Saturday, January 17, 2015

Chris Potter Interview and Imaginary Cities

If you haven't heard, Chris Potter's fantastic new album, Imaginary Cities, is out. The record seems to have two central focuses, writing for a unique instrumentation (includes string quartet) and improvisatory exploration. The writing is detailed and beautiful, and borderland that is explored is multifaceted and satisfying. You can hear a track from the album on the ECM site here. Here is the promo for the album:

I had the opportunity to do a short interview with Chris. There are a number of important concepts Chris presents here, which he has learned deeply through musical experience. Check it out, and grab a copy of Imaginary Cities:   Amazon -   iTunes -

Ben: The new record, Imaginary Cities, is really great. Your playing is fantastic, and the writing is joyous, deep, and interesting on lots of levels. In the video promo for the record you talked about wanting the music to create these ideal cities in the mind of the listener. Related to this idea, I remember you saying in another setting that you felt human beings communicated things in music that we couldn't with words. Could you tell us a little more about your artistic process. How did these concepts of imaginary cities influence the music? Were there any literary inspirations?

Chris: Thanks Ben, in the past few years I’ve found how helpful it can be for me to think of something extramusical when playing and composing, because it takes me out of the realm of notes only, and into the use of notes as vehicles to express feelings and ideas. With Imaginary Cities I had a vision of cityscapes in my mind, but on another level I was also thinking about the organization of cities and what ideal cities might look like, where the need of human beings for functional communities would be placed above the desire for profit and technological progress. I am interested in reading about these kinds of subjects, and while the issues are extremely complex and difficult to resolve, I think any child can see that the world of human affairs could be organized better than it currently is!

Ben: One thing I have been focusing on recently myself is improving my ears. On the recent facebook interview, you mentioned that playing the piano can work as ear training. You wrote,
"The best ear training things I've done I'd say are playing along with recordings, and playing piano. After a half hour playing the piano, my ears feel much more wide open, and I find I can sometimes technically execute things that were difficult before, because I hear them more clearly." 
Personally, I think the most helpful exercises have immediate apparent positive effects, so this last comment really caught my attention. Can you describe specifically what you are practicing on the piano in these time periods?

Chris Potter: It’s a little difficult to describe what I do at the piano, I usually take some standard I know well and kind of deconstruct it, sometimes playing traditional changes and improvising in the right hand, keeping close attention to voice leading, other times I stretch the harmony, finding new chords that fit the melody, or alter the chords and melody together, or sometimes I'll elongate certain sections to concentrate on one tonality, etc. Voice leading is such a key thing to making it all sound good, and the principles of good voice-leading can be applied to playing a single-line instrument like the saxophone as well.

Ben: I've heard you talk about what you practice on a number of occasions, including playing piano, working on overtones, sequencing ideas through challenging progressions like ascending or descending major thirds, playing drums, and lots of improvising: improvising with parameters, in different tempos, in different keys, applying concepts during improvisation, etc. Could you walk us through an ideal practice day? In this hypothetical situation you don't have gigs you have to prepare for. Instead, you just have some hours of free time for the next few days to improve your craft.

Chris: I wish that situation occurred more frequently these days! What I do these days is just get out the horn and start playing, and see where it leads me. Some days I might end up concentrating on playing free, some days I might be interested in some harmonic idea, some days I might end up focusing solely on sound (production/embouchure/breathing), some days I might be thinking primarily about rhythm, and some days I might just try and play a simple blues until I feel I’ve reached through to the “real thing”, whatever that is. Really, at this point for me it’s all about finding that “real thing”, trying to play some music that transcends the horn and the form of music, and reaches through to the essence of art. It’s a serious challenge, this essence always seems to keep moving and eluding me!

Ben: Lastly, I have a question on improvising and performing. In an interview at NYU with David Schroeder, you talked about an experience you sometimes have when performing music during which your playing isn't shaped by conscious effort but instead feels like a "stream of consciousness". The music flows so naturally that you feel almost disconnected form the experience and are listening to the music that is coming through you, similar to the experience of being in an audience. You describe this as an ideal performance state. I've also heard you say that you "surprise" yourself sometimes while playing, which I personally find is related to this experience. In the NYU interview you said that you can't force yourself into that state of mind, but you can do things to help it along. Could you expand on that?

Chris: Keeping relaxed and not forcing anything is the key. All the cliches about being “in the moment” really apply here-if there are any “should”s or “supposed to”s in my mind, it usually doesn’t work! I try to let go of the goal of even sounding good, and focus only on my own enjoyment and excitement about the creation of sounds and the feelings they elicit, and if all goes well that enjoyment and excitement will reach the listener.

A big thank you to Chris for taking the time to write and for making beautiful music!

Saturday, November 1, 2014

New Breath Support Exercise

A quick plug: An article I wrote on some of the acoustical science behind overtone practice was published on Best Saxophone Website Ever. Check it out here.

In the mechanics of saxophone playing a sufficiently big air stream is the first fundamental in achieving your best possible sound. A few exercises that I have found to be helpful and directly address air stream strength and size include diaphragmatic breathing exercises, extremely high held overtones, low register breath attacks, and low register pitch bends, and I have written about these in detail in previous blog posts and in my book on sound.

Recently I have been studying bassoon, which like saxophone depends on air support for timbre but is more sensitive to air support than saxophone when it comes to pitch. It's sufficiently sensitive that vibrato can be executed via the air stream rather than the embouchure. All of this is to say I've been even more aware of my air stream, and it was through studying bassoon that I came across an exercise that works fantastically to improve air support on any wind instrument.

The Exercise

Originally meant to develop vibrato, the exercise consists of repeatedly and powerfully increasing the strength of the air stream via the abdominal muscles while holding a note. On a bassoon the pitch raises as you increase the strength of the air stream, but on saxophone all you really hear is a suddenly louder version of the same pitch. Here is one fairly complete approach to incorporating the exercise:
  • Each step should include 8-16 beats worth of pulsing the air stream
  • Start at quarter note = 80 beats per minute
  • Mouthpiece only
    •  quarter note pulses
    • 8th note pulses
    • 8th note triplet pulses
    • 16 note pulses
  • Neck and Mouthpiece
    • same sequence as mouthpiece only
  • Entire saxophone and in the middle register
    • same sequence
  • in the lower register
    • same sequence
  • in the upper register
    • same sequence
  • repeat the steps in the middle, low and high register, this time at a higher speed
  • continue to repeat and increase speed...
This is definitely a work out, and you can benefit from lighter versions of the exercise as well. It is effective at immediately increasing your air support and could/should be included in your warm up routine.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Timbre Trainer

When it comes to saxophone, I'm a skeptic. I don't believe in marketing hype, and I don't buy into saxophone lore unless I prove it myself via trial and error. When I was contacted to do a review of a new product that vibrated your saxophone using sound files to supposedly improve its timbre I almost didn't even reply to the email. Deciding not to be rude by neglect, I did a bit of investigation. Despite the foreignness and, frankly, seeming silliness of the concept, one of the demonstration videos that showed the change in sound over the course of a few days of using the trainer seemed promising. At the same time I was wondering if the mic position was the same for each comparison recording, but either way I wanted to try the thing out for myself.

What It Is
Timbre Trainer is a vibrating speaker that you attach to your instrument. You plug the device into anything with a headphone jack and play music or whatever sound file you want and the trainer vibrates your instrument accordingly. Though the sound produced isn't very loud the vibrations seem to be stronger than playing the instrument at full volume. It is suppose to relieve the mechanical stress in your instrument and thereby improve the sound.

A Potential Explanation
The packaging for the trainer contains a spectrographic analysis of a saxophone's wave form before using the trainer and after 168 hours of using it. The comparison shows that various overtone frequencies present in the timbre have been increased, so this got my attention and I decided to see if there was any foundation to the claims. 

One potential explanation is that the vibration releases tension in the brass, which then changes the sound. A quick look on Wikipedia showed that the machining industry does use a technique called vibratory stress release (VSR), which is basically the use of vibrations to relieve stress in metal parts. By eliminating stress the metal becomes stronger and less likely to shift. You can read about VSR here.

Timbre trainer's website claims that 100 hours of use on an instrument are needed for maximum results, but this claim didn't gel with the "20 minutes to two hours" quoted by one of the companies that employs VSR in the machining industry. The details of VSR might explain that discrepancy though. When VSR is applied to machining parts, significant stress relief happens when vibrations are applied at the resonant frequency of the part meaning the pitch the part would produce if you played it like a percussion instrument. Significant stress relief also occurs, and less violently, when vibrations at subharmonics of the parts resonant frequency are employed (If you want to learn about subharmonics, also called undertones, read here). Basically, timbre trainer suggests using various frequencies for over 100 hours, but it seems like it might be possible to get the same effect with "20 minutes to two hours" (though at what strength?) at the resonant frequency or subharmonics of the resonant frequency of the saxophone.

I did mess around with finding the resonant frequency of my neck and saxophone body, but they shift when the neck is securely in place. I always applied the trainer with the neck on, and so after messing around with some tuning tracks I found a predictable subharmonic that made the saxophone audibly vibrate the most and used that a fair amount. Not very scientific, I know, but it was cool to find that predictable subharmonics made more audible vibrations.

EDIT: The concept that the device relieves mechanical stress was originally a suggestion by some of the colleagues of the device's creators at a Taiwanese university, and is somewhat controversial. There are other potential explanatins as well including the idea that vibrations could be fatiguing the metal. 

Test Subject
  • Selmer Mark VI Tenor, relacquered, serial: 98xxx.
  • Florida era Super Tone Master Otto Link, standard Link ligature.
  • Rico Jazz Select filed reeds. I used to play unfiled reeds when I played this horn regularly, and that produces a fatter and deeper sound on this horn. However, these were the reeds I use on my current setup, so being unwilling to invest time and money into yet another reed purchase, these are the reeds I employed.

Process and Jounal
I had the trainer on my horn for the recommended 100+ hours. Most of that was done with trainer positioned on my saxophone's neck, but I did put it on a few other locations including the bell and body tube on the saxophone for around 7 hours each. The majority of the 100+ hours were spent playing various music in my collection, but a significant amount of hours were spent with using the tuning track I discovered (see above in the discussion of VSR, resonant frequencies and subharmonics).

I made an initial recordings with 3 different reeds before using the trainer at all. After about 15 hours I play tested the horn again, and placebo or not, it felt different. Most noticeably the low notes had more weight and edge. I made recordings, but couldn't sense a difference. After another 10 hours the low notes sounded even better, and the whole range of the instrument had a bit more edge than before. It was still hard to hear the difference in a recording. After 41 hours total the horn felt more responsive, but I was still having difficulty hearing the difference on the recording, which was making me wonder if I was imagining the whole thing. I didn't record again until I reached 101 hours. I made the recordings earlier today, and the difference was finally audible (tracks below).

Is the difference in tone significant? Yes. Is it good? Yes. What's different?  There is more core to the sound which makes it slightly darker and gives it a bit more presence. It feels more responsive and sounds more centered, and overall I enjoy playing it more. Did it change my back up Mark VI into my main horn? No, but it feels and sounds significantly better.

Monday, September 29, 2014

New Saxophone Resources and an Endorsement

The blog really hasn't gotten enough attention in the past months, but that's what happens when you're a DMA candidate I guess. Here are a few of the things that I have been wanting share. In the near future look forward to an review on something called the Timbre Trainer, a very unique piece of instrument related equipment.

A Couple of Music Related Sites
  • A new blog has surfaced, The Diligent Musician, which already has quite a lot of good information up including a healthy amount of saxophone-centric material. I got a sneak peak at the first article and it's on a great Kenny Garrett solo, so go check it out already.
  • I recently got wind of a site,, which is completely dedicated to letting users sale their instruments, a cool concept. Saxophones can be found/sold here.

Ben Wendel, one of my favorite saxophonists, has endorsed A Complete Approach to Overtones. He says,
"The overtone series has been one of the most important practice routines in my saxophone development. It has helped open up my sound, altissimo range and overall resonance. Ben Britton's book is a clear and well presented exploration of this world and will equally benefit beginning to advanced players."       -- Ben Wendel
For those of you who don't know how amazing Ben Wendel is, check him out...

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Leaning Out Your Embouchure: The Chris Potter Effect

I am super excited to share an embouchure concept that I've recently pinned down. The reason for my excitement, is that this technique consistently does the following: it improves the presence, punch, and harmonics present in the sound, it facilitates altissimo (makes it easier) and improves its tone, and lastly it helps avoid the tendency of becoming sharp in the upper register. I've included sound clips to prove the point at the bottom of the article so please check those out.

I've noticed that Chris Potter, particularly in recent years, has really mastered the clarity of sound and punch I'm talking about, both in his normal register and altissimo register. For that reason, and not because I have any idea about how he conceptualizes embouchure, I'm calling this particular tweak the Chris Potter effect.

Basic Embouchure Formation
Before we get into the newest technique, here is a brief review of how to approach a basic embouchure formation. The lips obviously seal around the mouthpiece and provide enough pressure on the reed to act as a fulcrum of sorts that start the reed vibrating. Embouchure pressure also serves the purpose of securing both the mouthpiece and your bottom lip position while playing. However, how much embouchure pressure and where we apply that pressure can make a big difference in the sound.

The muscles that should take the majority of the workload are at the side of your mouth or corners of your lips. Some players make the mistake of applying upward pressure at the sides of their mouth (a smiling motion), and others make the mistake of letting their corners come in towards the center (a puckering motion). Both of these motions cause your bottom lip to interfere with the reed's vibration in different ways, and you can hear it in the sound. Joe Allard taught that the bottom lip should remain flat, matching the shape of the reed. In order to do this, the corners of the mouth need to apply some downward pressure to stop the lip from coming in towards the center or upwards at the corners. A flat bottom lip is ideal in keeping the reed tension free and in it's natural shape, which will result in a clearer and louder sound. A last potential problem is the chin bunching upward applying pressure on the reed. Some players tend to do this as they move towards the upper register. Long overtones are one of the best remedies for this as they teach you to rely on proper voicing as opposed to embouchure pressure to support the pitch.

One other fairly important embouchure concept for those who are trying to get a powerful sound with some edge, typical of jazz or pop saxophone, is to make sure that your bottom lip isn't tucked too far in over your front bottom teeth, which can sometimes be a natural tendency to help provide support. Having your lip in a more rolled out position applies pressure to the reed less directly, so it requires good air support and voicing technique to support the sound. Experiment with various lip position to find the ideal amount of lip in or out for yourself. You want to find the position that gives you a big sound, but don't go so far that you lose control of it.

Leaning Out
On to the actual subject of the article, leaning out your bottom lip. I want to be clear that I do not mean rolling out your bottom lip. I've already addressed that above. What I'm talking about is a technique you  apply after you have found the ideal placement for your bottom lip. Placing your bottom lip firmly enough on the reed so that it doesn't shift, lean your bottom lip outward. The bottom lip shouldn't slide against the reed, but instead you should feel a shift in pressure. Often times saxophonist play applying a considerable amount of pressure with the upper part of the bottom lip against the reed. I'm suggesting that you create the opposite effect by consciously leaning your lip outwards as if your were trying to roll it out more (though jaw pressure keeps it from actually sliding). The motion is similar to an exaggerated frown where the top part of your bottom lip begins to turn down. In this scenario the pressure of the lip against the reed becomes centered lower on the lip, and I believe the pressure becomes more spread across the lip allowing the reed to vibrate a bit more uniformly.

While you can feel the difference in pressure in your embouchure the improvements to tone and intonation are the most telling. One big difference you will notice is that the harmonics in your tone will increase. This makes for a richer sounding tone and a more powerful one. By more powerful I mean it has more punch, carries better, and is simply louder. Your sound also becomes less grainy, and instead it gains definition and clarity. Because the upper part of the lip can sometimes be responsible for pushing up on the reed and decreasing the volume of air in the mouthpiece, by not doing so you avoid some of the danger of becoming sharp in the upper register. Overall, you will find your intonation more uniform. It's typical for players to use more and more pressure with the top part of their lip the higher they go, so as you go into the altissimo register, most players are engaging the top part of their lip against the reed. By fighting this tendency you will hear a clearer timbre in your altissimo register, and it will become more similar to the timbre of the normal register of the saxophone instead of the less appealing biting timbre that the altissimo register sometimes takes on. You will also be able to play higher.

This technique makes you rely on voicing technique rather than embouchure pressure, so you may find that you need to develop your ability to focus your air using your vocal tract to gain the full benefits of this change in embouchure. Practicing overtones is one of the best ways to do this.

Sound Clips
As always, the proof is in the playing.

The following is an example of alternating between leaning my lip out and leaning it up towards the reed throughout a long tone. I start out leaning the lip out. Then as I transition to the lip leaning in you hear the the muted timbre and sharper intonation. I clear that up by leaning my lip out again. I then repeat the cycle more subtly than before.
Long tone alternating.mp3

This is me noodling in the normal register of the horn while leaning my lip out.
Lean Lip Out Noodling.mp3
In contrast, here is me noodling without leaning my lip out.
Lean Lip In Noodling.mp3

This is a one and a half octave D major scale in the altissimo register with my lip leaning out.
Altissimo Lean Lip Out.mp3
This is the same scale without leaning my lip out.
Altissimo Lean Lip In.mp3

I took a couple of pics to illustrate the technique. It's subtle, but you can visually see the difference.

I'm leaning my lip out here.
Here I've got my lip leaning up towards the reed. Bad idea!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Online Workshops: Sound, Overtones, and Altissimo

Currently I'm putting together a number of online workshops for players looking to improve their sound, and for players who would like to improve their ability to play altissimo. They will take place via skype or google hangouts group video chat. They will be free to participate in, and, as the name workshop implies, they welcome you to contribute with your knowledge and experience.

Sound and Overtones Workshop
This workshop will address various techniques and approaches that improve overall sound or tone. Possible topics include embouchure, air support, tongue position, articulation, other voicing techniques, multiphonics, and overtones. If you're interested please email me at and include a note about your overall playing experience.

Altissimo Workshop
This workshop will be divided into two sections: one for players just beginning to play altissimo and one for players who have been playing it for a while but would like to fine tune their control and/or sound. If you are interested please email me at and tell me where you are in terms of altissimo.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Ben's First Video Blog: Why Should You Practice Overtones?

This is all about the benefits of overtone practice and relying on voicing rather than embouchure. Just in case you weren't convinced...