Friday, December 14, 2012

Wynton Marsalis's Twelve Rules of Practice

My wife was digging through some papers when she pulled out a hand out and showed it to me. "Yeah, I think he came to our high school," she said. I'm not sure if Wynton Marsalis made up the hand out himself or if it was just based on a clinic he gave. No matter, it has some great advice. Though these practice guidelines were aimed at younger players, I think they apply well to players of all ages.

  • Seek Out Private Instruction
  • Write out a practice schedule. Practice fundamentals of your instrument.
  • Set goals to chart your development.
  • Concentrate when practicing. If you can't concentrate, stop and come back later.
  • Relax; Practice slowly. Play it a slow tempo, then increase the tempo each day.
  • Practice the hard things longer.
  • Play everything with expression. Use the maximum of expression. Always invest yourself; participate. Don't be a cynic.
  • Don't be too hard on yourself. If you make a mistake, it's not the end of the world. You learn from you mistakes. Also develop your sound; allow your personality to come through. Work on special effects. Listen to good sounds.
  • Don't show off; always play music. Those who play for applause, that's all they get.
  • Think of yourself. Methods are just a way to do things. You may think of better ways.
  • Be optimistic. How you feel about living in the world is who you are. There's nothing worse than pessimism coming through your instrument. Things will get better.
  • Look for connections to other things. No matter what you're doing, everything is connected.

Think for Yourself

Some of you regular readers might notice the variance between Wynton's recommendation to use maximum expressions and Walt's recommendation to lay off inflection (embedded in this previous post). I personally find myself someplace in the middle, but I think the most important take home from these guidelines that resolves the issue on expression and opens up many avenues for growth is Wynton's tenth piece of advice, "Think for yourself." I have made my best musical discoveries using my instinct and thoughts as my guide while experimenting with technique and musicality.

Upcoming Posts on Modal or Vamp based Improvisation

Vamps and modal tunes can be some of the easiest settings for first learning to improvise. However, they can also be some of the hardest for developing an interesting solo that feels like it goes some place. I'll be starting a series of posts in the near future that will explore different diatonic and chromatic methods for creating a feeling of motion in that setting. Each post will include a technique, an in depth explanation, a written music example, and some recorded examples. Come back and check it out! 

Thursday, December 6, 2012

A Complete Approach to Sound for The Modern Saxophonist

I am pleased to announce that my book is officially in print. For those who haven't caught me talking about it yet, here is a quick description:

A Complete Approach to Sound for the Modern Saxophonist has been immediately recognized as “a highly-concentrated, efficient approach to tone production” by (Bret Pimentel, and has been endorsed by world-renown saxophonist Walt Weiskopf. The book is designed to guide saxophonists of any genre towards achieving their ideal sound. Pursuing this aspiration will not only result in a more beautiful and powerful tone, but it will also promote virtuosity in other areas of technique such as the ability to execute technical passages, extending the range of the saxophone to four octaves, and widening the palette of available tone colors. The guiding principles for reaching these goals are taught in the text as are corresponding specific exercises to help effectively achieve them. Many of the concepts in the book are based on those taught by Joe Allard and Sigurd Rascher, but the text also develops these ideas in new ways that help further expand the players capabilities.

Beyond the text, the book has a accompanying sound clips for many of the exercises which can be found at

Where To Get It

For those you who are already convinced, you can get A Complete Approach in print at CreatespaceAmazon, or Barnes and Noble, or you can get the digital version at Payhip. A kindle store version is in the works as well. 

Endorsement, Review, and Feature

"This is a terrific book on an often neglected yet integral part of saxophone playing. I recommend Ben's book to every serious saxophonist." - Walt Weiskopf

"...a highly-concentrated, efficient approach to tone production." - Bret Pimentel, full review

Article featured on

Table of Contents

Chapter 1 – Foundational Concepts
Introduction to Air Support
Exercise 1.1 - Breathing In
Exercise 1.2 - Blowing Hot Air
Exercise 1.3 - Up Against the Wall
Introduction to Embouchure
Exercise 1.4 - Mouthpiece Test
Exercise 1.5 - Mouthpiece Bends
Introduction to Air Stream Focus
Exercise 1.6 - Low vs. High
Focusing the Vocal Tract
Exercise 1.7 - Bending Up
Air Stream Focus vs. Embouchure Pressure
Other Contributing Factors

Chapter 2 – Air Support: The Key to the Saxophone
Exercise 2.1 - Long Tones on the Mouthpiece
Exercise 2.2 - Air Attacks
Exercise 2.3 - Low Note Bends
Air Support at Soft Dynamics
Exercise 2.4 - Whispering Hot Air
Exercise 2.5 - Soft Long Tones
Putting it to Practice

Chapter 3 – Embouchure
Embouchure Pressure
Sound and Feeling
Exercise 3.1 - Wrong Embouchure
Exercise 3.2 - Embouchure and Articulation
Exercise 3.3 - Interval Jumps
Embouchure Flexibility and Timbre
Exercise 3.4 - Roll In, Roll Out
Exercise 3.5 – Subtone vs. Full Tone
Looking Forward

Chapter 4 – Air Stream Focus
Exercise 4.1 - Lower Lip Out
Exercise 4.2 - Tongue Bends
Exercise 4.3 - First Flight
Techniques for Executing New or Difficult Overtones
Guiding Principles for Overtone Practice
Types of Overtone Exercises
Long Overtone Variations
Level I Exercises
Level II Exercises
Overtones and Altissimo
Exercise 4.4 – Multiphonics with Tongue Bends
Last Thoughts
Level I Long Overtones
Level I Overtone Flexibility
Level II Long Overtones
Level II Overtone Flexibility
Bugle Calls
Scales Using Multiple Partials
Scales Using a Single Partial
Slurring Up

Chapter 5 – Articulation
Articulation Techniques
Exercise 5.1 - The Lightest Articulation Possible
Exercise 5.2 - Moving Beyond Low Bb
Exercise 5.3- Legato Tongued Scales
Exercise 5.4 - Staccato Low Bb
Exercise 5.5 - High Register Staccato
Exercise 5.6 - Staccato Scales
Exercise 5.7 - Real Music

Chapter 6 – Daily Practice and Warm Up
An Approach to Daily Practice
Regularly Recording Yourself
Why Warm Up?
Importance of Long Tones
Warm up Outline
Customize Your Warm Up


About the Author

Excerpt from Exercise "Roll In, Roll Out"

"The amount of lip rolled in over the bottom teeth often changes according to the style of music. Typically, jazz and pop saxophonists will play with the lower lip rolled out in while classical players will tend to roll the lip in further over the teeth. A common problem with beginners is to have the bottom lip so far rolled in that it stops the reed from vibrating properly."

"For this exercise, play the following example, or a familiar melody, first with a majority of the bottom lip rolled over the bottom teeth. With the lip rolled too far in, as described, the sound can become thin and sometimes even harsh or biting. Next, roll the lip in only moderately so that a little less than half of it is pulled over the bottom teeth and play the melody again. The tone should have less highs and more depth than before. Now, roll out your bottom lip so that only a little of it remains between the bottom teeth and the reed and play the melody again. The sound will become brighter and lush. Some players will find they need to either roll their bottom lip in or out to achieve their desired sound. Make note of any needed change and review your bottom lip position and resulting sound regularly during your daily practice sessions until you have formed a consistent habit."

Excerpt from "Introduction to Air Stream Focus"

"Another foundational determinant of tone quality is the concept of air stream focus. The initial speed of the air stream is determined by your air support, but it can be further shaped by the vocal tract, which consists of the throat, tongue, and mouth. A well-focused vocal tract will help the tone sound supported, in tune, full and rich in harmonics. This will further relieve any need for added embouchure pressure."

"Controlling the muscles involved in focusing the air stream can be elusive and it is something most efficiently learned through experimentation with overtones, which will be addressed in chapter 4. However, you can start experimenting with some simple recommendations and exercises to begin learning this concept."

"The tongue plays a primary role in the vocal tract, and getting in the habit of placing it in a supportive position is one of the first steps to focusing your airstream. The tongue should be relaxed and wide, but the sides should be high enough in the mouth that they touch the bottom and sides of the upper back molars. Keeping the center of the tongue relaxed and wide, while raising its sides in the back to touch the top molars, will focus the airstream, and promote good tone quality and intonation."

Exercise 1.6 - Low vs. High

"This exercise contrasts incorrect and correct technique. First, play a medium fast slurred scale while keeping the sides of the tongue low so they are not touching the bottom back molars, and then contrast that with the correct technique described previously. Note how supported and in tune the sound is when using the correct technique and how dull and unsupported it is when the sides of the tongue are lowered."


Get A Complete Approach at:

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Inflection and Improvisation

EDIT: There has been some confusion over this post, and I just want to make it clear. The point of this post is not that inflection is bad. The point is to warn of technical and artistic problems that commonly rear their head when inflection is used in improvisation. Whether you are a player who uses a lot of inflection or just a little, you should be aware of these issues.

This past week I had an opportunity to take a lesson with Walt Weiskopf, an amazing saxophonist and great teacher. I had studied with him during my undergrad at Eastman, and on various occasions I had heard his philosophy on inflection. It came up in our lesson this week, and I think, for the first time, I really understood the points he made.

The basic premise is that inflection can be problematic for a number of reasons. It can detract from time feel and content, and it can become a crutch. Walt is an advocate of minimal inflection for those reasons and others. I would like to outline those points in detail because many of them get at the basic mechanics of improvisation, and whether you play with heavy inflection (Sonny Rollins, Cannonball Adderley, Chris Potter) or much less (Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Walt Weiskopf) you need to understand how to deal with inflection. You do not want it detracting from your playing no matter your aesthetic. Following is a laundry list of guidelines that will keep you on the right track.

  • One of my favorite points that Walt made was that inflection takes time, just a moment, but it often adds time to the execution of an idea. Because of this it can detract from time feel and groove. It can ruin the forward momentum and feel of an improvisation if you let time feel take a back seat to inflection. Don't do it!
  • Inflection can also detract from content. Walt made the point that you can only focus on so many things at a time, and if inflection becomes your priority, content can suffer. 
  • I would add that inflection can get in the way of execution of an idea. Sometimes an idea is hard enough by itself and trying to inflect it adds to the difficulty and stunts your ability to play it. This has happened to me, and I have heard it happen to the best of players.
  • Inflection easily becomes habit. A great exercise, Walt's suggestion, is to improvise while trying to keep your playing free of all inflections. This will show how much of your inflection comes by choice and how much comes by force of habit. Every inflection should be an artistic choice.
  • Finally, inflection can become a crutch. As an improvisation progresses, some player rely more on inflection to carry their solo, instead of musical content. It can be a tell-tale sign that you are uncomfortable or running out of steam. At times like these it is important to keep focused and continue improvising creatively instead of resorting to a stylist-only approach.

I realize that is all pretty negative, but sometimes a good dose of cold hard reality is the best thing to improve your playing. For some, these guidelines will result in less inflection, and for other it will mean they need to execute their inflection more carefully, avoiding detracting from the groove or the execution of their content. Again, no matter the aesthetic, these guidelines can be helpful in maintaining a high level of playing and in focusing your improvisation.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

More Music

While hard at work with my book, A Complete Approach to Sound for the Modern Saxophonist (preview of the cover below, awesome photography by Frankie Withers), I thought I'd share some more music. This is me playing with Matt Davis' Aerial Photograph. The tune is a bit modal, and I've been listening to some Coltrane, so expect some surprises. Hope you enjoy it.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Live Tracks and Reed Forecast

For anyone who missed it, I've started a weekly reed strength forecast for the northeast U.S. You can find it at the top of the side bar to the right. It's based on relative humidity forecasts for New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, and Baltimore. You can learn more about it by visiting the explanation page.

Live from RIT 10.12.12

Following are three clips from a performance I did in at RIT and wanted to share. The band played fantastic, and though the recordings have a defnite bootleg quality to them you can still hear everything. Listen with headphones for the best experience.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Slurring Up the Overtone Series

Note: This post is meant for players already familiar with overtones, and who have already expanded their range to 3 octaves or more. For a more comprehensive approach to working on overtones try this post.

Ever tried slurring up the overtone series? You can pretty easily jump from the fundamental pitch (low note) to the first octave or from the fundamental to some higher pitch in the series, but most players find starting on anything higher in the series and trying to slur up from there to be impossible. However, once you get high enough (altissimo Bb) it becomes fairly easy to slur up, that is if you can play up there already.

Slurring altissimo Bb to C (first slur below) using the Bb series is fairly easy and a great starting point for this exercise. With a little experimentation and determination you will find you can slur up and down some of the partials right below the altissimo Bb mark as well, so on the Bb series that would be altissimo Ab to Bb, the second slur below. The slurs can be a lot easier if you start with the higher note slurring down and then come back up. With daily practice you can work all the way down to octave key Bb or even further down the series, which is no small feat. It is possible to go further down than notated in this exercise, however they will come much easier after you have can consistently execute the higher slurs . If you get stuck on a certain set of overtones, use a higher series such as the ones based off low B, C or Db to transition from a higher slur down to the more challenging slur.

The Why

This kind of practice works the muscles of the vocal tract in a more intense way than the run of the mill overtone playing. It's another level of overtone practice for those who have extended their range to 4 octaves or more and need an exercise to help them continue developing their muscles without the threat of embouchure tightening that can easily result from practicing prolonged periods in the extreme upper register.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Finger Technique and Push-ups

Nice and close
OK, so that title is a bit misleading. This post won't deal with push-ups at all. However, it is about finger technique and arms will come into play. In terms of saxophone playing it really doesn't matter how many push-ups you can or can't do, but this post will explore some techniques that incorporate muscles above the wrist.

Don't Glue Them Down

First, we'll deal with an early step to gaining speed and fluidity in technical playing, and that is to keep the fingers close or even touching the keys. There are a few different approaches to this. One is to practice slowly and consciously keep your fingers very close to the keys. Another is to watch yourself play in the mirror and work on correcting your fingers when they fly away from the saxophone. Ideally you want your fingers very close to the keys, even touching whenever possible. My personal favorite practice method, which I believe I've espoused here on the blog before, is to run some tape across your hands. Your hands should be in proper playing position, and the tape should attach to the saxophone above and below each hand. There shouldn't be any give in the tape, meaning if you try to lift your fingers away from the keys you will pull against the tape.  Yes, you will need someone's help if you want to do both hands at the same time, and yes, you will have only the ability to the basic fingerings of the saxophone. Side keys and trill keys will most likely cause you to pull away from the tape. Play in this condition for at least half an hour if not an hour. Then take off the tape and see how you feel. Repeat this exercise on various days for the full effect.

Arms > Hands

Once your fingers are closer to the keys you will find your finger technique faster and smoother than otherwise, but you will still likely have difficulty with some of the saxophones more awkward fingerings. These include:
  • left hand spatula keys: low Bb, low B, low C# and G#
  • left hand palm keys, high D, high Eb, and high F 
  • right hand side keys: side Bb, trill C, high E, trill F# and high F#
  • right hand pinky keys: low C and Eb
These all require either using a part of the hand other than the fingers to press them or some serious pinky finger strength. Many saxophonists play these primarily from the wrist, meaning there hand muscles do the majority of the work. This often results in insufficient speed and even tension and cramping, especially for trills. Instead try using your arm to effect the fingering change. The perfect example of this is trilling from low B to low C#. OK, so you would probably never play this in real music, but you very well might play from low B to low C# in an ascending phrase. Try playing back and forth between the two notes using just your pinky strength. You can do it but not very efficiently, and if done for any prolonged period will result in some tension and pain. Now use your entire arm and hand to slide your pinky back and forth between the low B and low C#.  Using your arm and hand not only lets your pinky finger relax, but you can also increase the speed. Now apply that to the fairly long list of notes above.

One Last Suggestion

It can be very tempting to hold down the G# as you play the entire A scale, or hold down various left hand spatula keys in different musical examples.  You will find that more tension exists in your hand as you hold down that G# or other spatula key and move your other right hand fingers. They will play more relaxed and more smoothly if you resist holding down your pinky finger and only press it down for the necessary notes. Another bad habit is to use C# to play G#. That requires more finger tension than you need and you will be able to play more smoothly just using the normal G# fingering. If clarinetists can do it, you can too.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Quick Update

Exciting news - I'm hard at work on my first serious contribution to saxophone pedagogy, a method book titled A Complete Approach to Sound for the Modern Saxophonist. It is currently in editing and formatting stages, so it will be finished sometime in the next few months. It covers developing and maintaining an ideal tone and also the skills necessary to keep a good tone while playing for long periods of time, while executing technical passages, and while playing in the altissimo register. I'm planning on releasing it as an eBook and in print. I'm also planning sound clips for many if not all of the exercises.  In researching and writing the book I've learned a lot about technical things like the anatomy of the vocal tract, but more excitingly I've made some discoveries only briefly covered in other places at least that I know of.  I'll be releasing more details on the book as they become available. In the mean times expect more of the usual!

Friday, September 28, 2012

A Track from Kansas City

Today, I wanted to share one of the tracks from 12th Street Jump, the radio show I recorded with while in Kansas City this summer. Also, I wanted to thank everyone who supported me in the Charlie Parker Cutting Contest. The trip was great, and it was fun seeing how a radio show is recorded with all the cues and time sheets, etc.

This is Charlie Parker's Confirmation, and Jim Mair is playing alto on the head along with vocals by David Basse. The rhythm section is filled out by Joe Cartwright on Piano, Tyrone Clark on Bass, and Mike Warren on Drums. I play second after the vocal solo at about 1:40.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Theo Wanne AMMA

I've had the recent privilege of an extended play-test with a few of Theo Wanne's pieces.  After Theo's enlightened ligature passed my stringent gigs/session/practice testing (and has become part of my main setup) I decided to investigate a couple of his mouthpieces. The two I spent a bit of time with were the GAIA and the AMMA.  I previously reviewed the GAIA here, which I've updated to reflect my more recent playtest.


The AMMA is completely new to me, and the particular model I play tested was the metal "vintified" model for Tenor. The most striking aspect of this mouthpiece is the speed of its response. The piece is so light on its feet it gives you the feeling you can do whatever you want as long as your fingers are up for it.  The kind of response I'm talking about is in the simple passage of one note to the next. Each note pops, meaning from behind the horn you get immediate clear auditory feedback giving the mouthpiece its very responsive feel. This characteristic is true throughout all registers of the horn and carries over to articulation and large interval jumps, which both feel markedly easy to execute.

The feeling of blowing through the mouthpiece is unique. While being very balanced and comfortable in terms of resistance, it is different from a metal Link which feels like it takes more air. That being said the AMMA happily takes as much air as you throw at it without breaking up or getting uncomfortable.

"Vintified" finish

The "vintified" AMMA has a lot of core to the sound making it very easy to hear while playing.  The tone has elements of brightness and warmth. It has some depth and plenty of brilliance and edge.  The mouthpiece's tone is also flexible and can range from a middle of the road warmer sound to a bright and powerful sound when pushed.

The Pudding

Here are two clips from my playtest. The first is with the normal gold pressure plate, and the second one is with a stainless steel pressure plate. The stainless steel pressure plate really brightens up the AMMA (a little too much for my personal taste), while the gold pressure pressure plate (the default plate) gives it a nice balanced and powerful tone.

AMMA gold pressure plate.mp3
AMMA stainless steel pressure plate.mp3

Conclusion: The "vintified" AMMA is a very responsive mouthpiece with plenty of power, edge, and a brilliant yet balanced tone.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Reeds and Being Prepared

Every once in while I am reminded of how simply some saxophone problems can be solved, and I had one of those moments just in the past month. I've been struggling with reeds ever since the seasons changed despite my meticulous care, and I couldn't seem to find a solution, even when my storage was perfect. Needless to say, reeds have been on my mind.

While playing a couple of gigs as part of a sax competition in Detroit, I got to talking with Adam Rongo about reeds, who is a really great saxophonist and was a fellow finalist at the competition. He told me that he switched down a half strength in the summer, or something along those lines. Intrigued, because one of my main problems all summer had been my reeds playing too hard, I bought a box of reeds a third strength lower (RJS comes in third strengths). Result? Comfortable playing reeds.

With that realization made I now pack a couple if not three strengths of reeds so I'm prepared for what comes, and good thing too! Last week I was in Kansas City, and for whatever reason there I needed to play on a third strength up from my normal strength (two third strengths up from what I've been playing on in PA)  to really be comfortable.

Lesson learned. We don't need to be stuck on one strength of reed. We need to be comfortable, and we should definitely be prepared.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Theo's Enlightened Ligature and Pressure Plates

Right to left: "vintified", titanium,
stainless steel, and silver.
Not too long ago I posted on Theo Wanne's Enlightened Ligature, and it has been in the back of my mind ever since. In a recent equipment quandary I tried the ligature again, and in the same playtest I discovered the four optional pressure plates which Theo Wanne produces and can be used with any of his ligatures. I've been experimenting with the pressure plates for a while now and I thought I'd share my results. Before you dive in here, you may want to review my original review of the ligature as I'll be focusing on the pressure plates this time.

The enlightened ligature comes with two pressure plates, a gold plated pressure plate and a heavier copper one. The additional four that you can buy separately are solid silver, stainless steel, "vintified", and titanium. I did two recorded playtests. The first playtest was recorded in a very live room (lots of reverb) and included the gold plated plate, the stainless steel plate, and the titanium plate. The second by contrast was recorded in a dryer room and included the stainless steel plate, the "vintified" plate, and the titanium plate. I recorded these to draw my own personal conclusions and thus the originally overlooked omission of the "vintified" plate in the first playtest and the gold plated plate in the second. The sounds of the solid silver and copper pressure plates didn't interest me from the get go, though I did experiment with the silver plate at length, and that is the main reason for their omission. This post is not meant to be an in depth review but more of a general survey and illustration by sound clips of how the pressure plates affect the sound.

All clips are recorded on a Mark VI tenor with a Florida era Super Tone Master Otto Link. Each playtest is confined to a single reed and consistent microphone placement.

For comparison purposes here are recordings of my vintage link ligature from both playtests.

Gold Plated Pressure Plate

The gold plate seems to have a thick and somewhat dark projecting sound. A little too heavy for my personal preference.

Stainless Steel Plate

The stainless steel has a bit brighter sound but still very thick and projecting.

"Vintified" Plate

The "vintified" pressure plate, which is brass, has a very warm sound that is very responsive and light on it's feet. The feeling of playing with this plate is somewhat more free blowing than the others which is an interesting twist. I recorded with this plate live on a gig this week, and I've included my solo from Along Came Betty in addition to the playtest.

Titanium Plate

This one has a somewhat bright sound but isn't as thick or heavy as the stainless steel plate. To each their own.

Conclusions: By my estimation the pressure plates really do change the sound and in significant ways. Good thing too as I've arrived closer to my ideal sound than ever before due to the options presented by the various plates. In full disclosure, after weeks of experimentation I'm now playing on the Enlightened ligature with the stainless steel plate as a regular part of my setup, and it has beaten out my beloved vintage Link ligature.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Making the Most of a Transcription

Transcribing plays a vital role in most jazz musician's development whether it's outright transcription or just trying to capture and figure out what a player is doing. This week's post is dedicated to different ways you can approach a transcription and how to make the most of it.

Transcriptions are one of the major avenues of musical discovery, and should be used heavily when developing a command over jazz vocabulary. Every great player I've read about goes through a development phase where they learn the ropes through transcription of some type or other. At one point Charlie Parker learned to play many or all of Lester Young's solos on record. You can also find a lot of Don Byas' vocabulary in Bird's playing. Coltrane was influenced by Dexter Gordon. Sonny Rollins loved Coleman Hawkins, and you can certainly hear his influence in Rollins' sound. Joe Henderson learned the ropes transcribing Coltrane, and the list goes on. A modern day example, Chris Potter, spent a lot of time in high school learning how to play like Bird and then explored Brecker's playing. If you are still working towards a command over the jazz language, transcription should be an obvious and utilized tool. What if you've already made it a fair way through your development? I'd suggest that transcription is an easy way to explore unfamiliar sounds that you can't reproduce. Whether it's a harmonic progression, a time feel, or a certain sound on the saxophone, transcription can help you learn and understand it.

The Transcription Process

Here is the part where I tell you to do some of the obvious things you're dreading in the transcription process, but I'll also give you an easy out first. There are three different levels of learning from a master player, at least in my mind. The first level, which is the loosest, is where you simply listen to the player and then try to reproduce that vocabulary or specific aspect of their playing while you improvise. This works really well for me with players I've already done some serious transcription on, or for occasions when I'm trying to reproduce a tone or time feel alone. The second level is learning from a written transcription someone else already completed and made available. If you put all the proper work into it you can still get a lot out of a solo someone else transcribed and wrote out. The 3rd, and most intense level, is actual transcription, figuring out what a player is doing note for note, rhythm for rhythm all by your lonesome. I personally feel like everyone should do level three transcription at some point during their development, but both level 2 and level 3 transcriptions can be taken through the paces.

Here are the steps I would suggest following in the transcription process:
  1. Write out the transcription as you go. Include the song's chord changes as chord symbols above the measures to make analysis easier.
  2. Analyse the solo picking out specific modes or suggested harmonic substitutions and progressions. This will make it easier to apply concepts learned from the transcription in other places and keys.
  3. Learn to play the solo flawlessly. Spending a few months or more on a solo is just fine. Let it get in your bones.
  4. The last step would be to memorize the entire solo. I don't know that I've ever memorized an entire solo, but memorization certainly plays an important role in the process of learning music.
Approaches from Dave Liebman and Steve Wilson

Once you can really play the transcription you're ready to put the transcription to work for yourself. I have heard advice from Dave Liebman and Steve Wilson who both suggest making the transcription your own.

Liebman's is a macro approach. After mastering the solo, practice it progressively injecting more and more of yourself into the solo. The first time around try playing 90% of the original solo and 10% of your own injected improvisation changing how lines end or begin, changing rhythms and changing colors. The possibilities are really limitless here. The next time around try to play 80% of the original solo and 20% your own. Continue the process until you've arrived at 100% your own. At this point you've likely assimilated some of the vocabulary from the transcription into your own improvisation.

Wilson's, in contrast, is a micro approach. In lessons he had me take some lines I liked from the transcription and explore ways I could make those lines my own. Again any musical aspect of the line or riff is fair game. For example we could take this typical Bird line, and transform it as shown below (click here for a larger version).

The first line is the original lick (click here to listen), the opening from Bird's solo on Anthropology with a basic outline of the chord structure above. The second line (click here to listen) has some harmonic variations introduced in the middle and the suggested chords are indicated below the original chord symbols. I've substituted an A half diminished chord from the minor ii-V over the A minor, and I've substituted an Abmin7 over the D7, a type of tritone substitution or chromatic movement. 

Finally, in the third line (click here to listen) I've taken the most liberties building on my first variation and changing mainly the rhythmic content but also changing some harmonic and melodic content. My approach to changing the rhythmic content here was to shift the accents which naturally happen as the line peaks in various places throughout. The melodic changes typically serve the purpose of shifting the rhythmic peaks and accents which was my main goal in this last variation. My additional change to the harmony is the added sharp 11th over the G major in the last measure.

An Additional Improvisational Approach

Another method that I personally use the most as it lends to the most improvisation, is the listen, repeat, and recreate method. I'll first master the transcription. Then on a given day I'll listen to the original recording, play the solo through one or two times, then embark on my own improvisation practice session. During this time I will try to recreate some of my favorite aspects of the solo.

For example, one of my favorite parts of Bird's playing is his rhythmic jabbing or the shifting accents within his eighth note phrases. I have worked on recreating that in my own improvisations, first predominantly using Bird's vocabulary, then applying the same shifting accents to lines of my own creation.  

You can and probably should zero in on one specific musical trait or concept at a time when doing this. With this kind of focus you will most likely make more progress, however you'll still have the rest of the transcription in your ear lifting and affecting your playing. Following are some specific concepts to zero in on in a transcription:
  • harmonic devices - substitutions, extensions and sequences
  • melodic building blocks - motives and shapes
  • rhythmic content - cross rhythms, polyrhythms and accents
  • phrasing -  phrase beginnings, phrase endings, phrase length, anticipating chord changes and delayed resolutions
  • time feel
  • sound
  • energy or intensity
  • use of dynamics and use of articulation
I'm sure there are many others, but I think this list covers the basics. Hopefully, while going over it you've already had an idea of something that one of your favorite players can do that you can't do. That is exactly what you want to tackle!

Memorization and Transposition

One additional way to make the most of a transcription is to take some of your favorite licks or, better yet, some personalized variations and transpose them into all 12 keys. The goal here is to be able to play the lick from memory in any key. This will pretty much guarantee that a specific idea will show up in your playing.

Transcription as Problem Solving - A Practical Example

Personally, I find transcription and transcription practice an excellent form of problem solving. An example from my own practice was tackling rhythm changes. In my formative years I was assigned the blues and variations thereof many times, but for some reason I never really worked on rhythm changes. That resulted in never being completely comfortable over rhythm changes, and in recent times I had wanted to fix that. My approach was to study two rhythm changes solos, Parker's solo on Anthropology, and Don Byas' solo on I've got Rhythm. I went through many of the processes I've described in this post, but two things I really honed in on were Parker's ability to keep his lines melodic while still defining the many changes, and some of Don Byas' harmonic substitutions over the A sections of the changes. After some serious practice (and some breaks from it) I feel comfortable over rhythm changes, and I feel like I've arrived to a point where I can create over the changes instead of just outlining them.

Here is an example of where I've arrived too after a few months of practicing rhythm changes off and on:

The first bridge starting at 0:14 begins with some playing that is really almost directly quoting Bird's playing. Of course, you can hear Bird's influence in less direct playing throughout the clip. Don Byas' influence comes in a place that really doesn't sound like him at all. The first half of the A section at 1:05, though fairly modern sounding, is really just based on one of Don Byas' harmonic devices. My point is that you can hear the influence of these players I've focused on, and they've made a positive impact on my playing. Through this process I've improved my playing specifically on rhythm changes, but I've also expanded other limits of my playing at the same time.

Transcription and practicing said transcription have been some of the primary forces in expanding my basic tool set. I have made some of my biggest leaps forward in terms of improvisation directly related to periods of intense transcription practice. Hopefully, this post has given you some new ideas, or at least some reminders of how to approach transcription in a way that will help you focus on and achieve the next level in your playing. Good luck!

Friday, July 20, 2012

Solo Version of "Cherokee" (Vote for me!)

If you have enjoyed and learned from the blog (and you also appreciate my playing), I'm reaching out to you! Recently I posted about the First Annual Charlie Parker Cutting Contest being hosted by 12th Jump Street broadcast out of Kansas City. I've made my own entry, and I'd like to ask you to please take a listen and vote for me if you like. For anyone who is feeling really dedicated, you can actually vote once a day, so if you happen to remember to vote on repeated days that would be great.  One sax player out of the top five vote getters will be invited to come play during the Charlie Parker Tribute radio show which is the rebroadcast by NPR, so it's kind of a big deal. Voting happens through Monday, August 6th, so please send me some love now and later!

Here is my near minute video (according to submission guidelines 30 seconds to a minute was all they wanted).

You can vote for me by visiting the entries page, clicking on my entry (make sure to click on me, Ben, because there is also a Benjamin), and clicking vote. Thanks!

Friday, July 13, 2012

Low Bb Staccato Test

Try this - play a repeated staccato tongue on low Bb making sure your tonguing isn't too heavy. When playing staccato on a low note it's common to put a lot of tongue on the reed to force it to vibrate immediately. For this exercise you don't want to use a lot of tongue so the articulation should not sound like an accent or a slap-tongue sound, just a staccato.

If you can do this without a problem it likely means you have sufficient air support and your embouchure is effective (it's not putting too much pressure on the reed). If this is difficult for you and it very well might be then here are a couple of things that can help fix the underlying problem.

One of the possible problems is that you have insufficient air support. A simple way to both test your air support and work on it is to do repeated air attacks on low notes.  I'd suggest starting up someplace like low F and work your way down to the bottom. You want to try and repeatedly start each note with just your air, so do not articulate in any way whatsoever. Just let the air start the note, and with sufficient air support you can get a clean clear entrance to each note.  Once you can get multiple clean and clear entrances on low Bb you can feel confident you have sufficient air support.

The second possible problem is that your embouchure is putting too much pressure on the reed as you tongue not allowing the note to sound. The fix for this can be different according to the individual problem, but one thing to try would be slightly lowering your bottom lip as if you were going to bend a note downward.  When doing this don't actually lower the lip far enough to audibly lower the pitch, and make sure you lower the entire lip including the corners of the mouth. Just lowering the middle of the lip will result in increased lip pressure from the sides and result in other problems. Too much embouchure pressure can also hamper your ability to start low notes with an air attack, so if you are having trouble with them try the air attacks with a very slight drop in the entire bottom lip.

Here is a sound clip demonstrating the exercise:

I would suggest making this a regular part of your warm up or daily practice routine, at least until you've mastered it. The increased air support will make the rest of the horn feel easier to play and the increased embouchure control can result in a fatter more vibrant sound.  And, of course, you will also have a greater mastery of the bottom end of the horn.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Kansas City's Charlie Parker Cutting Contest

A brand new saxophone competition and tribute to Charlie Parker is being put on by the NPR radio show 12th Jump Street appropriately broadcast from Kansas City, Bird's hometown. This is the first year they'll be hosting the competition, but it should be continuing annually.

The contest is open to saxophonists only and very easy to enter. Submit a video (at least one minute long) online at the competition's facebook page of a Charlie Parker related standard like “Cherokee,” “Scrapple from the Apple,” “Donna Lee,” or “Now Is the Time” or just improvising on some standard. Listeners and fans of the show will vote on the videos, and the music director Joe Cartwright will pick the winner from the 5 most popular videos. You can submit your video any time starting today, June 25th until August 1st 2012.  The winner will be announced Monday, August 6th.

The winner and a guest will be flown down to Kansas City and put up at the Phillips Hotel on 12th Street for four nights, August 22-26. The winner will play on the 12th Jump Street's annual Charlie Parker Tribute show, which is then rebroadcast throughout the US and the world. They will also get to enjoy a few different events during their stay. Further details can be found on the facebook page.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Yamaha YTS-23 Saxophone Reviewed

In the past I've only reviewed upper end model saxophones here, but with students always asking which horn to buy I decided to do a review of something more basic, Yamaha's YTS-23. Yamaha actually offers a large array of different level models, and you can see the full line up laid out nicely here at the Pro Winds Direct site.

The YTS-23 is Yamaha's most basic offering in a saxophone and is meant for the beginning to intermediate player. However, that doesn't mean it isn't a serious horn. The sound and feel of blowing through the horn, especially with a proper setup, outshines some of the common competitors. Though the sound isn't as full as most pro level horns, it is  balanced nicely between highs and lows. The level of resistance is at a very comfortable level and was surprisingly even throughout the horn even throughout the altissimo register. The altissimo register of the horn that I played was actually really great.

The keywork is comfortable, though I do have a slight problem with the octave key. The octave key juts out past the thumb rest directly below the octave key. My preference is to have the octave key and thumb rest even, but this is something that could actually be more efficient if you got used to it. The intonation is also solid and easy to adjust too, no big surprises there.

Overall, the horn is solid, and I would definitely recommend it for the beginning player. I think a more developed player will want a horn with a little more depth/punch to the sound.

Here is a clip of me play testing the horn: Ben Plays Yamaha YTS 23.mp3

Conclusion: A solid horn for beginner and intermediate players. More developed players might find it slightly thin sounding or find the octave mechanism less comfortable than the average setup.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Jerry Bergonzi's No Embouchure

Though I had seen a number of these Jerry Bergonzi videos that Rico put together, I saw this particular one just recently. The way Jerry Bergonzi explains embouchure here is pretty much exactly how I conceptualize embouchure and it was really cool to hear someone else saying the same things. Enjoy!

Friday, May 25, 2012

Phil-Tone Eclipse Tenor Mouthpiece

Following up on a review of Phil-Tone's Equinox mouthpiece, today I'm reviewing his Eclipse model. It's designed to be a traditional straight ahead jazz mouthpiece, and it fits that role fantastically.

Mouthpiece: Phil-Tone Eclipse 7*
Reed: Rico Jazz Select Unfiled 3 soft
Ligature: Standard Metal 2 screws on the bottom
Tenor: Mark VI

Straight Ahead?

So, what does a mouthpiece need to be able to do to play straight ahead jazz? Sound wise it needs to blend well with acoustic instruments, or, in other words, it needs to have enough depth and breadth that it doesn't sound too strident or out of place. The Eclipse accomplishes this while also retaining enough highs to sound crisp and clear. This is pretty much my personal preference in a mouthpiece of any type.

The mouthpiece also needs to have flexibility and ease of inflection to be able to work in a range of situations, ranging from ballads to uptempo tunes. The Eclipse has both the flexibility and the ease of inflection needed. In fact, it feels a little easier to inflect than the average mouthpiece, not something I'd recommend for a beginner who is still getting their embouchure together. I actually fatigued slightly faster on this mouthpiece than on the average mouthpiece, similar to my experience on the Equinox. I feel like this experience is simply an adjustment to the mouthpiece on my part, and it does not necessarily represent any fault in the mouthpiece.

Technical Stuff

The mouthpiece is a great player. It feels and sounds even throughout the entire range of the horn. It has a great balanced level of resistance, meaning it doesn't feel restrictive but doesn't break up if given too much air. It responds great to articulation and dynamics. It definitely meets my personal playing demands, and many mouthpieces, especially traditional style tenor mouthpieces, often don't live up to those demands.

Here are a couple clips of me playtesting the mouthpiece:
Ballad Polka Dots and Moonbeams - Ben Plays Phil-Tone Eclipse Polkadots.mp3

Conclusion: A great playing straight ahead mouthpiece with a lush clear sound and a high level of flexibility.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Morgan Fry's Rhodium Lrg. Chamber Mouthpiece

beautiful, right?
So many of the current high priced metal mouthpieces shoot for the ultimate modern sound, but usually go too far one way or another. Morgan Fry has created, by contrast, a flexible, middle of the road mouthpiece that could fit in well in many playing situations. Today I'll be reviewing his rhodium plated large chamber tenor mouthpiece, and I'll divide the review up by sound and playability.

Mouthpiece: 7* Rhodium Plated Large Chamber Tenor Mouthpiece
Ligature: metal Florida era Ottolink ligature
Reed: Rico Jazz Select unfiled 3-soft
Horn: Selmer Mark VI


The best comparison I can give for this mouthpiece's sound is the sound of a metal Ottolink. To my ears it has more core and brilliance than a modern Link, and a little less core but possibly more brilliance than the average Florida era Link (Side note: I usually get more core out of any mouthpiece using my vintage link ligature vs. any other ligature). Fry advertises the piece on his site as flexible, brilliant, balanced, and rich, and I found all those to be true.

The flexibility of this piece is one of its stronger assets. It's able to both cut and do a very full bodied subtone. More on that later. While flexible the overall sound of the piece has a warm vibrance to it giving the piece its own unique signature sound.


Fry's mouthpiece feels easy and fun to play. It does have a very quick response to articulation, dynamics, etc. In other words, it is in good working condition, and doesn't leave the player hanging in any particular category. In terms of resistance, blowing through the mouthpiece feels nice and balanced, not too resistant and not overly free blowing. There is a slight trend in the resistance with the bottom of the horn feeling the freest and the altissimo register feeling a little less so. Having said that the altissimo register is fully functional, though it requires a bit more air control than some mouthpieces in that register.

The freedom of the bottom register is the advantage that comes out of the aforementioned trend. The bottom end tends to be super responsive and subtoning in the lower register is lush and easy to do. Also important to the mouthpiece is its openness to inflection. The construction of the piece seems to invite inflection, and the easy feeling of bending and inflecting is consistent throughout the different registers of the horn.

Play Test

Here is a clip of me play testing the mouthpiece. Towards the end I make it through a couple of A sections of Body and Soul.

Ben Plays Morgan Fry.mp3

Conclusion: Morgan Fry's Rhodium plated Large Chamber Tenor Mouthpiece is an overall warm yet brilliant sounding mouthpiece. Its bottom register is free and super responsive though its altissimo register is slightly resistant by comparison.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The One Man Band

One of the best practice tools I've found for improvising is playing through a tune all by your lonesome, but still keeping the time, harmony, and structure all consistent and feeling good.  This is something I've spent a good deal of time doing and I feel has definitely payed off. As good as it is for you it should still be balanced with playing with a rhythm section and locking in with other musicians.

Here are some experiments to do while practicing this:
  • Keep the time by beating your foot on 1 and 3. This has been very helpful in my development.
  • Carry one idea throughout an entire chorus (painful at times, but worth the focus).
  • Try the tune in a different key.
  • Work with contrasting tempos. Try a slow tune fast, or fast tune slow.
  • Put in your harmonic substitutions, and see if you can carry more advanced harmonies all by yourself.
  • Record your performance and see what your strong and weak points are.

Here is my latest effort. Certainly not perfect, but a good document of where I am with this kind of practice: Ben Plays Green Dolphin Street.mp3

Friday, May 4, 2012

Shaping Your Sound

Michael Brecker: Sound Shaper Extraordinaire
Today's post is possibly the last one on saxophone sound for a while. I generally write about things I'm experimenting with myself, and after my recent overtone find and air support realization, this seems to be the fitting conclusion.

At one point in the recent past I was doing my various tone exercises, and I wasn't arriving to my ideal sound. I was a little frustrated, but I was patiently working through it. My son asked me in his four year old way what song I was playing. I told him I wasn't really playing a song and that I had been playing exercises. He suggested that I should play a song. I took his advice, really just to humor him, and began playing with a record. Then, within a relatively short period of time I arrived to my ideal sound.

 What's the Point?

As saxophonists and as musicians in general we need to be engaged in shaping our sounds from the first note of the day. No amount of warming up, overtone exercises, etc. will automatically sculpt or shape your sound. Those exercises serve to strengthen and increase your abilities, but you will need to make the conscious effort to put your abilities to work.

The Shapes Your Sound is Made Of

Here is a short list of things to pay attention to which will help you shape your sound:
  • The beginning of each note: articulation, intonation, clarity of sound, and inflection
  • The end of each note: supporting the note to the end, intonation, and inflection
  • Vibrato: speed, depth, and where and when you choose to use or not to use it
  • Inflection: bends, subtone vs. full tone, and any other shaping that affect pitch or tone color
  • The connection between successive notes, relates both to articulation and air support
  • Dynamics
I find myself mainly focusing on inflection, and vibrato, which are related, but really all of these, and probably others I'm not thinking of, fuse to become the style of your sound. Again, long tones, overtones, bending exercises, etc. will not force you to pay attention to these moving parts of your sound. They will simply make you more able to control them.

A Few Practical Ideas

Following are a few ways I incorporate sound shaping into my warm up. They have resulted in an increased awareness of the subtle details of sound and greater consistency in sounding how I want to.
  1. The first thing I play is music. Generally I'll improvise in the lower and medium register of my horn making a conscious effort to shape my sound. Starting my practice this way gets me into the right mindset from the get go.
  2. At some point during my warm up I'll play a melodic overtone exercise like the bugle call in this post, or the first chorus of the main theme from Michael Brecker's Delta City Blues notated below. These more musical exercises help me be extra cognizant of sound sculpting while accomplishing my technical goals.
  3. Depending on where you are in your development as part of your practice you might consider trying to imitate the sound of saxophone players you are drawn to. This will help you engage those sound shaping abilities with a very focused goal.
The overtone and register jumping make for a great workout.

This is a video of Brecker performing a solo version of the song. I've cued it up to where the theme begins.

I find that I sound my best as I both have the correct tools and make musical expression my goal throughout my practice. My understanding of the overall process of sound creation has evolved and refined over the past month, and this has been the last piece of the puzzle so to speak, at least for the moment. (If this is the first sound post of mine you have encountered, I would suggest also going over the posts I linked to in the beginning of this article and combining the information in them.)

Friday, April 27, 2012

Air Support: The Key to the Saxophone

Want to hear great air support?
Just go listen to Parker.
I recently made a significant realization about the saxophone. Tone quality, endurance, upper register, and articulation are all directly linked to air support.  Of course, we have all heard this or something similar before, but I didn't really understand how fantastically important it is until this past week when I changed my warm up routine. Instead of, while warming up, focusing on my embouchure or tongue position I've made air support my main focus, and I've been able to attain my best playing level with better consistency and efficiency than in the past.

Putting it in Practice

Following are some of the exercises I've been adapting and using to focus on air support. All of these can be expanded upon as well.

Exercise 1 - Get your Muscles Moving
This exercise is meant to get your air moving and your muscles warmed up. It's the same concept that athletes apply for their warm up. You start out by getting blood flowing to the muscle group you'll be using. Doing this first we'll make the exercises that follow easier.
  • Start with some long tones in your medium register. 
  • Also improvise or play melodies, but keep everything below the octave key. The reason why I preclude anything higher than the octave key is that the upper register is where most of us tend to start tightening up, and we want avoid that. While you do this focus on maintaining great tone quality through a deep focused air support. 
  • Do this until you feel comfortable and established, or "warmed up" in this particular register.

Exercise 2 - Low Notes
The low notes are especially pertinent to air support because they require good air support even when playing softly.
  • Play long low Bbs, Bs, Cs, C#s, and Ds.
  • Practice bends on these notes. The first time you try to bend a low note you might find the pitch doesn't change or the note cuts out. With proper air support and a relaxed frown-type embouchure you will be able to bend these notes, possibly a half step down each. If you can't do a decent half step bend down on a note in your medium range, make sure you accomplish that first!
  • Practice playing these notes very softly but still clearly with a relaxed embouchure. You'll hear the sound thin if your embouchure becomes tight due to lack of air support. A good test to see if your embouchure is relaxed enough is to add a little lip vibrato and see if it sounds clear and not distorted by embouchure pressure. Playing low notes quietly and clearly can be difficult to do, and I can often feel my lower abs engaging when I do it correctly. In fact the whole feeling of correct air support feels like I am blowing from the deepest place I can.
  • Its also important to practice long tones with a straight tone free of any quavering.

Exercise 3 - Overtones
At this point were ready to start playing in our upper register, except we'll do this through overtones, as those are the most likely to promote good air support, embouchure, and oral cavity focus.
  • Many of the various overtone exercises would be fine at this point, but my favorite, which can be found here, really focuses on air support. For those of you too lazy to click, it basically involves playing your overtones for a minute each, taking as many breaths as needed, starting from the bottom and working your way up.
  • Other various overtone exercises can be found here.
  • Also, very helpful is doing half step bends on overtones, just like on the low notes. It's really a great test of air support.
  • Another overtone exercise I've been enjoying lately are scales made of successive overtones. For example, playing the F major scale using the overtones of the Bb scale as illustrated below. You can do this, of course, on other partials as well.
Normal note heads represent fingerings. Diamonds represent pitch.
  • One last overtone exercise I've been working on is the slide. Once I'm sufficiently warmed up and in control of my air stream I'm able to slide up and down the upper partials of the overtone series while holding a single fundamental fingering. Sliding up takes some serious control of the air stream, and seems to be a good indicator that I'm using proper air support. Here is an mp3 clip of the slide: Overtone Slide.mp3 

Exercise 4 - Playing Actual Music
Give yourself a break and then start the final part of this process, which is playing actual music, whether it be written or improvisation. It only takes me a few minutes of playing at this point, still focusing on air support, to establish it throughout my playing, and I quickly reach my best tone quality throughout the range of the horn and range of dynamics, etc.