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.