Sam Newsome

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

Now available of Bandcamp!

Now available on Bandcamp!

Now available on Bandcamp!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Letters to a Young Soprano Player: Part 1


Dear Jesse,

Thanks so much for sending me your CD and the flattering note that accompanied it. I know that as an aspiring young saxophonist, reaching out to older musicians that you’ve never met can be an intimidating thing to do. Actually, when I think about it, it’s probably less frightening of an experience, nowadays, than it used to be. Nowadays, you can just do it over the Internet. When I was your age, the only way we could pick the brains of older musicians was to call them on the phone, go to their gig, or show up at their house. Now that’s what I call frightening.  God forbid you should try that with the wrong person. I recall making a few cold calls to older musicians, only to be greeted with 15 seconds of dead silence, which felt like an hour. One of the reasons I try to be welcoming and encouraging to up and coming players like you is because I do remember so vividly what it was like to be on the other side.

And I do appreciate your kind words about my music. I’ve made many artistic decisions through the years that have made me wonder if anyone would ever like what I do. As an artist, I do want to connect with people on the most basic of levels. But I don’t want to pander to them. I want to play what I hear, not what I think others want to hear. To do this would under-mind the very quality that drew them to my music in the beginning.

When I first switch to the soprano saxophone almost 19 years, I did so not knowing what the future would hold for me. I’ve often likened the process to being like jumping off a cliff and having to grow wings on the way down. Thank goodness I stuck with my guns and didn’t give in to the naysayers. And trust me, there were plenty. All in all it’s a decision that I've never regretted. It has been a life-changing journey that has restored my curiosity and excitement about music. And without a doubt, has strengthened me as a saxophonist, artist and person.

But I do want to honor your request, and give you some constructive feedback on your music—specifically on your soprano playing. And I must say, one of the advantages of seeing yourself as an aspiring jazz musician versus an established one, is that you are open to constructive feedback. Unfortunately, once you graduate from college and start working as a professional, other musicians are usually hesitant to offer feedback--unless you’ve already established a teacher-student dynamic. Otherwise, if they like what you do, they’ll call you back. If they don’t, you won’t hear from them again. That’s the harsh reality of New York. No one is going to say, “Hey, work on these things for six months and give me a call.” They’ll just say, “he plays out of tune,” or “he can’t play changes, or “he doesn’t know any tunes,” or ”he can’t keep good time.”  And that will become your label, at least until they hear you again and you’re able to remove all doubt through your progress.

Now keep in mind that I’m just hearing you on three tunes from a recording, which is lot different from hearing someone live.  The first thing that struck me was that your approach had very little to do with the soprano. It sounded like you were just playing all of the things you'd probably play on tenor, up an octave—which is common. Saxophonists rarely deal with the soprano as though it’s deserving of special treatment different than what’s given to the other saxophones.  The soprano lends itself to a more sound-centered approach to improvisation, versus the idea-centered approach favored by most. 

 Let me clarify how these things differ.

First, let’s start with idea-centered playing. This is when you first realize the idea, and the sound produced is a by-product of implementing the idea. In other words, you think of something to play, and your sound is what’s heard as a result of trying to play it. There are a few advantages this approach. One, you are playing something that’s well rehearsed, so the execution of the idea is often precise and accurate. Two, you have the comfort of knowing that the idea will serve a particular function melodically, harmonically, and rhythmically.

One of the cons, however, is that the idea might sound forced. It might work melodically, harmonically, and rhythmically, but not musically. While I was a student at the Berklee of College of Music, I attended numerous jam-sessions, knowing what lick I was going to play, on which tune and chord. Like many developing players, I figured why practice it if you’re not going to play it--even if the situation doesn’t call for it.

Frankly, approaching music this way can sound uncommunicative, isolated, and technical. And by technical I mean playing ideas that sound calculated and premeditated rather than inspired. Technique in this instance is not a means to an end. It is the means. Just as a side note: If you notice someone’s technique apart from their music, it means they haven’t figured out how to integrate with their music. This is one of the inspiring things about Thelonious Monk. Even though he had a great command of the piano, he never used technique to play a lot of notes. Instead, he used it to play each note with great depth and beauty.

Let me explain sound-centered playing: This is when the primary focus is on sound production, and the ideas heard are mere by-products of the various ways in which you manipulate the sound. One advantage to this approach is that now that you are maximizing each note, which, on the soprano, fully allows you exploring its timbre and textural possibilities before moving on to the next note. Your ideas now take on a more vocal-like quality, which plays to the inherent expressive nature of the instrument. Not to mention, with your sound at the forefront, listeners can now tune into its subtleties—which, by the way, is how listeners will ultimately come to recognize you. 

Jesse, keep in mind that many of these things that I’m mentioning regarding sound should be applied to any instrument that you play. But I am speaking to the soprano, specifically, because this is what I do.

But on a more positive note, I do find your intonation to be pretty accurate. Which is no small feat, especially for someone who hasn’t been playing it that long. I remember when I had just graduated from college, I could barely two consecutive notes in tune. So you’re much further along than I was. But if you’re really serious about getting your soprano chops together, you can’t be satisfied with just being able to play in tune. Maybe 30 – 40 years ago when all sopranos were horrible, maybe you could rest your hat on just being able to play in tune. But nowadays you need to bring much more than that to the table. Nowadays, you need think about developing a voice. And the only way to do that is by thoroughly investigating into the way sound is produced on the instrument and all of its nuances.

So my advice to you is listen, practice and play. And when finish doing that, listen, practice and play some more.  Thanks again for sharing with me your music.  And I hope that you’ll find some of the things I’ve said here useful. If not now, hopefully, in the future.

Take care,
Sam Newsome