San Diego Saxophone Lessons

San Diego Saxophone Lessons
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Monday, December 16, 2013

Soprano of the Week: Alex Sipiagin's 'Mood 2'

I picked up a soprano this summer, and I'm going to start posting short soprano transcriptions every week. In private lessons, I encourage playing along with the original recordings of jazz tunes and really trying to capture the vibe of the horn parts. If you are successful, you can blend in and sound as if you are part of the actual record. So, in hopes of improving my soprano concept, I'll be posting myself playing along to some of my favorite soprano heads.

This is Chris Potter's part on Alex Sipiagin's 'Mood 2'. Sipiagin plays trumpet and flugelhorn in the Dave Holland Big Band (among other groups). I've always been intrigued by his writing so I finally got around to figuring out the soprano harmony part on this one. It's mostly there, but on a few notes I'm not 100% sure if the note is played by the soprano, voice, or the alto. This is written in a fast 7/4, but it's kind of slippery because there are so many hits in the rhythm section (it seems deceiving but it actually stays in 7 the whole time).

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The (Really) Wide World of Jazz

For the casual listener, getting into a whole new universe of music can be daunting! This is true for my saxophone students as well. With close to 100-years-worth of jazz music that's been recorded, it's hard to find a place to start.

Should you go buy Miles Davis' "Kind Of Blue" and listen to it a hundred times? Or should you check out the latest Kneebody record? Which Coltrane records should I get?

As with any style, knowledge of the jazz tradition will really pay-off and help you to understand and appreciate what's going on in the music today. If you listen to rock, most people know the contributions of Led Zeppelin and The Beatles, and maybe even artists like Robert Johnson or Little Richard. With jazz, there is such a rich history on each instrument it can seem overwhelming for new listeners.

Luckily, there are some great blog posts which can help you get started. I've pulled some choice posts from REVIVE Music (formerly The Revivalist), and from NPR's A Blog Supreme (I recommend subscribing to both). These all include musical examples so you can listen while you read!

REVIVE's "Evolution of an Instrument" is great for getting your timeline straight:

Monday, December 9, 2013

Going To The Source part II

In Going To The Source part I, I talked about learning standards by learning the words, and imagining singing them as you play your instrument.  This is the best method I've found for learning vocal standards from the Great American Songbook.

For instrumental jazz standards (bebop, hard-bop, modern-jazz tunes, etc), you should take a similar approach. Find the original recording (or different well-known recordings) of the tune in your record collection or find it on YouTube and then learn it by ear. Don't just whip out a fake book and start reading a tune. These songs didn't originate in fake books! If you want to be thorough, learn it by ear in all 12 keys. Obviously, this is easier for a song like Blue Bossa than it will be for learning a Charlie Parker head. However, saxophonist Michael Brecker said he would always learn each melody in all 12 keys before he began working on any other aspect of the song (chord changes, etc.).  I think he might be onto something...

Speaking of Blue Bossa, how many young jazz students play this song and have never even heard the original version (or even know the names Kenny Dorham and Joe Henderson)? Educators - we're failing in this respect! Plus, I find that students get way more out of playing a song (and it's more fun) when you have context.

For the truly lazy, I've just discovered a great website that does it all for you. has a fairly extensive selection of jazz standards, and it includes links to classic versions of the song on YouTube as well as a free play-along for the song all right there! If that's not enough, they include a description of the origin of the song, and the chord changes too. This is a great resource for any up-and-coming musician. If we had this in the '90s, it would have blown my mind.

Check out their page on Lady Bird (click to go through to the actual site):

Here are some practice ideas:
  • Listen to the ORIGINAL version (if possible) many times over several days/weeks and get it in your head (be able to sing along) before you practice with your instrument.
  • If the song has a challenging tempo, try slowing it down with a program like Transcribe! or The Amazing Slow Downer.
  • Another strategy for fast or dense melodies is to start at the end with just a few notes or bars, and add on one-bar at a time. Eventually, learn the last 'A' section (last 8 bars) and continue working backwards until you reach the beginning of the tune.
  • If you get bored of playing along with the head, try switching to the head at the end of the tune (the head-out). Often, they are slightly different - or the musicians may rush/drag so the tempo could change! As an added bonus you get to learn the ending too.
  • Once you memorize the song, play along with the recording, and then keep repeating the melody over the solo form. For example, if you are playing Billie's Bounce, play along with Bird on the head, and then keep playing the melody for the entire duration of the tune behind every solo, and then play with the head-out. If you can keep your place and repeat the melody over every chorus, you are definitely getting a pretty good grip on it. It will seem like a lot of run-throughs, but in reality you are only playing for 4 or 5 minutes (a very small amount of practice-time in the long-run). 

You can read part I of this post here.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Transcribing: Rhythm Changes Sonny Stitt (part II)

My transcription chops are still a little bit rusty, but here's the latest video. This is from the record Sonny Stitt/Bud Powell/J. J. Johnson and the tune is Sonny Side. As you can read in the liner notes below, this was some of the earliest Stitt recorded with him playing tenor.

This particular track has a rhythm section of (the incomparable) Bud Powell on piano, Curly Russell on bass, and Max Roach on drums.  Recorded in December of 1949, this is from one of my favorite periods in bebop.


To keep working on improving in some other keys, I pitch-shifted the entire track down from concert Bb to concert A before I started the transcribing process. This is a great workout on the horn! And next time that crazy vocalist calls a tune in A-major I will be more prepared. This particular solo was a real chops-buster for using the bis-key.

As I've said before transcribing is an excellent way to improve your time-feel, tone, phrasing, intonation, ears, and is far-and-above the best ways to learn true jazz articulation. All the info is on the record! Or the MP3 file in this case... but that just doesn't sound as cool.

Here are some great pictures that I found on showing the original record and cover art (much better than the reissue CD art, in my opinion).


Read part I of this post here.

Johnny Hodges' custom saxophone

Here's an amazing video that shows (in great detail) a custom-made Vito saxophone that belonged to Johnny Hodges of the Duke Ellington band.

This is on a private link on YouTube (you must have the link to find the video), so thank you to saxophone wizard Matt Stohrer for posting the link on Facebook.

Be sure to watch in HD to see all the amazing engraving detail on the horn:

Also some great audio is happening in the background by Hodges. Billy Strayhorn's "Daydream" is especially striking!

Thursday, May 9, 2013


A drummer friend of mine once told me “You know why I like Chris Potter? He plays paradiddles on his saxophone”. Potter is one of the most rhythmic saxophonists I can think of, and he also has an extensive command of articulation. I've noticed that players like Potter, Donny McCaslin, Rudresh Mahanthappa, and others are very adept at incorporating quick, repeated-notes into their lines.

Here's a paradiddle-scale exercise I came up with to help work on that sort of articulation. This is also a great exercise for improving the slur-two, tongue-two articulation seen often in classical pieces.

Key of C Major:

I recommend working these up with a metronome, and then playing them over an Aebersold, sequencer, or another play-along track to get the feel of using them with a rhythm section.

Key of F Major:

Try inverting the paradiddle for a different variant. I hear this snippet in modern jazz fairly often:

 For the complete exercise, download the free PDF sheetmusic.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Transcribing: Rhythm Changes

Here's a transcription I recently did of the first part of Sonny Stitt's "The Eternal One" from the reissue CD "Low Flame". I believe this was originally released on 1964's "Shangri-La". The tune is rhythm changes, and is based off of the riff from the song Eternal Triangle but with the standard chord changes on the bridge.


I've been working on improving my chops in some of the more difficult keys, so for this transcription, I pitch-shifted the audio from Bb into A before I started learning it (for you fellow tenor-players, that puts us in the key of B). This was a great way to get all those tasty licks that are idiomatic to the key of Bb into another key.

Transcribing is an excellent way to improve your time-feel, tone, phrasing, intonation, ears, technique... well... it improves everything! It's also a great way to learn the specific articulation of other saxophonists. After repeated practice and careful listening, the nuances of the articulation, scoops, bends, and vibrato all become more apparent. To me, that sort of stylistic information is the most important stuff. Anyone can play the notes, but copping the feel of the original is the ultimate goal.


Read part II of this post here.

Monday, February 11, 2013


Have you ever noticed that any woodwind player can fly over C major, but when it comes to Db major, it is a disaster? This is a practice method I call multi-scales, which helps to immediately remedy this problem. Instead of practicing C and Db major independently, practice them as one scale as illustrated in this exercise:

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For a variation or just as a warm up to this exercise, you could play each scale twice before changing to the adjacent scale (ex: C-C-Db-Db, repeat).

Most scales with few accidentals are next to a scale ½ step away that has many more accidentals. This exercise is a great way to make sure your F# scale is on the same technical level as your F scale, C and Db, B and C, etc. I got this idea from drummers doing hybrid rudiments and groups of rudiments. Once you get used to doing multi-scales, I recommend never practicing C, G, or F major by themselves again. Always use multi-scales and kill two birds with one stone! I’ve had great success using this method with intermediate and even beginner students.

Here is a similar example with three scales:

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In jazz improvisation, we have to be able to recall scales and patterns virtually instantly. When navigating chord changes at a very fast tempo each measure can require a completely different scale. This exercise is great for learning how to switch gears quickly. Since we are stringing the scales together, you must learn to switch to the next scale instantly!

To become even more proficient at this concept of switching scales instantly, try groups of four scales each a minor-third apart. You’ll notice that the first note of the next scale is always ½ step up from the 2nd degree of the previous scale. The pattern is a bit different on the way down.

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Also try your multi-scales in major-third groupings:

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For more possibilities and the complete exercise, download the free PDF sheetmusic.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A brief history of jazz education

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NPR's "A Blog Supreme" recently posted these two articles:

A Brief History Of Jazz Education, Pt. 1

If you aren't reading "A Blog Supreme" already, it's a good site to have on your radar. These two articles cover jazz education from the 1920s to today. A must read for future music majors!

Monday, January 28, 2013

Wrap your ear around this...

As a student of the saxophone, it’s good to remember the importance of absorbing the classic albums and listing deeply to the great masters of the instrument.

Just as any rock musician knows Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix, we as saxophonists should know Bird, Trane, Joe, Wayne, and all the others. I’m actually struck by how many of my students might know the name Jimi Hendrix, but get tongue-tied trying to name one saxophone player. Not only should we know our favorite players, we should know their seminal recordings thoroughly (Page One, Blue Trane, Kind of Blue, Speak No Evil…)! Listening is the best way to start to get the language of jazz in our heads. Great players I’ve met always amaze me with the depth of their knowledge of past recordings. Saxophonist Charles McNeal has humbled me with some of his saxophone blindfold-tests recently on FaceBook.

The prevalence of iPods has encouraged the younger generation to consume their music a-la-carte. In my formative days, I had only a dozen-or-so jazz CDs, which had to be sought out at actual record stores (for those under 18, record stores were retail outlets that sold CDs, tapes, and records). Not only did you have to save your allowance and find your way to the record shop, you were very lucky if the store (and I’m talking about the early ‘90s here) had a “JAZZ” section that ventured much beyond Kenny G! The few real jazz CDs I managed to find I knew inside-and-out, backwards and forwards. The same respect for albums generally doesn't exist today. After one track, your mp3 player will shuffle to a completely different artist and genre (if you even got through the one track before skipping it)!

These four CDs were some of the very first I had - I played them until they wouldn’t play anymore:

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Clockwise from top L:
Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers “A Day With Art Blakey – 1961 – vol 2”
This one I found in a bin in an Amish record booth inside a large market in Pennsylvania. Incredible live concert in Japan with Wayne Shorter on tenor.

John Coltrane “Blue Trane”
This album (along with “Giant Steps”) could be considered the apex of Trane’s earlier period. I believe this CD was given to me by a teacher or friend.

Dexter Gordon “Ballads”
This is not an actual album, but a compilation. This one I think I may have purchased in a cheesy mall record shop. A truly iconic collection of tracks including “You’ve Changed”, “Darn That Dream”, and “Body and Soul”. I think I bought a second copy after the first one died. It’s that good.

Joshua Redman “Wish”
OK, I’ll further date myself with this one. Joshua Redman was one of the neo-hardboppers who led us back from the fusion and smooth drivel of the early ‘90s. Thank you, Josh! This record I “borrowed” from a neighbor. Good playing on this disc, even if it may sound a little dated by today’s standards.

That may be an odd assemblage of discs, but that’s what I managed to get my hands on. If you are just getting into the saxophone, here’s a short-list of great albums to get you on the right track:

John Coltrane: Blue Trane
Wayne Shorter: Speak No Evil
Joe Henderson: Page One
Charlie Parker: Dizzy Gillespie/Charlie Parker: “Town Hall, New York City 1945”
Eugene Rousseau: Colors (Rousseau is the most well-known classical saxophonist)
Cannonball Adderley: Somethin’ Else
Hank Mobley: Soul Station
Michael Brecker: Don’t Try This at Home

I'm trying to keep it simple but feel free to chime in with your favorites in the comments!

Simple but effective: a sax stand

If you are a beginner or intermediate player, get yourself a saxophone stand! It seems obvious, but this will really improve your practice habits.

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I leave my horn out all the time when I am at home. All the time. If I’m done practicing, I leave it on the stand. This way I can always pick up my horn and blow (even if I only have 10 minutes) without the hassle of getting it in and out of the case several times per day. When I come home after a gig, sometimes I will even get the sax out and put it on the stand so it’s ready to go.

For many beginners, the task of assembling, disassembling, and cleaning the horn can be an excuse not to practice. Plus, it’s just inconvenient. If you live in a relatively dry climate (southern California), or use climate control in your house, there is no downside to leaving your horn out. Just swab it out when you’re done playing, put the neck back on, and leave it on the stand. Just be sure it’s in a safe corner away from foot traffic, pets, clumsy people, and crazy siblings (I remember my younger brother once decided it would be fun to pour Grape Nuts down the bell of my tenor).

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It’s also a big help to break up your practice sessions. You’ll absorb new material better with an hour-long session in the morning and another in the evening instead of an extended two-hour practice session.

Happy practicing!

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Running Out Of Time

A quick and easy tip that will improve your practicing immensely is simply to set a timer.  Life is wonderful when I have a free day - I have plenty of time for warm-ups and then can practice my horn for hours and hours on end.  However, this is not the usual scenario for most of us.  We only have sporadic moments in our schedule available for music, and we need to use that time as efficiently as we can. 

Between school, work, email, and of course Facebook, it can be hard to focus and get in the right mindset for practicing.  Here’s an easy solution that has worked wonders for me: set a goal and set a timer.  Feeling rusty on your Db full-range scale?  Put 20 minutes on the timer and play until it goes off.  This will give you absolute focus on the problem at hand with no distractions (it also helps to put your cellphone in the other room).

If you only have a short amount of time, it’s very important to set a small, specific, achievable goal.  Like working on a ii-V-I in one key, playing a certain scale-pattern, or working on one technical section of an etude or piece. Charles McPherson always recommended setting an egg-timer and working out small finger problems.  Any time you’d come across a finger-snag during a solo (a.k.a. “playing yourself into a corner”), he would stop and work out that specific problem until the timer was done.  For sax players, this does wonders for fluidity in the palm-keys or for getting more relaxed with awkward pinky finger movements.  I remember during one lesson we worked on the left-hand ring/pinky for 5 or 10 minutes straight and I felt immediate benefit.

With 20-minute intervals, you can tackle three small musical concepts in one hour.  This is a big improvement over just noodling for an hour!  If you have even more time, say an hour or three available, think bigger – like transcribing a whole section of a solo, learning a new tune, or working out several scales. 

The most critical part of this method is to set a simple goal and focus intently on it for the allotted time.  I’ve heard this referred to in another book as “target-bombing”.  Pick a specific musical target and knock it out.  Pick something you aren’t familiar with.  Don’t play the G major scale or chromatic scale!  You probably know those already.  If you are terrible at doing diatonic thirds in harmonic minor, try that… Or work on overtones or lip-slurs for 20 minutes.

Do this regularly and you will slowly start to fill in the gaps in your musical knowledge.  Of course, when I have more time available, it’s great to practice without constraints.  But for days when you only have an hour and don’t know what to play, this is a good technique to use. 

Monday, January 21, 2013

Dexter to Brecker

I’d heard from several teachers that Dexter Gordon was a huge influence on Michael Brecker’s sound, and one of Brecker's earliest influences.  In terms of Brecker’s lineage, most people would guess the obvious: Coltrane, Joe Henderson, and probably guys like Joe Farrell, etc.  I never understood the direct connection from Dexter to Brecker until it finally hit me when listening to “Sophisticated Giant” (1977, Columbia):

This was one of those later Dexter albums that I’d heard, but most likely skimmed over in my youth… Going back and listening to this track, it became obvious how much of Brecker’s concept of tone was borrowed straight from Dex, especially in ballad settings. Also, on this cut, Dexter sounds very modern with a lot of top-end in his sound.  At 1:18, the link is really clear between the two (the rhythm-section arrangement in that section helps too – sounds very '90s-ish).

 Just for fun, check out Kevin Mahogany’s “Laura” - backed by a band of Michael Brecker, Mehldau, Grenadier, and Hutch:


Also, on this next clip from “The Nearness Of You”, you can hear a little Dexter - especially in the way Brecker approaches the notes around 1:55-2:10:

I'm sure there might be some better examples around, but I've been watching so much YouTube my eyes are getting cloudy!

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Music As A Sport

There have been a lot of analogies going around (on this site and others) comparing musicians to professional athletes.  Although the end-goal may differ, there are many similarities in our training. Just like an athlete, we must warm up, increase our endurance, and focus on developing individual groups of muscles to be able to execute very specific skills.

To play a difficult (or easy) passage in music requires repetition and muscle memory.  Your muscles must learn to fire in a certain order and in a relaxed manner – just like serving a tennis ball but on a much more ‘micro’ level.  We’re dealing with our smaller finger muscles and facial muscles here, as opposed to your whole arm, shoulder, chest, and torso.  Playing music is still very much a physical action, and just like serving a tennis ball or pitching a baseball, it must be practiced until your body can execute the motion naturally and without thought.  Serena Williams isn’t wasting time thinking about how to properly hit a backhand in the middle of a match. In the same way, you should never have to think of how to execute an E major scale or how to play over a Ab7#11 – with proper practice it will just happen automatically and in the moment.  A scale or musical passage can become one motion, just like serving a ball. Although we are talking about a series of muscles firing in the proper order, with enough practice it’s possible for this to eventually become one kinesthetic event to your body.

Another useful comparison between music and sport is the use of repetition. As musicians, we must develop a high level of consistency, just like a star athlete who shoots a basketball, hits a baseball, or uses a certain stroke in tennis.

If a professional basketball player attempted 10 foul shots and only made 1, this would be considered laughable.

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However, with many music students, it can be difficult to ingrain the concept of consistency.  Many beginners will practice a passage 10 times until they play it correctly once.  After playing it correctly once (and improperly 9 times), they consider the task completed and then move on to the next etude!  Thinking in terms of sports, this would make absolutely no sense.  I am a horrible basketball player - if I went to the gym and made one out of 10 three-pointers, it would be pretty obvious that I only got lucky on the one that went it!  As musicians, we need to strive to execute the passage correctly 9 times out of 10, just as the player strives to hit 9 out of 10 three-pointers or foul shots.

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One final thought: No one goes into a sports game hoping that they can get by on “talent” or even luck when in fact they are underprepared, or possibly even have no-idea what they are doing.  In music lessons, rehearsals, and even in performances, I’ve seen this many times!

Going To The Source part I

A large part of playing jazz is learning "standards" or tunes from what's called The Great American Songbook. This group of thousands of tunes (from the Tin Pan Alley era through the 60s and beyond) is the foundation of jazz and bebop, and these melodies can also be a wellspring of ideas for new tunes and for our improvisations.

When learning a new song, rather than trying to memorize the melody note-for-note from the sheet music, I recommend doing it the old-fashioned way: learn the words! Imagine knowing the song "Happy Birthday" as only a group of notes and intervals that you learned from a piece of music. This is utterly ridiculous! You would have no idea of the intent of the song (other than the title), or the phrasing, mood, etc. When you play Happy Birthday, you can't help but hear and know the words in your head and in your ear as you are playing! On the flip-side of this equation, would a singer ever think of the notes and leaps when he/she sings Happy Birthday? While you sing do you think in you head: up-M2, down-M2, up-P4, down-m2? 

Unfortunately, many jazz players (likely including some of the current big-names) slip by with this superficial "note/interval" type of relationship with standards. Certainly, I myself am guilty of this - many of the tunes I play on gigs I still have no idea of the words. To have a close relationship with the song (and this is especially crucial on ballads) you must have a good grip on the words and the feeling of the song! When we play a wind instrument, we should strive to get the melody as close to the feeling of singing as possible. Many of the tenor saxophone greats loved the classic vocalists and probably knew more words to more songs than your average professional singer. I'm especially thinking of Dexter Gordon and Ben Webster here.

In the era of YouTube it is incredibly easy to Go To The Source and hear singers interpreting the original melody as the composer intended. It's as simple as a 5 second search. Young musicians really have no excuse these days. Way back in the 20th century, we'd actually have to go to a music library or to a friend with a large record collection to discover music!

In my experience, I've found that the much older recordings will have the most literal interpretations of the melodies. For example, Sarah Vaughan may have sang the daylights out of "All of Me" in the 80s, but you may have better luck learning the actual melody from the Ruth Etting or Billie Holiday version. Early Frank Sinatra can also be a great resource for learning tunes accurately (Fletcher Henderson era Frank).

Here are some practice ideas for standards that I've tried in the past:
  • Research the history of the song to find out if it was first premiered in a movie or musical, and find out which singers first popularized the song.
  • Listen to the ORIGINAL version (if possible) on YouTube.
  • Find a dozen or so vocal versions on YouTube and then zero-in on two or three interpretations that really resonate with you. Listen to these until they are burned into your brain.
  • Play along with the actual recordings, and imagine singing the words in your head as you play. It's very important to play with the real recordings - do not use "play-along" records or Aebersolds (but these can come in handy later on when working on soloing and chord-changes).
  • Once you memorize the song and all the words, try playing the tune a capella in a few different keys. As you explore new keys, focus on thinking/singing each word or syllable in your head as you play. Use your ear and just go for it. Resist the temptation to think in terms of note-names or intervals.
  • You'll find that learning the words to tunes will actually speed up the processes of memorization and transposition.
You don't have to know the words to every song. This would be an impossible task! Some standards I know thoroughly and others I just have a general idea of some words and the overall vibe. As you learn more and more songs on an intimate level, it will improve your phrasing, interpretation, and overall execution.


You can read part II of this post here.