The Second Most Important Part of Your Setup

It's not this yet...

It’s not this yet…

Way back in July of 2012 when I started this blog I spent my third post discussing what I thought was the most important part of any player’s setup. It wasn’t the mouthpiece or the reed or the horn in case you never read it. You can read it here¬†in its entirety or I can just spoil it for you and tell you…it’s your concept – but read the post anyway. ūüôā It’s finally time to talk about the second most important part of your setup and once again it’s not your mouthpiece or your reed or your horn. After your concept comes your physical makeup.

There’s a lot to this really as so much of your body is involved in playing the saxophone. One key element is obviously your lung capacity and your ability to deliver your breath in a controlled and predictable fashion. Connected to this is your ability to open your throat (or constrict it in an interesting way to make certain tones and effects). Also connected would be your diaphragm and how you use it to control the pressure of your tone production system. Other factors can affect the system as well such as your posture and how well you understand how the system works.

Another area that has a lot of effect is your mouth, embouchure, and oral cavity. Of course your embouchure is important for many reasons but many people ignore some important factors like how the size of your oral cavity (including how open your throat is) works as an extension of the cavity inside the mouthpiece (which is part of the geometry of the whole system). This is one of the big reasons why different people sound different on different mouthpieces and why some guys sound dark with a high baffle mouthpiece and other guys can sound quite bright on large open chamber mouthpieces with very little baffle. In addition, minor differences in tongue position can angle (or block) your airstream in such a way that enhances or negates things you are doing in other areas.

There are other factors that have an influence as well. Your physical size and strength will probably go a long way towards choosing what saxophone you should play for instance. Also, I discussed critical listening in that post and several others since then. Obviously your brain is responsible for deciphering the inputs but your ears are what gets the information to your brain. On a meta level, it’s important to make sure that the information gets in there as clearly and cleanly as possible and that’s why I use in-ear monitors and try to protect my hearing as much as possible.

Some of these things you can’t do anything about but they are just part of the equation and don’t usually prevent you from getting the sound you want. Other factors like your embouchure, breath support, tongue position, ear training, etc. can all be trained and are usually more than enough to compensate for any potential¬†deficiencies or shortcomings in other physical areas. One of these days we can actually start discussing those mundane things like mouthpieces and reeds but I would hope that thinking about your concept and your physical makeup as being more important would keep you from dwelling on hardware like so many sax players do. It’s more important to use what you have and continue to hone your craft than it is to spend tons of time and money chasing after some elusive hardware combination.

I got thinking about this stuff again because I was at a rehearsal for a gig I have coming up this weekend. It’s a new band for me and a different horn section including a sax player I have never worked with before named Scott Young from the DC area. Scott has had a long and fruitful career and is a consumate pro. After rehearsal we stood outside and talked shop (you know mouthpieces and stuff) for quite a while and it struck me how long it had been since I did that…it was a blast. ūüôā ¬†I’m really looking forward to working with Scott this weekend, talking more shop, and hopefully playing more gigs together in the future. If you’re in the Bethesda, MD area on Friday come on out to Bethesda Jazz and Blues Supper Club to see Jr. Cline and the Recliners featuring Julia Nixon.

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”. ūüôā
  • 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.

 

A Couple of Quick Things

Great Gig

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I played a great gig Saturday night in Falls Church, VA with Jr. Cline and the Recliners. ¬†I had played with them on tenor before Christmas but this time I was playing bari as Daryl (Jr.) was trying a few things with the horn section. ¬†It was a much easier gig on tenor for a couple reasons. ¬†First, the book is a Bb book so I was trying to sight transpose everything…sometimes it felt easy and natural and other times it felt like calculus…mostly calculus. ¬†Second, the club is tiny (same club as the last gig I did with them) but this time we had three guys on the tiny stage instead of two. Finally, there were no monitors and the bari is much harder to pick out acoustically than tenor so I was never really settled with regards to pitch or blend. On the other hand, the section from last time was augmented by a wonderful guy and great sax player named Al Williams on tenor. Al has been a Washington area legend for years and previously toured with both Stanley Clarke and Mongo Santamaria so it was an honor to share the stage with him and blend in the section along with trumpeter Chris Hutton. ¬†I’m hoping there will be more work with this section and this band in the near future.

Ligatures

I took my son (who plays string bass in high school) to the All-County Solo and Ensemble Festival on Saturday. ¬†He was playing with a trio that ended up getting a top grade but that’s beside the point. ūüôā ¬†While we were there in the warm-up area I saw not one, not, two, but three sax players that had Rovner ligatures on upside down. I really wanted to go say something but I figured the last thing they needed was someone messing with their setup before they play so I must content myself with posting this thought here. It’s pretty simple really. The ligature screw always goes on the right unless you have doe something special to put it on the other side so that gives you a clue as to how the ligature should be applied. It’s not a matter of the vast majority of people in the world being right handed, it’s actually much simpler and aplicable than that. Having it on the right allows you to be able to play some notes with your left hand while possibly adjusting the tension with your right. If you reverse this then there is only one note that will sound…C#. Also, in the case of the Rovner ligature, if you put it on upside down you are losing the whole point of why you would by a Rovner in the first place. So think about it and make sure you’re using the ligature you bought the way it was intended to be used.

Bari Mouthpiece Work

Now that I have more bari work coming in, I’m starting to mess around with my setup a little bit. I have a mouthpiece that I love (Lawton 8*B – you can see it pretty clearly in the pictures above) but it’s been a little tougher to play since I haven’t been playing as much bari and I’m not 25 anymore so I was hoping for something a little easier to play. One possible solution is that I have an Otto Link Tone Edge (Hard Rubber) out with a mouthpiece guy named Phil Barone and he’s giving it something I refer to as the “Ronnie Cuber Treatment”. It’s a series of modifications he did for Ronnie years ago (Ronnie is one of my favorite bari players). I’m thinking it’s going to be easier to honk out low notes and it should be freer blowing than the Lawton. Unfortunately it has taken quite a while to get those modifications but I’m hopeful it will be coming soon. I have also contacted another mouthpiece refacer who specializes in bari mouthpieces although he works on all types. His name is Keith Bradbury but he goes by the name MojoBari or simply Mojo on forums. I have a couple of mouthpieces that I want to send to him for refacing and I’m going to start with an old hard rubber Berg Larsen 115/1. It’s got a couple things I like (honking low end and easy to blow) and a couple things I hate (stuffy upper register) so I’m hopeful Keith can straighten it out for me. He’s a little backed up so it will probably be a month before I get it back but I can definitely gig on my Lawton for a while longer and, who knows, maybe I’ll just get comfortable on it again from all of the work I’m hoping to get and it won’t feel too big anymore. ¬†Stay tuned for updates.

The Dreaded Sticky G# Key

The G# Key

The G# Key

I had a rehearsal on Saturday and I was having a devil of a time with a sticky G# key. ¬†I’ve had similar issues over the years but never to the extent I had on Saturday. ¬†It definitely didn’t help that it was the Steely Dan tribute band I play in and all of the songs practically required a G#…especially the ones I solo in. ¬†Even when it was opening it was delayed so it was very trying. ¬†None of the tricks I have used in the past worked so I learned a few new ones that I will explain here.

In the past, I have always had luck using the “dollar bill trick”. ¬†You take a dollar bill and place it between the pad and the tone hole, apply gentle pressure on the pad cup and then slide the bill out. ¬†The paper of the bill helps soak up moisture and clean the parts and the oils of all of the people’s hands that have handled the bill (GROSS!) helps keep it from being sticky. ¬†The problem was, I really couldn’t get in there with the bill to clean it.

What I have done instead is clean the pad and tone hole more completely. ¬†I asked several repair guys including my regular guy Lee Lachman and my internet acquaintance Stephen Howard. ¬†Both had similar solutions involving the use of a mild solvent. ¬†Lee suggested a product called Goo Gone that he’s had a lot of luck with and Stephen suggested simple lighter fluid like you would use in a Zippo lighter. ¬†I think the key is a light solvent that doesn’t have a lot of other stuff mixed in to muck things up. I ended up finding the lighter fluid quicker (at a local drug store next the the Chinese restaurant where I was getting take out) and it was pretty inexpensive so I gave it a try. I put a little bit on the end of a Q-tip and lightly scrubbed all around the areas where the pad and tone hole come into contact. ¬†The effect was immediate. ¬†No more sticky pad.

I also learned a trick that’s been around for years, but had somehow eluded me, for letting the pads dry out without contacting the tone hole. ¬†If you take a business card or a lightly folded piece of paper and stick it under the low C# key it also slightly opens the G# key. In this fashion the G# pad can dry out without creating a seal. ¬†It seems to work like a charm and I believe it’s perfectly safe.

Of course, I also swab the horn every time I use it and I use a pad saver as well. One thing I also learned in the last year is to open the case and leave it open overnight after getting home from a gig (removing the pad saver). ¬†It seems like a lot of moisture remains trapped in the case even after swabbing if you don’t do this.

Recording Basics: Computer (Outputs)

Once you have your inputs squared away and you’ve recorded something it’s time to worry about hearing it back. This can be as simple as using the speakers built into your laptop or the speakers hooked up to your desktop or it could be a more major investment into studio monitors. Ultimately, the choice will come down to your intentions and your disposable income.

Sony MDR 7506

Sony MDR 7506

Like I said, you can use computer speakers but you should listen to them critically with some pre-recorded music and decide if you even think they are giving you the full frequency range. Many of these speakers are lacking bass and high end and the end up sounding rather tinny and full of mid range like a transistor radio. Some computer speakers have separate bass boosters but these tend to be really bass heavy and not at all representative of what you want when trying to mix your recordings. They will definitely do in a pinch to get you started but you will probably want to move away from them rather quickly.

That brings us to headphones. This is an excellent choice early on and it can be easy on your budget but there are lots of choices. There are many different kinds of headphones from ear buds to open and closed back designs. The open and closed back headphones are further differentiated by how they fit on your ear. Some fit right on your ears and some are meant to go over them. Open back are good if you want to hear more bleed from the room and closed back are better if you want to be in your own world. Ultimately it comes down to personal preference for fit, comfort, and sound. Try to find a place that has a few different types in stock and see what fits you best both physically and aurally and remember that you might have them on for extended periods of time so comfort is a prime factor.

I like to use Sony MDR-V900 because they sound great, they are comfortable, they have a coiled cable that stays out of the way, and they pack up into a small bag. They are also very flat in their response and that’s important. They aren’t made anymore though but there are lots of options out there. You should probably look for studio headphones and steer clear of pairs that advertise extra bass. In the beginning it doesn’t matter but if you ever want to mix for commercial release you will want something flat so you don’t get a¬†misrepresentation¬† of the frequency range of your music.

M-Audio BX5A

M-Audio BX5A

Finally, you will eventually want some nice speakers but you should look for studio monitors rather than stereo speakers. Why? Well stereo speakers are made to enhance pre-recorded music and fill the room. They also usually favor lows and highs because those are the kinds of things people are impressed by when listening. Studio monitors are made to be flat across the whole frequency range and are also usually meant for “near field” listening. ¬†In other words, you make a equilateral triangle with your head and the two speakers and that’s the best place to listen. If you go to big studios or even many home studios you will often find several pairs of monitors of various sizes in a switchable array but one good pair will take you pretty far. I use some self-powered monitors from M-Audio called the BX5-a but they are no longer made. ¬†I like having self-powered monitors because the amplifiers are already matched to the speakers and I don’t have to do any additional wiring.

I use my audio interface to handle all of the output stage stuff but I do use an external mixer ¬†so it’s easy to tun down the speakers while recording. You could definitely plug either the headphones or the studio monitors right into your computer with the right cables though.

Recording Basics: More Inputs

AKG Perception 100

AKG Perception 100

I realized that I glossed over microphones completely in my last post and since they’re such an important part of the process I thought I would give them a little more time. I mentioned one particular microphone, the USB one, but I didn’t even mention what type it was. ¬†So here’s a quick take on a couple different kinds of microphones and what they can be used for.

Shure SM 57 & 58

Shure SM 57 & 58

One of the most common types, especially when you’re playing out live, is the dynamic microphone. These microphones can generally handle very high sound pressure levels and usually have good rejection of sounds that don’t come right into the pattern which is usually cardioid or hyper cardioid. One of the most used microphones for live purposes and in the studio for horns and lots of other things is the Shure SM 57 followed closely by its brother the SM 58 (used mostly for vocals). PRO TIP: You can save money by buying an SM58 and using it with the bulb-shaped screen on for vocals and then take it off for recording horns. ¬†The element is the same so you get two types of uses for the price of one. Some other famous dynamic microphones are the Sennheiser MD 421, the AKG D112, and the Electro Voice RE20. I have used a Sennheiser MD 421 for years both live and for recording and I love it.

Condensors are quite possibly the most commonly used microphones in studios throughout the world. They are divided into several sizes based on the size of the capsule used. Large diaphragm condensors are useful for pretty much every type of instrument and they’re especially good at capturing the warmth of the instrument. Small diaphragm condensors are great at capturing higher overtones and are used extensively for things like acoustic guitars and drum overheads. My USB microphone is a large diaphragm condensor and I also use an AKG Perception 100. I have a small diaphragm condensor as well, the AKG C1000S.

The SM 58 with the wind screen removed...looks kind of like an SM57...because it is just like an SM 57

The SM 58 with the wind screen removed…looks kind of like an SM57…because it is just like an SM 57

Condensor mics usually require something called phantom power in order to work correctly. Some of them are as simple as putting in a 9-volt battery, some come with their own plug-in power source, and some require an external power input from your mixer or your audio interface. Even if you don’t have a need for it now, it might be a good idea to make sure your interface has phantom power…most of them do these days.

There are other kinds of microphones as well like ribbon microphones. You can spend as much or as little as you want but it’s a good idea to probably try to do research and save up for a microphone in the 150-250 dollar range to get started. You’ll thank yourself later for not buying something cheap. One microphone will get you started. Later you can try to fill in with a different type or maybe a matched stereo pair. You will also need some XLR microphone cables and some stands.

This was a very basic overview but it should be enough to get you started. Have fun.

Book Review – A Complete Approach to Sound for the Modern Saxophonist by Ben Britton

Ben Britton is a wonderful saxophonist who I met online a year or so ago. I listened to some of his sound samples and reached out to him because I loved what I heard.¬†He’s a jazz musician,¬†an educator, a blogger, and now an author. With this book, Ben is bringing many years of personal experience as well as a lifetime of lessons from such wonderful players and teachers as George Garzone, Chris Potter, Walt Weiskopf and others. If you are willing to put the work in you could end up with the sound you’ve always heard in your head (or on recordings).

When I was in college I think my sax teacher was more of a Larry Teal guy as opposed to a Joe Allard or Sigurd Rascher guy (the approach that Ben presents). So I was taught to take a lot less mouthpiece than what I do now and my embouchure shape was different although it should be noted my teacher did recognize that I didn’t fully fit into his approach. He liked my sound anyway so he let me go on many things. In the intervening years as I have played more and more in many varied situations I have learned a lot from talking to numerous people and my approach is much closer to what is in this book but there are definitely things I was unaware of and things I have lapsed on that could be better.

The book starts off simply enough with a discussion of air support and embouchure and their importance as a foundation for everything else that you will be adding as you go through the book. There are two chapters dedicated to these important concepts and the stage is set for future chapters as the exercises go from easy to challenging. You can do as much as you are comfortable with and then add more advanced exercises as you feel your progression warrants it. There’s some really interesting stuff in these chapters that I think I’ve always done but no one ever explained to me what was going on or why it was important. The exercises start with mouthpiece only and progress through the expected long tones but then they get pretty advanced with the introduction of bends and sub-tones. I was really excited by the description of how the vocal chords can restrict volume without losing support…I use my vocal chords a lot but I was never sure if it was right. ¬†Now I know that I wasn’t far off and I know how to make sure I am using them correctly in the future.

The book really starts to take off (at least for me) in chapters 3 and 4 where you learn much more about embouchure and air support. One of the key things for me was his discussion of rolling the lip out for more flexibility and a full tone. It’s something I used to do all the time but I discovered that I had lapsed into a more tucked lip especially as my chops started to get tired on a gig. It’s going to be a process to change back but the included exercises once again will help build muscle memory and endurance. Another area I’ve always struggled with is tongue position. I have a tendency to have a lazy (usually positioned too low) tongue but truthfully I never knew exactly where it should be either (or had forgotten). The tongue bend exercises in chapter 4 actually do a great job of showing me where it should be by having me take it where it isn’t supposed to be in the bend.

Chapter 4 is also notable for the grueling overtone exercises Ben includes at the end of the chapter. This is a section you will want to ease into because it’s easy to get tired out very quickly and Ben points out that you should concentrate on tone quality above all else so you should stop when tone is being sacrificed. Don’t worry, playing these exercises as part of a daily regimen will build endurance and facility so there will always be new territory to chart. The exercises are divided into two parts with the second part much more challenging than the first.

Chapter 5 is dedicated to articulation and includes many exercises to make you pick apart what you are doing and get a feel for the correct way to do it. Chapter 6 is a very helpful discussion on incorporating all of the concepts into a daily warm up and practice regimen. Finally, there is a glossary for any terms you may not be familiar with.

As if all of that wasn’t enough, Ben also has numerous audio clips on his website demonstrating many of he key concepts from the book. You can download the whole package as a zip file. It’s very helpful to hear a great player demonstrate the difference between rolling your lip in or out or what the overtone exercises are supposed to sound like. I think having these examples really sets this book apart from other similar offerings on the market.

I think this is a book that anyone could benefit from whether you are just getting started or you’re a seasoned pro. For beginners it provides a great start and an excellent progression and it’s the kind of thing you can take to a lesson to discuss. For advanced players it’s a chance to look critically at your fundamentals and make sure you’re where you want to be. The book is not expensive but the information is incredibly valuable so do yourself a favor and buy it.¬†I’m hoping to see more books from Ben in the future.

Ben has some sample exercises, the zip file of audio examples, and a pdf of the table of contents here. You can buy it at Amazon¬†(best price), CreateSpace, or a less expensive digital version at Payhip. ¬†It’s the Christmas season so put it on your list or treat yourself to something nice. I think you will be happy you did.

Review – Haynes Saxophone Manual

The Haynes Saxophone Manual

The Haynes Saxophone Manual

This is a book I had heard about for quite a while but had never taken the time to purchase even though I was very interested in getting it. ¬†A couple months ago while researching for my recent horn purchase I stumbled across Stephen Howard’s website because he had some excellent reviews about some of the horns I was looking at. ¬†The interesting thing about the reviews is they are written both from the perspective of how the horns play as well as his observations of the horn on his repair bench. ¬†You should check them out along with a lot of other great content here but that’s not what I want to talk about today.

I reached out to Steve via email to ask him some more questions and he was very approachable, very knowledgable, and just seemed like a nice guy so I decided right then and there to get his book. ¬†I’m really glad I did because it is an amazing resource.

The book covers the gamut starting with very basic guidelines for beginners regarding things such as what to look for when buying a horn, the differences and relative strengths of buying new vs. used, vintage horns, the big four brands, the new breed of Asian horns, etc. ¬†He gives some great matter-of-fact advice about everything from the effect of finishes on sound to the best beginner choices for mouthpieces and reeds to proper care and preventative maintenance. ¬†If you’re thinking about getting into playing the saxophone you should get this book and really pour through the first couple of chapters to empower yourself to make good decisions. ¬†It’s great for new players (or almost any player who is interested) to have this kind of background information at their fingertips.

Of course, I’ve been playing for a very long time so much of that information was pretty rudimentary for me. ¬†But that’s where the rest of the book takes over. ¬†Starting at chapter 11 the last two thirds of the book is a pretty comprehensive beginning repair guide – something Haynes manuals have been famous for so it’s not surprising. ¬†You can learn tons of great stuff ¬†and you can get about as adventurous as you want with this information. ¬†You can learn how to replace a neck cork or reseat pads but you can also learn about replacing pads and springs. ¬†Steve is very clear about the need for a qualified repairman but if you ever find yourself in an emergency situation this book could be a lifesaver.

On the other hand, if you have an interest in becoming a repairman and you don’t have anyone around to apprentice or study with then this might be one of the best, most approachable ways to get started, ¬†I’ve looked at some other repair guides over the years but they are much drier and harder to read even though they may go into much more depth. ¬†You could always get your feet wet with this book and then move onto more advanced guides if you like it. ¬†I had thought for a long time that I might want to start repairing horns but that ship has probably sailed. ¬†For me, though, this is a book that I find interesting and informative and it’s advanced enough since I don’t intend to get quite as adventurous as the later chapters describe.

One more thing of note is the quality and number of pictures. ¬†This book is a feast for the eyes and a saxophone geeks dream come true. ¬†They are bright, crisp, and colorful and they provide a level of immersion that I have never seen in a repair book before. ¬†It’s just as fun to look at all of the cool pictures as it is to read about regulating a horn. ¬†The copy I got is hardbound and I’m not sure if there’s a paperback version but I find myself wanting to buy an e-book version so I can have it with me on my iPad for emergencies on the gig.

Whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned pro I think there is enough information to keep you happy here. ¬†In another review I saw someone say that this is a book that should come packaged with every saxophone sold and I agree with that wholeheartedly. ¬†I bought my copy from Amazon.com and it was money well spent. ¬†Do yourself a favor and buy this book and check out Steve’s website for more great information as well.