Sam Newsome

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

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

"Blue Swagger" - The Art of Solo Soprano Saxophone

The following piece is called "Blue Swagger, " from my 2009  release, Blue Soliloquy. It's probably one of the more jazzy and straight ahead pieces on the CD. It's seventeen bars in length and is comprised of all dominant 7th chords. You might say that this piece exemplifies my Thelonious Monk influence.

Like many of my solo pieces, I like to use call-in-response as a way creating a sense of dialogue, and what some might call self-interplay. This is very common amongst chordal instruments, but less common amongst wind instruments due to the fact that they're monophonic by nature.

As a matter of fact, this is one of the reasons I began my several-year study and practice of multi-phonics. Mastering them allowed me to expand my sound palette, enabling me to perform similar musical tasks as piano and guitar players. Many of the multi-phonics used on this piece function as upper extensions of the dominant 7th chords.

For example in the first two bars, I establish the harmony by playing a riff that outlines the G chord. Consequently, when I sound the multi-phonic with the Bb, G, and Eb, it's naturally heard as the #9, 8, and b13 of the chord. The rest of the piece follows a similar logic.

Just a quick note about multi-phonics. In the beginning, if they're difficult to play in the context of the piece,  I suggest practicing them in isolation. And as a general rule of thumb, the slower the airflow and the more relaxed the throat,  the more one can control the multi-phonic. For further explanation about controlling the speed of the airflow, please see my earlier post "Oral Cavity Manipulation."

In understanding the saxophone tablature, the 8va means that the octave is pressed. Everything else,  I believe is self-explanatory.

Lastly, as a musical reference, I've included a recorded example which demonstrates how I interpreted the piece.

Have fun!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Oral Cavity Manipulation

On the subject of oral cavity manipulation, there is often the misunderstanding that this process involves literally “opening” and “closing” the throat. When in fact, the position of the tongue is the contributing factor to obtaining oral cavity flexibility. Classical saxophonist Kyle Horch also agrees that it is essential to have an open throat, but argues that this may not be the most useful way to conceptualize the process.
He writes:

 Musicians often speak of the necessity of having an open throat.  For most of the course of the trachea this is no problem; our lives depend on an open trachea and it is actually quite impossible to close it.  The danger area is at the top of the throat, where the trachea opens into the back of the oral cavity.  Here, it is possible to have a sensation of ‘closing’ the throat.  To avoid this, some players try to imagine the throat as being as open as when yawning.  Personally, I try to have my throat feel as open and relaxed during blowing as it was during the inhalation of the previous breath.  In my experience, however, the real culprit in most internal bottlenecks is actually the tongue, which can easily arch either backwards out over the throat opening, or up toward the roof of the mouth. The syllable method is a useful tool in creating practice models.  The tongue position used in saying vowel sounds such as AH and OO allows an unobstructed airflow, as opposed to EE or IH, for example, which cause the tongue to rise, narrowing the flow and changing the character of the vocal tone from an open, relaxed quality to a more restricted, intense quality.  (Horch 1998, 78).

Using the “syllable method” as a tool for tongue placement memorization is an effective technique often utilized by many players. Jazz saxophonist Dave Liebman also talks about this process in great detail, discussing how using phonetic syllables are instrumental in regulating the air stream velocity. He writes:

Imagine that the mouth cavity is like a cave with air entering at one end (from the throat passage) and exiting at the other end into the mouthpiece.  The position of the hump portion of the tongue is crucial because of its effect upon air resistance, which in turn influences the final velocity of the air stream.  Much like any body of disturbance in the middle of our imagined cave, we have to consider what the best position would be for the desired result.  .  .  .  The optimum position for this “disturbing” body or tongue hump is somewhere in the middle of the oral cavity, allowing the air stream to go above, below and around it (Liebman 1994, 23)

It is apparent from the writings of Horce and Liebman that learning to control the various air stream velocities are significant in helping to gain control of the oral cavity process. The following table presents syllables devised by Horce (highlighted in yellow), and myself that may be used to achieve three (3) levels of air stream velocities. Each of the syllables when sounded creates frequent vibrations in the throat that range from relaxed to tense, also noted in the table. The appropriate air velocity needed all depends on what the performer is attempting to accomplished.  

Low Velocity
(Very Relaxed)

Medium Velocity
High Velocity

Table I: Syllables used to achieve varying levels of air stream velocities and tension in the throat

When attempting to incorporate the syllables in Table I, you must also take into consideration the different variables that may affect the effectiveness of the syllables: (1) the register in which they’re played, (2) the volume at which they’re played, and (3) the instrument, mouthpiece, and reed combination that’s used to play them.

The following oral cavity manipulation exercise in Figure 2:1 was designed to help with pitch flexibility and aural acuity. The D note, which is the first note in each measure, is the only pitch that is actually fingered. Incorporating the “syllable method, ”all notes, from Db down to G natural, are played by lowering the pitch using the “TAW “ sound. As noted in Figure 2:1, the ‘TAW” is used to lower the pitch down to the desired note, and the “EE” is used to raise the pitch back to the original note--which in this case is the D note.

Figure 2:1 Oral cavity exercise using the syllable method

Figure 2:1 may also be practiced, beginning and ending with the following pitches:

(1)  F3– C3
(2)  E3 – B3
(3)  Eb3 – Bb3
(4)  D3 – A3
(5)  Db3 – Ab2
(6)  C3—G2

If after you become comfortable with the aforementioned exercises you decide to extend them, play to the lower register of the instrument, you may find it difficult to play the exercise in its entirety. However, in the extreme lower register of the instrument, such as D1 – Bb1, it is important to note that any noticeable differences in the pitch being lowered will still prove beneficial in utilizing the oral cavity manipulation process. Furthermore, it has been my experience that producing these syllables in any register will sharpen the player’s aural acuity, as well as their sense of tongue position memorization. It is suggested that the notes in the exercises in Figure 2:1 are check by against the same notes using conventional fingerings and/or a chromatic tuner.

Oral cavity manipulation is often the key focus of players when attempting to perform notes and sounds that go beyond the original scope of the instrument, also known as extended techniques. It is importnat to note that this should be the focus even when attempting to play notes that are “normal.” Saxophonist and educator Michael Hester also agrees with this assessment. In his article “Saxophone Altissimo” Yamaha Educator Series, he states:

It is unfortunate that saxophonists are not faced with oral cavity flexibility early in their musical development. Performers on brass instruments and the flute deal with this day one. Squeaks played by young saxophonist are simply valid notes that they did not have the control to avoid. It would be very easy for a teacher to place a wall between the student and future attempts at the highest notes by treating such an event as a terrible mistake…It is best to explain that a squeak is a real note, demonstrate it for him or her and then ask the student to try and produce that note again (Hester 2).

It is evident that oral cavity manipulation plays an important role in helping saxophonists understand the inner workings of sound control, particularly as it pertains to performing extended techniques such as multi-phonics, microtone production, and the altissimo register. However, these procedures only represent one half of the extended-technique puzzle. The other half is having an understanding of the fingerings used once air has been blown through the instruments to produce these sounds—which, by the way, is the topic of the next discussion.


 (1998): 78.
(1994): 23.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Breathing 101: A Two-Step Process

When playing the saxophone it is important for the performer to view breathing as a two-step process: inhalation and exhalation. It sounds like a no-brainer, but often times we have tendency to place a lot of emphasis on the exhalation process                       not so much on inhaling. I tend to view the breath of the breathing process as being like violinist’s bow during bowing. Only then it's up bow and down bow, each being of equal importance.  

Normally when we practice longs tones, we take a quick breath, and then exhale slowly trying to hold the steady tone for as long as possible. But in order to fully master the breathing process it is important to practice both steps slowly. Below is a practice routine to help you master the process.

Step One:  Set the metronome at a slow metronomic marking. I suggest starting with a moderately slow M.M. such as quarter note = 70. As you become more comfortable with the process you can gradually decrease the tempo.

Step Two: The goal here is to inhale as slowly as possible. In the beginning it’s good to give yourself a set goal such as to inhale for two measures or 8 Inhaltion Beats Per Minutes (IBPM).

As shown in the example below, measures 1 & 2 should be for inhaling only.

Step Three: Once you inhaled for two measure, you can then start the exhalation process or Exhalation Beats Per Minute (EBPM) from measures 3 - 6.  Generally, your EBPM is twice that of your IBPM. For example if you inhale for two measures, your IBPM is 8; whereas, if you exhale for four measures, your EBPM is 16. I suggest that when you log your breathing that you keep track of the beats instead of the measures because your progress may occur in one beat increments instead one measure increments ( four beats).

Even though it would be impossible to breathe this way during performance, the goal here is to train yourself to view your breathing as a two-step process, giving you the breath control to play at many dynamic levels and speeds.

Just remember this: If you don’t load up with enough fuel before embarking upon your journey, you might find yourself out of gas, stuck on the side of the road!

Monday, March 4, 2013

Blindfold Test w/ Ted Panken

I'm happy to announce that my first Downbeat blindfold test conducted by jazz journalist Ted Panken is now available in the April issue. We did the test during the last week of December of 2012 at LIU Brooklyn in the Spector Lounge, a few doors down from my office.

Thinking back on it, it felt very relaxing being in that backroom during the Christmas break, especially with hardly anyone in the entire building--except for a few professors doing some 11th hour grading. 

And I remember that day being particularly cold and rainy, too.  We were at the beginning stages of what was to be a mild snowstorm. But fortunately the hang with Ted was warm and cordial. 

The last time we got together was at his brownstone in Fort Greene, Brooklyn,  back in 1998 when he was hired to write the press release for my, then, soon-to-be-released recording, Sam Newsome &  Global Unity. He wanted to sit down with me face-to-face and listen to the recording to get my insight on things.

The premise for this blindfold test was that it was to be all about the soprano saxophone. Which might explain some of my comments, which seemed to be somewhat harsh on players whom I felt didn't sound like soprano players. What can I say? Someone has got to advocate for the instrument. And a lot of people asked me how many of the players was I able to identify. But I wasn't too hung up on trying to score a 100. I think the purpose of these kinds of interviews is to get insight into the artist's perspective on music. As a matter of fact, blindfold tests where all that the musician does is name the players on the recordings, end up being very boring.  I usually come away thinking, "Man, I could have just Googled this." I think we would get more interesting responses if the name was changed to "Hey, What Do You Think About This?"

But I was very appreciative of Ted and the folks at Downbeat for giving me the opportunity. I know Downbeat can be a very hype-oriented magazine (or as they say down South, "hype-orientated"), so I'm glad they were open to doing something a little different, this time around. 

Who knows? Maybe there's hope!

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