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.

In Pursuit of a Shiny Horn

I love my Mark VI…I mean I really love it. I’ve been through more than 32 years with the same main horn and I pretty much know it like the back of my hand. There are only two things that could be better. For one thing, this horn (like it’s owner) has seen a lot of wear and tear over the years so it seems to be ever so slightly more susceptible to having things go wrong than it used to be. Recently I’ve had several things go wrong like screws coming loose or falling out – I even had one fall out on a gig and I couldn’t find it to put it back in…had to try to transpose all of my tenor parts to alto for the rest of the night…not fun but definitely interesting. This is not a huge deal but I feel like I need to get it to my repairman more often these days. Of course, the other issue with all that wear and tear is the horn just isn’t as shiny as it used to be. There is a lot of lacquer missing and there are places that like to turn green if I don’t stay up on them. This is sometimes a cool thing as players know that this is a player’s horn and it’s been played hard but non-players look at it and they don’t understand that the lack of lacquer and the green spots are a badge of honor and not a sign of a bad horn. 🙂

None of that is the real issue here though. The real issue is that since my VI is probably going to the shop more I need to potentially be using my backup horn more. I really don’t like my current backup horn that much. As I mentioned in my gear post, it’s a 10M but it’s not one of the sought after ones. In addition, the horn is so different from my VI in sound, intonation, and especially ergonomics that I just don’t have that much fun playing it. People tell me they like the sound just fine when I’m on it but the adjustment factor is very high on this one. It’s also shinier than my VI but not by much and this particular 10M is not that pretty a horn in my opinion. It’s also good to have a possibly less valuable horn than my VI to take out to outdoor gigs or to places where a horn might be open to mishaps. So because of all this, I’ve been saving money from each gig I play in order to get myself a nice shiny new backup horn.

I’m not looking at anything vintage even though I know there are good values to be had out there. I want something that is ergonomically similar or even superior to my VI and I know I probably won’t find that in many of the vintage horns out there. Also, vintage horns that have all of their lacquer and look nice are very pricey for what they are. I’ve been doing a lot of research, talking to techs, reading reviews and articles, and talking to some reps from various companies and I think I’m at least going to start by looking for a Taiwanese horn. I already have a Taiwanese-made soprano (Barone) and a Chinese-made alto (Buffet) so I think I know what I am getting myself into. Both horns feel great, have great intonation, and seem to be very well made. The price also falls comfortably into the range I am willing to spend for a backup horn…somewhere between 1500 and 3000 dollars. Oh, and many of these horns have some rather adventurous, unique, and pleasing finish options as well.

Some of the brands are off the table because I feel their price is much too high for what they really are. P. Mauriat and Theo Wanne horns fall into this category. Some are too risky to the point where I don’t know what kind of support I would get if something went wrong and others are just too hard to get real information about. Because of all this I am currently looking at several brands that look promising: Viking/TK Melody, Cannonball, and Barone. I’m hoping to get a chance to try these horns and others in the next couple months and I will post my findings and other updates as I go through the process.

Wish me luck. I know I’ll have fun trying some horns out but it’s always tough to pull the trigger on spending that kind of money and I’ll also likely have to travel a bit to really get to see as many horns and finishes as possible.