Toot Your Horn

What a great prompt for a music teacher, especially one who teaches the saxophone! I of course like to think that music in general is what I excel at. I think I’m a good sax player and pianist and I hope that my students get as much from their lessons ass I do teaching them.

I wonder sometimes though, if anyone else finds they tend to go a bit over board on what they excel at? Take the other day, a new student called and mentioned that he was buying a sax. I was immediately intrigued asking what he planned to get and happily sharing expertise on which saxes play well and which, in my opinion don’t. Before I knew it I’d been on the phone forty five minutes and hadn’t got around to booking a lesson time. Fortunately my new student didn’t show any signs of being worried and I hope found the discussion helpful. I was rewarded a few days later when he called again for more information.

So maybe besides the playing and teaching I can add ‘useful opinions regarding saxophones’ to my list of musical things I excel at. Of course it could just be that I excel at talking…

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Saxophone confidence. Playing the Blues

Here’s a good way to gain loads of confidence playing the sax after only a few lessons.

Have you started your scales yet? If not don’t worry just try a C major scale now, it’s quite easy, all you have to do is play C,D,E,F,G,A,B,C on your saxophone. It is often easier to start on the C in the middle of your sax (3rd finger, right hand) and work backwards descending down the sax.

Now a little music theory. Try think of your scale like this:

C = 1

D = 2

E = 3

F = 4

G = 5

A = 6

B = 7

C = 8

Why do this? Because numbering your notes will not only help you remember where you are in blues, but it can then be applied to any key signature whilst playing blues. To apply it to another scale just remember that if you are in the key of C then the note C is the first one you play and so becomes note 1. If you were in the key of F then F would be the first note you play and so F becomes note one, G note two, A note three etc.

Next question; what is the twelve bar blues progression? This is a series of chords which form a style of music used in many jazz and rock n roll numbers. You’ve probably heard it and not realised, but if not then YouTube it and you’ll find thousands of examples. A good place to start is C Jam Blues by Duke Ellington. The original videos of this are a little difficult to follow so look for a school jazz band version.

You’ll notice the same melody being played interspersed with solos. Now listen to the rhythm section (Piano, guitar, bass and drums) even during the other instrumental solos they’ll be playing the same thing, again and again. That’s the twelve bar blues progression and it goes like this:

Bar Number

Chord Number

one

1

two

1

three

1

four

1

five

4

six

4

seven

1

eight

1

nine

5

ten

4

eleven

1

twelve

1

 

Now compare that to the way we numbered the notes in the C major scale and you have a key for playing the beginnings of a blues progression.

In bar one you need chord number one. Chord number one is based on the first note in the C major scale so in bar one you begin by playing C. Skip to bar five; in this bar you need chord number four in the C major scale. Chord number 4 is based on the 4th note so in bar five you play an F.

Using this guide you can try and play along to many blues based songs using the basic notes of the progression. Be aware though that saxophones are transposing instruments. To keep things nice and simple we need to find songs that let you play in the key of C major so if you are playing an alto you want to search for blues in Eb and if you are playing a tenor, blues in Bb.

(Eb and Bb are the concert keys or the notes as they would sound on a piano. Because a saxophone has a different range than other instruments we have to play in different key signatures in order to sound correct with everyone else.)

If you have any question please leave a comment and I will answer you/

Kick it

I haven’t got an order to my bucket list. There are thing that I want to do and have wanted to for years but I’ve never wanted to put them in order. If I did then I would start to feel that I had to do them in that order and that leads to stress which I can’t really be bothered with.

One thing that’s been on the list for over a year is to do a gig with power metal band Draegon. I joined the band just over a year ago and since that time we’ve been working on the up coming concept album. I joined by applying to an ad they’d placed looking for a keyboard player and I got the job with the most unusual email I’d ever written. The gist of it told them who I was and listed my experience – as a saxophonist. I quite honestly said that I’d never played their style of music but enjoyed listening to it and that I’d not played piano outside of a university recital. This is clearly not the way to apply for a position, but it worked and I was instantly teleported from a Steinway Grand to a triple stack of Yamaha and Korg’s.

I loved it. A part of me will always enjoy Mozart and Debussy but to apply those techniques to the wall of sound produced by the Yamaha alone is simply amazing. It also brought a dimension to their music that was unexpected.

Now the entire band is itching to get back out and play live. So with luck I’ll be getting this ticked off my bucket list by the end of the year.

Today’s Musicians have to be Computer Nerds

I don’t consider myself to be computer illiterate; also I don’t consider myself to be a computer nerd. Recently I brought myself a new laptop. I installed Office, Sibelius, ITunes and all the other software I need with no help. I regularly create CD’s for my bands and students to use to learn from, so I am familiar with burning programmes. So why the hell can’t I get my own sample tracks to work?

I saved them to a multi-use CD off the old dinosaur laptop, thinking I could then simply add them to the new pc. Nope. They have converted to Audio CD Files and nothing wants to admit they exist or play them.  When I go on the net to convert them the downloadable converters don’t want to know as it’s a multi-use cd and the online converters all insist they don’t support that type of file.

This leaves me stuck.

It also got me thinking. Since when did I have to understand formatting in order to pick up a gig? I can’t imagine Mozart (or more likely one of his scribes) saying: “oh hang on a moment; this is written on the wrong type of paper, therefore I can’t go any further.” But, because my file is in the wrong format that is exactly what has happened to me.

Hopefully someone will read this post, think I’m a computer moron, and provide an answer. If you’re out there, please do that. If it reduces me to the rank of computer idiot, that’s fine. Usually I don’t need a pc in order to blow down a saxophone.

My Best Teaching Aid – Bonnie the dog

It’s all over You’ve Been Framed. Little Johnny gets out his recorder and the dog goes nuts. Or little Suzie picks up her violin and the cat runs a mile. I am, predominantly, a saxophone teacher which means that ever year I get new students who need to be taught which way to hold the thing and which end to blow in. Like everyone else (you and I included) the first few lessons tend to be evil honking affairs about as musical as a stepped on frog.  Through it all, though, Bonnie will sit in the corner of the music room and have a nice kip.

She’s not a small dog, being half Labrador and half Alsatian. I had worried that she would intimidate my students but, bless her, she’s so happy to see each and every one of them that she instantly puts them at ease. For the kids that don’t practice this must be great because they can come and see their teacher and get a big hug from Bonnie before confessing that they didn’t actually learn D minor this week.

One thing always confused me though. Bonnie kept silent all the time I was teaching but as soon as I started to practice she’d begin to sing. What the hell?? Is she self conscious of her singing ability? Does she not like my sax? Is she respecting my students? All these things and more were running through my head as I tried to play Harlem Nocturne – The Woof Chorus.

Then came Gustav. A mature student who’d been teaching himself for about two years and came to me to work out theory as much as anything. He had a nice tone, full range and a good feel for the music. Bonnie thought he was great but still sat in her corner watching the lesson, not a single howl escaping her furry muzzle.

Three months later Gustav had a break through. He arrived at the lesson keen to show me what he had achieved that week. I was impressed, he’d broadened his tone considerably in that time.

 Then Bonnie joined in. Gustav’s face fell a mile, “I thought I was doing so well,” he said “but now the dog is singing it must be awful.” But for me it all clicked into place. “No,” I said, “she only sings when she likes it.”

From then on that became a bench mark. Every student asks the same question; “when will I be able to play well?” and thanks to Bonnie I always had an answer. “When Bonnie sings you know you’re doing well.”

Sadly Bonnie has retired from teaching and gone to live on a farm with my parents (that’s not a metaphor, she really has.) Never again will I have a teaching aid quite as good as she was.

Altissimo – Not for the faint hearted

Its loud, screechy and bloody hard to do.  It will take hours of practice until you feel like your back to the days when you first started to learn to play the sax – you remember those days right?  When the cat refused to come home and the dog wailed constantly.

You can buy any number of books telling you how to perfect this skill.  There are thousands of webpages dedicated to it.

http://tamingthesaxophone.com/saxophone-altissimo.html is a good one to get you started.

Every article I have come across has four main points to it.

  • Practice, practice, practice
  • Strengthen your embouchure
  • Learn the fingerings
  • Hear the notes you want to play
I first came across this last point at a masterclass by Snake Davis.  He advocates a teaching game which increases your awareness of what you’re actually playing and develops your ear tonally.  It’s surprisingly simple as well.  All you have to do it sing something random then try to play it on the sax.  Easy right? Well, yes if you have perfect pitch but just getting the notes right is not the point of the game.  You have to get the intonation right, you have to duplicate the way the notes bend or slurr and you have to play with real feeling.
So, how does that help with altissimo? Once you can hear the note you want to play in your mind you will have a much more stable bench mark than the usual woolly “I’d like it to be high” that we all start with.  So they say.  I play sax professionally and I still struggle with this, I have a real mental block over it.  So, I’m going to stop writing now and go practice.

Disinfecting a Saxophone – Part 2

Thanks to everyone who responded via facebook or twitter.  There were some great ideas and a few unusual ones (I’m not sure Listerine would have really worked but thanks for the thought.)  The overwhelming response was one that, now I think about it, makes perfect sense, but it’s something I never would have thought of. Milton baby bottle steriliser.  However, it wasn’t a one hundred per cent success.  I am sure that my saxophones have been cleared of flu so in that regard (which is really the only important one) everything is good. But, it did have the rather unfortunate side effect of dying my Vandoren T75 Jumbo an alarming shade of snot green.  This looks particularly stupid with its still back mouth piece cap.  It must be something to do with the resin composite because the Keilwerth Jazz I use on my alto stayed back.  It hasn’t effected the tone, though, so its not the end of the world.

So here’s my brief ‘To Do’ list for disinfecting your saxophone after an illness.

  • By baby bottle steriliser.
  • Boil kettle and allow to cool to luke warm.
  • Remove any mouth piece pads and throw them away and decide whether to keep or throw the reeds.
  • Using a mouth piece brush scrub the mouth piece and ligature (if metal).
  • Add steriliser to kettle water and submerge the mouthpiece, ligature, cap and reeds for the length of time recommended on the bottle (usually around 15 mins.)
  • Take all equipment out and rinse under the tap.
  • Dry and replace mouth piece pad and reads.
You probably don’t have to but I also sterilised all my pull-throughs and other general cleaning equipment.

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