Low Eh! Baritone Saxophone Adventures From Canada

My Music Pyramid 

My students are familiar with my music pyramid. I use it when I’m assessing a student’s playing – it helps them put elements of music in perspective, and breaks down their approach. I have found that when my students approach their practicing in this order, they are able to tackle music that they find difficult quicker, because it gives them a clear direction.

Each aspect of the music builds on the previous layer.

  1. Sound – I value playing with a good sound above all else. If the player is constantly adjusting to get a good sound, they won’t be able to focus on anything else.
  2. Rhythm – most people I show this to, think that notes come next, but for me, it’s rhythm. I was once told that notes, and harmony without rhythm is mush. That has stuck with me. When we break down their rhythms first, and then apply the notes, we are able to process the piece, and future pieces much more quickly.
  3. Notes – applying the correct pitches to the newly learned rhythms allows us to play the piece.
  4. Articulation – how we shape each note, or phrase. This comes before dynamics, because at first, we need to play with a louder sound to have each articulation speak clearly. As we gain more control over our articulation, then we can apply them at all volumes.
  5. Dynamics – once we have control of all of the elements that come before, dynamics add the character, and excitement that the music needs. Dynamics can add intensity, and variety to our pieces!
  6. Musicality – once we have our sound, rhythm, notes, articulation, and dynamics together, then we can be truly musical. It could be ornamentation, vibrato, or a player’s personal phrasing. The top of the pyramid, is always developing with practice (on all of the preceding elements, and with musical maturity).

When we run the pyramid, I always note that as a player becomes more proficient, the bottom three elements take far less time that they do initially. With enough practice, players can break down some or most of these elements simultaneously, and music becomes familiar.

Ease The Tension! I Love The Rulon Rest! 

I started using the Rulon Rest in January of this year (2023), and it’s one of the best pieces of equipment that I’ve ever used!

Over the last year, ergonomics have become increasingly more important to me.

I started experimenting with risers on my saxophone (detailed here), while I was working on the Glazunov Saxophone Concerto. There were sections of the concerto that I was having trouble executing, and after checking out another horn with custom risers, I decided that I needed to make my own. After completing that project, I noticed that playing with efficient technique was far easier, and then I saw the Rulon Rest.

I have been incredibly fortunate to be a KeyLeaves artist since 2018, and watched Rulon introduce so many amazing products to the woodwind world. I started out with the wooden “test” version of the new rest, and almost immediately order the plastic versions (which I use on all of my saxophones).

I really love the way that my hand sits behind the saxophone, and my thumb isn’t jammed underneath the thumb hook (my hands are large, and it’s always been uncomfortable for me), and from a playing perspective, my fingers are quicker, because there’s no excess tension on my wrist or thumb from being forced to an angle that’s less that ideal. I’ve also found that I don’t go through any muscle fatigue in my hands, wrists, and forearms – more practicing! I never had much discomfort when it came to endurance on the saxophone, but any that I had experienced is now a non-issue.

The only change that I’ve made is on the soprano, where I use a neckstrap (before I didn’t), for extra security, and I’m happy with how that horn feels too!

The Rulon Rest has made a huge difference in my day-to-day saxophone playing, and I’m really happy to have added it to all of my saxophones.

I Survived The Glazunov Concerto 

I performed my arrangement (for saxophone quartet and solo alto saxophone) of the Glazunov Saxophone Concerto last night. I was nervous, I made mistakes – lots of them, I even opted out of a section…and I’m thrilled with how it went.

Last night was Carleton University’s Saxophone Ensemble concert. There were four university quartets, plus a quartet and saxophone ensemble for Canterbury High School, my performance of the Glazunov, followed by a double saxophone quartet, and two saxophone choir pieces.

I ended up performing in my usual quartet, and recently joined a second quartet just three weeks ago. In addition, I had saxophone choir duties, and I two of my pieces were performed (all on baritone saxophone). Then just one, the big one, on alto saxophone. It was a ton of playing in different styles, and configurations. I love that!

My day (and the night before) of the concert was full of nervous energy. Not anxiety, but sheer excitement. This was it – the culmination of my academic year (well, at least from October to April). I booked my students off, I had lots to do, and I needed to get myself calmed down a bit. I was so amped up, I hit the weight room hard, and still was bouncing off of the walls. Haha!

I arrived at the venue early, I wanted to get some time in on both instruments, pick a reed or two that would work, and get comfortable in the space. Sound check on some of the choir pieces ran a little long, and I didn’t get a chance to hear my alto in the hall before playing. To honest, I was a little relieved to not have to switch gears right before performing with the quartets.

The quartet performances went great, and I took off into the back room to get my alto warmed up, and hopefully, get into a good headspace for my first performance of a major work. I stalled…and stalled. I paced, I filled my water bottle up three times – the nerves were setting in. I could not believe how wobbly my legs started to get. I tried running a few sections really slowly, but my fingers didn’t want to work. Just thinking about it is making my hands tingle right now. I had asked Rebecca (the soprano player in the group to come get me I case I lost track of time). She found me, and we went to the hall. We listened to the final piece before it was our time to hit the stage, and entered the hall.

I had told Mike (Tremblay) that I wanted to say a few things before we performed. It was at this concert last year where I decided that I wanted to finish my degree. I was a last minute sub in the quartet that I am currently playing in, and it really sold me on the idea that I could finish my degree at Carleton. I wanted to thank the musicians who were performing with me, and Mike, who has been so incredibly supportive of me while I navigate new musical challenges, university life, and my life outside of academia, as well as being (and most importantly) a great friend.

I performed the Glazunov. I was so nervous – funny to me, the technical sections that I was worried about, came off beautifully, and some of the sections that I had no trouble in rehearsals, and in the practice room, had some warts. I could not believe how nervous I was, and how my nerves played a role in the way I played, but every time that I made a mistake, I was about to regroup, and move forward. I’m really proud of that.

When I got home, I listed to the stream right away – I couldn’t help myself. I loved certain elements – I thought that my sound was really locked in, and I thought that I paced the cadenza well, and cringed at the mistakes, but I survived.

I would perform it again tomorrow.

I think that’s what it’s going to take for me to get comfortable performing classical music. Doing it over, and over again. Making mistakes, and rebounding, until the nerves subside (at least a little).

I survived my first performance of the Glazunov!

The Classic Balam Back Strap from Boston Sax Shop 

I’ve been back at university – preparing the Glazunov (on alto), saxophone ensemble pieces (mostly baritone), private lessons material (on all sizes of saxophones), as well as my gigs, and teaching has changed the intensity of my practice schedule. I’m grabbing time on all of my woodwinds whenever I can.

At the beginning of December, I started notice some muscle pain in the left side of my neck whenever I put one of my two neck straps on. They were a few years old, starting to become less comfortable, and I wanted to make sure that I could tame this pain before it actually became a real problem.

In the past, I had tried different harnesses (of most of the popular brands), but they never fit properly. I’m tall, and broad, with large shoulders. Either they were too short, or didn’t fit over my shoulders, or I had to snug them up so tight to get the horn to feel secure, or I couldn’t use them on multiple instruments on the same gig, or they fell off when I stood up to play a solo with a big band – the tenor player beside me, saved my horn, and my back! Up to that point, I hadn’t found anything that worked for me.

I decided to check out the Balam after being in rehearsal with a big band in December, and the entire sax section, excluding myself, were using Balam straps in some form – two were using the Classic, and one was using the Premium. They were all happy with them, and I tried one out as best as I could (they shaped to fit the player). We determined that it would be long enough, it would fit over my shoulders, I could use it for multiple instruments on a gig, and most important, it took off any pressure from my neck – all of my requirements.

Here’s a video of me using the Balam on my Yamaha baritone saxophone.

I ordered it, and I’ve been using it for about six weeks now. I’m really happy with the way it feels. It took me about a week to really get the fit dialed in. I love it across my baritone, tenor, and alto saxophones, as well as my bass clarinet. I was totally sold when I left it in my alto case, and had to teaching an evening on baritone sax with my regular strap (which still lives in my case, just rarely used now). I couldn’t believe the difference a few hours later.

I always thought that I could “tough out” the discomfort of long practice sessions, or intense gigs, but I’m really happy that I’ve made the switch. I feel that being more comfortable in general is going to help my playing.

Check it out here!

Vacation Chops – Clarinet Edition 

I had written about how my vacationing priorities have changed as I have gotten older, and had kids (read about that here). While I appreciate the break, I’ve had to develop a “vacation chops” routine to get my face, and fingers back to performance-ready levels quickly.

This year was a little different for a few reasons – the big winter storm kept us from travelling, I had just come off of my first semester back at university, and I have been focusing on my classical alto, and baritone saxophone playing for a few months.

This meant that my clarinet has been neglected since September. By neglected, I mean that I have been maintaining what I already had under my fingers, and teaching it regularly, but I haven’t been writing for the clarinet, or trying to develop on it. I have a big band gig tomorrow night (January 4th – with the Prime Rib Big Band), where I have several features on the clarinet, and we’ll be performing one at the show.

There are three things that I like to get settled on the clarinet before heading out to a performance after some time off – 12ths (and the break), articulation, and improvising. For 12ths, and over the break exercises, I go right back to Galper Book One, lessons 17-19, and 21-22. Theses are lessons that I assign to my students, but I find them incredibly beneficial to review, and they help lock in my sound.

For articulation, I head into the David Hite Melodious and Progressive Studies book, and start at 18 Expressive Studies Based On Chords (page 12 in my copy). Most of these etudes are arpeggio based, and have lots of common articulation patterns. I like the fact that they aren’t technically challenging, which allows me to focus on how the articulation feels at all volume levels, across most of the clarinet’s range.

I am mostly in situations where I’m expected to improvise. Creating a strong connection between my ears, and what’s coming out of the instrument is important, so I practice improvising. Most of the time, I will pick a scale, or chord to base my improvisation off of, but if I know what material I’ll be working with, I’ll check out melodies, and chord changes to those particular pieces. I also find that working with few boundaries allows my to focus on my sound as well.

For myself, if I follow this “formula”, I know that I can feel comfortable on my instruments, and have a good show. It puts me in a place where I can stay relaxed on the gig, and allow me to get back to my productive routine.

How do you get your chops back after some time off?

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