WHY practise patterns

Tuesday, 9th October 2018

You might have noticed that #WorkoutWednesday’ has become a regular feature on my social media platforms, and so you may be wondering why jazz musicians choose to practise pattern exercises. Scale and arpeggio patterns are a big part of the ongoing journey of most jazz musicians, and there are plenty of books out there which are crammed full of these ideas! Today we’ll briefly cover the main two reasons WHY we work on these exercises, and then next week’s blog will cover HOW to get the best out of them.

Firstly, I definitely don’t use patterns or exercises as a way to learn scales; learning scales is all about simple memorisation. For example, if you know that G major has F# and you are also confident in your ability to do the alphabet (at least from A to G!), then a little concentration will have you playing up and down a G major scale fairly easily in no time. Learning something isn’t just about doing it over and over again (that method does work but it takes AGES!), but instead it’s about relating something that we don’t yet know to something that we do already know. For example, G major is the same as C major except for the change between F and F#, so if we already know C major then learning G major is not hard. Equally, D major is just like G major with a C# instead of a C. And so on. So learning scales doesn’t actually even involve holding a sax!

Scale, arpeggio and pattern practise therefore becomes all about streamlining and fine tuning the execution, building fluency and confidence. This is something we will cover in detail next week. But most importantly, I’m constantly thinking about my sound and my timing because if these two elements aren’t in place then I’m going nowhere! In his famous book ‘The Art Of Saxophone Playing’ (a great read for serious sax students), Larry Teal states “All studies are tone studies. Never divorce tone quality from technique.”.

The other main reason for practising patterns is about understanding and encouraging motivic development in improvisation. Most exercises will take a short melodic idea (called a ‘motif’) and then move it around the horn, either through different chord progressions or simply by transposing it higher or lower (usually by a semitone) on each repetition. To me, this is a kind of ‘laboratory version’ of what I’m aiming to do on stage, as I come up with melodic ideas and then develop them, twisting them through different chords and reinterpreting them in different ways. I’ve found that routine pattern practise helps this to become a really strong habit and so I find myself playing an idea and then instantly thinking about how I can develop it up and down the horn. I’m not trying to create pattern exercises on the fly, but I am always mindful of a melody’s natural need for repetition and development. This is why practising patterns has always been such a big part of my own process, and I’m sure the same is true for many other musicians.

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Palms and Pinkies

Tuesday, 2nd October 2018

We’ve reached the final instalment of our guide to alternative fingerings, and today we’re focusing on cheats for getting quickly back and forth between our low and middle registers. When I say “cheat”, I mean that the fingerings I’m going to suggest don’t sound as good as their traditional equivalents but, depending on how fast we’re playing, this can cause little or no issue. In fact, most of us would agree that simplifying certain note changes so that they sound much smoother and more consistent can more than make up for losing some of the quality of one particular note.

Most sax players don’t realise that their palm keys (the ones used for top D, Eb and F) can be used without the thumb key as a way of “faking” the sound of the notes an octave below. It’s worth experimenting by pressing each palm key separately (without the thumb key) and comparing their sound to the tuning of your usual middle D and middle Eb fingerings. Most tenor players find that the palm D is a close match to a middle D, whilst most alto players need to use the palm Eb key instead (don’t ask me why!). So, next time you play a phrase which moves briefly to up middle D and then back down again … why press seven buttons when you can get away with pressing one?!

Equally, we sometimes need to play a phrase which sits almost entirely in our middle register except for a single low register C or C#. Again, most sax players don’t know that they can use their bottom pinkie finger keys with their thumb still on, in order to approximate the sound of the usual low register equivalents. The tuning can be a tad questionable and they sound a little buzzy, but they definitely work! So whenever I play a phrase in the middle register that moves briefly down to a low register C# and back up (e.g. middle D – low C# - middle D), I simply add the two little finger keys as if I were playing a bottom C#, whilst leaving my thumb on. Easy!

Lastly, if you’re used to the palm key fingerings for the top notes but haven’t yet explored the front fingerings then now could be the time! You’ll notice that your sax has an extra button which sits directly above the B key. Sometimes it’s round and pearly (especially on older horns) and sometimes it’s more like a vertical teardrop shape. If you finger a G but move your left hand index finger up on to this new button, that’s actually an alternative fingering for top E. If you then remove your left hand fourth (‘ring’) finger then it gives you a top F. And finally, you can turn that into a top F# by pressing the right hand top F# key – the same key you’d normally press to turn your usual top F fingering into a top F#. You might find these fingerings make the notes a bit harder to produce but it’s worth practising as they’re useful for certain situations (in my experience, students often find that two octave F major arpeggios are the light bulb moment!). They’re also great as a springboard into the altissimo register. If you need some help practising these then drop me an email and I’ll send you some more exercises, but this blog is already long enough as it is!

Thanks (as always!) for reading and I hope this has helped in some way. I’m always open to feedback and ideas for future instalments, and please enter your email address below to get a heads-up about future blogs. Sharing is caring!

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Using Alternate Fingerings

Tuesday, 18th September 2018

Welcome back to #Sax #Tips #Tuesday! Last time we looked at the different fingerings for Bb and today we are going a bit further! We are aiming to train our instincts to help us to get from one note to the next as easily as possible.

Every change of note involves moving fingers and there’s rarely a problem so long they’re all moving in the same direction! However, the biggest cause of untidy note changes is having to press some fingers down exactly as other fingers are lifting off. This is hard to co-ordinate and we can end up with a hint of another note in between if they don’t all move simultaneously.

For instance, changing from F to F# is a common problem. If the middle finger presses down before the index finger comes off then we get a tiny E in between, and if the opposite happens then we get a tiny G instead! Either way, it sounds pretty untidy! This is where the alternate F# fingering comes in. If I finger an F and then draw my right hand fourth (or ‘ring’) finger back in towards the palm of my hand, it lands on a small, usually teardrop shaped key. Pressing this key whilst I’m playing the F turns my F into an F#. It sounds much smoother (especially at speed) and so I’ve trained my habits to use that button whenever I have to change between F and F#. The only exception is passages which need my fourth finger to be pressing the D key immediately before or after the F#, otherwise I hit the alternate F# key every time I change between F and F#.

So that’s a great way to avoid switching between the index and middle fingers of my right hand, but what about the equivalent movement in my left hand between B and C. Luckily there’s an alternative for this as well! If I play a B as usual and then use the length of my right hand index to press the middle of the three side keys (just above the Bb key we spoke about last time), then that changes my B into a C. Again, I use this fingering whenever I’m changing between B and C, except when I need my right hand to be back on the front of the sax for the next note. For example, it doesn’t work well for B-C-D but it’s especially great for playing ornaments such as grace notes, turns, trills and neighbouring notes around a B.

Moving on, most sax players don’t know that there are in fact four different ways to play G#! This is because pressing any of the four left hand little finger keys will sharpen a G, not just the top one! This is fairly useless trivia most of the time, but it’s really handy if we need to change between G# and bottom C#, B or Bb. All we do is play the G# by pressing the C#, B or Bb little finger key instead of the regular G# key … easy!

The last fingering hack for today is really handy for moving between the low and middle registers. If I play a C or C# and then add any of the fingers of my right hand, the sound of the C or C# is almost unaffected. This makes it unnecessary for me to move my right hand fingers at all when changing between these notes! For example, if I have to move from middle D down a step to C and then back up, I simple leave all my right hand fingers on for all three notes. Call me lazy if you like, but I think that moving less fingers makes our playing faster, smoother and vastly reduces the chance of squeaks!

Next week I’ll be offering the final instalment of this mini-series and we’ll be focusing on alternate fingers for the top notes and other uses for the palm keys and little finger keys! Stay tuned and you can enter your email address below to receive an email when the next instalment is posted.

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Bb Fingering Options

Tuesday, 4th September 2018

So, after a few piano exercises, it’s time to get back on the horn. You see, the sax is a relatively modern and well designed instrument, but many players don’t take advantage of what it can do.

The piano has only one key for each note but the sax features at least two ways to play almost everything! The tuning and tone colour can vary and this is important for longer notes, but if we’re playing a fast passage then it becomes entirely about minimising the finger motion as we move from one note to the next. Just like in sports or martial arts, we’re training our reflexes to instinctively make the best choices.

Let’s take Bb for instance. To me, there is no ‘standard’ or ‘alternate’ fingering for Bb – I use four fingerings interchangeably depending on where I’m coming from or going to next. As a general rule, if all the Bs in a phrase are Bbs then I use the ‘bis Bb’ fingering, which means placing my left hand index finger across both the B key and the smaller key just beneath it. I can keep my finger almost horizontal as it isn’t necessary to cover the whole of both key pearls.

Apart from the fact that it only involves one finger, the biggest advantage of the bis fingering is that I can leave my index finger on both buttons even when I’m playing other notes, as the other notes aren’t affected by the bis button being held down. This means that I don’t have to worry about the Bbs at all – I simply leave my index finger on both buttons and my Bbs take care of themselves! However, the disadvantage is that it can be tricky to slide smoothly on or off the extra button (especially at speed), and so I tend to avoid using the bis fingering for any Bbs that come directly before or after a B natural … this is where the other options come in.

If neither of the notes before or after a Bb involve my right hand then I would tend to use the ‘side Bb‘ as a good backup. This involves playing an A with my left hand and then pressing down the lowest of the three right hand side keys with the edge of my right hand index finger (whilst still keeping my finger tips as close as possible to the key pearls on the front). The side Bb is especially good when moving too or from an A or C, however, if the notes before or after the Bb are going to need my right hand to be on the front of the sax then I don’t ideally want to be pressing buttons on the side.

Instead, if the Bb comes before or after a D, Eb, E or F (or anything below a low D) then I would use the front fingering. This is when I play a normal B with my left hand whilst also pressing the F key with my right hand index finger. This fingering also works with the F# key instead of the F key, and this is great for a Bb that comes before or after an F#.

This all probably sounds very complex but it’s simply about making decisions and then sticking to them! You’ll be amazed how quickly your fingers will catch on if you concentrate on playing each combination of notes in the same way every time. It all comes down to consistency.

Next week we’ll explore alternate fingerings for F#, G# and C as well as tricks for getting easily from low to high. Please subscribe below to get email updates (not spam!). Have a great week.

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Its All Relative (part 3)

Tuesday, 4th September 2018

Song writing and improvisation are largely about choosing melody notes to place above a chord, and this final ‘It’s All Relative’ exercise will teach our ears to recognise how each combination can sound.

There are 12 notes in a chromatic scale, 7 of which are also in the ‘diatonic’ scale (the major or minor scale on which the song is based). The 1st, 3rd and 5th of these diatonic notes also make up the ‘tonic triad’, so let’s start with the triad of C major, just like last week.

In previous weeks we’ve learned that a note which is only a semitone above or below a chord tone will sound ‘dissonant’. These dissonances can be great, but they definitely have a spicier flavour and tend to ‘pull’, wanting to resolve to the chord tone which is above or below.

So, look at the remaining 9 notes of the chromatic scale – the notes that aren’t in the C major triad. 4 of these notes will be diatonic (in the C major scale) and 5 will be chromatic. Play some notes from each set individually over the C major triad and see how they sound.

Let’s look at the 4 spare diatonic notes first. 2 of them are dissonant - the 4th (F) will sound like it wants to fall to the 3rd (E) whilst the 7th (B) will want to rise to the octave (C). Noticing how they want to pull in opposite directions will help us to tell them apart.

Playing either the 2nd (D) or 6th (A) over the C major triad sounds beautiful. Why? Because they’re diatonic (in the right key) and consonant (not clashing with any chord tones). In fact, you may have heard of 6/9 chords (e.g. C6/9) and these include both the 2nd and the 6th.

Next, look at the spare chromatic notes. Both the b2nd (Db) and b6th (Ab) will want to resolve downwards to the chord tones below. Telling them apart is mainly about recognising the sounds of their resolution notes (C and G) and we discussed identifying chord tones last week. Equally, the #2nd (D#) and #4th (F#) will want to rise to the chord tones above. Again, telling them apart is more about recognising where they’re heading (E and G) and practising this will naturally help us to recognise the different tensions these notes create by themselves.

The b7th (Bb) is the only consonant chromatic note, as it isn’t a semitone above or below a chord note, and adding the b7th creates a “jazzy” or “bluesy” sound. In fact, a C chord with a Bb on top is called C7 (or ‘C dominant 7th’) and this type of chord is hugely common.

So, we play a triad, add a random note on top (without looking!) and then ask ourselves 3 questions … 1: does it sound diatonic (in the right key) or chromatic? 2: is it dissonant (wanting to pull up or down) or consonant? 3: if it’s dissonant, does it want to rise or fall?

Finally, when we talk about the 2nd, 4th or 6th notes of a scale, we usually imagine adding an octave underneath and call them the 9th, 11th and 13th. There are good reasons for this which we won’t tackle today, but that’s why we see symbols like C7b13 or C7#9 on lead sheets.

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It’s All Relative (part 2)

Tuesday, 21st August 2018

Unlike pianos and guitars, saxes can’t usually play more than one note at once, so chords are certainly out of the question! That’s why we have to make friends and join bands, sharing the notes between us. However, learning to recognise how different combinations of notes (‘chords’) will sound lets us understand more about what’s happening around us, and this can help us to know how our own melodic ideas will sound over the top. So, here’s an exercise which I always recommend …

Firstly, you need some sort of piano or keyboard, no matter how cheap or nasty! Small, old, second hand keyboards can be bought for a matter of a few pounds and take up very little space - my 2 year old even has a toy keyboard that I could do this exercise on with no problems!

Knowing which note on the keyboard is which does help, but isn’t immediately necessary! Just press any key and try to hum/sing/whistle that note. If you can’t get the right pitch straight away then it helps to press a few keys to the left and right of it before trying it again. Now try holding down two different keys at the same time and hum/sing/whistle them individually. If you struggle then try playing them separately first so you can hear each on its own, and then play them together again afterwards. And then try it with 3, 4 or more keys!

For the next exercise you will need to know which piano key is which, so take a look at this diagram if you need. Also, a ‘triad’ is the three different notes of an arpeggio played at the same time.

Let’s use the triad of C major which is the notes C, E and G. Play them on the keyboard and try to sing each note individually as you did before. See if you can hear the ‘root note’ (the note that the triad is named after – in this case ‘C’) more prominently than the other two. Then mix the notes up so they’re in different orders (E, G, C or G, C, E), which we call ‘inversions’. Can you still sing each note individually and hear the root note (C) more prominently? Or do you find that the highest or lowest always tends to stick out more? Play around!

Once you can pick out the root note, try to hum/sing/whistle different intervals above it by using the skills we discussed last week. For example, can you play a C major chord on the keyboard, identify the root (C) and then sing an A (the 6th) over the top to create a C6 chord!?

Once again, this exercise is a slow burner, but a few mins each day will yield amazing results in a few weeks. Stay tuned for the 3rd and final part next week!

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It’s All Relative (part 1)

Tuesday, 7th August 2018

Singers don’t go on stage thinking “I hope I don’t forget the F#s"! They know the tune and simply sing it the way they know it should go. Scales, keys, etc. all become irrelevant – it’s about the sound.

You see, any tune can be played starting on any note and the specific notes themselves (A, B, C, etc.) don’t actually matter! What matters is the distance we have to move from one note to the next – that (along with rhythm) is makes up a tune. These jumps are called intervals. Assuming the intervals are correct for whatever tune we’re playing, we can choose any note to start from. If we start from a higher note then all the following notes will also be higher. We’ll end up with a higher version of the song, but it will still sound like the same song!

I love listening to a group try and sing “happy birthday”! Clearly everyone knows the tune however the women will usually start singing on higher notes and the men will start on lower notes and it often takes the whole song before the group negotiate their way to end together!

Each interval is given a name which is based on where the higher note would fall in the lower note’s scale. For example, C to D is called a 2nd because D is the 2nd note of a C major scale. Equally, C to E is called a 3rd, C to F would be a 4th, C to G is a 5th, etc. It does go a little deeper than this, with each interval also being called either major, minor, perfect, augmented or diminished. However, we’re going to start out by focusing only on notes from a major scale for now, so we can get away with just calling them 2nds, 3rds, etc.

There are lots of different ways to learn to recognise intervals and there are many online games and apps which will play us an interval and ask us to identify it. However, I’m always wary of trying to LEARN something by repetitive testing. It’s just pretty depressing at first! For me, testing is great for measuring our progress and setting targets, but not a good way to actually learn something! Instead, my approach is very hands on (actually playing the instrument!) and helps us to really absorb the sound of each interval.

So here’s the exercise:

Choose one interval each day (e.g. a 3rd) and try to play as many examples of that interval as you can, using the major scales you know. For example, C-E, G-B, F-A, D-F# and so on. Don’t forget to count the first note of the scale as number 1 and then carry on up from there! Play each pair of notes slowly (LONG TONE PRACTISE!) and really listen to how they sound together. Do they remind you of any songs? For example, a 5th sounds like the beginning of Star Wars (and many others!), whilst an octave is like the start of Somewhere Over The Rainbow. Stick to only one interval each day (e.g. 2nd, 6th, 7th, etc.) so you can really get to know it. When you’re feeling confident, play only the first note of each pair (not both) and try to sing/hum/whistle the second note. Then play the second note and see if you were right.

This exercise won’t make you a virtuoso overnight, but if you commit to a couple of mins each day then you’ll gradually break down the barrier between what you hear in your head and what you actually play on your horn! It’s a slow burner but it works! Little and often is key!

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Shaping a Solo

Tuesday, 31st July 2018

If I were to stand in front of a student for 30 mins or an hour with no plan of what I wanted to teach them, that lesson would probably feel like about a decade … for both of us! Instead, the fact that I always have such a clear idea of what I want to achieve means that the lesson flies by and it’s time to finish before we know it! A long improvisation section can be equally daunting, but in the same way, it’s all about knowing what we want to say.

Structuring and shaping a solo is crucial if we’re going to communicate anything to our audience. Every good story has a start, a middle and an end, and this natural ebb and flow of interest and energy helps the story teller to capture and maintain their audience’s attention.

Imagine we’re plotting a solo on a graph. Along the bottom we have the length of the solo and up the left hand side we have the ‘intensity’ of our playing. Think about what shapes we could give our graph – perhaps a straight line or maybe an arch that peaks in the middle. ‘Intensity’ could describe a wide range of musical ingredients such as volume, speed and pitch range. There are also certain notes within a scale which can create either more or less energy by themselves – for example, the 2nd note of a scale often sounds particularly chilled.

The simplest approach is to draw a line which starts in the bottom left hand corner and finishes in the top right, beginning the solo quite relaxed and ending on a climax. This is all about pacing ourselves and not being tempted to dive in head first with all our best licks!

Towards the end of 2017 I wrote two blogs giving a detailed analysis of a solo by Bob Reynolds, one of my biggest inspirations. You can check them out at www.davebrazier.com/blog_post.php?ref=04122017 and www.davebrazier.com/blog_post.php?ref=12122017. And here’s an exercise …

Choose a backing track and decide on a length to improvise for - maybe a set number of bars, or perhaps just a certain number of seconds in the track! Decide on a shape and try to pace yourself to fit it within that length. You’ll be surprised how quickly the time flies by!

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Listening to Jazz (part 3)

Tuesday, 24th July 2018

Forming and understanding our own opinions about music is a really key skill for musicians to master. Anyone can say “I like this” or “I like that” but musicians have to dig a little deeper.

It’s always interesting to spend a few minutes of a lesson listening with a student to a song they like, and then asking them to think about why they like it. I get some really considered answers about the range of dynamics, the shape of the melody, the off-beat rhythms, etc. These are often the “ingredients” of music (as we discussed 3 weeks ago) that I find myself reminding students about the most, and by actively trying to connect these things with the music we like listening to, we can motivate ourselves to think more deeply about our own playing.

Jazz has a wide repertoire which is constantly growing but, like any other style, jazz musicians also routinely cover each other’s songs ... so often in fact, that many songs have now become known as “jazz standards” (also known collectively as “The Great American Songbook”).

Last week I wrote about the importance of listening to a jazz album as a whole, but inevitably one track will always become the favourite. We can use this track to help us discover other artists and other albums, and here’s a simple approach that I often suggest to my students ...

Once you’ve had a good listen to an album, choose a track you especially like and try to find other versions by different artists. When you find a version you like, check out the rest of the album that it’s on. Maybe another track will stand out on that album … and so on …

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Listening To Jazz (part 2)

Tuesday, 17th July 2018

The pop music industry is largely designed to be enjoyed one song at a time, especially now that tracks can be individually downloaded or streamed with little to no effort or expense. Traditionally, an artist would release 3 or 4 singles per year, each packaged with a B-side or a remix, all of which would then be compiled onto an album alongside a few other tracks that had been deemed not catchy enough to be singles or B-sides … and it’s a formula that works!

Jazz newbies often make the mistake of expecting this same canapé style experience, however to a jazz musician an album isn’t just a compilation, but a detailed snapshot of the band as it was at the time of the recording, documenting their work and the development of their style. In fact, to listen to just one track from a jazz album is a bit like picking up a book, reading chapter four and then wondering why we didn’t enjoy or even understand it!

It’s always worth finding out a bit about whichever album we’re listening to. Who were the musicians? Who else did they play with? When was it recorded? And what else was going on at the time, both in music (jazz and other styles) and in society as a whole?

Naturally, 1 or 2 tracks will stand out as favourites, and that’s no bad thing. With google on our side we can even try to find the sheet music and learn to play them. Even if the melodies are hard, we can still play the root notes of the chords along with the recordings.

Something else I hear all the time is that new jazzers should start by listening to the older players first and then work their way through to the present day. I couldn’t disagree more. Listen to whatever sparks your interest - at this stage it’s all about lighting a flame. In any art form, each new movement is generally a reaction with or against something that’s gone before it. Every musician has influences, whether that be Oasis and The Beetles, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix, Beyoncé and Michael Jackson or Joshua Redman and Cannonball.

Once we’ve found someone we enjoy listening to, it’s time to start finding out who they enjoy(ed) listening to. It’s like working our way up a family tree – everyone has parents, grandparents and great grandparents and it’s great to find out who inspired whoever is inspiring us!

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Listening To Jazz (part 1)

Tuesday, 10th July 2018

If music is a language then jazz definitely has a dialect all of its own! It’s quite common (but not necessary, of course!) for sax students to want to start exploring jazz, and so here’s my thoughts.

Families, friends and other social groups often enjoy similar types of music, so to go against the trend and explore something new is both laudable and daunting! And we’re all so heavily immersed in pop music that it can become tough to understand how listen to anything else! Recognising common structural patterns in music allows us to predict what might happen next, helping us to feel involved in the music and connected with the musicians. For example, pop music usually follows a verse-chorus structure, and this repetition is comfortably familiar.

Most jazz songs are loosely in ‘ternary form’ which means that a main tune (or ‘head’) is played at the start and the end, with a contrasting middle section in between. Learning to recognise the head (and spot it when it returns) is a massive step towards appreciating the song. There’ll often be a pause, drum fill or unaccompanied sax phrase at the end of the head. If you can spot the time that this occurs, skip to the part of the song which is roughly the same length from the end. Do you notice anything in the tune which you recognise from the start?

What happens in the middle section can vary for each different type of jazz. In big band jazz the middle often features a completely different tune and accompaniment, whilst in small band jazz (e.g. quartets, quintets, etc.) it’s usually based very heavily on the same ideas. As a general rule, most of the band just repeat the backing music that accompanied the head whilst soloists take turns to improvise an alternative melody over the top. Each ‘solo’ will usually start quite relaxed and build up to a climax before handing over to the next player. To continue following the structure, try humming the head whilst the soloists are improvising. Their improvisations are really just brand new melodies being played over the same backing music, and you may even notice short phrases from the melody bring quoted in the solos. Modern funk/soul/rock influenced jazz sometimes has a simpler and more stripped back approach to the improvisation section, in which the band will often loop (or ‘vamp’) only one or two chords instead of repeating the full backing music that had accompanied the head.

Knowing where to start with jazz can be pretty daunting (there’s plenty to choose from!) and we’ll discuss this in part 2. If you’re lost for ideas in the meantime then I tend to recommend Cannonball Adderley, Sonny Stitt, Stan Getz or Ben Webster as good places to kick off!

#Sax #Tips #Tuesday

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Structuring a Practise Session

Tuesday, 3rd July 2018

There’s no single right or wrong way to go about this, but the trick is to develop an approach which creates enough focus whilst also allowing us the freedom to follow our instincts.

Firstly, I try to avoid the name “warm up” for the part of our practise in which we work on our tone, breathing, scales, etc. To me, calling it a “warm up” makes it sound like a ritual we have to go through before we start practising properly (e.g. songs, improvisation, etc.). In actual fact, our “warm up” is often the only part in which we’re really focused on just practising the instrument itself! All the rest of the time we’re usually working mainly on reading music, improvisation, transcription, etc. The “warm up” is really the business end!

So, always make time for honing your skills and don’t let it become a repetitive ritual. Imagine that being a saxophonist was a meal and ask yourself what the ingredients would be. E.g. tonguing, dynamics, vibrato, low tone quality, high tone quality, smooth fingering, etc. Most (if not all!) of the ingredients you might think of can loosely be grouped in to two categories – sound development and finger development. So my aim is to start every practise session by working on (often inventing) two exercises – one to target something in each group. For example, yesterday I started by playing long notes in my bottom register with crescendos (swells) and diminuendos (fade outs) and then I worked on an interval pattern, playing fourths with a metronome. A few minutes of that and I could feel my skills sharpening up nicely!

The best part of this focused “ingredients” approach is that it makes us notice things in the music we play afterwards that we might not have spotted before. If we’ve just been practising dynamics then we’ll naturally think harder about that as we continue through the session.

I think it’s also important not to try and do too much in one session. I love the line near the beginning of The Lord Of The Rings when Bilbo describes himself as feeling like “butter spread across too much bread”. It’s easy for our practise sessions to become like that.

#Sax #Tips #Tuesday

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Brightening & Darkening Scales

Tuesday, 26th June 2018

There’s a lot that’s already been written about modes but I find very little of it to be actually useful … in fact a lot of it is the opposite! So here’s my take on the subject.

You may have heard, for example, that a Dorian scale is a major scale starting on its 2nd note, or a Lydian scale starts on the 4th. However, whilst that’s very true, it does little to tell us how we can use them, or (more importantly) what effect they might have on the music.

Firstly, a touch of theory. If a basic major or minor scale has 1 sharp, that sharp will always be F#. If it has 2 they’ll be F# and C#. 3 would be F# C# and G#. In fact, the complete series of sharps can be remembered by the phrase “Father Charles Goes Down And Ends Battle”. That phrase also works backwards for flats: “Battle Ends And Down Goes Charles’ Father”! So 1 flat would be Bb, 2 would be Bb and Eb, etc. So when I say that we’ll be adding or removing a sharp or flat, we’ll in fact be adding the next or removing the last from those series.

Imagine we’re improvising or composing a melody over a single chord such as D major. The D major scale (which has 2 sharps - F# and C#) might be an obvious starting point, but it becomes a little dull after a while. It’s just a bit vanilla … so let’s add some flavouring!

To create a “brighter” sound, we can experiment by added the next sharp in the “Father Charles” series. In the case of D major, this means raising the G to G#. Focusing our ideas around the G# creates a far more interesting sound and makes our playing sound much jazzier! We can also “darken” the scale by lowering the C# to C and reducing D major’s 2 sharps down to just 1. And we can also change minor scales too – just add the next sharp in the series (or loose the last flat) to brighten, or add the next flat (or loose the last sharp) to darken.

We do have fancy names for all these scale versions too. A major scale is really called the Ionian and its brighter and darker versions are the Lydian and Mixolydian. A minor scale is actually called the Aeolian and its brighter and darker versions are the Dorian and Phrygian. But whatever you do, don’t get distracted by these clever sounding names – getting started with modes is actually very simple and it’s all about training our ears to recognise the darker and brighter tones. So dig out a play-along track (or a band!), and start messing about!

And there is such a thing as the Locrian scale but that’s a job for another day!

#Sax #Tips #Tuesday

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Making an Entrance

Tuesday, 19th June 2018

Student bands are often full of really promising musicians who can play quite complex passages of music absolutely brilliantly … but don’t appear to have the faintest idea of WHEN to play them! I was always taught that the right note played at the wrong time is the wrong note! Knowing WHAT to play is absolutely no use unless you know WHEN to play it, and this ultimately comes down to counting the beats.

Teachers can often give the impression that we should be trying to count 1+2+3+4+ in our heads whilst playing a tune, but this isn’t the case. The 1+2+ thing is useful if we need to figure out how a rhythm should sound, but we don’t try and count whilst playing a complex melody. However, counting the beats during long notes and long rests is vital if we’re to have any chance of playing the next passage of melody at the right time. It’s about knowing when in the bar (measure) the entry should come, and then counting the beats up until that point.

Here’s the exercise … set a metronome to a relaxed speed (maybe 80bpm) and experiment with playing a note on a specific beat or “+”. Starting on a beat (such as beat 3) is relatively easy – we just count the previous clicks (e.g. the first 2) and then play on the next click. Starting off a beat (on an “+”) is trickier, but I always tell my students to imagine that they’re “interrupting” the beat. So starting on the “+” of the 2nd beat just means that we need to count 2 clicks and then jump in before the 3rd, half way between the 2nd and 3rd clicks.

Rather than just playing a single note, we can also try starting scales or other exercises on a specific beat or “+” of the bar. More experienced players can also benefit from using other subdivisions as well as just halves, hitting entries on specific thirds or quarters, etc.

#Sax #Tips #Tuesday

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Equivalent Time Signatures

Tuesday, 12th June 2018

In my experience, students rarely have a proper understanding of equivalent time signatures but those that do are able to access a whole extra world of practise ideas.

Most students know that the top number in a time signature tells us how many beats there are in each bar (measure), but many have no clue what the bottom one means! The bottom number (which can be 1, 2, 4, 8, etc.), tells us what length of note we’re counting as being “1 beat”. It’s all about choosing an appropriate unit of measurement - you wouldn’t weigh an elephant in grams and you wouldn’t weigh a saxophone in tonnes … it just wouldn’t make sense! Instead, we tend to choose a unit of measurement which is relevant to whatever we’re measuring!

So here’s the code: if the bottom number is a 1 then we’re counting semibreves (whole notes) as being “1 beat” each. If it’s a 2 then we’re using minims (half notes) as our pulse, 4 means we’re counting in crotchets (quarter notes), 8 means quavers (8th notes) and so on. This does mean that we end up with some equivalent time signatures in which, for example, 1/1, 2/2, 4/4 and 8/8 are all essentially the same thing. Comparing 2/2 time with 4/4 time is like comparing two £1 coins with four 50p coins! So what’s the difference? Why have both?

Imagine you’re drawing a complex diagram and you can either use graph paper or plain paper. The graph paper would make it much easier to draw accurately but all the extra lines would make the end result look cluttered and scruffy, compared to the same diagram on plain paper. In the same way, a complex semiquaver rhythm may seem confusing when counting them as quarters of a crotchet pulse, however counting them as halves of a quaver pulse makes them way easier to work out. But then all the extra beats can also make the music feel stilted and wooden. So treating a 4/4 bar as if it were 8/8 gives us twice as many beats to line the notes up with, like drawing on graph paper. Then once it’s starting to flow, we can remove the extra beats and revert back to a crotchet pulse … like tracing our finished diagram on to plain paper!

So here’s my approach to hard or fast passages of music. First I set my metronome to something sensible (perhaps 60bpm) and call that 8/8 time (so quavers are 1, crochets are 2, etc.). As I start to master the music, I’ll gradually increase the speed until I reach 120bpm. At this point I make a shift, resetting my metronome back to 60bpm but also changing the time signature back to 4/4. Playing at a speed of 60 crotchets per minute in 4/4 is actually identical to playing at 120 quavers per minute in 8/8, but it feels much more relaxed and free. I might then continue to progress until I reach a speed of 120 crotchets per minute in 4/4 time, and then I shift back to 60 again, call that 2/2 time and carry on! So, my metronome never goes beyond 120bpm and I’m constantly working on my ability to subdivide in different ways.

Thanks for reading and I hope that was helpful (and made sense!). Perhaps I’ll do a video about this sometime soon, as it’s something that my students always find really helpful.

#Sax #Tips #Tuesday

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Subdivision

Tuesday, 29th May 2018

If you ask any builder, carpenter, engineer, etc. they’ll tell you that measuring things carefully is crucial if you are to have any hope that they’ll fit together! And music is no different.

First, we need a regular, consistent unit of measurement and musicians call this the “beat” or “pulse”. That pulse should only get faster or slower if we want it to! Next, we need the ability to accurately feel multiples and divisions (e.g. 2 beat notes, 1/2 beat notes, etc.). Multiples (e.g. holding a note for 2, 3 or more beats) usually only needs a bit of concentration, but divisions definitely take practise.

Here’s the exercise: first, set your metronome at 60bpm (1 beat per second) and try to play a series of notes that last for one beat each. Listen really carefully and be picky – starting each note perfectly in time with the click is actually harder than it sounds. Once you’re confidently feeling the pulse try to play twice as fast so there is now an extra note precisely in between the beats as well. Listen hard!

Gradually try to fit 3, 4 or more equal length notes in each beat, with the first of each set landing perfectly in time with the click. Try saying words like “tea”, “coffee”, “orange juice” and “coca cola” in your head first to help you to judge the equal divisions accurately.

Once you’re feeling each set evenly and keeping good time with the click, try removing one note of each set and replacing it with a rest. Maybe play sets of 4 but without each 2nd note. Or playing sets of 2 without the 1st of each set is great for learning to feel off-beats! More advanced players can take it further by emphasising (“accenting”) a particular note in each set. Perhaps try playing 3 notes in each beat but making the 2nd note stand out as the loudest. Or even experiment with playing 4 notes per beat whilst emphasising every 3rd note!

All these exercises can be done with a metronome but we can also use drum loops. I have an app actually called “drum loops” and there are also loads available online. A loop gives us more rhythmic support as the drum beat will have more to it than just a regular click. We can even take advantage of the huge library of backing tracks on YouTube. Just find a note on your instrument which fits the key of the track and go crazy! In fact, it doesn’t even need to be a backing track – why not just try playing along with the radio?!

Finally, these exercises also work perfectly as vibrato and scale practice by using your embouchure or fingers to divide the pulse instead of your tongue. There’s literally not limits! Have fun!

#Sax #Tips #Tuesday

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Timing

Tuesday, 22nd May 2018

Anything we think we can do but we can’t do in time … well, the bad news is that we can’t do it. Why? Because as a general rule, we’re never going to need to not do it in time! This is music! Timing and rhythm is everything. Try to sing your favourite song with all the notes the wrong (or the same) lengths and you’ll know what I mean! After all, we’re talking about an art form which began with cavemen banging things with sticks (we now call them drummers … sorry!).

For me, music is a team game, so personal practise is all about improving my own skills so I can play better with the team. I never practise by myself ‘cos I never need to play by myself! So I’m always using a track, metronome or drum loop, depending on what I’m working on.

Metronomes get a lot of bad press but my experience as a player and a teacher is very black and white. If you use a metronome (and use it properly) you will improve. A lot. Quickly. And if we find it off-putting then we’re simply not playing in time … and that’s the point!

You can get lots of different metronomes – old school style pyramids, battery powered gadgets and even apps. But whatever you use, make sure you can hear it really clearly. Perhaps use headphones or an amp/speaker if necessary. A metronome that you can’t hear is no use at all.

Set a realistic speed and never be tempted to play “chase the metronome”! Rushing leads to sloppy technique, sloppy technique leads to bad timing and bad timing leads to the dark side! As I’m always saying to my students: “play as fast as you CAN, not as fast as you CAN’T!”. Personally, my metronome never goes faster than 120 beats per minute (for reasons I’ll explain next week!) and it’s rarely set above 80bpm. Timing and technique are both about accuracy and in my experience, speed is just a massive distraction! This is music, not the Olympics!

#Sax #Tips #Tuesday

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Side Stepping

Tuesday, 15th May 2018

Here’s a really simple tip and it’s an idea that you may have heard of already. However, you’re not alone if you’ve never quite understood how to go about making it actually sound good!

Side stepping is when you use a scale which is deliberately a semitone higher (or sometimes lower) than the key of the piece (e.g. playing a Db major scale over a song in the key of C!). It can create a cool effect but you can also just end up sounding like you’re messing up!

For me, the trick is to see side stepping as just an extension of the approach notes and enclosures that we discussed last week. Just like with those, the key is to target a semitone resolution at the end … you need to ‘side step’ back in just like you side stepped out!

Imagine you’re playing over an Em groove, using a dorian, minor pentatonic or any other minor scale variation. You know you can approach the note B by playing a Bb or C before it, or to create even more tension you can enclose it by playing them both first (e.g. Bb - C – B). Both the Bb and C are in the key of Fm which is a semitone above Em, so you could argue that approaching or enclosing the B is just a mini side step! So why not extend it? How about F – G – Ab – Bb – C – B?! That creates even more tension and therefore even more resolution! How much tension you want to create will determine how long you remain in the ‘wrong key’ before side stepping by a semitone back in to the ‘right key’. But however far you choose to push the tension, it’s all about targeting a resolution note and approaching it by a semitone.

Don’t forget that a strong, well developed and confident tone is crucial to making anything sound good, especially if you’re playing out. If it sounds like even you’re not quite convinced by what you’re playing then your audience definitely won’t be! It’s up to you to sell it!

#Sax #Tips #Tuesday

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Chromatic Enclosures

Tuesday, 8th May 2018

The simplest chromatic enclosures are just “double approach notes” so it’s worth checking in with last week’s tip, if you haven’t already. This week’s instalment takes it to the next level!

As we explored last week, a chromatic approach note is a semitone above or below a scale/chord note and it rises or falls to resolve, but an enclosure surrounds its resolution by using both. So, instead of F# - G or Ab – G, an enclosure would be F# - Ab – G or Ab – F# - G. This doubles the strength of the tension and consequently doubles the satisfaction of the resolution! Just like approach notes, enclosures are usually played quite fast but can be drawn out more slowly to last longer and create even more tension!

Enclosures have other uses for more advanced players as well. For example, when you’re playing an improvised phrase that’s running up or down a scale by step then you can sometimes find yourself about to resolve on to a new chord note before you actually get to the new chord! But instead of landing on the new chord note too early, I often step over it and then come back to it from the other side, thus “enclosing” it to delay its arrival. This also gives the new chord a real feeling of excitement when the tension of the enclosure is resolved.

Enclosures can also be extended to include more notes. Common extended versions of the example I gave earlier could be F – F# - A – Ab – G or F (or F#) – A – Ab – F# - G, both of which can be inverted to start on the A and head downwards.

#Sax #Tips #Tuesday

 

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Chromatic Approach Notes

Tuesday, 1st May 2018

Here’s a trick to help you sound cooler! All you need is a good knowledge of the tune you’re playing or the chord/scale you’re improvising with, and a decent grasp of the chromatic scale.

Approach notes are a great way to create tension and resolution in your playing by squeezing in some of the “wrong notes” that we mentioned last week. They’re very much a part of the modern pop/smooth jazz sax style and something which some players do tend to overuse, IMO!

They’re easiest to do at the start of a phrase (after taking a breath) but you can throw them in anywhere! It’s simple - instead of hitting the first note straight off, play whichever note is a semitone above/below it first, and then slur down/up to the note you were aiming for. For example, if you were to start a phrase on G, you’d just play a short F# or Ab first, then slur it on to the G before carrying on with the rest of the phrase. Approach notes are usually played very short and quickly, but you can create more tension by holding them for longer.

In my experience, the best way for students to practice approach notes is to spend a while exploring each option instead of trying everything at once! Choose one note from the scale you’re playing and make up lots of phrases that start by approaching that note from above/below. Be patient and try improvising as many phrases as you can, all of which should start by approaching the same note. Get to know it! Can you repeat and develop each phrase? Can you sing the approach note leading up/down to the scale note? Can you hear it in your head?

How often you use approach notes and how long you hold them for is entirely up to you! How much tension do you want to create?

#Sax #Tips #Tuesday

 

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There are NO wrong notes

Tuesday, 24th April 2018

We like to categorise things in a right vs. wrong, good guy vs. bad guy, kind of way. Black and white are easy to grasp, whereas shades of grey take way more subtlety in understanding. On the other hand, many people have a negative image of jazz and make derogatory jokes that it’s all about playing the ‘wrong notes’. What I aim to get across to my students in that there simple are no ‘wrong notes’, just varying degrees of ‘right notes’!

Whatever key or chord you’re playing over, the ‘strongest’ note will always be the root, so if you’re playing over a C chord in the key of C, the ‘best’ note will be C. After this, the next strongest would be the 3rd and 5th (E and G), which make up the rest of its arpeggio. Next in line to the throne would be the 2nd and 6th (e.g. D and A) as these turn the major arpeggio into a major pentatonic scale (or its relative minor pentatonic scale, which is the same thing). Finally, the 4th and 7th (e.g. F and B) complete the full major scale. The remaining notes can all be called ‘wrong notes’ but it depends on how you use them. Indeed, the 4th and 7th are actually in the ‘right key’ but can also sound quite wrong, depending on when and how you play them! It all comes down to what you’re trying to create.

Here’s the exercise … you want to make your melody feel like it’s going somewhere (not just rambling!) and so imagine each musical phrase as a journey. To go on a journey, you have to start somewhere that you don’t want to be and move to somewhere ‘better’. This is why starting on the root note of the key/chord (i.e. playing in the key of C and starting your solo on a C) is usually a bad idea - you’re starting your journey in the best place you could possibly hope to be and so it has no natural momentum to want to go anywhere! However, if you start a phrase on the 3rd or 5th then it has a little bit more desire to go somewhere, if you start on the 2nd or 6th and it has more energy and if you start on the 4th or 7th then it has even more! And starting on one of the ‘wrong notes’ gives it loads!

Depending on style and music taste, you might want your phrases to have varying amounts of energy and this is a great way to get learn to control this. Choose a play along in a key you’re comfortable in and try to make each phrase ends on a ‘better’ note than where you started. Plan which notes will be the first and last (going from ‘weaker’ to ‘stronger’) before you start playing, and then try to find lots of different ways of getting from one to the other. Focus on maximising the tension at the beginning and the sense of arrival at the end.

#Sax #Tips #Tuesday

 

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Transposing For Sax

Tuesday, 17th April 2018

The ability to transpose is vital for sax players who want to play with others as well as take advantage of play-along tracks on YouTube, etc.

Saxes speak a different language to everything else and so, whenever you play a note on your sax it isn’t what you think it is! E.g. A isn’t actually an A! There are good reasons for this but let’s not worry about the “why” for today!

Altos & baris are said to be “in Eb” but this is nothing to do with an Eb scale or key! Instead, it means that a C on those saxes actually sounds like an Eb. Tenors & sopranos are “in Bb” which means a C on those saxes comes out as a Bb.

It’s important to know how big the gap is between the actual sound of each note compared to what we call it. For example, the sound of each note on an alto is always 3 semitones higher than its name (the same as the gap between C & Eb). Therefore, an alto sax player is always playing in a key which is 3 semitones lower than their band or backing track, so an alto sax player wanting to practice in G major could use a play-along track in Bb major. Equally, the sound of each note on a tenor sax is 2 semitones (or a whole tone) lower than its name, so a tenor sax player wanting to practice in G major would need a backing track in F major.

Here’s an idea: download a tuning app on your phone/tablet and the tuner will tell you what each note you play is actually sounding like! It’ll also tell you whether or not you’re perfectly in tune, but that’s a topic for another day!

#Sax #Tips #Tuesday

 

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