"The potential for the saxophone is unlimited." - Steve Lacy

Monday, August 29, 2011

Standing Apart From The Crowd

As musicians and artists alike, we all want to be noticed—at least our work, anyway. No matter how humble we might be, none of us would actively pursue a career centered around creativity and personal expression, just to remain in total anonymity.

And getting noticed is no easy task. Especially in jazz, with it being the music career of choice by so many young players, today.

There are probably now more people playing jazz all over the world than ever before. This is mainly due to 1) the availability of music via the internet to spread globally, 2) the numerous universities and colleges now offering degrees in jazz studies, and 3) key pivotal figures over the past three decades who have served as jazz’s spokesmen who have influenced and persuaded young musicians to choose the noble jazz path, versus that of more commercial forms of music.

Even though it’s great that there are so many young musicians trying to swing, carrying the jazz torch, so the speak.The big question now is: How does one get noticed? How does one stand apart from the crowd?

Throughout history there have been two ways in which I’ve noticed that players have been able to distinguish themselves--whether it's in the form of peer recognition, critical acclaim or unyielding support from loyal fans--and not get lost in the middle of the heap. One is by being just like everybody else, only a little better. The other is by being like no other. Being an original.

The first way--being like everybody else, only better--is the path most commonly pursued. One, it’s easier to do assessments. Since you are comparing yourself to others, it’s easier to see how far you are behind or ahead of your intended goal. There are positive and negative aspects to this approach. When you are trying to be just like everybody else, only better, it’s easier to think in terms of objectives. Meaning, it’s more obvious what you need to work on, whether it’s sound, technique, and vocabulary building. Since the paradigm has already been set, you can gauge what you need to do to reach you desired goal. Not to mention you’re less likely to be criticized. I’ve noticed that people tend to criticize things that are unfamiliar to them or threaten their current belief systems. So if you’re playing in a way that’s similar to everyone else’s, only a little better, I feel that people are more likely to be accepting of what you’re doing. If anything, they might criticize themselves for not being able to do it as well as you, since things are now competitive.

One criticism with this approach is that it creates an environment that fosters competition rather than self-discovery—especially when it’s all about outplaying your opponent. Competition is great in sports, because you’re playing by a given set of rules. And the objective is pretty clear-cut: score more points than your opponent and you win. It’s different in music. There are rules, but you’re encouraged to break them, or at least stretch them a bit. Using a little imagination, many make their own rules to play by. Also, this approach doesn’t encourage you as a player to discover what makes you unique. And by unique, I’m not just talking about something as grandiose as becoming an innovator or pushing the limits of the style of music you play. I mean just simply being an artist—having found a new way to present old and/or new ideas.

The second approach--being like no other, being an original--is a bit more complex. One, the artist is more vulnerable. You’re doing something that people aren’t accustomed to, so you’re more likely to be criticized. It’s not always the case, but often times it is. And it may take you a little longer and more effort to find your support system—whether it be a group of musicians to play with or an audience to listen to your music.

Think of how much harder it must have been for pianist Cecil Taylor to find an audience compared to Horace Silver. Or Ornette Coleman compared to Jackie McClean. But time has proven that these two pioneers of free jazz have been recognized far more for their contributions in pushing jazz forward than their hard bop contemporaries. And this doesn’t only apply to free jazz players. Just compare Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell. Or Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins. Lester was often told that he needed to play like Coleman Hawkins. And it’s a good he ignored his critics. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have Stan Getz, Wayne Shorter, Zoot Sims, not to mention Charlie Parker.

But no matter which path you choose to follow, whether you're trying to stand apart and distinguish yourself by outplaying your peers or by simply being more original than them. Ultimately, what gets you noticed is great and consistent work. It’s like they say, “No matter how much milk is in the coffee, the cream will always rise to the top.”

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Art of Long Tones

I once asked my teacher, while I was a student at the Berklee College of Music, how I would be able to tell whether or not the long tones I was doing were working. He told me that the changes were so subtle, that I actually wouldn't be able to tell. I continued to do them anyway on blind faith. But I always suspected that it had to be more to it than that.

Today, I have discovered that long tones are more than just playing notes long and sustaining; that's just part of it. It's a balance between pitch, breath support, and embouchure control.

As a young Berklee student I would make the mistake of only playing the notes long and sustaining, not really given much consideration to the aforementioned things. I figured just by the mere process of doing it, my sound would correct itself. Sort of like running on the treadmill. You can run on the treadmill every morning without thinking about the speed, the incline or your form, and you will still become more conditioned just from running at all. And I guess with long tones, the same principle applies. Your sound will improve somewhat, regardless. But I'd like to discuss here is getting the maximum results for your efforts.

When playing long tones the two most important things you must do is (1) practice them at different dynamic levels and (2) practice them with a chromatic tuner.

Back to the treadmill analogy. Playing long tones at one dynamic level is actually like running on the treadmill at one speed and one incline level. You're not really working your muscles to their full burnout potential. To keep this from happening with long tones, I suggest following this dynamic arc: pp---mf----ff---mf---pp. When you're playing at these different dynamic levels you'll notice that you'll need varied levels of embouchure control and breath support. For example, when you're playing fortissimo, you'll notice you're working a lot more facial muscles. Whereas, when playing pianissimo you tend to need more diaphragm support. It can feel like having to pull back the reins to control a wild horse.

In terms of loudness, practicing using this dynamic arc helps to increase your ability to project. Because now you're learning how to direct the air at high velocity with control and precision. Almost like controlling the wheel of a car at high speed. In terms of pitch, you'll notice that when you play louder and softer, the pitch has a natural tendency to go flat or sharp.

For my set-up, I tend to get sharper when I play louder due to the increased blowing intensity as well as the reed is vibrating more. I also play sharp when playing soft, too, since now the embouchure is less tight. Sort of like loosening a screw on a latch; the whole thing now becomes a little more wobbly. And as I've said in earlier posts, that's why it's great to practice long tones with a tuner. It can difficult to distinguish between having a dark tone quality versus being flat and having a bright sound and being sharp. And of course, the advantage to this is that the more in tune you are, the uniformed your tone will sound.

So as you can see there's a lot more to long tones than just playing long tones. It's not the mindless activity that it's perceived to be. It requires just as much focus and technique as playing a prepared piece, sometimes more.

Who knew?

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