Friday, November 30, 2012

Understanding Your Sound

Strive for Unique

     Part of the challenge of playing saxophone, or any wind for that matter (though my experience lies nearly exclusively within saxophone work), includes that of not being able to hear yourself. You may read this and think, "well, I can hear myself, as I make sound when I play", but that's not exactly what I'm talking about.
     I'm talking about timbre, or the quality, or color, of tone with which you play. Think of a very young student with a saxophone, and the sound that they make as they produce their first notes. Does this sound differ from that of a seasoned  veteran of the saxophone, like those of the professional realm? Of course it does, as this is a pretty harsh example. More subtly, a player who is quite good in, perhaps, a high school ensemble might have a good sound, but the sound will probably be fairly standard- by this, I mean that the individual plays sax well, but does not have a unique sound. Then, there are people like Kenny G and Eric Marienthal. The two pros are incredible players, and yet their timbre is so very different. They sound so different from each other. Is one better than the other? Maybe not. Nonetheless, their sounds are different.
     How can you account for these differences? How can you get a unique sound? And how can you hear yourself play?
     These are all very good questions, which I hear often. Unfortunately, they're some of the hardest to answer. First off, difference in tone, often subtle, can arise from most anything. I was told from a relatively young age that I had a unique sound (which is the best compliment a saxophonist can receive), which I tend to credit my classical training for. I worked desperately hard for most of my musical life to achieve perfect pitch while playing concert and classical music. To do this, I endured years of subtle embouchure changes which amounted, in the end, to a great timbre. The specifics of classical training made an odd and unique transition to the improvisational jam blues I tend to play now. This is my reason, or at least part of the reason, why my sound is so unique. The reasons, from person to person, vary.
     Real quick, I want to tell you a bit about what it means to have a unique sound. As a saxophonist, you might reach a truly great sound quality. This is a great thing, and is common among most adept players. You'll hear recordings or buskers, people playing that 'buzzy' sax sound. We all know it- it's classic sax. However, to have a unique sound is to have a great quality that differs slightly from everybody else. I've known, personally, a few skilled individuals with this gift. I can tell each one of them apart purely based on hearing them play one note. This is having a unique sound.
     But how can you get a unique timbre? I can't really say. By that I mean, who am I to say? It's a lot of things, again. There's natural talent, hard work, listening to other musicians- really everything that goes to being a good musician. Inevitably, I have to say that experimentation, with your sound, is very important to this end.
     The last point, how can you hear your own sound, is another toughy. Any saxophonist, or most musicians for that matter, will tell you: it's hard to hear yourself truthfully. You might easily be able identify another player's sound, but you won't easily be able to hear your own specific quality. This makes understanding certain aspects of your own growth as a musician extremely difficult and irritating. One instructor of mine suggested playing facing/against a wall, so that my sound bounces right back at me, and I hear my tone a bit more true towards how it really sounds. This works for a lot of things, like practicing vibrato, but to hear your sound quality, and to hear your unique quality, if you have it, is very difficult. The only sure-fire way is to record yourself, but you'd need some pretty expensive recording gear for that. 
     In the end, it really doesn't matter how you hear yourself. I mean, sure, it matters that you can hear and control your sound, but what matters most is the response to your sound of those you play to or for. If you get lots of positive feedback, then keep on doing what you're doing- it clearly works for you!

Friday, November 23, 2012

The Darkest of Fridays

Deals for You 

(in the U.S Market)

     You need gear. More over, you need your gear cheap. If you're in the market now for musical gear, well, you're in luck: November is the month of savings. Today is Black Friday and a lot of people will be hitting the stores early for impressive deals, mostly on electronic items. You might choose to be included in this, which is fine, but I'd advise against it if you're going for musical equipment. Unless you have a great music store near to where you live which is offering Black Friday sales, you won't really find what you're looking for. Instead, Cyber Monday is your best bet. And here's why...
     Cyber Monday is the Monday after Black Friday, just after Thanksgiving in America. Cyber Monday is pretty much what it sounds like: Black Friday, only internet sales and on a Monday. This works well for buying music gear because there are some really great music websites that sell well below the MSRP, and, as they're online, more often than not, offer Cyber Monday deals. 
     With Cyber Monday, it's important to note that you'll rarely find exactly what you're searching for at a specific site. Instead, I'll recommend you search general websites such as or even These sites are collectives of many individuals and companies alike offering Cyber Monday discounts. in particular offers an interesting service. If you look up a specific good you're searching for, they give you websites which are offering sales on that item, or similar items. 
     This is really all I have to write on this, as anything further should be discovered for yourself. I highly recommend checking this out before and during Cyber Monday, especially if you're in the market for new gear. 
     Happy hunting!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Plugged In

Online Jam Sessions


     Ever since I saw a piece of an ad for an online jam session, I've been looking around for further information. The concept that one such as myself might plug in a mic and jam with strangers in other countries intrigues me greatly. In my 'research' into this subject, I found one website which has been building a reputation among music enthusiasts and amateurs alike. The site is called Online Jam Sessions, and it has been working independently towards uniting musicians worldwide.
     If you visit their site, you can read up on their mission statement and FAQ's. With these, and some browsing, you'll start to piece together, as I did, what it is OJS is all about. OJS (short for Online Jam Sessions) offers ways to spread recordings through the internet, and to play live with other musicians worldwide, with potentially any instrument(s). They suggest that you can use any mic to do this, but I would suggest getting a better mic (see my post on music tech) so that, if you have any issues, you can be pretty sure your sound quality isn't one of them. I'm sure it takes a fair amount of fiddling and tweeking to get your audio settings as well as your internet settings optimally set for live streaming, but it al makes good practice for later recordings.
     However, what gives me the greatest hope is a small experiment I tried somewhat recently where I played music over Skype, on my phone no less, for a friend and fellow musician in Tunisia. Even though I was playing into a small phone mic and was connected across an ocean, the sound quality was fine (not great, but pretty good, considering). Given these aspects, if I were to have a Yeti Blue and a good internet connection, and probably a set of over-ear monitors, OJS could provide a pretty good platform for me, and any of you interested, to jam with others worldwide.
     But don't take my word for it: if you're interested, click the link above, or below, and check out their page. They offer a free membership, with a few paid membership options with further features.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Live Jams

When Your Jam Really

Comes Alive

     I realised recently that I've mentioned 'live jams' a lot lately, both in my blog and to people in conversation, and in both cases I recalled afterwords that some people might not know exactly what live jams are. You might know what a jam is, or a jam session, in the realm of music. Simply, it is an informal get-together where musicians play (usually improvised jazz).
     Jam sessions are what I do most of the time. In fact, I like to do them often, and I usually like to play in minor blues keys. Every time I'm playing in these jam sessions, I'm always trying to play new riffs and licks, and change my styling slightly, as these sessions are usually good places to learn. I jam sometimes just with one other saxophonist, or sometimes I jam with a whole bunch of musicians. The other day I had a drummer, two other saxophonists, a bassist, and myself all collaborating in an informal session. Generally the rule is, or so I say, that you can do just about anything in a jam session if it's only you and a drummer (which I say to people besides drummers, obviously). By this I mean that, as a saxophonist, I can play in any key, in any mode, and as crazy as I want, because there isn't anyone else to intonate with or to play to, other than the rhythm laid out by the drummer.
I'm sorry, I had to...
     Jam sessions are good places to learn, as I said, but more simply, they're loads of fun. If you're really feeling the music, you might find yourself doing some wild lines. For these reasons and more, I'm sure, I really enjoy holding jam sessions as often as I do. On the other hand though, I do them so often that I find I may not have a knowledge of many other pre-established songs (for covers), or opportunity for composition of my own. Therefore, when I'm faced with a potential gig, be it paid or not, I find it easiest to say that I'll perform a live jam, which generally is pretty exciting, as there aren't a terrible many who still do this (most common are blues guitarists and other blues artists).
     Now for the meaning of it all: a live jam is a jam session done- wait for it... ...! Yes, a live jam is a rather informal improvisation group that plays for an audience. It may sound pretty unorganized, but trust me- the musicians know what they're doing. Even if they make a comparatively big 'mistake', nobody in the audience would even know, and if they did, any jazz musician would call such a 'mistake' part of their line. I've done this sort of thing, formally and not, dozens of time. In many ways, it's more fun than a normal jam session, because- after all -music is meant to be shared.
     So do be on the look out for live jams, either at festivals or on the internet: they're a lot of fun to watch as well as participate in, and if you ever have the opportunity to participate in one, take it! Live jams will make you a much better musician.

Monday, November 12, 2012


A Need for New Rhythm

     What little I've been able to play of music lately has been out in the cold with my very competent musician brother. Between the two of us, we play soprano, alto, and tenor saxophone. It's surprisingly difficult to play something with drive and a solid rhythm with just two saxophones and no drummer or even pianist. We practice so much though, so we've grown the ability to carry on some really funky jams and beats without a drummer. While we are very good with a drummer, we can play to some good degree without. 
     Lately, the two of us have been reading each other's 'moves' so well, that people passing by tend to think that we're playing arranged pieces, while, in truth, we're just improving our way through a rough jam/practice. The rhythms we have been doing have started to all blend, unfortunately. We seem to be stuck in a rather interesting one, in fact. We do a lot of tenor/soprano and alto/alto jams, and most every time, we have played to a sort of shuffle beat. By this I mean that we do a lot of double tonguing, grace and ghost notes, and other articulation techniques to keep this sort of shuffle. It makes for a really funky jam, and is always fun, but we run into the common problem of not venturing to other different sounding riffs, lines, and melodies. Knowing us, we probably wont change much in these particular sessions, as it's mostly our form of nonchalant practice, but given that we may have a live-jam show opportunity coming up, we may want to learn five to ten different styles for such an occasion. 
     I suppose, as I'm learning through this, there's a lesson as well for you to take from this: simply put, don't do the same things every time you play. The real challenge is to try and do something new every time you play (as, of course, a really good form of practice). I do this a lot. Even when I do live-jams, I try and challenge myself, because if I do, and I get really into the playing, I get very good, and so will you if you try this. The thing I need to do now is to try to do rhythms other than a straight shuffle.

Friday, November 9, 2012


A Bad Situation

     I wanted to get a quick word in, through this post, to be sure that everyone who is keeping with Musician's Road knows that I haven't forgotten about the blog; I've been unable to write posts for nearly two weeks due to hurricane Sandy and some early winter storms that have been knocking out power all over the east coast of the United States. I do have power now, but I have been working a lot to help clear many of the downed trees in the area, leaving me with little time to play music, let alone blog about it. 
     I wanted to assure everybody that I do intend to continue writing, probably starting this coming Monday, and that, given the situation, it may be time to bring in a guest writer next week. Please, be patient as I get my  page back up and running.

I would also like to thank the Red Cross and all other organizations  groups, and individuals helping in these devastated areas. I would like, as well, to give my best wishes to all affected by these storms. I hope that this disaster won't silence all the wonderful musicians, both young and old, in the east here in the United States. 

Stay safe, everyone, and I'll see you next time!