Technical limits

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If I try to play too softly, sometimes my notes don’t respond as I would like. If I try to play too loudly, sometimes my tone or intonation suffer. I have similar limitations when it comes to things like finger or tongue speed, tone color or pitch flexibility, and more.

The way I deal with these limits is very different depending on whether I’m performing or practicing.

If I’m performing, I want to stay just within my limits. I want every note to be predictable and reliable. I want to take advantage of every bit of my dynamic range, but no more. I want to make wise, deliberate, professional-quality choices.

If I’m practicing, I want to explore those limits. Push those limits. Live just beyond those limits. It’s important to do this for couple of reasons. First, if I don’t go past those limits, I won’t know where the limits are for my upcoming performance. Second, if I’m too afraid to go past the limits in the practice room, I’ll never expand them. And if something goes wrong—a note cracks or fails to speak or is out of tune—that’s okay, it’s just practice.

Find your limits, know them well, and, in your practice space, break them.

Review: NewMusicShelf Anthology of New Music: Alto Saxophone, Vol. 1

I don’t typically do reviews of new sheet music publications unless they have a specific woodwind-doubling focus, but I’m making an exception here because I think this is a project that is especially useful and has potential to change the landscape of “classical” saxophone repertoire (and other instruments, too).

I have a repertoire problem. My file cabinet is full of wonderful, important music that is written almost exclusively by dead white men. I would like to change that—to perform and teach music representing a greater diversity of composers, and particularly living composers.

But it’s hard to escape the inertia of the “standard repertoire.” And sorting through mountains of new pieces by composers I haven’t heard of (yet), to find the best ones, the ones at the right difficultly level for my students, and so forth, could cost me thousands of dollars and thousands of hours. It’s daunting, and so I fall back on the same pieces I’ve taught over and over.

NewMusicShelf Anthology of New Music: Alto Saxophone, Vol. 1 is an elegant solution. For the price of a standard-repertoire concerto, it contains 16 works composed (or at least revised) within the last 20 years. The composers (listed on NewMusicShelf’s website) are diverse and distinguished. Many are young.

The collection is curated by Alan Theisen, a composer and saxophonist well-positioned to accomplish this task due to his interests and connections in the world of new music. (One of his own compositions is included in the anthology.)

For me as a performer and educator, this anthology helps solve several problems: the pieces are thoughtfully selected for quality and variety, the publication is very affordable, and its presence in my studio is a strong step toward currency and representation in concert saxophone music. All are for solo alto saxophone or saxophone and piano, so the performance logistics are simple (no large/unusual ensembles, electronics, or other potential barriers). The pieces are playable by undergraduate-level students (but, as Theisen points out in his introduction, “absolutely suitable” for more advanced players as well). It’s an easy, cheap, and practical way to grow my performing and teaching repertoire. (This is an unsolicited review of a copy I purchased myself.)

A couple of small complaints: the saxophone and piano parts are “perfect bound” (like a paperback book) and thus don’t lay flat on a music stand. NewMusicShelf indicates on their website that this is to facilitate library shelving (and points out that, hey, you can disassemble and re-bind it yourself if you want), but I’d rather see a more performer-oriented solution. And the books contain a web link promising composer headshots and program notes, but the link is currently broken and I couldn’t locate the content on the website. Still, a very worthwhile purchase.

The “Volume 1” label is hopefully indicative of more to come. A flute volume appears to be in the works, and calls-for-scores for clarinet, bassoon, and some other instruments are currently open. Collections for voice and for viola are already available. Kudos to NewMusicShelf and Alan Theisen for this extremely valuable aid for teachers and performers.

NewMusicShelf Anthology of New Music: Alto Saxophone, Vol. 1

Favorite blog posts, February 2020

See the woodwind blogs I’m following, and suggest others!

Updated: Music for woodwind doublers

As of February 2020, I’ve made some substantial updates to my catalog of music written for players of multiple woodwind instruments: Music for woodwind doublers

There are a few pieces I have listed as currently being researched, mostly cases where I am awaiting responses from composers. And I now have a special section for pieces that, unfortunately, I believe to be unavailable. If you have any leads on these pieces, or can offer any other additions or corrections, I’d be very interested in hearing from you.

When I take a step back and look at the list, it’s surprisingly robust. There are works by composers and musicians of the stature of Samuel Adler, Georges Barrère, Irwin Bazelon, Thomas Filas, Clare Fischer, Ralph Hermann, Bernard Hoffer, and Claude T. Smith. There are an encouraging number of pieces written in the 21st century. (I also have a new commission in the works, which I’ll hopefully be able to share details about sometime in the next few months.)

A fair number of the pieces have significant obstacles to performing, such as a need for an orchestra or concert band, or electronics, or less-common instruments. But there are a good number that are performable with just woodwind soloist or with woodwind soloist and piano, and some are flexible about instrumentation.

I must imagine for a lot of composers the prospect of writing a multiple-woodwinds piece is something of a hard sell. There’s a very limited number of musicians capable of performing multiple-woodwinds works, and not every doubler plays all the same instruments. If you are interested in playing these kinds of pieces, I hope you will find composers to work with, and let me know so I can add new pieces to my list.

Music for woodwind doublers

Playing professional whole notes

I have spent many hours of my life absorbed in difficult études and repertoire. Challenging music pushes the limits of my abilities.

But when I actually get hired to play music, it’s almost never anything that complicated. Many of my workaday gigs are very easy—on paper.

One part of my career is playing with a nearby symphony. The repertoire occasionally has a few moments in it that demand my fleetest technique. But, as a wind player, I spend much more of the concert counting rests and waiting to play another handful of whole notes.

I recently played in a recording session for a local band’s new album. I played a total of one note. I played it a bunch of times, but it was just the one long note, over and over.

A beginner could play one note. So why hire a professional?

The notes—fast or slow, easy or hard—need to be beautiful, balanced, in tune, started precisely, ended precisely, shaped appropriately, and stylistically appropriate.

I’ve never been hired to play études, and almost never to play classical solo repertoire, but studying those has helped me develop the control and skill to play the whole notes just right, and that’s what gets me hired.

Working less hard

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As a 10-year-old brand-new saxophonist, I learned a bunch of tasks I needed to do to play the instrument: blow in a certain way, form my lips just so, put my fingers into such-and-such positions, and so on. Every time I thought I had learned all of the skills I needed, my teacher would add some more.

In the 30 years since, playing saxophone and other woodwinds, I have mostly worked on doing less—letting my embouchure relax, keeping my jaw still, keeping my breath support consistent, moving my fingers more efficiently. The more I can strip away the excess effort, the more my playing is easy, pleasant, pain-free, fatigue-free, and expressive.

On some level it feels more like teaching if I can tell a student a new thing to do. Assign them an additional task. But the most productive and valuable lessons (or personal practice sessions) are often the ones when I can convince a student (or myself) to do one fewer thing.

Favorite blog posts, January 2020

See the woodwind blogs I’m following, and suggest others!

Do I need a college degree for my instrumental music career plans?

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  • Classical or jazz solo artist, chamber/orchestral/theater musician, jazz big band or small group musician, studio musician. None of these “require” a college degree, just very fine playing. But these are lofty goals for making your primary living—very few people, even among the most talented and hardworking, are able to achieve them. But college study can help you develop the skills, the discipline, and the professional network that might get you there. And a college degree that you can fall back on for other employment might be a smart move.
  • Musician in “popular” styles (such as rock, blues, hip-hop, country, and many more). Even if you wish to study these in college, there currently aren’t a lot of options. But some classical or jazz training in a band or orchestral instrument, widely available at universities, will deepen and expand your musical understanding in general, and sometimes present valuable opportunities.
  • Public school music teacher. Yes: in most cases you will need a bachelor’s degree in music education.
  • University music teacher. Yes: in most cases you will need a doctoral degree in something related fairly precisely to the job you are applying for. (Some job listings list a masters degree as a minimum, but even for an adjunct or community-college position, you may well be applying against candidates with doctorates.)
  • Private music teacher, from home or small business. You probably won’t need the degree in order to set up shop, but depending on your local market and your reputation it may be an advantage in attracting students and giving them quality instruction.

While college study may not be the right choice for every instrumentalist, it’s hard to beat for a well-rounded musical education (with performance study, music theory, music history, and more), plus life skills, networking, and enhanced employability in the general job market.

10 ways to strengthen your embouchure right now!

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  1. You don’t need a “strong” embouchure, you need a relaxed embouchure.
  2. Embouchure “strength” is a myth. Stop biting and pinching.
  3. Your embouchure is made up of little facial muscles, which are good at subtle, expressive movements, like for facial expressions and language (or for nuanced variations in woodwind dynamics and tone color). They aren’t good at feats of strength or endurance.
  4. Your abdominal muscles, on the other hand, are very good at strength and endurance. You use them all day long and they probably never feel tired unless you are doing sit-ups or something. Instead of straining with your embouchure, let breath support do the work.
  5. You should probably check on your voicing, too. I mean, you could bite your clarinet up to pitch instead, but it’s painful and causes lots of other problems.
  6. You know that thing where you play a reed instrument and you get a blister or callus from your teeth on your lower lip? Good news, you don’t need a dental appliance or some kind of tape. You just need to relax your embouchure. Try it! Now you can practice for hours without fatigue or blood, and sound better doing it.
  7. Ever try to play in one of the upper registers of the flute, and get an undertone or some dirtiness/growliness in your attacks? The key to clear, beautiful transitions into the upper register is a relaxed and flexible embouchure.
  8. We can argue about whether your jaw is part of your embouchure. Nah, never mind, I have better things to do. But in any case it should be open, creating space for the soft tissues of your lip and facial muscles to make the aperture. Go ahead and unclench. By the way, opening up your jaw is what people really mean when they tell clarinetists (mostly) to do weird things with their chins.
  9. I know, somebody taught you in your formative years about the vital importance of a brutishly muscular embouchure. Take a deep, cleansing breath. Everything is going to be fine.
  10. Go practice.

Woodwind doubling and saxophone problems

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It’s very common for woodwind doublers to be saxophonists first, and approach the other woodwinds later, often because of the demands of flute/clarinet doubling in jazz big band music. So advice for woodwind doublers is often really advice for saxophonists playing secondary instruments. But when players of other woodwind instruments pick up the saxophone, there are some challenges that need to be addressed as well.

Tone production problems (pitch, tone, response). Assuming good breath support is in place (the same as with any other woodwind), these problems are probably caused by some combination of embouchure and voicing issues.

As with the other reed instruments, your embouchure should be airtight but not tight—just enough to close around the mouthpiece and reed, with your top teeth on the mouthpiece and your bottom lip in a neutral position (not rolled in or out). A tight embouchure constricts tone and reduces dynamic range.

The mouthpiece should angle up to your embouchure a little, but not at nearly as steep an angle as the clarinet or the oboe. Too steep an angle contributes to an uncharacteristic, slightly clarinet-like tone.

Use the paper trick to ensure you are taking in the right amount of mouthpiece. Taking in too much mouthpiece creates a wild, honky tone, and to little causes a stuffy, labored tone.

Voicing is tricky to get right on the saxophones. Flutists and double reed players are used to playing with a voicing essentially as low as it can go, and clarinetists use an embouchure essentially as high as it can go. Saxophonists need to hit a target somewhere in between. Daily mouthpiece pitch exercises are the best way to train this. Using a too-high voicing causes the thin, pinched sound and poor low-register response that expose you as a doubler coming from the clarinet. A too-low voicing causes a tubby tone, unstable pitch, and unresponsive high notes.

Fingering problems. The saxophone’s fingering system is in some ways the simplest and most intuitive of the modern woodwinds, but it has its share of problems. “Side” and “palm” keys are among them—they are awkward and imprecise to use, and take a great deal of practice to develop fluency. Similarly, movement between the pinky-finger keys using rollers, especially on the left hand, is problematic and requires diligent training. Scales and arpeggios, practiced though the instrument’s full standard range, are essential. Fluency in the saxophone’s middle register is comparatively easy, but the lowest notes (left-hand pinky) and highest notes (palm keys, especially left hand) are a real test of saxophone skill.

Style problems. For doublers approaching the flute, clarinet, or double reeds, a solid classical/orchestral approach to the instrument will cover most musical demands. Not so with the saxophone, which is often used in jazz or popular styles. To play these styles convincingly requires meticulous attention to tone, inflection, articulation, vibrato, and other subtleties. Doublers learning the saxophone would be wise to consider taking lessons both from “classical” and jazz teachers, and to do a great deal of listening and study of many styles of music.

Effective improvisation in various musical styles is a lifetime pursuit, and essential for serious saxophone gigging. Find a good teacher.

Jazz and classical setups. For saxophonists, playing in different styles sometimes requires different equipment. It’s common to have a classical mouthpiece and at least one jazz/pop mouthpiece, plus reeds to suit each. A classical mouthpiece often doesn’t have the volume, brightness, or punchy articulation needed for jazz or rock, and a jazz mouthpiece may not have the warm/dark tone, pitch stability, and subtle/soft dynamics for classical music.

Jaw vibrato. Jaw vibrato is a technique unique to the saxophone among the other woodwinds. (Clarinetists most often don’t use vibrato, and flutists and double reed players use a breath-pulse vibrato sometimes mislabeled as “diaphragm” vibrato.) Mastery of this skill takes good instruction and lots of practice. The saxophone vibrato needs to be fast, narrow, subtle, and fairly constant for most classical applications. Jazz players traditionally tend toward a slower, wider, terminal vibrato.

The saxophone is a valuable and rewarding double, and opens up many gigs that aren’t available to players of just the “orchestral” woodwinds. Give it serious study on its own terms and with an excellent teacher. Practice well!