Friday, April 29, 2011

Learning Odd Time Signatures

Something that you don't get in a well rounded college education, or at least it wasn't seriously addressed in mine, is how to learn to play in odd time signatures.  Just do it?  Well, of course that will help but here is a process that helped me.

First, figure out a rhythmic pattern that fits well with and defines whatever odd time signature you'd like to learn. For example, the following example is an easy pattern that nicely defines 7/4.

Once you've mastered the basic rhythm try applying it to a chord changes.  Here is an example clip where I play something that basically sounds like a bass line. It follows the 7/4 rhythmic pattern above and I take it through a blues in concert C. 

After you can play through the changes with out getting lost or losing the rhythm begin to elaborate, embellish, fill in holes, leave space, etc.  You might start out just filling out a certain part of the pattern with 8th notes for a start.  Here is an example of what I call stage 2, embellishing the basic pattern. 

Once you feel like you can leave space or stray from the pattern without losing the next down beat, you're ready to start really improvising in the odd meter.  Begin by experimenting with starting and stopping your phrases in different spots of the measure.  You could try ending on the and of 6 or beginning on beat 2 or any of the other many possibilities.  Find the ones that are most challenging and concentrate on those.  The best test is of your ability with a given odd meter is to record yourself improvising unaccompanied and then listen back and see if you can hear the meter and changes clear.  Here is an example of stage 3, freedom from the original pattern. 

After all of that, here is a list of things to do that will undoubtedly help you continue along the odd meter journey.
  •  Playing unaccompanied will make you a strong independent player, but its also necessary to practice playing odd meters with a rhythm section as that will add its own surprises.  I have some odd meter play-alongs below for those of you who would like to play odd time signature all day long while your band mates are at their day jobs.
  • Transcribe some great players and see what they are doing rhythmically over odd meters.  Duh...  Again, see below.
  • Finally, take any musical concept rhythmic or otherwise that you like to use in 4/4 and  figure it out in the odd meter. 
Practice resources for odd time signatures including play-alongs, lead sheets, and even some transcriptions of Chris Potter in 7/4 and 13/8 visit and go to the free stuff section. 

Friday, April 22, 2011

Time and Feel

One common factor to all the players I love to listen to is a fantastic time feel, and a consistent time feel, to me, can make the difference between a good solo and a great one.  I wanted to share some of the things I've learned from great players that have helped me as well as some of my own thoughts.
my metronome.
  • Tap your foot on 1 and 3 (feel the beat in terms of 1 and 3). I've found feeling the pulse in terms of 1 and 3 will give you a clearer idea of where the down beat is than tapping or feeling 2 and 4, and it will give you a more relaxed and even time feel than feeling 1, 2, 3, 4. Two great saxophonists gave me this advice ironcially on the same day, Jonas Ganzemuller and Steve Wilson.
  • Various Metronome Exercises. Putting the metronome on 2 and 4 is a great exercise, and is one of the main practice methods Walt Weiskopf gave me. Steve Wilson and George Garzone both suggested that you balance that practice with putting the metronome on beats 1 and 3 as well.  George Garzone went on to give me two other important exercises. The first is putting the metronome on each quarter note of the measure.  This proved to be the most instrumental metronome exercise for me as it allowed me to learn hear my 8th note lines in exact relationship to the pulse.  The other exercise is putting the metronome on each 8th note in the measure, and I'll talk about this one a little more later.
  • Lock in with the ride cymbal pattern (swung 8th notes). Various guys have given me this suggestion including Steve Wilson and Clay Jenkins. The idea is that you can hear both the constant quarter note pulse and the swung 8th note pulse in the drummer's ride cymbal pattern. I have to agree that locking in my 8th notes with ride cymbal is the fastest way to sure up the time and make it feel good.
  • Don't let the articulation get in the way.  The fact is, every time we tongue a note there is a small break in the sound.  This break can be small and well placed, or it can be cumbersome and badly place. Heavy tonguing can really bog down a time feel and delay tongued notes so they sound behind the beat.. Lighter tonguing lends to a lighter more forward moving time feel. Chris Potter and Rich Perry were the two guys to make this suggestion to me. Rich Perry and George Garzone also both suggested practicing without any articulation at all and then carefully adding it back in.
  • Exercise for locking in your 8th notes. This is an exercise and not an end result, and it's based in some exercises George Garone gave me.  The idea is that you straighten out your 8th note so that you can feel each quarter note and 8th note more accurately.  This exercise is great when combined with the metronome on all 8th notes.  First, practice improvising with straight 8th notes locked perfectly into the metronome which is also on 8th notes.  Once you feel comfortable and feel like each 8th note is perfectly locked in.  Switch the metronome to quarter notes and keep your 8th notes straight.  Once you have the even feel locked in perfectly with each quarter note begin swinging your 8th notes, but make sure you maintain your quarter notes perfectly locked in. Transfer that feel to playing with a rhythm section and locking in with the ride cymbal.  At first this exercise feels really constraining, but the end result is great control of the time feel and swing feel.
  • Listen to and emulate time fees you love. When you listen pay close attention to how the players time feel relates to the rhythm section.  Listen to those who you like best, play along with them, and then try to emulate the time feel while playing with a rhythm section.  This last one might be the most important!

Friday, April 8, 2011

Philadelphia Mouthpiece Refacer Steve Cutcher

I recently met Mr. Steve Cutcher (, an excellent saxophonist and, to the luck of saxophonists in Philadelphia and abroad, an excellent mouthpiece refacer as well.  I had the opportunity to check out his work which is a very large collection of mouthpieces he has refaced over the years.  One of his philosophies is that you should be able to take a relatively cheap mouthpiece and turn it into a great player, and he has nailed this one on the head.

The two highlights of his collection were two modern hard rubber Otto Links he had completely transformed.  I was skeptical as I put the first rubber Link on my horn, but I was pleasantly surprised as I found the mouthpiece played evenly throughout all the registers of the horn.  The normal increased and somewhat overbearing resistance in the upper register that is usually present in modern rubber Links was completely absent.  Babbitt hadn't even accomplished this completely when I recently tried their "vintage" model rubber link. Following are some specifics on each piece.

Rubber Link #1

This Link has an alive and vibrant sound with a nice balanced combination of highs and lows.  It is a powerful piece that has enough resistance so that you can push it to its extreme with no fear of the sound breaking up.  The mouthpiece isn't as malleable or flexible as some, but the sound is beautiful and big.  The response of the mouthpiece is quick enough to feel comfortable, though not as responsive as #2, which I'll talk about shortly.

Here is a clip of the mouthpiece: Ben Plays Refaced 1.mp3

Rubber Link #2

This one has a warmer sound than #1, showing Steve's range of ability.  While it doesn't feel as powerful as #1, it does feel more flexible and more responsive.  The increase flexibility and responsiveness make it feel extremely easy to get around the horn.  I still felt like I could push the mouthpiece to its limit comfortably despite its warmer tone quality and less resistant feel, which is a real compliment to the mouthpiece and the refacer.

Here is a clip of something more subtle: Ben Plays Refaced 2.mp3

Conclusion: Steve Cutcher's two refaced modern rubber Links show his skill as a mouthpiece refacer.  They feel and sound great.  Any saxophonists looking to get in contact with Steve can reach him at

Friday, April 1, 2011

Getting To Know Your Mouthpiece: Ligature Position

Ben's Old & Slightly Worn Mouthpiece
There are many ways to approach achieving your ideal sound. Some people worry only about equipment, while others believe if they do enough tone exercises on their Yamaha 4C mouthpiece they'll eventually sound like Michael Brecker. I believe that both the right equipment and tone exercises are necessary, but today I'd like to suggest a less significant, more subtle, yet still important aspect of the saxophonist's search for their sound.

Ligature placement on the mouthpiece might not significantly affect what is heard in front of the horn, but it can significantly affect the sound from behind the horn as well as the feeling of playing the horn. There are several main experiments I'd like to suggest.

Ligature toward the front
Ligature toward the back

First, is how far back or forward the ligature is placed.  You might like it at one extreme or the other or possibly someplace in between. I'd suggest experimenting with the extremes (pictured on my mouthpiece above) first so that you have a better chance at detecting any contrasts.  Of course, try the middle too and figure out what works for you.

Ligature off-center
Second, try rotating the ligature to the left so that the force of the ligature isn't focused directly on the center of the reed but rather focused on the left side of the reed.  Also, try it on the right side of the reed.  If there is some inconsistency with the rails or table of the mouthpiece this experiment could potentially reveal that.  Doing this myself I found that my mouthpiece feels easier to play and more expressive with the ligature off center.

Though these two variations are simple enough you might find yourself going back and forth for at a couple of hours trying different combinations.  I'd suggest having a couple of different ligatures and reeds to confirm your findings.  Also, make sure to try the different placements out in different rooms with varying levels of of natural reverberation.  The more consistent your conclusions on ligature placement are when changing up the room, reed, and ligature, the more confident you can be that you've figured out the best placement.

Like I mentioned before, when trying different ligature placements myself I can hear significant differences in the sound and the feeling of playing the saxophone, however they don't carry so significantly to listeners in front of the saxophone.  Following are some recording I did with the different ligature placements. For the record this reed is a little more buzzy than my normal fare.

Ligature on the Right.mp3
The above is an mp3 clip with my ligature toward the back and rotated so its putting pressure on the right side of the reed.  This is my preferred ligature placement.  On my particular mouthpiece this is what feels and sounds the best from the my (the player's) perspective.

Ligature in the Middle.mp3
This is an mp3 clip with the ligature centered.  It sounds a little brighter, but it's also a little distorted, feels slightly more difficult to play, and is less expressive.

Ligature Forward.mp3
Finally, here is an mp3 clip of my ligature towards the front of the mouthpiece, which for me doesn't sound as full from behind the horn.