Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Lock It Down- Success....Simplified.

We all have goals....

   Some are lofty, some not so lofty, and some exist only in our dreams (I'm never going to be the reincarnation of Cannonball Adderley and perform with Miles...). However, we have them and are usually looking for ways to achieve them. Often, these dreams are also the source of our greatest frustrations. How do we get there? How do we achieve what our heart so badly wants to achieve?

  The answer is simple....but not easy...

  We lock down fundamentals to the point where we can get out of our own way and do what we want to do with our instrument.

I know...I know....

  Some are you are already saying 'but....but...I already do scales. I already do long tones. I already do etudes!'

 Ok, do you 'do' them or do you approach them with the same mindset that you would your dream concerto?

 You see, so much of what we do in the practice room ends up being 'instrumentalist on auto-pilot'. Yeah, we do scales. Yeah, we do long tones. Yeah, we do articulation work. How much effort do we REALLY put into these things, though?

"Thought of the Day: In music, it can all come down to whether or not you love practicing your scales." - Dr. Timothy McAllister

 Now, I don't know about ALL but he isn't far off here. You MUST give the fundamental work as much love an attention as you do your favorite lit.

 So you do long tones? Really? Can you play the lowest note on the horn with as wide a dynamic range and as in tune as you can the top note on your horn? Is there a significant difference in timbre? Do you have the control needed to play anything in the lit?

  So you do scales? Really? Are your scales at 120 bpm as smooth and even as they are at 60 bpm? How about 130....150....200? How about 3rds, 4ths, arpeggios, whole tone? You get the idea.

 Now, I freely admit, this is an area that I'm working on as well. I must. If I am to play the literature which I really desire to play (and play it at a level which will leave jaws on the floor).

Fundamentals never stop being cool. Don't do them because your teacher tells you. Do them because if you are going to take the time to learn an instrument then take the time to REALLY learn it.

Approach fundamentals from that place of joy and discovery. See just how far you can take things. More importantly, notice how much easier your literature becomes when you become a certified 'CHOP MONSTER'.

Turn on the metronome and the drone. Get your scale book out.


Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The Morning After- Dealing With Performances Which Don't Go Your Way.


 UNLV's Saxophone Studio Recital was last night and, well.....

....things could have gone better on my end.

I walked off stage feeling as if my performance of Ibert's Concertino da Camera would have Jacques spinning in his grave for a few days. I did the right things as far as stage etiquette: Smiled, acknowledged my collaborative pianist, bowed....but...

inside I was screaming "WHAT JUST HAPPENED?!"

I walked off stage, into the green room, and just sunk my head into my hands. I was nauseous, I wanted to cry, I wanted to apologize to the audience for what they had to endure.

So what happened?

This is new territory for me.....not having an off performance, but the reason why. I had almost paralyzing performance anxiety last night. I couldn't breath. My hands were shaking so badly that they almost fell off the horn.

I'm the same guy who, at concerto competition finals back at my alma mater just 18 months ago, was winking at his accompanist in the middle of a performance and was on stage to remind everyone else that they were competing for second place. I OWNED the stage.

Now, my current performance anxiety issue isn't the point of this blog. That's a journey for Mark McArthur (my major professor) and me to navigate. The point is, things didn't go the way I wanted them to and you know what?

The sun still rose this morning.

So, what do you do in a situation like this? It's time to work things out in your head...

WAS IT AS BAD AS YOU (or in this case, I ), thought?
Probably not. In fact, if memory serves, the lyrical sections from last night were actually pretty darned good.

It doesn't even define you for the rest of the week. No one remembers the games where Michael Jordan went 2-20. They remember the games where he dropped 50 points on someone. This is a journey. This likely won't be your last performance.

What happened? WHY did it happen? Is there a pedagogical thing which can be done to lessen the chance of it happening again? Were you simply not prepared? Were you being stubborn about some things. In my case, though I knew better, one of the problems was that the back of my mind had be set on playing the work at the suggested performance tempo because I'm a grad student and I should be able to do that, right? WRONG. I'd only had the piece for a month or so and only gotten three rehearsals with my pianist.

Listen with peers and/or your teacher after the wounds have subsided a bit. Allow yourself to be objective.

We're all going to have bad days at the office. We're all going to be sickened by them. What we cannot allow is for a bad performance to become an anchor which continually weighs us down. Shake it off, pick yourself up, and promise yourself that the next one will be better.

This is a journey. If you journey far enough you'll have your fair share of bumps and bruises. The journey makes those scars worth it, though.

My next solo performance will have jaws on the floor. I promise you that. More importantly, I promise ME that.

Friday, October 20, 2017

The Non-Negotiables for Wind Player Success.


  I'm preparing to dive down into the orchestra pit for a three performance run of Prokofiev's wonderful ballet Romeo and Juliet. Before I do, though, I wanted to share some thoughts with you.

  You see, one of the cool things I get to do at UNLV is perform in the Wind Orchestra under the direction of Maestro Tom Leslie. Maestro Leslie is a big name in the field and has even been president of the American Bandmasters' Association. One of the things that I noticed when receiving the syllabus to the Wind Orchestra was a list from Maestro Leslie called his 'Non-negotiables'. It was basically a list of rules which, when implemented by the ensemble, would all but guarantee the highest level of performance and success. Here's the list:

 They make perfect sense, don't they?

It got me thinking "Great! These are good rules for an ensemble but how about for the rest of the day? What are steadfast rules which will all but guarantee success and growth for the wind player?" Well, here's what I came up with....


  1. Do some form of practice daily (I include score study, critical listening, visualization, and active recovery in with this. Giving your chops a day off every week isn't a bad idea)
  2. Do long tones, overtone work, mouthpiece work, etc EVERY practice session.
  3. Do scales, arpeggios, scale fragments, or patterns and articulation work EVERY practice session.
  4. Sight read as often as possible.
  5. Use a metronome in EVERY practice session.
  6. Use a tuner in EVERY practice session (By tuner I mean a drone or some sort of fixed pitch. You cannot learn to tune with your eyes).
  7. Play with people better than you as often as possible. (This is a big one.)
  8. Perform as often as possible.
  9. Approach the practice room from a place of joy, gratitude, and curiosity. If it feels like a grind, pack up your horn and come back later. Your mindset is wrong.
  10. Learn active recovery techniques. What we do is in fact a physical activity and repetitive use injuries are real and debilitating. You want to be able to do this for the rest of your life, right?
  11. Learn Alexander Technique, body mapping, or some other method of proper alignment and set up to minimize the chance of injury and maximize playing enjoyment.
  12. Record yourself often. Listen later so you can be objective.
  13. Video yourself often. Look for hitches in your alignment, set up, embouchure, etc.
  14. Tell them you want the gig, then SHOW them you want the gig.
  15. Learn to market yourself as a performer not from a place of arrogance but from quiet confidence and professionalism.
  16. ALWAYS be professional on the stage and in rehearsal.
  17. Maintain balance. Find a non musical hobby. We all need a way to 'get away' mentally.
  18. Learn to say 'no' when you need to. 
  19. LISTEN LISTEN LISTEN- Find the best musicians in the world, not necessarily on your instrument, and listen constantly. 
  20. HAVE FUN- If you aren't enjoying it, then why are you doing it?

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Thoughts for my Saxo-buddies (Relevant for other folks, too)

I got a message yesterday.

  The youngster in question asked me what music I recommended for developing saxophonists. As I was listing some, he messaged something like "Ugh, etudes? I was hoping you'd give me some solos!'..

  Well, my young Padawan, what do you think etudes are?

   Is this a failing on the part of the student? Absolutely not! I think that, as educators, we are too quick to not put etudes into the same category as the most popular sonatas and concertos. It's MUSIC. In fact, how many pieces of our standard lit (and even lit that most cannot play.....Thanks, Mr. Lauba!) began as etudes? One of the most standard pieces in our literature, Bozza's Improvisation and Caprice, began life in an etude book!

  Who here would pay money for a recording of, say, Taimur Sullivan playing through all 48 of the Ferling Etudes? Were that recording to happen my response would be "SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONEY!".

  It's MUSIC! A lot of is is actually really well written music! These composers wrote things for saxophone. We need to show them the same respect and reverence as Ibert, Glazunov, Albright, and the rest!

  Conversely, there is nothing whatsoever wrong with taking a piece of music and using it as an etude. My professor, Mark McArthur, currently has me using Berio Sequenza IX as a 'study piece'. Why? Well, one example would be about five measures in. Mr. Berio expects the player to hold a low B at PP for 10 seconds (yes, he lists the note held for that time frame). You think mastering that won't help my control? My air? Make me a better player?

So, back to the original point, what music did I recommend for the youngster?

Ferling 48 Famous Studies - This is the 'standard' edition of this text. There is an edition done by the esteemed saxophone virtuoso, Marcel Mule, which features an enharmonic variant on the etudes. It's pricey but excellent. One really cannot go wrong with either, though.

Trent Kynaston Daily Studies for Saxophone- This is basically fundamentals 'boot camp' for saxophonists. It covers scales, scale variants, arpeggios, long tones, intervals, articulation, and other aspects of playing. It's my go to recommendation for scales until Doug Owens gets his scale book published (hint hint DOUG!)

Marcel Mule Etudes - I'm just listing an example here. ANY of his studies are useful.

Larry Teal- The Art of Saxophone Playing - This is, I believe, the first book anyone should get when they begin playing the saxophone. This is THE how to.

Klose 25 Daily Exercises (ed. McAllister) - Another great set of etudes, edited by one of THE guys in the field right now.

Don Sinta Voicing: An Approach to the Saxophone's Third Octave  - I considered Racher's Top Tones here as well. I just find the Sinta's book more direct and to the point....kinda like Mr. Sinta...

U.S. Army Field Band - The Saxophone Standard - Boys and girls, this is the greatest value in saxophone education. It's FREE. There is hundreds if not thousands of dollars worth of information here.

These are just a small sampling. There are tons of others. I didn't even list any of the myriad of jazz studies which are available.

Just remember, treat etudes and fundamentals with the same reverence as the biggest concerto and listen to yourself grow! Get after it!

Monday, October 9, 2017

Old Dog, New Tricks- Bringing Your Practice Routine into the 21st Century.

This is an entry which probably should begin with 'Back in my day'...

This is a statement which, to me, is akin to 'You kids get off my lawn!'.

Having said that, years ago, when I was a young performance major at Memphis, a metronome was this thing with a big pendulum style arm and a dial in the back for winding it up. A tuner? Usually the old 'Strobe-O-Conn' , which was about 25 lbs and had a 1940s style microphone. If your program was lucky they MIGHT have a 'Doctor Beat' metronome somewhere. Oh, computers? Yeah, unless you had a Commodore 64 plugged into your TV,  the average computer ran about $2500.

Times have changed a bit, huh? Shouldn't the way we use technology in the practice room change as well?

Now, I am in NO WAY suggesting that effective practice routines should be changed. My favorite pedagogical statement is 'Fundamentals never stop being cool'. Long tones are long tones. Scales, arpeggios, and patterns are still just as important now as they were when Mozart was composing. Articulation studies have as much merit as they always have. What I'm talking about, however, is using the current level of technology to better understand needs and how we progress in the practice room.

Many of my readers don't really remember the days before cell phones and even smart phones have been around for a decade or so now (WOW!). That is some serious world changing technology, isn't it? Yes, they're great for showing the dumb thing you just did on Snapchat but can also be a great tool in the practice room. To this end, most (I think) music students have some form of metronome/tuner installed on their phone. Fabulous. Let's discuss one in particular and the instant feedback it can provide.

It was just about this time last year that I had a grad school audition here at UNLV and my professor, Mark McArthur (Has it been a year?! WOW!) At the time I was using an app called 'Tunable'. It's a really well done metronome/tuner app. However, Mark turned me on to one called Tonal Energy. Tonal Energy did everything Tunable could do plus one BIG feature. It has a a spectrum analyzer where you can actually see what's happening when you play. Ok, first things first. I'm a big believer in the fact that you shouldn't use the visual aspect of a tuner very much. As the esteemed former sax professor at Michigan, Don Sinta, was fond of saying - "You don't tune with your eyes". Therefore, I believe in doing long tones, and even scales, with a drone. One cool feature of tonal energy is that it allows you to not only play against a drone, but do so with multiple pitches. For example, were you to use a C scale as a long tone exercise, you could set the tuner to drone a C and G; therefore giving you not only the tonic (C) but the dominant (G, the 5th scale degree) to tune against. It makes those ears work a bit harder.

Ok, back to the spectrum analyzer. This part gets a bit more involved, as it will require two phones, or a phone and a tablet. I use both a small iphone as well as an Ipad mini. I know the Ipad is a bit pricy for a lot of students. For this purpose, I recommend you look at the Kindle Fire. The Fire HD starts at $50 and will allow use of the Tonal Energy App.

Ok, plug some headphones in to the tablet and have it play the drone. Set the phone's Tonal Energy app to the spectrum analyzer feature. Watch what's happening? How quickly did you find the pitch? How steady was your sound? These are things the spectrum analyzer will show you. It shows progress but it also makes it impossible to ignore any potential issues.

Last night I took three screen shots of my use of the Tonal Energy app. The first was my alto mouthpiece pitch of a concert A. The second, articulation work. The third, I did a vibrato study as someone who was just beginning to learn vibrato might do. Here's what they look like.

First, the mouthpiece pitch:

As you can see, keeping the pitch steady and the air steady wasn't easy. It's a work in progress for even advanced players. (I know someone will notice that the pitch listed is F#. I had the tuner set for alto. It's another cool feature). I had a concert a droning through headphones.

Next, the articulation work:

Four quarters, eight eighths, sixteen sixteenths. Not bad, but I could make it more even. The visual really shows the detail of what I did, doesn't it? Note, I had the metronome on my phone playing through headphones so it wouldn't affect the analysis. The one downside of the app is that the spectrum analyzer picks up every sound; even that coming from the app itself.

Finally, a youngster learning vibrato:

The overall tone appears nice and full. However, the green line in the middle should be a steady pulse going from slightly below the pitch and back up to the pitch. In other words, it should resemble a sine wave. Something like this:

Now, I have no affiliation whatsoever with Tonal Energy. I just find that the more I use it in the practice room, the better some of the fine details of my playing become. It's $3.99 at the moment and if you get it for one device, you actually can download it on all of your devices.

Take your fundamental work and use technology for instant feedback on where you are and what you need to address....


Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Perception, Reality, and the Practice Room: Why Your Practice Routine Stinks.


.....so to be honest, I have no idea if your practice routine stinks or not; nor will I be able to impart some magical practice schedule to suddenly make you a virtuoso. In fact, this blog will address a certain crowd. It's a club to which I used to be a member.

To which club do I refer?

It's the 'I stink, everything's terrible, why can't I play this, everything is horrible, I'm never going to get any better club'.

I freely admit, when I returned to school to restart my music degree, I was a terror in the practice room....terror to myself that is. I grunted, signed, yelled, cussed, and....on one occasion, kicked my case across a rehearsal hall so hard that it scared several people.

What on earth did I hope to accomplish with this? What possible good was I doing myself? Unfortunately, I'll bet several of you reading this blog have acted in the past or continue to act in a similar manner. Look, let's be real here. This behavior is just plain dumb.

Banging your head against the wall only gives one a headache. It does nothing to the wall and besides, the whole 'tortured artist' thing is played out. If you're doing this because you believe that this is part of how an 'artist' should act with some misplaced passion, just stop. Seriously. Stop.


Is that clear enough?

If you walk in the practice room with the attitude of 'I'm never going to get that passage right' or 'This isn't going to be very good' then your best course of action is to turn around, go have your pity party somewhere, and come back when you have the right mindset.

What IS the right mindset?

Gee, I'm glad you asked, loyal reader.  The right mindset involves a combination of science lab and child's playtime.


Ok, let me fill the gaps in that statement. Remember being a kid and playing. Let's say you were swimming. Child you decides "I'm going to swim from this point to that point underwater. Ohhhh, I didn't quite make it. Let me try to take a bigger breath and push off harder with my legs! YAY!!! I made it!"

What we often did as kids when we were playing was, in a zero pressure environment, figure out how stuff worked and, just as importantly, what doesn't work. We just need to transfer that mindset to the practice room.

"So you mentioned something about a science lab?"

Oh yeah, thanks again loyal reader. Here's what I mean about the science lab. What you were doing when 'figuring stuff out' as a kid was simply a rudimentary form of experimentation. What do the folks in science labs do? Exactly. Here's why I mentioned both-

You take the child like curiosity and enthusiasm and add the documentation of scientific experimentation. Write things down. What works? What doesn't? How did something feel? Most importantly, though, make practice into playtime. "Ok, I hit that low C at piano...I wonder if I tweaked my airstream this way if I could play it at pianissimo?" Make it a fun activity....BECAUSE IT'S SUPPOSED TO BE ONE!

"Well what happens when nothing is working?"

There are those days, huh? You're tired, you can't focus, or things just aren't coming together for some reason. There are a few options. 1: Put that activity aside and work on something else. Hit it again when your mind is fresh. 2: Go get some water and walk around for a few minutes to reset your brain a bit. 3: If it's a REALLY bad day, pack up your instrument and walk away. Explain why to your teacher, if need be, and assure them that you're hitting it again later (and then actually do!).

All fields of study have frustrations. You should absolutely try to limit yours. What we do is a joyous thing. We are part of a long and very prestigious tradition. Have fun. Explore. Figure things out!

Ok, so the next part here has nothing to do with the previous subject. Full disclosure, I'm making a small change to the blog and becoming an Amazon Affiliate. What does this mean to you? Not a darned thing, really. There will be an Amazon Banner on the blog from now on and if I mention a product that's on Amazon, I'll link to their site. This does NOT mean I'm simply going to put products on the blog to make money. However, if I'm talking about reeds, music, etc and Amazon happens to carry them, I'll make a few bucks if someone clicks on the link and buys them. Otherwise, please continue to read and comment. It won't cost you a thing.