Thursday, July 27, 2017

New Video: Alone Together

Here is a video of the jazz standard Alone Together I recorded with Blake Pattengale for his booking company, Gray Bookings. It starts off low key and just builds from there.

Battling the Sticky G-sharp Key

The sticky G-sharp is probably the most common mechanical problem for saxophonists. Usually, a quick cleaning with pad cleaning paper or a dollar bill does the trick, but it can become a real problem if it starts sticking soon after you clean it. Here are some additional fixes to consider.

Unstick the Pad
The conventional wisdom that gets passed around is to clean the pad with pad paper or a dollar bill, but a bit of liquid soap and water  (or just some water in a real pinch) can go a long way. Use a toothbrush if you can to be thorough. If you are in a bind and need to play immediately, then I would suggest not dry cleaning the pad afterward, or dry cleaning and then reapplying the liquid soap and water. The soap's slipperiness helps keep the pad unstuck and ready to go. However, Dr. G over on Saxontheweb suggested that liquid soap can gum up when it dries and make things worse. I haven't had this problem, but to be on the safe side make sure to use only a little bit of soap and a lot of water. Alternatively, lighter fluid or hydrogen peroxide can also be helpful in cleaning the pad. Dr. G also suggested something called Runyon Pad Dope, which seals the pad and helps avoid sticking (I don't have any personal experience with this stuff).

Similar to liquid soap, a little bit of light oil will also keep the pad unstuck. Use an oil applicator to get the oil right onto the pad groove. Do not use cork grease. That gums up the pad and just makes it stick more (believe me, I've tried it). Both the soap and water method and the oil method keep the pad unstuck for a longer period than the dry cleaning method.

The dry cleaning method with a dollar bill or pad paper does have its advantages though. It can remove grime from off the pad or the tone hole ridge. When you clean the pad with paper/bill make sure to apply pressure onto the G-sharp key cup, making it more difficult to pull the paper/bill out from between the pad and the tone hole. That gives your paper/bill more leverage against grime or whatever is coming off. 

Avoiding Buildup
A last fix is to put some absorbent paper between the pad and the tone hole when storing the horn. This helps keep the pad and tone hole cleaner all around, reducing stickiness.

Increasing the Spring Tension
G# spring bending freely.
G# spring in its normal position
If you have a reoccurring problem, something that comes back within minutes of cleaning, and your G-sharp key feels very light, you should consider increasing the spring tension. When you press the G-sharp key, it lifts a small mechanical arm that allows the G-sharp pad to open. There is a metal spring that lifts the G-sharp pad and key cup, and sometimes it just needs a little extra power. You can increase the pressure by simply bending the spring in the direction of lift. This is a pretty simple procedure, so take it easy and just give it a shot. However, you should be aware that increasing the tension by too much will make it so the entire set of spatula keys requires more pressure, so easy does it here. Also, this should only be considered a long term fix if the spring tension was too light to begin with.

First, find the spring that lifts, or is suppose to, life the G-sharp pad open. Depending on your saxophone the easiest access to the spring may be on the left or right side of the bell. Then, lift the spring off of the little metal protrusion holding it in place and let it bend freely. Next, bend the spring near its base further in the same direction that opens the G-sharp pad. Repair techs generally bend the spring with needle nose pliers or a similar tool, but anything will work in a pinch including your fingers. Don't put a crimp in the spring or overbend. All that is needed is a slight adjustment. Next, applying pressure at the end of the spring, so as not to undo the work you just did, put the spring back against the little metal protrusion where you found it. Again, repair techs use a spring hook tool, but you can do it with just your fingers if you have to. It seats easily into the little ridge, and your G-sharp key is now ready to go again, now with more pressure!


Power Combo
All of the above will get your G-sharp key functioning better. If you have a reoccurring and frustrating G-sharp problem, then I'd suggest the following process: 
  1. If the spring tension is too light, bend the spring as outlined above.
  2. Clean with liquid soap, water, and toothbrush.
  3. Dry clean a few times with a fresh dollar bill or pad cleaning paper.
  4. Apply some light oil.
If that doesn't do it, stop chewing gum and playing sax at the same time!

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Saxophone with Delay, Reverb, Octave, Distortion, Envelope Filter, etc. via JamUp Pro



I've been experimenting with some new sounds using an app, JamUp Pro (link to site, link to app on the apple store). The app has digital versions of various guitar pedals and amps, and not only does the app create some great sounds, but it's also very convenient.

Here is a quick list of pedals that I've gotten sounding pretty great with saxophone:
  • Reverb
  • Delay
  • Octave
  • Tube Distortion
  • Fuzz Distortion
  • Envelope Filter (based on a Qtron pedal, super funky)
  • Compressor
I've also been using a noise gate pedal to prevent feedback, especially when I'm using distortion and compressor. 

Sounds
Before we make it any further, I think we need some proof of concept. Here are some clips showing off the pedals, sometimes in combination. These are recorded on my iphone using the default voice recorder and built in microphone, so nothing fancy, and I apologize for the clipping. However, you can hear that the effects sound pretty great.







That last one is for anyone who really wanted their saxophone to fit in a metal band. ;)

The Setup
My setup is simple and straight forward. I have an Apogee MiC that plugs straight into my iPad or iPhone. JamUp Pro runs all of these pedals on my device. Then I use an 8th inch to quarter inch converter out of my device's headphone jack to a guitar cable that runs to an amp or PA. That's it!

That means my pedal board is both ridiculously mobile and ridiculously cheap. In physical form, these pedals could cost something like $600, but the app only cost me $5, and the QTron add-on costed me another $3 (there are more pedals that came with the app that I haven't mentioned here, including various modulation pedals, an overdrive pedal, another delay pedal, another reverb pedal, a wah, a filter pedal, and a sampler). You can also buy other interesting pedals for $3 each. I still plan on getting a reverse delay pedal. The only thing that I wish they had that I haven't seen is a ring modulator. I might have to actually pay some real money and get a physical pedal for that one.

If you'd like to try out the app, you can pick up the free version, which has a limited number of pedals but is otherwise totally functional. Happy shredding.

Sax In The City Competition & Showcase in Philadelphia

If you're in or near Philadelphia, you might be interested to know there will be a saxophone competition happening on the 15th of this month. There is a dash prize of $500 along with networking opportunities. Here are the details:

Date: Saturday, July 15, 2017
Time: 4 PM
Location: West Catholic Preparatory High School, 4501 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia
Tickets: $25

Fitness for Musicians

I'm reposting an article (http://takelessons.com/blog/fitness-exercises-for-musicians) as a preventative aid. I've known a lot of musicians who recently had physical problems that limited their time on the instrument or temporarily stopped them from playing altogether. Anyways, what follows is a good reminder to all of us.

10 Fitness Exercises & Activities for Musicians

Power yoga

What it is: Fitness-oriented classes that focus on breathing, alignment, strength, balance, and opening up the body
Best for: Everyone
How to get started: Choose between heated and non-heated classes at a local studio or with a private yoga instructor; look for vinyasa-based classes that link breath to movement.
Learning how to properly and deeply breathe isn’t just important for singers! Taking full breaths is known to reduce stress and improve concentration. Breathing slowly and deeply, especially during challenging yoga poses, will help you to do so during stressful moments, calming both your mind and your body.

Core strengthening

What it is: Exercises that strengthen the muscles in your torso, including your abdominals and back muscles
Best for: Vocalists, pianists, wind instrumentalists
How to get started: You can incorporate core work in many different workout formats, but especially in Pilates, yoga, and kickboxing classes. Or create a routine for yourself that includes planks, crunches, and oblique work.
Put simply, you need a strong core to hold yourself upright. It’s not just about having a six-pack; having a weak core can put strain on your back and ultimately cause chronic back pain. Core strength also helps improve your balance and stability — super important for all the sitting and standing we do!
See also: 8-minute Abs Workout, Beginner Pilates videos via Blogilates

Posture work

What it is: Exercises that help maintain proper alignment of your spine
Best for: Everyone
How to get started: This is usually incorporated heavily in barre and yoga; you can also try doing some simple exercises at home, such as wall sits or shoulder rolls — anything that encourages your shoulders back and down, your chin slightly tucked, and your feet parallel with each other.
Sitting at a computer all day, being hunched over our phones, and slouching in general can wreak havoc on our posture. Over time, our spine begins to morph into the wrong shape — chin jutting forward, shoulders hunched, feet forming a v-shape. Not to mention that a performer with poor posture just doesn’t look as confident or as professional!
See also: Posture and Breathing, via Brass Musician Magazine

Arm strengthening

What it is: Exercises that strengthen the biceps, triceps, and shoulder muscles
Best for: Percussionists, pianists, string instrumentalists, wind and brass instrumentalists
How to get started: Most common in weight training classes; create your own circuit at home or at the gym, including push-ups and different weight-lifting exercises.
No matter if you’re a singer or you play an instrument, chances are you’re going to be holding something up, whether it’s your music, your instrument, or your arms. Some instruments may even require using the strength of your arms for certain techniques. Strengthening your arm and shoulder muscles can help prevent injuries, especially to the joints that end up fatigued when they aren’t supported by strong enough muscles.

Intense cardio

What it is: Exercises that increase your heart rate and keep it high or raise it in intervals
Best for: Everyone
How to get started: Try a spin class or do sprints, jumping-rope, or jumping jacks on your own.
Cardiovascular health is important for everyone, but musicians especially can benefit from the mind-over-matter mentality that it takes to push yourself past your limits. And increasing your heart rate during exercise can ease stress, relieve anxiety, and help you sleep better — all of which benefit both your practice and your performance.
See also: Burst Training for Beginners via Dr. Josh Axe

Dance classes

What it is: Classes (or videos) that include short snippets of choreography and a variety of genres of music
Best for: Vocalists, instrumentalists (especially those playing in any sort of ensemble or band)
How to get started: Try a Jazzercise, Zumba, or cardio hip-hop class. These classes are a great workout, and some formats include strength training, too.
Dance classes with choreography require you to stay present and focused, and to memorize moves in the context of the music. These skills come in handy when you need to memorize a piece of music, especially if you are singing or playing with others. They also require coordination and improve your rhythm by forcing your body to feel the beat. Lastly, dance classes can expose you to types of music you might not listen to on your own.
See also: 30-minute Aerobic Dance Workout via GoodHealth 24/7

Neck & shoulder stretches

What it is: Stretches that ease tension in your neck and shoulders and encourage them to stay relaxed, even after the stretch is over. These stretches also bring balance to your body
Best for: Pianists, wind instrumentalists, guitar players, string instrumentalists
How to get started: Do several stretches that include the front and sides of your neck and the fronts of your shoulders; do these several times a day, especially before and after practicing.
Keeping tension in your neck and shoulders while practicing can cause you to suffer more over time. Especially if you allow your shoulders to come up and forward, this can really weaken your posture and cause back pain, in addition to the neck pain already present. Tension can also inhibit your playing, since many techniques require your muscles to be controlled but in a relaxed way.

Hip flexor stretches & backbends

What it is: Stretches that open up the front of your body and counteract all the sitting and leaning forward we do
Best for: Vocalists, pianists, guitarists, drummers
How to get started: Many yoga postures are hip openers and backbends; take a yoga class, work with a private yoga teacher, or do a few stretches on your own at home.
Tension in the front of your body causes it to be imbalanced and ends up pulling on the back of your body. This takes a toll on your posture and can cause muscle and joint pain. Some say that we carry our stress in our hips, so opening them up would naturally help relieve that stress. Backbending opens your chest and lungs and can help you breathe more deeply.

Outdoor hobbies

What it is: Any outdoor activity that forces you to breathe and/or sweat!
Best for: Everyone
How to get started: Go hiking, biking, or swimming; do a marathon or mud run; take a surfing or stand-up paddleboarding class.
In his piece “For Poets”, Al Young advises “Come on out into the sunlight/ Breathe in Trees/…Don’t forget to fly”. The message rings true for all artists — the best inspiration comes from being out in nature and experiencing life. Many musicians spend so much time holed up in studios and practice rooms, so it’s even more important to remind ourselves to get out there and have those one-of-a-kind experiences.

Meditation

What it is: Sitting in stillness, calming your mind, and focusing on your breath for a certain amount of time
Best for: Performers
How to get started: Take a meditation class or listen to a guided meditation.
Meditation not only reduces stress and anxiety, it also improves focus and memory. And when you have the skills to calm your mind anywhere, anytime, you can handle anything! For performers especially, practicing meditation will connect your mind and body and allow you to keep calm, no matter how many people are in the audience.
See also: Free Guided Meditations via UCLA Health, How Musicians Can Really Benefit From Meditation via GuitarHabits

Try these fitness exercises, get healthy, and give your music the strong, vibrant musician it deserves! And don’t forget one of the most important aspects of growing as a musician: a great teacher who will guide you and encourage you to be the best you can be. Good luck!





Saturday, April 8, 2017

Review: D’Addario Woodwinds Select Jazz Tenor Mouthpiece


D’Addario Woodwinds has recently released the tenor version of their Select Jazz mouthpiece. This mouthpiece was designed to recall and improve upon the sound of classic vintage hard rubber mouthpieces. Notably, Jeff Coffin was the primary artist who contributed to the mouthpiece’s design. It has a medium chamber and a roll-over baffle, and comes in sizes 6 through 9. The mouthpiece has a number of strengths and is a lot of fun to play. It particularly stands out for its projection and for its ease in the altissimo register.

While the mouthpiece has a warm tone it easily puts out a lot of volume. It has a noticeably larger presence than other comparable hard rubber mouthpieces also going for a vintage sound. Additionally, each note’s entrance has clear definition, contributing to an overall powerful tone quality. After hearing a few players on the piece I would say that the tone is on the darker side, though I get a pretty balanced tone, someplace in between dark and bright. The tone has a fair amount of flexibility, and it is fairly clear sounding, meaning it has a little less buzz than something like a hard rubber Otto Link for example. If you’d like to hear what the mouthpiece sounds like, check out the video at the top of the post.

In terms of response, the mouthpiece really shines. Everything from top to bottom speaks very easily. The response and resistance of the altissimo register feels similar to the normal register, which means playing altissimo feels very easy for players who have developed those chops. The mouthpiece’s easy projection also continues in the altissimo register. Essentially, the mouthpiece plays easily from the low Bb up through the altissimo register, which makes it really enjoyable and comfortable to play.

If you’re looking for a vintage-inspired hard rubber mouthpiece, this one is definitely worth checking out. The mouthpiece is extremely playable and is reasonably priced ($165-$200 depending on the seller). Overall, this is a very solid mouthpiece that deserves consideration alongside the typical modern and iconic vintage choices.

Relevant Links:



Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Breathing, Air Support Tips, and Altissimo

I've recently been thinking more about the importance of proper breathing and abdominal support when playing sax. One thing I've observed is that no matter how much you develop your voicing, if you don't have proper air support than voicing doesn't have as big of an effect. One extreme version of this view was given by Lenny Pickett recently in a Vandoren article. Pickett denied that voicing (tongue position) plays a significant role in playing altissimo, which frankly, is mistaken according to a study by Lawrence University (the site includes video of what players' tongues and other oral-cavity-shaping muscles are doing when playing altissimo, multiphonics, etc.). Pickett's position is understandable considering many saxophonists are generally unaware of the muscle movements that shape voicing, and that is likely one of the factors contributing to the long practice hours it takes on average to hone saxophone voicing. However, what Pickett offers instead provides some awesome insight into saxophone playing.

Pickett talks about how he understands breath support or "control" to be the most important factor in producing altissimo, and I can't disagree with him there. I find breath support to be the most important factor in playing the saxophone in any register, particularly in the more difficult to execute registers (e.i. low and high). If my breath support is weak and anemic, I can still squeeze out some altissimo notes, but they sound pretty terrible, I don't have as much control, and I can't play as high.

So, what's going on here? According to basic saxophone acoustics, in order for a player to attain the next higher harmonic, so either a higher overtone or an altissimo partial on a given fingering, the pressure in their oral cavity has to overcome the pressure in the mouthpiece. It's a fairly simple equation that feels much more complicated to execute than to talk about. That means that every tactic that increases pressure in your oral cavity plays a role in producing altissimo. In terms of voicing, your tongue is used to decrease space in your oral cavity and act as a baffle, increasing the air speed, and other muscles help with these acrobatics too. Meanwhile, breath support provides the underlying pressure that your voicing then increases. When you breathe in properly, filling the lower part of your lungs and expanding your diaphragm, you create a pressurized system that your abdominal muscles can now push up against and increase the pressure further. Trying to play the saxophone in any register without this support is tone and technique suicide.

Breathing In
This means that breathing in well is the first step. There are lots of different ways that people promote proper breathing. Common tips include not letting your shoulders rise or make sure your belly expands. Those may be signs that you're breathing well, but they are not proof. What's the proof? When you breath in you should feel pressure build up in your lower abdominal area. That's it.

When you're sitting down, the building pressure is very easy to feel. When you breath in deeply, you feel the diaphragm pushing down against your abdominal muscles and the pressure quickly builds as you're breathing in. If you feel the pressure build up, you're doing it correctly. If you don't... you get the idea.

Another helpful tip, though not directly related to breath support, is to breathe without taking your bottom lip off of the reed. This helps keep your embouchure position and formation consistent.

Support: Blowing Out
The act of engaging your abdominal muscles to blow out is a somewhat subtle technique that needs to be developed. Sorry for the frankness, but it's similar to bearing down to use the bathroom (and that's why you can't play saxophone as well when you need to use the restroom!). Pickett suggests working on long tones at various dynamics to help strengthen your abdominal muscles. Playing softly with a good tone certainly requires really good air support. Another good exercise is to play low notes, starting them with only air attacks (no tongue).

One of my favorite exercise for strengthening and engaging abdominal muscles consists of strongly pulsing your abdominal muscles while playing long tones. I described this exercise in detail in an earlier post.

Conclusion
I hope you've come away with an understanding of how diaphragmatic breathing is foundational to saxophone playing (any wind instrument really) and particularly important for the altissimo register. Honestly, no matter how many chops you've already got together, you're playing will benefit by improving your breathing and air support technique. Sometimes more advanced players think they've already worked on breathing and don't need to worry about it, but until you can play altissimo like Lenny Pickett (or Chris Potter, Mark Turner, Ben Wendel, etc.), you've got some work to do.