Fun Weekend

I just got through a really fun weekend playing for the first time with a new (to me) band.  The Hudson Project is a wedding and event band out of NYC and they played a couple gigs in my area.  I played with them Friday and Saturday nights – Friday I was the only horn and Saturday I was part of a three-man horn section.  The band is awesome with some really talented musicians and some truly amazing singers up front.  They play a very big variety of music from standards and oldies to tons of much more modern and funky music.  I had a lot of fun and wanted to talk about a few interesting things regarding the weekend.

View from the Ballroom at the Hay-Adams...right behind where I was standing.  It's more impressive when you aren't taking a picture with a Blackberry.

View from the Ballroom at the Hay-Adams…right behind where I was standing. It’s more impressive when you aren’t taking a picture with a Blackberry.

On Friday night, the gig was in Washington D.C. at a place called the Hay-Adams.  This place is amazing because it commands a nearly unparalleled view of the White House and the surrounding areas.  In fact, I was standing right next to a French door that looked directly out on the White House.  Of course, getting there was another story altogether.  I left my house 90 minutes before I was supposed to arrive (usually a sub 60-minute trip) but I hit traffic basically the second I hit the highway and I was in stop and go for the entire trip.  It was a combination of the usual Friday evening mess combined with driving in and out of torrential downpours the whole way.  My GPS also told me a really dumb way to get there but I couldn’t be confident any other way would be better so I just sucked it up and arrived 30 minutes late but still ahead of gig time.  Not the first impression I wanted to make but the band was fine with it.  I did call ahead and let them know I was running behind.

Being the only horn player in a band you’ve never played with before is fun, challenging, and mentally draining all at the same time.  You really have to have your “ears on” because you never know what key a song might be in or if you’ve ever even heard it before and you definitely never know when they’re going to point at you to solo.  For example, they did Soul Man in G and I know I’ve never ever payed it in that key before.  I really had to be on my toes but luckily I’ve been doing this long enough that I was at least familiar with the vast majority of the songs.  If I would have changed anything I would have brought my EWI to play some synth stuff on some of the more modern songs rather than trying to figure out a sax line but maybe I’ll get that chance in the future.

It was good there was a microphone and music stand for me but I’m used to having in-ear monitors and the sound company didn’t even have me in the monitors so it was really hard to hear myself.  Much like playing outside, the tendency is to hear how dull and lifeless you sound (if you can even hear at all) and try to blow harder to generate the brightness and edge you think you are missing.  Overblowing is the worst thing you can do, though, as you will just tire yourself out and your tone will probably suffer in the long run.  One thing you should do in advance (and in general) is try to find a setup that will let you hear yourself well “behind the horn”.  This is a concept I first heard from another blogger and great saxophonist named Ben Britton and it’s a really important factor in choosing a setup I think.    It seems odd but you really can find a setup that maximizes what you can hear in situations when you are totally acoustic in a loud room where much of what you hear is through bone conduction.  It’s probably going to be trial and error at first to get an idea of what works for you…the only way to be sure is to actually play the setup on the gig.  Another thing you can do is try a different reed.  If you’re trying to combat overblowing you might want to use a stiffer reed.  For me, I have enough experience to keep from overblowing so I actually chose a slightly softer reed to get a little more brightness.  One more thing is to either position your music stand or some other object to get some bounce back from the bell much like the way sax players always play into a wall.  Finally, you could put in ear plugs to maximize how much bone conduction you are hearing but for me this is a last resort.

One more thing about this gig…it was continuous music.  That means the band is on stage for the entire contracted period (four hours in this case) and that was an additional trial for my chops.  Luckily, the band leader was very good at finding ways to give people breaks but even then the last two hours was non-stop stage time for me.  A couple of hints: try to have a solid knowledge of tunes that get called on the usual wedding gig.  That means a lot of Motown as well as some choice standards like Fly Me to the Moon, The Way You Look Tonight, and All of Me.  Also, it doesn’t hurt to spend some time listening to some more modern dance music and playing along just to have an idea of the lines that make up the song and the form.

Saturday night the band was in St Michael’s, MD at the Maritime Museum for another wedding but this one was outside in a tent.  As I mentioned, we had a section for this gig.  Being outside we had the additional challenge of having the horns get cold whenever we weren’t playing.  That meant that the horn would be quite flat until it warmed back up again.  I usually try to lip up as much as possible rather than trying to push in and then pull back out but depending on how cold the horn is you may not be able to get all the way up to pitch this way.  Luckily, brass warms up pretty quickly.  Because they were expecting the horns they brought books but as fate would have it, most of the songs didn’t have charts so we were left with making up parts as we went.  This was a little challenging since the three of us had never worked together as a section but ultimately we sounded fine and had a good time hanging out and telling war stories.  Another tip: Try to spend time practicing making up quick and easy horn lines and also practice finding simple harmonies for those same lines.  It will come in handy in situations like this.

The food at Hay-Adams was awesome even if I didn’t have much time to enjoy it.  It was salad, roast chicken, steamed veggies, and a risotto with asparagus in it.  Dinner in St. Michael’s was also chicken but it was accompanied by asian noodles, a different type of salad, and pre-packaged cookies.

Stand Up For Yourself

One of the things I wish someone had told me a long time ago is how important my posture while playing would be to both the quality of my performance and my long-term health.  Well, it’s not like no one told me but I guess I should have recognized the impact that not paying attention to it would have.  Over the last few years I have been scratching and clawing my way to a better posture and it’s been a tough problem although not an insurmountable one.

Larry Teal literally wrote the book on saxophone playing but this guy doesn't look cool at all!

Larry Teal literally wrote the book on saxophone playing but this guy doesn’t look cool at all!

I think we’ve all seen those pictures in the beginning of the method books where some dull looking dude in a suit demonstrates the proper posture for playing both sitting and standing but it just looks so boring and I want to be a hip jazz dude or a wailing rock guy; I don’t need to worry about posture I just want to look cool.  The real truth of the matter is that bad posture actually worsens your performance, keeping you from breathing correctly and constricting air flow.  Also, there are tons of examples of hip and cool players that have excellent posture…look at guys like Eric Alexander, Paul Booth, or Bob Reynolds.  Even the coolest guy ever, Clarence Clemons, stands very straight and tall while he plays.

There are several things that contributed to my bad posture including a lifetime of being at least somewhat overweight (and being self-conscious about it) or spending a lot of time in front of a computer without knowing how to set up my work area but playing the saxophone has been a major contributor.  One reason was my ignorance or misunderstanding of how to best position the saxophone and neck strap.  The other is the simple fact that hanging anywhere from 5 to 12 pounds (alto to bari on average) on a strap around your neck for prolonged periods of time is probably a bad idea.

Here’s a great article on how to check your posture in various ways and some exercises you can do to fix it if its bad.  One simple test that is missing from the article is checking your hands when you are standing straight with them at your side.  If they are naturally facing inward toward your hips, then your shoulders are lined up correctly.  If, on the other hand, they face backwards then your shoulders are slumped and you should do some of those shoulder strengthening and repositioning exercises.  I’ve learned a lot about my own posture over the years and for my part I’ve done many of those exercises as assigned by a physical therapist as well as a lot of pushups but I’ve gotten much better results and understanding by studying both Yoga and Tai Chi for the last few years.

Of course, none of that is any good if I didn’t take steps to fix my posture with the saxophone in my hands.  There are many things you can check but here are some tips:

  • Stand tall with your weight equally distributed between your feat (side to side and front to back).  Try to feel weight in all four corners of your feet.
  • When sitting, keep your back straight and keep both feet flat on the floor.
  • Adjust the neck strap so that you don’t have to crane your neck in any way especially forward.  This usually means raising it higher than you might think you should.  It will probably be uncomfortable at first but it’s a great adjustment to make.
  • Try to keep your shoulders lined up over your hips rather than twisting to one side or the other.  Check out mountain pose in Yoga or preparation posture in Tai Chi to get a feel for this.
  • Try to be aware of your neck and shoulders and take steps to relax and straighten if you feel tension.
  • Let your arms hang naturally from your shoulders and bend at the elbow to find the keys.  Try to keep your wrists flowing naturally from the end of your arms rather than bending or arcing them.
This is the Tai Chi method for standing straight. It's not that far away from a great start at saxophone posture.

This is the Tai Chi method for standing straight. It’s not that far away from a great start at saxophone posture.

These guidelines are just that, guidelines, and you should still have fun and express yourself when the time is right.  You can do the opposite of all of those things for short periods of time if the mood hits you but for most of your playing take my advice and pay attention to your posture for your long term health and for the betterment of your playing.  Eliminating twists, relaxing your body, and standing straight will allow you to fill your lungs more fully and maximize your airflow.  Plus, your back and neck will thank you in the long run.  I am still a long way from a perfect posture but it gets better all the time.  In fact, every time someone posts a picture of me on Facebook I’m usually way more worried about whether my shoulders look rounded or if my neck is bent forward rather than how cool I look…I mean of course I look cool right?…right?  Never mind.  🙂

One thing I am planning on buying to try over the next month or so is one of these straps.  I’m hoping that actually taking the weight from my neck and constantly pulling me forward will help but that’s for a future review.

October ’12 News and Notes

Lots of cool things going on right now.  First off, there’s a cool new behind the scenes video from the Emma White show I did a few weeks ago at Artscape in Baltimore.  It starts off with Emma doing What is Hip from Tower of Power…no small feat for only two horn players.  I can safely say I’ve never done that tune with a smaller section before…or even one as small.  There is some backstage stuff interspersed with some music clips.  The music sections include some of Emma’s original songs and some choice covers.  The audio and video quality are really good.  It was a really fun gig.

Even more exciting for me personally, the CD project I spent a lot of time working on over the summer (and going back to last winter) is now out and I’m really happy with how it turned out.  The CD is from a really good buddy of mine named Anthony Setola who is an amazing bass player, a gifted composer, and an up and coming producer.  It’s called Radiate and it’s available now on CD Baby.  If you’re on Facebook and you feel the urge feel free to “Like” this page.  I played tenor and baritone saxes with my usual horn section, The Retox Horns, and I also played a lot of EWI stuff as well. It was fun and interesting because everything was recorded in different places…some in a studio, some at Anthony’s house, some onsite backstage on the gig, and lots of EWI stuff was me recording right here at my house on my laptop and then sending the files to Anthony to incorporate into the song.  Recording at home was on one hand liberating and convenient but on the other hand somehow even more stressful as I tended to obsess over my parts more than I would in a studio environment.  Ultimately I was satisfied with what I added to the project but I was especially knocked out by the other guys and girls also contributing.  Check out these names:

  • Frank McComb- Vox
  • Sean Rickman- Drums
  • Scott Peaker- Drums
  • Dan Leonard- Guitar
  • Jonathan Rogerson- Guitar
  • Russ Pahl- Pedal Steel Guitar
  • Ned Judy- Piano and Keyboards
  • Federico Gonzalez Pe?a- Melodica
  • Benjie Porecki- Organ and Keyboards
  • Glenn Workman- Organ and Keyboards
  • Bill Plummer- Moog Synthesizer
  • Justin Lewis- Moog Synthesizer
  • Mark Merella- Wave Drum and Percussion
  • Mark St.Pierre- Wave Drum and Percussion
  • Meg Murray- Vox and Elements
  • Ross Hancock- Vox and Elements
  • Brad Kimes Cymbals, Wind Chimes, and Vox
  • Joe Amey- Elements
  • Larry Rodbell- Elements
  • Barry Caudill- EWI, Tenor Sax and Baritone Sax
  • Dave Makoweicki- Trumpet
  • Jim McFalls- Trombone

It was an honor and a privilege to work with such great musicians even though the only guys I ever saw in the studio were Anthony and the other horn players.  I’ve worked with a lot of the others in various live situations and on other recordings but this collection is a juggernaut.  Check out the CD (or Anthony’s previous CD – also on CD Baby – that I worked on as well) and pick up a copy to support a great guy and a wonderful musician.

Finally a little bit of sax geekiness.  I’ve mentioned before that I have played the same reeds on tenor for quite a few years.  I tried Van Doren Java Green reeds when they first came out and I have been using them on tenor ever since (I also use them on alto and soprano).  That’s nearly 30 years on the same reeds although I have switched back and forth at various times from 3 to 3 1/2 and back again.  Recently, I bought a box of Rigotti Gold 3 1/2 M and I finally had time to work them in and the results are very promising.  The strength matches up very well to what I was using (I was on 3 1/2 recently with the Javas) and the consistency is excellent throughout the box.  Of course, it’s only one box and it could be months before I am completely sure but they are cheaper than the Javas and I’m very happy so far.  My first gig with them is tomorrow night so we’ll see how they hold up.