Friday, July 29, 2016

Leaving your ego at the door....and not for the reasons you'd expect

I love working summers at Interlochen:

    One of my favorite things to do here (and this is encouraged) is to just pull a chair and stand out under a tree and go to work. The summers are mild for the most part and the North Michigan woods are just beautiful. For many folks, this would be terrifying beyond words because of the skill levels of the campers, faculty, and staff here. It used to be for me as well until I figured something out...

   I am not one of the most advanced saxophonists on staff here. We have grad assistance from major music programs, we have folks who are studying saxophone abroad. I am pretty good and getting better but there are folks way above my level here (and that isn't even mentioning folks like Drs McAllister and Shemon, who have been here this summer). So, why do I now enjoy practicing out doors when these folks, as well as ridiculously skilled high school kids (who have a penchant for talking trash about people they hear) are walking by and hearing me?

  The first day I decided to practice outdoors was last summer on a particularly warm day.  I just couldn't find a practice hut which didn't feel like a sauna finally said "To heck with it, I'm finding a shady spot and going!". I was absolutely petrified at first....almost sick to my stomach. Over time, though, I began to realize something and it relaxed me quite a bit because I stopped caring so much that people were hearing me and might hear me make mistakes or play something which sounded bad.

  As I came back this summer, my first days to practice outside were still a little nerve wracking as it was 'Institute Week' here and the sax professors from Michigan, UMKC, Arizona, and Northwestern were all here. I made a point, though, to remind myself of what I had realized last year. That is:

  I have a senior recital this fall and grad school auditions following that. NO ONE hearing me has any effect on either my senior recital or those grad school auditions. NO ONE hearing me is going to hire me or not hire me based on what they are hearing me do as I sit under a tree; metronome clicking away. In short-

Whether they hear me or not has no effect whatsoever on my schooling or career as a saxophonist and educator...

   Once I figured that out, outdoor practice became easy.

    Of course, I still worry about sounding good but not because I'm worried about anyone walking by. I'm worried about sounding good because I always worry (worry isn't the right word here, maybe focus) on playing in tune and with the best sound I can possibly make. That, however, is for my own development and not to impress passers by. Remember that music is a very subjective field and what sounds good to you might not sound so great to others. There are big name saxophonists who I respect the heck out of but wouldn't choose to listen to because I simply don't like their sound or the way they play.

    So, some of you immediately thought- "You just said in two sentences that there are saxophone professors up there and then that your playing outside has no impact on your schooling or career". You're right, there are professors here and they do hear me if they happen to walk by but I have a pretty simple response there....If they decide they wouldn't choose for me to study with them based on what they hear when I'm playing scales or arpeggios under a tree, then their studio isn't where I need to be studying anyway!

   The moral of the story, folks, is this- We are all works in progress. Don't worry about being any more or less talented than anyone else. Don't worry about who hears you practice. Just worry about practicing.

Step by step
Day by day
Ever forward
Get it done!

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Practice vs Preparation and why the boring stuff is so important

Greetings from the 89th season of Interlochen Arts Camp!

  One of the really cool perks of working up here in the summer is the decades old Sunday night tradition of a performance of the World Youth Symphony Orchestra (WYSO). These are high school age musicians who are among the very best in the world for their age (or, in some cases, ANY age). This summer we've been treated to orchestral masterpieces such as Stravinsky's Firebird, Hindemith's Symphonic Metamorphosis, and Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, among others. These young musicians have six days to put together an hour long concert each week; usually with a new conductor! They do it on a level that leaves me floored each and every week........and I know how they do it!
  Ok, sure, they are really talented but after a certain point the phrase 'well, that person is just really talented' is just a cop out and, frankly, should be a bit insulting to the person in question. These young musicians can do what they are doing through one avenue. They park themselves in front of a stand and they WORK. Sure, I hear excerpts from the pieces they are going to perform but the majority of what I hear is fundamental work; scales, arpeggios, long tones, and every other facet of pedagogy that helps us play.


  Were you to watch the buildup to the NFL or NBA drafts you would hear scouting reports on the athletes and, invariably, would hear the phrase 'holes in their game'. If you play basketball a hole in your game might be that you aren't the strongest rebounder. It's a facet of your game that needs improving. The best way to improve that facet is not to just go play more basketball but to do drills specific to learning to be a better rebounder; positioning, boxing out, timing the jump, things like that. The same goes for music.

  As even the best athletes have holes in their game, so do even the best musicians. Some, over time, become so highly skilled that none of us would notice these holes....but they still do. They notice it when they are preparing music to perform. You see, the parts that are difficult for them to prepare indicate areas where their skills haven't been as well developed yet. With some modern composers it may be a weakness because the piece requires a technique which is new to the performer. Other times, though, it's simply an area that hasn't had as much development yet; ergo, a hole in their game.

So, what's the simplest way to correct these 'holes'?

C'mon, you already know the answer. It involves your instrument, a metronome and tuner, time, and patience.

First, let's establish the difference between PRACTICE and PREPARATION. It's pretty simple.

  PRACTICE involves work with no expiration date; meaning you'll be doing them as long as you play the instrument (or, more to the point, you'd BETTER be doing them)- scales, long tones, scale patterns, etc. It is anything that is helping to make you better at your instrument. For younger players, these should all be given equal weight. As a player advances, they should still practice these fundamentals but there might be situations where specificity becomes involved. This means at a certain point a person might decide that their  tongue is still a bit sluggish and add extra articulation exercises or, a person might feel that their sound is still not as full as they'd like so long tones and voicing is emphasized a bit more. Regardless, practice is basically all those things your teacher wants you to do that you want to make excuses about doing....until those holes really start to show themselves..... when you are preparing a senior recital and those holes present themselves to you daily in the practice room.

   Herein lies PREPARATION. It is working on something that has a due date; a recital, an audition, a concerto competition, semester juries. It's anything that you know on this date had better be ready. I'm going through that preparation for my senior recital as we speak and that early October date is looming large in the windshield.

   I don't mind mentioning at all that I went through a good bit of my youth believing that if I simply got my sound good enough, everything else would fall into place. I didn't need those stupid scales and patterns. I would just work on the music and over time my technique would just magically improved. Yeah, so that isn't how it works AT ALL.

   I see those holes even after a few years of hard fundamental work. I especially see them on the last two pages of Ingolf Dahl's Concerto; which is solid 16th notes with a performance tempo of about 152 beats per second. I'm getting it ready. I'm preparing it for my recital. I can just tell you that the preparation would be considerably easier had, years ago, I addressed the holes in my game.

Make no mistake, you don't do long tones just to make a pretty sound in the practice room. You don't practice scales just so you can get them up to 120+ beats per minute. You do these things so that when it comes time to say what you want to say in a piece of music, regardless of whether it's a Bach Cello Suite, Creston's Sonata, or Giant Steps, you won't have a basic fundamental skill development issue blocking you from saying what you want to say in a piece. There are few things more frustrating to a musician than not being able to get what's in their head out for the audience to experience because the musician simply isn't good enough; skill wise.

This takes us, once again, back to why the WYSO kids are so much better than the average high school musician. It isn't talent. It's hard practice on the basic skills needed to take care of the holes in their game.

Get in the practice room.
Do the work.
Take care of those holes.
Become a star!


Friday, July 8, 2016

On a Happier Thought, let's talk about GEAR!

Man, saxophonists are often like guitarists...we love our toys.

We (and I am guilty of this) often a romantic notion about the new 'best' mouthpiece, horn, or whatnot or 'If I could just get THIS horn' it would make it all better. It's true, talking about and trying new pieces of gear can be fun and exciting and sometimes you end up finding something that can help....

.....but that isn't really what I'm going to talk about FIRST. I'm going to talk about what you (and your students, band directors) need to do PRIOR to making the decision that "I need new gear" or "I need my student to get a better horn".

First- Inspect the current instrument, mouthpiece, etc. Are they in good working order? Is the mouthpiece chipped anywhere? Is the table flat? Are the rails straight? Look at the horn- Are their obvious leaks? How old are the pads? When was the last time the instrument has had an adjustment?

Second- Find a GOOD repair tech with a good reputation. I don't care if they don't work for whatever big music store is in your area. Develop a good working relationship with this person.

Third- Get the instrument looked at and set up properly. If need be, have it repadded or overhauled. A freshly overhauled Yamaha 23 is just as good, if not better, than any horn you could get for the price of the overhaul.

I know this sounds brainless but it's simply a  series  of steps that most folks don't think about

So, what if it is time to replace the mouthpiece or upgrade the horn?

The first logical upgrade is the saxophone's mouthpiece. It is up to the teacher more than the young player to determine when that is appropriate. I'm not going to really recommend specific brands here. I'm just going to say have the student try several and choose based on sound and comfort. If the student really struggles to play on the mouthpiece, it likely isn't the piece for them.

I said I wasn't going to recommend specific brands but will say this, most middle or early high school students don't need a jazz mouthpiece. Putting a jazz mouthpiece on a horn isn't going to give them a 'jazz' sound....or even usually a good sound. My one caveat to suggesting brands is this. If they insist on a jazz mouthpiece recommend the Rico Graftonite. They are usually less than $25, work pretty well, and since they are very durable appropriate for marching band as well. There, the kid gets a 'jazz' piece and their parents aren't out $200.

For younger students I'm also a fan of the Rovner style cloth ligatures. I'm not a fan of them for my own playing as I think they're really stuffy. That said, two points here: First, that's a nuance that middle school kids won't feel and Second: the middle school student is going to invariably either drop and step on his/her ligature and step on it or they are going to shove a metal ligature on their mouthpiece at an angle and kill their reed (reeds aren't cheap, kids). The cloth ligatures are pretty well 7th grader proof and inexpensive enough where a teacher can always have a few on hand.

So, it's time to upgrade that horn. This poses numerous and interesting possibilities :

The top level professional instruments from Selmer, Yamaha, Keilwerth , Yanigasawa, and Buffet are EXPENSIVE. You regularly see instruments from these companies checking in at over $4000. Here are some things I suggest.

USED: Selmer horns, as well as the upper models of the other companies I listed, hold their value pretty well. That said, you can generally find them in the $2-3000 range; sometimes cheaper. Some, like the early incarnations of the Yamaha 62s (the 'purple logo'), can be had for $1000-1500 with careful searching.

Vintage: There are some trade-offs with vintage instruments. On the minus side, ergonomics and intonation can sometimes be....'special'...and you need a repair tech who understands the older horns. On the plus side the prices can be fabulous and what is called a 'vintage horn' seems to be getting newer and newer. Some of my favorites for school band include Bueschers of most eras, Martin Committees (my favorite American made horns), Buffet Super Dynaction (good enough to carry a student through college as a sax major in my opinion) , the Vito 'Duke' model (actually a fine French made saxophone, and the Bundy 'Special' (which was made in the 60s by Keilwerth.

Intermediate models: I'm overall not a big fan of upgrading to intermediate horns with this exception- The Yamaha 52, 475, and 675 models are as good or better than many so-called 'pro' horns on the market. My current major professor uses a 475 soprano and it is simply an excellent instrument.

Asian horns: Ten years ago I wouldn't have made this statement- There are some excellent Asian lines of saxophones which will give the five brands I listed at the top a run for their money. Brands like Viking (Rich Maraday owns the company and is a good dude with great horns.), C.E. Winds(I've personally done business with them and they are great too), Chateau, Eastman, Tenor Madness, Theo Wanne, Cannonball, and a host of other brands are putting out excellent instruments. That end of the industry is simply getting better and better.

I know this is overly simplistic in many ways but I just wanted to put out a couple thoughts on I have ;)


Wednesday, July 6, 2016

What Not to do in Music......and Life.

Greetings from the Interlochen Arts Camp!

  I've been up here working all summer. When I'm not working I'm usually preparing a senior recital and trying to get literature ready for graduate school auditions. The practice set up at Interlochen Arts Camp is a bit different. There are practice huts instead of rooms and they are basically to keep the musician out of the elements; meaning there is no sound reinforcement and everyone hears everyone. While it can be distracting at times overall I believe it's an awesome thing. When practicing in these huts one hears not only some of the greatest young musicians in the world but awesome college and grad level musicians as well. Remember what I said about having great sounds in your ears? This is what I'm talking about.

THEN...this will occasionally happen.

   I was working on the Third movement of the Ingolf Dahl saxophone concerto yesterday. It, along with the Fuzzy Bird Sonata, are going to be the two 'heavy' pieces on my recital. The majority of work I have left to do is getting from the cadenza to the end of the movement up to performance tempo. My plan of action yesterday was just breaking it down into phrase length sections and working each at half tempo multiple times (I believe I have written about this as well). Before I did this, however, I realized it had been a few days since I'd played the rest of the movement so I went back to the beginning of the movement and began to run through it at just below performance tempo to get it back under my fingers. As I was doing this I saw someone walk by with a saxophone case on their back. They proceeded to go into the next cabin and I thought 'Oh cool! I'll hear another saxophone out here!'. I hear the person blow some notes and then go straight into the beginning of the 3rd movement of the Dahl; very loud and much faster than I was playing it. I thought to myself 'Not cool, man.' but proceeded to move to another section and slowly work through it. As soon as I would change sections, this person would too and again, loud and faster than I was playing it. Within a few minutes I didn't even feel like practicing anymore. This person was playing this piece at a tempo far beyond what I was capable of doing. It made me question why I was even bothering. It made me question my recital, whether or not I'd even get into grad school, and in short, everything about my playing. There was nothing pedagogical about what this person was doing. He was simply trying to win a 'biggest, baddest dude on the block' contest. He was marking his territory. He was being a bully.

   It worked. I was emotionally messed up for several hours. After a while, though, my emotions turned more to anger. I thought to myself "I have multiple grad school professors who want me to audition and attend their grad schools. I was the concerto competition winner at my school this year. The guy has great fingers but his sound sucked. What a total jerk for him to do that to me!"

   I believe one of the big problems we now have in school music is the fact that everything seems to be based on 'who's the best'. Marching competitions, honor bands, everything our young students learn about the rewards of playing is based on trophies and honor band patches on their band jackets. What this often leads to is people who can never seem to get out of this mindset. That, or they are just wannabe bullies. What people like this don't understand is this-

  I might be in a position to give this guy a job one day. Do you think this memory won't be etched into my mind? The only three things I know about this guy are that he works at Interlochen during the summer, he's a saxophonist, and he's a jerk who likes to show off. As my major professor says- 'Watch the bridges you burn.'. Well, buddy, you burned one.

As musicians, whether you are a middle school band student or the Concertmaster of the NY Phil, we should all be here to support each other and help each other continue to hone our respective crafts. Besides, we're all just people. Doesn't it just make more sense to be nice to others and not be the guy listed above?

Thanks for reading!