Friday, August 31, 2012

Let's Go Back to School

Aimless on Campus

     For most people, school has started or is about to start. It's an important time: summer is over and it's time to get back to the books. I'm sure most musicians will be in a music program, perhaps even a new and unfamiliar one- this is a truly exciting time! If you're like me, however, you might find yourself not in a school's music program (out of personal choice, or availability, or funds, or so on). You might not have an available practice room on campus, and you might wander around the buildings for the hours that you're not in class, wanting to play that saxophone (for example, of course) clutched firmly in your fist.
     Well, as it happens I'm not doing all that much for school this semester- just the one class. I'll be in the community band, but that isn't until later. I do still practice, or need to anyway, but as you may have guessed, I haven't been able to find a place to play, as the college's band practices once a week on stage- there isn't a band room. I have hours of time with which to use for basically anything, but music is pretty much out of the question as my saxophone is built to be pretty darn loud. I suppose though that the good part about this is that I have no excuse not to do my homework.
     Anyway, if you're like me, then I'm sure you've got to be itching to play by your second day spent aimlessly wandering the campus. Therefor, I suggest we put our collective heads together as we think of ways to keep practicing on campus (and by that, I mean I'll write a blog post about what I think).
An Empty Classroom
     Probably the most interesting suggestion I've had- one which has been reverberating within my mind for some days now -was from my old instructor with whom I still play. He said that back in his day, which had to of been under ten years ago, he would find a classroom nobody was using and would play in it on his down time. What makes this a good idea, and what makes me hesitant about it? Well to start, my saxophone- as I said earlier -was made to be loud: I have a metal mouthpiece fitted. If there are classes going on anywhere in the entire hallway it would be too loud. I would feel pretty bad about that, especially because I've gotten into practicing my upper altissimo on my soprano sax. Then again, there are a lot of abandoned classrooms when I'm on my six or so hour break. Some are pretty nice too.
    I've also considered playing in a courtyard or field (like in a bad movie or something). My campus has some pretty huge outdoor spaces. There's actually a couple of fields with nothing but deer and geese in them where nobody would be able to hear me or be bothered for miles, but to be honest, I would probably get more ticks on my legs than a dog does in its lifetime: the places are pretty overgrown.
     Someone at the school told me to join the radio club. Our school has a nice radio station, and they're actively looking for any musical talent to broadcast. I wont even go into the micing difficulties for the saxophone, because even though this is a pretty cool sounding idea, my goal here is to find a good way to practice- and to practice effectively. This is just like the game room: I hear that there's a piano on which many people often play- where I could jam with someone (potentially). Alas and again, this isn't exactly practicing.
     For now, my situation seems hopeless, but I'll continue to bring my saxophone to school. There's always something to do, and there's always somewhere to play, so I'll remain diligent as always. But to be realistic, in my situation I can practice in the local high school after hours anytime I want. I suppose my point here is that if you're in a situation where your campus has no practice room and you're not a member of the official band, then you should get creative with your practice locations. Claim a spot that wont get in the way of any one's activities and start your practicing.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Let's Change Perspective

How Do You Think They Feel?

     I always write this blog from the perspective of a student of music simply because that's what I am. I do tutor kids occasionally in music and the saxophone, but I'm still a student myself. In this post, however, I want to talk about what instructors must go through and what it is they do for their students, because while learning the inner functions of music may be difficult, teaching it is a whole other thing.
     Probably the most basic part of teaching music, or anything really, is to know about your subject completely. In order to ask a good question you must first know the entire answer. You've got to have a complete knowledge of what it is you're teaching to your student, and you need multiple ways of explaining it. Everybody learns and understands information just a little different than everybody else. This makes instructing a room full of individuals very challenging.
     One-on-one tutoring gets easy enough after a while. At first you need to get to understand the student, and you need the student to get to understand you, but after this everything falls into place as a routine comes to form. Group instructions, such as a community concert band or school concert band, is something different. Some bands are huge while some are smaller, but all have more than one person, making band instruction a challenge. While I've never done this, I have instructed a section, so I can tell you for sure that getting multiple people to understand your instruction completely feels impossible. I imagine band instructors have to be the kind of persons who aren't easily frustrated- otherwise nothing would get done.
     Besides the fact that there are many individuals, each one of those individuals in a band plays an instrument and resides in a section (corresponding to that instrument), of which there may be many. I get stressed out just thinking about it, but I do find solace in the fact that there are usually senior players in each section that can diffuse know-how upon his or her junior players. Militarily, the instructor is a general while the section 'leaders' are his or her captains. The captains have the general's back, as they help to drive the band forward.
     Inevitably a band is fairly similar to one-on-one tutoring. You can think of the band as one person, so that the single 'person' is instructed by the single instructor. With this, all the information instructed is essentially the same, but with more emphasis on the pieces at hand. Even then, a lot of the time I tutor is to guide a student through pieces.
     With both similarities and differences between tutoring and band instruction, regardless, I feel fortunate to know that any band instructor will have some prime experience with which to teach. In the high school I graduated from, I was very lucky to have a superb concert band instructor. It's instructors like those that make anyone able to be part of a functioning band, and I think we need to give them credit where credit is due: it isn't an easy job.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Let's Practice

Perfect Practice Makes Perfect

     The expression "practice makes perfect" is more or less true, but I'd add to that "perfect practice makes perfect", because to practice the same mistakes over and over again without change will not make perfect. This is true to anything that you can practice at. In this case I'll use music, and more specifically playing the saxophone, to make my point.
     In music, there are some very basic things that you should incorporate into your practice: intonation, sound quality and rhythm. Proper intonation, or being in tune or on pitch, can be achieved through a tuning device, which I recommend should be purchased and kept with whatever instrument you play.
You can also tune to a partner or friend. Specifically someone who plays piano would be best, as their instrument is often tuned professionally and makes a good base. Proper intonation is crucial to playing critically: it helps you to be aware of other kinds of mistakes you might make, and allows you to eliminate improper tuning as an issue.
     Similar to intonation, sound quality is important to your basic practice. If you're playing the alto saxophone, make sure that you're playing with the appropriate embouchure- try not to let the instrument squeak too much, and allow enough air to bass through, playing to an acceptable volume. You can take your sound quality up a level by trying out different things to make yourself sound better. This may differ depending on the type of music you're playing. Try playing smoothly and evenly during some concert pieces you're practicing, and then try playing a little more roughly, maybe toss some growling in, as you try some jazzy pieces. Figure out what sounds good to you.
     Rhythm and timing issues are some of the most common among all players. Luckily, it's also one of the easiest to remedy. When you practice, you should always work with a metronome. A lot of tuners have one, but if not there are free ones all over the internet that you can download onto your computer. Check for apps for your phone, if you can, as well, but make sure it's loud enough to hear, and of course look for metronomes on sale out in stores. If you're practicing a piece, adjust the metronome to the beats per minute (bpm) of the selection. Play your piece like this, and you'll be better able to follow your conductor in ensemble practice and concert. You can also use it for rhythm exercises. For instance, you can set the metronome to 120bpm and play along with it, playing different rhythms. Start with quarter notes, then move to eight notes, then sixteenth. Some metronomes will have a setting with which you can set to 120bpm, but click the eight notes for you. This subdivision could help you, and is a good practice tool.

Imperfect Practice Makes...?

     Once you get along in your skill, and you know your way around your instrument, there's a certain amount of goofing off you can do that, in my experience, teaches you things. On my saxophones I often jam with my brother and do some strange and wild stuff. Sometimes we try to do a progression only in altissimo, and see how high up we can go (my record is octaves over the altissimo D). Other times we try hitting semitones and multi phonics that sound pretty bad in our riffs. However, we do this for a reason, other than to laugh and have fun. Doing this actually teaches us a lot. It shows what we can and can not do or what notes we can and can not hit. It shows us that there are certain exceptions to scales and modes that sound good over different progressions. It also makes us learn that there are a lot of things that we can do that aren't necessarily written about anywhere: things that you have to learn for yourself- about styling and phrasing and sounds. Give it a try sometime- let loose.
I couldn't help

Monday, August 20, 2012

Let's Feature Vibratosax


     Today I'm featuring a certain saxophone- one which I know I'd get a lot of heat for writing about if I were writing a hugely popular blog. But since I'm not...!
A1 Alto Sax
     Vibratosax is a company based in Thailand which has developed a completely polycarbonate alto saxophone. This subject is but another chapter on why I write this blog- people say some pretty one sided and opinionated stuff. Let me dish out the facts (and some of my opinions, of course) so that you can check it out and form your own thoughts. There's a lot of debate about this product, especially since the manufacturer is based in Thailand. I see nothing wrong with this. As long as the product is good- or at least super cool -it doesn't matter from where the product hails. This functioning plastic saxophone is super cool (in fact, I'm inclined to throw a duper somewhere in there) and demands some attention.
     The pads and keys are all made of interchangeable parts. This means that if some of your pads go bad, it's incredibly easy to replace them yourself. The alto is light weight and durable- after all, it is made of plastic.
A1S Colored Pads
     There are two main models as of this moment: the A1 and the A1S (the S stands for 'solid'). The A1, priced at $575, is pretty cool. The white and grey colors are modern and sleek. It's goofy, yet elegant: something that I wouldn't think twice about gigging with. The A1S features slightly more dense materials, offering a warmer, more 'vintage' sound, and goes for a hundred dollars more than it's counterpart. I've heard the clips that the company offers, and (keeping in mind that they were filmed with phones or bad cameras in general) the altos sound pretty darn good- and pretty vintage as well. The web pages (listed below) talk about a new Series II, that takes care of some lower register intonation issues. This is good, and something to look into. Also, the pages show the A1S Limited Edition: the same old A1S, but completely transparent. They're only selling a hundred, and each will have a serial number (001/100 to 100/100). It looks pretty cool, though I imagine you would have to clean it pretty well. The pages have no real information on how to buy one, or how much it costs, though I imagine that following the contact information would lead to that data.
     There's no way around it: for $500-$600 you can get a truly unique alto saxophone that sounds good; that comes with interchangeable and multi-colored pads and an option for a trippy looking gig bag for $60. There are a lot of people saying "It isn't from the U.S, and it should cost $200 based on the materials", but to that I say this: there was a lot of research and money to go into this product, which turned out to be a really fun looking and sounding saxophone. Also, if the U.S made this, it would cost easily thrice what it does now. Regardless, it's a pretty cool product. If you have the money and are looking for something to amaze people with, or just something new to play, get Vibratosax's A1 or A1S, I know I will.

Friday, August 17, 2012


Musicians Use Technology

     Saxophones, as well as most instruments are pretty low tech. To play the saxophone, one simply applies sufficient air over a reed placed closely parallel to a base, causing the material to vibrate. That's how the sound is started, anyway- pretty low tech. However, there is a time where things will get a little more advanced, technologically. At a point, you'll want to record yourself playing. If you play the saxophone (which will be my example instrument for reasons that will become clear soon), this task will be difficult.
     To mic a saxophone is a challenging thing because you'll require a wide enough diaphragm mic in order to reduce cut-outs and gain issues. If you don't get a wide diaphragm microphone, then the resulting playback will be far less than desirable. Unfortunately, mics are generally pretty pricey, but I can tell you about at least one mic that has worked for my own recording (or at least pretty darn well, considering the price).
Blue Yeti Pro + Blue Yeti
     The Blue Yeti Pro by Blue Microphones is a USB mic that has professional quality recording and easy to use functions. My previous post on blues scales had a recording which I made with the help of my friend's Blue Yeti microphone. I found that when the gain is all the way down on the gain dial on the back of the mic, and it was set to omnidirectional, the microphone really picked up the saxophone, and- what's more, it played back my sax with surprising clarity. There is another version that looks identical, but isn't the "Pro" version. Both mics are good, but I have more experience with the Pro. Both of these mics are inexpensive, all things considered. The Blue Yeti Pro goes for around the $250 range, while the Blue Yeti goes for around the $150 range. The mic has that classic look, and features multiple settings depending on the desired function. USB makes it extremely portable; you can plug it into any computer or laptop and start recording, although it helps to have some audio software.
     When it comes to software, things can never really be inexpensive. While most Mac products come with Garage Band (free), it is software that I don't recommend to people who want more serious music editing abilities. For simple recording and manipulation of music, Garage Band is fairly user friendly. I'll also admit I love the presets- one of which includes "Solo Sax", making it sound as if I were on stage when I play around with it. But again, for the more serious music editors and recorders, I have some other products I can recommend- for both Mac and PC users.
     Macs have the privilege of being able to use Pro Tools 10: an amazing music editing software that can really do it all. I don't have that much experience with it, but I completely recommend it to any Mac users that need great software. Be warned though: the Pro Tools 10 is pretty expensive, like all solid software of this kind, so you need to be pretty serious about making the investment. Pro Tools 10 is priced at around $500-$600. While it may be used on PC, there are other products I would recommend to those users. 
Acid Pro 7

     One piece of software I've used quite a lot is called Sony Acid Pro 6, but there is a more up-to-date version, seven. Acid Pro can be hard to learn to use at first, but I was lucky enough to learn via high school. On your own, it would help to watch some guiding videos, which I'm sure the product comes with, as well as (of course) playing around and experimenting with it a lot. Acid pro lets you do a whole lot of things to your audio. You can do basic things such as cut and rearrange, as well as dub pieces with a lot of ease. There are also options to do far more advanced things, involving EQ, presets and MIDI. Sony Acid Pro 7 is $300.
     There is one more thing to add to all of this that is very important. The software previously stated is very complicated, and therefor takes up a ton of space on the computer. In short- the software is huge. In fact, once you get recording and saving your work, your uncondensed audio files will add up and take up massive amounts of space. It is because of this that I remind everyone that there is one more technological investment you need to consider: the computer. I'll focus on laptops, as those are mobile (I'm assuming here that anything you learn now about laptops, you'll simply apply to home computers- which just have more power). In fact, I wont so much go into brands and types. I'll give you universal stats- stats that apply both to Macs and PCs as well as any other brand you can think of.
     First off, do not ever get a notebook, an atom, or any other small computer. Small laptops are meant for social networking, chatting, writing or documenting, watching videos, listening to music, and so on. Larger laptops are meant for large file editing, such as video editing, music editing, and even photo working. I've been told by a pro in the field that people who are business pros- who spend their day writing on word processors or PowerPoint or the such -they try and buy the huge powerhouse editing computers. It's a waste of money. Because it's big, they feel that they need to get it. But this isn't true.
     If you're serious about getting down to the important music editing work, you need something with at least four to six gigabytes of RAM. Also, you should aim for the 700 gigabyte region for storage space/disk space. This is for storing those huge files. Like Intel? Go for the i7, for sure.
     Here's a big point: there are some laptops that have these stats, are exactly the same, but one is about two or so inches wider. Sometimes this small difference will cause a hundred dollar or higher rift between them. You're editing music, not videos, so don't pay too much for a huge screen (unless it's what you know you need). My dream computer, thinking only logically, with all of these things (only with a terabyte, not 720 gigabytes) cost around a thousand dollars. Don't be put off though; you need to think of this as what it is: an investment. Just be sure to invest intelligently, and do your research.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Let's Be Blue

Simple Styling

     I'd like to take the time to point out some simple ways to have a lot of fun with music, especially as an instrumentalist. Starting out with jazz can be quite the undertaking, but there are some cool scales you can try that will get you jamming in no time at all.
     There are a lot of scales and modes in which to play, but I'm going to focus mostly on the blues scales. At one point or another you've probably heard one played. It's a scale used in many genres, not just jazz, so it should be pretty familiar, especially once you hear it. Minor blues is a great and simple key to jam in, and it's pretty universal. You can sit down with a bunch of musicians and start playing blues without much discussion or drafting. The scales are easy to learn, so to get things started, here's a chart to use as a frame of reference:
The rhythm doesn't matter a whole lot. Play them in any way that helps you learn the most effectively. Put these over chords, and even a good beat, and you're on your way to improvising some blues.
     While you can do pretty much whatever you want, some good direction- at least to start -would be to follow a twelve bar blues. Twelve 'bars' are simply twelve measures; the length of the loop in which you play. The chords played change in a way that identifies the twelve bar blues. As a saxophonist, or other soloing instrument, you can play the effective key straight up, or follow the chord changes more strictly: it doesn't matter, depending on what you want. The chord progression looks something like this:
The above example is in the key of G, but the progression can be played according to any of the twelve keys. Following is an example of blues in the key of G (like the chords above), played by myself on my new curved soprano saxophone, as well as my brother Jordan Shack on classic guitar and friend Jordan Jhamb on piano- the two will be playing the shown chords with some variance while I show you how playing over chords can sound:
The photo is of my little Opus Soprano
     Once you get the twelve bar going with a pianist playing chords and a skilled drummer, you'll learn a bit more about what you should and should not do while improvising. It's while playing to these tunes that you'll really find out about your own playing as a jazz musician. A shocking amount of young people don't know how to improvise at all, something that I find pretty sad. There are probably many reasons for this, but regardless, I urge everyone who wants to play this sort of thing to get out and do it. It's a lot of fun, and it's entirely your own each time.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Let's Hit the Books

Do Some Research

     No matter what type of music you play or sing, you should always do some research. Research is usually a pretty boring task. Papers for school require it, and it's usually dull. Luckily for you, music research is the greatest thing since bananas. Doing research for music is simply listening to the genre that you perform. If you play lots of jazz, then you've got a lot of research to do- listening to everything from Larry Neeck's compositions to Sonny Rollins, to Benny Goodman and so many more. Into classical? Then you have a lot to listen for. In fact, I'd say just listen to as many Russian composers' pieces as you can from their work in Hollywood's film scores back in the day (hint, Igor Stravinsky) and of course, the classics of the classical genre, who need not be named.
     To further my point, I'll give some of my life experience as a prime example. After teaching myself basic jazz grooves and theory, I found that there was a lot missing from my playing. On the alto sax, there's never nothing to learn. Given this and the period where I discovered Eric Marienthal- a smooth jazz alto saxophonist -as well as Jeff Lorber -a smooth jazz/fusion keyboardist -I eventually purchased many of each albums and listened to it constantly- at work (in my line of work, it's allowed), on the go and generally in my free time. Listening to the kind of thing you like to play from an instrumentalist that plays the same thing as you over and over is great for your playing. Eventually, you start to assimilate certain things: technique, riffs and a whole lot of cool things, not to mention the fact that by hearing what an ideal saxophone, for example, sounds like, you'll know what to do differently to get that sound and, eventually, get your own sound.
     I also play saxophone in concert band. The kind of research I do for this varies. There is one thing I do that I recommend to anyone who plays in any sort of concert band: listen to game, movie and television show soundtracks. There are a few obvious examples, those being The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars soundtracks, as they are both huge symphonic arrangements (not to mention beautiful compositions, in all). As for games, The Legend of Zelda has always had absolutely incredible arrangements. With the twenty-fifth anniversary of the game, a game with a separate disc including symphonic medleys of all the major songs was released. For a game, the pieces are truly something to behold. The point here is that there are some interesting places to do research, and it goes for anybody who calls themselves musicians. Dubstep artists listen to each other’s work as research- to better their own work. It very simply goes for everyone.


     Besides my big point above, a lot of people are going to notice that I listen to smooth jazz and video game and movie soundtracks. Besides these, I also enjoy metal, dubstep and anime soundtracks- I like some pretty crazy stuff, and I know many will think I'm a pretty big freak. This is completely true. If 'freak' means someone who is not the norm, then I am definitely a freak- big time. I don't know any jazz musicians who listen to metal, let alone dubstep. In fact, most don't consider dubstep music. I do have good reasons for listening to what I do, though, and I think that some of you could really learn something from me. It has to do with the research I was talking about earlier. Listening to all sorts of musical genres is a fantastic way to learn. I do like the weird things I listen too though, and I'm not saying that you should listen to garbage- things that you don't at least enjoy. I do say, however, that you should experiment. I even play a lot of the funky stuff that I listen to. Yes, on the saxophone I have tried things like metal and dubstep (I'll leave exactly how up to your imagination). If you stay within strict lines, you'll eventually follow many other people in a thin little row, never standing out or doing something amazing. Furthermore, I think more people should give smooth jazz a chance. Some artists, such as Marienthal, seriously bring out the saxophone's abilities and limits. I listen to him because he plays how I hope to one day play, but not completely. Having my own sound is very important to me, as it's a hard thing to achieve. Spread yourself out. You’re like a leaf: you’ll be exposed to more sunlight that way.

Basicaly prooving my point, this is Midvalley the Horn Freak, from
the anime/manga series Trigun

Friday, August 10, 2012

Let's Begin

Making That First Choice

     Commonly, people start as musicians from a very young age. Most find their love of music through school when they are, often times, required to choose a music program to enroll in. This was so for me. I had to choose between chorus or instrumental music. As a shy kid, I was not looking forward to the decision. Ultimately I chose trumpet because I knew what it was- who didn't? However, my mother told me that too many people would be playing it, and I should choose something else. Well of course, I chose saxophone because, other than trumpet, it was the only instrument I really knew. Looking back, I'm grateful that I made the decision that I did, although I admit now; it was a horrible way to decide.
     Well, then what are some good ways to decide on an instrument for a beginner? Well, there are some key things to keep in mind for choosing an instrument, whether you are a child beginner (in which case, parents should note several things) or someone older who has decided to start playing.
     First off, do some basic research. Obviously the names of instruments are something of some importance. Some basic ones include flute, clarinet and saxophone of the woodwind section and of course trumpet, trombone, French horn, baritone and tuba of the brass section. For the brass- if brass is what you want to play -choose what you have heard played before; something that you like the sound of. If you like the sound of the trumpet, go with that. Give it a try if you have the means. If you enjoy it, stick with it and practice. Otherwise, try another brass instrument. Keep doing this until you find the fit for you. Eventually, after playing a while, you might want to switch- or simply try something new. In this case, try any number of brass, including those that are more challenging. Now that you have, say, trumpet experience under your belt, you can learn the other brass instruments a little bit easier. For the woodwinds, again- pick one that you know you like the sound of. If you like the flute, stick with it. Play it, learn it, love it, and eventually, if you want something new, try the piccolo. It's the same kind of instrument as the flute, only half the size and an octave higher than what is written on paper. If you choose clarinet, there are alternatives for this as well. I recommend starting with the soprano Bb clarinet (your standard clarinet). From there you can try alto clarinet, bass clarinet, or some of the even lower types, like the contrabass clarinet. Then of course, there's the saxophone group. I recommend starting with the tenor saxophone, even though I started, and most people start on the alto saxophone. However, I suggest starting on the tenor sax because it's generally easier to play, and compositions for the instrument (mostly classical) will be more basic. Generally, higher instruments are expected to flow through notes quickly, while the lower register instruments take more of the basic harmonies. In my case, I started out on the alto sax, but really found my calling on the even higher soprano sax, as it has an almost oboe-like sound to it (making it great for classical) and really shreds the smooth jazz solos that I take. Some students of music will move onto the lower saxophones, though. Baritone saxophone is in the same key as the alto saxophone- Eb -but is much larger, and- obviously -lower in pitch. It's a great sounding horn which really rocks those funk jazz grooves. Both the saxophones and clarinets use one reed on the mouthpiece to produce sound. There are some instruments, though, which are arguably more difficult to play that are double-reeded instruments. They literally have two opposing reeds which vibrate against one another, making a rather unique sound. The oboe and bassoon are the two common double-reeded instruments, although to say that they are common is a bit of an exaggeration. Oboe in particular is a fantastic sounding instrument, one which I have actually learned the basics of, but is rarely played- so rare in fact, that there is a huge demand for them in concert bands, especially in universities and such. They are difficult to learn, and the reeds cost a considerable amount of money. Most oboists actually make their own reeds.
     After finding the instrument type for you (which I did not list all of them- like percussion and more), you should look at prices on multiple websites and in many shops. Price can make a big difference on what instrument you start out with. If you choose a string instrument such as the violin, you can find student pieces anywhere for a very low price- about eighty dollars is a good price for a starting violin. On the other hand, the cheapest student alto saxophone you can get will be in the two hundred dollar range. Larger saxophones will usually be more expensive. Clarinets aren't usually too bad, as student horns can be made out of inexpensive materials. Expect a student clarinet to be around a hundred dollars, while student flutes can be under a hundred dollars. Trumpets will go for about a hundred and fifty dollars or so, and trumpeters have a cool option of using a pocket trumpet. A tuba, unfortunately, is over a thousand dollars at it's cheapest. Sousaphones- the marching versions of the same instrument -can be half of that. Then of course there's gear and cases for each, though the instrument will come with everything you need to get started (it should), but remember, saxophonists, buy a better mouthpiece with your new sax.
     Finally, with instrument in hand, practice very hard. Get some music to learn, play in a band and most importantly, enjoy yourself. Music isn't easy, but it's never boring. Make the first choice a good one.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Let's Listen Closely

Be a Team Player

     High school music programs are the places to truly refine yourself as a musician. In such a setting, it's okay to make mistakes and stumble your way up the skill ladder. In fact, this is all necessary in order to grow. It also helps that the sort of mistakes you might make in high school are far less acceptable in later settings. Minor musical errors are fine, of course- you can make a squeak or miss a note and nobody will take it personally. However, playing to your own tune during a piece is never okay. Some people are unable to listen while they play which is bad, as listening is a very important skill to have. In any band, but especially in a concert band, being aware of everyone else around you who is also playing is crucial. Trust in the score's directions, the conductor, yourself and others as you play. Doing so will keep you from sticking out when you shouldn't or playing too subtly at a time when you should come out. In high school programs there is plenty of opportunity to explore listening to others as you play, especially if you are in a first chair soloing position. Playing through a solo, which often times has some form of background playing by other sections, is an especially important time to be aware of the sounds around you. Achieving your perfect pitch depends on this, as your intonation is affected by the rest of the band. Besides this, it is important to continue maintaining your levels. By this I mean simply that you should not, even in a solo, play too loud. You should definitely come out and flourish (depending on the piece), but don't over blow and kill your pitch. In concert pieces particularly, soloing doesn't abruptly happen (unless it's at the start of, and again depending on, the piece). Generally there is some semblance of a smooth transition in the rhythm and dynamics of the music where, given this, you transition with it, flowing into and out of your solo.
     Generally there are a lot of things to consider when you're playing in a band, but I cannot stress any more how important it is to listen closely and play to others. If everybody in the band plays to their sheets and to others, the band simply comes together. If everybody in the band plays thinking only "if I can't hear myself, I'll just play louder", then the band is doomed to sound terrible. It's very important to remember your place in the band at any one time. You can't play the tuba and expect to have lots of solo time. Similarly, you can't play the oboe and expect to only play harmony. Depending on your instrument and what the sheet of music in front of you is describing to do (and don't forget the conductor, who can make changes to the sheet), play your part. If the piece instructs the saxophone section to play mezzo-piano (mp), play mezzo-piano, because this is the arranger of the piece's way of telling you that there is another section that needs to be louder. For example, looking at a full score in this case you would find that the saxophones are at mezzo-piano while the flutes and clarinets are perhaps at mezzo-forte (mf). This means that while the saxophones back up with a harmony, it is likely that the flutes and clarinets are playing the melody- or at least a part that needs to be heard.
     A band is just that. It's a group- a team of individuals. Everyone will have different sounds, but it's finding a way to fuse all of these sounds together into one musical ensemble that takes real effort and talent. Being part of such a team is wonderful, so be sure to play your part well.

Monday, August 6, 2012


Things Happen

     Music is in no way strictly black and white. Things will happen to surprise you. In fact, this is perhaps the only certain thing about music. I've seen a fellow in the marching band I used to play with drop his saxophone and crush it, and later I was hardly able to play out of shock (and sadness for a fallen saxophone). I've cut myself to the point of bleeding on my saxophone, needing to play through the shock. This, as a young person, is not a fun thing to do- even if you can brag about it later. Sneezing, coughing or laughing into an instrument can easily throw you off with the squeals to follow, and a band in the entirety not playing, all but you, as the conductor waves on measure one can cause some flustered feelings. My point here is simply that shocking things do indeed happen, and you can never fully be ready for them. This said, you should be sure to discipline yourself enough so that when the unexpected happens, you can play on. In practice, the previously stated silly mishaps are whimsical and passing with little consequence. On the stage however, every single micro-event that occurs does so under a magnifying glass- a microscope between you and the eye of the crowd bellow. This is, at least, how you should feel as you sit- or stand -on stage. Babies will cry, cell phones will go off, and people will sneeze way louder than they should, but the show, as they say, must go on. A band that can play unwavering through a separate spectacle is a great band indeed and commands the respect of the audience: if the band ignores it, they'll ignore it.

Check Your Bell

     It is extremely likely that most if not all young saxophonists (or other wind and brass players with large enough bells) will continue putting things in their instruments out of habit. The bell of a saxophone is a tempting place to store all sorts of things. In mine, at a much younger age, I- for whatever reason -found a potato in my saxophone which continued to flatten all of my low notes. To spare the embarrassment of going through a practice with a potato in your lap, I encourage all players to check your bell just in case. However, in a more reasonable example of why you should check the airway of your instrument, I played through an entire concert containing a defining solo for me with a bottle's cork in the bell of my alto saxophone. I found that, during my playing, I had to tighten my embouchure more than I usually need to. I played well, but I also played far too hard than I should have, finding out exactly why only after I was putting my saxophone away. The music I was playing was of a classical genre- meaning that my playing and embouchure had to be extremely focused, as in the genre, pitch must be perfect (the reason I usually maintain that, in ways, classical is more challenging- at least physically -than jazz, given exceptions of course). You may be surprised at just how much your pitch can be affected by objects in your bell. In fact, try placing different objects (NONE that will become stuck, or break the horn!) inside the bell and play, listening to the difference, particularly in the lower register. Doing this may just let you know when something's wrong in the future and let you know what to listen for, but in practice and before concerts, be sure to check your bell for potatoes.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Let's Get to the Head of the Issue

Mouthpieces Matter

     At the head of any good saxophone sits, snuggly on the neck, a mouthpiece. Mouthpieces may be made of some strange materials, such as bone, glass, crystal or wood, but are usually made of one of three materials: plastic, vulcanized rubber or metal (usually bronze or stainless steel). The most common of the three materials is plastic, as most saxophones come with at least a plastic mouthpiece. Plastic is a good material. It's inexpensive and efficient- it gets the job done. Although, some are of much better quality than others. My first alto saxophone actually had a misshaped plastic mouthpiece, which I didn't find out until I was good enough to notice that the sound was far less than desirable at my level. They often times crack, not in any noticeable way. Tiny cracks on the bevel are common with some lesser quality mouthpieces. It is through this, and many other experiences that I recommend the same thing to everybody: when you purchase a new saxophone, always buy a new mouthpiece for it. For some reason beyond the common realm of logic, new saxophones, both top quality and not-so-top quality, always come with terrible mouthpieces. They suffice for younger students, as they produce the appropriate vibrations necessary for playing saxophone, but generally, I urge any owner of a new saxophone to get a complementary mouthpiece.
Otto Link Hard Rubber for Alto Sax
      Ultimately, there are good plastic mouthpieces in the world. I've seen some pretty nifty ones- you need only look. However, what I own for my alto saxophone and just love to bits is an Otto Link hard rubber, or vulcanized rubber, mouthpiece with a six facing and a tonal ridge, or tone edge. Hard rubber generally offers a warmer, or darker setting to your tone, as it has for me. It's superb for warm and gentle classical solos in a concert band situation. I opted for the tonal ridge, literally a ridge inside the mouthpiece that amplifies the sound a bit, so that I could achieve both warm and gentle, as well as loud and bright depending on the piece or my situation. With the six facing - facing being the gap between the tip of the mouthpiece and the reed (dependent, of course, on the angle of the 'facing') - I get more control over a wider range: I can play lows, either buzzy or not, and can maneuver through altissimo. In the end, I can play classical arrangements with the hard rubber, and jazz with the tonal ridge and the six facing. Hard rubber pieces come in many shapes and sizes. Not all have facings of six and tonal ridges. A purely classical hard rubber mouthpiece might have a three facing and smooth bevel. When it comes to the facing of a mouthpiece, it's purely up to the user, though I widely recommend either a six or seven facing, for alto saxophone especially.
     All of this applies as well to metal mouthpieces, something I've always been a bit infatuated with. While guitars have amps to drive up their loudness, saxophones have the equivalent metal mouthpieces. My curved soprano saxophone currently has one. It's a sturdy little sax, and with the added metal mouthpiece, it shreds through anything else in the way- truly a spectacular soloing instrument for a big band. Metal is notoriously bright, and many don't agree with using it. It takes a lot of control not to over blow while using one, and it has the potential to simply be too much. However, when it comes to a competent solo jazz player, a metal mouthpiece can really bring out the saxophone's signature sound quality- no matter which type you play. Unfortunately, metal can be expensive to have as a mouthpiece. A solid price for such a piece, given that the craftsmanship and overall quality is good, is just over a hundred US dollars. If you don't care about quality, for whatever reason (second instrument, practice instrument and so on), you can find them, depending on the sax type, for much cheaper. If you have the money though, you should go for a nicer quality mouthpiece- just don't hit your teeth on it.
Rovner Dark for Alto Sax
     Depending on the sound you're aiming to get, mouthpieces can make all the difference, though a good ligature to match is just as important. There isn't a whole lot to say about ligatures physically, but a good amount of research is very important, as different mouthpiece types may take different ligatures. Skinnier metal pieces take special ligatures, although all of them are the same in how they work. Basically, the less amount of material pushing on the reed, the better. This allows your embouchure to do all the work and, depending on the ligature, offers an even darker or lighter quality. The ligature that commonly comes with a saxophone's mouthpiece should go where that original mouthpiece does: not your saxophone! Leave the pair aside as a backup, then buy a new mouthpiece and a ligature- do not just use the ligature that comes with the new mouthpiece. The thin dual-screw metal ligatures break easily and offer no musical depth whatsoever. There are very inexpensive alternatives you can invest in. I have a Rovner Dark ligature, for instance, and you may notice that it looks quite different. It's a nice ligature and makes a big difference. There are also ring ligatures or band ligatures, mesh, or other alternative ligature types. Options abound, so don't ever settle for less. Mouthpieces do matter!

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Let's Talk Bamboo

Cut for You

     Guitars have strings which need replacing. It's kind of a big deal, and a bit of a pain. I know many guitar players, and I know that string replacement isn't exactly fun for everyone. For saxophones there are no strings, but what does need the most replacing is the reed of the instrument. I recommend to the average young student to get cheap-cut reeds, usually the standard Rico reed will do because their inexpensive; a starting instrumentalist shouldn't waste money on good quality reeds. However, more advanced players have a few more options to sift through while buying reeds. There are different cuts which are simply the thickness of the reeds, which allow for buzzier lows or clearer highs depending on the cut. Usually, these cuts are measured in numbers in a very simple way. The thinnest I have ever seen for the saxophone in person is a 1.5 cut. The thickest I have seen is a 5. To put this in perspective, the most widely accepted and universal cut for a saxophone reed is 2.5- a cut that I use on both alto sax and soprano sax. It's perfect for most people because it allows for steady playing with modest embouchure work over the entire range of playing: from down at the Bb range through the upper altissimo area. Ultimately, choose what works best: the cut for you.

Don't Get Fooled

     Buying a brand of reed isn't as simple as you might think. Going off of peer recommendations is a sound idea, however do be sure to go off of multiple recommendations. Music is like politics: there are millions of opinions, and none of them are right- nor wrong. You must ask everyone you can and assimilate as much data as possible in order to form your own conclusion, because what works for others may not work for you. Eventually you'll find out things that aren't written in comments or ratings about a product. For example: I found myself quite loving the Vandoran V16's as recommended by my idol- a professional alto player with whom I play often. They're great, and there's no way around that. However, I eventually tried the Vandoran V12's, which are designed more for a smooth concert sound (thus my reason for purchasing them). Now, what these reeds did to surprise me was this: they played jazz - particularly in the altissimo range - better than the jazzy V16's. Did I strike gold here? Well in short- no. They did play better, but they cost the same as the V16's, with the downside being that they broke much easier if used this 'unintended' way. A reed like that is too expensive and, honestly, too nice to be shredding on the upper registers. Therefore I recommend getting two kinds of reed. One should be a solid reed for practice only, and the other a great reed that works for you in your gigs and performances. Does this cost a lot? Of course. But they end up lasting at least twice as long.
     Finally, when looking online or in a store for reeds, do your research before hand. A lot of sites (including the ones I love) list something like this:
Listed Price: $40.98
Our Price: $23.98
You Save: $17.00!
     After learning the market, you'll know that this is a bit of a silly lie to make their price seem spectacular. It's not a horrible crime as, like I said before, many of the sites I love to shop on do this. Just don't get tricked by something that looks great. Keep in mind that a good price for great reeds is in the lower twenty dollar range for a box of ten (just about two bucks a reed [in the US]). Whatever you do, don't get fooled.