Picking Up the Horn Again after Being Sick

Thursday evening, April 12, I left Grand Rapids to go chase storms out west. It was a great time and a successful chase, but on the way home Sunday night I began to cough, and the cough blossomed into the worst case of bronchitis I've ever had. For two weeks, I languished. My activity was limited to coughing, and coughing, and coughing some more; prostrating myself before the vaporizer for extended inhalation sessions punctuated by periodic steamy showers; slurping down massive quantities of fluids; and sleeping like I never planned to wake up and didn't want to (which, indeed, I didn't). Over the past three days, I've finally begun to feel human again. Today I woke up feeling pretty good, with just a remnant of a cough and my voice returning to some semblance of its normal self. What a relief! Naturally, I was pining to get at my saxophone. Three weeks away from it is way too long. I'd been in top form when I left for Oklahoma and Kansas, and now I've got some ground to recover. So this evening I grabbed my horn and headed to my beloved railroad tracks, where it's my wont to park my car, work over my horn, and wait for the trains to roll by. Out by a crossing near the rural community of Alto, I assembled my beautiful Conn 6M Ladyface and began to blow the rust out of my fingers and the cobwebs out of my head. It felt so good! There is something about reuniting with my saxophone after an extended period away from it that feels at once awkward, restorative, frustrating, cathartic, and encouraging. The awkwardness and frustration come from having spent enough time not playing my instrument that it feels a bit foreign to my hands, not quite the comfortable extension of me that it normally is. My technique isn't as smooth, and material I had recently been practicing has to be called back to memory. The encouragement arises with the discovery that, hey, I don't sound all that bad, regardless. In fact, I sound pretty good. Something about the time away seems to tap into reservoirs of creativity I didn't realize existed, and if my playing isn't quite as facile as I'd like, there's nevertheless a compensatory freshness to it. My fingers don't fall as readily into the same glib patterns, and so instead they find their way toward new ideas. As for the restorative and cathartic aspects of picking up my saxophone after a lengthy period of illness, do I really need to explain? It's just such a marvelous feeling to play again, to experience the physicality of making music: the balanced resistance and give of the reed in conjunction with my airstream, the feel of the keys beneath my fingers as I practice patterns and craft spontaneous melody lines. There's nothing like it. With the arrival of spring weather, I've been pretty consumed with storm chasing. The chase season is here for a limited time, and one must make the most of it while the opportunity is there. But the musical part of me doesn't at all go dormant during storm season. I prioritize chasing over musical engagements, but not over the music itself. I continue to practice and push myself as a saxophonist, even if the bulk of my blog posts during this season focus on severe weather. Tonight I'm taking a hiatus from the weather to reflect on this other part of myself, the musical part. How good it feels to play! Thank you, Lord, for the gift of music--for this amazing instrument you've placed in my hands, and for the passion and the drive to continue striving for the mastery of it. It is such a joy to play my horn once again!

Uh-oh! Time for Sax Maintenance AGAIN?!

So there I am in Ed Englerth's basement tonight, getting set to rehearse for our set this coming weekend at the Buttermilk Jamboree near Delton, Michigan.  I pick up my alto sax, clamp my lips around the mouthpiece and blow, and what happens? FWEEEEEFFFF, that's what happens. My horn goes FWEEEEEFFFF. That's not a promising sign. Hoping it's just the reed, I substitute a different one, but once again, anything from low D down balks like crazy, and the higher notes aren't all that cooperative either. So I take my leak light out of my case and run it down the horn, and what's really frustrating is, I can't see any sign of a leaky pad anywhere. Maybe that's due to my strictly neophyte abilities when it comes to troubleshooting saxophone ailments, but still...not even a pinprick of light shining from one of the palm key pads? Nothing? Next step: remove the mouthpiece and check to make sure it's sealing properly. It is--no problems there. And here's the interesting part: when I put it back on the saxophone neck, my horn plays just fine--for about fifteen seconds. After that, HHAAARRRRNNKKK!!! Nutz. This sucks. So I set the alto aside and do the rehearsal using my soprano. I'm not crazy about that option since my intonation on the soprano sax leaves something to be desired, but I don't have much choice. My alto is unplayable. I'm wondering whether a loose cork or something may have lodged somewhere in the horn and is impeding the air stream. Better that than have to take my horn to the shop for repair work that I just don't have the money for right now. It has only been a few months, after all, since I slapped down $160 to have the sax repadded and ministered unto by my repairman. Whatever the problem is, I've got to get it fixed by this weekend, because I have two gigs, and one of them is a big band gig that doesn't give me the liberty of simply swapping the alto for the soprano. Ugh. Saxual problems. But they can wait till tomorrow to figure out. I'm done thinking about the matter for today.

Altered Major Scales for Secondary Dominant Chords

Some months ago I shared a table of non-diatonic tones and their common uses. This morning I found myself thinking once again about non-diatonic tones, and specifically about an effective way to practice them, one that could quickly translate to actual jazz improvisation. The standard bebop scales came to mind. The insertion of one extra note into a scale--typically a raised fifth in a major scale, and a raised seventh in a dominant (Mixolydian) scale--does more than allow a soloist to move through a scale with ease and land on an octave. It also creates new harmonic possibilities. That principle can be exploited by inserting other tones that also suggest secondary harmonies. Click on the image to your right to enlarge it. You'll see three scales. The first two contain a single added note. Scale #1 includes a raised first, and scale #2, a raised fourth. The interpolation of these notes adapts a basic major scale for use with two commonly encountered secondary dominant chords: the V7/ii (or VI7) and the V7 of V (or II7). In the key of C, which these scales are written in, those chords are A7 and D7. These scales are as fresh to me as they are to you at the time of this writing. Not that I've never played them before; I just haven't made a conscious point of focusing on them as actual scales to invest my time in practicing. I see two benefits to doing do. The first is, obviously, developing technical facility. The second is raising one's awareness of the added notes as harmonic devices, with an eye on the secondary chords that they apply to. Each added note serves as the major third--a critical identifying tone--of its secondary dominant chord. So when you play scale #1, remember that it works readily with the VI7; and likewise, scale #2 pairs with the II7. Many playing situations feature both of those secondary dominants, and often the VI7 moves directly to the II7, which in turn moves to the V7--in essence, coasting around a segment of the cycle of fifths. The third scale incorporates both the raised first and the raised fourth, making it a kind of granddaddy scale that accommodates both secondary dominants. Now, don't look at these scales as magic harmonic bullets.. Rather, look at them as resources that allow you to judiciously select certain tones when you need them as well as furnishing you with good linear resources. It's not all about your fingers mastering the technique of the scales. It's also very much about applying your mind to grasp the uses of the introduced tones. In other words, build harmonic awareness, not just digital dexterity. To assist you, I've included an exercise for each scale that will help you hear how each added note implies a certain harmony. Play these exercises on the piano so you can chord along with the melody line, or else get a keyboard player or guitarist to comp for you while you play the different lines. Have fun! And if you enjoyed this post, drop in on my Jazz page and check out the many other exercises, articles, and solo transcriptions.

Mastering the Sax: Building a Baseline of Ability

As I sat in my car by the railroad tracks last night out in the countryside, practicing my saxophone and doing my best impression of a Shady Character Waiting To Make A Drug Deal for the benefit of curious passers-by, it struck me how far I've come since I began woodshedding in earnest back in college. It's a long way, but not far enough. There are high-school-age kids who can do what I do. Not many, but they're out there, along with a host of college music majors who are blazing incendiary trails across today's jazz firmament. I can't afford to think about it. Topnotch jazz programs featuring world class saxophone instructors have multiplied over the years, and out of that educational milieu are arising some brilliant young players. There are bound to be a few who at half my age possess twice my ability. A few. But probably not all that many. Because while those music majors have been in the practice rooms busily learning their instruments, I've been in my car by the tracks doing the same thing. However, my practice schedule has probably been more spotty than theirs, and so have my opportunities to play jazz live with other experienced jazz musicians. Unless you're in a position where you can immerse yourself in music without interruption, the demands of making a living have a way of imposing themselves on your practice time. They can stop you if you let them, but they probably don't have to. You just have to accept a slower rate of growth that accommodates the rest of life. The learning curve for mastering a musical instrument is different for everyone. We all have different circumstances, different degrees of natural ability, different competing interests that round us out as individuals, and so on. I thought about this last night as I worked out some bop tunes in the key of F# and revisited "Giant Steps." My storm chasing excursion out west last weekend had cost me several days of practice, and my fingers could tell the difference. But they snapped back into shape quickly. Playing the saxophone is not like riding a bike. You don't just hop back on and regain instant command after not having ridden in a while. You've got to reclaim old ground. What does happen, though, is that when you practice diligently, you continue to raise the baseline of your abilities. Persistent, focused practice not only will put you at the top of your game, but it will also build and expand a musical foundation you can fall back on during those times when your practice routine falls by the wayside. My book on "Giant Steps" patterns is nearing pub time, but to be honest, I haven't spent much time actually playing "Steps" in recent history. So last night I broke out my workbook and my Aebersold CD of Coltrane tunes, and I got a pleasant surprise. It has been years since the period in my musical development when I saturated myself in "Giant Steps." But I found myself navigating the changes, finding my way through familiar patterns, exploring ideas--not on the same level as if I'd been consistently practicing Coltrane changes, true, but well enough for me to feel pretty good about what I was doing. In fact, in some ways I played the tune better than I did in the past. Other musical material that I've acquired over the years provided a richer repository of ideas and technical finesse. Old and new came together, and while the result wasn't perfect, it was at least coherent. To sum up: Stick with your instrument. Never give up. Life has its seasons and its discouragements, but persistence really does pay off. Don't measure your musical growth by other players, but by the satisfaction you get as you set and accomplish realistic personal goals. Be honest with yourself, be as diligent in practicing as you can be, be hard on yourself only when you have to be, listen to and study great players, and don't get so obsessed with arriving at your destination that you forget to enjoy the journey. Do this, and over time you'll build a solid baseline of craftsmanship and musicality that will serve you well during the off-seasons of your musical life.

Ghosted Notes on the Saxophone

When you've been playing the saxophone for a long time, it's easy to forget how certain techniques that have become an organic part of your playing once were mysteries to you. So it was for me with ghosted notes--aka ghost notes, aka ghost tones--back in my college days. I heard certain sax players punctuating their solos with notes treated with a sudden reduction in sound volume that made it seem as if they had been swallowed. It was a very cool effect, but I didn't know what it was called, and darned if I could figure out how to duplicate it.  One thing was clear: it involved something other than merely adjusting my airstream. I finally asked fellow alto man Tom Stansell, who used the technique with excellent effect, what it was he was doing and how he did it. Tom quickly filled me in, and the mystery that had been eluding me turned out to be no mystery after all. Within a few minutes during my next practice session, I had a pretty good handle on the technique. If you've never ghosted a note on the sax before, then here's your opportunity to learn how. What Tom passed on to me, I now pass on to you.

How to ghost a note on the saxophone

Ghosting a note on the sax is simply a matter of tongue placement during articulation. In normal articulation, you separate notes by applying your tongue to the reed dead on, temporarily cutting off air from the mouthpiece and preventing the reed from vibrating. But by applying your tongue to only one corner or side of the reed while maintaining your airflow, you effectively dampen just a part of the reed while allowing the rest of it to vibrate. That's all there is to it. Repeat: to ghost a note, simply touch just a side or corner of the reed with your tongue. Of course, you'll refine the technique and personalize your application of it over time, but the above is all you need to get started. Now the next time you're playing through a chart and you come across a note or group of notes enclosed in parentheses--the standard notation for ghosting--you'll know how to treat it. Unlike circular breathing or double tonguing, note ghosting offers a rare opportunity for instant gratification in a saxophonist's learning curve, and it's a very effective tool to have in your musical toolkit. You'll love how a handful of well-placed ghost notes adds interest and character to your playing. That's all, folks. Be sure to check out my jazz page for more helpful articles and saxophone solo transcriptions.