Sam Newsome

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

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Using Bb Clarinet Reeds on the Soprano: A Saxophonist's Best Kept Secret

Have you ever tried playing the soprano saxophone using a Bb clarinet reed? Believe it or not, they work great. I first heard about this sort of thing from saxophonist Branford Marsalis. He has stated in interviews that he plays clarinet reeds on the soprano. I don't recall him going into great detail about it, only saying that he likes the cut.

I dabbled with them off and on, but I never made any real commitment to them. Not until recently, anyway.

In April of 2015, I went on a European tour with The Bad Plus, along with alto saxophonist Tim Berne and cornetist Ron Miles, and I took four boxes of RW reeds with me. Two boxes of 2 1/2 soft soprano reeds, and two boxes of 2 1/2 soft clarinet reeds. And guess what? The boxes of soprano reeds never got opened.

What I like about the clarinet reeds is that they have a more consistent cut throughout the entirety of the reed. My theory is that the clarinet reed narrower, therefore, there's less room for error. Soprano reeds tend to be a little flimsy at the tip, making them difficult to play with a full sound in the high register. And there's a general inconsistency throughout. Whereas, the tip of clarinet reeds tend to be firm but not too stiff. These reeds have a good balance between resistance and vibrancy. The cut feels sort of a cross between a Rico Royal (back when they were good reeds) and the Vandoren Traditional Saxophone Reed--a.k.a. The blue box. 

To further explain my findings, here is a list of pros and cons of using Bb clarinet reeds on the soprano saxophone.

  • Reeds are more vibrant;
  • Enables you to produce a bigger and fuller tone;
  • You have better intonation in the middle and high registers; however, the extreme lower register;(Bb1 - D1) tends to be on the sharp side--but nothing a few daily long tones couldn't remedy;
  • You have more control in the altissimo ;
  • Multi-phonics sound more prominently and consistently;
  • You have more sound projection;
  • A higher percentage of good reeds per box--which is always a bonus.

  • The clarinet reed is much narrower, so it takes some getting used to;
  • The intonation is sharper in the extreme lower register;
  • Going back to soprano sax reeds is more difficult; hopefully, you won't need to;
  • Because you’re having to manipulate more sound, it can slow down your dexterity; however, this can be remedied by practicing a few Marcel Mule etudes or just coming down in reed size. Some might try shaving the reed, but I’m not a big fan of this process.

As I said stated earlier, they do take some getting used to; however, I think the benefits to be gained outweigh this temporary stage of discomfort, tenfold. 

Check it out. I'd be curious to hear what you think.

Roberto's contact information is listed below:

Roberto's Winds
149 West 46th Street
New York, NY 10036
Toll free: (888) 7676-SAX
Phone: (212) 391-1315
Phone: (646) 366-0240

Store Hours:
Tuesday, Wednesday 12:00pm - 6:00pm
Thursday 10:00am - 6:00pm
Friday, Saturday 12:00pm - 6:00pm

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Illusion of Control: A Musician's Cognitive Bias

Many of us in the music business, at one time or another, have been inflicted with the cognitive bias known as the illusion of control--a term coined by Harvard professor and clinical psychologist Ellen Langer.  Simply put, this is when people overestimate the control they have over events in their lives. I've seen this cognitive bias in musicians, music educators, and particularly in music industry people like producers and A & R reps. Sometimes it works for us, sometimes it works against us. But rest assured it's there affecting our everyday lives.

Illusion of Control Scenarios

To give you better idea of the illusion of control, here are a few examples:

Let's say you are an A & R rep at a record label--even though they barely exist anymore--and you signed a band that hit it big and made millions of dollars for the label. The illusion of control is you thinking that you and your "magical" formula for picking bands are the direct cause of the band’s success--which is often not the case. You may have entered them into the race, but why they crossed the finish line far ahead of the others is far beyond your control. If in fact you knew which bands were going to hit it big, you’d be the richest and most sought after person on the planet. But the fact of the matter is that you have no idea. The hypothetical band that you signed who hit it big, did so mostly due to luck. They just happened to be the right people, at the right place, and the right time. 

A non-musical example of the illusion of control is winning the lottery. People who win lotteries often think they know how to pick lucky numbers. Many of them have some wacky system or ritual that means absolutely nothing (i.e. claiming to play numbers only from birthdates of family members, or playing various combinations of their phone number and zip code).  Which as I mentioned earlier means nothing, since the selection of lottery numbers are totally random. Having a three-year old pick random numbers out of a box of sand is as likely to produce a winning lottery ticket as using numbers from birthdays and zip codes.

Studies performed by Langer showed that people who roll dice at the craps table tend to throw the dice harder if the want higher numbers and softer if they want lower numbers, as if that would make any difference. This is something that Langer defines as "skill cues."

As performers, ninety-nine percent of us are probably guilty of this. How many times have you stood on your tippy toes to hit those high notes, or bent your knees to honk out the low tones?  As though being closer to the ground will actually help you play lower. 

Even in the context of carving out a career as a jazz musician, I’ve seen the illusion of control in successful players who think that they know exactly why they became successful. I’ll hear theories from how they know how to put together a great band, how to spot trends, or know the right hands to shake. I do understand the importance of these aforementioned things. However, a lot of skilled musicians know how to put together great bands, spot trends, and have great social and political skills; yet, these things still don’t automatically translate into a successful career.

And of course, there's something to be said for continuing to try and keeping it at. But let's be clear,  this is not control. This creates possibilities, not outcomes--something I will address a little later.

A Story of Randomness

Years ago I had a band called Global Unity who got signed to Columbia/Sony—albeit our tenure with the label was short lived, but that’s another blog post.  The way that this happened was totally random.

The short of the story is this: One day I decided to self-produced an album length recording of my band (this was before that kind of thing was popular, mind you) and after it was completed I played it for my friend Lisa. I told her that I was looking to shop the recording to various labels and she suggested that I give a copy to a booking agent friend of hers who was looking to get into artist management. After I agreed, she set the ball in motion by not only telling him about the recording, but actually taking it to his apartment and sitting down and listening to it with him. One of the reasons he agreed to their meeting was because he’d remember hearing us a few months earlier at some small club in the East Village. And apparently,  really liked the group.

So here is where randomness played a role.

Right before our performance at this East Village club, I realized that I'd left some of my sheet music at home. Since the club did not have a copy machine, I went to a photocopy shop a few blocks from the venue. On the way back, I bumped into him and his then fiancée as they were walking up the street. They were just about to go to dinner, so I gave them a flyer and told them that the venue where I was playing was only a few blocks from the restaurant. So they took the flyer and assured me that they would stop by after they’d eaten dinner. Sure enough they did. And lucky for us, we performed a really good set. We were well-rehearsed and everyone was having a good night. Keep in mind that this was a period where if you wanted to have a relationship with a record company, you had to either invite someone from the label to one of your performances. or someone who would be willing to advocate on your behalf. This was pre-check-out-our-band-on-YouTube days.

Back to my point about randomness. Prior to this gig, I had made numerous unsuccessful attempts to get this agent out to one of my performances. However, just by chance, he happened to be in the neighborhood on this particular night that I was playing. And lo and behold, several months later I was able to reap the benefits of that random encounter.

After I had gotten my record contract, I could have come up with numerous pat-myself-on-the-back theories on why things went in my favor. But the fact of the matter is that I just happened to be at the right place at the right time--not to mention some good advocating on behalf from my friend Lisa. The music has to be good; that's a given. However, the fact that I have not been able to create any music remotely interesting to any label--large and small--is proof that this situation was in fact random. And in my own defense, maybe if I cared about that sort of thing a little more I might have been able to conjure some interests. The fact of the matter is that that sort or thing—shopping to labels and trying to get people to represent me—is of little interest. I’m much more interested in documenting my work these days. I’ll worry more about career advancement when the time is right.

The Negative Aspect of the Illusion of Control

Moving away from my getting-signed story for moment: Another point I’d like to make is that the illusion of control clouds our ability to access our situation. Studies have shown that the more powerful a person feels, the stronger the illusion of control becomes. I’ve seen this demonstrated in prominent jazz musicians who’ve surrounded themselves with sidemen who were not on their level--frankly, musicians whom many considered to be very mediocre. But because of the feeling of control and authority that comes with being a prominent person in this business, you can come to exist in a bubble, since you are no longer open to the criticism and assessment endured by everyday, less prominent players. And this is very common amongst people in leadership positions: CEOs of major corporations, presidents of universities, and pastors of churches. These figures of authority often get caught up in their own illusions of control, while everyone else around them are able to so clearly see the obstacles halting their progress.

The Positive Aspect of the Illusion of Control

I’d like to point out that the illusion of control isn’t all negative. The truth is that it makes us strive for things even when our chances of achieving them are very low. Think about how many times we’ve tried to get our bands booked on festivals as an unknown. The illusion of control made us feel that we could influence the booker’s decision by having a well-written cover letter, a slick looking band photo, and, of course, a well-recorded, well-performed CD.. These things do help, but ultimately, the booker of the festival makes his or her decision independent of what you think your influence is. If you are lucky, your packet will be the very thing they’re looking for at that particular time.

Point and case is when I got my deal with Columbia/Sony, it just so happened that the new regime at the label were looking for something more world music oriented. And voilà! My demo, Global Unity comes across their desk. The timing could not have been more perfect. But the bigger point to be learned from my scenario and many others like it, is that even though you ultimately don’t have the final say (or control), the illusion of control does at least give you the confidence to try.

Things You Can Control 

The last issue I'd like to discuss is the illusion of futility, which is the opposite of the illusion of control. This is when you fail to recognize how much control or influence you actually have over a particular situation.  For example, you may fail to realize how being difficult decreases your chances of employment. Or how practicing correctly makes you play more consistently. Or how just being visible increases your chances of being hired, in general. These are things we take for granted; however, these are things which we can control that can make a big difference.

In summary, if you want to do well in the music business,  prepare, prepare, prepare. Or better yet, try, try, try. Ultimately, you don't have direct control over final outcomes; however, you can increase the likelihood of luck going in your favor.  These are the rules of the game. Now our job is to learn how to play it.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Some Thoughts on Ornette Coleman: March 09, 1930 - June 11, 2015

I'm sure that I echo the sentiments of many when I say that with the passing of Ornette Coleman, we not only lost an important and still relevant jazz figure, but a school of thought that became the face of modern jazz as we know it. I've been more occupied with Ornette and his music in recent months since becoming an active member of The Bad Plus' Science Fiction project, in which we play music from his 1972 Columbia Records release of the same name. 

A while back, pianist Ethan Iverson asked me to write a few words about Ornette and his music for a piece that he was putting together for his blog Do the Math to promote some upcoming performances with the Science Fiction project. 

Below is what I contributed to his piece. I thought it would be appropriate reprint again here today:

Two artists whom I think of as being the quintessence of originality are Ornette Coleman and Jackson Pollack. They both turned convention on its head--Ornette with sound and style, Jackson with colors and shapes. And Ornette was even more unique in that he was always Ornette. Jackson came into his own much later in life. Ornette, however, seemed to have been born into his--and has remained there. Whenever I hear Ornette's music, the message I always hear is that it's OK to be yourself. His music is a story of self-acceptance. He opened the doors of jazz, and welcomed all of those who felt that they had something say--both the well schooled and the untrained.  His music taught black musicians that it's OK to embrace a black sound; it taught white musicians that it's OK to embrace a white sound. And even more importantly, it taught us all how to work together. On the surface, Ornette's music seems very militant--a blatant rejection of a European sensibility. But it's not that at all. At its core, his music doesn't reject anyone or anything. Through his music, Ornette embraced the world—and most of all, himself.

Thanks, Ornette, for the music. And congrats on a life well-lived. (RIP)

  • Wednesday, June 3, 2015

    The Benefits of Slow Practice

    The (3) three best ways to practice the soprano are slow, slowly, and slower.  Practicing slow is the aural equivalent of zooming in. It enables you to examine things from a more microscopic perspective. You are able to better access important components of your playing such as sound, embouchure, and rhythm a lot more carefully.

    Slow practice is something that I do when I'm trying to get back to the basics--particularly with regards to the aforementioned things. This approach works similarly to the principle of opposites, which states that you that if you want to be able to play fast, then practice everything slowly. If you’ re trying to produce a robust, warm sound, then practice playing soft. It's a more disciplined form of practice and its benefits extend far beyond playing fast and a getting a big and warm sound of your instrument.

    Speaking of musical benefits to be gained, here are some that come to mind:

    1. Sound becomes more focused
    2. Fingers become loose
    3. Ideas becomes more thoroughly learned
    4. Time feel becomes more metronomic ally sound
    5. Better breath control
    6. Practice from a calm and peaceful place
    7. You develop more patience while playing your instrument

    Now it's impossible to broach this topic without discussing tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin, probably one of the cleanest and fastest musicians ever to play the saxophone--coming in second, maybe to John Coltrane. I'll take it a step further and say that Johnny Griffin had uniformity throughout all registers of the instrument that I'm not sure John Coltrane even had. His level of instrumental control and improvisational clarity can be heard on Griffin’s 1957 release, A Blowin Session, on which he shared the front line with notables of the time like Lee Morgan, Hank Mobley and John Coltrane. I’m not making this claim as a Johnny Griffin enthusiast, but it’s pretty obvious that he has a different level of instrumental command in comparison to his contemporaries; hence, why he earned the nickname, "The Fastest Gun in the West."

    I'm mentioning Mr. Griffin because he was known for his very slow practice regimen--which isn't surprising. I've heard from numerous sources that he used to practice everything at a quarter note = 60, which is difficult to do over an extended period. To begin your practice playing everything at this metronome marking is no so difficult; however, to end your practice at the same tempo takes a different level or concentration and determination. And frankly, it would be difficult to play with the kind of precision for which Mr. Griffin was known without being extremely meticulous about every aspect of one's playing; I'm speaking of things such as his pitch, articulation, timbre, and harmonic acuity.

    Getting away from saxophone oriented things for a for moment, one of the things I enjoy about slow practicing is how it slows down the mind--something I alluded to in #6. Back in my macro-shedding days, I often overloaded my brain with too much material. In non-musical occupations like being a lawyer or a college professor, having an abundance of information ready for immediate dispersion is a good thing. When playing jazz, however, being able to shut off the analytical side of your brain often makes you a more effective improviser.  And don't think that I'm subscribing to the noble savage syndrome. Ignorance is not a virtue. However, to be an improviser with any kind of depth, you have to surrender to the natural forces and go with what is, and not with what you desperately want it to be.

    So no matter which instrument you play, the tranquil effects of slow practice will leave your mind uncluttered, even after several hours of non-stop shedding. And more importantly, things that you're practicing actually get absorbed more deeply. It's the best of both worlds.

    Give it a try!

    Embracing Authentic Confidence, Beyond the Illusion of Perfection

    My struggles with confidence has been a constant companion throughout my life's journey, with and without my horn. I certainly have my g...