Low Eh! Baritone Saxophone Adventures From Canada

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?

Disclosure: The links above are affiliate links. This means that, at zero cost to you, I will earn an affiliate commission if you click through the link and finalize a purchase.

Custom Key Risers 

I have been working on classical repertoire, both as a soloist, and in a saxophone quartet, and I have found lots of little technical holes in my playing – nothing that I can’t work around, but there are definitely things that I’ve had to keep in mind in the practice room.

As I dug deeper into building (and rebuilding) my technique, things were only getting marginally better, and there was some frustration setting in.

I was able to check out Mike Tremblay‘s alto (which has some risers on it), and several of my technical issues were solved – even though we play different models of alto (Mike plays a Selmer Super Action 80, and I play a Yamaha YAS-875EXBII). I thought about trying, and potentially acquiring a different horn, but figured that my favourite part of his alto was the keywork.

I thought about it for about a week, did some reading on what I might use, and decided on using Sugru (since I read that it was removable), in case I didn’t like it.

It was really easy to use – it’s kind of like Play-Doh. I wrapped it around the keys that I needed raised, and let it dry. It took three full days to dry completely. My hands are large, and I needed the risers to be about 2cm thick on the palm keys, I build the spatulas up (I tend to overshoot them), and made a huge extension on the high E side key. It took 6 of the 8 packets to complete the work on my alto. My alto being slightly heavier, but I’m really happy with the results, and my hands are really set when I play, so my technical issues have started to disappear.

I’m waiting for my new Sugru order to come in tonight, so I can get all of my other saxophones set up to feel great!

Disclosure: The links above are affiliate links. This means that, at zero cost to you, I will earn an affiliate commission if you click through the link and finalize a purchase.

Three Things That I’ve Learned From Working On The Glazunov Concerto 

I’ve been fortunate to be able to dig into some classical repertoire since going back to school (in both solo, and saxophone quartet settings), and it has opened my eyes to some elements of my playing that I hadn’t looked (or rarely looked) at before. My appreciation for classical saxophone has grown exponentially since starting to work on this material.

Here are three things that working on the Glazunov Saxophone Concerto has made me realize.

  1. Learning the Glazunov is making me address little holes in my technique. I tend to practice in real time, especially when learning tunes or sets of chord changes – I want to be able to execute my ideas with a band, and every night on the bandstand is different. Working primarily as an improvisor, and responding to what’s going on around me has influenced my practicing. Learning this piece has forced me to slow down, and really think about my concept in articulation, sound, response, tone colour, and even fingering choices.
  2. I’m capable of change, but maybe my playing is not as flexible as I thought it was. I had considered myself a flexible player – I always want to sound authentic in the situation I am in, but digging into classical rep has made me question how flexible my playing is. My classical tone, and vibrato are developing – I’m almost at a point with them where I’m comfortable being able to switch it on, and off without a huge amount of brain power. At first, the tone felt really stuffy, and the vibrato felt awkward (I was holding back). I might be too far the other way with it now, but it’s all part of the process in figuring out my sound.
  3. I’m amazed with the amount of individual sounds in the classical saxophone world. This might sound obvious – everybody has their own sound, but because I hadn’t done any heavy listening, I couldn’t tell any players apart. It’s been interested to me to start to find players who I’d like to emulate, and will ultimately become strong influences on my playing. I’ve worked on, and taught Ferling, Royal Conservatory of Music, and other standard etudes, but never listened to major classical works. I owned a copy of Romances For Saxophone – that was the extent of my listening, but listening to different performers make their statements on this piece, I’m blown away with the variance between players. I’m partial to Debra Richtmeyer’s interpretation of the Glazunov – I’ve been listening, and playing along with her – I love her tone, and phrasing!

Music Books – 3D Band Book 

I recommend so many print resources to my students, that I wanted to share some of those on the blog.

I rediscovered the 3D Band Book in 2020, and have found it to be a great resource for students who are trying to get their technique together in most keys.

This is one of the books that I learned out of in high school, and when I saw it, I had to pick it up. I was unaware of how accessible, yet thorough the book it.

The book is broken into three parts –

  1. Tuning and warm ups – this includes some long tones with harmony (if you have more than one player), lips slurs and embouchure studies, arpeggios, and a page of chromatic exercises.
  2. Key Preparation – each key has a page dedicated to a (1) long tone scale (with harmony (2)), (3/4) the scales, I-V-I arpeggios, (5) a short etude, (6) a chord study (harmony for multiple players), and (7) a hymn.
  3. Rhythm Preparation – starting at eighth, and sixteenth notes, and progressing through to mixed meters, with accompanying etudes.

I will get my students to work through exercises 1, 3, 4, and 5 in the Key Preparation sections. I find that if they can get through those examples in all of the keys, they are mostly prepared to deal with most keys in their concert band music.

It’s also great that they’ve considered players at different levels when it comes to range, offering different octaves so a student can get the most out of the key.

The book comes in instrument specific books, so a group can play all of these together (which is great when I’m teaching siblings or friends – they can work together!).

I wish that the book had completed the cycle of all keys. It’s missing concert B and E. But overall it’s more than enough material for an advancing beginner, to intermediate player, who will need to develop their technique in all keys to progress in band or music class.

Here are links to the books that I use regularly –




Alto Saxophone

Tenor Saxophone

Disclosure: The links above are affiliate links. This means that, at zero cost to you, I will earn an affiliate commission if you click through the link and finalize a purchase.

Line #7 – Major 7 

Here’s a line based on a major seventh sound.

As the line descends, the first two notes of each grouping of four expands – the first two are a minor third (G#-B), the next two are a major third (E-G#), and the last two are a perfect fourth (C#-F#).

The line also works over a major ii-V-I, starting from the 13 of the ii chord, the root of the V chord, and ending on the major seventh.

Download the PDF here in all keys.