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.