Review: Ben Britton’s A Complete Approach to Sound for the Modern Saxophonist

December 6, 2012

I have been in touch with saxophonist Ben Britton since I mentioned his blog in a roundup review last year. He’s a nice guy, not to mention a great (and award-winning) saxophone player:

I was pleased to hear from Ben about his new book, A Complete Approach to Sound for the Modern Saxophonist. It is now available in print from Amazon (currently a very reasonable $14.95) and as a download from Payhip (a steal at $9.95).

The book is around 60 pages long, but it’s not densely packed text. It can easily be skimmed in one sitting. What you get for your money is a highly-concentrated, efficient approach to tone production. I (and probably you) have shelves of much longer and much more expensive books that take a week to read and longer to extract anything useful from. Ben’s book is a straightforward, less-is-more approach that is refreshing and worthwhile.

My copy arrived just in time, as my tenor hasn’t been getting enough attention lately (teaching classical repertoire means lots of alto) and, as I feared, my tone and control have suffered a bit. I soaked some reeds and spent the morning with the book.

The first chapter introduces some fundamental concepts of saxophone tone production. The next four chapters focus on four key areas: air support, embouchure, air stream focus (this has much to do with what I call “voicing“), and articulation. The sixth and final chapter offers an outline for practicing Ben’s various exercises, including a daily warm-up routine. Ben has posted a couple of sample excerpts at his website.

If you are already practicing things like long tones, overtones, and wide interval slurs, then you will find familiar concepts here, explained from square one but explored in what I found to be some new and interesting ways. Ben’s “Slurring Up” overtone exercises, for example, were an approach I hadn’t tried before, and I found them to be revealing of a few gaps in my control of the vocal tract. Those exercises will be part of my warm-up for the foreseeable future.

Ben is primarily a jazz player, and many of the concepts and exercises seem to be the kinds of things I’ve encountered mostly within jazz circles. But I think everything in the book is relevant to playing in other styles, including classical music. Good saxophone playing is good saxophone playing.

The exercises are designed for advanced players who have a good sound concept and want to refine their control of the instrument; they are mostly not suitable for beginners. They may be usable for motivated young saxophonists with a private teacher’s supervision, but I think much of the value of the book would be wasted on inexperienced saxophonists looking for quick fixes. If playing long tones for the length of a full breath doesn’t suit your attention span, then this isn’t for you. There aren’t any mouthpiece recommendations, fingering charts, or “licks”—this is a serious, thoughtful text to be digested slowly, and exercises to work into your regular practice routine over the long term.

Throughout the text, Ben cautions that practice sessions on these exercises should be brief, and I second that recommendation. When I spent more than a few minutes on some of the harder exercises, I found myself straining a bit in an attempt to make them happen. Ben’s approach focuses on eliminating unnecessary tensions and making good sounds; if you are experiencing discomfort in your vocal tract, your embouchure, or your ears, then it’s time to bookmark your spot and move on for the day.

I have a couple of minor notational quibbles, which shouldn’t dissuade you from buying the book, but here they are for the record. Ben’s overtone notation uses regular noteheads to indicate the note that should be fingered, and diamond noteheads to indicate the sounding note, which looks backwards to me (perhaps because all my teachers were Rousseau protégés and Rousseau uses diamonds for fingered notes and regular noteheads for sounding pitches). I also have to take exception to the use of the pound sign for sharps and the lower-case “b” for flats; it’s a vaguely amateur touch to an otherwise professional text.

Ben contacted me a while back about permission to use a few diagrams from my Fingering Diagram Builder in the text, which I was happy to accommodate. The diagrams in the book have all keys “turned on”—so that, for example, the palm keys are all visible even when not needed. I’ve ranted about that in the past, but I seem to be fighting a losing battle. Either way, I’m happy to make licensing agreements for quality for-profit projects (in addition to the existing “free” license for nonprofit use).

But my personal OCD aside, A Complete Approach to Sound for the Modern Saxophonist is a practical, useful, and well-thought-out book, and at a very low price. Definitely worth checking out.

Comments

  1. Geoff Allen

    Bret,

    Thanks for this very helpful review! I’ve been following Ben’s blog for a while (probably since you mentioned it, but I don’t remember for sure how I came upon it). It’s great to hear that the book sounds like a winner. It’s going straight to the top of my Christmas wish list!

    Reply

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