When It’s Okay To Suck

Well I just flew in from Korea and boy are my arms tired (ba dum bum).  I was there for the last week doing stuff for my day job and now I’m home and all jet-lagged but I wanted to get something posted before I get too far behind.

As with my last post, my topic comes partially from a post on Sax on the Web Forum.  In it, a younger player laments how dejected he is and how embarrassed he has been to play ever since the first time he tried to play the horn. This struck me as odd because it’s very rare for someone to be good at something right from the start. Also, I don’t think anyone has ever sounded great the first time they picked up a saxophone without some other prior knowledge like playing another instrument. Luckily, I had saved a link several months ago with the intention of writing a post about it and now I have the perfect opportunity.

This says it all

This says it all

I love Lifehacker and I get tons of great advice from them and, yes, even some great ideas for blog posts. Back in November they posted an article that was itself sort of a repost from a blog from a blogger and author named David Kadavy. The post was about giving yourself the permission to suck and it struck me as being both a very interesting viewpoint as well as being very appropriate to musicians. In a way, David’s post was very closely related in intent to another famous statement from Ira Glass who was speaking about writing. You can watch that Youtube video but I actually prefer this version:

The point of all of these statements is that everyone has to start somewhere and you will probably not be very good for quite a while. In fact, it’s safe to say that everyone you might idolize whether it is Chris Potter, or Michael Brecker, or Bob Sheppard, or even the person  sitting first chair in your middle school band started right where you were or are and maybe they weren’t even that good. What they have is drive, perseverance, and a desire to improve and that’s something that anyone can have and use. One of the problems we often run into is summed up in another quote:

“The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel”  Steven Furtick

This is a very important distinction because when you are living your day-to-day life it’s often hard to see any real progress because progress is often minimal and incremental. Have you ever tried to lose weight and you keep looking at the scale and thinking you aren’t making any progress only to have someone who hasn’t seen you in a while tell you how thin you look? The reason that they see it and you don’t is because you are mired in it and they can look fresh from a point of reference that is removed from that standpoint. They can compare you to the last time they saw you so what is incremental and minimal for you could be striking depending on how long it’s been since they saw you.  The same is true for music or art or any other creative endeavor you attempt.

The key is that it has to be okay to suck and that your gratification may be delayed but if you care about it and want it then you can find ways to improve without losing heart. The other key is recognizing that we’re human and we will always find some comparison that will make us believe we still suck…and we probably do but it should be a call to action rather than a disincentive. Here are a couple personal examples:

  • My playing has come a long way over the years and it’s good enough to make me a sought after member of my local community but if I listen to Chris Potter or any of my other idols or even some other players in my area I can find ways that I still suck and maybe even suck really bad. That’s cool, I may never be as good as those people but I’m game to try.
  • Last summer I decided to write this blog.  I sucked at it then, I probably still suck at it now but I’m enjoying myself and I like having a place to get these thoughts off my head.  An old Monty Python line comes to mind, “I’ve suffered for my art…now it’s your turn”. 🙂
  • I used to be a fairly good doubler on saxophone and flute but several years of not having a reason to play them have left me woefully lame on them. I’m getting ready to start at least practicing flute again to get back where I was because I think there’s work out there if I do it…long tones here I come. Clarinet? Not so much but I may start messing with bass clarinet real soon. I’ll suck of course but it’s all about the challenge and entering uncharted territory.
  • One of my hobbies is bonsai gardening and I can say without a shadow of a doubt that I truly suck at it but it provides me with another chance for expression and a lot of stress relief.  I’ll keep plodding along and I’ll probably sacrifice a few more trees to the bonsai deities but I have every intention of producing show-able trees before I stop. I may even start a blog about my journey to help push myself.

Anyway, I’m probably a little long for this post but check out the various links in my post because I think you will find they say things different and, yes, in some cases much better. But that’s okay.

Overtones and Your Tone

Overtone series based on Bb Fundamental

Overtone series based on Bb Fundamental

I spend a lot of time on a forum called Sax on the Web but I generally don’t post a ton. Part of the reason is because there’s a lot of other guys that often jump in with great, helpful stuff. Of course, it’s also the internet so there’s also a lot of hate and misinformation and I generally like to stay out of that kind of stuff. One of the questions that seems to be coming up a lot lately is related to overtones so I thought I would put a post together with my thoughts.

The question that got me thinking about this was someone asking if overtones created your tone or if your tone made overtones better. That was followed soon after by another thread asking why practicing overtones helps at all. The second one might be better left to someone else but the first one is interesting and sort of relevant but maybe also a bit misguided.  I mean of course having a better tone would probably lead to better overtones but I think that’s a little cart before the horse.

First let’s discuss what overtones are in case you’re unfamiliar with the concept. A bugle is an instrument that is played entirely with overtones. A basic bugle has no valve so there is only the tube. The bugler can make a base tone by buzzing their lips so that you are getting a wave that is based solely on the length of the tube – the fundamental. If they blow a little harder and tighten their lips they can get a perfect 5th higher than that.  Further air speed and embouchure increases will then add a perfect 4th, a major third, a minor third, and so on. Some of the partials (the intervals introduced as you go along) are not perfectly in tune but they are functional. You can get the same effect with a saxophone and even change the fundamental depending on what note you start with. We usually work with the fundamentals based on low Bb, B, and C but you can get some partials from many different notes.

So how can overtones help your tone? Well first they are the gateway to the altissimo – notes higher than the “normal” keyed notes on a saxophone. Learning to control the overtone series will really help dial in your ability to control notes in the altissimo. The possibly bigger payoff is how well you can open up your tone by matching partials to the actual fingered note (and vice versa). Try this: Play a middle Bb and then finger a low Bb and try to play the same note in the same octave. It may take a few tries but you will get it – try playing the Bb with the bis key and then quickly adding the low Bb fingering without changing your embouchure. Once you have that, try doing the same thing with a top line F. You can keep the octave key down when you finger the low Bb but later it can be optional. Once again, try to match the tones of the two notes. You can continue going up the overtone series doing the same thing and trust me it will help your tone and help set your embouchure.

So back to the original question about whether overtones lead to better chops or better chops lead to better overtones. Like I said, your advancing embouchure will lead to better, more-controlled overtones but it comes down to one of the most important aspects of practice…intention. You may have heard that it takes 10,000 hours to master something. If not, you should check it out because it’s a very fascinating concept. The thing is, he didn’t really do any scientific studies to come up with that number so the time to mastery could be shorter or longer and it may differ depending on the pursuit and the individual. I think that it’s possible to achieve mastery in 10,000 hours or less by just noodling around and playing a lot but I believe that the time could be cut significantly if the time you spend mastering something is filled with intention. You should have something specific to work on and a goal in mind every time you pick up the horn and something like practicing the overtone series is a great pont of intention for your sessions.

If you’re interested in spending more time with overtones and tone development you could try several books that are out there like Top Tones by Sigurd Rascher that’s been around forever. Another great alternative is a book I reviewed a little while back called: A Complete Approach to Sound for the Modern Saxophonist by Ben Britton.

Here’s What to Say

If you’ve been playing for a while it’s kind of inevitable that someone will either see you somewhere or hear you on a recording and will take the time to tell you they thought you sounded good.  They might say, “Hey, you sounded great!”, or “I really enjoyed your playing” or some other variation of that. For many people I know and especially younger players the response is usually some sort of self-deprecating explanation of why they didn’t “really” sound that good or how much better they could have been but this kind of response does a disservice to the social exchange that could be happening if they would just say the right thing. Believe me when I say that this is something that took me a long time to figure out and it’s something I still struggle with sometimes so don’t think of it as preaching.

First let’s examine the complimenter’s side of the interaction. They were in a situation where they heard you play and they wanted to take the time to make sure you knew they enjoyed the experience. That’s pretty special no matter how you played so keep that in mind.  Now maybe they aren’t some great musician with a finely honed sense of discretionary hearing or maybe they are biased towards you because they are a friend or relative. That shouldn’t matter at all but it does because I think players go even farther out of their way to explain how “bad” they were when it’s another musician. I also think everyone discounts the bias of friends and family. No matter what the connection just think of the context as exactly what it is…one human reaching out to another to tell them they did a good job.  That’s a powerful thing and you should treat it as such.

Another way to look at it is this.  When you negate someone’s compliment by being self-deprecating or simply disagreeing with them it makes them feel bad because you are essentially calling out their lack of musical knowledge or discerning ear.  No one wants to hear that.  No matter the person’s musical ability or knowledge they know what they like and their individual tastes should be respected.  Just remember that their experience is the sum total of many things like who they are with, what their expectations were going in, and yes even how much they may have imbibed that evening along with your performance.

On the other hand let’s look at your motivation.  You probably want to tell them how much better it could have been.  This is, of course, invalid because musicians are always perfectionists and it could always be a little bit better than it was.  I’ll bet even Michael Brecker had nights where he wasn’t happy with what he did but I would have still thought he was amazing. I remember seeing David Sanborn and when I was talking to him backstage (after he had thanked me for my compliment and then realized I was a sax player) he told me how much trouble he was having with his reed…sounded like first class Dave Sanborn to me.

Now sometimes people will pay you a “backhanded” compliment that’s really not heartfelt like, “I really dug what you were trying to do up there.” or something like that but these instances are rare and you should just ignore them anyway. Better to take the high road I always say.

So what should you say?  Simple is better so just say, “Thank you” (and mean it) and fulfill your part of the social contract.  Whether the person is a music expert or not doesn’t matter.  Neither does your true opinion of how well you did.  The fact is that something you did struck them in a profound enough way to make them reach out to you and you should respond in kind. Here are some things I do in addition.  If I really didn’t think I was that great I will often add, “You’re very kind” – it makes me feel better sometimes.  I’ll also often add, “I’m really glad you enjoyed it” because I really am.  I love playing live for people and my goal is that they have a good time.  Sometimes with other musicians or people I know to have a discerning ear I will follow up by discussing some things that may have prevented me from being totally comfortable but no matter what I always lead with a simple thanks to get things going.

It’s a tough lesson to learn and it sometimes feels counterintuitive but saying thank you will make you feel better and make the people who complimented you feel good as well.  Give it a try and I think you’ll like the results.