Students and paying gigs

Sometimes I get phone calls from people hoping to hire my students for gigs. I’m delighted when I can pass a professional opportunity on to a hardworking, high-achieving student, but often these calls are troubling.

Obviously, the callers want students because they assume students will work cheaply. Lots of college students work for not much money, as restaurant waitstaff, custodians, babysitters, and so forth. Those jobs don’t pay much because they are (ostensibly) “unskilled” labor. But “musician” is very much a skilled job.

The Symphonic Wind Ensemble is the premier wind/percussion ensemble in the School of Music.  This highly select, 40-member ensemble represents the finest wind and percussion instrumentalists on campus. The ensemble will perform at this year's Penn State President's Concert at the Strathmore Music Center near Washington, D.C. The President's Concert, a joint production of the Penn State President's Office, the School of Music, and the Alumni Association, has been held at major concert venues including Heinz Hall in Pittsburgh, Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia. Last year's concert was held in Carnegie Hall.
photo, Penn State

Not long ago I was hired to play lead alto saxophone for a gig backing up a singer, and the contractor asked if I had a couple of students who could play in the section. Then he asked what I thought would be fair to pay them. I told him immediately that he was hiring them to do a professional service, and should pay them as professionals. Happily, he saw my point and agreed to those terms.

I suppose some hiring parties assume that students will be cheaper than non-students because they are not as skilled, and therefore can’t negotiate higher fees. (This may or may not be the case—I’ve certainly played gigs with “professionals” who would be far outclassed by undergraduate music students.) Sometimes they want to compensate for hiring less-skilled musicians by planning extensive rehearsals. In most cases, I think they would better spend that same money hiring skilled players to sight-read.

Musicians, enrolled students or not, are specialized, skilled professionals, and should be treated (and compensated) as such.

Teaching multiple instruments: IDRS 2016 presentation

Lecture notes from a presentation on teaching multiple instruments, especially double reeds in a higher education setting, from the 2016 International Double Reed Society conference.

Downloadable version

Teaching Multiple Instruments

Dr. Bret Pimentel, Delta State University

IDRS Conference 2016, Columbus, Georgia

More and more university music teaching positions require wearing several hats, sometimes including teaching multiple instruments. (Oboe plus bassoon is an especially common combination, even though it’s unusual for musicians to play both well.) Teaching multiple instruments is also a potentially valuable skill for instructors at lesson studios in private music schools or in music stores, for instructors in middle or high school band and orchestra programs, and for those establishing private studios from their homes.

Getting hired

  • In many multiple-instrument hiring situations, the expectation is proficiency on one instrument and willingness to fake your way teaching the other(s). Any actual training or background on secondary instruments immediately sets you apart. Strongly consider taking at least a few lessons on a secondary instrument—this shows seriousness about the multiple-instrument thing, even if it doesn’t make you a virtuoso.
  • Having access to books (or websites) isn’t a substitute. Neither is “knowing a guy” who you can “ask questions.” Though those are usable resources, they aren’t convincing to hiring committees because they don’t demonstrate any actual effort prior to submitting your application.
  • Be honest but positive with yourself and with hiring committees about your ability and/or enthusiasm for teaching multiple instruments. For example:
    • “I play oboe professionally, but I am deeply committed to both instruments and am working to improve my bassoon skills. I have some experience playing bassoon in semi-professional settings.”
    • “Bassoon is really my thing, but I took oboe lessons for a couple of summers during graduate school and am enthusiastic about teaching the double reeds.”
    • “Teaching bassoon would be a brand new challenge for me, and one that I would take seriously.”

Lesson time

  • You won’t have to fix all of your students’ technical issues on day one, but you will have to assign repertoire and studies right away. Spend some serious time browsing other teachers’ syllabi and “suggested repertoire” lists (many are available online!), and start compiling some lists of your own. Are you ready to recommend, for example:
    • some remedial etudes and an easy solo for an incoming freshman?
    • an hour’s worth of varied and challenging-but-doable repertoire for a junior entering a competition?
    • a solid program for a senior recital that can double as serious graduate school audition repertoire?
    • Baroque pieces?
    • pieces with extended techniques?
    • chamber pieces with strings?
    • concerti with concert band?
    • and so on…
  • You will, of course, have to address technical issues at some point. Be advised that your students know when you’re making things up. But it can be a great experience to spend a few minutes researching a question together, or calling a colleague or mentor on speakerphone for advice.
  • Both you and the student can learn a lot when you dare to get an instrument out and try some things together. Your students know it’s not your main instrument, and appreciate seeing you step out of your comfort zone. Consider giving them a chance to teach you something—teaching is a skill they should be learning anyway.

Managing resources

  • Institutional resources like money, time, and space are often allocated per faculty member, not per instrument taught. As appropriate, consider making a case for the following (for example):
    • Funding for your oboe studio plus funding for your bassoon studio. Per-faculty funding can be unfair to students, who won’t benefit from purchases made for the other studio.
    • Additional prep time built into your schedule to accommodate the logistics of multiple studios.
    • Studio space and storage space suitable for several studios’ worth of instruments, sheet music, reed desks, etc.
  • If you are a single-instrumentalist teaching multiple instruments, consider forming partnerships with others in the same situation. Visit each other’s schools once or twice a year, maybe more often if the travel is short. Be each other’s consultants, guest artists, masterclass teachers, reed sources.
  • Consider which aspects of running a studio you can streamline to accommodate multiple instruments without multiplying your workload. For example:
    • Use your university’s LMS features, perhaps to combine all of your applied students into one “course,” instead of having to communicate separately to each instrument group.
    • If permissible and appropriate, rotate or combine things like studio classes and chamber group coachings.
    • Repurpose, say, oboe sight-reading excerpts as saxophone excerpts, or vice-versa. (Doesn’t work as well between oboe and bassoon. Clefs, you know.)

Staying sharp (figuratively)

  • Join an organization. Attend conferences. Read the journal. Summer camps (that welcome or at least tolerate adults) are great, too.
    • For oboe-plus-bassoon teachers, IDRS is perfect! Be sure to attend recitals and masterclasses for your secondary teaching instrument, and familiarize yourself with equipment and repertoire options in the vendor exhibits.
  • Build your library of recordings, pedagogical materials, and experiences related to your secondary teaching instrument(s). If it suits your goals, budget toward buying or upgrading your secondary instruments and investing in your further education.
  • Be smart, informed, and conscientious about learning what pedagogical techniques, ideas, etc. you can share between instruments and what you can’t.
  • If you are at even an intermediate performing level on a secondary instrument, strongly consider playing it on your faculty recitals (one short, easy piece?). Keep yourself challenged to improve.
  • Shameless plug: Keep an eye on for blog posts and other resources related to playing and teaching multiple woodwind instruments, and the fundamental techniques that those instruments share.

Long-term career planning

  • Is teaching multiple instruments an end goal for you, or just a way to get that first teaching job that will be a stepping stone to something that fits you better? Hint: either is okay, and it’s also okay to change your mind.
  • If you need to meet certain expectations for tenure, annual reviews, etc., be smart about how your multiple-instrument duties affect this. For example:
    • If leadership in professional organizations is important, you may need to attend your major instrument’s conference every year, instead of bouncing from conference to conference.
    • Understand student recruitment expectations—will you need to keep your studios balanced in a certain way, or is it acceptable if, say, recruiting for your main instrument is more successful?

Stuff bad music teachers say

We can all stand to improve our teaching. Here are some things I’ve either said or heard said that are symptomatic of gaps in pedagogical knowledge.

“I’ve been doing it this way for years and I’m very successful.”

Nobody is arguing with your success. But success isn’t a reason to stop improving, nor is it evidence of a perfect approach. Be open to new ideas. Choose to accept or reject a new approach based on its merits, not based on inertia.

“My famous and well-respected teacher taught it to me this way.”

The craft doesn’t progress if your let hero worship blind you to new ideas. Would your teachers want you to cling to outdated pedagogy out of loyalty, or to further your knowledge and advance the discipline?

“Well, those scientific results don’t matter, because this is music and it can’t be studied in that way. I think musicians know a little more about music than scientists, don’t you?”

Sound is a phenomenon very observable, measurable, and understandable through empirical study. Don’t worry, more information won’t ruin the magic. Take the example of high-level athletes and embrace careful, systematic scientific method as a means of achieving more.

In woodwind teaching in particular, I hear a lot of vague, contradictory, or fantastical ideas that fall apart after even a cursory study of anatomy, acoustics, or fluid dynamics.

And, just like you wouldn’t expect a stodgy old scientist to fully grasp the finer points of your musical performance, recognize your own limitations when it comes to scientific rigor. The Wikipedia article or a blog post you read probably aren’t very solid sources, and the experiment you did with different mouthpieces in your living room probably wouldn’t pass muster with a scholarly journal.

“It’s not a contradiction.”

If your teaching is making you and your students experience cognitive dissonance, getting defensive and brushing past the problem doesn’t help. Watch out for this kind of nonsense: “You have to increase the breath support as you go up to the high register. No, no, don’t reduce the breath support as you go back down to the low register.”

“No, I haven’t read it.”

Music teachers should be active readers of pedagogical materials new and old, and should be actively questioning what they read. (Attending masterclasses, watching videos, etc. is also good, but you will find someone’s clearest, most organized thinking when they have to commit it to paper and/or digital text.) Proliferation of small publishing companies, self-publishing operations, and, of course, the internet, have made the bar for “expertise” very low, but have also made it possible for conscientious readers to consume more and to police what is written. Readers shouldn’t take anything at face value, and authors shouldn’t expect a pass on low-quality work.

Have the courage, conscience, and dedication to pursue deeper, broader, and more accurate knowledge of the concepts you are teaching!

Thoughts on musicians’ websites

I first set up a personal website in about 2000 or 2001. There wasn’t much reason for me to do so—I was a college undergraduate, with virtually no worthwhile content to share. But it was a start, and fifteen or sixteen years later I have a few hundred blog posts and some other resources, plus a few college degrees and a university teaching position to perhaps bolster my reputation, and I enjoy a modest flow of web traffic. For what it’s worth, here are a few thoughts on websites for individual working (or aspiring) musicians, particularly those in non-“pop” genres and whose reputations exist primarily regionally or within specialized circles (such as academia).

photo, Markus Tacker
photo, Markus Tacker

“Home” page: Put some content here. Why have a “landing” page that is nothing but a menu/obstacle to the meat of your site? Put your professional biography here, or maybe a recent blog post (the actual text, I mean, not just links to blog posts).

Biography: Ask yourself, are your site visitors really interested in your life story? (“Bret Pimentel started playing the saxophone at the tender age of ten…”) Keep it simple, professional, and brief. Let people know what you do.

For “who I have played with” lists, I suggest keeping it to 10 or 12 entries, tops. When you play with someone famous/interesting enough to add to your list, drop someone else.

Résumé/vita: Potential employers (for gigs, teaching positions, etc.) aren’t harvesting résumés from websites. Your short bio is probably enough. If you insist on posting your résumé or curriculum vita, strongly consider posting it as a web page, not as a PDF or word processing document. (As a general rule, use a word processing document—preferably an “open” format—if people will want to download and edit it, a PDF if they will want to save or print it without editing, and a web page if they will just want to read it online.) And I suggest removing your address and phone number for safety and privacy.

Blog entries: Not everybody needs or wants a blog, and that’s okay. But if you are hoping to use your website to build an online audience, it helps to have an avenue for publishing new stuff. (Nobody is coming back to read and re-read your bio.) I strongly suggest real blog software (such as WordPress, or a link to a or hosted blog), rather than just typing new entries into a plain web page. That way you can benefit from built-in syndication feeds and other technologies that make it easy for people to find and follow your content in their favorite apps, leave comments, etc.

It’s okay to post only occasionally. Many, many of the musicians’ blogs I follow consist of annual apologies for not posting lately and promises of great stuff coming soon, and nothing more. Just post if you have something to post.

Even if you are planning mostly to use social media sites to connect professionally, bear in mind that those can come and go quickly, and it’s nice to have a home base for your content where it will remain under your control. By all means, post your new web content to the social networks you use yourself, as those connections are the ones most likely to reshare and amplify your content.

Articles/resources: For content that you intend to update or improve over time, it probably makes sense to publish it as a “static” page rather than a blog post. If you are old enough to remember these things, you might consider a blog post to be like a newspaper article, which you probably read once and then look for fresh content the next day, while “resources” are more like phone books, which you refer to on an ongoing basis and which get replaced by newer editions.

Audio/video: I think it makes sense to host these elsewhere (YouTube, SoundCloud, etc.) and link or embed them on your site, since putting them in places where people are already looking for music and video gets them to a larger audience and boosts their search engine juice. They should never play automatically—only when your site visitor intentionally starts them.

Photos: I used to have a photo gallery on my site, but I have removed it. Ask yourself: are you famous or interesting enough (yet) that people are going to have an interest in seeing your career’s visual history? Are you hoping they will be impressed by something related to your physical appearance? Consider using one or two photos on your bio page, and put the rest on Facebook for your friends and relatives to enjoy.

Equipment: I am on record as believing that listing what brands and models you play is useless at best.

(Also, if you have endorsement deals you want to brag about, remember that the correct wording is that you endorse the brand, not that the brand endorses you.)

Contact info: Contact forms are kind of a pain. I suggest providing a real email address so that people can communicate with you using the software or webmail of their choice. Worried about spam? Use a free webmail account with powerful spam filtering.

Social links: You don’t have to link to all the social media sites, just the ones you use and see as good places to connect with internet strangers.

Instructions on how to use a website: If your website includes instructions on how to use your website, either your website is poorly designed or you are talking down to your visitors.

In general, look at each page of your website and ask, is this here because it is potentially of use or interest to my site visitors, or is it only interesting to me? Would I read this content on someone else’s site?

Interview: Sarah Cosano, woodwind player and more

Sarah Cosano is a busy working woodwind player (among other things). I initially reached out to Sarah about doing an interview because I was interested in her experiences with playing on cruise ships, but it turns out her musical experiences are quite varied. In 2000, Sarah was an MTNA National Competition winner, a featured performer on the NPR radio show From the Top, and an Emerson Scholar at the Interlochen Arts Camp. Since then she has performed with the Disneyland All American College Band, BLAST: Music in Xtreme, and the show Evolution in Japan. Her cruise ship playing has taken her around the world (Russia, Estonia, Fiji, New Zealand, Iceland, and the Caribbean). She is a bandleader, a freelancer, an educator, and a doctoral student in saxophone at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Sarah was kind enough to answer some questions about her career thus far. Read to the end for a video of Sarah doing her thing on flute, and be sure to check out her website for more performances.

photo, Rich Whitlow

Tell us about your musical background.

I grew up in a small town in rural Idaho, and really the only music I knew was through competitions. (My graduating class was 8 people, so band programs were non-existent!) My teacher kept me motivated by entering me in competitions. I loved the dedication it required to make pieces as perfect as possible.

When I got into school at Duquesne in Pittsburgh, I was elated! Little did I know how much my life would change. Living in a larger city made it very clear to me that I didn’t have gig-worthy skills even when I was practicing 3+ hours a day. By the time I finished my undergraduate degree as a performance major, I knew something was missing. I moved back home and spent a few years working day jobs, saving up for instruments, and taking lessons on doubling and jazz. A couple of years later, I was on ships as a showband musician.

Since then, my career has been eclectic. I love the university environment, the constant challenge to become better and all the available information. At the same time, I believe the “real world” deserves respect. It’s hard and unforgiving, and that’s what makes it great. I would say so far my life has been equal parts school and career musician. Between each degree I have taken a few years off to tour and try to balance my academic knowledge with the practical. I don’t regret one second of it.

What education (formal or otherwise) and experience prepared you for what you do?

Classical training is definitely useful for some things: technique, rhythm, tuning, and the basics of musicianship. I took lessons on each instrument from great teachers (clarinet lessons from a clarinet professor, etc.). The downside to the college education system is, often there is an expectation for virtuosic technique in just one skill set. That can inhibit students because they feel they don’t have time to diversify. And I think deep down we sometimes are afraid to be bad at something again.

When I started gigging, I had to pick up skills from all kinds of sources. You never know what you can learn from someone, even non musicians. As a lounge singer on Celebrity, I got commentary about how I switch the microphone a lot while I sing (point taken/fixed!). When I played in a funk band, they wanted simple solos with more soul. I learned about networking, and really being a team player (for example, when you’re a sideman, your primary job is to meet the goals of the person who hired you). Even the showbiz aspect was picked up out there: learning how to create an environment and collaborate with other artists to create an interesting product.

If you could do it over, is there anything you would have done differently to prepare for your current pursuits?

Every step of the way, I have been really honest with myself. If I am doing a gig and feel that I am not being challenged enough, then I take it upon myself to find where the next step is for me. So with whatever knowledge I had at that point, I took it as far as I could. That translated to a lot of change in the past 10 years.

Some would say it can also be a weakness, because I find myself getting to a certain level and then losing interest. It’s fun for me to pick up something completely new because the progress is so noticeable in the early stages. Where I am now, I wish I had taken some voice lessons and worked on double reeds so I’d be further along at this point, but I’m doing that now, so I don’t have regrets. Nobody plowed this path for me—I really had to work for it and I’m proud of that.

Side note: I think it’s important to assess where you are regularly. I feel that jealousy and dissatisfaction can be healthy because we see that we need to stretch again, to make a change in our own life. We just have to keep pushing forward.

What effects did youth/student-oriented music experiences like Interlochen, MTNA, From the Top, and the Disneyland All-American College Band have on your career development?

You know, these were all different phases in my life. Competitions like MTNA are like musical Mount Everest. You have to do the opposite of woodwind doubling and focus on one main goal. The pieces need to be perfect. You have to be able to hear the music like your own voice, becoming one with it and committing if you want to win these things. It taught me how much deeper I could reach into the heart of one piece. But it takes everything. I don’t know if I could compete at that level with all the things I balance right now. I remember that Interlochen had chair challenges, where you would challenge the person above you every week in band. No slacking if you don’t want to be last chair!

Competitions really have instilled in me a sense of how big the world is. Even if you are the top player in your school or town, there is someone out there who can run circles around you. I think if people really thought about that, they would work harder.

Disneyland was a completely different experience, I got in as I was coming home to work on doubling and jazz. At first, I really failed at the movement while playing, it was so hard! This summer was so different from what I had been taught in school. It was a place where jazz, doubling, and showbiz were everything, and perfection was not important. The people I worked with in this band have all gone on to some incredible careers, I’m proud to know them all.

Most importantly with the Disneyland experience, one guy that I worked with on this gig recommended me for BLAST and, after sending a demo, I got in on the Japan tour. Then from that tour, another person I met on BLAST recommended me for Evolution. So really Disneyland catapulted me on a crazy ride to some great gigs. Luckily the dancing part got easier!

How did you get started playing on cruise ships?

Cruise ships are a lot less who you know. There are many agencies out there, and if you’re lucky, you can work direct with the company. Agents usually take a 7–12% cut from each month’s salary, and they have clauses that renew for a few years after each contract. They are cruise-line-specific, so if you have an agent with Holland, you can still go direct with Royal if you get the contact info. Downside: working direct with head office takes a lot of time to get a hold of people. If you want quick or fill in work, an agent is a better way to go.

I kind of went in blind because I didn’t know much about working on ships. I auditioned for an agent and got a gig a month later. I’ve worked with a few agents, but our last contract as a lounge band was direct with head office. For showband,  they send you charts an hour or less in advance and you print them out. Then they call you on a landline and you video record the audition. Afterwards, you send the files to them, and they do the video editing and get you a gig. They usually ask for sight reading of a show with tracks and some basic soloing. And they’ll definitely test you on flute and clarinet.

What is day-to-day life like for a cruise musician? What is the best part? What is the worst part?

Typically for showband you will have a rehearsal in the am and then play two shows at night. There also are other sets, like captain’s cocktail (swing big band music) and possibly theme sets. What company you work for has a huge part in how your life is going to be. On Holland, we played 5 hours a day every day, split between Top 40 music and tracked shows (they recently dropped the sax from the instrumentation, the last surviving horn!) Most other companies are lighter. I would say the average work is around 3 hours.

Shows will typically be a couple of production shows with cast singers and dancers (most companies are going the route of tracks these days, and the band has to play with a click track). Then you’ll have a fly-on guest entertainer a couple times a cruise where you read the show in the morning and play it that night. That really helps with sight reading. Lately some companies (Princess) have cut the second sax part, so they ask you to bring tenor, alto, clarinet, and flute out there.

About the lifestyle. There are important factors to consider. For example, IPM, or in port manning means you have to stay on the ship to “protect it” even if you aren’t working. Some companies like Holland had a heavy rotation, every 3-4 days, but Celebrity was once every 3 months or so. And FOOD! Companies vary on whether you can eat upstairs with passengers or not. Believe me, crew food can be brutal. You’ll be sleeping in bunk beds with a roommate, likely a guy from the band. And you will need to have some degree of safety duties. So you want to think about these things when you consider a ship gig.

One good thing is I paid off all my student loans with ships! You can really save because you don’t have to pay rent or buy food. I also travelled all over the world and meet some incredible, adventurous people. We went to Australia, Fiji, Greenland, Alaska, Caribbean, Russia, Norway, Hawaii, Italy, Spain, etc., for free. I also met my husband from Argentina working on ships. Professionally, I had time to really work on my doubling and grow as a musician.

Still, living can become a drag after awhile because ships really have a corporate aspect to them. If a cruise director wants you playing to an empty bar that is not open at 11 am while the ship docks in Rome, you will be doing that. Also, you don’t really have control over the music or the musicians that you are playing with, so it can be really great… or it can stink. Many people on ships work 13-14 hours a day for very little wage so there can be some jealousy towards the entertainment department. Some companies have been pushing the limits to what musician contracts delineate. I was recently on a ship that assigned musicians check in duties at 6:00 AM every week. There has been push back, but I don’t know if the gig is going to keep going this way. It has changed a lot even in the past 10 years.

What advice would you give to a musician who wants to play on cruise ships? for BLAST? shows like Evolution?

To get onboard: practice your doubles, practice your reading, get used to improv (rhythm changes and blues is usually enough for starters), and work on getting a clear, solid jazz sound. I don’t think you will have any problem getting on if you have these skills ready to go.

Once you get there, explore the destinations, and take advantage of this time. For most people, you’ll never get to see the world like this again. Musically, go in there and learn everything that you can. If there is anything that you don’t know how to do, work your butt off and fix it! Also, don’t underestimate the people around you because they can make your life easier, especially in a ship situation. Make friends because you don’t know who’s connected to who. At some point, you will have learned everything that you can get from this gig, and you may began to feel stuck in one place. Don’t become one of those musicians who kept doing the same thing because they’re afraid of moving—find that next step!

BLAST and Evolution sometimes feel to me like luck. But I think they are lessons in basic networking. These aren’t advertised gigs, they are people knowing people. You have to get your foot in the door somehow, and then things will open up. Also, I should point out that my main instrument is saxophone, but for Evolution I barely played that. It helped to be versatile on a few instruments. My main job there was a flute feature while dancing. So really work hard on making each instrument sound as legit as possible, because you may be hired primarily as one of those, and you have to step up to that.

Several of your performance experiences (BLAST, Evolution, the Disney College Band) include movement and dance. Do you enjoy that part of it, or is it just a necessary part of getting to play music? Do you have abilities/experience in these areas that has given you an advantage over other musicians who might have wanted those performing opportunities?

I love it! I love being on stage and being a ham, so that’s really fun. Of course, movement was hard at first. In BLAST, I would come to the hotel every night and put the iPod on in the gym, going through the movements while singing my part. You have to time the movements of big muscles with the small muscles. We also had a part where we used pogo balls and jumped on trampolines while we played, so that took practice. I still am more stiff when performing than I would like to be, probably because I only took dance as a kid and it is hard to keep good air support while jumping in the air.

Players who do marching band would definitely have an advantage at BLAST, and that is something I wished I had when I was growing up. If you haven’t had formal dance training, movement while playing can still be done. You just have to practice it just like you would an instrument.

What part has teaching played in your career? What part do you see it playing in the future?

I really enjoy teaching, especially because I have had to teach myself a lot of things over the course of my career. Another plug for doubling, when I lived in Austin there was not much need of saxophone teachers, so most of my students were middle school clarinetists. That’s an advantage to being a doubler. Wherever you are, you can find a place for yourself among all the other professionals in your area. I would like to teach at the college level, because I feel comfortable in this environment and like to boil things down to a practical level. I’m not a very abstract person. I want my students to be empowered to really achieve things and I also want them to know how to think on their feet and create opportunities for themselves. Looking back, my career has been pretty cool so far, but anybody can do the same thing if they take some risks.

What part has YouTube and other online presence played in your career and development?

I only set up a website this past summer. For a long time, I used YouTube and Myspace for all my promo materials. It wasn’t very organized, but if I wanted a gig I could send links to the specific videos. It’s important to have information online so people can “spy” on you. Now that I book more gigs with my band, the first thing I do before hiring someone is internet search them. It’s a shame how many great players do not have material available. How can I know they are good for our gig if I can’t hear them?

A few years ago, I started putting instructional videos up. I really should do more. It takes effort to get them online. It’s been crazy how many more people come to my channel now! I’ve picked up a few Skype students this way—they will see the video, check out my website, and then go from there. Another part of this is that there is some misinformation there on YouTube. If I can combat it a little of that, then I’ve done something good for the world.

You do non-woodwind things like singing and playing keyboards. Do those things affect or inform your woodwind playing? How? Would your career to this point have turned out differently if you were strictly a woodwind player?

I got into singing when I realized how much better the gig is if you can sing! I also like to front bands, and truthfully was getting bored just playing short lines on sax. Singing is a totally different world. Words, meaning, acting, and connection with the audience are all supremely important. It’s still hard for me to disconnect from mechanics and really convey the song’s meaning. I think this is something that we as instrumentalists often miss, just the simplicity of emotion and the importance of audience-performer connections.

I played piano in high school, but I have gotten really rusty. If I had more time, I’d like to do more jazz piano because it would be cool to be able to accompany myself on a solo gig. But I just can’t find time for it right now. Playing keys on that one cruise contract made me very aware of a mindset difference—as a sax player I play a lick and then hang out. But with piano, you are always there as part of the rhythm section. You really need stamina and a focus towards the people around you, more so than when you’re playing horn. Having some piano skills has also been nice for accompanying students. My career has been mainly woodwinds, but piano is useful when arranging things, and working on singing exercises.

Do you identify as a “doubler?” Is it your intention to play all your instruments equally well, or are there one or more that you would prefer to focus on?

I tend to focus on whatever gig I’m working towards. Its hard to juggle 5+ instruments all the time equally. If it is 3 or more that I need to keep in shape, I rotate instruments with 45 minute practice sessions and I try to get 2-3 hours in a day.

I began as a saxophonist, and that instrument is the easiest for me. It’s what I primarily get gigs with too. But I want to make them as equal as I can. Another caveat, don’t let other people define you. They may see what you are, but only you know where you’re going. At the beginning of every phase (or instrument) in my career, pretty much nobody believed in me. And probably for good reason, because I’m sure I didn’t sound very good! But I practiced my way out of it. I wasn’t going to stay in that place long.

Do you have any favorite woodwind doubling tips?

I know this is common advice, but get rid of the concept of a “doubler” as soon as you can. Whenever I pick up an instrument, I say to myself, I am now a [insert instrument here] player. With flute, I work really hard to match the embouchure to full-time flutists. Don’t take fingering shortcuts— if clarinetists don’t slide their pinkies, don’t form that habit yourself! You have to also hear notes in a different way, the airstream and the shaping inside your mouth will change depending on what instrument you are performing on. Listen to recordings of great players and try to internalize it so it will come out correctly.

We’re really lucky to play multiple instruments. If you can get past the initial feeling of frustration trying to make sounds come out (I sometimes call it the 40-year-old in a 10-year-old body syndrome), you’ll see there is a real advantage to the speed with which we learn things. You already know rhythms, tuning, and many aspects of technique that will cross apply to whatever instrument you are playing.

What instruments do you consider part of your current professional toolbox? What musical styles? Are there others you are working on or would like to add at some point?

  • Alto, tenor, soprano sax
  • Bari sax
  • Flute
  • Clarinet
  • Singing
  • Piccolo
  • Piano
  • Bassoon (just started lessons this semester!)
  • Classical
  • Jazz
  • Pop/Rock/R&B
  • Reading gigs

I have a whole list of instruments that I would buy if I won the lottery!! A better-quality piccolo, my own bari sax, bass clarinet, alto flute, and bassoon. I’m also aiming to take oboe lessons next fall. For a long time, I was wary of double reeds, but bassoon has broken the ice for me. It’s been a lot of fun and I’m enrolled for another semester come January.

I saw some very cool electronic things that musicians were doing on ships on my last contract, and I may someday try to figure out basics of DJing. Not top-40 style, but actually creating electronic patches as music. So much to learn, so little time.

What projects are you working on now?

My jazz group Cambia (formerly Off the Record) is releasing our debut CD on December 11. We’ll have songs online via iTunes, Amazon, and all those great places before Christmas. I play tenor, alto, flute, clarinet, and I have a vocal cameo in the last track so it’s a doubler’s dream. The music is original compositions by myself and my husband (a guitar player). We’re hoping to take this project on the road to a few places next year, so if you stay tuned to my website I will keep updates rolling there.

Do you have time for other interests, hobbies, etc?

I wish! I used to guide rafting tours and I went snowboarding a lot when I lived on the West Coast. I miss it sometimes, but living here in Nebraska makes those hobbies difficult. At this point, I pretty much just do music stuff and follow news and politics obsessively. I like cats. Does that count?

Thank you, Sarah, for taking the time to share your thoughts and experiences!

Handout: Blogging to build your woodwind career

I gave a presentation at last week’s Mid-South Flute Festival on blogging as a means for enhancing a performing/teaching career. The handout says “flute” on it, but I think the advice really is pretty generally applicable.

Blogging to Build Your Flute Career (PDF)

Interview: Sal Lozano, saxophone and woodwind artist

Sal Lozano: Everything's Gonna Be GreatLately I have been enjoying Sal Lozano‘s recent CD, Everything’s Gonna Be Great (available from CD Baby and iTunes). The album is 13 charts by Tom Kubis for 5-piece saxophone section with rhythm section, and Sal plays all five of the saxophone parts. It’s a lot of fun, Sal sounds great, and there’s an all-star lineup of guest soloists.

Even if you don’t know Sal Lozano’s name, you have almost certainly heard him play saxophone and woodwinds. He has recorded with artists ranging from Paul McCartney to Stevie Wonder to Christina Aguilera to Mel Tormé, played on movie scores for Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and National Treasure, and performed in TV orchestras for the Academy Awards, the Emmy Awards, the Grammy Awards, American Idol, and Dancing with the Stars, among many, many other projects. He plays in Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band, which just picked up another four Grammy nominations to add to an already-impressive list. (Also check out my interview with Big Phat Band saxophonist Jay Mason.) Sal also teaches at California State University, Long Beach, is a clinician for Disneyland music education programs, and is available for masterclasses and clinics.

Sal is very generous with his time and expertise, and was kind enough to answer some questions about his work and his new album. (He also asked me to let my readers know that they are welcome to contact him.)

Photo courtesy Gio Washington-Wright. Used with permission.
Photo courtesy of Gio Washington-Wright. Used with permission.

What you do for a living?

“I’m a sax player.” That’s what I say to anyone who asks. I also teach saxophone at the university level. Just private students, about six, which has paid for my daughters’ education.

What education (formal or otherwise) and experience prepared you for the work you do?

I studied at California State University, Long Beach as a performance major on saxophone. Four years of private lessons with Leo Potts. Prior to that I studied with Greg Adams at a music education studio owned by Gary Foster. After college I studied flute with John Barcelona and Jim Walker (he kicked my butt). Then clarinet with Jim Kanter. I also have enjoyed playing in ensembles for many many years which is just as much a learning experience as any teaching I’ve had. I also started playing at Disneyland when I was 19 and that was a great learning experience. Too much to talk about now.

If you could do it over, is there anything you would have done differently to prepare for your current career?

Interesting. (This is my third rewrite of this question.) I’m not sure I knew of a plan then. I just wanted to play. Having said that, I wish I could have learned a little more theory and harmony, but maybe things happen for a reason.

What is a typical work week like for you?

Long tones. Oh… work? It’s all “maybe…” Maybe a recording or two (motion picture, TV show, CD recording, etc.), or if I’m doing theater my nights are busy with that (usually six nights a week if I happen to have a theater run). Teach on Friday. Perhaps a concert with the Phat Band, which is mostly out of town. That band is a lot of fun and travels well. Sometimes weeks can be very busy and some are sporadic. However, I try to do something musical every day.

What projects are you excited about right now?

I have the new CD out and have been getting great response. I am hoping to put out a playalong book based on the tunes on the CD. In April I will be on a solo tour in Japan playing with several local big bands. I’m also in the orchestra for the Oscars so things are great right now.

What instruments do you consider part of your current professional toolbox?

I play all the saxes, flutes, clarinets, whistles, ethnic flutes, and the EWI.

Are there others you are working on or would like to add at some point?

I was asked to play the ocarina last year on a Robbie Williams CD so I learned that. This year I’m on a project where I’m playing a bamboo sax from Argentina. Another calls for the shakuhachi flute so I may learn that.

Do you self-identify as a “doubler?” A saxophonist who doubles? Something else? Is it your intention to play all your instruments equally well, or are there one or more that you would prefer to focus on?

I’ll answer these in order: no, no, yes, and all equally well. To explain, I consider myself a woodwind player (I know, I don’t play double reeds, I tried and said “no”). When I pick up the sax, I’m a sax player; flute? a flute player, etc. That’s the attitude I’ve taken when approaching these instruments. I dive into the deep end when playing these because most of the time I’m sitting next to great players who only play flute, clarinet, oboe, etc. Many remarkable players.

What kinds of teaching/educational activities are you involved with?

I teach at California State University, Long Beach, which is a four-year university, teaching private saxophone lessons. For about 23 years I also have been a clinician for a program at Disneyland called Disney Performing Arts where we take students through a 1½ hour recording session, reading music written for that level and recording a soundtrack of a short clip of a Disney animated motion picture. We use a click track and everything that is involved with recording. Great program because the students react quickly when they hear themselves on the soundtrack. It turns out that they fix problems quickly. I also enjoy very much going across the country and playing with music schools of any type. Clinics, masterclasses, etc. I really get a kick out of that and would like to do more.

What is the best part of your job? What is the worst part?

The best part is playing music. Doing something I love to do. Hanging and playing with great players and writers and the joy of watching a student excel and succeed. Not sure if there is a worst part because I really enjoy it.

Do you have time for other interests, hobbies, etc.?

Oh yes. MLB baseball. College hoops.

Your new album is in sort of a Supersax vein, with a big-band-style saxophone section playing with rhythm section and guest soloists, but you recorded all the saxophone section parts yourself. How does that process compare to recording section parts with other saxophonists?

Well, first of all, I didn’t have to tell anyone in the section where to breathe and how to phrase. No one shows up late or has to leave early. I don’t have to tell the second alto he’s playing too loud. Tom Kubis told me he had written these charts and wanted to record them with the guys in the big band. I told him that I would record all the parts, and that was it. It is really fun to play in a section, or play chamber music where you have to listen and react.

In the liner notes, Tom Kubis (who wrote all the charts) compares your lead playing to Marshal Royal and Jerome Richardson. Does that ring true to you? Do you have other favorite lead players?

Marshal is one of my idols and heroes. I had the honor of sitting next to him with the Ray Anthony big band and he still commanded a lead alto presence in his mid- to late 70’s. He was the first guy I heard way back in junior high school and I was hooked. I’m a huge Basie fan and collect bootleg recordings from the 50’s of that band with Marshal playing lead. Great sound, great time. Jerome was a great influence while he was with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis big band, especially on soprano. There is a huge list of lead alto players I love. The list is quite extensive and it wouldn’t be right to start to list because I can’t think of all of them. They all have this confidence in their sound, the way they go from one note to the next, in many, many styles, not just traditional big band.

Some of the charts on the album use the “standard” alto/alto/tenor/tenor/baritone saxophone section, but some use the less-common soprano lead. Any thoughts on soprano vs. alto as lead instruments? Other than paying dues on the horn, are there any other special considerations when you play lead soprano?

To me? Soprano saxophone requires a hard reed and a slightly open mouthpiece. Mine is an old S80 Selmer E with #3 traditional Vandoren reeds. I need to have the resistance to help me get from one note to the next and hold the pitch and sound I want. I’m not going to change this setup, only the reed. This goes for any playing situation. I most certainly put more air into lead alto playing than I do soprano.

Although the album seems to feature you primarily as a section player, you do take some nice solos, including one on flute. Are you as comfortable improvising on your doubles as you are on saxophone? I think a lot of doublers (myself included) really learn to improvise on the saxophone, and then discover that the vocabulary and fluency don’t automatically transfer.

I would suggest learning technical patterns on the other instruments as you would with saxophone. However, my overall objective is to play flute and clarinet with more of a “classical” approach, so I have had to catch up when improvising on those instruments. Listening to great jazz flute and clarinet players as much as I have listened to “classical” players is quite helpful. I have to remember that each of these instruments requires its own discipline, which is why I don’t consider them “doubles.” It just doesn’t work that way for me.

Any other behind-the-scenes information about the album that you would like to share?

For this project we started with bass and drums and a scratch lead alto/soprano part. Then, the following week, I sat down and played the parts, which took two six-hour days to play 13 charts playing all five parts on each. Eventually we added soloists, guitar, percussion, and piano.

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians who want to do the kind of work you do?

Practice everything, learn to write, arrange, play the piano, enjoy what you do, get into teaching once you feel comfortable in your playing. With the computer age, ProTools or other recording software makes it very easy to record anywhere.

So, with that comes a responsibility to music. Practicing scales with a metronome, playing long tones with a tuner. The reason is that these recording techniques require us to play along with instruments that are fixed pitched. Record yourself using GarageBand on a Mac or the PC equivalent and it will become apparent. [Ed. note: Audacity is one free, basic recording program for Windows or Linux computers.]

Play in every situation you possibly can, listen to music. A lot. To anything.

Do you have any favorite woodwind doubling (or general woodwind-playing) tips?

One thing I began to realize when studying was that the approach to putting air into these instruments grew to be similar. How I phrased and how I went from one note to the next and playing everything between the notes sort of became the same to me. Obviously embouchure is different but the air thing became the same.

Get a great mouthpiece/reed combination as soon as you can. Look for a decent flute or maybe a head-joint. Ask around, try out everything.

As you play keep in mind four things:

  1. When you read music, the second time you see it you are no longer sightreading.
  2. Listen.
  3. Count.
  4. Always look for beat one.

Thanks, Sal, for the music and for taking some time to share a bit of your experience and expertise!

Death from exposure

Working musicians, especially those trying to launch their careers or take them to the next level, are all too familiar with the idea of playing for “exposure”—in other words, playing gigs for free with the idea that maybe it will somehow lead to paying gigs.

Playing for free is one thing; there’s no reason you can’t do a favor for a friend, or show up at a jam session for fun and/or practice. But it’s more insidious when your unpaid labor is fueling somebody else’s profits. This seems to be a phenomenon that particularly affects creative types: the same people who want your band to play at their event for “exposure” or “experience” are no doubt paying the waitstaff, stage crew, or what-have-you, because people in those jobs simply don’t work for free.

Photo, Mark Robinson
Photo, Mark Robinson

The fallacy here is that the prospective employer is offering you exposure and experience and networking instead of money, as if the alternative were gigs that paid money but didn’t offer those things. That simply isn’t the case: you get all those benefits from paid gigs, too, plus you get to pay your rent that month.

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Teaching multiple instruments in higher education

My academic credentials in multiple woodwind instruments have served me well so far: I was fortunate to be one among my graduating class who did get a college teaching job right out of school, and it’s a job that happens to be an excellent fit. Part of the reason it’s a great fit is because teaching multiple instruments is what I want to do, at least at this point; sometimes others assume that I’ve taken a multiple-woodwinds job as a stepping stone to something else, but that isn’t the case.

While I thoroughly enjoy the variety in my day (I’m teaching oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and saxophone), there are some additional things worth considering if you take on multiple instruments in a collegiate teaching career. For example:

  • Resources allocated per faculty member sometimes get spread extra thin. When I arrived at my new job, I was given a little bit of funding for library acquisitions in my area. If I were teaching a single instrument, my current and future students would have benefited from all that money being spent on items directly relevant to them. Instead, I was able to get only a few items related to each instrument. My students, through no fault of their own, got fewer applicable new library resources.
  • Time also gets spread thin. We recently hosted a high school honor band on our campus as a recruiting event. At one point the visiting students were sent to masterclasses with the professors on their instrument, so I got all the reed players. It’s certainly not impossible to run a worthwhile masterclass in that situation, but the circumstances do complicate things a bit. The same problem exists with studio classes for my college students.
  • Some of the work multiplies. When we hold our ensemble auditions, I select audition excerpts and sightreading material for four instruments instead of one. When it’s time to submit textbook orders to the bookstore, I submit separate requests for each instrument’s separate batch of course numbers.
  • It is common for applied music professors to attend their professional organizations’ conferences annually, and to seek out officer positions in those organizations as a way to enhance their tenure portfolios. I would love to attend the annual conferences of the International Double Reed Society, the International Clarinet Association, and the North American Saxophone Alliance each year, but my limited travel funding and the potential time away from my teaching make this unrealistic. And since I don’t attend any one conference every year, it’s difficult to get taken seriously as an officer candidate.
Photo, Trevor Hempfling Photography
Photo, Trevor Hempfling Photography

Not that I am complaining—I am grateful every day that I get to do what I love for a living, and most of these problems can be mitigated with a little effort and creativity. But I think they are worth knowing about if you see yourself headed for a career in college music teaching.


Interview: Jay Mason, saxophone and woodwind artist

One of the cool people I’ve come in contact with through this blog is Jay Mason, a very busy southern California woodwind player. If you’re a fan of Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band (and you should be), you have heard Jay’s baritone anchoring the saxophone section. You may have also heard him on film scores (like the recent Monsters University), on television (The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, for one), in the theater (numerous productions around southern California), on high-profile recording projects (Patti Austin, Barry Manilow, Chick Corea…), and backing up a wide variety of marquee acts in concert (Barry White, Kenny Rogers, Michael Bolton, Bob Hope, and many more). He also teaches at Cal State Long Beach and Concordia University – Irvine. Jay was nice enough to take the time to answer some questions about his work.

Jay Mason and friends
Jay Mason and friends

BP: What do you do for a living?

JM: A combination of playing saxophones and woodwinds in recording and live situations, and music education.

What education (formal or otherwise) and experience prepared you for the work you do?

I was very fortunate to have several great young players in my high school bands, both jazz and concert band, who have gone on to successful careers in music. The choir director there started a music theory class during my junior year, which was very thorough and inclusive of many styles, which really helped me to understand how music works, not just how to play. In college, quite a few of the professors either were or had been involved in studio and live work, and working with them, talking shop, etc. helped me to understand what I needed to do if I wanted to become part of that scene. In terms of experience, the opportunity to double on flute and clarinet, as well as all of the different types of saxophones, came along in college in a variety of situations in and outside of school: musicals, different ensembles, saxophone quartets, you name it. After college, I performed at Disneyland for quite a while, which put me into a huge variety of situations, playing everything from piccolo to bass saxophone, often having to read new material or learn new parts quickly, and make it happen day in and day out, no matter the weather, the crowd, or my mood and health.

What is a typical work week like for you?

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