San Diego Saxophone Lessons

San Diego Saxophone Lessons
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Sunday, December 7, 2014

The best reed for saxophone students, amateurs, and pros

The best reed that will work for any saxophonist is... a fresh reed that isn't broken! 

I can't tell you how many students, amateurs, and yes, even 'PROFESSIONAL' saxophone players I've seen playing on old, dead, chipped, cracked, and even broken reeds.  A colleague of mine was filling in as a ringer for a musical, and noticed that the clarinetist's reed looked as if it had been through a wood-chipper. He admonished the student and she rebutted, "I like this one; it's broken-in". At a show people were paying money to see! This isn't only an issue with younger players - I've known pros who play on crap reeds until they might have a gig and then they run out and buy two or three new ones.

Reeds to a saxophone is like gas to your car. You don't want to be running low, and certainly not out. It's advisable to have a variety of different brands and strengths of reeds on-hand, so if you are in a pinch you can find something that will immediately work for your situation. You never see electric guitar players going out to a gig without spare strings...

There's also the fact that reeds are made of organic material. Out of 10 reeds you are likely to use only five or seven, simply because the variances in the cane and cut won't always yield a playable reed. Once you use a reed, it will start to calcify (harden) and simultaneously break down from exposure to your saliva. Ever notice a white haze or white deposits on your mouthpiece? That is calcium; it's quite hard and it will inhibit the reeds vibration. If you find the BEST reed on earth, don't play on it for more than one or two weeks (depending on the number of hours you play). An old reed is like an old running shoe... it simply starts wearing down, and when you eventually get new shoes, you wonder how you could've been using the old ones at all! The problem with old reeds is that they soften over time. Say you are playing a Vandoren #3... after about two or three weeks of using it in band every day it plays like a #2, maybe a #2.5 if you are lucky. Unfortunately, your embouchure has adjusted to the softer reed, and when you slap on a brand-new #3 it feels like a board, leaving you to wonder what the heck happened.

I recommend that all my students buy one box of reeds per month (read: professionals, college students, and serious amateurs need to buy two boxes per month). You probably won't go through the whole box... in fact, that's the whole point. If you buy a box (or two) of reeds per month, pretty soon you will back-log a few reeds. Please factor this monthly purchase into the cost of playing the saxophone (a.k.a. the cost of doing business, if you aspire to play professionally). Eventually, you will backlog entire boxes of reeds. This has many advantages. Your reeds will age a bit longer which typically makes for better, more playable reeds. I usually label boxes with a sharpie by date, and always open the oldest box first. This method will also allow you to try different reeds and experiment with other brands and cuts.

A reed's perceived strength depends mostly on two very simple factors: how your chops feel that day and the weather. Yes, the weather! I recently visited the D'Addario/RICO factory, and they actually have to adjust the way they measure reed-strength when the humidity spikes or when it becomes very dry. So just because you thought you liked "Roberto's #3 Strong" yesterday doesn't mean it will play great today.

Some brands I like to experiment with for jazz playing are Rico Jazz Select, Rigotti, Vandoren V16 and ZZ, Rico Royal, and La Voz. For classical, I've tried Vandoren Traditional, Vandoren V12 (clarinet only, I think), Rico Grand Concert, and D'Addario Reserve.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

J.E.N. is coming to San Diego

The JEN (Jazz Education Network) annual conference will be here in San Diego this year. JEN has basically taken over the role of IAJE (International Association of Jazz Educators) after IAJE went into bankruptcy in 2009.

I have fond memories of attending the IAJE conference back in the 90s with my high school combo.  I sat down to watch a Roy Hargrove concert (sitting about 3 rows back from the front), looked next to me and saw Jamey Aebersold!  This blew my mind as I'd been playing along with all his records at that point.  He then proceeded to slip a microphone out of his bag, winked, and dryly said "no recording".

This year's conference will be held at the Hyatt on January 7th-10th, and features dozens of clinics, workshops, and performances. Some of the featured bands clinicians are the MONK'estra, Ignacio Berroa, Gordon Goodwin's Big Fat Band, Bob Hurst, the Monk Institute Ensemble,  Herbie Hancock, etc.

I'm plugging it here on my blog because this conference is SUPER affordable for students.  The cost is only $75 for a four-day event.  I encourage all my students to check it out.  See you there!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Selmer factory pictures

Here is a very cool gallery of the Selmer factory in the 50's:
click for all pictures

Check out all of those Mark VI tenors hanging upside down!

Monday, March 24, 2014

Mouthpiece review: 10mFan Merlot tenor #8

Mark Sepinuck (a.k.a. 10mFan) recently sent me a few of his new mouthpieces to review. This is my first mouthpiece review for the blog, and it was a treat to get to try the new 10mFan pieces I'd been hearing so much about.

Mark is known as one of the biggest and most reputable vintage mouthpiece dealers around. He knows his pieces and is really passionate about the saxophone and finding the right setup for every player. The 10mFan pieces come in three different designs to match different playing styles. The Merlot is the darkest and warmest of the three mouthpieces (the brighter/more projecting pieces are the Robusto and The Boss).

The Merlot is made from German bar-stock hard rubber and the facing/finishing work is done by mouthpiece maker Eric Falcon. His facing work is impeccable (see the video) and the rails and internals all looked perfectly symmetrical to my eye. The main thing I can say about this piece is that it blows very efficiently and makes it quite easy to shape your own sound. The Merlot also has very respectable intonation - as good or better than any other mouthpiece I've tried.

[The Merlot up-close]

[Play-test of the Merlot]

I tried the #8 tip opening, which measures .110 thousandths of an inch. Mark keeps it simple with the tip openings; a #7 is a .100 and they go up or down by increments of .005 (7* is a .105, 9 is a .120, etc). This piece has a number of interesting design features which I found unique in a rubber piece. It combines a very thin tip-rail with a wider, more traditional profile on the side-rails. This seems to get a really quick response but maintains tons of warmth and even some spread if you want it (like the best vintage pieces). You can also get a focused sound depending on how you blow. The thin tip did concern me a little bit for nicks and dings; don't drop this piece! The Merlot has a fairly low flat-baffle which drops down to a medium large chamber. Most rubber pieces in this style use a roll-over baffle, however the flat-baffle design works incredibly well. Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more mouthpiece reviews in April!

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Practicing chords + scales

As saxophonists, we need to find ways to associate our scales with the corresponding chord. For pianists and guitarists, this is fairly simple as they can see where all the notes are laid out and they have the ability to play multiple notes at one time. For those of us who play single-line instruments, it can take a while to get the sound and feel of each chord associated with the scale.

Check out the video lesson here:

This is a simple way I practice all of my scales and chords together:

Get the 2-page PDF of this exercise here

I'm combining the 9th chord with the entire scale (also played to the 9th) in one exercise. You should eventually be able to play the whole line straight through in one breath. This helps to get the chord and the scale to reside in the same part of your brain. With time and diligent practice, it will be available to you in-the-moment (like when playing a solo over changes).

It's important to get these under your fingers and in your ear. Once you become comfortable with the fingering, try playing these with a backing-track such as one of the ones available from Aebersold or Jerry Bergonzi. It is a huge benefit to hear the notes in context with a rhythm section. Another good option is to strike the chord on piano with the sustain pedal, and then play the exercise while the chord is ringing.

Happy practicing!

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Soprano of the Week: Manuel Valera's 'Comienzo'

Well, I am already behind on my 'Soprano of the Week' postings! I will try to keep 'em coming from here out. I just vastly simplified my saxophone-transcription-video recording technique. Now I can do everything in one take right into iMovie without any editing, importing, or having to line up audio later on!

This is Joel Frahm on the Manuel Valera song 'Comienzo'. Joel is an incredible soprano player and has a gorgeous tone. Although he's known for his tenor-work, his soprano sound is pretty much top-notch. I'll post some little excerpts from his solo later.