the jazz authority; random dubiously zappy rants about 'the musicians music'.: SAXOPHONE TECHNIQUE

Thursday, May 19, 2005



You asked for it. Now I'm gonna bring it. Below are some more advanced insights, but hey, anyone can use this info.

Let's assume that you are already solid on a number of subjects; scales in all keys (major & minor), basic chord progressions (see below)...
II- / V7 / I Maj
III- / VI7 / II- / V7 / I Maj
III- / bIII7 / II- / bII7 / I Maj
Also blues progressions, rhythm changes, various standards, cycle of fourths, etc.

Now, you should be able to play some basic patterns over these progressions. For example, on each chord play the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 5th degree notes of that chord/scale ( over C Maj, play C D E G ) in eighth notes. Hopefully you have worked out some more advanced patterns – like 1st, 6th, 3rd, 2nd, or 2nd, 1st, 5th, 3rd or various arpeggios– and applied them to specific changes over some of your favorite songs.

Above are just a couple of basic improvisatory techniques and with them under your fingers you can actually go a long way. See, most people are too lazy to sit down and work that stuff out. Rarely do we see a cat that's so dedicated that he's gobbled up everything he can regarding improv techniques. Of course, there is such a thing as practicing something TOO much, and we should get into that now.

With patterns and scales we can tend to lose sight of the main objective – good technique and good solos. While we want to have this stuff down, only a small fraction of our practice routine should be devoted to it (unless of course we don't know this stuff at all – then it's time to play catch up and really focus on it for a few months). If you are a classical player you should still learn the above exercises, as it's important for any musician to know the ins and outs of chord/scale relationships. If you're an improviser you will need to learn this stuff and promptly forget it. Yes, you need to memorize it, be able to fly through it at lightning fast tempos, and then stop practicing it. Why? Because if you don't, you'll just be another mechanical soloist, spouting scales and patterns on stage with no logic or flow, and you'll die old and alone.
Seriously, this is where a lot of cats go wrong – young and old alike. What do you think you'll play on stage if you've been practicing patterns like this over and over for years? That's right – you'll play patterns. Of course this is no excuse to skip this material. I've known guys to say, “hey, I don't want to sound mechanical, so I ain't gonna learn that garbage. I want my music to flow.” Unfortunately, they usually sound like they're lost when blowing, as if they're ill prepared to cope with the realities of improvising. Like I said before; learn the stuff inside out, and promptly forget it.


You were wondering when I was going to get to the good stuff, eh? Well you won't believe how simple it is. There are only three things you need to do to greatly improve your playing, and you have probably already heard of all of them. The trick is to know how to practice them right. Ready for it?

Transcriptions, long tones and overtones. No, I'm not kidding. Mastering these three things will put you at the top of your game, and people will actually want to listen to you. Below is how you can do it right...

Transcriptions. Let's sum it up first. You listen to a solo over and over until your ears bleed, memorizing every little nuance to the point that you can sing it when you aren't listening to it. Then you get out your horn and try to play along with it, messing up along the way, but getting a rough idea of what they're doing so you can more easily map it out. At this stage it's important to isolate a few key points and lift them by ear, memorizing them. This is the secret to transcriptions. Any one of us can sit down and cop a solo note for note on paper, but then what do we have? A solo on paper – not in our heads. In order to really learn a solo, we need to memorize it first – then write it down.

So here you are with some of your solo memorized, and the remainder firmly etched in you mind. Now sit down with your paper and write the whole thing out. You've got it on paper now, so you can actually play along note for note with the recording. Do this a few times to get the timing down right. That's the first part. Now memorize the whole thing if you haven't already (if you don't want to that's fine). Next, you should pick one or two riffs and learn them in a few keys. That's how to transcribe, and you can be more or less thorough, depending on how much you want to get out of it.

Long Tones. I'm not joking around here. How do you rate your sound? Great tone quality, eh? Well, record yourself much? You should. After getting over the initial shock and residual depression of hearing yourself recorded, you should start practicing your long tones. When I was a teenager my sax teacher hipped me to this and I never looked back. He said, “you can fly through changes like a stunt plane, but if your tone is crap, no one will hear it- all they'll hear is lousy sound.” He was right. Now you know WHY you should do it, so let's look at HOW to do it.
Take a deep breathe and blow a note in your middle register at a steady volume for as long as you can keep it steady. Now do the same on a bell tone, and up high too. These are basic long tones that will steady your sound. Next, play low, mid range and high notes with dynamics. Start quiet, gradually increase your volume, and taper off at the end back to the volume you started at. The length of time it takes to get to maximum volume should be the same as the time it takes to get quiet. This is harder than it sounds. Steady your tone! Do long tones at the end of your practice, not the start – you'll blow out your embouchure right away if you don't save it for the end. Seriously gang, this doesn't need to be a pain in the butt – you can have fun with this stuff, It's important to do, and your ability to play for longer periods will improve.

Overtones. There's more to this than you think. Try to plaY a low Bb, and then tighten your mouth so the note skips up an octave. Get the note to skip up to the F above, then the high Bb. If you can, get it all the way up to palm F. Now start with the low Bb fingering but blow a high Bb of the top. Can't? Then just the F. Try tone matching, where you blow the mid F with proper fingering and without articulating or stopping switch to the low Bb fingering. Do this on low Bb, B, C, and C# – all the bell tones. Try to get the pitch and tone to match with the actual notes on your horn. Your sound will open up and your ability to really nail your notes in all registers confidently will improve. You can make up your own exercises eventually, but that's beyond what I'm giving you here.

So there you go. That should keep you busy for a few months.

Any questions?


Michael J. West said...

Re: Transcriptions--

Wow. As a non-musician I never quite realized the kind of deep-tissue listening work you have to do as a jazz musician. I mean, learning the SOLOS by heart...I am currently in a serious study of Ornette's Atlantic albums, and it takes me 2-3 months to learn each album. And I'm not even learning the solos. I'm learning the written melodies!

Admittedly it's probably a bit easier to learn when you can read music and know the basic melodic figures and chord transitions. But from a layman's perspective...geez, it must be exhausting to learn, for example, any single Bird record.

Cameron W said...