depends on the material from which the instrument is made and its wall thickness"
  • 2005 study: showed that damped trumpet bell audibly affect the sound
  • 2007 study: similarly found "big differences" in harmonics in damped bells
  • 2009 study: simulation showed that wall vibrations can affect the acoustic impedance, which affects sound
  • 2010 study found the same effect on bell damping 
  • 2013 study: demonstrated that "axial vibrations of the bells of brass wind instruments can lead to audible effects in the sound"
  • 2013 study: demonstrates that wall vibrations of the bell affect french horn sound 
  • 2015 study: found further experimental support for axial vibration of the bell affecting sound for brass wind instruments
My guess is there are more studies that I haven't found yet, but this is enough to show that science is not only open to the idea of wall vibrations affecting the sound of an instrument, but various studies are closely examining the issue and repeatedly finding experimental support for the idea. 

As far as this discussion goes for instruments in general, from what I've read it seems like wall vibrations may make a much bigger difference in non-cylindrical instruments, especially when a bell is involved, so instruments like trumpet, french horn, trombone, and yes, saxophone! 

Last but not least, for those wondering whether lacquer could affect the sound, from back in 1981 the answer is yes. From the abstract, "the effect of lacquering an instrument, though small, is not musically insignificant."

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Transcriptions Books: Mark Turner - Transcriptions & Essays and Chris Potter - Dreamer is the Dream

For your consideration, these are two really great transcription books authored by an accomplished NYC-based saxophonist, composer, and educator (and handsomely bearded) Jeff McGregor. The books feature Mark Turner and Chris Potter, two of my favorite saxophonists, so I may have a bit of bias here.

Mark Turner - Transcriptions & Essays
This book is something like an encyclopedia of Mark Turner solos. The book's 35 solos cover his entire career, including solos from one of Turner's most recent album, Lathe of Heaven, spanning back to his first album, Mark Turner. The book also covers important collaborations like all the Fly Trio albums and Mark Turner's work with Kurt Rosenwinkel. In total there are nearly 200 pages of transcriptions here, and that is just solos as the book doesn't include the heads.

Another cool feature of the book is that besides covering albums, it also covers well-known videos too. Here is the youtube playlist Jeff (the author) assembled, putting all the solos in one easy place.

At the end of the book, there are a series of short insightful essays. Backed with plenty of quotes from Mark himself, the essays explore his approach to music, covering Turner's influences, his use of the blues, his harmonic concepts, etc.

Notation-wise the book is clean and well written. Accidentals and rhythmic content are all easy to read even in the three unmetered selections. One aspect that is a bit less easy to approach is Turner's altissimo, which he is famous for. Most of the altissimo register playing is notated in ledger lines, which some saxophonists are fairly comfortable with. Personally, I find that 8va notation makes the content easier to read, but that being said, I did find that with some practice the ledger lines were becoming more and more readable, and as Jeff pointed out to me, learning to read up in the stratosphere like that is part of Turner's world, who has no problem reading up there. Overall, the book is beautifully presented with intuitive notation and detailed chord changes.

Here is a link to pick up a physical copy of the book: Mark Turner - Transcriptions and Essays.

I highly recommend the book, as I've had a lot of fun and learned a lot working out of it. Here is me playing the first couple pages of Turner's solo on JJ from Fly:

Chris Potter: The Dreamer is the Dream - The Complete Compositions with Transcription and Analysis
Another awesomely complete book, this transcription book covers both the compositions and Potter's solos from his most recent album, Dreamer is the Dream. Each tune is presented with an analysis of the composition, a transcription of Potter's solo on the track, and Bb transposition, Eb transposition, and concert lead sheets of the tune (found in the appendix). Similar to the essays in the Turner book, the introductory essays to each tune include commentary by Potter illuminating his approach to the composition and improvisation.

Similar to the Turner book, this presentation is very clean, with easy to read notation, detailed chord changes, etc. This book makes a little more use of 8va than the Turner book, but it still has plenty of ledger line altissimo, inviting the reader to step up their game if needed.

Like the Mark Turner book, this is a very complete and detailed book, completely worth your time and study. Highly recommended!

Here is a link to pick up a physical copy of the book: Chris Potter: The Dreamer is the Dream, and here is a link to get the digital copy: Chris Potter: The Dreamer is the Dream.