Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Audiate Your Tone!

For those of you who have followed the blog for some time, you know I'm fairly obsessed with saxophone tone and exercises that improve it. Despite all of the technical know how I've come to embrace in terms of voicing, air support, and embouchure, I'd like to add a new concept that has little to do with technical execution, and everything to do with your inner ear.

In my last post I explained that I had been learning Music Learning Theory and the Jump Right In method, in which I have found very basic ways to improve musicianship significantly, even for more advanced musicians. I have recently observed how these concepts apply to a personalized sound concept and intonation.

Music as Language

Here is one important comparison drawn from music learning theory, which, for those who are unfamiliar with it, is an explanation of how the mind learns and processes music and has been refined over decades of research. Music learning theory posits that our brains learn music like we learn a language. First children babble, then imitate language, then begin to speak coherently developing a massive vocabulary, then learn to read, and finally write. This applies to music rather straightforwardly. To state it simply, music is learned on an intuitive level, just like language, when we first memorize a large set of melodies learned by ear (starting simply of course), simultaneously developing comprehension of the harmony and rhythm through learning bass lines and meter by ear, then learn to read music based on melodic and rhythmic patterns we already know (sight words for anyone who is familiar with reading pedagogy), and then learn to write music. Improvising fits in there as well after sufficiently developing a vocabulary of melodic patterns and can be done prior to reading music . Improvising is fairly analogous to forming your own sentences to communicate ideas, something we start doing very early on.

The Key: Audiation

How does this apply to tone? The central aspect of music learning theory is developing a skill called audiation, which is the process of hearing music in our inner ear. Just like we form and think through verbal thoughts, the same is done with music. Our ability to audiate music significantly affects our ability to play (and compose) music, whether it is written or improvised, and this includes our ability to produce the tone we want.

Intonation Example

The perfect example is intonation. Imagine a musician who keenly listens for his or her intonation. The player listens and adjusts each note within milliseconds of playing it. He also has learned to adjust certain notes in certain registers of the horn. However, this imaginary musician is not audiating strongly. For example, while sight reading a piece of music he comes to an ascending leap. Let's say the jump is from middle C up to Ab in the staff, a minor 6th. He doesn't know exactly what that note after the leap is going to sound like. If you asked the player to sing the jump he would have some difficulty if just until he got his bearings. Also, his musical intuition is not predicting the bass note that the Ab will sound against. He doesn't know what the bass motion will sound like or the harmony. Basically, the sound of the Ab is going to be a complete surprise at least the first time he hears it in this part of the piece. The musician makes the jump up to Ab, and of course it is out of tune, but luckily he quickly adjusts it in tune.

The control of intonation above was not done by audiation. It was done by imitation. He had to hear it played for him before he could adjust it. What if our musician was not so keenly aware of intonation, in other words he wasn't consistently trying to maintain good intonation. Then it's almost guaranteed he would never really play in tune, even after someone helped him get his mouthpiece adjusted to the right place on his cork.

Now imagine another musician. This one audiates each note accurately before he plays. He is playing the same piece as the first one and comes to the same ascending leap from C to Ab. He knows exactly what the Ab will sound like before he plays it. Beyond that, he also has a very good guess of what the harmony will sound like, despite the fact it's not written on the page and he has never heard the piece (He has heard the musical language of the piece and his brain puts that to use in predicting what's coming next. That's all part of audiating.). He also has learned techniques for adjusting intonation. The difference for this musician is he can accurately predict the needed intonation, so finely that when he makes the jump the note is already in tune. There is no audible adjustment of intonation. He was either 100% accurate or accurate enough that we didn't hear it. It was like he knew that piece really well and had spent a lot of time playing it with a group, but just like our first musican he was sight reading it.

I'd like to mention quickly that memorizing the sound of intervals through repeated ear training alone wouldn't make the first musician the second's equal. The second musician not only knew what the Ab would sound like, but he also intuitively understood it's context in the harmony and the overall tonality of the piece. The second musician aurally comprehends the relationship between melody, harmony, and tonality, and that makes him a powerhouse at playing in tune, as long as he has put in some technical practice as well.

Now take both of our musicians and make them improvisers. Give them the same level of creativity and technical prowess. In terms of intonation, the second musician will be consistently on the money. The first musician, will sometimes struggle with intonation, especially if he goes outside of his comfort zone, improvising in new harmonic settings or with less familiar melodic language.

Audiate Your Tone

Tone quality is also controlled by aural processes. In my experience, timbre is something that can be audiated. Therefore, just like in our two examples of intonation, tone can be controlled by imitation or audiation, and audiation will always get more consistent results. Of course, all the technical preparation and exercises our still necessary, however you will reach your end result much more quickly if you are hearing the timbre you want in your mind. This is something I believe Jerry Bergonzi has advocated, spending time hearing the tone you want in your mind.

I believe that is a great suggestion, and I'd like to add my own experience to this. Audiation seems to be fundamentally based on tonality and meter. I have found that by strengthening my audiation of basic tonality, my entire approach to music has improved. In other words, by improving my basic audiation of tonality I have also improved my audiation in many other categories including intonation and tone. Whether that is causation or correlation, I don't know.

Finding Your Voice: Imitation vs. Audiation

To put it bluntly, one of my pursuits over the past few years is to find my own tone. I have been somewhat satisfied with how my musical vocabulary has developed, but my tone has always seemed to be reminiscent of my favorite musician(s). My Chris Potter-like tone has been well established for years now, and wanting to get away from that, I tried various things. I've spent long periods of time not listening to much Chris Potter if any. I've tried listening heavily to and checking out other musicians in depth, like Chris Cheek, Charlie Parker and Ben Wendel. However, when my tone began changing to reflect this listening and study, it simply imitated these other musicians instead of becoming an amalgam of my influences. This was all very frustrating.

Just recently I have begun hearing a personalized tone emerging, one that reflects my influences but doesn't simply imitate them. I believe this is a direct result of my audiation practice. I believe that previously my tone was largely a result of imitation, but through improving my ability to audiate generally, I have begun to see a personalized tone emerge, one that I form in my head first and then appears in sonic reality. It's a great experience.

This makes perfect sense in terms of the audiation process. The first step towards audiation is the ability to imitate, and from there it progresses to other steps such as pattern recognition, labeling and prediction. If your aural cognition fails along the way it reverts back to stage one, simple imitation, and doesn't digest the musical material. There are many aspects of music that reflect this reversion to imitation, and intonation and tone are two of them. When we can't accurately predict pitch or intonation, we must rely on imitation for adjusting intonation. The same goes for timbre and tone. When we are not audiating, we are reverting to imitation to get us through. Finally, like I mentioned above, audition of timbre and intonation is most likely tied to basic audiation of tonality. If we aren't successfully audiating tonality, then the audiation of intonation will be impossible and the audiation of timbre will be extremely difficult.

So, what exactly am I suggesting? I'm advocating working through the basic steps of music learning theory, which I outlined here. Have fun!

Friday, February 6, 2015

Tonal Function Based Ear Training

Over the past six months I've been learning about Music Learning Theory, which explains how the brain understands and learns music. One of the reasons I was attracted to it is that it's based on decades of research and testing. Basically, the crux of the theory is that the brain understands, learns, and predicts music in a process called audiation. The theory maps out how the brain develops what many musicians call the "inner ear" and progresses in intuitively understanding music.

The theory's explanation of how we learn to understand melody and harmony has produced a system of ear training that I personally found extremely effective. In becoming familiar with the theory I worked through the recommend exercises and learning activities, so that I could use them in teaching music. Before starting, I felt I had pretty decent ears. I've done a lot of transcription both in terms of melody and changes (harmony), and worked through various ear training classes in school (learning intervals, sight singing, recognizing chords with extensions, etc.). After a few months of memorizing and digesting the applications of music learning theory, I began to see a significant consistent improvement in my musicianship. I've been using it with students, and I've been seeing the same results with them. One of the big differences I've noticed, and I'll go into the specific benefits of this later, is that I hear music in my inner more clearly now. Whether it is hearing a familiar song or melody or creating an improvisation in my head, I can hear it more vividly and comprehend it more quickly than I could before. I think the best description of the overall improvement is that music has become more intuitive. No matter how great a musician you are, music can always become more intuitive and therefore easier for you, and that is the exact aim of music learning theory.

The Inner Ear

The basic process that our inner ear uses to comprehend music is that it organizes according to patterns or logical structures. This makes it easy for the brain to store it long term and easily recall it for comparison with new material we are either learn by ear or read. The digestion of music in this way also improves our ability to predict how music will progress and predict what music will sound like when we are reading music, composing, or improvising. This process also makes it easier for us to assign labels like scale degrees, pitch names or, even better, fingerings on our instrument to the music we hear either in real musical situations or in our heads.

Tonality and Function

For the music that most of us play (Western Music: most American and western European music), the system that organizes pitch is called tonality, and that is, at least for us Westerners, the go to source for the patterns and structures with which the brain can organize and store, in other words, learn music. Of course, it also treats rhythm in the same way, but that subject will need it's own post at some point.

The better we aurally digest the basics of tonality the stronger musical foundation we have. The two most basic structures in tonality are the polar functions tonic and dominant (I and V7). This is the starting point for digesting pitch. We can digest these in both major and minor and in multiple keys. To that we add subdominant (IV) and other functions, and from there we can also explore other tonalities besides major and minor like dorian and mixolydian. It is important to address multiple functions, tonalities, and so on because our brain uses the contrasts to aid and solidify our musical learning. 

Music learning theory and a series based on it, Jump Right In, suggests a number of ways to go about digesting tonality and function as follows.

Memorized Songs (Rote Songs)

Familiar melodies form a kind of musical vocabulary that our brains can draw on in intuitively understanding music. However, this metaphorical database will be much more effective if we also learn the harmonic functions that go with these melodies. Logically, we should start with simple songs that feature tonic and dominant, and we should learn them completely (melody, bass line, and harmony).

Here is a laundry list of how to develop this basic tune vocabulary:
  • Learn to sing melodies and their bass lines by ear. First focus on simple songs that feature tonic and dominant such as Mary Had a Little Lamb, London Bridges, Hot Cross Buns, and Three Blind Mice.
  • After learning to sing the melodies and bass lines, learn to play them on your instrument by ear.
  • Practice playing the melody while hearing the bass line in your head, playing the bass line while hearing the melody in your head, and playing the bass line or melody while hearing simple harmonies in your head (see below for harmonies).
  • If you have any ability at all to play the piano, guitar, or other instrument that allows you to sing simultaneously, practice playing the melody while singing the bass line, playing the bass line while singing the melody, and singing harmonies while playing the bass line or melody.
  • You can use the following basic harmonies (all scale degrees below reference the overall key. In the key of C, C=1, B=7, etc., no matter the underlying chord).
    • Scale degree 1 on tonic, 7 on dominant, and 1 on subdominant (Key of C Major: C, B, and C)
    • Scale degree 3 on tonic, 4 on dominant, and 4 on subdominant (Key of C Major: E, F, and F)
    • Scale degree 5 on tonic, 5 on dominant, and 6 on subdominant  (Key of C Major: G, G, and A)
  • Practice all the songs that you do in major in minor as well.
  • Practice the songs in other keys.
  • Expand your tune vocabulary to other simple diatonic songs that can be mostly harmonized with tonic, dominant and subdominant either in major or minor. All diatonic songs can be harmonized with these three functions, even if they weren't originally harmonized with I, IV, and V7.
    • Jump Right In has a series of solo books that each contain 50 songs that fit this description, and audio CD to use as
  • Compose melodic structures to these basic chord progressions. Start with just chord tones, and then expand to more complex creations.
  • Improvise over the tunes as well. Again, start with just chord tones, and then expand to more complex creations.
  • Expand your vocabulary to tunes base on dorian and mixolydian which have different harmonic functions.

Tonal Patterns

Jump Right In also suggests learning what it calls tonal patterns. These are melodic structures based solely on chord tones of the basic harmonic functions (Scale degrees for tonic: 1, 3, 5; for dominant: 5, 7, 2, 4, and for subdominant: 4, 6 ,1). The first book and second book in the series provide some nine different sets of tonal patterns, which you learn by ear from the CD. They progress from tonic and dominant in major to adding subdominant, working in minor, and exploring two and three functions in dorian and mixolydian as well.

Here is the process for working with these tracks:
  • First work with the neutral syllable track.
  • Sing back the tonal pattern in the space following each pattern.
  • Once you have become familiar with the patterns, move onto the track with solfege. This progression is important, as learning them on a neutral syllable first will increase the depth to which you digest the material. 
  • Memorize the tonal patterns, being able to sing the whole set without the audio track.
  • Improvise in the space provided on the track using chord tones only. Either improvise the same function or an opposing function. When first doing this pause the track and be careful to first hear your improvisation in your head. Then sing it out loud with solfege and double check to make sure your solfege correctly matches what you are singing.
To give you an idea of what these are and a starting point, I've created my own set of tonal patterns, This would be akin to the most basic set in the series, tonic and dominant in major. The first track is on a neutral syllable, and the second is the same set of patterns on solfege. I highly recommend getting the books and working through all 9 sets.

Improvisation with Tonal Patterns and Beyond

I have worked on some ear training improvisational exercises based on all of this. These are simple improvisational exercises that are generally fun, and are not overly challenging assuming you start at a comfortable level. These exercises assume that you have some vocabulary or ability to sing the chord tones of tonic and dominant in major to start off. As the exercises progress they include the ability to sing chord tones of subdominant and all three functions in minor as well.
  • Exercise 1 Free Play: Tonic and Dominant in Major. In this exercise you can improvise, singing tonic for as long as you'd like. When you ear prompts you move to dominant, and then come back and sing something in tonic to end. Feel free to draw on tonal patterns you may have already learned for vocabulary. You can continue this pattern for as long as you'd like switching between tonic and dominant at will. Do this on a neutral syllable, preferably something with a percussive consonant at the beginning like bum or dun.
    • Now, add solfege or scale degrees to the exercise. Whenever you are in question as to whether your solgege or scale degrees match your pitches, stop and double check where if you are correct.
    • Play this exercise on your instrument.
    • Try to do this exercise completely in your head. Do the exercise exactly as outline above, only instead of singing, now only hear the pitches in your head. When you discover something compelling, sing it out loud and play it on your instrument.
  • Exercise 2 Stuctured Improvisation: Tonic and Dominant in Major. This time give yourself a form, a set amount of time on each function, and a definite progression. Feel free to use the chord progressions from some of the tonic/dominant songs like Mary Had a Little Lamb, London Bridges, Hot Cross Buns, and Three Blind Mice.
    • Complete each of the stages outlined in exercise 1 including neutral syllable singing, solfege or scale degree singing, instrumental improvisation, and inner ear improvisation.
  • Exercise 3 Free Play: Tonic and Dominant in Minor. Follow all of the instruction for exercise 1 only this time in minor.
  • Exercise 4 Structure Improvisation: Tonic and Dominant in Minor. Follow all the instructions for exercise 2, only now in minor.
  • Exercise 5 and 6 Free Play and Structured Improvisation: Tonic, Dominant, and Subdominant in Major. Follow all the instructions for exercises 1 and 2, only this time add subdominant. When doing structured improvisation use the following guidelines in creating the form, or use a set form from a familiar song like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star or Yankee Doodle.
    • Subdominant normally follows tonic. 
    • It often progresses to dominant.
    • It can also return to tonic.
    • In some circumstances like the ninth and tenth bars of a classic blues, subdominant follows dominant and progresses to tonic.
  • Exercises 7 and 8: Free Play and Structured Improvisation: Tonic, Dominant, and Subdominant in Minor. Follow the instructions for exercises 5 and 6, only this time in minor.
  • Excercise 9: Passing Tones, Neighbor Tones etc. In this exercise follow the same progression outline in Free Play and then Structured Improvisation in Major and in Minor. Now expand beyond chord tones and include any kind of melodic structure that you hear whether it be passing tones, neighbor tones, suspensions, or whatever it is your hearing. Adding these will make obscure the harmonic function to some degree, but while doing this listen for which harmonic function is being emphasized.
  • Exercise 10: Accompanied Improvisation. This exercise can be done first with chord tones, and then with no melodic limitations as in exercise 9. It would be a good idea to follow the same progression as before, first Free Play and Structure Improvisation, first major and then minor, and first 2 functions and then 3 functions. The idea is to accompany yourself with either the bass line or the chords. This can be done with the piano, keyboard, guitar, or other instrument that allows you to sing simultaneously. The piano or keyboard also allows you to play the improvised melodic material.


Music learning theory predicts specific benefits from working through memorized songs and tonal pattern as described above. These are some of the benefits that I have confirmed through my own experience.
  • Improved pitch memory and stronger sense of intonation.
  • The technical act of playing music becomes more natural and easier allowing for elements like style and expression to become more central.
  • Increased ability to immediately recognize function in music (hearing the chord progression).
  • Quicker recognition of exact pitches.
  • More accurate execution of the ideas I hear in my head when improvising or composing.
  • Increased technique or at least that is how it seems. Really its a stronger connection between my horn and what I hear in my head.
  • Increased ability to remember music and to memorize music.
Working through this material has offered the fastest significant improvement to my overall musicianship I have ever noticed. The only two rivals are a period where I transcribed a lot, and another period where I did intense study and emulation of Charlie Parker's playing. However, what is different about this experience is that it has changed the way I hear music generally in a fundamental way, and the improvements continue in noticeable ways as I continue working on the material, which is part of why I created the improvisation exercises. I've also begun working on memorized songs that include modal mixture (theme song to legend of Zelda anyone?). It's really a fantastic process that is driving continuous development and improvement for me and has filled in a big hole I didn't even know was there. 

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!