secret to great sax

I lost my self-confidence in singing and playing a musical instrument early in life. I can still hear Mrs Greeley in fifth grade telling my pal Byron and me that we would not be singing in the Christmas pageant that year, since neither of us could carry a tune worth a damn. A few years later I dropped out of High School Band because I continued to carry the Greeley curse and didn’t think I was worth a damn. It was a bleak beginning for anyone who fancied music.

Many years later, though, my friend John coaxed me to join the New Horizons Band at James Madison University. I am forever indebted to Will, our band director, for welcoming me aboard in his enthusiastic and warm manner. The band concept grew out of the head of Roy Ernst who started the first NH Band in 1991. His philosophy was that anyone could learn to play music at a level that would bring a sense of accomplishment and the ability to perform in a group. Much to his credit, thousands of New Horizons musicians across the country and the world have proven that to be true, many starting in late retirement years with no musical background at all. The hallmark of his style of instruction is that it must be completely supportive and free of competition and intimidation.

When Will signals with his baton in hand that the show is about to begin, my fellow musicians and I get set to begin playing with a sense of fun and enjoyment. Even better from the conductor’s vantage point, the band leaders don’t have to worry about grades, escorting groups to competitive festivals, or have participants compete for seating in a section. The motto is, “Your best is good enough.”

The “good enough” approach doesn’t mean we don’t take the music seriously, though. In fact, we all seem to be pretty tough judges of our own performances. Just as Mark Twain once said that it takes a lot of sense to write nonsense, it also takes lots of sense and practice to perform a piece confidently before an audience. Although we’ve all had our flop-sweat “deer in the headlights” moments, we don’t play the blame game and never point the accusing finger at the person who toots when they should be resting. Most of all, we have developed a camaraderie that instills a sense of pride in accomplishment along with the unspoken commitment to not let your fellow ensemble player down.

So when I started playing with the band some seven years ago I decided to try a brand new instrument. I had started off as an adolescent playing the trumpet but the band was heavy with brass so I was guided toward the reed instruments. If any of you remember one of Michael Caine’s early movies — Alfie — you’ll recall the great seduction scene where his lady love asks what kind of music he preferred. Without a blink, he said, “Anything with a sax.” One can do worse than be guided by Alfie so I rummaged through the attic and found the student alto sax that belonged to my wife Jody’s son, Aaron.

The next few months were beyond what I could ever have imagined trying to make sweet sounds come out of the bell at the end of curved horn that has oh so many places where your fingers should be positioned to play notes. It was a long year before I was no longer mistaken as a Canadian goose flying overhead and calling out in search of the rest of the “V” that had moved on. Our assistant band director Keith soon turned out to be my patient (understatement) instructor who tutored me, along with Jody who decided to pick up the clarinet and become “Betty Goodman,” for more than a few years. His teaching technique was always understated but methodical and complete. As I progressed, Keith also upped the ante by not letting me develop sloppy habits. He certainly had adopted the New Horizons teaching style that encourages students but also stretches them with increasingly demanding exercises. Mrs Greeley could have learned a few tips from Keith.

Keith also is an outstanding jazz musician who plays alto and tenor sax as well as clarinet and flute. Through him I developed more of a taste for jazz. Although I cannot claim to have written any of the following advice on playing the sax, it’s worth repeating for its detail as well as humor:

Selmer Mark VI via the Wikimedia CommonsSo You Want To Play The Sax

Question: Hi, is there someone who can give me some directions about playing the sax? I’ve just purchased one and would love to know how to play it. Some helpful web links would also be great.

Answer: First things first. If you’re a white guy, you’ll need a stupid hat, the stupider the better, preferably a beret. Sunglasses are optional, but all the really good players wear them, especially indoors.

You’ll also need some “gig shirts” — Hawaiians are good; in a pinch anything with a loud floral pattern is acceptable, as are T-shirts from various jazz clubs and festivals. Get them mail order, so you don’t have to go to all the trouble of actually seeing live music.

And sandals are an absolute must, even in winter.

Once you’ve assembled the proper attire you can begin practicing. One of the most important things about playing is being able to convey expressions. The two emotions you’ll need to convey most are rapture/ecstasy and soul wrenching pain/sadness (i.e., the Blues).

You may find it useful in the beginning to borrow a page from the method acting school. So, for example, to convey rapture try thinking of something nice, like puppy dogs or getting a kiss from Uma Thurman while a young Julia Child feeds you truffle sauce as soon as she gets that chicken cleaned.

To convey the “Blues” try thinking of something really, really appalling, like ulcerative colitis or Donald Trump. Practice your facial expressions in front of a mirror at least two hours per day. You may feel a tad stupid at first, but you’ll never get the chicks if you don’t jump around on stage like a monkey with your face all screwed up like there’s a rabid wolverine in your colon, believe you me. And bottom line, chicks is really what music’s all about.

Next, you’ll need the correct ligature. Some people think that the ligature is just a stupid piece of old metal that holds the reed on the mouthpiece. Well, those people are idiots. Besides your beret, our ligature is the single most important piece of musical equipment you will ever buy. Mine, for example, is forty-percent platinum and sixty-percent titanium; one screw is rubidium and other plutonium. It makes me sound exactly like Booker Ervin would if Booker Ervin were not dead. You may have to spend years and years and thousands of dollars finding the proper ligature, but in the end it will definitely be worth it.

Now, reeds. Optimally, you’ll want to move to the south of France, grow and cure your own cane and carve your own reeds by hand. If you’re just a “weekend warrior,” however, you can buy them at a music store.

First, buy ten boxes of reeds, that’s one-hundred in all. Next, open all the boxes and throw away sixty of them. Those were unplayable. Take the remaining ones and soak them in a mixture of twenty-seven point eight percent rubbing alcohol and seventy-two point two percent Belgian ale for a period of seventeen weeks.

Throw away twenty more reeds. Those were “stuffy.” Take the remaining twenty and sand each one for exactly thirteen seconds with twelve-hundred grit 3M sandpaper. Throw away fourteen of these reeds. Those squeaked. Take the remaining six and soak them for another seventeen weeks, this time, however, in one-hundred percent pure Belgian ale.

Sun dry the six remaining reeds for three weeks, optimally at an equatorial latitude, and throw away three more just on general principles. You now have three reeds that will last you several months if you play each one only twenty minutes a day in strict rotation.

Now, you say you just bought a horn. Although you didn’t say what kind it is, I’d sell it immediately and get a different one. The best one to get would be a Selmer Mark VI made at 4:27 PM on 14 June 1963, serial number 135543. If you can’t get that one, though, generally speaking the older and more expensive the better.

The following brands are good: Selmer Paris Mark VI.

The following brands suck: any other Selmer, Yamaha, Conn, Beuscher, Yanigasawa, Cannonball, Jupiter, Elkhart, King, Martin, Kenilworth, Boosey and Hawkes, Couf, Sivertone, and Holton.

On no account should you play the horn before you buy it: go strictly on reputation and price. If you can’t get a Mark VI and need further information, there’s some broad on the Net who’s owned every freaking saxophone ever made, Sherry or Sheryl or something. She can probably tell you which one’s the best.

You will also need some accoutrements: a flight case capable of withstanding atmospheric pressure of dP=-Dg dz where D and g are, respectively, the density of air and the accretion due to gravity at the altitude of the air layer and horizontal layer of air having unit surface area and infinitesimal thickness; a metronome; a tuner; a combination alto, tenor, and baritone sax stand with pegs for oboe, bass clarinet, flute, English horn and bassoon; Band in a Box; every Jamie Abersold play-along record ever pressed; a reed cutter; swabs, cleaners, pad savers, pad dope, and pad clamps; a Sennheiser Digital 1092 Wireless Microphone; an effects rig with digital delay and parametric EQ; and a two-hundred watt per channel (minimum) amplifier.

It will also be helpful if you listen to lots of sax players. Unfortunately, listening to players you like is the worst thing you can do. To really understand the music and its traditions, you have to go back to the beginning and work forward. I’d start with madrigals and listen to every note of music ever recorded. Once you get to the twentieth-century, pay particular attention to Jimmy Dorsey and Sidney Bechet, the wellsprings of the modern jazz saxophone. In no time at all, or by 2034, whichever comes first, you’ll be able to understand the unique be-bop styling of players like Ace Cannon, Boots Randolph and Grover Washington, Jr.

Oh yea, to play the saxophone, blow in the small end and wiggle your fingers a bit.

I’m not sure Mrs Greeley would ever have been able to give such detailed information on how to proceed with learning about music. At my point in life, I don’t care, though, and I say to hell with Mrs Greeley. The nerve of her to intimidate any student from learning to sing or play music. I may well have a tin ear, but I refuse to limit my music making to singing in the shower. I may never hear pure, tonally perfect music coming out of my mouth, but I’m determined to plod forward so that my world of words will be complemented with musical melody whose refrain I will not be reluctant to join in singing, even if it’s in a key no one has ever heard before.

Image: Selmer Mark VI via the Wikimedia Commons.

David Evans

I'm retired from another life and live in the mountains of eastern West Virginia with my muse Jody along with one remaining dog.  We've decided no more dogs and cats.  Losing them is just too painful. Being independent and no longer in the reins of someone else's driver, I now have the chance to revisit the many people and places that have enriched my life. The good folks at Wesleyan College in central West Virginia guided me to a graduate degree in fine arts in early 2018.  My plan is to use some of the skills I learned from two years in this creative writing program to tell my story.