We all do 'do, re, mi,' but you have got to find the other notes yourself
I had planned to upgrade my student Yamaha 275 on passing my grade 4 exam. A kind of reward I thought. But having just scraped through to a pass and having looked at my options and the prices of pro altos, I had an epiphany. It occurred to me that there’s no point in getting a saxophone that plays way better than me.
So I did the next best thing, I got it serviced, which sorted out the leaks, especially in the lower register. Suddenly everything was a lot easier to play. I was lucky and found a great service place with a very experienced saxophone specialist.
The other important thing I learnt during this period was the importance of the mouth piece. Now there’s a whole science to this which I’m really not qualified to talk about yet. But luckily the chap that serviced my sax, took one look at my mouthpiece and immediately offered to sell me a used Selmer S80. Which I grabbed with both hands.
The Selmer mouthpiece has taken my sound to another level and I’m happy to wait a bit longer before I upgrade. So my advice to anyone starting off is to get your saxophone serviced and get a better mouthpiece before trading up.
If you are freaking out about having to learn your pitch interval, then fear not, it is definitely not magic. For years I used to think people either had perfect pitch or they didn’t and I mostly didn’t. Wrong!
Pitch Intervals were part of the Aural Test in my grade 4 sax exam and I totally freaked out when I heard I had to know them, until a friend uttered the word ‘mnemonics‘ in my ear. I managed to learn them all in a week and get a perfect score on my Aural test. So no excuses. What’s a Pitch Interval?
A pitch interval is the difference in frequency between two notes. This can be measured in semitones (half steps) but in music speak it goes like this -
Unison = Same Pitch
Minor 2nd = Difference of one semitone
Major 2nd = two semitones
Minor 3rd = 3 semitones
Major 3rd = 4 semitones
Perfect 4th = 5 semitones
Tritone (augmented 4th) = 6 semitones
Perfect 5th = 7 semitones
and so on. There are 12 different intervals in an octave and depending on the grade, you may need to know them all.
What’s a Mnemonic?
By definition mnemonic is a technique used to remember stuff. There are many different types mnemonics to remember all sorts of stuff.You may for example use a phrase like ‘Richard of York Gave Battle In Vane’ to remember the colours of the rainbow. For remembering Pitch Intervals what you need is part of a memorable song, or rather 10 songs if you need to learn a full octave. Assuming you can tell when two notes are an octave apart.
If we take the Minor 2nd, there are two notes which are one semitone apart like C and C#. If you were to play these over and over, I’d guarantee you’d start to hear the theme tune to Jaws. If you do then you have your first mnemonic to remember the Minor 2nd. And there you have it.
Now you just need to find a tune ‘WHICH YOU CAN REMEMBER’ to represent every interval in the octave. I can;t stress how important it is to make these your own. Some like Jaws and Star Wars for the perfect fifth are easy, but others like the tritone are harder to find tunes for. I’d suggest you write down several songs for each interval and workout which one jumps out at you when you hear the two notes.
My mnemonics for pitch intervals
Jaws – Minor 2nd
Happy Birthday – Major 2nd
Brahms Lullaby – Minor 3rd
While Shepherd – Major 3rd
Wedding march – Perfect 4th
Purple Haze or The Simpsons – Tritone
Star wars – perfect 5th
Chopin Valse op 64 no 2 – Minor 6th (like I said some were tricker than others)
My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean – Major 6th
Star trek original – Minor 7th
Take on Me (A-Ha) – Major 7th (craping that barrel)
Octave – Somewhere over the Rainbow
Once you have a selection, then I’d recommend making a playlist on your preferred digital music player, iPhone or in my case Spotify
Then stick it on shuffle and try to guess the interval for each tune. I found having a few crappy tunes you don’t like is not such a bad thing and may even speed up the process as your brain works overtime so you can skip it to the next song. A good idea to have your list written down so you can quickly check if you are right. This is a great little exercise to do while cooking and you don’t get many of those when learning the saxophone.
Ear Trainer App (Pitch Interval test)
Once you feel you know the songs and can tell the interval, then it’s time to move to the next level. Unless you have someone who can test you, the get your hand the Ear Trainer for the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad. It will create a little quiz for you, where it plays a middle C and another note. You then have to play the two notes on a little piano keyboard. The move on to the next two and so on.
If you can guess..I mean identify the intervals in your song list and get the questions right on the Ear Trainer most of the time, then success is guaranteed.
If all this is still way too confusing, then watch this guy on You Tube, he’s very funny and you’ll feel a lot better about taking his on.
A lot has happened since my last post almost 9 months ago. Unfortunately maintaining this blog had to take a backseat. The good news is I haven’t stopped playing, and the really great news is I’ve chalked up my grade 4 jazz saxophone exam from Trinity College. You may think jazz exam is a bit of an oxymoron but I figured this was the only way I was going to learn all the things I’d normally avoid – scales, theory, site reading and stress.
I’d been playing saxophone for a year when I took my exam in June, but my teacher convinced me that grade 3 or 4 would be within my reach. So with 3 moths to go, I opted for grade 4. Unlike nearly all other types of exams, doing the previous grades are not a prerequisite for music exams. And I’m not getting any younger.
In this post I wanted to cover some of the considerations when doing a saxophone exam in the UK. Depending on my stamina I may split this out into several posts.
Which exam board?
In the UK there are three options
* Trinity Guildhall (Grade 1-8 Jazz exams)
* The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music ABRSM (Grade 1-5 Jazz exams)
* London College of Music (Grade 1-8 and diplomas)
I opted for Trinity because I’d done some exams before as a teenager and thought it sounded more official. Well if you are going to do exams… There were of course other more practical plus points
* Option to do scales study where you learn three pieces of music instead of remembering the dozen or more scales. Result! Well I’ve just not been playing long enough to remember all that.
* Option to chose/avoid music theory – wish I’d done this instead of sight reading
* Option to avoid sight-reading. Wish I had
Choosing the pieces?
Unfortunately, unlike ABRSM, Trinity does’t provide all the pieces you need in one book. You have to choose 3 pieces from about 50 spread across a couple of dozen books. As most of the pieces are designed to test rather than entertain, you are not going to be able to listen to them on Youtube or Spottily before buying them and buying them all is not viable.
For my 3 pieces I went for
In A Sentimental Mood
One of the few classics I recognised in the syllabus. Turned out to be a bit of a mistake playing this first and possibly choosing it in the first place. With the exam day performance anxiety, the breadth control needed for this was beyond me.
Skidaddle by James Rae
This being a jazz exam, one piece has to be improvised, and this was a good choose. I hand’t learnt to improvise in the time I’d been playing, so this certainly forced the pace and on the day really saved my neck
Exercise 14 from 24 Melodic Studies for Saxophone
A random lucky dip I ended up with by going cheap on Amazon. This was one of the better ones out of a bunch of books I’d bought cheap from the list
You can see the latest Trinity woodwind and jazz syllabus here [http://www.trinitycollege.co.uk/site/?id=1052]
Scales and arpeggios or Exercises
Ok, so I set out hoping the exam would force me to learn my scales and arpeggios but seeing the words ‘…or Exercises’ on that syllabus was enough to cause an acute dose of selective amnesia. Personally I wish I’d had the time to learn the scales and Arpeggios. I really don’t think the Exercises are a good test but it did the trick
For this section I chose Aural and Site Reading over Improvisation and Musical Knowledge. The Aural was a great choice and a good skill to have as a saxophone player. The site reading was a poor choice and a critical skill to have for a Jazz Musician. While I understand there are techniques for improving your site reading, this is not something you can cram. My standard after one year of playing was just not good enough.
Exam Day and Result!!
One thing I’d underestimated was the huge level of anxiety leading up to and during the exam. So if you want to do well, I’d recommend doing a few of the earlier grades to just get into the habit of playing under exam conditions. This also means having a few more months and years playing under your belt.
But I knew I was taking a gamble and while I had secretly hoped for a better grade, I got a comfortable pass, which was more than I deserved.
I am definitely glad I did this exam but be warned, it will take a lot of patience, especially from your neighbours who’ll have to listen to the same short repertoire day in day out.
When I say religion I don’t mean the obsessive devotional part, which incidentally is up to you, but I’m talking about the other part. The part that is the main reason I am actually not religious. I’m of course talking about the belief part that goes hand in hand with the faith part. The thing is when you start to learn the saxophone and it sounds like you are doing something you really should’t to next door’s cat, the only thing that makes you think, not today, nor tomorrow, but someday before I am dead I’m going to sound like like bloody Parker himself is pure faith. So you get yourself a practice which you repeat religiously and if there’s a god somewhere you know you’ll get there.
There’s a whole bunch of things to consider in your practice depending on the time you have and where you are at with your sax. These can include working on tone, ear training, scales, arpeggios, improvisation and so on. As I mentioned in my last post, my main concern right now, the things that really drive me mad are not being agile enough (embouchure and fingers) to play all the notes on my alto with any consistency and the sound. On top of this I want to tackle all the major scales and 7th arpeggios so I can start to improvise as soon as possible. So I figured a couple of months on scales and arpeggios should sort out all my immediate worries.
I’m managing about 4 hours of practice a week at the moment. Which based on Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hours to virtuoso will take me quite a long time. The way I’ve designed my practice session, if I only do a short session then I only get to do the boring bits. If I want to have fun then I need to extend my practice session. I tried doing it the other way round so you don’t have to.
10 mins long notes
5 mins alternate fingering
15 mins Major scales
10 mins major 7th arpeggios
Remaining time on Jazz standards of my choosing.
As I mentioned in my last post, I do most of my practice now using the exercises from the book Creative Saxophone Workbook. But there are many other books and free resources online you can find.
For the long notes I’m pretty much playing the chromatic scale from the bottom to the top, holding each note for about 2 bars at a slow tempo. Then I switch to classical arpeggios (first, third and fifth) across two octaves. I have been told by my teacher to stay away from vibrato and other sound effects as it confuses your sound as a beginner. The hardest part is to get a clean long note sound without doing anything to the pitch. So practice that.
For the alternative fingering practice I’m working on the 3 alternatives for the B and C for now.
For the major scales and arpeggios, I’m sticking to just 4 keys, starting with C,F,B flat and E flat. This order is taken from the Circle of fifth which makes it much easier to remember and progress. It will all make more sense when I write that post. The plan is, when I feel comfortable with the first key C in a week or two, I will drop it from my routine and include the next in the Circle of Fifths which is A flat. Then in another week or two I will drop the F and include the D flat. I will continue till I’ve learn all 12.
I only play tunes when I have the time. So at a minimum I get the important practice done, and If I have more time I get to have some fun with some standards. Which help me with reading music, rhythm and the structure of these timeless classics. So far I can play or rather I’m familiar with The girl from Ipanema, Favourite things, Autumn Leaves, and Easy living.
So that’s me. I would ask you to tell me about your practice sessions, but by the time this blog get’s a readership I’ll be bloody brilliant. So don’t bother. Just kidding! I’d love to hear what you have to say at all times
It has been a while since my last post and I can confirm this is not because I haven’t been playing. To the contrary the pain of practice has continued uninterrupted with just a few days set back from the holiday season. The main reason for my blogging absence has been the lack of content to write about in part due to the lack of progress. After the initial six months of highly charged enthusiasm, more than a few negative thoughts have started to creep into my musical psyche. The main one being the deep concern that after almost half a year of playing my alto, I still haven’t managed to master all the notes and I’m not talking about the harmonics or the altissimo range. The other just as deeply upsetting fact is that even the notes I have managed to master sound a bit…well…shit!
Nothing good can ever come out of negativity
I figured the first thing to do in this situation is to look at the positive gains. There must be some somewhere. So here’s what I noted
Well my posture was great! My back straighter than a plumb line
I have learned to read music and can site read to a reasonable level
I can play a few of my favourite things (jazz standards) – this makes me very happy
My teacher is very happy with my progress (she knows I say to myself)
What’s not so good
So here the rub or rather the opportunity for improvement
Struggling to play from the bottom B flat to the top F – 3 ways to play the same note – really?
The tone is not great specially at the extreme ends
Struggling to take air in at the right places. Gasping for air does not look cool
A bit of a stranger to scales and arpeggios (there’s 12 majors just for starters)
The above means, can’t improvise – unless I quickly learn a blues pentatonic. I’ll get my court.
There’s only the long way
There’s a helluva lot of stuff to take in when playing the sax, but the the most critical factor in the sound of a sax is not the fingering or the mouthpiece or even the saxophone. It is you. Yep there’s the secret ingredient. And getting you to produce the sound takes a whole lot of practice. Not just playing regularly but focussed and relentless attention to those things which will eventually drive your neighbours to despair, otherwise known as the long note. This basically involves playing from the bottom b flat to the top F holding down each note for at least two bars at a very slow beat. Rinse and repeat. To provide a bit of structure, on the advice of my teacher, I got the book Creative Saxophone – Techniques for intermediate saxophonists & jazz improvisers by Kellie Santin.
While you don’t need this just to practice long notes, it has everything from harmonics, alternative fingering, the altissimo range to all the scales and arpeggios to shake a stick at. It also lays out the order of scales and arpeggios based on the cycle of fifths which is a nice touch. But does’t bother to explain this rather important fact which is a real shame. I have been using this now for about 3 weeks, and the result is I’m spending about 80% of my practice sessions using this book. It has made what is otherwise a very tedious practice session into something bearable and even fun. There I said it. I will write about my typical practice session using this book at another time. But I really would recommend getting this or another one with a similar depth to sort your tone and learn all those pesky scales and arpeggios you’ll need.
In the 5 months I’ve been playing the saxophone, so far I have managed to avoid playing those pesky high notes. No not the altissimo range which are played by pure thought I think, but the ones played by the palm keys. They take you from D3 to F#3. I did try them a couple of times a few months ago when my teacher gave me some exercises, but soon decided my neighbours have enough to contend with. Besides, my mouth started to really hurt after a short time, my ears hurt worse. Recently I’ve started to murder I mean play some jazz standards and the high notes have become unavoidable. Though I must admit these old tunes are so great they are driving me to extend my range.
So here’s a quick review of what I’ve learnt about playing the high notes on the alto.
1. A harder reed can help. I’m using a Rico Jazz Select 2 Hard
2. Work your way up to the high keys from a note you can play, like a B2 (B with the octave key).
3. The mouth piece has to be far enough inside your mouth to allow the reed to vibrate fully.
4. The embouchure needs to be fairly firm but relaxed (yeah I know)
5. Mess about till you get a sound
6. Once you do get a sound, hold that note for as long as possible. The idea I believe here is to get your mouth muscles to remember how you got there.
7. Practice a lot not just on the high notes, but in general. A big drawback of being a beginner is your ‘chops’ (which I believe is the technical term) are not developed enough. If anyone know any short cuts to developing these please don’t be shy.
I would highly recommend finding a piece of music you really like that has a couple of the high notes, so you are driven by the music and enjoy the ride.
Something I still haven’t mastered is how to lose that uneasy feeling of physically loosing control of my sax when I come off the say C3 finger keys to just using the palm keys. Pressing the octave key and the palm key just feels odd like I’ve let go of the saxophone. I’m guessing this feeling will go once I’ve played up there a bit more.
Having opted for the the harness from Neotech over the standard neckstrap I really struggled keeping the saxophone at the right height. You can see my earlier post on Strap or Harness here. Having persevered with it for almost 4 month, finally, I worked out the problem. These harnesses have to be strapped very close to the body to prevent the straps from sliding over your shoulders with the weight of the sax. I did this and it all worked perfectly but the sax stays too close for my comfort. Now I’m not good enough to be swinging my sax around but I suspect this would be very hard to do with a harness or at least this one from Neotech. So, I decided to contact the very nice people I bought this from (John Wyatt Woodwind and Brass) and fortunately they were very accommodating even though it was well past the date for any reasonable return policy. They offered me an alternative the JazzLab “SaxHolder” Saxophone Strap. I must admit I was expecting this to be a bit of a novelty item, so I approached with causation when it arrived. Oh and I agreed with the shop that I’d only return the original harness if the Sax holder was better.
The first thing you notice is it’s not going to just fit into any old bag. It is made of metal and plastic which curves to fit over your shoulders and it doesn’t fold flat like a strap or harness. But it does fold to roughly half the length you see on the photo. Once out of the cloth bag, you simply fold it out in one smooth action and voila it just sits on your shoulders. Then comes the clever bit I think. There’s an adjustable telescopic support which extends to sit somewhere comfortable on your stomach. This keeps your saxophone slightly in front of the bod without you having to hold out it out infront of you with your thumb. Genius! Then it’s a case of sliding the plastic hook onto the ring onteh sax and adjusting the nifty height adjustment thing till you have it where you want it.
Once the sax was in place it was an awesome experience. There’s no pressure on your thumb where I usually try to hold it up, and there’s a lot of room to manoeuvre. You can really hold it away from you unlike the harness. I had read that the little arm support that rest on the stomach can be a bit awkward, and yes, I did find it a little odd for a few minutes, but then forgot all about it. That’t the thing about this Saxholder, you simply forget it’s there.
My only reservation now is it still feels like it could just fall off your shoulders but this is probably physiological, because I’m used to the straps going all the way around the body and the idea trusting these shoulder supports staying there with just the weight of the sax takes a little time to get used to. Having said that this really is a great device and I just can’t see me going back. I would highly recommend it especially to a beginner sax player like me who has enough things to worry about without the constant neck, shoulder, back and finger ache from holding a saxophone in the right position for anything longer than 20 minutes.
Some of my musical friends kept talking about the importance of the embouchure when playing the sax but it is like so many things in life from having your own kids to tooth ache – no description in the world is going to come close to the reality. I was taught by my teacher what I have since come to know as the classical single lip embouchure. This is where you put your top teeth straight on to the top of the mouthpiece. Then wrap your bottom lip over the bottom teeth to make a cushion and bring that up to the bottom of the reed to make the seal.
The most important thing to remember is that the reed must be allowed to fully vibrate at all times – this means you need to make sure your top teeth and bottom lip ( curled over the bottom teeth) are both clear of the front part of the reed that is free to move. But if you swallow too much of that mouthpiece you won’t be able to play the higher notes very well or at all. For anyone interested in a more scientific process for finding this sweet spot, the best approach I found during my research was to slide a piece of paper between the reed and the mouthpiece till it stops moving, then mark the reed where the paper stops. This is where your top teeth and bottom lips should be.
Another and a harder thing to achieve for me was applying the right amount of pressure from the bottom lip to make a good seal without, again, restricting the movement of that reed. This is where my embouchure troubles began. I suspect like most beginners to the saxophone, I was less concerned with the perfect embouchure and more interested in getting through my exercises. I was having enough trouble with plenty of other ‘issues’ like going from a C to a D without sounding like I’d switched instruments, a reed that was soaking wet after 2 minutes of playing, a sore bottom thumb from holding up the sax (I’ve solved this one since – post to follow.) and of course running out of air before the end of the bar. All this meant I was clinging onto that mouthpiece like my life depended on it and with all the expected consequences. A very painful sound and an even more painful bottom lip, where I’d been biting it with my bottom teeth against the reed – ouch! So what were my options?
The double lip embouchure – hide those teeth
This is where in addition to curling your bottom lip over the bottom teeth, you also curl the top lip over the top teeth. So you look like someone whose’s forgotten to put in their false teeth and don’t want you to see their gums. The result is both top and bottom teeth are cushioned by lips. The theory is with this arrangement, it would be very painful to bite against the top lip hence you don’t bite and the reed is free to move and the sound is sweet…I can confirm that for me this method just left me with both lips shredded. But don’t let me put you off, I hear it worked like a dream for that John Coltrane bloke.
The no embouchure embouchure
This is pretty much as it’s written on the tin. You basically put the mouthpiece in your mouth without any premeditated lip manipulation. The thing goes in and you put your lips comfortably over it like it was a big straw. I kind of found myself automatically defaulting to this when I started to go down the register to the dreaded L O W Bb. It started with me increasingly having to loosen my bottom lip to hit that low note until it finally popped out and out came the sound with it. It is worth noting that I’d been playing for about 4 months at this point and may be it would’t have worked as well without those months of strain and pain.
There’s clearly a of benefit to this as there’s no better way to give plenty of space for the reed. But I find it much harder to play the higher notes like this. From my travels online the most convincing explanation and the reason I’m keen to persevere comes from Jerry Bergonzi.
So where am I at with all this? I still basically use a single lip embouchure but am happy to let it slide out for the low notes and tuck under and tighten up for the higher register. My bottom lip doesn’t hurt so much now. The most important thing I’ve learnt is that if you just keep playing, your mouth, lips and teeth all seem to take care of themselves and find the best position to get the job done. But what is getting the job done? Right now it’s getting all the low notes and the high notes out in time to get through my exercises and short pieces. But soon I know I’m going to want that alto to sound like a saxophone – I will then need to continue to evolve my embouchure and the best way to do that is to keep playing and experimenting
A great thing about having a teacher is hopefully they’ve already narrowed down the endless list of books available for beginners. So ok, you are restricted by the books that agree with their teaching style, but then, hopefully you picked a teacher who matches your learning ways. I was first offered the Absolute Beginners: Alto Saxophone by my teacher as it was very detailed in the set-up process and the explanation on hold and posture etc.. It is a great book for a beginner, but I wasn’t too keen on the musical content. Whilst I’m a complete beginner to the sax, I have got some background in music and it was clear I was going to run out of this book fairly soon. It takes a few lessons for a teacher to understand how musical you are and how quickly you learn. So we decided to switch to Learn as You Play: Saxophone by Peter Wastall which I must say is the one for me and seems a standard favourite of my teacher too.
It does’t dwell too much on the set-up, posture or hold sections, or rather if it did, I have skimmed through those pages without noticing. It is clearly aimed at someone learning with a teacher. If you are teaching yourself, you’d need to have a reasonable amount of musical knowledge to understand the concepts. It does go through everything step by step, but covers some complex ideas in just a few sentences – in almost a reference style.
I love the way the exercises build up to a more significant piece in quite a clever way to introduce the specific theme being taught. The pieces themselves are a little archaic and unrecognisable to me. I’m guessing this has something to do with the copyright having expired on some of these old tunes. On the plus side, this means you have to play the dots. I find knowing the tune can really interfere with learning to read music especially the timing.
Having played the piano (not to any great standard) and the guitar (to a slightly better standard) where all notes are roughly made equal (as in the mechanics of playing one note or another is pretty much the same) you don’t think about having to learn to play a specific note like a low b. A saxophone on the other hand is a completely different animal. Every note is a law onto itself and you need to give it it’s own space and practice like hell. The exercises in this book have been designed to get you used to this idea bringing a lot of method to this madness.
Personally it takes me a week to get through each stage which is only a couple of pages. As so much of it is about getting a clean sound (did I mention Embouchure) and being able to follow the music while you play, it is worth nailing each section before forging ahead.
Having arrived for my first sax lesson the thing that immediately struck me was the strap or rather the harness my teacher was wearing. This looked very comfortable with two straps that came over from the back of the shoulders and met in the middle of the chest where there was one of those trigger hooks, like the ones used for clipping keys to your jeans. This all looked a lot more balanced and a less painful alternative to my classic loop strap that just went round the neck.
With a little encouragement from my teacher I decided to buy one and within a week I had ordered the Neotech harness from Amazon shown below. But before you go rushing into buy one there’s a few things to point out. Yes, it is a lot better than my neck cruncher and even more comfortable on the shoulders than the one my teacher was wearing, with additional soft padding under the shoulder straps. It even looks robust and durable. But, there are a couple of things I’m not fond of.
First, there’s the hefty price tag. At nearly £30 it’s not cheap, but I’m starting to realise that most of the kit for a sax is very expensive for what it is, probably due to the low quantities they make. The next issue which is a biggie for me is the position. I have never managed to keep the straps from sliding over the shoulders with the weight of the sax. The result is my alto keeps slipping below the ideal height for playing (keeping a good straight back). While this may seem like a major designs flaw, I am not so sure. The fact is as a beginner, seems you can never be too sure about anything. Is it your reed or your embouchure, is your strap too lose or your thumb too week to hold up the weight of the sax. So I have decided to give it another couple of months before concluding. I will report back. One thing I can say is that a harness that avoids the neck is a whole lot better for your neck and back