Thursday, November 5, 2015

Improving Tone and Response in the Lower Register

Using overtones to improve tone and response is tried and true old news. Playing the whole spectrum of overtones improves richness of tone and ease of playing throughout the horn including the lower register, which is great; however, it doesn't specifically address the low register and isn't likely to address all the pertinent details (embouchure and air support) of the low register. That leaves the burgeoning young saxophonist, who wants something specific to do in the low register of the horn, little recourse besides typical long tones, maybe trying different dynamics, vibrato, or zeroing in on intonation. While all of those things are important, they don't efficiently address voicing or embouchure, which are best affected in tandem and fundamental to getting the tone and response you want. What follows is an exercise that specifically addresses voicing in the low register.

Low B-flat: The Gold Standard
What does great a good approach to voicing, embouchure, and air support sound and feel like in the low register? You'll most likely find the answer to this question on low B-flat. It requires healthy air support out of the gate, and due to acoustical properties, most likely the curve of the bow, it generally feels less resistant than its nearby neighbors when playing with a full tone (vs. subtone). Increased air support and it's relative ease in compared to other low notes make it easy to achieve a relaxed embouchure (unless your setup is overly resistant, i.e. reed, mouthpiece) and a huge vibrant sound. This makes low B-flat a logical starting point and a kind of standard by which to judge the rest of our notes.

Try comparing low B-flat to it's closest neighbor, low B, and you'll notice a difference in timbre and in how it feels to play the note. Generally, low B-flat is more vibrant and feels a bit less resistant. As you play B try to maintain the form your embouchure takes as you play low B-flat. Don't let the sides of the bottom lip come in or up. This will go a long way to improving your tone quality and the ease of playing in the low register.

Using the Overtone Above
The next part of the exercise deals more specifically with voicing. For any note that you are looking to improve, you can always improve your voicing by playing the overtone above it and slurring back down into the note. You'll arrive back to the original pitch with an improved and more ideal tongue position, which in turn puts less stress on your embouchure.

First try this on low B-flat. Once you've achieved a beautiful and vibrant B-flat move, up to B and go through the same process. Again focus on maintaining the more relaxed and correct embouchure position you achieve on low B-flat. After improving your low B, try going back and forth between low B-flat and B and see if you can maintain the same ease of playing and rich sound. If you can your on the right track, and you should continue forward.

I find I get the most out of this exercise when I play each note sufficiently long but getting all three notes in one breath and slurring between the notes as shown below.

Continue this process chromatically upward. Be sure to check in with low B-flat often and use it to gauge other notes. Check for rich timbre, embouchure pressure, and easy response.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Playing in a Sax Section

In the past year I learned that one of the most important activities to developing musicianship is playing in small and large groups. This is one of the aspects of musical development examined by Music Learning Theory, and many of their claims are supported by field studies though I don't know if this one has a specific study attached to it. I have found that this rings true in my own personal experience. Playing in the practice room is one thing, but actually playing with other musicians well requires a lot more skill.

Playing in a sax section offers some unique opportunities for development. If you are able to play with more experienced players you'll have the real time opportunity to learn the style appropriate to the music. To do the job well you have to learn to listen. You have to listen to the section leader, the rest of the section, and the rest of the group.

If you feel like you can just hide in the section because there are so many other musicians than you're probably approaching the music and situation pretty poorly. Instead, you should take opportunity to learn and fit in, which will, in the end, make you a much better player.

Following is a quick overview of playing in a sax section and how to make the most of it:

  • If you are the lead player, you need to establish style including articulation, dynamics, vibrato, bends and other inflections. If you are holding down a different chair, then you should listen to the lead alto for their cues.

  • The lead player also establishes technical execution as well including cut offs and where to breath in longer phrases. Again, as a section member, you should listen to the lead alto and do your best to follow him/her.

  • When playing with the full ensemble, the lead alto should be listening back to the lead trumpet for his stylistic interpretation and technical execution. 

  • Lead alto needs to play strong enough to lead the section, and section players need to listen to the lead to maintain balance and pick up on his stylistic and technical cues. It's also good form for the lead alto to verbally tell the section what he wants in specific musical examples.  
  • All players in the section should listen to each other to blend timbre, intonation, and volume. If they don't listen, they can't do it. 
  • Each player should be sensitive of their volume so that they blend with the section, but they should be able to hear themselves clearly enough to manage intonation, style, etc. When playing with good voicing and embouchure technique they should be able to hear themselves distinctly even at a low volume, so they don't necessarily need to play loud to accomplish these goals. 
  • A strong bari can help balance the timbre of the section and work towards a rich full sound.

Great Sax Sections
These are some of the great sax sections historically and currently.

Duke Ellington Orchestra
Sax section members over the years (incomplete list): Johnny Hodges, Paul Gonsalves, Harry Carney, Ben Webster, Willie Smith, Jimmy Forrest, Harold Ashby, Joe Temperley, Barney Bigard, Hilton Jefferson, Geezil Minerve, Skippy Williams

Count Basie Orchestra
Sax section members over the years (incomplete list): Lester Young, Frank Foster, Paul Gonsalves, Wardell Gray, Lucky Thompson, Don Byas, Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, Buddy Tate, Earle Warren, Illinois Jacquet, Marshal Royal, Billy Mitchell, Serge Chaloff, Herschel "Tex" Evans, Paul Quinichette, Elvira "Vi" Redd, Jimmy Forrest, Tab Smith, Charlie Fowlkes

Vanguard Jazz Orchestra (formerly the Thad Jones Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra)
Current sax section: Dick Oats, Billy Drewes, Rich Perry, Ralph LaLama, Gary Smulyan

Maria Schneider Orchestra
Current sax section: Steve Wilson, Dave Pietro, Rich Perry, Donny McCaslin, Scott Robinson

Dave Holland Big Band
Sax section: Antonio Hart, Mark Grosser, Chris Potter, Gary Smulyan

Monday, July 27, 2015

A Glance Into Tone

I've always guessed at what mix of harmonics or overtones result in different timbres, and I recently discovered that there are spectogram programs/apps for computer and mobile devices. A spectogram analyzes audio and shows you the strength of frequencies in any given sound. I used a program called Spek for the following experiment.

Tenor Comparison

A quick test lent some interesting results. I recorded my stencil Super Dynaction against my Mark VI. For both of these I played long tones on low B-flat, regular B-flat, and B-flat with the octave key. The sound clip, which is rather boring but available here, consists of six long tones. The stencil SDA is first and the Mark VI is second. My personal impression from playing the horns (and from listening to recordings of them) is that the Mark VI is punchy, centered, and contains a mix of both dark and bright elements. The SDA is more spread and has a warmer sound. However, it still has a large presence. Now let's see what those differences look like in the spectogram image of the sound file:

 Looking over the image, you'll notice several differences. One that sticks out to me is the significantly higher amount of green at higher frequencies in the three Mark VI long tones on the right. The other is the more intense amounts of red seen in the lower frequencies in the SDA long tones, except perhaps in the highest long tone on each horn.

Trumpet Mouthpiece Comparison

My brother, a trumpet player, was visiting so we tried recording a trumpet with different mouthpieces. We pitted my son's 7C mouthpiece against my brother's "GR". The GR was clearly more focused and powerful. Here are the two tracks: 7C vs. GR, and following are two spectogram images. The first is of the 7C and the second is GR.

Interestingly, if you examine images in their full size, the clearest difference is increased and more defined amounts of green in the higher frequencies. Considering this shared ground between the examples of the tenors and the trumpet mouthpieces, an educated guess is that the stronger higher harmonics can represent a more focused and punchy sound. I bet this could be easily confirmed or refined with a little study of timbre and acoustics. Either way it is all very interesting, and I'm looking forward to learning more about it.

Looking Forward

What's the take away from all this? One idea, is that technology could help you in analyzing sound. I think it could be particularly helpful when you try brand new equipment in a foreign space. In a situation like that it can be really difficult to get a realistic idea of what the equipment sounds like. I could imagine that at some future point players will want to see spectogram images of how they sound on a horn or mouthpiece before they buy it (or at least I can imagine myself doing that). Happy spectogramming...

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Saxophone Sale!

I've decided to sell practically all of my saxophone equipment to raise funds towards a Balanced Action. The links are to detailed ads.

Mark VI
1963 Original Mark VI Tenor 108587

Florida Otto Link Super Tone Master Tenor Mouthpiece 7*

Stencil Buffet Super Dynaction Tenor 

Various Mouthpieces and a ligature
Bari WTIII metal tenor mouthpiece, Rico Metalite M5, Selmer S90, 1920s no name hard rubber tenor, 1920s 2 screw metal ligature for hard rubber tenor

If you have any questions or want to make an offer, contact me at or 443 995 4727. 

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Timbre Trainer: Ottolink Super Tone Master NY

Otto Link STM-NY and Timbre Trainer
Last year I test drove a new idea embodied in a little device called the Timbre Trainer. The trainer is a vibrating speaker you can attach to your instrument or mouthpiece (or whatever). It then vibrates the instrument at various frequencies, and these vibrations are a lot stronger than how the horn or mouthpiece would vibrate when played, even when you play really loudly. The packaging of the device sports a little spectograph showing how the amount of overtones in the instrument's sound increases generally after a certain number of hours of using the device. This should mean that the sound gets richer and most likely louder. Last time I tried the device on a vintage instrument with noticeable effects. I also tried to tackle some of the science behind it, and probably got quite a few things wrong. That being said, I wanted to try it out again, this time on a mouthpiece and preferably something modern.


I settled on an Ottolink Super Tone Master New York Series. These mouthpieces are notoriously "hollow" sounding, like you are playing subtone all the time. That hollowness can sound uncentered or like it doesn't have enough core. I hoped that through using the device we could hear that element of the sound change so that the tone would sound more centered or have more color to it.

For the experiment I set aside two Rico Jazz Select Filed reeds and labeled them. I set up a controlled recording environment where I would be a consistent distance from my microphone, and I made sure the microphone's recording level was consistent. I recorded both reeds before I used the Timbre Trainer, and then I recorded both reeds again afterwards.

There was one hick up in the process. I was planning on using the device for around 100 hours, like I did in my test last year. However, the device stopped working entirely sometime between 20-25 hours. I'm not sure what is wrong with it or if it's repairable. It just stopped working, and that is after approximately 120-125 hours of use total over the time I've owned it (maybe there is a warranty?). Anyways, I only ran the device for 20-25 hours on this mouthpiece, so whatever changes we hear in the after clips most likely would have been increased if I kept running the device.

Sound Clips

Reed 1 Before
Reed 1 After

Reed 2 Before
Reed 2 After

What I Hear

To my ears, there is no contest between "Reed 1 Before" and "Reed 1 After". Clearly, "Reed 1 After" has more core and a richer sound. It also sounds cleaner.

In terms of richness of sound and core, the "Reed 2 After" clip also beats out "Reed 2 Before".  This is in spite of an interesting development in how the reed played. When I recorded the before clips, reed 1 felt much softer than reed 2. Reed 2 also felt a bit stuffy, and both it's hardness and slight stuffiness come across in the before recording. Interestingly, when I recorded the after clips the reeds had switched and now the reed 2 felt softer than reed 1 and softer than when I originally recorded the before clip with it. It still felt slightly stuffy however. Despite the softening of reed 2, the "Reed 2 After" clip still has a noticeably richer sound and more core compared to the hollower "Reed 2 Before" clip.

Overall, I'd confidently say there is a marked improvement in how the mouthpiece sounds. I'd also say that the experience of playing the mouthpiece after the trainer is more enjoyable than before. This is likely simply due to the improved timbral quality, making the tone easier to hear and more beautiful to listen to.


Should you go buy one? Maybe. It is possible we are actually seeing some of the physical process behind why vintage instruments generally play or sound "better" to most musically mature ears. If you're playing vintage equipment, I probably wouldn't mess around with Timbre Trainer. However if you're playing on a modern setup that you wish had a richer sound, then go practice. ; ) If after years of practicing you still want a richer sound, this is possibly one way of modifying your sound.

This was only my first test on modern equipment (and my device broke), so I can't endorse it with 100% confidence. Certainly, this is one direction that will hopefully investigated further in the future.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Audiate Your Tone!

For those of you who have followed the blog for some time, you know I'm fairly obsessed with saxophone tone and exercises that improve it. Despite all of the technical know how I've come to embrace in terms of voicing, air support, and embouchure, I'd like to add a new concept that has little to do with technical execution, and everything to do with your inner ear.

In my last post I explained that I had been learning Music Learning Theory and the Jump Right In method, in which I have found very basic ways to improve musicianship significantly, even for more advanced musicians. I have recently observed how these concepts apply to a personalized sound concept and intonation.

Music as Language

Here is one important comparison drawn from music learning theory, which, for those who are unfamiliar with it, is an explanation of how the mind learns and processes music and has been refined over decades of research. Music learning theory posits that our brains learn music like we learn a language. First children babble, then imitate language, then begin to speak coherently developing a massive vocabulary, then learn to read, and finally write. This applies to music rather straightforwardly. To state it simply, music is learned on an intuitive level, just like language, when we first memorize a large set of melodies learned by ear (starting simply of course), simultaneously developing comprehension of the harmony and rhythm through learning bass lines and meter by ear, then learn to read music based on melodic and rhythmic patterns we already know (sight words for anyone who is familiar with reading pedagogy), and then learn to write music. Improvising fits in there as well after sufficiently developing a vocabulary of melodic patterns and can be done prior to reading music . Improvising is fairly analogous to forming your own sentences to communicate ideas, something we start doing very early on.

The Key: Audiation

How does this apply to tone? The central aspect of music learning theory is developing a skill called audiation, which is the process of hearing music in our inner ear. Just like we form and think through verbal thoughts, the same is done with music. Our ability to audiate music significantly affects our ability to play (and compose) music, whether it is written or improvised, and this includes our ability to produce the tone we want.

Intonation Example

The perfect example is intonation. Imagine a musician who keenly listens for his or her intonation. The player listens and adjusts each note within milliseconds of playing it. He also has learned to adjust certain notes in certain registers of the horn. However, this imaginary musician is not audiating strongly. For example, while sight reading a piece of music he comes to an ascending leap. Let's say the jump is from middle C up to Ab in the staff, a minor 6th. He doesn't know exactly what that note after the leap is going to sound like. If you asked the player to sing the jump he would have some difficulty if just until he got his bearings. Also, his musical intuition is not predicting the bass note that the Ab will sound against. He doesn't know what the bass motion will sound like or the harmony. Basically, the sound of the Ab is going to be a complete surprise at least the first time he hears it in this part of the piece. The musician makes the jump up to Ab, and of course it is out of tune, but luckily he quickly adjusts it in tune.

The control of intonation above was not done by audiation. It was done by imitation. He had to hear it played for him before he could adjust it. What if our musician was not so keenly aware of intonation, in other words he wasn't consistently trying to maintain good intonation. Then it's almost guaranteed he would never really play in tune, even after someone helped him get his mouthpiece adjusted to the right place on his cork.

Now imagine another musician. This one audiates each note accurately before he plays. He is playing the same piece as the first one and comes to the same ascending leap from C to Ab. He knows exactly what the Ab will sound like before he plays it. Beyond that, he also has a very good guess of what the harmony will sound like, despite the fact it's not written on the page and he has never heard the piece (He has heard the musical language of the piece and his brain puts that to use in predicting what's coming next. That's all part of audiating.). He also has learned techniques for adjusting intonation. The difference for this musician is he can accurately predict the needed intonation, so finely that when he makes the jump the note is already in tune. There is no audible adjustment of intonation. He was either 100% accurate or accurate enough that we didn't hear it. It was like he knew that piece really well and had spent a lot of time playing it with a group, but just like our first musican he was sight reading it.

I'd like to mention quickly that memorizing the sound of intervals through repeated ear training alone wouldn't make the first musician the second's equal. The second musician not only knew what the Ab would sound like, but he also intuitively understood it's context in the harmony and the overall tonality of the piece. The second musician aurally comprehends the relationship between melody, harmony, and tonality, and that makes him a powerhouse at playing in tune, as long as he has put in some technical practice as well.

Now take both of our musicians and make them improvisers. Give them the same level of creativity and technical prowess. In terms of intonation, the second musician will be consistently on the money. The first musician, will sometimes struggle with intonation, especially if he goes outside of his comfort zone, improvising in new harmonic settings or with less familiar melodic language.

Audiate Your Tone

Tone quality is also controlled by aural processes. In my experience, timbre is something that can be audiated. Therefore, just like in our two examples of intonation, tone can be controlled by imitation or audiation, and audiation will always get more consistent results. Of course, all the technical preparation and exercises our still necessary, however you will reach your end result much more quickly if you are hearing the timbre you want in your mind. This is something I believe Jerry Bergonzi has advocated, spending time hearing the tone you want in your mind.

I believe that is a great suggestion, and I'd like to add my own experience to this. Audiation seems to be fundamentally based on tonality and meter. I have found that by strengthening my audiation of basic tonality, my entire approach to music has improved. In other words, by improving my basic audiation of tonality I have also improved my audiation in many other categories including intonation and tone. Whether that is causation or correlation, I don't know.

Finding Your Voice: Imitation vs. Audiation

To put it bluntly, one of my pursuits over the past few years is to find my own tone. I have been somewhat satisfied with how my musical vocabulary has developed, but my tone has always seemed to be reminiscent of my favorite musician(s). My Chris Potter-like tone has been well established for years now, and wanting to get away from that, I tried various things. I've spent long periods of time not listening to much Chris Potter if any. I've tried listening heavily to and checking out other musicians in depth, like Chris Cheek, Charlie Parker and Ben Wendel. However, when my tone began changing to reflect this listening and study, it simply imitated these other musicians instead of becoming an amalgam of my influences. This was all very frustrating.

Just recently I have begun hearing a personalized tone emerging, one that reflects my influences but doesn't simply imitate them. I believe this is a direct result of my audiation practice. I believe that previously my tone was largely a result of imitation, but through improving my ability to audiate generally, I have begun to see a personalized tone emerge, one that I form in my head first and then appears in sonic reality. It's a great experience.

This makes perfect sense in terms of the audiation process. The first step towards audiation is the ability to imitate, and from there it progresses to other steps such as pattern recognition, labeling and prediction. If your aural cognition fails along the way it reverts back to stage one, simple imitation, and doesn't digest the musical material. There are many aspects of music that reflect this reversion to imitation, and intonation and tone are two of them. When we can't accurately predict pitch or intonation, we must rely on imitation for adjusting intonation. The same goes for timbre and tone. When we are not audiating, we are reverting to imitation to get us through. Finally, like I mentioned above, audition of timbre and intonation is most likely tied to basic audiation of tonality. If we aren't successfully audiating tonality, then the audiation of intonation will be impossible and the audiation of timbre will be extremely difficult.

So, what exactly am I suggesting? I'm advocating working through the basic steps of music learning theory, which I outlined here. Have fun!

Friday, February 6, 2015

Tonal Function Based Ear Training

Over the past six months I've been learning about Music Learning Theory, which explains how the brain understands and learns music. One of the reasons I was attracted to it is that it's based on decades of research and testing. Basically, the crux of the theory is that the brain understands, learns, and predicts music in a process called audiation. The theory maps out how the brain develops what many musicians call the "inner ear" and progresses in intuitively understanding music.

The theory's explanation of how we learn to understand melody and harmony has produced a system of ear training that I personally found extremely effective. In becoming familiar with the theory I worked through the recommend exercises and learning activities, so that I could use them in teaching music. Before starting, I felt I had pretty decent ears. I've done a lot of transcription both in terms of melody and changes (harmony), and worked through various ear training classes in school (learning intervals, sight singing, recognizing chords with extensions, etc.). After a few months of memorizing and digesting the applications of music learning theory, I began to see a significant consistent improvement in my musicianship. I've been using it with students, and I've been seeing the same results with them. One of the big differences I've noticed, and I'll go into the specific benefits of this later, is that I hear music in my inner more clearly now. Whether it is hearing a familiar song or melody or creating an improvisation in my head, I can hear it more vividly and comprehend it more quickly than I could before. I think the best description of the overall improvement is that music has become more intuitive. No matter how great a musician you are, music can always become more intuitive and therefore easier for you, and that is the exact aim of music learning theory.

The Inner Ear

The basic process that our inner ear uses to comprehend music is that it organizes according to patterns or logical structures. This makes it easy for the brain to store it long term and easily recall it for comparison with new material we are either learn by ear or read. The digestion of music in this way also improves our ability to predict how music will progress and predict what music will sound like when we are reading music, composing, or improvising. This process also makes it easier for us to assign labels like scale degrees, pitch names or, even better, fingerings on our instrument to the music we hear either in real musical situations or in our heads.

Tonality and Function

For the music that most of us play (Western Music: most American and western European music), the system that organizes pitch is called tonality, and that is, at least for us Westerners, the go to source for the patterns and structures with which the brain can organize and store, in other words, learn music. Of course, it also treats rhythm in the same way, but that subject will need it's own post at some point.

The better we aurally digest the basics of tonality the stronger musical foundation we have. The two most basic structures in tonality are the polar functions tonic and dominant (I and V7). This is the starting point for digesting pitch. We can digest these in both major and minor and in multiple keys. To that we add subdominant (IV) and other functions, and from there we can also explore other tonalities besides major and minor like dorian and mixolydian. It is important to address multiple functions, tonalities, and so on because our brain uses the contrasts to aid and solidify our musical learning. 

Music learning theory and a series based on it, Jump Right In, suggests a number of ways to go about digesting tonality and function as follows.

Memorized Songs (Rote Songs)

Familiar melodies form a kind of musical vocabulary that our brains can draw on in intuitively understanding music. However, this metaphorical database will be much more effective if we also learn the harmonic functions that go with these melodies. Logically, we should start with simple songs that feature tonic and dominant, and we should learn them completely (melody, bass line, and harmony).

Here is a laundry list of how to develop this basic tune vocabulary:
  • Learn to sing melodies and their bass lines by ear. First focus on simple songs that feature tonic and dominant such as Mary Had a Little Lamb, London Bridges, Hot Cross Buns, and Three Blind Mice.
  • After learning to sing the melodies and bass lines, learn to play them on your instrument by ear.
  • Practice playing the melody while hearing the bass line in your head, playing the bass line while hearing the melody in your head, and playing the bass line or melody while hearing simple harmonies in your head (see below for harmonies).
  • If you have any ability at all to play the piano, guitar, or other instrument that allows you to sing simultaneously, practice playing the melody while singing the bass line, playing the bass line while singing the melody, and singing harmonies while playing the bass line or melody.
  • You can use the following basic harmonies (all scale degrees below reference the overall key. In the key of C, C=1, B=7, etc., no matter the underlying chord).
    • Scale degree 1 on tonic, 7 on dominant, and 1 on subdominant (Key of C Major: C, B, and C)
    • Scale degree 3 on tonic, 4 on dominant, and 4 on subdominant (Key of C Major: E, F, and F)
    • Scale degree 5 on tonic, 5 on dominant, and 6 on subdominant  (Key of C Major: G, G, and A)
  • Practice all the songs that you do in major in minor as well.
  • Practice the songs in other keys.
  • Expand your tune vocabulary to other simple diatonic songs that can be mostly harmonized with tonic, dominant and subdominant either in major or minor. All diatonic songs can be harmonized with these three functions, even if they weren't originally harmonized with I, IV, and V7.
    • Jump Right In has a series of solo books that each contain 50 songs that fit this description, and audio CD to use as
  • Compose melodic structures to these basic chord progressions. Start with just chord tones, and then expand to more complex creations.
  • Improvise over the tunes as well. Again, start with just chord tones, and then expand to more complex creations.
  • Expand your vocabulary to tunes base on dorian and mixolydian which have different harmonic functions.

Tonal Patterns

Jump Right In also suggests learning what it calls tonal patterns. These are melodic structures based solely on chord tones of the basic harmonic functions (Scale degrees for tonic: 1, 3, 5; for dominant: 5, 7, 2, 4, and for subdominant: 4, 6 ,1). The first book and second book in the series provide some nine different sets of tonal patterns, which you learn by ear from the CD. They progress from tonic and dominant in major to adding subdominant, working in minor, and exploring two and three functions in dorian and mixolydian as well.

Here is the process for working with these tracks:
  • First work with the neutral syllable track.
  • Sing back the tonal pattern in the space following each pattern.
  • Once you have become familiar with the patterns, move onto the track with solfege. This progression is important, as learning them on a neutral syllable first will increase the depth to which you digest the material. 
  • Memorize the tonal patterns, being able to sing the whole set without the audio track.
  • Improvise in the space provided on the track using chord tones only. Either improvise the same function or an opposing function. When first doing this pause the track and be careful to first hear your improvisation in your head. Then sing it out loud with solfege and double check to make sure your solfege correctly matches what you are singing.
To give you an idea of what these are and a starting point, I've created my own set of tonal patterns, This would be akin to the most basic set in the series, tonic and dominant in major. The first track is on a neutral syllable, and the second is the same set of patterns on solfege. I highly recommend getting the books and working through all 9 sets.

Improvisation with Tonal Patterns and Beyond

I have worked on some ear training improvisational exercises based on all of this. These are simple improvisational exercises that are generally fun, and are not overly challenging assuming you start at a comfortable level. These exercises assume that you have some vocabulary or ability to sing the chord tones of tonic and dominant in major to start off. As the exercises progress they include the ability to sing chord tones of subdominant and all three functions in minor as well.
  • Exercise 1 Free Play: Tonic and Dominant in Major. In this exercise you can improvise, singing tonic for as long as you'd like. When you ear prompts you move to dominant, and then come back and sing something in tonic to end. Feel free to draw on tonal patterns you may have already learned for vocabulary. You can continue this pattern for as long as you'd like switching between tonic and dominant at will. Do this on a neutral syllable, preferably something with a percussive consonant at the beginning like bum or dun.
    • Now, add solfege or scale degrees to the exercise. Whenever you are in question as to whether your solgege or scale degrees match your pitches, stop and double check where if you are correct.
    • Play this exercise on your instrument.
    • Try to do this exercise completely in your head. Do the exercise exactly as outline above, only instead of singing, now only hear the pitches in your head. When you discover something compelling, sing it out loud and play it on your instrument.
  • Exercise 2 Stuctured Improvisation: Tonic and Dominant in Major. This time give yourself a form, a set amount of time on each function, and a definite progression. Feel free to use the chord progressions from some of the tonic/dominant songs like Mary Had a Little Lamb, London Bridges, Hot Cross Buns, and Three Blind Mice.
    • Complete each of the stages outlined in exercise 1 including neutral syllable singing, solfege or scale degree singing, instrumental improvisation, and inner ear improvisation.
  • Exercise 3 Free Play: Tonic and Dominant in Minor. Follow all of the instruction for exercise 1 only this time in minor.
  • Exercise 4 Structure Improvisation: Tonic and Dominant in Minor. Follow all the instructions for exercise 2, only now in minor.
  • Exercise 5 and 6 Free Play and Structured Improvisation: Tonic, Dominant, and Subdominant in Major. Follow all the instructions for exercises 1 and 2, only this time add subdominant. When doing structured improvisation use the following guidelines in creating the form, or use a set form from a familiar song like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star or Yankee Doodle.
    • Subdominant normally follows tonic. 
    • It often progresses to dominant.
    • It can also return to tonic.
    • In some circumstances like the ninth and tenth bars of a classic blues, subdominant follows dominant and progresses to tonic.
  • Exercises 7 and 8: Free Play and Structured Improvisation: Tonic, Dominant, and Subdominant in Minor. Follow the instructions for exercises 5 and 6, only this time in minor.
  • Excercise 9: Passing Tones, Neighbor Tones etc. In this exercise follow the same progression outline in Free Play and then Structured Improvisation in Major and in Minor. Now expand beyond chord tones and include any kind of melodic structure that you hear whether it be passing tones, neighbor tones, suspensions, or whatever it is your hearing. Adding these will make obscure the harmonic function to some degree, but while doing this listen for which harmonic function is being emphasized.
  • Exercise 10: Accompanied Improvisation. This exercise can be done first with chord tones, and then with no melodic limitations as in exercise 9. It would be a good idea to follow the same progression as before, first Free Play and Structure Improvisation, first major and then minor, and first 2 functions and then 3 functions. The idea is to accompany yourself with either the bass line or the chords. This can be done with the piano, keyboard, guitar, or other instrument that allows you to sing simultaneously. The piano or keyboard also allows you to play the improvised melodic material.


Music learning theory predicts specific benefits from working through memorized songs and tonal pattern as described above. These are some of the benefits that I have confirmed through my own experience.
  • Improved pitch memory and stronger sense of intonation.
  • The technical act of playing music becomes more natural and easier allowing for elements like style and expression to become more central.
  • Increased ability to immediately recognize function in music (hearing the chord progression).
  • Quicker recognition of exact pitches.
  • More accurate execution of the ideas I hear in my head when improvising or composing.
  • Increased technique or at least that is how it seems. Really its a stronger connection between my horn and what I hear in my head.
  • Increased ability to remember music and to memorize music.
Working through this material has offered the fastest significant improvement to my overall musicianship I have ever noticed. The only two rivals are a period where I transcribed a lot, and another period where I did intense study and emulation of Charlie Parker's playing. However, what is different about this experience is that it has changed the way I hear music generally in a fundamental way, and the improvements continue in noticeable ways as I continue working on the material, which is part of why I created the improvisation exercises. I've also begun working on memorized songs that include modal mixture (theme song to legend of Zelda anyone?). It's really a fantastic process that is driving continuous development and improvement for me and has filled in a big hole I didn't even know was there. 

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Chris Potter Interview and Imaginary Cities

If you haven't heard, Chris Potter's fantastic new album, Imaginary Cities, is out. The record seems to have two central focuses, writing for a unique instrumentation (includes string quartet) and improvisatory exploration. The writing is detailed and beautiful, and borderland that is explored is multifaceted and satisfying. You can hear a track from the album on the ECM site here. Here is the promo for the album:

I had the opportunity to do a short interview with Chris. There are a number of important concepts Chris presents here, which he has learned deeply through musical experience. Check it out, and grab a copy of Imaginary Cities:   Amazon -   iTunes -

Ben: The new record, Imaginary Cities, is really great. Your playing is fantastic, and the writing is joyous, deep, and interesting on lots of levels. In the video promo for the record you talked about wanting the music to create these ideal cities in the mind of the listener. Related to this idea, I remember you saying in another setting that you felt human beings communicated things in music that we couldn't with words. Could you tell us a little more about your artistic process. How did these concepts of imaginary cities influence the music? Were there any literary inspirations?

Chris: Thanks Ben, in the past few years I’ve found how helpful it can be for me to think of something extramusical when playing and composing, because it takes me out of the realm of notes only, and into the use of notes as vehicles to express feelings and ideas. With Imaginary Cities I had a vision of cityscapes in my mind, but on another level I was also thinking about the organization of cities and what ideal cities might look like, where the need of human beings for functional communities would be placed above the desire for profit and technological progress. I am interested in reading about these kinds of subjects, and while the issues are extremely complex and difficult to resolve, I think any child can see that the world of human affairs could be organized better than it currently is!

Ben: One thing I have been focusing on recently myself is improving my ears. On the recent facebook interview, you mentioned that playing the piano can work as ear training. You wrote,
"The best ear training things I've done I'd say are playing along with recordings, and playing piano. After a half hour playing the piano, my ears feel much more wide open, and I find I can sometimes technically execute things that were difficult before, because I hear them more clearly." 
Personally, I think the most helpful exercises have immediate apparent positive effects, so this last comment really caught my attention. Can you describe specifically what you are practicing on the piano in these time periods?

Chris Potter: It’s a little difficult to describe what I do at the piano, I usually take some standard I know well and kind of deconstruct it, sometimes playing traditional changes and improvising in the right hand, keeping close attention to voice leading, other times I stretch the harmony, finding new chords that fit the melody, or alter the chords and melody together, or sometimes I'll elongate certain sections to concentrate on one tonality, etc. Voice leading is such a key thing to making it all sound good, and the principles of good voice-leading can be applied to playing a single-line instrument like the saxophone as well.

Ben: I've heard you talk about what you practice on a number of occasions, including playing piano, working on overtones, sequencing ideas through challenging progressions like ascending or descending major thirds, playing drums, and lots of improvising: improvising with parameters, in different tempos, in different keys, applying concepts during improvisation, etc. Could you walk us through an ideal practice day? In this hypothetical situation you don't have gigs you have to prepare for. Instead, you just have some hours of free time for the next few days to improve your craft.

Chris: I wish that situation occurred more frequently these days! What I do these days is just get out the horn and start playing, and see where it leads me. Some days I might end up concentrating on playing free, some days I might be interested in some harmonic idea, some days I might end up focusing solely on sound (production/embouchure/breathing), some days I might be thinking primarily about rhythm, and some days I might just try and play a simple blues until I feel I’ve reached through to the “real thing”, whatever that is. Really, at this point for me it’s all about finding that “real thing”, trying to play some music that transcends the horn and the form of music, and reaches through to the essence of art. It’s a serious challenge, this essence always seems to keep moving and eluding me!

Ben: Lastly, I have a question on improvising and performing. In an interview at NYU with David Schroeder, you talked about an experience you sometimes have when performing music during which your playing isn't shaped by conscious effort but instead feels like a "stream of consciousness". The music flows so naturally that you feel almost disconnected form the experience and are listening to the music that is coming through you, similar to the experience of being in an audience. You describe this as an ideal performance state. I've also heard you say that you "surprise" yourself sometimes while playing, which I personally find is related to this experience. In the NYU interview you said that you can't force yourself into that state of mind, but you can do things to help it along. Could you expand on that?

Chris: Keeping relaxed and not forcing anything is the key. All the cliches about being “in the moment” really apply here-if there are any “should”s or “supposed to”s in my mind, it usually doesn’t work! I try to let go of the goal of even sounding good, and focus only on my own enjoyment and excitement about the creation of sounds and the feelings they elicit, and if all goes well that enjoyment and excitement will reach the listener.

A big thank you to Chris for taking the time to write and for making beautiful music!