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!


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