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/

Links to free score downloads

I’ve spent the morning looking for free downloads and found some stuff I thought I would share. I should add that I have been looking for simple piano scores to popular songs rather than classical piano.  There are some fantastic free sites out there for piano music http://www.freesheetmusic.net been a good place to start.

Sites like the following promise a lot but are either hideously complicated, broken, or not what they advertise.

http://www.sheetmusicengine.com

www.8notes.com  – this site is just confusing. If you go in through the main web page and follow the free links you can access a limited number of free gif files. However, if you follow a google link for a specific song, you’ll end up playing for it.

http://www.free-scores.com – This one goes under the ‘hideously complicated’ heading. There seems to be a lot of content but finding something useful is very difficult.

My most useful site for popular music has been http://www.pianofiles.com/ The listing here isn’t huge but it is varied and comprehensive.

Just as an aside there is a fantasic(ish) blog called http://truepianotranscriptions.blogspot.com/ It contains full transcriptions of possibly many piano pieces. However, there is no index of blogs, no blogger info, no list of pieces. It’s like an idea almost realised.

But by far the most useful overall has been:

http://www.free-midi.org

There are hundreds of free Midi sites out there. True, you do need a MIDI player. I have been opening the files in Sibelius which instantly creates you a full score.

 

Obviously I’m not the only one to have this idea so here is a selection of other bloggers who have made lists of free sheet music sites:

http://truepianotranscriptions.blogspot.com/ – A blogger who started played in Januray 2010

http://thepianostudent.wordpress.com  – A brilliant resource directory

http://worship1.wordpress.com/2009/08/20/tough-times-small-budget/ – Links to a website for free Gospel sheet music

 

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.

Free Jazz Lessons

We all know that the best way to learn a musical discipline is to have a tutor.  You learn at your own pace, the lessons are tailored to you and having to play in front of a tutor each week is a fantastic practice incentive.  Unfortunately though, tutors cost money and we don’t always have it to spare.

 

I have searched for a long time for a website that will offer free lessons in music theory.  Usually what I find is basic (Wikipedia for example) and often difficult to apply to the real world.  Today, however, I found one that I just had to share.

 

http://www.outsideshore.com/primer/primer

 

It looks dry and uninviting and like you have to pay to download it.  But be patient, scroll down and you will find some of the best free advice on jazz theory (including implementation) that I have ever come across.  There is everything here from a history of jazz to an explanation of scales and chords (which you can find anywhere but not usually this well done) though to applying theory to practice in improvisation and problem solving whilst accompanying other musicians.

 

Other good resource I found was www.jazzdatabase.com

I like the idea of this website; you write an article and post it here for free.  So the idea is you enjoy all the free advice and contribute as well.  Unfortunately there aren’t many contributors but that doesn’t mean some of the links aren’t fab.

 

For instance if you follow the menu to Jazz Theory then Miscellaneous you will be able to download a PDF by Bert Lion which is a great read if you are a theory nerd (like me.)  It also has a link to his website where you can download – for free – a whole range of transcriptions. Some even come with annotations to give you a batter idea of what is going on.

 

Staying with the jazz database website if you click on Transcriptions then Saxophone you will be also to follow a link to the www.saxsolos.com website.  Music here is not free to download but you can stream backtracks. You can then download the relevant PDF from the jazz database.

 

Now you have a great practice aid for free and a fantastic website explaining what you need to be working on.

 

Prelude to ‘An Evening with Snake Davis.’

I can stress enough how happy I am to be back in England.  Barely five minutes in the country and one of my favourite sax players is hosting a ridiculously cheap master-class.  It’s on Wednesday 30th March at The Spice of Life, Cambridge Circus, London.

 

Here are some of the subjects he will be covering:

  • How to form an individual sound.

 

  • How to achieve more expression, better sound, more control, more dynamics, better intonation.

 

  • An in-depth look at vibrato.

 

  • Adopting a less jazz and more pop/rock approach to the short solo.

 

But best of all is the open Q&A, so you’ll literally have the chance to ask him anything you want!

 

What more could you ask for for £5?

Here’s the link

http://www.sax.co.uk/snakemasterclass.html

Is there a way for us poor teachers to get pupils to practice?

Is there a way for us poor teachers to get pupils to practice? I have tried reminding the pupils that they have paid a lot of money for the lessons and here are some of the responses I’ve received.

• “It’s okay, mum pays for it.”

• “But it’s so boring.”

• “I just didn’t have the time this week.”(Which I then hear every week.)

And my favourite.

• “Can’t we just use lesson time as practice time?”

I’ve also had one pupils tell me that it was too much trouble to get the sax out of the case and if only it was easier to set up she might practice more.

I’ve also tried the show-off method. This one can be fun all you have to do is play something that sounds flashy and then tell your pupils that that could sound like that too if they practiced every day. However, it can backfire spectacularly when your pupils tries to copy you, realised they can’t and then get disheartened.

Now, I’m not a teacher that likes to berate or degrade my pupils. If they don’t practice I tell them that the only thing wasted is their own time and now we will have to do much of the last lesson again. If they do practice then I like to encourage. When things are right I get (probably over) excited. It works well with all my students except those who don’t practice in the first place, because they never see the reward.

One thing I haven’t tried is empathising. After all, every muso in the world has been there. I’d put money that even Mr. Mozart has. I was talking to guitar legend and fellow teacher Jessie Jordan and he told me that when he was learning he had such trouble with the D chord that he seriously considered ignoring it all together. I felt that way about long notes on the sax but it has never occurred to me to tell my pupils that.

I think that’s what I shall try this week.

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