Saturday, November 16, 2013

Keep Your Sound Alive!

I recently received a question via email, and as the whole exchange was fairly instructive I thought I'd share it here. To paraphrase the question, a player wrote to me concerned with the fullness of their sound on a particular horn. They felt that the horn sounded dead and had been thinking of switching horns or taking other drastic measures. Here were the main points of my response:

1. Neck Strap Height. Make sure your neck strap is sufficiently high. A neck strap that is adjusted too low can result in an unsupported approach to embouchure which produces a certain deadness in the sound.

2. Mouthpiece position on the neck. If your mouthpiece sits too far in on the cork (meaning pushed in to move the pitch center sharper), you can end up with an unsupported embouchure again, this time compensating for a pitch center that would be too sharp with an embouchure with sufficient pressure for a full sound. For the following to work, you have to have a good sense of pitch and intonation. To experiment with this pull out or push in your mouthpiece by just a millimeter. If you go a little too far in (on the sharp side) you'll hear a deadening of the pitch, if you are a little too far out (on the flat side) you'll feel a certain tightness of embouchure that doesn't allow for fluid inflection or full depth of tone. Dead center you will find that you have a comfortable embouchure and a fuller sound.

3. Ligature position. You can also maximize the fullness of sound by finding the optimal ligature position on your mouthpiece (meaning it's position towards the front and back of the mouthpiece). The ligature affects which parts of the reed vibrates and different ligature positions produce different timbres and response to air flow and articulation. Experiment moving you ligature to different positions to find out what you like the best. You'll find the further you put the ligature back on the reed the more core or mid range vibrations you will hear in the sound. If you go too far it can begin to sound dead as you lose highs. I've found an optimal position for me that is a good balance between highs, mids, resistance, and response to articulation. I initially wanted a few more highs in the sound but I instead opted for a stronger core which has the added advantage of being slightly more responsive to articulation. 

4. Long Tones, Overtones, and Multiphonics. Finally, players who practice long tones especially overtones and multiphonics tend to have more vibrant tones. Even just a day or two of going without my regiment of overtones results in a deader tone. Daily maintenance in the area keeps my tone alive and vibrant.

Alright, good luck with everything, and please consider experimenting with my suggestions before making a decision on the horn!

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Phil-Tone and Theo Wanne "Tribute" Tenor Sax Mouthpiece

It's been a while since I reviewed a saxophone mouthpiece, but with Phil-Tone and Theo Wanne's latest collaboration there seems to be good reason to write one. I've reviewed various mouthpieces from both of these creators in the past, so it was interesting to see what came about when both of them put their heads together.

The mouthpiece is called "The Tribute", and the name points to the creation process by which it came about. Phil and Theo raided their mouthpiece collection and picked a special  example of a Florida era Super Tone Master Otto Link, one of the all time classic tenor mouthpieces model. Then they worked together to recreate its sound and playability without any modernizations.

I'd like to say up front that this mouthpiece does accomplish its goal. It is very similar to the examples of Florida era Links that I've played. That being said there are many variations within the spectrum of Florida era Links, and an example of that is my Florida Link which is a USA (later vintage) and has a slightly smaller chamber lending a more poweful and brighter sound. There really is a spectrum of sounds that various Florida Links produce from brighter to darker, but what unifies them is the core sound with its complexity and depth.

"The Tribute" lands someplace on the darker side of the spectrum and certainly nails the complexity and depth of tone. Its sound reminds me a lot of the classic jazz tenor tones from the 50's. The piece also has punch and power which you expect from a Florida Link, however I prefer slightly more punch or edginess from a mouthpiece. Overall, the tone is deep, has a good presence, and produces a blend of dark and bright timbral qualities leaning towards a warm sound.

The piece plays fantastically. It feels very balanced in terms of resistance, meaning isn't too hard or too easy to blow. That seems to be built into the architecture of the Florida Link and transfers nicely to the Tribute. It plays evenly from bottom to top, responds fantastically, and that results in a great playing experience. The mouthpiece really stands out in that regard.

Here is an example of me playing the Tribute: Solar on the Tribute

Conclusion: Phil-Tone and Theo Wanne's "The Tribute" is a warm and powerful mouthpiece with a complex and somewhat dark tone. Its playability and response are fantastic.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Matching Reed Strength and Mouthpiece Placement to Tone

Tone is a combination of quite a few different elements, and every optimization you can make will help you get closer to your ideal sound. Reed strength and mouthpiece placement on the neck are two important factors that help determine your tone quality and your comfort level while playing.

Cannonball Adderly (who played on 2s!)
Matching Reed Strength to Tone

Reeds can have a huge effect on tone, and even once you have settled on a brand and style you like you'll still need to make sure you have the perfect match for in size. The general rule is the bigger the reed the darker the tone and the softer the reed the brighter the tone. This is fairly common knowledge, but I'll explore some of the finer details.

The harder end of the reed strength spectrum attracts many players, and has its own virtues. As you go to harder strength reeds the resistance increases and the tone darkens. When you get to reed strengths towards the very hard end of your comfort spectrum, which is determined by your setup and physical make up, you will notice a very raspy quality, a decrease in volume and an increasingly muted quality to the tone. You know when a reed is absolutely too hard because it will be difficult to control the tone in the context of normal playing (practicing or in bands, etc.).

My preference is the softer end of the reed strength spectrum. As you go to softer strength the tone brightens and resistance decreases. At the very soft end of your comfort spectrum you will have to depend on air support and focus in order to stabilize the pitch and the tone. Sound becomes very susceptible to inflection. While harder reeds require very developed embouchure driven chops, softer reeds require well developed air support driven chops. You know when a reed is absolutely too soft because it fails to provide proper resistance to your air column. The sound thins and becomes overly bright.

The spectrum of reed strength is often misunderstood. Some players and teachers espouse increasing in reed strength  as if it was a ladder and the goal was to climb as high as possible. This is entirely wrong, and I'll give supporting evidence in just a bit. An entirely different, but equally wrong, misconception is that once matured all players will be playing on the same reed strength, around a 3 or 3.5. Dealing with the latter first, we all have different physical make ups, different levels of resistance built into our saxophone and mouthpieces (and even different cuts reeds!), and different approaches to playing. One player might get their best sound at 2.5 strength reed and another player will get it at 5 strength, and those two players could sound very alike. What feels like a harder reed to one player can feel like a softer reed to another. We are individuals in terms of our person and our equipment, so one size will never fit all best.

As far as the feeling that we need to be always climbing the reed strength ladder, this is been proven false by so many great players over the years. Cannonball Adderly played on strength 2. Charlie Parker started on harder reeds and then switched to softer reeds mid career. Michael Brecker played on softer reeds as well. This is really just an extension of the fact that the same strength reed will feel different to different players, and that each player has their own preference in terms of tone.

It is definitely worth the money and the time to experiment with reed strength. Try a strength softer and strength harder then what you currently play, and give it a chance. You could end up with a better match for the tone you want and your comfort level.

Matching Mouthpiece Placement to Tone

This following section is only for players who have a decent sense of pitch and who naturally tend towards playing in tune. If you have regular problems with intonation, this section is not for you! Mouthpiece placement on the neck is a more subtle customization of tone. There is a span of few millimeters (maybe 2 or 3) on the neck cork in which your saxophone and mouthpiece combination will sound "in tune". Obviously too high or too low will simply result in a sharp or flat sound. With the mouthpiece towards the lower end of the "in tune" spot on the neck (pulled out a millimeter or two from the higher end), your chops close up a bit naturally to compensate and bring the pitch to its center. With your mouthpiece towards the upper end of the "in tune" spot (pushed in a millimeter or two from the lower end of the span), your chops open a bit in compensation. With these reactions comes a resultant change in tone. At the lower end of the window the sound is given a slight edge or pop, and at the higher end of the window the sound is a less edgy and more grainy. I personally find that too much grain or too much edge will just sound like distortion, and I use these sounds more as a guide to make sure I really have my mouthpiece positioned exactly where I want for my ideal sound.

I actually just had a student yesterday who was saying something was wrong with his tone. It sounded spitty to him. I told him to pull out his mouthpiece just a hair (like a millimeter). He did so and his tone was immediately and audibly (most important) improved. A real life application like this takes careful listening and simple digestion of the principle outlined above. Happy playing.

The Hexatonic Scale: Training Wheels for Mixolydian

When teaching, I often find that improvisation students sometimes get stuck when given a major scale or mode of the scale as building material. They can more easily find the melodies that are built into the pentatonic scales and the blues scale, but they have a harder time creating their own melodies using the major scale or its modes. The concepts of creating a melody by ear and drawing on vocabulary from songs, licks and solos doesn't always come easily or right away, so students sometimes find themselves stuck for a period until they wrap their brain around these concepts.

Back to the nature of scales, the pentatonic and blues scales have inherent melodic elements built in, the skips and jumps built into the pentatonic and blues scales and the  flat 5 in the blues scale. Just by playing these scales up and down they automatically suggest certain melodies. The major scale and its modes on the other hand are made up of successive small intervals, and when every note is played in succession they are less suggestive of melody by comparison. The best solution would be to learn the elements of melody, to learn to use larger intervals appropriately, add in chormatic neighbor tones, etc. However, for those students who need a leg up there are the hexatonic scales.

Some of my favorite settings for teaching improvisation are the 12 bar blues progression and dominant chord vamps. Either way you have to learn the mixolydian mode to completely understand your scale/note options in either of these settings. Following is one version of a hexatonic scale drawn from the C mixolydian mode:

This hexatonic could be used over a C7 (C dominant seven), and us built using scale degrees 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 1. The built in skip from degrees 3 to 5, which also avoids a tension note, gives the scale some inherent melodic content, and students can more easily begin using it in improvisation. Using similar methods hexatonics can be created for other scales and modes as needed.

Monk Competition!

Alright, all you sax players who will be 30 or younger in September of this year, You've got 9 days or so to send in your recordings to the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. This year's competition is saxophone (it actually came around 2 years early), and I would be amiss if I didn't write something about it here on the blog. For those of you who are not in the know, the Monk competition is the probably the most prestigious competition in jazz. It rotates through various instruments on the annual basis, and the winners usually end up being pretty successful. Some of past saxophone finalists have included Joshua Redman, Chris Potter, Eric Alexander and Seamus Blake to name a few. Top prize is $25,000 and a 1 album record deal with Concord. Pretty awesome.

To put your name in the hat for the competition you have to send in an audio recording, resume, and application in by July 1st. From there they'll select 12 semifinalists who will compete in September. Good luck!

In celebration here is a little of Four in One, a great Monk tune, recorded by myself:

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

New Mark VI & Reeds vs. the Kitchen Sink

I just wanted to post a little about my new horn I finally settled on. After a long search, playing 22 or 23 Mark VIs and dozens of other horns in the past months (and lots of driving), I've found something I'm happy with. I also feel like I've learned quite a few lessons.

First here is a pic and clip of my new horn. It has a very large focused sound, is very responsive and  expressive. I feel like, of the VI's I've played, there is a nice free blowing quality to VI's up through the 120xxxs. My horn falls at 108xxx and it has a great free blowing quality to it, so I really have to disagree with the traditional 5 digit serial number requirement for the classic VI sound and feel. I think I've found a fantastic example of the Mark VI, and though it's not the perfect horn or sound,  it's one of my favorite of the many many saxophones I've played. This clip is a version of Giant Steps in 7 I've been working on for a while.

The horn originally had a pick up. After getting the pickup removed the horn played even better. After owning 2 horns with pickups I've come to learn that a pickup can have a large or small influence on how the horn plays. When I had the pick up taken out of my first horn I noticed little to no difference. When I had the pick up taken out of this horn the horn played with more stability and more core in the sound. The difference was more than noticeable and puts the horn on par with the best VIs I've played.

Reeds & the Kitchen Sink

I've recently discovered a new way to handle warped reeds, simply run a powerful stream of water over the tip. I've tried using the bathroom sink, and I don't know if it's because the stream isn't wide enough or powerful enough, but it doesn't seem to work for my tenor reeds. However, the kitchen sink's wider more powerful stream of water works wonders to even out a warped reed tip. Someone let me know if you try the garden hose.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Question on Intonation

A saxophonist recently asked me a great question about whether intonation adjustments should be done through embouchure pressure or through manipulating the air stream (the same way overtones and altissimo are produced). It's a fairly complicated issue, and I thought it was definitely worthy of a blog post.

Word of Warning

While it's clear that pitch can be controlled by both embouchure and air stream, many intonation issues are actually the result of poor air stream focus and incorrect embouchure pressure. A correct approach to air stream and embouchure will alleviate a number of common intonation problems. With that being said here are some tips in approaching real time intonation adjustment.

Raising the Pitch

Adjusting pitch up or making a note sound sharper than your default pitch center is much more difficult to do than lowering the pitch, so we'll start with this problematic technique first. Trying to correct a flat note by adding embouchure pressure can quickly constrict and distort tone and even make response feel sluggish. Adding embouchure pressure can easily be counter productive, and I don't like to approach raising intonation in this fashion generally (DISCLAIMER: I'm sure I do it in a pinch or even in a very minute way on the regular basis without even realizing it). 

Adjusting the pitch with air stream is also possible, and much safer than using embouchure pressure to adjust the pitch upward. There is more flexibility in raising the pitch before you start to introduce strain into your technique degrading tone and response.

Honestly, when I find myself playing flat, I usually just push in the mouthpiece because the normal result of trying to regularly adjust intonation up is degraded tone and response.

Lowering the Pitch

Adjusting the pitch down is generally easier and less risky in general. You can lower the pitch using embouchure a fair amount without distorting or constricting tone and slowing response. That's why most embouchure driven saxophone inflection (bends, etc.) deal with the pitch center and below it rather than above it. 

Lowering the pitch using the air stream is also very possible ,and it might be equally as flexible as embouchure in that regard. Again if you lower the pitch too far by either method you will find that your tone and response suffer significantly.

Combining Embouchure and Air Stream Flexibility

In any kind of timbral or pitch adjustment it is most important to focus on tone quality. If I can get a beautiful tone I know that my playing will also feel very responsive, and I'll be playing at my best. I find that both of these methods, adjustment using the embouchure and the air stream, can combine when adjusting pitch in a way that allows the most flexibility and preserves the best tone quality and responsiveness of my playing. 

When I do adjust pitch whether for intonation's sake or for some inflection or other I simply do whatever needs to be done without sacrificing tone. I have practiced and do practice both methods of pitch adjustment. That practice along with my focus on tone quality allows me to find the path of least resistance to adjusting intonation, or in other words, the best technique that will allow me to play and sound my best. 

In terms of what to practice, I recommend practicing adjusting intonation down both with air stream and embouchure. If and when practicing adjusting pitch up, do it primarily with air stream, and even then only in very short spurts as that kind of practice can easily introduce strain into your technique. The simplest form of practicing these techniques is a slow pitch bend away from the pitch center and then returning to it. Good luck!

Friday, April 26, 2013

Multiphonics Dissected

I've been using multiphonic as part of my tone practice over a long period of time, and while I have always thought of them as an interesting extended technique, I'd primarily viewed their purpose as a tone building exercise. More recently I began to better understand their mechanics and, in result, gained the ability to use them in musical contexts.

Basic Mechanics of a Multiphonic Fingering

Multiphonic fingerings are actually rather simple. They create at least one open tone hole in the middle of the air column that allows the air to alternate between at least two different fingerings. I have understood this basic concept for some time, which has allowed me to create my own multiphonic fingerings. While creating some of my own fingerings I came to a more significant discovery, which was that if I started with a normal fingering, left an open tone hole, and closed some of the keys further down, I could in many instances create a multiphonic that included my original pitch. This discovery allowed me to create multiphonic fingerings which predictably included a desired pitch. DISCLAIMER: This doesn't work for every fingering, however it does work nicely for quite a few of the notes.

Here is a basic example. On the left is my multiphonic fingering on A. You can see the a fingering held down in the left hand with the g key left open. Then in the lower right hand you can see a number of other keys held down in succession. The open G allows the air column to alternate between the two fingerings. Of course it produces a number of different pitches, but A is clearly discernible, and that's what makes the fingering predictable and possibly useful! I have seen various analyses of multiphonic fingerings before outlining all their suggested notes, but I hadn't yet made a clear connection between the fingering and any of the actual pitches, so discerning this connection naturally made me more interested.

After some further experimentation I also realized that the lower fingering often predictably created a note as well, often at the 2nd harmonic, an octave and pefect 5th higher than original fingering. For example, the fingering on the left also produced a Bb an octave and a fifth higher than the low Eb fingering. Crazy sounding, interesting, and, happily, comprehensible. Not all multiphonic fingerings are this easily understood, but many are.

Classifying Multiphonics by a Single Pitch

From here I decided I could likely create a system of multiphonic fingerings that I could actually use. Most multiphonic produce sufficient pitches to make up complex 9th chords, so focusing in on just one (or sometimes two) of their pitches allows me to utilize the fingerings in a simpler and melodic way. In order to think this way, you do have to accept a lot of collateral damage however, meaning a lot of notes that have nothing to do with your desired note or even the scale, chord, or tonality you're dealing with.

At this point, I'm well on my way to constructing a chromatic scale, but I haven't quite put all the pieces in place, so, for the moment, below is a diagram of multiphonic fingerings for the C major scale. The G fingering appears to be the normal octave key G fingering, but if you relax your airstream slightly it produces a nasty multiphonic (beginners do this all the time). I should also say that the desired pitches don't always sound in the same octave in successive fingerings. For example, the A fingering's A sounds in the lower octave and the B fingering's B sounds in the higher octave. (For what it's worth, I'm not terribly satisfied with my B fingering. I'd like to find something where the B was stronger.)

Here is a clip of a C multiphonic major scale (It sounds terrible, which is pretty much default setting for multiphonics): Multiphonic C Major Scale.mp3

Friday, April 12, 2013

Benefits of Subtone and Diaphragmatic Breathing to Tone

Ben Webster, king of subtone...
I've made a couple fun discoveries recently, and while both are rather simple, they are certainly worth sharing. Best of all, both will help improve tone.


Have you ever noticed that playing in subtone, when you pull back your bottom jaw and create that warm and smooth lower register, can at times be much more demanding than playing in full tone with a normal embouchure. After some exploration I discovered that creating a good subtone, especially in the lowest part of the horn, requires a correct breath support, more so than a full tone embouchure does.

OK, so you have to use better air support. So what? Well, that makes subtoning one more tool you can add to your arsenal of exercises that build support. Need to develop air support? Pick your favorite ballad and play it, focus on the lower register of the horn, and subtone through the whole thing. Effective and fun. Even if you never use subtone in your normal playing, it is still a fantastic practice tool. Practicing subtoning also helps you learn to keep a flexible embouchure and keeps you from letting your sound become to brittle at the other extreme.

For those of you who haven't even tackled subtone and are not sure of the sound you are aiming for, here is a clip of myself practicing subtoning, something I recorded on my old Buescher True Tone Tenor:
Ben Subtones on Body and Soul (for anyone who is interested, the Buescher is for sale here)

The effect is created by pulling your bottom jaw back and a bit down. The sound becomes rounder and warmer and inflections become more exaggerated.

Diaphragmatic Breathing

Diaphragmatic breathing now enters the scene as it is practically necessary to subtone correctly. Correct breathing on the saxophone can sometimes be a bit of a mystery, but I found a simple way to explain it to students. Simply, push out your abdomen when you breathe in. That's right, make yourself look fatter... when you breath in. After that go on autopilot and just play, but each time you breath in make a concerted effort to push out your stomach.

Try this simple experiment. Play a low Bb with a chest breath, meaning breath in lifting your chest keeping your stomach in and play low Bb. Now try breathing in with a diaphragmatic breath pushing out your stomach while your breath in. Play low Bb. It's noticeably easier. Try again with a subtoned low Bb and compare the two methods. Diaphragmatic breathing feels easier and sounds better every time.

Take Home

Subtone practice will help you maintain or improve your air support, and it's fun. It does require correct breathing technique however, which can be pretty simple. Push your gut out when you breath in. Good luck.

Friday, April 5, 2013

A Journey In Saxophone and Sound

The first time I consciously remember hearing the saxophone was in my fifth grade year at a school assembly. The idea of the assembly was to introduce us to the various types of musical instruments, and at one point each musician played some popular song to give us an idea of what it sounded like by itself. I believe the saxophonist played some Disney song or other, which I may or may have not thought was sappy, but either way I loved how it sounded. It was superior to anything else that I’d heard that day, and from that point on I wanted to play the sax.

Unfortunately, my parents didn’t see my vision as clearly as I did. I think my dad had a bit of prejudice against the instrument, and I’m sure money was tight. Sixth grade came around, and I found myself lugging a trombone to band class. That’s what we had in the house so that’s what I played. Trombone was fun, but it didn’t distract me from my goal. I continued bugging my parents to play saxophone. At one point a family friend lent me a saxophone to try out. I didn’t have any clue what I was doing, but I remember figuring out a few notes which only further fueled my fire.

My continual requests payed off, and come 7th grade my parent rented an alto sax for me. When I auditioned for the middle school band, the director had tried to convince me that I was needed on trombone, but that didn’t have any sway.  I wanted to play saxophone and that was that. As the school year progressed my skills quickly improved as I had some natural talent for music and I had some good encouraging teachers (even if one of them did like Kenny G, which my mom has never recovered from nor have our Christmas traditions).

One memorable morning in my middle school career I was walking to a morning rehearsal, and I apparently had not secured the case well. Halfway to the school the case popped open and spilled its contents all over the concrete saxophone and all. I did my best to carefully gather the contents in the early morning dark and put them back in my case. That sax must have been a tank, because I don’t remember any immediate problems following its accident with the concrete.

At some point during my middle school career my parent bought me a professional alto saxophone, a Buffet. I was very proud of the instrument, but it had a rough life. I don’t think I cleaned it even once, and beyond that my body seems to have a very acidic quality and the lacquer was soon worn off in various places on the horn. The whole neck was bare brass by the time I was done playing it. Kids can be rough on saxophones, and I was no exception. The alto played rather resistant, and was probably designed for classical playing. I wasn’t even really aware of how unbecoming the horn was for my particular musical aesthetic until after I had finished a couple years of college.

In high school I got my first serious private teacher, Matt Belzer, an Eastman grad. He pointed me in the right direction with my saxophone playing, but I was not a very disciplined student. When I played saxophone, which was a lot, it was just to play whatever I wanted. I did a lot of improvising, but that was about it. My chops improved gradually until I was an above average high school player. There were sometimes glimpses that I could move beyond that, but for the most part I was unsatisfied with my own musicality and playing. For some reason I never linked that with my lack of discipline!

During high school I got my first real jazz mouthpiece, a Meyer. I had the impression that it sounded “jazzy”, but unfortunately I was still in the dark with tone and timbre. My teacher had assigned me many different long tone exercises, but I never had the patience to do them. Back to the Meyer, I definitely liked it better than an Selmer S90 I had picked out for classical music. My teacher had recommended the S90 and a C star, and I had liked the S90 better. However, I don’t remember ever really liking that mouthpiece, or comprehending classical saxophone and why anyone would like it. That didn’t come until I was much older and the sheer love of saxophone taught me otherwise.

In my sophomore or junior year my parents got me a tenor saxophone, the best birthday present ever possibly. I was very surprised and excited, and I was a little apprehensive, not sure if I would like it or not. I popped on the berg larsen or some similarly bright metal mouthpiece that had came with the horn, and I immediately loved the horn, really loved playing tenor. I had wanted to be done with alto then and there. I told my teacher that I thought the tenor was much better suited for me, and I played it for him. He agreed with me after hearing me play it for a minute or two. I would have only played tenor from there on out, but out of necessity I still played lead alto in the jazz band. You better believe that I had my tenor on a sax stand right next to me though, and any time a solo came up I’d switch if I could.

The tenor was a great an instrument, a vintage The Martin tenor. I thought it had a great tone at the time, though I’m sure I still sounded pretty bad at that point. I had begun working on tone though. My private teacher had started me on overtones, and I was fascinated with them. I didn’t know it at the time but my embouchure and breathing were all screwed up and I could never really get them going very well, but I tried nonetheless. One overtone practice is particularly memorable. I was just messing around in one of the music rooms playing various overtones off a low note fingering during which I completely zoned out. Amidst my daydreaming I suddenly realized that in reality I was slowly ascending the upper echelon of the overtone series. The pitch was smoothly ascending with a jump here or there where I jumped the partial. Up and up I went until I was in squeaky territory and the reed clamped up and I stopped. I was amazed at what had just happened, and one of my best friends, Chris Shecut, also a saxophone player, came running in the room from down the hall. He asked me how I had done that, and I responded that I had no idea. I then tried to recreate it, but there was no way. I didn’t come close to being able to do that again until just in the last couple years.

I was always fascinated with high notes. I had learned to play altissimo A during middle school, and I had been frustrated ever since then unable to play G or G#. I could play A and maybe squeak out some higher notes than that, but the G and G# always taunted me until my senior year when I finally started coughing out G inconsistently. I’m pretty sure I botched the high G in the Creston Sonata at least once during my college auditions. Between my desire to play altissimo and my spurts of fascination with overtones my tone improved slowly, very slowly.
In my senior year my parents offered to put in some serious money and get me a new tenor, so the search began. My dad brought home a Selmer Mark VI on the recommendation of our woodwind repair technician, and family friend, Dale Barton (he now runs a very successful shop out of Odenton, MD). I played the horn and hated it all at once. It was so wild and out of control, more of a reflection of my chops than the instrument, but I didn’t know any better. I was instead convinced to get a B&S Challenger with a beautiful matte finish that played more similarly to my alto and tenor I already had. It was also during that same time I got a Morgan Excalibur tenor mouthpiece. I thought it had a cool name, and the fact that it was a hard rubber mouthpiece with metal component really had me through the roof about it. Thinking back on that setup, I sounded pretty horrible, tin-like and bright. Despite my dissatisfaction, and the hours I was putting in practicing for college auditions, I still didn’t buckle down and practice tone. For that very reason, no matter how much I practiced the Creston Sonata it never sounded great, let alone good. It was always just OK and I knew it.

College auditions came and went, and I didn’t make it into my top choice school, Eastman. I settled for UNT and told myself it was for the best. My first year of college was more like a year in video game heaven. I think played about three times as much Counter Strike as I did music, not a great ratio.

There was a turning point for me here though. A friend and already promising saxophonist, Roman Ott, who happened to be attending my high school as an exchange student had lent me Prime Directive, an album by the Dave Holland Quintet. That was by far my favorite album I had, and when, in my freshman year of college, I heard that the next album had come out I bought it at my first opportunity. The album was great, but to my surprise I loved the sax playing. It had never stuck out to me when I listened to Prime Directive, but now I couldn’t get enough of the solos. I figured out who the player was, Chris Potter, and I began listening to as much of him as possible. It seemed approachable at the time and I began transcribing and practicing more. I was inspired.

Around the same time I had the chance to play a Mark VI tenor again. This time my chops were a bit more up to snuff, and I absolutely loved it. I acquired one of my own, probably within a month or two, a relacquer previously owned by Bill Pierce. The horn played much better than my B&S though I didn’t sound like Michael Brecker as I had hoped. Sometimes hopes need to be dashed a bit.

A final wave of saxophone inspiration hit shortly after that when Chris Potter came to UNT for a concert and masterclass. I was completely floored by his playing; live was even better than on record. I also had the joy of saying “I told you so” to many of my unbelieving saxophonist friends who were now convinced of his awesomeness seeing Potter play in person. He was the real thing.

In the midst of my sophomore year at college I began preparing for an LDS mission. I had received a mission call to Brazil, but due to the turn around on getting a visa I had 5 months or so to hang out at home and get ready. I had already done a few transcriptions of Chris Potter, and I decided I would use my free time to create a book of Potter transcriptions and hopefully publish it. I approached Potter with my idea and he was open to it. I dived into that work head first and spent a lot of time transcribing and playing. It was a great few months, and I grew a lot as a player and improviser. Most importantly I got a lesson with Potter. My mom and brother drove with me 6 hours through a snowstorm to a college in Ohio so I could get this lesson. The roads were literally closing behind us as we drove. After arriving safely there the lesson was great. He seemed impressed enough with my playing, but though my tone needed work. He gave me some fantastic advice that I didn’t put into practice until 9 years later. He told me that he played his overtone for a minute at a time literally. He started lower and played them up through the stratosphere. At the time, this inspired me to play my overtones longer, but I didn’t quite pick up on his literalness. Later that evening was the masterclass where All The Things You Are, yes the famous acapella version, was performed. I recorded the masterclass, and I can’t tell you how many times I listened to that performance before most of the world even knew it existed. I’ll always be grateful for those experiences and how they inspired me to greater musicality.

Shortly, my mission approached. I left with my saxophone in hand for two years in Brazil. I didn’t play much down there. I had an opportunity here and there, but mostly I was too busy working. I was afraid I might lose too much during those two years, but I was really wrong. Those two years were probably the best thing that ever happened for my music. Because a mission is voluntary in order to really feel good about what you are doing you have to be very self motivated and disciplined, and probably for the first time in my life I learned some real discipline. I probably didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back that was the real turning point.

On returning from my mission I transferred to Eastman. I had finally got my playing together sufficiently. My work ethic this time around was completely different. I easily practiced four or more hours every day. I had another inspirational lesson during this time period with Rich Perry. He basically sat me down and told me my sound was terrible. In a very kind and blatant way he showed me the light. I began to obsess over sound. I tried everything I could to improve it, and slowly it did improve but never to my full satisfaction. Perry actually showed me and a number of other Eastman students a cool long tone exercise where you transitioned from full tone and back to subtone. This along with an overtone exercise recommended by my private teacher at the time, Walt Weiskopf, had me practicing some form of long tones consistently probably for the first time in my life.

In my junior year at Eastman (my 2nd year there) I made a serious change in my setup. I had tried out one of my friends Selmer Super Balanced Action, and the flexibility it had and free blowing feeling were amazing. I also knew Potter was playing on a SBA, and I soon made plans to get one, a silver Super Balanced Action, previously owned by David Sanchez, which has been making the rounds on the internet in recent times. The first time I played that horn in concert I literally fought back tears. Yes, I’m embarrassed by that, but it was the first time I really enjoyed what I heard coming back through a PA system. I thought I was set for life, little did I know.

Less than a year after acquiring the SBA, by a turn of luck, I found a florida era Otto Link Super Tone Master in residence with one of my elementary school age students. I borrowed it, and purchased it after a very short trial. I was happily on my way to being a Chris Potter clone, so I thought, but things weren’t coalescing completely. My sound still left me unsatisfied at times, and I couldn’t seem to get it completely under control. Looking back, without proper breathing and embouchure technique I could never really master juxtaposing playing in the altissimo register on the regular basis with regular playing technique and my embouchure was often too tight and contorted for me to play comfortably and with a good sound.

As I moved on in my career and started a Master’s degree I had new opportunities for growth. My next teacher, George Garzone, would not put up with the sound I was getting, and he got me to experiment with changing my embouchure. I went through some positive changes and I got to a point where I thought I was satisfied. A big surprise came when I recorded professionally for the first time in my adult life and I heard myself back in the studio’s high quality speakers. I hated what I heard.

That night we went to Small’s but I was not mentally present. I was engrossed in searching the internet for everything I could on Joe Allard’s approach to playing. Before the night was over I had found several things I was going to address, the most important one being my embouchure. Within weeks I had arrived to a much clearer and enjoyable sound as I had finally found an approach to embouchure that worked for me. When we went into the studio and recorded a few overdubs I could barely believe how different I sounded.

For a while I was satisfied, but that never lasts for long. By the end of my Master’s degree I was experimenting with equipment again, mainly ligatures. I switched every few months or so and found temporary satisfaction in a slightly different sound, but it never really solved anything.

I recorded again a year or so later, and this time I was unhappy all over again. I made changes and began recording myself on the regular basis to keep myself in check. My progress steadied and I was more on point. I began to notice that part of the problem was my tenor. It had a hollow sound and it could be very technically demanding. All of its flexibility meant that the player had to be at 100% all of the time or the sound could easily suffer.

My search for a new horn began, and ended up trading for it for the Mark VI I currently own. That was about a year ago. The Mark VI is more consistent, but, of course, it still isn’t perfectly satisfying. It was a few months after getting the Mark VI, and after an unsatisfying performance or practice session, that I decided to try Potter’s suggestion he had given 9 years previously. I tried holding out my overtones for a minute each (with as many breaths as needed). It took some tweaking but through a growth spurt (technically) eventually I found a routine that keeps me at my best all the time. I made a number of other realizations previous to this in terms of diaphramatic breathing and other techniques which all amalgamated and inspired me to write my recent method book. All in all it’s been a fantastic journey, and it’s still going.

Hopefully others by reading this can avoid some of my silly mistakes, pitfalls and oversights. I think the most important thing I’ve learned along this journey has been not to give up and continually try new solutions. Experimentation has long been my best friend and helped me fix problems in my playing. Finally, if you’re going to tackle this instrument, the saxophone, tackle it for real or you’ll never be satisfied!


Tuesday, April 2, 2013

My Mark VI Search

I've recently been looking for an upgrade for my tenor, which I've put up for sale here. My horn plays brighter than the sound I'm going for, so the search was initiated. The first phase of the search was to determine what kind of tenor I was going to end up on, so I played a number of different makes and models. I played a couple Conn 10Ms, a couple Kings, some modern horns such as the Rampone, Viking, Yamaha's Custum Z and EX, Buffet, and Yanigasawa, some less common vintage horns like the Dolnet, Kohlert, and SML, and various of Selmer's models like the Super, Balanced Action, Super Balanced Action, Mark VI, Mark VII, the Reference horns, and the Series III. Every horn on the list here has it's merits but ultimately a couple of the Mark VIs I played had the most draw for me.

Since starting my search for a Mark VI I have now played 17 Mark VIs including my own in just the past few weeks. The reason why I'm blogging is that out of all of those Mark VIs only a few have really been fantastic. It was actually a little off putting to play so many horns and have so many play just OK. After a while I began noticing some definite patterns, and I wanted to share them because they can be helpful to others searching for a VI. Following is a laundry list in no particular order of some of the patterns I've found. Some of these I had heard hearsay of, but hadn't played enough horns to prove true or false for myself. Others were complete surprises to me.
  • Mark VI's tend to play darker in earlier vintages and brighter in late vintages. I found that I enjoy the various timbres of the VI throughout it's years of manufacture, however I find the late Mark VI's (maybe starting around the 200xxx) sound to be too bright or thin for me to enjoy. There are definite exceptions to these trends (see the third bullet point), but I did find this to generally be true.
  • VI's tend be more free blowing or have less resistance/back pressure in earlier vintages and have more resistance/back pressure in later vintages. Again, there are exceptions to this this trend (see next bullet point).
  • Structural damage to the neck like pull downs or patches can lower the resistance or back pressure of a horn, and they can also affect the timbre of a horn. Horns with neck repairs are less predictable in terms of both timbre and resistance.
  • A well regulated and well set up horn makes a big difference. Some of the horns I tried out I was unable to make a great evaluation of because the key heights were set up badly or the pads were leaking badly. I knew I couldn't afford the price tag of a horn and an overhaul though. A well cared for horn will give a much clearer indication of it's full potential than a horn that hasn't been kept up. 
  • Relacquered saxes generally play thinner than their original lacquer counterparts. The relacquered horns tend to have diminished tone color in some aspect or other (not always predictable). That absence can often be heard and usually felt in the vibrational feed back of the air column while playing.
  • Lacquer does seem to have some effect on the horn's tone, most likely the small added weight on the neck. You can experiment with this by yourself just by adding a small bit of electrical tape to the part of the neck just past the cork. You'll hear a noticeable difference.
  • Structural damage (ex. out of round body tubes, body tubes that aren't completely straight) can result in a less responsive horn. By less responsive I mean the sound can be muddied. For example the beginning of each note isn't as clear or distinct as it could be.
All of this being said, the two best VIs I've played both prove and disprove my observations. The best horn I've played was a 110xxx with nearly all of it's original lacquer with no structural damage. The other fantastic horn I played was a 106xxx which belongs to Dave Wilson, which had only some of it's original lacquer, and had some repairs. The 110xxx was for sale, but unfortunately was out of my price range. You can find it here on USA Horn's website.

Moral of the story? You very well might have to try a number of saxophones before you find what really suits you. Though there are exceptions, you'll have a good shot at the best of the best with something that hasn't suffered major repairs or a relacquer. Good luck!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Mark VI Tenor 98xxx For Sale

I've got my eyes on another horn, so I've decided to sale my 98xxx Mark VI

I just had the horn overhauled last year by a Philly sax tech, Larry Frank, so it's in great playing condition. The sound is bright and powerful, and it is on the free blowing side of the spectrum. Here are a couple examples of me playing on it:

Cosmetically it's gorgeous, and physically it's in great shape with no dents and one minor ding on the player's side of the bell. It has a unique honey color lacquer, the result of a relacquer. The guy I bought it from said it was a factory relacquer, which is attested to by a very clean job and the uncommon hue. The engraving still looks very good too. 

I was told that it is a European horn (no mark VI on the bell). The neck did have an aftermarket pickup installed, which I had plugged as part of the overhaul, which you can see in the pictures. There is one spot that looks soldered on the low C key guard (there is a pic of that too). 

Here is a link to pictures of the horn on google drive:

Please email me at or call 443 995 4727. The horn is located in Pottstown, PA. The price is $6000 (+shipping/paypal fees). Local buyers are welcome to come try the horn.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Adam Larson's Simple Beauty

Recently Adam Larson sent me his debut album, Simple Beauty. Larson is a young NYC player who already has some heavy momentum to his career, fueled with regular performances, teaching, writing, and a slew of endorsements and reviews. Like a lot of jazz artists today who want to make a career for themselves, he has formed a working group which serves as the line up for this album.

To start off, I'll say that the album is definitely worth hearing. Each member of the group stands strong. There are no weak links, and every player has shows their mastery of the material and their instrument. The writing is interesting, catchy, and thoughtful, and often reflects a rhythmically driven style currently being defined by other saxophonists like Chris Potter, Donny McCaslin (among other instrumentalists).

Adam Larson, as a saxophonist and improviser, holds his own for his debut record. He comes off as confident and creative even during the sometimes rhythmically and harmonically tricky settings he has written into the tunes. His vocabulary sounds like it is driven by improvisation and the development of musical ideas rather than by an emulative set of lines or phrases. There is the occasional reference to a modern tenor player's vocabulary or style, but largely Larson is playing his own musical approach, which is no small feat for a young player or veteran. His sound is clear and full, and while his sound and inflection sometime invoke some of today's great players (Chris Cheek, Mark Turner, Chris Potter, Donny McCaslin), it is also apparent that Larson is developing his voice in terms of timbre and inflection. Throughout the record Larson shows that he is a gifted improviser and saxophonist who is creating and playing with skill and originality.

Click here is a link to the album on iTunes, and below is a live performance of "Good Day Without You" from the album.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Stablemates in 7 and 5 (Trading)

As a follow up to the last post on Stablemates, here is track of an interesting arrangement of the tune. The A sections of the tune are in 7/4 and the B section is in 5/4, and the whole thing is kind of uptempo. This particular take is a duo recording with drummer Gabriel Globus-Hoenich, who came up with the arrangement, and myself trading choruses. We have played this arrangement a number of times over the past couple of years. It's definitely fun to play once you get the hang of it.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Stablemates Etude

This morning I was working on an etude or written out solo over Stablemates. I was pleased with how it turned out and wanted to share it.

Though my only real focus was to write something different from what I usually play on this tune, I did end up with some recurring themes. Polyrhythms turn up on the regular basis. The etude opens up with a 3 beat repeating rhythm, creating a 3/4 metric feel over the underlying 4/4 meter. The B section, starting at measure 14, uses the same 3/4 over 4/4 feel with the fourth and final occurrence of the rhythm being displaced early by one eighth note. Finally, the opening of the final A section has a 3 and half beat repeating rhythm starting on beat 2 of measure 23. You can also observe some repeating 3 eighth note rhythms in measures 4-5 and in measure 28.

Some of the other things I ended up using a lot include anticipated and delayed resolutions and switching between melodic ascent and descent multiple times withing a phrase. Anyways, here it is (links to PDFs in various transpositions below).

Stablemates Etude Bb.pdf
Stablemates Solo C.pdf
Stablemates Solo Eb.pdf

Friday, January 4, 2013

Keeping a Vamp Interesting: Texture

This is the first in a series of posts that will address improvising over a vamp (a relatively short repeated section of music like a repeated bass line, i.e. Chameleon ). Because their isn't usually a huge amount of harmonic movement in a given vamp, it is commonly one of the first settings that musicians become comfortable improvising in. However, its sweetness soon sours as the musician's ear and ability matures and some of the difficulties of creating a complete musical statement over static harmony begin to rear their head. In fact, vamps can present a real challenge for telling a story or making an improvisation really feel like it goes someplace. Too many canned pentatonic or blues licks over a repeated chord progression or bass line can quickly bore the listener and the player. This series of posts will be dedicated to exploring different methods of propelling a vamp-based improvisation forward and keeping yourself from falling into a musical lull. Of course, all the concepts are also readily applicable to other musical settings.

Today's post will deal with texture, loosely defined as the musical mood established by the combination of  articulation, dynamics, and rhythmic and melodic content. Texture can be a very useful and relatively easy to use tool in your improvisation. You can use it to set up contrasts or establish a unique musical landscape, and as long as you are familiar with the different elements that create them, you will be able to compose various textures on the fly. Following are examples of some different possibilities, each with a notated example (I had originally intended to include an audio example as well, but those will have to wait for the next post). The notated examples are should be played at a medium tempo (quarter note = 100-120) and played with a straight eighth feel.

Like a Melody

An easy way to create musical textures is to simply copy one you are familiar with. For example, one possibility would be to play melodically, generally using longer rhythms like you find in the average melody that accompanies a lyric. Classic jazz standards come to mind like Autumn Leaves or All The Things You Are. These melodies contain longer resolution notes, and smooth voice leading. Here is an example of a few bars of improvisation loosely within this texture.


Articulation can be a powerful and easy tool in setting up a musical landscape. Any articulation used in a repetitive or even semi-repetitive fashion can establish a mood. One example could consist of staccato notes and accents regularly used in a phrase.

Giant Steps

There are a variety of textures you can create by focusing on intervals, but one might consist of medium size intervals like thirds and fourths, the building blocks of arpeggios. This can definitely lead to some interesting territory.

Elvin Jones

Continuing in the Coltrane theme, a repetitive rhythmic element can also establish a certain mood. The following example uses a repeated three 16th note pattern (two notes and one rest), a polyrhythm, which can establish a very dense and energetic mood.

Perks of Exploiting Textures

Not only will employing textures in your improvisation  fight the potentially static feel of a vamp, but it can also give the solo unity and focus. While you can use them to increase intensity or transition to a new musical setting, they also give the ear something to latch on to. Sometimes I'll remember a particular solo on an album because of the specific unique textures it uses, and I think we sometimes remember compositions in that way too.

A good introductory exercise would be to list a few musical textures that appeal to you and experiment with them all over the same vamp or tune. With continued experimentation you will soon find new favorites which will not only help develop a given solo but eventually become an integral part of playing.