On Dialogue… …

My social media feeds have been even more than usually irritating lately. I’ll take aim at a particular issue, although my thoughts on this issue are largely applicable to almost every other even slightly emotive topic in the public consciousness. Whatever that is.

I write this article now because I’ve had a gutful, and expected better from my fellow humans.

In the interests of full disclosure, I am a white male in a committed heterosexual relationship who harbours serious reservations about the continued utility of the institution of marriage in general.

Sensible ways to encourage a ‘yes’ survey result

You’ll note that I refuse to use the term ‘vote’ to describe the postal survey. The overpriced farce that is the same-sex marriage postal survey process is not a ‘vote’. It doesn’t involve a change to the Constitution, is not binding on parliament, and doesn’t have any of the advertising restrictions that an actual election does.

Barring a successful challenge in the High Court (to be heard tomorrow), the survey will go ahead. In an effort to reduce the damage to our collective psyches, friendships, family relationships, etc… here are a few tips.

Please note I use conservative in a non political sense. By conservative, I refer to one who is, above all, resistant to change in social, cultural, or intellectual fields. There are conservatives with both right and left leaning economics, and not all of those who have right leaning economic ideals are conservatives. Conservatives are not necessarily racist or sexist.

Be polite

I am on the fence as to whether the social construct in which we reside can properly be referred to as civilised. Perhaps the term is used in an aspirational sense. Perhaps it merely refers to the existence of some kind of societal order, although it’s impossible to imagine a type of human existence that does not have such.

I’m think most of us would like to imagine that we are civilised people in accordance with the term’s usage in ancient Rome, or by our former colonial masters. In each of these societies, when stripped of its nationalistic and racial connotations, ‘civilised’ meant that one understood, and adhered to, the conventions of how to behave in society. For our purposes, this includes how to speak to people, and how to conduct a debate in an orderly manner.

Chaos and shock produce extreme push-back from conservatives, and even more from religious people. Given that many of those considering a ‘no’ response are religious conservatives, aggravating these reactionary tendencies is a terrible idea.  Indeed, it is likely to lead to further grotesqueries such as a certain advertisement we all saw recently that I refuse to link on account of not wanting to generate any more views for it. I am not unaware of the irony in this situation – it’s taken this issue to make clear to many younger people the conservative nature of religious fundamentalism. I’m quite amused that Cory Bernardi is in agreement with the Islamic fundamentalists on this.

On an unrelated note, ‘proper speech and action’ is generally considered a virtue. Consider your conduct during the campaign to be an opportunity for growth as a human being.

Argue from principle

The greatest challenge for the ‘yes’ cause is overcoming an instinctual fear of change held by many of a conservative bent. This is why the ‘no’ campaign is running arguments based on ‘slippery slope’ fallacies. “Where will it end?” has been used throughout history to justify terrible decision making. Don’t let the generation led into disaster in Vietnam by this reasoning be led to make yet another poor choice. There are numerous ways to deal with slippery slope arguments. They do not include scorn, laughter, or disbelief. There is a reason these responses do not work. Conservativism is founded upon fear, and attempting to overcome this fear by emotive appeals is a fools errand.

Ask a person responding ‘no’ why that is their response. If they have reasons, address the errors in those reasons. If they have no reasons, suggest that perhaps extending rights to people who don’t have them is a fundamentally moral idea in the situation where there is no reason to deny those rights.

Be prepared to outline your reasons for responding ‘yes’. If you don’t have reasons, find some, preferably before you speak to anyone about this issue, and definitely before you speak to anyone smarter than you about the issue.

In short:

  • Argue from economic utility
  • Argue from a rights perspective
  • Have reasons
  • Sidestep emotive arguments

Don’t belittle anyone

Again, ‘civilised society’ and whatnot…

The recent democratic debacle in the US has shown us, among other things, that conservatives and the uneducated dislike being preached to. They also dislike being told that they’re wrong, that their beliefs are idiotic, and that they’re bad people for thinking and being who they are. The more the left told these people they were racist and sexist and stupid, the more fervent became their idolatry of an opportunist who told them exactly what they wanted to hear.

Don’t do this.

If you’re unable to outline a persuasive argument for same-sex marriage without belittling an individual’s beliefs, then do those who would benefit from a ‘yes’ result a favour and refrain from participating in the public discourse.

Don’t be a bully

Why would we give up the moral high ground on this? The churches and mosques and lobby groups are going to trundle out some of the most offensive advertising material we’ve seen in recent times. This is because the ‘yes’ cause has a sound theoretical and logical basis. All the conservative movement has to go with is misinformation and scare tactics.

Don’t resort to personal attacks, don’t resort to professional or personal bullying or blackmail. It undermines the efficacy of our actual arguments. It undermines the effectiveness of having a sit-down with that recalcitrant relative or friend and having a legitimate discussion. When an individual is persecuted on account of their political or religious belief it is bad for all of us, regardless of how offensive that belief is. When we are advocating on behalf of a traditionally persecuted group, persecuting others weakens our position, and tarnishes the legacy of those who are LGBTIQ and have experienced persecution in the past on account of identifying with this group.

Champion free speech

Certain conservative lunatics have been attempting to make this into a free speech debate… I have a few points.

  • We do not have an enforceable right to free speech in this country.
  • This is not a free speech debate.
  • Free speech is freedom to speak, but not necessarily freedom to be heard. It is definitely not a freedom to be listened to.
  • Free speech cannot discriminate. Many conservatives are highly protective of their free speech, but not that of others’. In the interests of fairness, this is also true of many socialists, and most communists.

Ask the conservative whining about their freedom of speech to explain to you how their non-existent speech rights are infringed by two other people of the same sex, in a different location, getting married. They won’t be able to. Tell them about how same sex marriage is legal in places like California that have extremely strong, constitutionally entrenched free speech protections. If they’re worried about the free speech of the church in the abstract, or religious officers in the particular, there will almost certainly be an exemption in the legislation whereby individuals can refuse to conduct marriages on religious grounds. It’s likely to be quite a strong exemption given that (for whatever reason) the churches are collectively quite a powerful lobby group. Note also that there are current exemptions in the Sex Discrimination Act at Commonwealth level, and parts of the Equal Opportunity Act in Victoria to allow churches to (for example) refuse to appoint female priests on account of their gender.

Also ask the conservative whether not allowing same-sex marriage impacts on the freedom of speech of those who cannot be married to their same-sex partner.

Of course, please ask these questions with reference to everything else I have said above.

Final thoughts

Let’s be honest, the postal survey is really just an attempt by the right wing of the Liberal party to further ruin Turnbull’s prime ministership. I’ve said from the beginning that it’s an issue that should have been pursued by private members bill straight away while Turnbull’s popularity was soaring. That it has happened in this way is testament to the bloodymindedness of a number of MPs who are terrified of how the world has changed in the past thirty years, and one MP who has a chip on his shoulder so large that it has become his defining feature as an individual. In proceeding with the postal survey, this small group of MPs, has, in my opinion, made it ethically impossible for almost anyone currently under the age of 35 to vote for the Coalition into the foreseeable future. They’ll lose the small ‘l’ liberals, classical liberals, libertarians, and moderates. This is a shame, because, while an effectively two-party system is a bad idea, it’s a better idea than a one-party system.

It’s also a shame, because by definition a ‘liberal’ government should be in favour of equal rights. Essentially, this demonstrates the misnomer that is the Liberal party in Australia.

In the interests of full disclosure, that the Labor party has decided to support SSM now, when they had the majority necessary to amend the Marriage Act from 2007 until Abbott was voted in, is opportunistic at best and cynical at worst. I’d like to think the change of position is based on the views of each members’ constituents, but I think it has more to do with hoping the Coalition implodes.

This post may also be completely moot, on account of the upcoming High Court hearing.

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Where’d my Sound Go? Playing in Loud Environments

The saxophone is an acoustic instrument.[1] Generally when we practice, and when we have lessons, we’ll be unamplified. Most of the work you or I do is to develop the nuances and complexities of a beautiful acoustic sound. However, if you hope to ever play much in public, you will have to get used to playing through a PA. This post will be a short one, dealing with the trials of playing in a loud band and/or through a PA.

My Experience

I played for several years in a Brisbane based band called Miguel. This was quite a loud group, and we often played festival stages, as well as club dates. On the club gigs, we were often lucky enough to have a highly accomplished local sound engineer. This made life easy. I’m the stationary person on the far left of screen.

I’ve also played numerous outdoor gigs with a blues band. I doubled saxophone and hammond organ. This was also a very loud band – blues guitarists like to rely on driving their amps really hard.

Finally, I’ve done quite a bit of club work with small jazz groups, and some corporate work of varying types. There was a huge variety of sound setups involved.

Playing in a Loud Ensemble

The first thing I’m going to say is a bit of a no-brainer: Look after your ears. Get some proper earplugs made. It’s awkward to play the saxophone with them in, but that’s better than trying to go to sleep with your ears ringing every night. It’s also better than not being able to hear.

The next problem you will encounter in a loud environment is hearing yourself. Now if you follow my earlier advice and get some earplugs, you’ll find that you can actually hear yourself better with them in. This is due to vibrations from the saxophone mouthpiece through your head via your teeth – you wouldn’t normally hear this too much, but because you’re no longer getting as much volume from your ears, you will. The bad news is that this feedback is misleading in terms of tone quality. You’ll probably need to supplement it with something from the wedges.

Here we come to the crucial point: if you can’t hear yourself, tell someone. If you can’t hear yourself you are a liability. Everyone will suffer. Including your audience. So tell someone.


Pro tip: there will never be enough wedges to go around. Compromises will have to be made. Deal with it.


 

I should also mention that I know of saxophonists who’ve had success with reflector screens similar to what trumpet and trombone players use. I can’t comment on these because I’ve never used one myself.

My final advice for playing in a loud environment is that you will have to come to terms with its effect on your sound. You aren’t making any contribution if your contribution is not perceptible.[2] You might need to work on having the stamina to play in a loud environment. Unfortunately, a lot of the finer details are simply going to be lost, particularly in terms of articulation. Concentrate on playing with good time, producing solid volume, and playing in tune. This kind of playing might involve an equipment change – I tend to prefer a half-strength harder reed in a very loud context, because what I get out of softer reeds (flexibility in tone and attack, warmer low register, the ability to play very quietly) is of little to no use in a loud environment. By contrast, the advantages of harder reeds (greater volume, more pitch stability) suit a loud environment. In my experience, hard reeds tend also to last longer under heavy use.

Microphones and ‘Your’ Sound

SM57.png

The Horror.

Chances are, the microphone with which your sound will be assaulted will be a Shure SM57. It’ll be positioned very close. This will have some interesting effects on your sound. Frustratingly, you’ll never really know what they are, and you’ll never really have control over what measures are taken to mitigate them. Just remember this: the person doing the sound has a tough job. They were probably the first person to arrive and will probably be the last to leave. They have to balance the sound of the whole band. They might have to EQ your horn so that you’re out of the way of the vocals. Or maybe there is a quirk in the room that means a particular frequency is way too powerful. Alternatively, if you have an ordinary sound tech, there’s no point stressing: control what you can control (your playing) and make it as easy as possible for them. If the sound is awful, anyone who matters will know it’s the sound not you. My inner cynic believes that most of the audience is unlikely to realise there’s a problem.

One final point about microphones. Chances are you’ll be close miked, with a very directional mic. Don’t be the guy who moves around a heap. This is a pain to the person behind the desk. Here’s a historical example. Rudy Van Gelder gives the following anecdote of how he came up with a name for a famous Coltrane blues recorded live at the Village Vanguard:

… what happened, he (Coltrane) was in this club and he was moving his horn and walking around the stage, and that’s really how that started. That title came because that was what I was doing in that club those nights – “Chasin the Trane”.[3]

It’s testament to Van Gelder’s ability and temperament that he was able to mix this live recording  as well he did on the fly.[4] Don’t be tempted to test whether your engineer is similarly inclined. You’re not Coltrane, and your engineer is probably not being paid very well.

Conclusions

Perhaps the unifying theme of this article is that sometimes we have to relinquish control. Come to terms with the fact that the engineer has ultimate control over your sound. Come to terms with the fact that in a loud environment the fine nuances of your sound will probably be imperceptible to anyone. What we need to do in the situation is give the engineer quality to use. This means the basics – play in time, play in tune! Be aware that if you’re off the mic, you’re off the mic. Make sure you can hear yourself. Take care of your ears.

Here’s a final anecdote to demonstrate that in some circumstances, showing yourself the door might be the best option.

When I was younger and less experienced, I played some gigs with an absolutely dreadful corporate cover band. Alarm bells should have started ringing when they asked me to learn note-for-note solos from the albums. Why would anyone hire a band that does this? Why not just play a CD? DJ’s are good at playing the original record. In fact they’re better at doing so than any band ever including the band that made the record. Anyway, I digress. This was quite a loud band. Actually it was a very loud band.

Im a terrible person

I’m a terrible person.

The manager was the parent of the three vocalists and also did the sound for the gigs. On two occasions he told me that I should buy a new mouthpiece so that I could play louder. My ‘lack of volume’ was causing him problems because he was having to turn up my mic to the point where there was too much bleed from the guitars/monitors etc… Perhaps a better solution might have been to reduce the volume on stage? Anyway, I should have cut and run at this point, as grown-up me who has been to law school etc would. It’s not like I play quietly. The situation was not going to improve. There would have been nothing shameful in saying, ‘look, you hired the wrong guy, I can’t play in the way you want, you should find someone else who can. Good luck with that’.

Also...

Also, you’re a dreadful band that plays awful music very loudly and very badly.

[1] Mostly… I’ll direct you to my saxophone and electronics stuff for an alternative perspective.

[2] For example: we don’t need to hear the identity of the 2nd tenor player in a big band. However, if this player stops playing altogether, we should notice – the sound of the section should suffer.

[3] David A. Wild, Coltrane: The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings (liner notes) (MCA Records, 1997) 28.

[4] The sessions were recorded straight to tape (obviously – it was 1961).

 

BUYING GEAR: A Recipe for Lasting Happiness

Disclosure statement.

At the time of writing I have no commercial relationship with an instrument/reed/mouthpiece maker or dealer. Hopefully this leaves me able to give advice that is only biased by my personal preferences. Note: you’ll probably detect a Selmer bias here because that’s largely what I play.

Introduction

It’s been years since I bought a saxophone or mouthpiece. I can safely say that it’s not something that I’ve missed. There are a few reasons, of which lack of funds is one. Mainly though, it’s because I’ve now got two horns[1] and four mouthpieces that I have no need to change. It’s not that I’ve got the best gear, but I’ve got the right gear. When things aren’t working, it’s because of a failure of mine, not of my equipment. In other words, I reach my limits before I reach those of my instruments. This has not always been the case.

This article contains advice about buying stuff. This includes perennially useful topics such as: ‘how to not waste your money’, ‘how not to be stuck in a situation with the wrong equipment’, and ‘how not to be taken advantage of’.

Some Friendly Advice

In my experience, the impact caused by the player and the reed are an order of magnitude greater than that of the mouthpiece, which in turn has a markedly more significant impact than the instrument. What’s great is that the items that have the most impact cost the least money to address. Note I haven’t included ligatures here. They are an exception, having little effect, but being less expensive than mouthpieces. Please note that I’m biased – I use string.

Setup element Investment
Player Time, hard work
Reed AUD5-8 (ongoing), frustration
Mouthpiece AUD40 (cheap and nasty)

AUD150-500 (off the shelf)

AUD200+ (refacing)

AUD500+ (custom)

AUD??? (vintage)

Saxophone (Altos – Tenors are a little more) <AUD1000 (don’t go there)

AUD1000-2000(new entry level)

AUD4000 < (pro)

AUD??? (vintage)

It’s very easy, particularly when you’re a new(ish) player with disposable income, to skip straight to changing your mouthpiece and saxophone. This is a bad idea for a few reasons:

  • Early on you will have no idea what you’re looking for. This results in wasted money.
  • It encourages a mindset that it’s the gear that produces your sound. This is wrong. You produce your sound – it is not the responsibility of a guy in a factory on the other side of the world.
  • It encourages the buying of new gear on a regular basis. There is not enough time to learn to use said gear. You will be perpetually dissatisfied. And poor.
  • There’s something sad about people playing beautiful vintage horns who then don’t use them to their potential. These horns are a non-renewable resource! No one is mass-producing comparable instruments (although they will tell you they are). Demand also inflates the prices of these horns and puts them out of the reach of people who need them. Having said that, it’s your money.

More Friendly Advice (pro player setups)

Be wary of the approach ‘my favourite player used/uses brand name X, therefore I use brand name X.’

Firstly, historical player setups are often widely misreported. A report that player X used strength 7 reeds is useless if it turns out that they also filed them until they blew like strength 3’s. Which, funnily enough, are what everyone else used/uses. Alternatively, how can you be sure that the player was actually using the reported setup on the album you’re trying to emulate? Coltrane provides an excellent example. His typically cited setup is an SBA tenor with a small tip opening Otto Link mouthpiece and very hard reeds. This may indeed be what he was using in the mid-late 50’s. However, he later bought several Mark VI’s, was photographed with a hard rubber mouthpiece on several occasions,[2] and there are reports of him having had significant mouthpiece work done and of his ownership of literally buckets of mouthpieces.

Secondly, there is no guarantee that modern players with product endorsements are actually using that gear. They might either surreptitiously use their favourite old horn, or, use gear so heavily customised that it ceases to bear much resemblance to the off-the-shelf instrument/mouthpiece. There’s no way of knowing if this is happening, particularly on recordings.

Thirdly, there is no guarantee that using the same gear as someone will make you sound like them, or that the gear a star uses is actually of excellent quality. Perhaps the manufacture of mouthpiece X is stupendously inconsistent, and finding a good one requires going to the factory and playing 50 mouthpieces?

I must be talented

But I must be musical. I’ve spent thousands of dollars on mouthpieces.

Even Friendlier Advice (teacher’s recommendations)

Here are a few reasons teachers might recommend certain pieces of gear:

  • they believe it will assist the particular student,
  • they have a commercial relationship with the seller,[3]
  • they make the same recommendation to all their students,
  • they are familiar with certain gear,
  • they have an ideological axe to grind.

Some of these reasons are positive. Others not so. Be very wary when a teacher recommends you use the same gear as the teacher and all their other students, particularly if this is something out of the ordinary. However, it is often best to trust your teachers’ opinion. They often generally have your best interests at heart. Also, there are strong arguments in favour of having students play on middle of the road setups[4] of the kind recommended by most teachers.[5]

How to Buy Things

Preliminary Step: Do I Really Need to Make this Purchase?

I had a student once walk in to a lesson with a new Theo Wanne mouthpiece. It was quite expensive. He had not yet developed the level of control necessary to actually play this mouthpiece. Far from fixing this student’s problems, the mouthpiece actually created additional frustration – ‘why can’t I play this mouthpiece?’; ‘where’d all my money go?’

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A sensible choice for your teenager who just got their license. Photo Credit: Mr.choppers – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40349517

Many problems have nothing to do with gear. Buy new stuff when you either a) have grown out of your current gear, b) need to be able to do something that you cannot do on your current gear, or c) need something specialized to a particular end. Don’t buy new stuff to fix an issue unless you are sure that the issue is caused by the gear you’re using. As a corollary, don’t always assume that your gear is fine and you are the problem. I remember tying my embouchure in knots trying to stabilise my low F when in fact my saxophone was leaking.

First Step: ‘What am I really after?’

General life advice – the best place to start when making any purchase is to identify what your aims are. This avoids situations like the following:

  • owning a ‘multimedia’ computer without a DVD drive.[6]
  • owning a car that you can’t fit your double bass into.[7]
  • having a membership at Planet Fitness.[8]
  • having a drawer full of uninspired off-the-shelf brand-name alto saxophone mouthpieces that you don’t play and can’t sell.[9]

So what do I mean by identify your aims? Here are some non-exhaustive considerations:


Mouthpieces/Reeds

  1. Response
    • Do I need precise articulation?
    • Do I need low notes to speak immediately? At all volumes?
    • How much control do I need?
  2. Volume
    • Do I regularly play in very loud environments without amplification?
    • Do I need to be able to play truly soft?
  3. Comfort
    • How much physical energy are you prepared to exert when making your sound?
  4. Sound
    • What is my preferred sound?
      • Presence of high partials?
      • Purity of fundamental?
      • Presence of mid partials?
      • Amount of ‘white noise’?
  1. Intonation
    • How much pitch flexibility do I need?
  2. Volume
    • Do I regularly play in very loud environments without amplification?
    • Do I need to be able to play truly soft?

Instruments

  1. Response
    • Do I need precise articulation?
    • Do I need low notes to speak immediately? At all volumes?
    • How much control do I need?
  2. Engineering
    • What kind of keywork do I want?
    • High F#? High G???
    • How often can I afford servicing? How much abuse do I need the instrument to withstand?
  3. Comfort
    • What do I need for the instrument to be comfortable in my hands?
  4. Intonation
    • How much flexibility do I need?
    • How ‘intune’ does the instrument need to play without effort from me?
  5. Sound
    • What is my preferred sound?
      • Presence of high partials?
      • Purity of fundamental?
      • Presence of mid partials?
      • Amount of ‘white noise’?
  1. Volume
    • Do I regularly play in very loud environments without amplification?
    • Do I need to be able to play truly soft?

Note that context is vital here, as with all things musical.

Second Step: How Much can I Spend?

As with all things in life, we are limited in our gear search by how much we can spend. There’s not a lot I can say about this, but it’s a good idea to know your limits. Be a responsible adult.

NB: this amount should include the time and effort it takes to find/source the piece of gear.

Third Step: Try a BUNCH of Things

Try all the things. Make a cull, and then re-test all the remaining things. The aim is to get down to a shortlist of a handful of items. If you’re lucky, one will feel right. This should be the one you purchase. Otherwise, things get difficult. If you’re on the fence between two pieces of gear, only time and knowing what you really need will help you to make a decision. Sleep on it. Come back another day. And another. Hopefully, if you’ve cultivated a decent relationship with the store from which you’re buying, this won’t ruffle any feathers. Alternatively, if it’s a private sale, someone being antsy about you spending too much time with an instrument might be because of a number of reasons. Maybe they don’t like you, or maybe the horn/mouthpiece has some hidden problems. If you’re a working musician and are buying a horn from a professional who is ‘on the scene’, you might be able to get a loan of the instrument for longer period of time. This depends on the reputability of both parties.

Here’s the really tough thing. In my experience it takes anything from a month to three months to get used to a mouthpiece or an instrument. You’ll be able to play well on it before then, but it won’t feel entirely comfortable. You’re not going to have this kind of time with an instrument while you make your decision. This means you’re going to have to listen carefully to your instincts. The question isn’t ‘does this piece of equipment provide what I need’, but ‘does this piece of equipment have the potential to provide what I need. To answer this question requires a solid concept of what one wants, good ears, and attention to nuances in physical feedback. It should be obvious by now that this is not a question that newer players are capable of answering.

Fourth Step: Buy the Thing – Stick with the Thing

This is obvious. Remember that many of the problems you’ll encounter with a new instrument or mouthpiece will go away once you’re fully accustomed to it. However, if you immediately regret your purchase, or if it has a problem not apparent when you were in the store, make use of the store’s returns policy. Most reputable stores allow returns if you change your mind. Just be wary that it’s easy to become a morass of frustration and indecision during this process. The whole point of figuring out what you need from a piece of gear was to reduce this chance – don’t undo your good work above by second guessing yourself. It’s also easy to embark on a course of action whereby one buys something new every month, accumulating gear that they a) don’t need, and b) don’t sound good on. Remember the draw full of expensive but ordinary mouthpieces that I can’t get rid of?

Pro-Tip: the virtues of middle of the road gear

This is a topic almost worthy of its own article.

Because it takes a long time to become comfortable with new gear, and because many newer players lack the feedback mechanisms to spot the right gear, there is a lot to be said for ‘middle of the road gear’. For example, the Selmer Series II alto does everything quite well. It plays well in tune, is capable of a wide range of tone colours and volume levels, it feels good in the hands. By contrast the Series III has always struck me as a little more focused towards a certain school of playing, and takes more effort to play in other ways.[10] On the mouthpiece front, my first recommendation for a dedicated jazz tenor mouthpiece tends to be a hard rubber Otto Link in a conservative tip opening, rather than something that provides either more volume or more control. Middle of the road gear benefits newer players because it provides the opportunity to develop in whatever direction takes a player’s fancy. It lets these players discover what it is they want. It can also benefit working musicians because the overwhelming majority of us cannot afford to be specialists. If you’ve committed to playing really loud, and to that end buy a vintage large bore horn and get the keywork opened up, when you get the call to play an orchestral section gig you’ll probably need a different horn. However, if you play a more middle of the road horn, it can do both things quite well, although it won’t be quite as huge sounding as your vintage horn. Of course this doesn’t present a problem if you’re not interested in getting orchestral gigs. I’ll just note – this is one of the reasons so many players are still using the Mark VI and Series II – they’re versatile.

M6A1_heavy_tank_TM9-2800_p122

Yes, this will drive down a suburban street. No, it is not the best option for driving down a suburban street. In fact, it is probably a bad idea to drive this down a suburban street.

Pro-Tip: Your Perfect Instrument

Sometimes all this advice goes out the window. Here’s the story of how I got my current tenor and my current alto.

The Tenor: Trading Post Find

In mid-2005, I was the third year of my music degree. My parents were visiting. Dad was reading the trading post, and something caught his eye. It was the listing for a Mark VI tenor up in Noosa. So we called the guy up and made a time to go and try the horn. It wasn’t in great nick – needed a lot of work done, and I suspect the mouthpiece that came with it had some serious issues. It was also a later serial number, a 70’s horn rather than the more sought after 50’s instruments. However, I straight away heard something in the sound. The instrument was purchased. I then had to spend nearly another grand getting it fixed up. I broke every piece of advice I’ve given above – I wasn’t actively looking for the instrument, I wasn’t sure what I was after, I didn’t spend much time with it. However, I’ve been completely happy with it, and in fact prefer it to the four other Mark VI tenors I’ve had the opportunity to play. It was the right horn for me.

sax 004a

I got lucky.

 The Alto: On the Spot Chang in Priorities

In 2006 I decided I would get hold of a second alto to use as a ‘jazz’ horn. The idea was to get an old Beuscher or Conn so that I could keep my classical and jazz setups completely separate.[11] I went to an instrument shop, tried some vintage horns in the price range, and wasn’t impressed. I then tried a silver Mark VI alto that they had in the shop – because I was curious. Turns out, it was a significantly better horn than my Series III.[12] There was more flexibility, and I knew immediately that there was more that could be gotten out of it tone wise. Again, it was the right horn for me. So I gave up the search for a second alto, bought the Mark VI, and then spent several years trying to sell my Series III for what it was worth, and also sell a Cannonball alto that I won in a competition.

Image006

I got lucky a second time.

Conclusion

Here’s the process: figure out what you’re really after, decide on a budget, try everything, then make a purchase and commit to it.

Be wary of relying on reported professional setups. Also, be wary of striking out on your own if you’re a newer player. Consider starting out with a more middle of the road approach. Finally, sometimes the perfect instrument arrives through sheer luck. You’ll know when you play it. But this is rare – it hasn’t happened to me with a soprano yet.

Best of luck for the gear search!


 

[1] One day I will find the right soprano.

[2] See for example the cover art to The John Coltrane Quartet Plays. Also listen to the album if you haven’t. And if you see a vinyl copy for a reasonable price please let me know.

[3] I have never heard of anyone doing this with woodwinds. However, I have heard rumours about certain teachers in the string world.

[4] Please see below discussion.

[5] For example, Selmer S80 C# alto mouthpiece.

[6] Thank you Apple.

[7] The sensible choice is a station wagon. Not a sports car.

[8] If you don’t understand the reference, that’s ok.

[9] A truly shameful display.

[10] Caveat: I’ve only played a few of them, though I did own one for 8 years.

[11] I am now of the opinion that this was foolish – what is a jazz saxophone anyway???

[12] I’m not a huge Series III fan. I feel like they make you push the mouthpiece in so far that it doesn’t matter what’s happening in the mouthpiece chamber. Almost everyone I’ve heard play one sounds like everyone else who plays one.

A NEW APPROACH TO TECHNICAL WORK FOR WOODWINDS

Recommencing heavy practice again after some time away from the instrument has started me thinking about our practice habits as musicians. It occurs to me that some of these habits have shaky justifications – indeed, the reason we do these things is often that we’ve always done them. This article is about a gripe I have with technical work, in particular how we practice technical work. I’ll limit this to woodwind players as a) that’s my area of expertise, and b) other instrument families have their own technical challenges that this approach does not address. This article applies equally to both improvising and non-improvising musicians. I will start by outlining a rationale for practicing technical work, because this rationale sheds light on the inadequacies of the dominant approach, which I term the ‘key centre approach’. Criticisms of this approach will be identified, followed by an outline of a new approach and some exceptions to the utility of this new approach.

Why Practice Technical Work?

Technical work is fundamentally not the same as practicing a work or practicing running the changes of a tune. One generally practices either of these things to get better at that particular thing. For example, if you get a call to play one of the saxophone parts in Bolero, any practice you do of the excerpt is for the purposes of improving your performance of Bolero. Any other benefits you get from this practice are incidental. By contrast, only those preparing for an exam practice technical work for the purpose of improving their technical work. Those of us without an impending exam or overzealous teacher breathing down our neck practice technical work for the purpose of improving our playing generally.

There’s an obvious parallel with sports here. A sprinter’s sport[1] consists of running very fast for 60, 100, 200, or 400 metres in competition with others. However sprinters don’t do very much of this in training, particularly over the competition distances. Their training includes general physical preparation (tempo runs, plyometrics, weight training), and sport specific practice (drills, starts, speed work). There is a small amount of overlap between the two. A side effect of training is that sprinters get better at drills, starting, and weightlifting, but that’s not the goal. The goal is getting better at running fast over competition distances.

Technical work is analogous to the sprinter lifting weights. You don’t need to be good at technical work (lifting) to be good at playing the saxophone (sprinting). Being good at technical work (lifting) is a side effect of using technical work as a means to improve your playing of the saxophone (sprinting). Technical work provides us with a means of focussing on a particular facet of our playing, so as to (a) develop general preparedness for future playing, and (b) address specific issues that we encounter.

668px-Usain_Bolt_2012_Olympics_1

‘I work really hard at technique drills so I get really good at technique drills. I don’t care if they help me run fast.’ – said no athlete ever.


By Nick Webb from London, United Kingdom – Usain BoltUploaded by Kafuffle, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20600380


 

To increase general preparedness, technical work needs to be relevant to your general needs as a musician. To address specific issues, technical work needs to be focussed on those specific issues.

Students (and a lot of adults) will hate practicing technical work if they chase short term gratification. Musicians who do this think about getting a great mark in their exam or not getting ‘in trouble’ at their next lesson. Both of these goals encourage a short sighted approach to technique because they encourage practicing technique as an end in of itself rather than as a means of getting better at the important stuff[2] over the longer term. This approach may work for a semester, a year, or even a whole university course, but it results in an unfinished musician who likely will cease making dramatic improvement after leaving their course of study. It is also massively time-inefficient in the longer term.

If you’re old enough to understand the rationale for practicing technical work, but don’t do so, it indicates to me that you’re not terribly interested in improving. Those who are serious about technical work appreciate that it’s where much of the real work takes place.

‘Key Centre’ Technical Work Isn’t the Whole Story

Most of us group our technical work by key centre. We’ll practice major scales and arpeggios, minor (harmonic and melodic) scales and arpeggios, chromatic and whole-tone scales. Some more dedicated individuals might practice their scales in intervals.[3] Also they might practice diminished and dominant seventh arpeggios and maybe also augmented arpeggios. ‘Jazz’[4] musicians will also practice their major and melodic minor scale modes, arpeggios with extensions, and pentatonic and hexatonic scales and patterns. I have three main criticisms of this approach.

Criticism One: Key Centre Specificity

Focussing on the key centre makes the technical work too specific for the vast majority of us. I am aware that this is a controversial statement – I will explain.

The general trend in western composed and to an extent improvised music has been away from functional harmony. Modern composers increasingly favour alternative harmonic structures. This is not a new thing – it has been a gradual process since at least the Romantic period. It has been obvious since Debussy, more than a century ago. Even a cursory examination of the works of Stravinsky, Bartok, or Messiaen should demonstrate that their foundations are rarely dominant-tonic relationships, or even a simple ‘key’. At the most general, however, the western musical ‘system’ remains the same: a twelve note chromatic scale[5] and intervals of varying levels of dissonance between these scale degrees.

Because it specifies the context in which a technical element occurs, the key centre approach is tailored to music that matches this context, specifically music based on functional, key-based relationships. If we only practice key-based technical work, we invite difficulties when attempting to play music that is not founded on this approach. Perhaps the key-centre approach is enough for those of us who exclusively play music of the Baroque or Classical periods,[6] or even pre-1960’s jazz. However, the majority of us, even full time orchestral musicians, do not fall into either of these categories.

Criticism Two: Middle Register Bias

The key centre approach, as practiced by many, is biased towards the middle register of an instrument. This is because we tend to limit our scales/arpeggios to multiples of an octave. For example, if I were to play an A flat major scale on the saxophone, there is only one complete octave of the scale within the instrument’s ‘standard’ range.[7] Even if I were to play up to the first altissimo Ab, giving two octaves, my scale still won’t include the bottom major sixth[8] of the instrument. To make matters worse, on most woodwind instruments the extreme low and high registers are the most difficult to produce, and generally also the most difficult to navigate.[9]

This criticism may be mitigated by playing scales to the limits of the practical range, however, the extremities will still not have as much playing time as the middle register when scales in thirds and fourths are introduced.

 

Criticism Three: Interval Bias

Chances are, you and your students aren’t one of that exclusive group of people who play their major scales in all intervals. However, even for those people, the key centre approach is still biased towards small intervals. Scales consist only of tones and semitones. Arpeggios include thirds, with the major and minor arpeggios adding a perfect fourth. However, this fourth is effectively hidden because the mind is focussed heavily on getting back to the tonic, not playing the fourth. The key centre approach tends to omit intervals greater than the fourth entirely. Even in music with tonic-dominant based harmony, fifths and sixths are common, while sevenths, octaves, ninths and greater intervals regularly appear in modern music.

Interval bias can be addressed to an extent by practicing scales in intervals of a third or greater. However, by only practicing these intervals within a diatonic scale, what we tends to happen is that we learn their character within that scale, rather than practicing the hearing and fingering of the interval in a way that can be applied independently of context.

An Intervallic Approach

There is a first-principles solution to these problems with the key centre approach. This solution is to be found in the rationale for practicing technical work, from which derive the following propositions:

  1. Technical work should contribute to the overall development of the musician’s technique.
  2. General technical work develops the general preparedness of the musician to play the music that they play.
  3. General technical work is more efficient when it is applicable to the widest possible area of the musician’s art.
  4. General technical work should avoid bias towards particular registers, content, or context.
  5. Specific technical work should be focussed towards a particular register, content or context.

Propositions two and three are the critical starting points when devising a general technical work scheme. We need an approach that is neither genre nor time-period exclusive. A possible route to this end is to reduce musical material to its lowest common denominator. As mentioned above, the twelve intervals created by chromatic scale are common to the vast majority of the situations we play in nowadays. It is logical, therefore, to base our system of technical work on these intervals.[10]

The backbone of this system is what I call interval stacking. Each ‘stack’ consists entirely of one interval, repeated through the entire range of the instrument. Stacks are transposed until the relevant interval has been played from and to each individual pitch on the instrument.[11] Stacks may be ascending or descending, and may start at any point in the range. The focus on a single interval allows the ears to become used to playing that interval in tune. Stacks, like scales and arpeggios, can be played as quickly or slowly as desired. Note that the first four interval stacks constitute the chromatic scale, whole-tone scales, diminished seventh structures, and the augmented triad.

example - stacked fifths

Stacked fifths. Do with them what you wish.

The advantages of the stacks include the following:

  • Not key centre specific.
  • Not interval biased.
  • Less register biased than the key centre approach.

For a further level of challenge, the stacks can be used as the framework for further intervallic structures. For more information see Nicolas Slonimsky, ‘Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns’. This book was good enough for John Coltrane to practice from.

A Place for the Key Centre Approach?

So here’s the thing. Some of us still largely (or entirely) play music based on tonic-dominant harmony. Examples include historical performance specialists and jazz musicians who specialise in pre-1960’s styles.[12] For these people, the reasons for changing the traditional approach to technical work are not as compelling. Also, for musicians in their early years of playing the instrument, a lack of command of the whole range, undeveloped embouchures, and insufficient strength in the hands will result in interval stacks not working as well. In addition, we all play some tonal music, the playing of which would benefit from some key centric technical work. For most of us, I recommend still playing major and minor scales and arpeggios, for no reason other than reminding ourselves what tonal harmony sounds like. Consider the key centre approach to be specific training rather than general preparedness. It develops a particular skill, that of playing in a key.

What About Temperament?

There is one further reason why historical performers in particular will not benefit from the approach I advocate above. Because these performers don’t use equal temperament, each key has an individual character. A further problem is that the interval between two notes does not sound the same as the ‘same’ interval between two different notes. For example, using Werckmeister III tuning, the fifth between Eb and Bb is not the same distance as that between D and A. The D to A fifth is closer by a quarter of a Pythagorean comma.[13] Neither of these two fifths are the same as the equal tempered fifth. These changes in the quality of the interval being stacked result in the stacks being counterproductive as the performer’s ears will attempt to match consecutive intervals to the detriment of their performance tuning system(s).

Conclusion

I have used the intervallic approach for some time as a response to certain technical challenges in the music I want to play that aren’t adequately dealt with by the traditional approach. It is not a single solution – unless they are new music specialists,[14] musicians will need to supplement this approach with the key centre approach as well as instrument specific exercises. The revolutionary idea here is that the key centre approach is no longer optimum as general technical work for most of us, because for most of us it no longer has universal carryover to our performance practices. It remains useful as specific training, and may be used to practice keys[15], learn the sound of a chord/scale, and address specific issues that arise in repertoire.

Part of the problem here is that we do not spend enough time and effort exhorting our students to play technical work and explaining why they should play technical work. By focussing on the ‘fun stuff’ during early years, we create the impression that technical work is something imposed upon us all by a music exam syllabus. It is not. Technical work is the nuts and bolts of actually being able to play your instrument. Practicing technical work is learning to play your instrument. By contrast, practicing music is learning to play music. These are very different skills. Emphasising the later may encourage students to ‘keep at it’, keeping teachers employed and universities music courses overflowing, but if we really wish to do the right thing by our students and aid their development after they leave our tutelage, technique and how to develop it is a huge part of what we need to be teaching them. It is not a skill where a given degree of competence is enough, and approaches that encourage that mindset should be questioned.

I also suspect that the current predominant approach to technical work is caused by poor practice habits. By this I mean the tendency I have observed in myself, my students, and my colleagues to do before they think while practicing. We set up and start playing before we have an idea of what we want to achieve and how we are going to do so. When we make a mistake, we try again before analysing what went wrong. This haphazard approach ignores our greatest asset as musicians – our brains. I suspect the reason it is so tempting is that we live in a society that is collectively uncomfortable with self-reflection and with being alone. Thinking leads to difficult questions that have indeterminate answers: what do I really want? why am I doing this? and (most difficult of all), what is it all about, really?

Metaphysics aside, all of this gives rise to further questions of the role of technique as opposed to repertoire in a practice context, and the difficulty of music chosen in relation to the performers’ general level of ability on their instrument.

In summary, an approach to technical work based on intervals is preferable to one based upon key centres for the majority of modern musicians. This is because it has a wider application to general music making. Key centre technical work is an excellent foundation for the music of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as well as about half the nineteenth. However, this period predates much, if not most, of the major repertoire for woodwinds. Our instruments have drastically changed since then.[16] The year is 2016. Why should our technical work remain stuck in 1850?

[1] I’ll use an example I’m familiar with.

[2] Like making music…

[3] See Marcel Moyse, Exercices Journaliers pout la flute (Daily Exercises for the Flute) for an excellent outline of this.

[4] Whatever that is.

[5] NB: quarter tones are also possible for most of the range of most wind instruments. Probably a good idea to practice these also.

[6] More on this in the section about temperament.

[7] Excluding of course the altissimo register.

[8] Bb through G.

[9] The low register of the clarinet is an exception.

[10] Note that the key centre approach is also a system based on intervals. More specifically, it is based on sequences of interval, whether the tones and semitones of the scales or the thirds and fourths of the arpeggios. As discussed above, this is no longer enough.

[11] This is octave sensitive.

[12] I also term these people historical performance specialists.

[13] Google it – it’s interesting, but I have not the space to go into depth here.

[14] Good luck to you.

[15] Captain obvious…

[16] If you’re a saxophonist, your instrument has come into existence since then.

 

 

Update!!!!

So here’s what I’ve been doing for the past (nearly) two years.

—- Law School—-

*gulp*

I thought I’d check back here and maybe write something for a couple of reasons:

  • Mid semester break starts in a couple of days and I’m absolutely burnt out on reading legal stuff.
  • I feel fairly ordinary about starting things (like the blog) and following through in a really haphazard way.

So here’s a resolution – more content coming soon. I’m going to reboot, and try to post here weekly, just about whatever is going on. Some music posts still, maybe some legal, political material.

Fingers crossed.

Let’s see if I can stick with this this time.

best,

t.

Audience Watching

I went to a very interesting concert last week. Good musicians, great venue, and some very interesting ideas.

The audience, however, got me to thinking about the great stylistic plurality ‘art’ music has experienced post-post-modernism (snicker), and how the various groups of people at gigs tend to completely misunderstand each other. Here are some trite observations encased in a few archetypes I’ve observed over the years.

The canonist

The canonist views modern works and performances as an extension of stereotypically nineteenth century concert-halls tropes, and values instrumental and compositional perfection above all else. Upper middle class in values and aspiration, they tend to be uncomfortable in non-traditional concert settings and with overtly social/political subject matter. The canonists hold an overwhelmingly elitist, Eurocentric view of art, and view the “next big thing” to be a continuation of European modernist principles.

Well read, well connected, and well educated, the canonist believes that the world is fundamentally understandable, and collects knowledge in an attempt to hide a deplorable lack of imagination.

As listeners, they tend to be scornful of improvising, jazz, “world” and pop musicians, and of the people who like this music. Ironically, the canonist tends to appreciate works that attempt to fuse these musics with western art music – perhaps as writing down this music sanitises it for their “refined” tastes. Also ironically, the canonist tends to be highly active socially, and tends to champion leftist causes such as “the environment”, or “(insert minority here) rights”, although their “commitment” to these causes can generally be thought of as a continuation of the ideals of the British Empire: ie. “We’d all get along, if only you were exactly like me.”

The jazz nazi

Perhaps the most peculiar of all is the jazz nazi. Despite its current habitat in Australia in 2012, the jazz nazi seems convinced that it is in fact New York City sometime between 1945 and 1955. Like the canonist, the jazz nazi values instrumental perfection very highly, but above all else values authenticity. Unfortunately, it has not yet occurred to the jazz nazi that playing a very specific genre of improvisedmusic that developed due to very specific social and economic circumstances outside of those circumstances is at best an exercise in futility.

The jazz nazi is a strange mix of elitist (“pop music is for people who are stupid”), and populist elements (“where’s the melody in that?”).

Almost uniformly male, it’s extremely rare for the jazz nazi to bring a date to a gig. Indeed the standard behaviour of this group seems to be to stand at the back of the room drinking beer with a group of mates making snide comments about how shit the musicians are.

They are likely to worship the music of Miles Davis prior to 1965, and hate the music after.

They’re also likely to worship the John Coltrane of 1955 to 1959, but despise the Coltrane of 1960 to 1967.

Strangely, while they value machismo highly, the jazz nazi is scornful of direct, macho music, such as Chicago blues, free jazz, funk, hip-hop or metal.

Dissatisfaction is often the response to daily stimuli as the internal stresses of simultaneously holding multiple contradictory points of view gradually destroys the jazz nazi’s psyche. Leaving them emotionally crippled, chain-smoking husks.

Yeah.

Man…

The “alternative”

“I’m artistic right? I mean, look at my hair.”

Isn’t it strange that social movements that value individualism above all, tend, in their death-throes, to attract the most insipid people? In true 21st century style “alternative” people tend to value style over substance, all the while believing that what they do or say means something, because that’s what the marketing for (insert latest band that sounds like every other band) has told them to do.

The “alternative”, is, above all, created and maintained by marketing. These are the people who pay exorbitant prices for shoebox apartments in trendy suburbs when they can’t afford to eat properly, get Maori tattoos when they couldn’t even find New Zealand on a map, and are general hanger’s on to whatever movement is current and trendy.

Ultimately, they’re the same kind of people who

  • went to Woodstock in the 1960’s,
  • wore platforms in the 1970’s,
  • got heavily into cocaine in the 1980’s,

while having their way paid by a trust fund, pumping enormous amounts of money into the pockets of the “squares” who sell music festivals, fashion, designer drugs, and even “café culture”.

There’s something rather desperate about it all – something to be mourned even.

The harder they try to be apart from the system, the more they become a part of it.

Rent a crowd

Every performer has an entourage of family and friends who come to their every gig. This is a good thing – ultimately it’s a way for Jimmy clarinet player to prove to his parents or significant other that all that time, money and effort invested into his art wasn’t wasted.

Unfortunately, these people have a tendency to stand out. Anywhere you see a camera, or someone using their phone to video, you can almost guarantee that they’re related to the artists.

Often mystified by the music, depending on their natural tendencies, the rent a crowd can become either extremely loud, cheering every missed note, awkward pause and wry grin, or very uncomfortable. Sometimes they’re a mix of both.

Strangely enough, family and friends give either the most honest, or the least honest of any feedback group of people. There is always one (often an older relative), who will ask awkward questions like: “what’s it for?” or “how are you going to make a living doing that?” And what is weird is that these are the questions that it’s really important for artists to ask themselves, yet many of us don’t. At least with any degree of seriousness.

Many young artists don’t realise how difficult it is for family members to subject themselves to music that is often far outside of their experience. Yet these people come to see us play anyway. This is something of value.

Provided they don’t clap during a pause.

The random drunks (who may or may not be friends of the venue owner)

I don’t know how or why, but almost always a group of loud drunks will just happen to be at the venue on the night that someone’s going to play some really challenging shit. Sometimes they’re oblivious, sometimes malicious, sometimes (not often enough) they get confused and go away.

Always they make fools of themselves.

These guys are a pain.

‘nuff said.

 

The others

These people are almost ghosts. They arrive, sit by themselves, watch the gig, and then leave.

No-one really knows where they come from, or where they go. Often, no-one knows how they found out about the gig. Or their reasons for showing up.

I have a theory that The Others are the only “legitimate” audience. They are the people who aren’t there to network, hang out, or sleep with the drummer.

These people have a refreshing lack of pretensions. Part of me wishes everyone was like them.

But the rest of me is fervently hoping that they’re not just members of one of the other groups whose friends didn’t make it.

Ain’t stereotyping fun?

Thanks for reading.

Australian Political Parties Explained

So I was thinking the other day about how-to-vote cards, and how little information they actually provide. Which is pretty scary considering the general apathy towards and lack of knowledge the voting public has of both the reality of and the rhetoric surrounding each party’s platform. Given the amount of time our politicians spend avoiding stating what they actually stand for and the complete inability of our media to hold them to account, I’ve written a short, easy to understand summary of each party’s position. Hopefully, this should make your “choice” easier come next election.