"The potential for the saxophone is unlimited." - Steve Lacy

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Using Common Cents When Practicing Long Tones

This article discusses how to use a chromatic tuner when practicing long tones.
It seems like a no-brainer: You’re either in tune or you’re not. Well, yes and no. While it is true that when you play a note into a tuner that it is either in-tune, flat or sharp; there is, however, a small window of imperfection that you can work within, since we are human beings playing the instrument and not machines.

A tuner measures musical notes using a logarithmic unit of measuring intervals called cents. And the interval measured on most chromatic tuners is a semitone (or half step). For example, the distance between a C and C# is 100 cents. The 100 cents is divided into 0 to 50 (+) to measure the sharpness of the note and 0 to (-) 50 to measure the flatness of the note.

The following figure shows a semi-tone (or half step) divided in cent measurements.  When the needle of the tuner goes left of the 0 then that means that the note sounded is flat, and when the needle of the tuner goes to the right of the 0, it means that the notes sounded is sharp.

Figure 1: Cents measurement on a chromatic tuner for a semitone (or half step)

I’ve divided cents reading into three pitch cautionary zones: yellow zone, green zone, and red zone:

1. Yellow Zone: This is 0 to (-) 10 and the 0 to 10 (+) cents area. When the notes played fall within this zone, it’s very unlikely that the flatness or sharpness will be noticeable, unless you’re playing unison with another soprano player or sustaining the note for several beats. Otherwise, it’s very normal for the pitch to fluctuate within this cent vicinity.

Figure 2: The yellow alert area for the needle of a chromatic tuner

2. Green Zone: This is (-) 10 to (-) 20 and the 10 (+) to 20 (+) cents area. When the notes played fall within this zone, the flatness or sharpness of the note (s) be more noticeable--not alarming, but noticeable--unless you’re playing something really fast, or you’re going for some type of effect. And this is definitely not an area in which you want to play in unison with another instrument, especially the soprano sax.

Figure 3: The green alert area for the needle of a chromatic tuner

3. Red Zone: This is (-) 20 to (-) 50 and the 20 (+) to 50 (+) cents area. When the notes played fall within this zone, the flatness or sharpness of the note (s) become very noticeable, no matter how fast or slow they’re being played. Unless you’re playing some type of scoop or bend, in which you’ll still have to return the note to yellow zone in order for it to sound like a scoop or bend and not an out of tune note. And this is definitely not an area in which you want to play in unison with another instrument, especially the soprano sax.

Figure 4: The red alert area for the needle of a chromatic tuner

When the pitch starts to fluctuate into this zone, it usually means that the note is need of special attention, which is often caused by a problem in one or more the following areas:

Ø  Adjustment within the oral cavity
Ø  Embouchure adjustment
Ø  Mouthpiece placement on the neck of the saxophone
Ø  Reed replacement
Ø  Problems with the instrument

Benefits of practicing these exercises:

Ø Playing in the altissimo becomes easier
Ø Increased flexibility
Ø Heightened oral cavity awareness
Ø Sound becomes richer in harmonics and overtones
Ø Strengthens embouchure
Ø Better breath support
Ø Increased endurance

One last thing: Given the difficulty in playing the soprano in tune, some notes are going to be nearly impossible to play at the 0 mark of the cents reader; however, having an area of pitch leniency does allow you to strive for more attainable goals with regards to pitch accuracy. This holds particularly true in the more extreme areas of the soprano, such as low Bb to low D; and high C# to high F (or higher).

Good luck!

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Art of Breathing 101

When playing the saxophone it is important for the performer to view breathing as a two-step process: inhalation and exhalation. It sounds like a no-brainer, but often times we place a lot of emphasis on the exhalation process and not so much on inhaling. I equate the wind player’s breath during the breathing process as being like the violinist’s bow during bowing. Instead of inhalation and exhalation, it's up-bow and down- bow, each having equal importance.  

One thing I’ve noticed is that when we practice longs tones, we take a quick breath, and then exhale slowly, holding a tone for as long as possible. But in order to fully reap the benefits from this practice, inhalation and exhalation must be treated with the same importance.

Below are some exercises that I’ve devised to help master the process. Now what’s unique about these exercises is that they require you to inhale and exhale in one-beat increments with the metronome; you’re either inhaling or exhaling puffs of air with every click of the metronome,

The exercise below is to be practiced without your instrument. Its purpose is to train you to fill your lungs with much more air than you would when breathing in the conventional way. As shown in the example below, you will inhale for four (4) counts and exhale for four (4) counts. To truly benefit from the exercise you must imagine that you’re filling the diaphragm with 100% of air, so the breath intake should be as follows:

Column 1: Inhalation process:
Beat 1: inhale 75% of air
Beat 2: inhale 5% more air
Beat 3: inhale 5% more air
Beat 4: inhale 5% more air

Column 2: Exhalation process:
Beat 1: exhale 75% of air
Beat 2: exhale 5% more air
Beat 3: exhale 5% more air
Beat 4: exhale 5% more air

Each time you repeat the exercise, try to fill the lungs with more and more air. Start by setting the metronome at a moderately slow M.M. such as quarter note = 70. As you become more comfortable with the process you can gradually decrease the tempo

Exercise 1: Inhaling and Exhaling Without Instrument

After you become better familiar with practicing the exercise without your instrument, try
with your instrument. It’s important to remember that when playing an actual note there is a lot more resistence when exhaling. Typically, I’ve found that the exhaled beats per minutes (EBPM) is double that of the inhaled beats per minute (IBPM).  For example, if you inhale for six beats per minutes or 6 IBPM, then you will most likely exhale for 12 beats per minute or 12 EBPM—again, due to the amount of resistance.

Exercise 2: Inhaling and Exhaling With Instrument

Below are five (5) breathing exercises using different IBPMs and EBPMs. The level of difficulty of each exercise is also labeled.

Things to remember:
  • ·      Practice exercises throughout the entire range of the instrument from Bb1 – F#3
  • ·      Practice exercises taking in different volumes of air
  • ·      Practice exercises at slower metronome markings as you become more comfortable with exercises

Exercise 1: (Very Easy)

Exercise 2: (Easy)

Exercise 3: (Moderately Easy)

Exercise 4: (Moderately Difficult)

Exercise 5: (Difficult, but not impossible)

Even though it would be impossible to breath this way during performance, the goal here is to train yourself to view breathing as a two-step process, giving you the breath control to play at many dynamic levels and speeds.

And just remember this: “If you don’t load up with enough fuel before embarking upon your journey, you might find yourself out of gas, stuck on the side of the road.”

Benefits of practicing these exercises:

Ø  Increased breath support
Ø  Improves intonation
Ø  Increased flexibility
Ø  Heightened oral cavity awareness
Ø  Strengthens embouchure

Ø  Increased endurance

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Trying to Create Career Traction: The Medeski, Martin and Wood Model

Creating career traction can be a very difficult and expensive process. What does career traction mean? In simple terms, it’s when one creates enough of a momentum in getting people excited about his or her music, that they reap the benefits of performing--financially and musically--with increasingly less effort.

Musicains typically try to create career traction when they have a weekly or monthly gig at a particular venue. In doing so one hopes that he or she can create a buzz about his or her band, leading to more people attending shows, leading to more bookings, leading to you making more money.

And here's where it gets more complicated.

One, for the bandleader, having a steady gig can get quite expensive. Most venues, particularly in New York City will only give you a steady night if it doesn't cost them anything--or at least very little. And it's not a critique of New York venues they're just practicing good business. Fortunately in a city like New York, many musicians will play a low paying gig if they like the music. And there are many who just want to play--particularly ones who play a lot of sectional gigs like Broadway shows, big bands and weddings. Consequently, they tend to jump at any opportunity to stretch out musically.

But no matter how badly they might want to stretch out, or how devoted they are to a leader's music, if a nicer paying gig comes along, they're going to take it. So as a bandleader it's always in your best interest to make the gig financially attractive if you want your band to be consistent. And this usually requires that you come out of pocket. So you have to decide: how much is this gig worth?

Several years ago, I played a steady gig at the Knitting Factory in one of their popular rooms, The Tap Bar. It was a lively spot but it only paid $100 for the band and two drink tickets. To say that it was a challenge getting musicians to play with me would be a gross understatement. There were a few loyal devotees, but most were not having it. If they did agree to play the gig, it was conditional. Either I had to bring their amp, or they wanted money for a car service to transport equipment. And some just insisted that I sit through their ten-minute rant on how slimy the venue was for exploiting musicians.

By the fourth week I’d had enough—between begging musicians to do the gig and playing for a backdrop of constant chatter. By the time the last gig came around, I was so frustrated that I sent someone to sub for me. The percussionist who was on the gig felt so betrayed he wanted to fight me. Trust me when I say it wouldn't have been much of a fight. He was a big dude. He could have whipped my ass in his sleep.

 But let's just say my case of Medeski, Martin and Wood syndrome had run its course. I knew I wasn't going to create a following nor create any career traction playing at The Tap Bar with Global Unity or any group for that matter. This led me to me exploring solo saxophone as a performance concept. And yes, playing solo saxophone is limiting, particularly for me as a black American.  White musicians and Europeans seem to have a monopoly on freer and experimental styles of music. Which is ironic since a lot of that music began as a black musical expression--Albert Ayler, The Art Ensemble of Chicago, Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman, just to name a few. And in all fairness, many younger black musicians are heavily influenced by straight ahead players like Roy Hargrove, Branford Marsalis, and Terence Blanchard. There are a few who have interest in experimental music--Darius Jones, Matthew Shipp and Craig Taborn—but they are still the minority.

I know that it's not as clear-cut as I’ve insinuated. As far as performance opportunities, a few venues may want to book me playing solo, but most want to hear black musicians like myself play swing and funk.  But it doesn't matter. What I've created with my solo concept is personal and uniquely my own.  I can nurture it however I like, for little or no money.

But back to my original point: Creating traction through a steady gig or by just playing together for years is easier when you have a cooperative. It's more difficult when you are the bandleader. A cooperative works for these reasons: Everyone has equal ownership so it's much easier to have consistency, and there's less of a financial burden since one person is not responsible for all of the costs.

Imagine if Medeski, Martin, and Wood was called the John Medeski Trio. It would have been difficult to convince the others to sleep in cars and drive across the country playing for the door and tips. Very few would make that kind of commitment if they were indeed just a sideman.

The Medeski, Martin and Wood model does work, but only when it's a cooperative. The Bad Plus has certainly proven that too.

So how does one create career traction and build a following if you are not part of a collective? 

First, you have to think long term. You have to envision where you want to be five years from now, ten years from now, and address your situation logically, strategically and unemotionally.

Often times we get ourselves into trouble modeling someone else's career path--which may or may not work. Let’s face it: Having a successful career is not always a linear process. So many success stories resulted from random encounters and connections. If you do use someone else's career as a model you're better off mimicking their commitment than the speed of their success. Do as they did, not what they did.

So if you do have a steady gig, being able to turn it into something bigger may not always be in the cards. So before you pull out your ATM card or check book thinking you're investing in a much bigger future, that may not always be the case. Sometimes a gig is just a gig, even if it is every week. So just enjoy the moment, and take it one performance at a time.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Top 40 Inspirational Tweets

Tweettng has become one of our favorite pass times. Celebrities use Twitter to carry out social media beefs. Musicians tweet to let fans and friends know where they're playing.  I started using Twitter to share some of my inspirational thoughts.

The challenge of Twitter is staying within the confines of the 140 word character limit. It has certainly taught me how to get the point.

Below is a compilation of tweets that I wrote thus far in 2015. I hope you find them inspirational, too!

  1. Learning which imperfections to correct and which ones to embrace is what will ultimately separate the artist from the artisan. (August 27)
  2. For every sideman gig I do, that's creative wealth taking out of my own artistic capital. But I'm not complaining. (August 23) 
  3. Non-linear thinkers are grown ups trapped inside of a child's mind.(August 1)
  4. Non-linear connections is the path to innovation. The hardest part is not letting the loneliness scare you. (July 22)
  5. Artists can't be defined by one or two projects. We can only truly be defined by our body of work. Personally, I'm just getting started. (July 22)
  6. It's OK if you can't play what others can play. Just make sure others can't play what you can either. No one can be you better than you. (June 15)
  7. The race card was a powerful tool. It was like kryptonite to the consciousness of the white liberal. (May 17)
  8. Quantity of information certainly has its place in the lexicon of jazz improv. But an inspirational message has to fit in somewhere, too. (March 30) 
  9. Highly skilled musicians often intimate us; whereas, great music inspire us. One says "No, you can't." The other says, "Yes, you can." (March 26) 
  10. Sometimes we allow great music to humble us too much. Being ignorantly confident gives us the confidence to dream beyond our means. (March 26) 
  11. Try practicing in a space that's isolated where no one can hear you. It's the only way you'll go to that ugly place called the unfamiliar. (March 25)
  12. If I were religious, I would pray everyday for the courage to be me. (March 23)
  13. Information without inspiration leaves the listener full of fuel and a desire to go nowhere. (March 20)
  14. Sometimes it's hard finding the courage to explore original ideas. Tried and tested vocabularies feel much more comforting. (March 19) 
  15. There's a lot of freedom that comes with not being in the spotlight. I'm free to go anywhere musically without fearing the repercussions. (March 18)
  16. We've been conditioned as artists to despise greed. The morality of greed is irrelevant. Greed incentivizes people to get the job done. (March 18)
  17. The jazz icons we worship aren't immortal gods. They're hardworking and talented artists who delved deeply into their music. (March 16)
  18. We should look for new audiences on the fringes. They're the ones looking for fresh ideas. People in the middle are already oversaturated. (March 15)
  19. When musicians say that there are only 12 notes in a scale, it's like they're saying that there are only 12 distinct sounds. Don't buy it. (March 15)
  20. If you're serious when you're practicing, but you have fun when you play, you're probably going to be OK. (March 15)
  21. Playing solo has given me the courage to face my musical demons head on. The truth is hard to confront, but it's the  best path to freedom. (March 11)
  22. I find it difficult to challenge conventional thoughts about music without challenging conventional thoughts about  life. (March 10)
  23. Some musicians release CDs for fun, others release them as a sense of duty. (March 10)
  24. To make great art we need two kinds of courage: The courage to dream the impossible, and the courage to bring that dream to fruition. (March 10)
  25. Space is music's foul shot. It's the easiest part of the performance to execute, yet we rarely use it to its full advantage. (March 8)
  26. The fact that so many older musicians feel that younger musicians are on the wrong track, probably means that they're on the right track. (March 7)
  27. Never hire a soprano specialist if you have a soprano part that you need played. We usually don't do normal very well. (March 4)
  28. In the studio I've noticed three types of leaders: one-take guy, multi-take guy, and we'll-fix-it-in-the-mix guy. (March 4)
  29. Are most of jazz's innovators black because jazz is black music, or did black musicians just work harder? (March 3)
  30. I know that I'm on the track artistically when I feel really lonely. (March 2) 
  31. There's no one braver than the black conservative. It takes real courage to go against the popular thought of 93% of your race. (March 2) 
  32. Longevity isn't the same as merit. Whether you've "been out here" for 5 years or 50 years, only great work entitles you to your due. (March 2) 
  33. Most of what I do is centered around the soprano. Yet it has almost nothing to do with the soprano. (February 28)
  34. Non-linear fingerings are the surest way to achieving non-linear outcomes. We have to get pass the Rubank Method book. (February 17)
  35. We've carved out this public narrative that greed is a four-letter word. When in fact it's the agent of motivation making us all try harder. (February 5)
  36. If you haven't heard of the painter Charles Pollack, you're not alone. Now his brother Jackson…(January 15)
  37. The soprano saxophone is like the ugly duckling. A beautiful swan misunderstood by preconceived notions. (January 14)
  38. The difficulty in carving out a new path is trying to maintain the old one. Letting go is difficult but necessary. (January 13)
  39. If you want to produce original work, it must be baked in an oven of original thought. (January12 )
  40. New Year's Resolution #1: Stop being lazy and walk up one flight of stairs to the 3rd floor gym. #2: Do an actual workout once I'm there. (January 5)
And before I forget, please go the Amazon to check out my new book Life Lessons from the Horn: Essays on Jazz, Originality and Being a Working Musician. The release date for the paperback is September 24, 2015. However, you can purchase  the e-book right now.  

Thanks again for visiting my blog!

- Sam Newsome

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