Saturday, June 23, 2018

More Fluid Improvisation: Tapping with your Left Foot

Tapping the meter, different than just tapping the beat or pulse, can help your improvisation. Tapping the meter reinforces the harmonic rhythm and the general rhythmic structure helping you to both lock in to the groove and to more intuitively audiate or predict how your improvised lines will lay on the changes.

Tapping the meter consists of tapping on the strong beats. Following is a list of common meters and their metrical emphasis:

  • 4/4, tap on 1 and 3
  • 3/4, tap on 1 
  • 6/8, tap on the dotted quarter note
  • 5/4 (most typical), tap on 1 and 4
  • 7/4 (most typical), tap on 1, 3, and 5, though I also usually add one more tap on the "and" of 6 or 7 depending on the line
Recently I've learned that meter is processed by the right side of the brain. Considering the right brain controls the left side of the body, a possible conclusion is that it would be more natural to tap the meter with the left foot. I've found this to be the case. Tapping the meter with my left foot, particularly when I could use the reinforcement like in an odd time signature, helps my improvisation sound better, more fluid and interesting. Give it a shot, and leave a comment if you find it helpful.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Intonation and Your Ideal Sound

One of the most satisfying musical experiences is listening back to a recording of yourself and hearing your tone and improvisation match up to your aspirations, or come pretty close. If you record yourself on a semiregular basis, and you should, then you will notice that the most successful recordings usually have a common element – good intonation.

Intonation has an incredible effect on tone quality. To some this might sound counterintuitive, but there are number of tone problems that are directly related to intonation. It’s true that there should not be a huge difference in tone quality between a saxophone tuned to A440 versus one tuned to A445. However, the problem enters when the mouthpiece placement on the cork tunes the instrument flatter or sharper than the saxophonist’s ears and expectancy or the other instrumentalists he or she is playing with. As musicians we listen for intonation constantly, and though some are more sensitive than others, our ears constantly track it. When the saxophone mouthpiece is placed too far in or out on the cork, your embouchure responds in an effort to correct the issue. In result your embouchure and voicing is affected, which can really mess with your tone.

Luckily, there are a few indicators that can help you know if your mouthpiece placement on the cork is interfering with your technique. These include resistance, vibrato and inflections (bends), and timbre. Playing either with a mouthpiece that is too far out (flat) or too far in (sharp) can negatively affect all of these. That being said, adjusting for flat intonation generally has more pronounced effects so we will start there.

Too Far Out
Generally, musicians have a good notion of when they are playing out of tune if they are flat. For some reason, flat intonation has a very distinct and unpleasant sound. That’s a good thing because you can hear it and adjust your mouthpiece position accordingly. However, when the mouthpiece is only a little too far out, you might miss it as your embouchure will tighten and bring the pitch up. If the mouthpiece was not too significantly out of adjustment, this can partly remedy the intonation problem, but the tighter embouchure then causes other problems.

First, the added tightness increases resistance, which feels a lot like playing on a reed that is too hard or harder than it otherwise should be. This becomes particularly pronounced in the altissimo register, which becomes more difficult in result. Two, the tighter embouchure is less flexible, so vibrato and inflections sound and feel more strained. You would feel like you cannot bend notes with the same ease you usually do, and your vibrato would sound shallower and require more effort. Lastly, your sound becomes smaller and the timbre loses some of it vibrancy and brightness. So, if you feel like your reed is playing harder than usual, you are having more difficulty playing expressively, and your tone is smaller and deader than usual, it is quite possible your mouthpiece is positioned too far out on the cork.

Too Far In
Adjusting for sharp intonation has its own disadvantages. The automatic reaction in this case is to loosen the embouchure and drop the jaw in an attempt to lower the pitch. Again, if the mouthpiece is close enough to the ideal position on the cork, then this can partly remedy the intonation, but a new set of problems surface. Resistance decreases, and in some instances can make it feel like the reed is just too soft. Because the embouchure is looser, vibrato and inflections become easier. This flexibility combined with the potential for accidentally bringing the pitch too high can result in inflections sounding exaggerated and messy. Depending on the amount of embouchure adjustment, the timbre can lose its punch or definition and even become distorted and grainy in extreme examples. The key things to watch out for here are too little resistance, exaggerated inflections, and fuzzy sounding or grainy timbre.

Equipment Problems
Other problems can fight against your intonation even if you have your mouthpiece placed perfectly. Reeds affect intonation just like they can affect everything else. If a reed is too soft or so old that it plays as if it were too soft, you will likely have problems with inflections and with intonation in the high register. Softer reeds require good voicing technique in order to keep from going flat in the upper register. While players with good voicing, who have worked on techniques like overtones and altissimo, will be able to focus and keep uncomfortably soft reed in tune in the upper register, other players will find it more difficult. Beyond that, the reed will also be overly sensitive resulting in exaggerated and messy inflections. On the other hand a reed that is too hard invites a tighter embouchure, and this often results in sharp intonation, especially as you go higher.

Another potential pitfall comes in ligature placement. If the ligature is placed too far back on the mouthpiece, then the reed is more easily affected by embouchure pressure. This means that you are more likely to play sharp, even if you have the mouthpiece placed appropriately on the neck. This is particularly true in the upper register.

Intonation Practice
It’s also important to spend time periodically practicing intonation. This gives you a chance to figure out generally where the mouthpiece should be on the cork and trains your ear to detect intonation problems and keep them in check. One imperative exercise is playing with a drone. Tuners usually have built in drone features. Use your ear to work on tuning at the unison, octave, perfect fifth, perfect fourth, and then the other intervals as well. Work on jumping up and down the octave while keeping good intonation. Even better practice is to play in a small ensemble with a horn section where you can focus on staying in tune during unison and harmonized sections. Another important way to check intonation is to put on a tuner while playing normally. While you either improvise or play from memory, watch the tuner and see if you are generally flat, sharp, or in tune. This can give you a good idea if your mouthpiece placement is correct.

Working on your ears and honest practice are probably the most important factors in sounding good consistently. However, knowing what to expect when things are off and how to adjust is important too. Working out the details of intonation will help you avoid compromising your sound and technique, and put you closer to playing and sounding like you envision. Good luck!

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Lubing Your LIgature?

I recently got a Rovner Platinum Ligature as a gift (kinda fun, but a little dark for my taste), and I was thumbing through the information sheet of general instructions for all ligatures and noticed that it talks about lubricating the metal fittings of the ligature. It reads:
"IMPORTANT! This ligature will not perform unless the metal fittings are properly lubricated. Lack of lubrication can cause the ligature to sound stuffy or dull. Lubricate rubbing surfaces and threads of metal parts regularly with a good general lubricant (household oil) or cork grease."
So, I slapped on some canola oil, and it definitely improved the tone. More importantly, I lubricated the threads on the screws of my normal two screw ligature, and there was an immediate difference in the tone. It essentially sounded more full bodied, and it was a notable difference. Definitely recommended.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Jazz Articulation and Swing Feel

Swing feel depends on a lot more than just the rhythm of your 8th notes. Subtle accents created through tonguing are an important part of the groove too. Articulation also helps lock in the time of your lines. Following are some guidelines for adding articulation to your 8th note lines.

1. In 8th note lines, tongue the "and" or second 8th note in each beat and slur to the first 8th note of the next beat.

However, this pattern can be broken by any of the other guidelines that follow.

2. Tongue the first and last 8th notes in the line. Make sure to cut off the last 8th note with your tongue. I like to use the syllable "dat" to approximate the sound of the last 8th note because it starts and ends with the tongue.

3. Tongue and give a little more emphasis to the peaks, meaning the high notes when the line changes direction. The peaks of the line are marked in this example:

You can see two of the peaks fall on the beat, which means tonguing just got a bit more complicated. The articulation would look something like this:

In some cases, saxophonists ghost or significantly mute the note right before the peak, particularly when it's a lower note that leaps up to the peak like the E on the and of 4 in the example (the parenthesis around the note mean it should be ghosted). Doodle tonguing can help both with ghosting and making those consecutively tongued 8th notes easier and smoother sounding. Essentially, doodle tonguing is when you gently put part of your tongue onto the reed (I like to use just the very center), letting the note still sound. That creates a muted sound, and when you take your tongue off the reed it creates an accent. I use this technique for articulating the peaks that fall on the beat, and you can hear guys like Parker, Cannonball, Rollins, Trane, and Potter doing the same thing. 

4. Beside the end of the line, tongue the other arrival points that break up the line.

Above, it's an 8th rest that breaks up the line, and a quarter note would be treated the same. Any other note or rest that breaks the 8th note line would also be treated the same.

5. Despite all of this tonguing, there should be a generally legato or connected feel. Except for rests or the occasional staccato (think Rich Perry), there shouldn't be any break in the sound before each tongued note. This can be challenging to learn to do, but listen to all of the best jazz saxophonists and you'll hear that the connected sound is a vital part of their lines.

Practice Tips
Incorporating all of this can be daunting. Start by picking a transcription, one you've already played if possible, and marking the articulation. Then listen to the recording and try to catch anything you've missed. Then practice the transcription, working on getting your articulation to sound as much like the recording as possible. The more careful listening you do the easier this will be. Bebop tunes also work really well for this kind of practice.

Additionally, you'll want to practice your own lines, adding in articulation. I'd suggest improvising a line, writing it out if you need to, and then adding in the articulation. As adding articulation becomes more intuitive you'll be able to just practice improvising in real time, correcting your articulation as needed. Good luck!

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Review: TM Custom Tenor (Tenor Madness)

I've played on Selmer horns for some 16 years. I've owned five Mark VIs and one Super Balanced Action (SBA). Each of them were unique and fun to play, but last year I decided my sound concept had changed enough to warrant moving on from the early Mark VI I was playing. I was looking for an SBA, but I was open to other possibilities. I subsequently played a bunch of horns, including:
  • several Mark VI, including an early VI in better lacquer condition than my previous horn 
  • several SBAs a few relacquered and one original in fantastic condition
  • Selmer Reference 54 and 36
  • Selmer Series III
  • Conn 10M
  • Bundy Special (a stencil early Keilwerth)
  • Tenor Madness Custom
The Mark VIs all had a certain tone color I was looking to get away from. The SBAs came close to what I wanted, but I couldn't push the SBAs as hard as I'd like to. The Conn 10M was too spread sounding for me as was the Bundy Special. While I was at the Tenor Madness shop in Iowa, I tried their TM Custom. They had a bunch of vintage horns, and I played the majority of them, but in the end I kept going back and forth between an SBA and their TM Custom.

Voicing the Horn
An important part of trying the TM Custom is a process their shop calls "voicing the horn." This is the process of customizing the horn to the player in terms of sound and resistance. First and foremost, there are several necks to choose from, including large, medium, and small bore necks, immediately presenting a number of possibilities. You can really dial in your resistance and sound, ranging from something like a large bore Keilwerth to something with a lot more focus like a Mark VI. You have a choice between rolled or straight tone holes, with the rolled tone holes getting a more spread sound and the straight tone holes getting you more core. You can choose a horn with or without high F#, which I found affects the resistance of the horn. There are also several finishes.. From there, there are more customizations that can happen, including neck screws, thumb hooks, etc.

First Impression
After settling on the options I liked best, which were the medium bore neck, straight tone holes, high F#, and a traditional lacquer finish, I quickly realized this was a fantastic horn. In terms of resistance and flexibility, it played just as comfortably as any vintage Selmer I could remember playing, Mark VI, SBA, or BA. The sound was beautiful, resonant, and flexible. Importantly, I could really push the horn without the sound thinning out or getting uncomfortable. 

Another important test came when I played for the first time at a gig. I find a lot of times that horns that feel OK or even great in the practice room don't feel great in higher volume situations, like even just playing acoustic jazz in a medium-large space. However, the Custom played great at the gig too, and it has continues to play great in each performance situation I take it to. In full disclosure, this is now my main tenor.

Resistance, Flexibility, and Sound
For me the two most important aspects of a horn are its resistance and its sound. When I use the word resistance, I mean the resistance a horn gives you when you blow through it. Typically, a player is at their best with a balanced resistance, not too much or too little, and this can be different for different players. I personally find that I like a lower resistance, something like an SBA. As I already mentioned above, you can choose between different necks which vastly change the resistance level. The medium bore neck is a very good fit for me. It has a light resistance, which offers a lot of flexibility in terms of sound and is still feels comfortable while pushing the horn in loud performances. The resistance on the medium bore neck is also a good fit for my altissimo and overtone technique. There is enough resistance to lock into the altissimo note or overtone with some color and edge while also being light enough to play easily and feel easy and natural in terms of breath.

The sound I get with my current setup on the TM has warmth, fatness, plenty of core, and a nice brilliance. It has enough punch so that I can hear the core of my sound from behind the horn, helping me feel like I can play whatever technically challenging idea I have and helping me hear my intonation clearly. This last bit is something I find very important in a horn. Also, because of the lower resistance of the neck I'm playing on, I get a lot of flexibility in my tone, meaning I can inflect my timbre and pitch easily. The horn's overall tone is warm but vibrant (think SBA-type sound), but I can push it towards the brighter end if I like.

Ergonomics (physical comfort)
The ergonomics of the horn feel great. The key work feels similar to modern Mark VI-inspired key work. It's comfortable and gets the job done nicely. Importantly for my own taste, the palm keys, spatula keys, and side keys don't feel too big under my hands, which I've observed on some modern saxes.

I've been playing the horn for several months now, and I haven't had any problems physically. The neck angle, which feels typical, and the hand position are both good in terms of long-term comfort. The weight of the horn also feels comfortable and typical as well.  Essentially, the horn is in good shape ergonomically.

I know this is secondary to how the instrument plays, but the horn is beautiful. The engraving is ornate, clear and takes its cues from vintage instruments. Nothing is overstated in appearance. I have the cognac lacquer version of the Custom, which looks like a vintage horn in mint condition.

Neck Comparison
Besides the medium bore neck, I’ve also borrowed a GT neck, which is a new development from the TM shop. It’s has a bit more resistance than the medium bore neck but still has a malleable sound, something like an early Mark VI. I made this comparison video so you could get an idea of the difference between the two:

The TM Custom has so much going for it. With my setup, it's an SBA-like modern horn, and it does that job superbly well. This is subjective of course, but I like it better than the SBAs I've played. For someone else with a different neck it could be a Mark VI-like horn, and to another player with the rolled tone holes it could be a Conn 10M-like horn. For what I'm going for the horn is a perfect fit.