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.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Memorizing Tunes

One problem all jazz musicians face is the memorization of tunes. Even if you play mostly original material the majority of the time, you want to have a repertoire of tunes you know for several reasons. Most importantly memorizing melodies and harmonies will help build your foundation in understanding music. Many players' first improvisational vocabularies are based on the melodies they have heard or memorized. Also, your ability to navigate chord changes increases as you fully assimilate various harmonic possibilities. Secondly, you always want to have tunes you can fall back on and play with other people. So, whether you're the kind of musician who plays a lot of jam sessions or jazz standard type gigs or the kind of musician who plays mostly original material, you're going to want to know tunes.

Following are some tips on memorizing songs:
  • Listen to recordings of the song you want to learn. Whether you listen to various versions to explore the possible interpretations or if you just have a favorite version you check out over and over again, listening is a significant and important way of first memorizing a song. Listening gives you a chance to internalize the song without worrying about what the details, and over repeated listening you can memorize the soundscape of the entire tune, changes and all, without having a clue as to what the notes are. When you approach learning a tune this way you'll be much more sure footed and confident once you tackle the actual notes.
  • Sing along with the melody on a recording. Then sing it all by yourself. If you can do this you've probably done more than half the work of memorizing the melody already.
  • If you have time transcribe the melody, especially if it's a song you've already internalized through listening. This will help strengthen your ears and make the process of memorizing tunes faster and faster in the future.
  • Memorize the melody on your instrument and play it with the record without looking at written music. Finally, play it from memory all by your lonesome.
  • Again, if you have time transcribe the changes. If you need a process, start with the bass notes and then determine the chord qualities.
  • Memorize the changes and improvise along with the record without looking at written chord changes. Now, practice improvising through the changes with only a metronome.
  • If you're looking to further internalize the tune, I would suggest transposing it (in your head, and by ear) into a few different keys. If you need to internalize the melody further transpose the melody, or if you only need to better internalize the chord changes just transpose those. For this exercise I would suggest thinking about the harmony functionally, so instead of a CMaj7 chord in the key of C think IMaj7 and instead of Dmin7, G7 think ii7 , V7. That way you can more easily transpose to any key. What's the ii7 chord in the key of Gb? Even if answering that question isn't easier than transposing Dmin7 up a diminished 5th understanding the harmony of a tune from functional perspective will help you internalize it on a deeper level and prepare you for mass transposing on the spot.

These are all things that I've done in the past that have helped me memorize tunes. I rarely do everything on this list for a single tune. In fact, I probably only do a few for each tune I learn. The most helpful technique I've discovered is repetition, playing the tune over and over again. If you have any suggestions feel free to leave them in the comments.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Rico's Reed Storage Case with Humidity Control

As promised today I'm reviewing Rico's reed storage case and its Vitalizer pack (which is by far the more exciting part). The reed case seems like it would be ideal. It fits multiple reed types, is air tight, and has a place to easily insert a Vitalizer pack which stabilizes the humidity at an ideal level. However, I will be returning the case, because in practice it fails to deliver on its advertised promise, the promise to prevent warping.

On day two of using the case I pulled out the reed I had just played the day before and the tip was warped. It wasn't warped significantly, like a reed that you leave out of the case overnight, however the tip was noticeably warped with minor ripples along its full length. It took a few minutes of wetting, straightening, and playing to get the reed back to its ideal state, or as near to ideal as possible after being warped.

What caused the warping? I believe there is one major design flaw here. The floor surface that the reed sits against is lined with long vertical minutely lowered slots which allow the reed to breath and air out underneath as well as above. I have used multiple reed cases with this design, and in my experience it always allows the tip of the reed to warp. Even when the humidity is well regulated the results are apparently the same. The ideal solution would be a flat hard, yet breathable surface, which would provide an unyielding surface to prevent warping that would still allowed the reeds to release moisture from underneath. That day has not arrived yet, at least not with Rico's storage case.

The Answer to Humidity Control

The day of fantastic humidity control has arrived though. I have converted my old reed storage case so that it is now simply an air tight bottle containing my reeds in the same plastic holders they come with and a Vitalizer humidity control pack. I have been using the 73% and it has been very stable. My old method used a sponge to stabilize humidity and a drop or two of mouthwash in the sponge to fight mold from growing in case the humidity level rose too high. It worked well mostly, never allowing mold, and keeping the reeds humid and preventing warping, but it was difficult during weather changes to gauge the humidity in the bottle. The result was that occasionally when the weather changed the humidity level would be much too high which can affect the reeds performance adversely (through a type of warping, I believe). Also, occasionally a weather change would result in the humidity level being too low which resulted in warping as well. I'm liking the no variations 73% humidity level of the Vitalizer pack. So far, so good.

Conclusion: Rico's reed case fails to deliver on its promise of preventing warping, however the Vitalizer humidity control pack does do a fantastic job of stabilizing humidity, and I recommend using it in a context other than Rico's case.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

News, Reviews, and an Update

There are two interesting reviews coming your way.  I'll be reviewing a mouthpiece by Morgan Fry, who is highly regarded for his refacing skills and puts those skills into his own line of mouthpieces. Look for that in the next few weeks.

Intro to the Reed Vitalizer Case

Today is day 1 of a new review I'm working on. Yesterday I acquired Rico's reed case, the one that uses the reed vitalizer packs and maintains a constant humidity. It comes with the 73% pack, so supposedly it should remain at 73% humidity or thereabouts for at least 45 days. I checked my reeds that I kept in the case overnight. They felt dry to the touch, which is different from my usual storage method, however the dryer reeds do appear very straight and unwarped. Using my previous storage method reeds I played on yesterday are usually slightly moist to the touch the next day and don't feel dry until an additional day passes without playing them. I'll have to wait and see which lends method lends better for playing and reed longevity. Expect a full review in the next couple of weeks.

Update on the Minute Long Overtone exercise

Finally, I'd like to post an update on the long tone exercise I suggested in my last post. After some experimentation I'm back on my lower reed strength. However, after about 3 weeks of shedding that overtone exercise consistently I have more control over my tone color, inflection, and even technique. I have now modified the exercise and am equally concentrating on the low and middle range of the horn as well as the extended upper range. I have also noticed a huge benefit to my altissimo range. Most importantly, I'd like to warn to not overdo it with this exercise. It is very easy to get yourself into the bad habit of an overly tight embouchure due to the strain and workout it is to play the higher overtones for an extended period of time. I would suggest counteracting this tendency with a decent or possibly significant break in between this exercise and the rest of the practice session. Also, I'd suggest playing some long tones in the lower and medium range of the horn after playing so much in the high register concentrating on cuing your embouchure back to its normal more relaxed state. Remember, the corners of your embouchure will naturally go up in trying to support your efforts to play in the high register, so you'll probably need to pull down the corners of your mouth to counteract that tendency as well. Raised corners will distort your sound and reed response.