San Diego Saxophone Lessons

San Diego Saxophone Lessons
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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.