Thursday, September 29, 2016

ii-V-I Exercise: Improvising to Improve

This is a short video I created to demonstrate an improvisation exercise for shedding ii-V-Is. Links to iReal Pro accompaniment and a PDF below. Enjoy!

Monday, August 29, 2016

Saxophone Coach: Scales

I'm starting a new series of blog posts called Saxophone Coach. Essentially, these articles will focus on basic parts of a typical practice routine and give specific advice on how to improve. Today, I'm tackling scales, easily one of the most common practice tools.

For improving your finger technique:
  • Slur. Slurring the scale makes it easier to hear if the entire scale is coming across evenly with no hiccups. Listen carefully as you play. Each note should sound rhythmically equal to the others, and the transitions between notes should be clean and immediate. 
  • Keep your fingers near the keys. One way to do this is focus on keeping your fingers touching each key even when you're not pressing them.
  • Relax. If you feel tension, slow down and let yourself relax the muscles. Often times when you increase the technical challenging (e.g. playing really fast, odd fingering transitions, altissimo, etc.), you run the risk of tensing your hands, arms, and even shoulders. Focus on keeping relaxed and make sure you stay that way. If you can't let yourself relax even when slowing down, you may need to change your posture or hand position.
  • Use a Metronome. A metronome can help keep you honest, and you can use it to push yourself to faster tempos. It's also a great exercise to keep the metronome at a moderate or slower tempo while you play the scale as 8th notes, triplets, 16th notes, etc.
For improving your tone quality:
  • Listen carefully as you ascend. Ascending on saxophone, particularly if you're slurring can be problematic. It's a fairly automatic reaction for your embouchure to tighten taking away from your tone's clarity. Each note's entrance should sound distinct with a slight ping to it. The entrances in the upper register shouldn't be mushier or less distinct than the lower register.
  • Focus on abdominal support. Breath support is the best way to fight off the embouchure's tendency to tighten as you ascend. First, you need to take a diaphragmatic breath. In other words, breath in deeply so that you can feel the expansion down in your lower abdominal area. While playing the scale, provide consistent but relaxed pressure from your abdominal muscles (the same muscles you feel engaged when you blow up a balloon). You may find you need a bit more breath support than you normally use to let the upper register really sing.
  • Play with different dynamics. Specific practice is needed to both play scales softly with a good tone and play loudly with a good tone.

Happy practicing, and as always, if you're interested in lessons via Skype, Facetime, Facebook messenger, or in person please get in touch with me at


Saturday, June 25, 2016

Articles on Intonation and Working with Transcriptions

Coleman Hawkins looking awesome.
Over the first half of this year I was writing for Saxophone Life Magazine, which has been a lot of fun, though it has meant less articles here on my own blog. Just recently the magazine released all of its past content on its website, and I wanted to point out two articles that might be worth your time.

"Intonation and Your Ideal Sound"
This article is on the effect your mouthpiece placement on the cork has on your sound and the response of the reed as your body compensates for intonation issues. The basic principles outlined help players to use timbre and the feeling of reed response and resistance to arrive to the best mouthpiece placement, which in turn makes it easier to play and sound your best. In terms of saxophone technique, these concepts are very important to consistently playing at a high level.

"Making the Most of a Transcription"
Here I write about using audiation (the "inner ear"-to-instrument relationship) and the way our brain processes music in improvisation to get more out of the transcriptions we work on. Some of this we know we should be doing, and other aspects covered are new ideas based on some of the interesting research I've learned about recently.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Reed Frustration

People complain about reeds all the time. It's true; they are frustrating. If you don't keep them at a relatively constant humidity level, the weather can really affect them. Even then, if the temperature drops down or shoots up far enough, the change in moisture can screw it up. Often times, reeds from the same box can feel harder or softer, and some can just be duds from the get go.  All that being said, I think reeds play more consistently and better than we give them credit for. 

There are a couple additional factors that can really mess with how a reed plays, and these don't have anything to do with the quality of the reed. In fact, I propose that what we bring to the table can have a huge effect on how an average new reed plays.

One dead reed in humidity-controlled lock down
The Life of a Reed
A fresh reed has a springiness to it that gives its sound vibrancy and color. As we play it, the reed slowly loses springiness as the fibers break down. Each reed ages a bit differently, probably having something to do with varying moisture levels, but eventually the reed starts to have serious difficulty vibrating. This can either make the reed feel softer or stiffer, but either way, it sounds deader than a new reed. You can tell the reed is getting softer when the high register doesn't speak as easily and maybe sounds flat, and the reed feels easier to blow, likely too easy. You can tell the reed is getting more resistant when you have to start blowing harder, you feel like your embouchure is working harder, and the sound is a bit thinner and edgier or brighter. 

As this evolution takes place, our embouchure, voicing, and breathing, can change to accommodate the changing reed. As the reed becomes softer, a player with good voicing will attempt to accommodate via breathing and voicing. At the same time less effort is required of that particular player's embouchure and therefore it slackens pressure, and if done for long enough, his or her embouchure pressure will become habitually less than what is required for a usual reed. On the flip side, a player that hasn't developed their ability to voice might respond to a softening reed by increasing embouchure pressure in an effort to bring up the intonation.

If the reed has begun to feel stiffer, our response is to apply more pressure in an effort to make the reed vibrate more. Unfortunately, added embouchure pressure becomes habitual fairly quickly, so if you spend too long on the old dead reed the added embouchure pressure remains even when you slap on a new reed. Added embouchure pressure also tends to discourage proper breath support as it becomes less needed in the reed-vibration equation.

The results of either of these scenarios is that a new reed then feels either harder or softer than it should. Even after you've given the reed a good 24 hours to fully adjust from dry to a higher humidity level (that's how long it takes), you still may find that the reed doesn't play as well as you'd like because your embouchure is essentially set for a different reed strength. At this point many people figure it's the reeds problem, that it's too soft or hard, and they throw it out or work on it.

What to Do Instead
One way to avoid this is to just not play on a reed that sounds dead, hard or soft. It's most likely going to screw up your embouchure and maybe your breathing as well. Instead, throw it out, and the problem is solved. Fortunately, increasing embouchure pressure after playing on too soft reed comes naturally. Practicing typical long tone and other tone oriented exercises can be extremely helpful in making the transition. However, decreasing embouchure pressure can be more problematic.

For those who find themselves in the predicament of needing to relax their embouchure, here are a few ideas:
  • Focus on breathing. Added embouchure pressure and overly hard reeds generally discourage proper breathing, so work on breathing deeply. A little bit of this goes a long way.
  • Play some heavy vibrato. Try to get a clear and easy sounding wide vibrato. Interestingly, this can cue your embouchure into relaxing. This is particularly helpful on overtones. 
  • If all else fails, take a break. Take the day off, and come back fresh the next day. Giving your embouchure some time to recover can help it relax.

Intonation and Reed Strength
One other problem to watch out for is having your mouthpiece placed too far in (sharp) or too far out (flat) on the neck. Your ears pick up on the intonation difference, and your embouchure tries to compensate. If you're flat, your embouchure tightens up which can make the reed feel harder, and if you're sharp, your embouchure loosens and jaw drops which makes the reed feel softer. Essentially, sometimes your reeds feel harder or softer just because you're not quite in tune.

So, stop crying about your reeds, and figure it out already! OK, maybe it's not that simple, but if you take good care of your reeds and pay attention to intonation and when your reed is dying, I guarantee your reeds will sound and play more consistently.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Improving Tone and Response in the Lower Register

Using overtones to improve tone and response is tried and true old news. Playing the whole spectrum of overtones improves richness of tone and ease of playing throughout the horn including the lower register, which is great; however, it doesn't specifically address the low register and isn't likely to address all the pertinent details (embouchure and air support) of the low register. That leaves the burgeoning young saxophonist, who wants something specific to do in the low register of the horn, little recourse besides typical long tones, maybe trying different dynamics, vibrato, or zeroing in on intonation. While all of those things are important, they don't efficiently address voicing or embouchure, which are best affected in tandem and fundamental to getting the tone and response you want. What follows is an exercise that specifically addresses voicing in the low register.

Low B-flat: The Gold Standard
What does great a good approach to voicing, embouchure, and air support sound and feel like in the low register? You'll most likely find the answer to this question on low B-flat. It requires healthy air support out of the gate, and due to acoustical properties, most likely the curve of the bow, it generally feels less resistant than its nearby neighbors when playing with a full tone (vs. subtone). Increased air support and it's relative ease in compared to other low notes make it easy to achieve a relaxed embouchure (unless your setup is overly resistant, i.e. reed, mouthpiece) and a huge vibrant sound. This makes low B-flat a logical starting point and a kind of standard by which to judge the rest of our notes.

Try comparing low B-flat to it's closest neighbor, low B, and you'll notice a difference in timbre and in how it feels to play the note. Generally, low B-flat is more vibrant and feels a bit less resistant. As you play B try to maintain the form your embouchure takes as you play low B-flat. Don't let the sides of the bottom lip come in or up. This will go a long way to improving your tone quality and the ease of playing in the low register.

Using the Overtone Above
The next part of the exercise deals more specifically with voicing. For any note that you are looking to improve, you can always improve your voicing by playing the overtone above it and slurring back down into the note. You'll arrive back to the original pitch with an improved and more ideal tongue position, which in turn puts less stress on your embouchure.

First try this on low B-flat. Once you've achieved a beautiful and vibrant B-flat move, up to B and go through the same process. Again focus on maintaining the more relaxed and correct embouchure position you achieve on low B-flat. After improving your low B, try going back and forth between low B-flat and B and see if you can maintain the same ease of playing and rich sound. If you can your on the right track, and you should continue forward.

I find I get the most out of this exercise when I play each note sufficiently long but getting all three notes in one breath and slurring between the notes as shown below.

Continue this process chromatically upward. Be sure to check in with low B-flat often and use it to gauge other notes. Check for rich timbre, embouchure pressure, and easy response.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Playing in a Sax Section

In the past year I learned that one of the most important activities to developing musicianship is playing in small and large groups. This is one of the aspects of musical development examined by Music Learning Theory, and many of their claims are supported by field studies though I don't know if this one has a specific study attached to it. I have found that this rings true in my own personal experience. Playing in the practice room is one thing, but actually playing with other musicians well requires a lot more skill.

Playing in a sax section offers some unique opportunities for development. If you are able to play with more experienced players you'll have the real time opportunity to learn the style appropriate to the music. To do the job well you have to learn to listen. You have to listen to the section leader, the rest of the section, and the rest of the group.

If you feel like you can just hide in the section because there are so many other musicians than you're probably approaching the music and situation pretty poorly. Instead, you should take opportunity to learn and fit in, which will, in the end, make you a much better player.

Following is a quick overview of playing in a sax section and how to make the most of it:

  • If you are the lead player, you need to establish style including articulation, dynamics, vibrato, bends and other inflections. If you are holding down a different chair, then you should listen to the lead alto for their cues.

  • The lead player also establishes technical execution as well including cut offs and where to breath in longer phrases. Again, as a section member, you should listen to the lead alto and do your best to follow him/her.

  • When playing with the full ensemble, the lead alto should be listening back to the lead trumpet for his stylistic interpretation and technical execution. 

  • Lead alto needs to play strong enough to lead the section, and section players need to listen to the lead to maintain balance and pick up on his stylistic and technical cues. It's also good form for the lead alto to verbally tell the section what he wants in specific musical examples.  
  • All players in the section should listen to each other to blend timbre, intonation, and volume. If they don't listen, they can't do it. 
  • Each player should be sensitive of their volume so that they blend with the section, but they should be able to hear themselves clearly enough to manage intonation, style, etc. When playing with good voicing and embouchure technique they should be able to hear themselves distinctly even at a low volume, so they don't necessarily need to play loud to accomplish these goals. 
  • A strong bari can help balance the timbre of the section and work towards a rich full sound.

Great Sax Sections
These are some of the great sax sections historically and currently.

Duke Ellington Orchestra
Sax section members over the years (incomplete list): Johnny Hodges, Paul Gonsalves, Harry Carney, Ben Webster, Willie Smith, Jimmy Forrest, Harold Ashby, Joe Temperley, Barney Bigard, Hilton Jefferson, Geezil Minerve, Skippy Williams

Count Basie Orchestra
Sax section members over the years (incomplete list): Lester Young, Frank Foster, Paul Gonsalves, Wardell Gray, Lucky Thompson, Don Byas, Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, Buddy Tate, Earle Warren, Illinois Jacquet, Marshal Royal, Billy Mitchell, Serge Chaloff, Herschel "Tex" Evans, Paul Quinichette, Elvira "Vi" Redd, Jimmy Forrest, Tab Smith, Charlie Fowlkes

Vanguard Jazz Orchestra (formerly the Thad Jones Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra)
Current sax section: Dick Oats, Billy Drewes, Rich Perry, Ralph LaLama, Gary Smulyan

Maria Schneider Orchestra
Current sax section: Steve Wilson, Dave Pietro, Rich Perry, Donny McCaslin, Scott Robinson

Dave Holland Big Band
Sax section: Antonio Hart, Mark Grosser, Chris Potter, Gary Smulyan

Monday, July 27, 2015

A Glance Into Tone

I've always guessed at what mix of harmonics or overtones result in different timbres, and I recently discovered that there are spectogram programs/apps for computer and mobile devices. A spectogram analyzes audio and shows you the strength of frequencies in any given sound. I used a program called Spek for the following experiment.

Tenor Comparison

A quick test lent some interesting results. I recorded my stencil Super Dynaction against my Mark VI. For both of these I played long tones on low B-flat, regular B-flat, and B-flat with the octave key. The sound clip, which is rather boring but available here, consists of six long tones. The stencil SDA is first and the Mark VI is second. My personal impression from playing the horns (and from listening to recordings of them) is that the Mark VI is punchy, centered, and contains a mix of both dark and bright elements. The SDA is more spread and has a warmer sound. However, it still has a large presence. Now let's see what those differences look like in the spectogram image of the sound file:

 Looking over the image, you'll notice several differences. One that sticks out to me is the significantly higher amount of green at higher frequencies in the three Mark VI long tones on the right. The other is the more intense amounts of red seen in the lower frequencies in the SDA long tones, except perhaps in the highest long tone on each horn.

Trumpet Mouthpiece Comparison

My brother, a trumpet player, was visiting so we tried recording a trumpet with different mouthpieces. We pitted my son's 7C mouthpiece against my brother's "GR". The GR was clearly more focused and powerful. Here are the two tracks: 7C vs. GR, and following are two spectogram images. The first is of the 7C and the second is GR.

Interestingly, if you examine images in their full size, the clearest difference is increased and more defined amounts of green in the higher frequencies. Considering this shared ground between the examples of the tenors and the trumpet mouthpieces, an educated guess is that the stronger higher harmonics can represent a more focused and punchy sound. I bet this could be easily confirmed or refined with a little study of timbre and acoustics. Either way it is all very interesting, and I'm looking forward to learning more about it.

Looking Forward

What's the take away from all this? One idea, is that technology could help you in analyzing sound. I think it could be particularly helpful when you try brand new equipment in a foreign space. In a situation like that it can be really difficult to get a realistic idea of what the equipment sounds like. I could imagine that at some future point players will want to see spectogram images of how they sound on a horn or mouthpiece before they buy it (or at least I can imagine myself doing that). Happy spectogramming...