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…

What’s in a name?

Name’s are very important things. I have spoken before about the amount of head scratching that went on whilst naming Storm Dynamics (it was rather a lot.) but what if you have a product up and running already that you want to re-brand?

Re-branding sounds like quite a big deal. Probably because it is. You are changing the public identity of something you have worked hard to promote thus far. It’s not something to be undertaken lightly. So what happens when you want to subtly suggest to a fire d that they should re-brand their company? You take them to Nando’s, of course.

It sounds a bit clandestine when put like that:
“Hey Scott, how do you fancy a meal at Nando’s? I know it’s your favourite. Oh and whilst we’re there I’m going to let my other half try and convince you to change the name of the disco we run… And the logo… And the website… And do more business cards and new flyers.”

I have to admit it wasn’t something that occurred to be before. I thought LightBeat was a good name for the disco as we did amazing lights and all the beats. It does what it says on the tin. But when neither Scott or I had considered was that it didn’t. In the advertising world the word light has been overtaken by ‘lite.’ When read aloud all people hear is a kind of diet version of a disco or worse a disco that specialises in Nora Jones type music. Who wants to book an elevator music disco for their wedding reception? No one does, which is why all our business has previously been referral.

Once explained to Scott he agreed and then the thinking caps came out. It had to be something Scott liked, he didn’t want it to be about himself, he didn’t want more than two words and if possible not even the word disco for fear of people hearing YMCA instead of David Guetta.

He came up with ‘Experience’ one word for a whole lot of things. Officially Experience Disco and Light Show with the tag Unique Disco, Ultimate Entertainment.

We set up a website Experiencedls.co.uk and a Facebook page and so far so good. We’re even booked for a Wedding Fair at the Princes Hall in Aldershot on Sunday 27th Jan.

I’d be interested to know people’s opinions on the name and the rebranding scheme. All comments welcome.

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/

Daily Prompt: Call Me Ishmael

‘Prince Rupert rode his unicorn into the Tanglewood, peering balefully through the drizzling rain as he searched half-heartedly for the flea hiding somewhere under his breastplate.’

This is the first line from Blue Moon Rising by Simon. R. Green which has been my favourite book ever since the first time I read it aged about twelve. Don’t be mistaken, this isn’t a kids book. It isn’t even a teenage fiction; it would probably give the average Twilight reader nightmares. This is a dark fantasy but with all the trappings of a typical girlie fantasy book.

You have a prince on a white horse, a princess in need of rescuing from a dragon and a kingdom calling out for a hero to save them. Only in this book the white horse is a unicorn (they can only be ridden by virgins in case you don’t know your mythology) leading to a lot of sniggers for our valiant prince. The dragon ends up being rescued from an over bearing princess most people want to be rid of and the hero the kingdom is calling out for is not Prince Rupert but his older brother Harold. All this happens in chapter one. A few chapters later demons come spilling out of the dark wood intent on slaughtering the people of the first kingdom fuelled by the magic of the evil Blue Moon.

I suppose I should have realised earlier that power metal would be the form of ‘heavy’ music I’d be most attracted to, going by this book anyway. I once heard power metal described as:
“The protagonist arrives riding a white unicorn, escapes from the dragon, saves the princess and makes love to her in an enchanted forest.”
Which sounds very saccharine until you realise that you can apply that to my favourite book which is anything but.
Some of the other metaphoric definitions -which can be found here – don’t fit all all. For example:
HEAVY METAL: The protagonist arrives on a Harley, kills the dragon, drinks a few beers and f***s the princess
This doesn’t really appeal at all, though I admit it isn’t exactly a true definition of heavy metal music, which appeals greatly to listen to. But when it comes to actually playing the music heavy metal just isn’t as fun as power metal.

The obvious and most egotistical reason for this is that a lot of heavy metal bands don’t employ a keyboard player and I’m fairly untalented on the guitar. Like most people I enjoy the things that I am good at. But also it doesn’t matter what effects pedal you drive your guitar through you just can’t create the wall of sound you can with a keyboard. You can play the same chords in the same rhythm as the guitarists but you can do so much more with them. Inversions, for instance. By changing the inversion of a chord you not only change the overall sound but you give yourself far more options for where to progress to next.

There are also instances where the keyboard player can change the tonality of a chord, in this case whether it is major or minor, despite the fact that there are (in Draegon’s case) three other guitarists in the band. This is because guitarists like to play power chords which consist of open fifths. As they’re not playing the third this leaves the chord’s tonality ambiguous and it is the keyboard player who fills it in. I should point out that if you have a guitar soloing it is a good idea to tell him which chord you are using or you could end up in a mess. You also have the option of playing an awesome solo as well as the wall of sound which you can alter to your hearts content.

All in all it’s a bit like my book. There you have a book pretending to be a bright sparkly fantasy which contains elements of horror and a wicked since of humour. With a keyboard you have the task of being labeled ‘rhythm section’ and keeping the song flowing, but you also have options coming out of your ears.

Quote me

“Facebook Official” is possibly the most annoying phrase that never seems to go away. Nothing is real until it’s Facebook Official. Since when did I need to post my life up on Facebook for it to become real? I’m fairly certain that I was dating Russell before I announced it on Facebook but one question my cousin continually asked me was:”when are you making it Facebook Official?” In her eyes it wasn’t a serious relationship until I’d posted it.

I have friends who have tried to fight this. If you read their profiles then Facebook will insist that they are twelve and ten years old and are married. Alarmingly this is fine – shouldn’t Facebook have a filter for that? You’d have thought that flagging up child marriage would be a priority, but apparently not. As the marriage is “Facebook official” though it must be true and both of my friends have been asked how long they’ve been married and if it was a nice service.

On a more depressing note my poor mum was greeted by name by one of her managers today after adding him on Facebook last night. It’s the first time he’s used her name yet she’s been working there for six months. Facebook Official can’t apply to our names as well, surely? Does this mean that there are millions of nameless people running round out there who only become real once they’ve joined Facebook and uploaded a photo? What if they don’t upload a photo? Does their visage cease to exist and they become just a blue outline? Where does it end?

It should begin with common sense. I accept, as reality, that people are still doing things when I am not around. I also accept that people sometimes lie. If you add these things together you get Facebook posts that are not only random but often completely idiotic and pointless as well and that’s fair enough because it’s cyber-space not tangible reality.

However as they’ve written it on Facebook it’s Facebook Official and so must be true.

Quick Lessons – Don’t Be Good, Be Lucky

It’s the most obvious part of being a gigging musician, especially if you’re a soloist.

ALWAYS SIGN A CONTRACT!

Whilst I was in Africa I set up my own solo act. I’ve been doing it for three years and I have always drawn up my own contract. If the client doesn’t sign it, then there’s no sax at their wedding. So how did I manage to forget that this time?

Now it looks like the gig will be cancelled, meaning hours of practice and music hunting have gone to waste. I cannot emphasise just how much I was kicking myself. Until I got a little email from my client.

“I’m sorry for the inconvenience.  We will, of course, forward you a cancellation fee of 50%”

It helps to be good at what you do. It also helps to be a jammy little bugger.

 

So, take my advice, and remember that contract!

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.

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