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!