Today we’re continuing the blog series on Equipment Choices. This post is about my saxophones and why I’ve chosen them. I have the full listing of my saxes and setups over at this page, so instead of listing them all here, let me talk about them in general terms, about why I like them, and some of the things maybe I don’t like so much. Maybe someday I’ll do in-depth reviews of each of them, but for now, this post will have to do.

By far there is one main reason why I own all four of these saxophones: I like my horns to be really free blowing. Now, I actually like a lot of resistance – but I like to get my resistance from the mouthpiece/reed combination and not the saxophone itself. Resistant sax setups generally …

  • are more closed at the tip
  • have bigger chambers
  • require harder reeds

… and that pretty much sums up my preferences. I plan to cover why I like these kinds of setups in a later post, but for now, just accept that I like a resistant setup and a free-blowing axe. 

The most free-blowing horns I’ve played are the old Conns (especially the 6M, which I would love to own someday), the old Bueschers, and among current production instruments, the Keilwerth. Now, let me be the first to admit, there are about a billion new brands of saxophones on the market now that I simply have never played. I wish I had time to check them all out, but I just don’t. For the record, I am in no way disparaging all of these new saxophones. Some of them are probably awesome, and I truly wish I had time to play them all.

Other reasons I like these horns: I feel they are all full of big, fat tone. Some people say they are “stuffy.” Well, call it “stuffy” if you like. Yes, if you bring your mouthpiece over from your Mark VI, these horns are going to sound darker, fuller, and quieter. But you can still peel the paint with any of my horns if you really want to – you’re just going to need a more aggressive setup to do so. If you take your setup off your Mark VI and put it on my Chu alto, you’re going to wonder why your tone isn’t projecting. That’s not a fault of the horn. It’s your fault for putting the wrong mouthpiece on my horn!  😉

But this brings up another point. Overall these horns are very mouthpiece friendly. That is to say, I have put some pretty aggressive mouthpieces on these horns, and they still play great. I remember vividly putting an early Guardala “King R&B” alto piece (man, I really wish I hadn’t sold that one) on my Chu alto, and not only did it play great, but it was well in tune. This should have been the mismatch of the century, and I was fully expecting it to be a disaster. But it wasn’t. I loved it! The horn was, of course, designed to play with a short, big chambered mouthpiece, but that Guardala was the exact opposite – almost a “no-chamber” mouthpiece! But it was great if you wanted to play some smooth jazz or play in a rock band. I’ve found similar adaptability in my tenor and bari. My Conn soprano is the exception. It really hates a small or medium chamber mouthpiece. I can’t play it in tune for the life of me unless the chamber is pretty massive. I’m not sure why this horn is so picky, but if you’re looking for a versatile soprano that is good for classical and pop/rock, this one’s probably not for you.

Let’s talk about the key work. I have had plenty of folks play my old horns and say something like “I could never get used to this key work.” So far I’ve been pretty good at holding my tongue in such situations. 😛 Really people … you have seen the Charlie Parker and the Sigurd Rascher videos, right? I firmly believe that the key work on these horns is not a limitation on your technique in any way. If you don’t believe me, then go check out this recording of the Mana Quartet. Go ahead, I can wait… 

Welcome back. If they can play like that on old Bueschers, then you simply cannot say that key work on your old Buescher is holding you back. Look, the keywork on these old horns has both advantages and disadvantages. I have never had any problem with this, but in the interest of full disclosure, here is my love/hate list of key work stuff, so you can decide for yourself if you can deal with it or not. 

  • Left pinky keys: generally harder to use on old saxes, with some exceptions. (My soprano is awesome though!)
  • Articulated G#: often missing from older horns, and if added, can make the pinky C# really difficult to press. (There are workarounds, but they require somebody that is very knowledgeable in modifying the old horns, and this work can get expensive too.)
  • Alternate G# in the right hand: I like it and it has gotten me out of a bind in the Creston, but you won’t find it on newer horns.
  • Alternate E-flat in the right hand: I like it, occasionally useful, not found on newer horns. 
  • High F# key: not found on the old horns. I miss not having this key on my three Conns. I wish they all had it!
  • Front E/F altissimo key in left hand: not present on some older horns, especially Buescher. I can’t live without this key. It was already on my bari/alto/tenor but I had it added to my soprano. 
  • Bari sax Low A: not found on the older horns. I prefer the sound of the low B-flat bari myself. A few older Conns are low A, but newer baris are superior to the early low A bari saxes, in my opinion. 
  • Thumb rest: Most older horns have the thumb rest fixed to the body. Modern adjustable thumb rests feel great and can really help you avoid/minimize hand/wrist pain. I miss them. I had one installed on my soprano, because it originally came with that crazy thumb ring that was driving me crazy!

Again, there is nothing in the list that’s a deal breaker for me. Maybe it is for you. That’s okay. 

Here are some other miscellaneous things to consider about some of the older horns that may or may not put you off:

  • Some techs don’t know how to work on them, or even refuse to work on them.
  • In some cases (especially the octave mechanism) many of them are complicated and difficult to repair/adjust.
  • There are very few parts available for them. 
  • They can be quite a bit cheaper than buying a new horn of similar quality. 
  • They were completely handmade, so there can be considerable variability in playing characteristics from one horn to the next, even in the same brand and vintage.  
  • Many band directors will refuse to let a student play them in band. (One such director insisted such a horn couldn’t possibly be played in tune with all the other “modern” saxes.)
  • Many are silver plated, so you might have to polish it every year or so if you don’t want it to turn that ugly grey tarnish color (or keep silver strips in the case with the horn). 
  • Micro-tuner neck: I have this on the alto and I love it and use it constantly. They are often stuck and won’t turn. Then it’s just dead weight to carry around unless you can find someone who can free it up without destroying it. 
  • Miscellaneous adjustment screws: often missing on the old horns, I’ve had some added, and wish I had more available on my older horns.

Many of those items were maintenance oriented, so I feel I should mention: my Keilwerth tenor requires way less maintenance than my older horns. I almost never have problems with it. It is just rock solid. If my Chu alto got smashed tomorrow, I would be seriously considering a Keilwerth to replace it because of the dependability I’ve enjoyed with my tenor. 

Since the Keilwerth is my one “modern” sax, let me just talk about a few other details, in no particular order.

  • The pearls are rounded on the sides, and do not sit down in a metal cup with sharp edges, and I really like the way this feels under the fingers. 
  • The bis key is rounded nicely and allows me to slide the left hand first finger easily on and off the key – something I do a lot. 
  • The keywork is heavier and clunkier than something like a good Mark VI. This is something I don’t notice any more, but it bothered me at first. I’ve lightened some of the springs under the right hand, and although I occasionally get a little bit of bouncing out of those keys, the compromise is worth it to me.  
  • It has a really nice system for easily adjusting the height of the left hand palm keys.
  • It’s heavy. If you don’t want a heavy tenor, don’t get a Keilwerth!

Rolled tone holes. They are on all my saxes except my bari. I wish I had them on the bari. Why? First, all my saxes with rolled tone holes seem to stay in adjustment longer. I don’t understand it, but the pads just don’t leak as often. They don’t stick as much either. (Don’t ask me why; they just don’t!) Lastly, it’s easier for me to play jazz and improvise moving lines with a more gentle kind of attack on the notes when my sax has rolled tone holes. Think of the difference between Johnny Griffin and Hank Mobley improvising a solo. It sounds almost like Griffin is attacking each note, while Mobley’s notes fit together more gently. For me, it’s easier to achieve this kind of Mobley-like legato quality to the line when I’m playing on rolled tone holes. Again, I don’t know why, but I know it’s true. 

Tuning. I touched on this earlier, so I want to be completely clear about this – my older horns, and even my Keilwerth, are harder to play in tune than some of the other modern horns I’ve played, like Yamaha and Yanagisawa. For me, this is not a deal breaker. All saxophones will play some notes out of tune unless the player is constantly making tuning adjustments while playing. There’s no reason why anyone with a decent ear can’t play the older horns in tune. This is one of those downsides which everyone plays up, but to me has turned out to be a non-issue entirely. That said, I’ve done a fair amount of work on my horns to help with the worst tuning issues. I’m talking about adding crescents to tone holes and working with key heights. This is not done with the idea of eliminating pitch problems with the horns – just trying to mitigate them so I don’t have to work quite so hard to keep the notes in tune. 

Now I’m going to venture into some controversial stuff here. I personally feel that these tuning issues in older horns are mainly due to the bore design. Modern manufacturers have significantly altered the bore of saxophones compared to saxes of the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s (or earlier) in part to simplify manufacturing and reduce expenses, but also in part to help mitigate tuning issues. (This is not the only thing they do to mitigate tuning issues, but it’s one of them.) These bore changes, in my opinion, change the sound of the horn, and while the newer horns play better in tune, they do so by sacrificing some tonal homogeneity, free-blowing qualities, and bigness/fatness of tone. In other words, you can make a sax more in tune with itself, but as you continue down that road fixing pitch issues, you are also introducing new problems into the sax – namely:

  • More stuffy notes that don’t have the same tone as the notes around them
  • More blowing resistance
  • A sound quality that is less deep, less full, and shifts the balance of overtones upward toward the higher partials, de-emphasizing the lower ones 

Do I have a spectrogram to prove any of this? No. I have my ears, my experience playing and testing horns, and I’ve had a lot of lengthy conversations with people who have built careers around working on vintage horns, while at the same time staying extremely familiar with modern horn design and manufacturing. Does this mean you can’t sound great on a modern sax? Absolutely not! There are some players who sound amazing while playing on a $500 horn that rolled off the assembly line yesterday. Again, I’m just trying to help you understand why I play what I play. I don’t mind if you have different priorities than me. 

Well this post has gone on long enough. I hope this post has been helpful to you in thinking about horns, and what might work best for you. One of these days I hope I can get some pictures posted that will show some of the unique and interesting features of these horns. As always, your opinions, thoughts and questions are always appreciated. 

Hello everyone. I’m sorry it’s been so long since I posted. I’ve recently moved, and I also took a (much needed) vacation. I’ve decided to let the Fear Series rest for a little while longer, because those posts are complicated and really require a lot of editing and revision on my part. I will definitely finish that series, but in the interest of keeping the blog going in the short term, I’ve decided to start a second series called the “Equipment Choices” series. I’ve been inspired by Bret Pimentel’s admonition  that equipment lists don’t really do much good if they don’t come with an explanation of why those particular horns have been chosen.  So in that spirit, this new series will be about my horns and why I’ve chosen them. But before I start talking about my particular instruments, today’s post will just be about my general philosophy for choosing woodwind instruments. 

First, if you’ve looked over my gear list, you’ll notice that a significant portion of my stable is old, so I need to be clear about this – I never choose an instrument just because it’s old! Yes, I kinda think it’s neat that some of these horns are much older than me, and to think that some real craftsmen from the 20’s are looking down on me now, smiling, that their creation is still making music. But I have only two criteria for choosing instruments – do they fit my needs, and do they fit within my budget. Yes folks, it’s really that simple.

Every instrument is a compromise, right? No single instrument does everything perfectly. (If you invent such an instrument, please let me know ASAP!) Some instruments are more out-of-tune than others. There are differences in tone colors, consistency, blowing resistance, response, dynamic range, weight, ergonomics – and that’s just scratching the surface. When you’re evaluating an instrument for your own collection, lots of instruments will clearly disagree with you because one or more of these things is simply unacceptable to you. But then a lot of times the choice becomes really difficult because you’re working with several fine instruments and none of them have those things that immediately disqualify them. These are the times when the choice is toughest. 

Yes, these are the times when you really must understand your own playing – what your strengths are, what your weaknesses are, what styles you prefer to play, etc. Somehow you have to have (at the very least) a vague rank ordering of these things in your mind, so that, as you expose the strengths and weaknesses of any given horn, you can compare them to your own strengths and weaknesses. If you don’t already have this information in your own mind, you’ll be choosing instruments based on a few obvious things that appeal to you immediately, but ignoring the things that will, in the long run, cause you to want to get rid of the horn. So the first rule of choosing a horn is similar to the old adage “physician, know thyself” and basically says … the more you know about your own playing and proclivities, the better you’ll be at finding horns that emphasize your strengths and minimize your weaknesses.

Okay, great. So now you know everything about your own playing and what you need (and don’t need) from a horn … (rrrriiiiigggghhhhhttttt ;). But how about that budget issue? Yes, you have to be able to afford it, plain and simple. For me, this is where older horns come in. They’ve allowed me to populate my stable of horns on a relative shoestring budget. There’s absolutely no way I could own 15 woodwinds if I hadn’t gone this route many times. I’ve found that older horns can often (but not always) be had for great prices, and (having been lucky enough to strike up relationships with some fantastic repair people over the years) I’m comfortable that most anything I find in “distressed” condition can be “rehabilitated” into great playing condition. 

If you’re thinking about going this route, let me give you a little advice. You can easily lose your shirt buying old horns that have major problems. Just be careful about it and you’ll be fine. You can minimize the risks by learning what kinds of problems are expensive fixes, and what kinds of problems are cheap repairs. Get to know some techs, preferably ones who understand vintage gear. When you find people like this, they usually love to discuss it. So when you see a distressed horn you’re thinking about purchasing, call him/her up and tell them what you’re seeing. They will be reluctant to provide an estimate, but give your best guess on the work needed and they should be happy to provide it. Do this enough times and you’ll eventually find yourself doing the estimates yourself. 

Another downside to the vintage stuff is that you may not be able to get a trial of the horn. Now that is a significant problem – and I don’t recommend inexperienced people buy horns sight unseen – but you can greatly minimize the risks by getting to know the different makes and models. You should also have a handle on serial numbers so you can estimate manufacturing dates. You don’t have to memorize all this because these resources are out there on the web, but get familiar with them and save the links for future reference. There are plenty of places on the web that talk about how a Conn New Wonder plays differently from its successor (the 6M), or why you should care if that Centered Tone clarinet serial number starts with an “N” or a “P”. As much as possible, you should play good working examples of these kinds of instruments and get familiar with their characteristics. When you go to trade shows, seek out the guys with the vintage stuff. Or if you find yourself in a big city, seek out a dealer that specializes in vintage. I can assure you, they’d all love for you to play their horns, and in doing so, you never know when you’ll find something that knocks your socks off! 

If those kinds of risks are unacceptable to you, or you simply don’t feel like doing all the work necessary to protect yourself in the market for vintage gear, that’s fine, but you should probably stick to the “modern” stuff. And hey, that’s fine with me, because that means one less person I have to bid against! 😉

To wrap this up, let me say a few words about things that are NOT in my list of criteria when searching for a new-to-me woodwind instrument:

  • It’s stamped with the name of or endorsed by (insert name of amazing player here). 
  • It’s made by (insert name of famous company here).
  • It’s made in (name of country here).
  • It looks really cool. 
  • It’s made from (insert name of special alloy or wood here).
  • It has keywork that goes up to Q#.
  • It plays perfectly in tune.

Get the picture? Rule number 1 trumps all the above. Find horns that work for you, and don’t worry about all that other stuff! 

Okay, that’s enough for today. In the next installment of this series, I’ll pick one of the five categories of woodwinds that I play, and we’ll get down to specifics. As always, your questions and comments are appreciated. Happy doubling! 

I promise not to do this very often, but I just read a blog post that perfectly captures my views about freedom and liberties when making classical music. This post says it so eloquently that I can’t resist linking to it. Here’s a very short quote from the article:

“You can’t craft every second of the plan – you can’t know in advance exactly how you are going to present any given note or phrase. It could be that a colleague tosses you a turn in an unexpected way, and you choose to respond to that. It could be that the audience is giving you a particular energy and you need to wake them up, or calm them down. It could be just how you are feeling in the moment – different for whatever reason than in your last performance, or practice session.”

This is from Jennet Ingle’s blog, ProneOboe. There is a lot of great stuff there, and I highly recommend it!

So for today’s installment in the series, I promised we would explore this idea of playing completely without fear. “But wait…” you’re saying “…you just got through telling us how fearful you are when you play.” And that is absolutely true – under certain conditions. But there have been several times in my life when I truly played my ass off. In those couple of instances, I somehow reached an entirely new place, where I was completely without fear (and perhaps even ego). For now, let me just say that in those moments, I not only played at what I thought was 100% of my capability – I played well beyond it. I was actually amazed at my own playing. There are already terms for these kinds of experiences in the literature, and my favorite one is “peak experience”. Right now I just want to describe these events to you, and afterwards let’s talk about what conclusions we can draw from them, and what they suggest for the future.

I have had several of these experiences. Two of the times I was playing jazz when this has happened, and they were both essentially the same, so let me just describe the first time. I was actually a pretty young jazz player – I had only been studying jazz on my own for maybe 6 or 7 years – but I was really steeping myself in jazz. I listened to jazz in every free moment, and I really was a huge fan of “hard bop.” (Think of Hank Mobley, Donald Byrd, Pepper Adams, Lee Morgan, Wynton Kelly.) So on this particular night, I was just sitting in a club where a local group of guys were playing, and the rhythm section was really tight, so I asked to sit in, and they let me. I don’t even remember what we were playing, but when I started to play my solo, all of a sudden I was completely checked out. I couldn’t see anything. It wasn’t that everything went black. It was like I had never ever seen anything in my life and there was no such a thing as seeing. I guess maybe if you’ve been blind since birth, that’s what it would be like. I don’t know, but there was no visual stimulus of any kind, and I wasn’t even thinking to myself “Hey the lights just went out”. Also (and maybe more importantly) I wasn’t thinking about the music or the chord changes or what the rhythm section was doing either. I could kind of hear myself playing, but it felt like it was actually someone else playing instead of me. I couldn’t feel my body, my hands, my sax, my breathing, nothing. It felt like I was just listening to the music, or I was actually becoming the music, like I was the music. I wasn’t first hearing a melody and then trying to execute it on the sax by hearing intervals – it was just happening! I wasn’t worried about the fact that I couldn’t see anything, or feel anything. I wasn’t worried about playing wrong notes. It was just a state of pure being, and I wasn’t aware of anything you would call a “self.” There was literally no desire or fear. It was a state of perfect contentment. I didn’t even desire to know what was going on, nor was I concerned about how I got “here” or what I needed to do to stay in that state. It just was. (For the record, there were no drugs involved !) Anyway, when the solo came to a logical stopping place, it was just over, and I was standing there with my horn, and everybody was staring at me and smiling and clapping like “Wow man, what the heck did you just play!” and I knew it was the best I’d ever played in my life. Ever. I had never played that well. I had never played even close to that well. It was sublime, amazing, and I have been trying to get back to that place ever since.

Now what is most important to me about this is not necessarily the relatively unusual experience of being disembodied (although there are things to be learned from that). What is most important is that this experience showed me how good I can really play. If you’d asked me at the time, I would have said my playing was usually in that 50-60th percentile of my capabilities, and I occasionally got near 100%. After that experience, it was quite clear to me that what I thought of as 100% was actually about 60%, and there was a whole world of better playing inside me – if only I could tap into it. 

You may be saying “This is all well and good for the jazz player, because it’s all in your head, but as a classical player, I have to keep my eyes on the music because of all the notes, and the articulations, and I have my music marked up with a billion little scribbles and they all help me play the piece better.” Well I would like to put a little perspective on that, because I actually had a similar experience in a classical setting, and it surprised me as much as it will you.

I was a couple semesters into my woodwind degree, and I was still playing tenor sax as my primary instrument. I decided to do an audition for a military band on tenor sax, and it was coming up quickly, so I picked an easy piece – a Handel adagio and allegro that was originally for oboe, but had been arranged for alto by Eugene Rousseau. I was in a hurry to put the thing together, and the audition was unaccompanied so I just decided to play it on tenor, knowing I’d be in the wrong key. I practiced for about a week and then went to the audition. As I began to play for the judges, things felt really good, and the adagio felt really musical and natural. It goes attacca into the allegro, which starts out with an eighth note theme, which turns into a fugue, and the oboe/sax eventually gets all the running sixteenth notes. Man, this thing felt great as I played, and I could almost feel two distinct parts of me – one being the part that was concentrating on the music and feeling all the feedback from my instrument, but there was another part of me that was kind of “outside” me, thinking about how great this all felt, and how the entire piece was structured, and how the “now” part fit into the overall piece. I was really in the groove. And then this weird thing happened. I was in the middle of some of the diddly-fast sixteenth notes when all of sudden my fingers were playing something else – but it was really good! Somehow my fingers played about one measure of new material, and then segued right back into the sixteenth notes that were on the page as if nothing had happened. It sounded like it was written that way. Not only that, but this “outside” part of me heard it, and loved it. I could feel the “outside” part of me thinking “Wow, that was cool, and I’m not sure exactly what happened, but I don’t have time to stop and think about that now!” I finished the piece, and I knew it was another one of those “peak experiences” albeit in a little bit shorter version. 

To this day I find this experience fascinating, and I have to wonder if there weren’t people playing in baroque times who had this same kind of experience as they created ornamentations and variations, all instantly synthesized from their vast knowledge and experience of playing. So classical musicians, if you think this topic about fear and performance anxiety is not about you – think again!

This post is getting long, so for now, let me make a few observations about these events, draw a few conclusions about how/why these things happened, and then propose a few ideas on how we can start to drop the barriers that keep us from playing like this every time – that keep us from reaching our full potential as musicians. 

What was my mental state during all of these situations?

First, I was in a state of complete enjoyment. I was having a great time! There was, in all three of these events, enough separation of my mind so that part of it could look “down” on what I was doing and just listen and enjoy it. In the more extreme cases, it really was an “out of body” experience. I’m not saying it has to be like that all the time – but there is a component here of enjoyment that must be present. (Instead of me dwelling on this topic, I will point you to a great book that does a great job of describing this: Mental Toughness Training for Sports: Achieving Athletic Excellence by James Lohr.)

Second (and this is where we will focus during the rest of this series), I was in a state of complete acceptance. I wasn’t in any way worried about what was going to come out of my horn. In the first case, I didn’t know a single person in the room, and I was in a city where I was visiting. No serious consequences if I screwed up, right? But at that audition there were serious consequences to screwing up. There was a lot of money riding on that audition, and it was big deal. I really needed that gig and that money. But somehow, in that moment, that concern was completely gone. Now I want to be clear – I’m not talking about a feeling of exasperation, of throwing your hands up and saying “Oh well,my playing is gonna suck and there’s just nothing I can do about it.” By acceptance, I mean a complete lack of fear. I can truly say that in all the instances I described above (and really, all the times in my life where I really nailed it) fear of how I would play, or how I would be perceived, or losing money or employment – really any fear at all – were completely gone from my mind.

So maybe you believe me now? I hope you do. I truly believe that (assuming you’ve mastered the technique of your instrument) the path to great playing – the kind of playing that really moves people – lies in conquering the mental problems that keep us from reaching our potential. Remember, your best playing is much better than you think.

In the next installment, we’ll talk about how to identify our fears, because you have to first identify your fears before you can face them and eliminate them. Now I know this sounds stupidly easy, but it can be really difficult, and it requires some real soul-searching, so we will spend an entire post talking about it. We will also examine some resources that may help you with this process. I hope you’ll join me next time. As always, I would love to hear your thoughts and comments.

So, in the first installment of this series, I gave you some of my musical background, and explained that I have not been happy with my performances during my recent degree program in woodwinds. Yes, this was in one sense unfamiliar turf for me, but in general, I should have played better. And it is clear to me that simple nervousness had somehow come back into my playing, despite many years of comfort and fun playing music in jazz and commercial music. During my recitals, I’ve been uncomfortable, nervous, sweaty, worried about how I’m going to sound, and generally had trouble concentrating. I’ve read plenty of material and tried plenty of techniques to calm my nerves, but none of them seem to have significantly helped my playing in the field of classical music.

Now I don’t want to discount the many resources that are out there on performance anxiety. Many of them are extremely good and can genuinely help you calm your body and mind. But in general, I find that most of them do not address the root cause of performance apprehension and nervousness. To me, most of them seem to be addressing only the symptoms of a deeper problem. Yes, it is helpful to utilize techniques that slow your pulse, or stop sweating, or that help you focus your mind on the task at hand (or even the whole experience of making music and sharing that with the audience) or that help you build your body strength and flexibility so they can better resist this onslaught of unproductive physical manifestations.

Yes, folks. I am scared. Look at that list. I am literally filled with fear when performing music. After 3 ½ years of studying classical music, I finally figured it out.

But in my analysis of my own playing, it seems quite clear to me that there is one single, unifying issue that causes these symptoms in me, and that cause is fear. Yes. Plain and simple: fear. When I play classical music, I am scared. I am scared to play badly. I am scared that people will think I suck. I am scared to get a bad grade or fail the recital. I am scared that my hours and hours of practice and research on these pieces will be wasted. I am scared I will disappoint my accompanist. I am scared that I will have wasted my money on these years of school. I’m scared that my massive monetary investment in instruments will have been wasted. I’m scared the performance will be so bad that the recording will not be of any use to me when I’m looking for a job. 

So you are probably asking yourself “But how, if this is true, did you manage to play for so long without manifesting that fear in your playing?” Well it’s clear to me that I never truly got rid of this fear. I have always had it. It didn’t just come back during this degree. I simply got good enough that a bad performance was just a very low probability. In other words, I got good enough that I could stop thinking about it. But the fear was always there – it was just not “at the surface” when I played.

This realization, in conjunction with my past experience, has led me to an amazing set of conclusions that are real breakthrough concepts for me. At this point in my life, I feel very strongly that getting rid of fear is perhaps the most important thing I can do, not just for my playing, but for my overall enjoyment of life and quality of living. In the next few entries in this series, I would like to explore fear – how it works negatively in our lives, especially in our music – and then I want to explore some ideas about how we can eliminate fear, and finally, what the positive consequences are (for our playing as well as our personal lives) as we identify and eliminate our fears.

But before I sign off, I need to say one more thing… A lot of you reading this are probably fabulous players already, and perhaps you’re reading this and thinking to yourself:

  • “I’m not scared when I play.”
  • “I play great already – I don’t need this.”
  • “I have such-and-such degrees in music; I’m not afraid to play. I don’t need this.”

If that’s you, I would challenge you to stay with me and continue reading this series. You may still have a lot of fear for which you have found coping mechanisms that allow you to play really well. But those may only work under a specific set of conditions. The wrong conditions could happen to you some day, when you least expect it. Worse yet, you don’t even know what those conditions are, so you can’t plan for them. I don’t think it’s enough to just compensate for your fears. I think the permanent solution is to eliminate them. Then, when the unexpected happens, you are still okay, still having a great time, and still playing great. 

Not only that, I think if you can find and eliminate these fears, I am willing to bet you will find yourself playing better than ever thought you could play. In the next installment in this series, we will explore this state of playing, where you are completely without fear, and what it is like, and what the implications are for your performing. 

You can click here to jump to the next installment in the Fear Series.

 

A few weeks ago I gave my final recital for my master’s degree (Woodwind Performance and Pedagogy) and it has really forced me to think deeply about my playing. I was pretty unhappy with my playing, and was actually kind of surprised I didn’t play better, especially considering how long and hard I’ve been working on the music.

But it was not just this recital. Generally speaking, I haven’t been very happy with many of my public performances during this degree program. Although my latest recital had some very good moments, I would have to say that overall, it was somewhere around the 30 to 40 percentile of what I was capable of doing – as evidenced in my own practicing and rehearsals. And thinking back about my other degree recital (and even my candidacy audition) I would say this is about how good they were too. So lately I’ve been asking myself “Why am I not playing up to my potential?” Especially since I’ve played in plenty of high-pressure situations and acquitted myself well.

Let me take a step back and give you some history about me. When I was a teenager, performing used to really freak me out. I never played solos back then. I was just another member of the band, sitting there with dozens of other people around me. But before a concert, I would get really nervous. I would get jittery, and sick to my stomach, and I usually would even got diarrhea before the concert. (Sorry to be so gross, but it’s the truth.) I hated that feeling, but I loved being in band and playing my instrument, so I soldiered through it, every time. One time, when I was a junior in high school, I tried out for an honor band. It was my first time to ever really audition for anything. I was supposed to play the first movement of the Creston. Wow, what a bad move! I could not possibly have understood the emotional content of that kind of music back then, much less executed the technical passages of it. I was scared out of my mind, and I completely fell apart in that audition. It was terrible. I was a basket case, and I went home really downtrodden that day.

In fact, thinking back on that day, I can say that my terrible performance that day led directly to me choosing a career outside of music, and of all the dumb things I ever did in my life, perhaps the biggest one was going to the Air Force Academy (but don’t worry – I’m not gonna bore you with all that stuff.) Suffice it to say that for the next 11 years, I pursued my musical passion outside of my job. Jazz was my favorite kind of music, so I bought books and practiced it on my own, and took every opportunity I could to play jazz with others. I would still get nervous, but I was determined to conquer it, and I gradually lost my nervousness as I became a better and better player. As I lost the nervousness, I found that my public performances stopped being in the 30th percentile, and started to average more like 50th or 60th percentile regularly, with the occasional really good performance.

I was playing well enough that I decided I might actually be able to make a career playing music, so I got out of the Air Force and went to the University of North Florida, where I got a Bachelor’s in Jazz Studies in 1999. During my time there, my jazz got a lot better, my comfort/confidence level really shot up, and I started playing in real professional situations. Although I was feeling very confident in my jazz/commercial playing, it also became quite clear to me that I was not going to be the next Coltrane, and I didn’t have a career as a jazz soloist waiting for me. There were plenty of younger players who were much better than me, but they were really scuffling. So I took a short time to study jazz composition, and shortly after that, an opportunity came up for me to start working in computers and technology, so I took it. I continued to play jazz and commercial music though, and had some great experiences with groups like The Four Tops.

When I divorced in 2008, I moved back to Mississippi just to take some time off and push the reset button on my life. (I’d been married for 16 years.) But a funny thing happened. My passion for music was really reignited. Within a week of getting back here, I was in the pit with a little theatre, trying to remember how to play clarinet and flute! I was having such fun, and the computer thing had gotten pretty dull. I decided I would get a master’s degree in theory and hopefully teach in a Mississippi community college. Once I started school, it became clear that I really enjoyed the playing so much, it only made sense for me to follow my passion all the way, so I switched into the woodwind degree that I’m just now finishing.

So it really was kind of a shock for me to find myself nervous and anxious before my performances here. The first few times I assumed it was just nerves due to the new type of challenge I was facing with classical music. But now, three years later, after yet another disappointing recital, it’s really clear to me that this issue of performance anxiety is still with me after all these years and plenty of successful, perfectly good performances.

So what is really going on here? I’ve read plenty of material about performance anxiety over the years, been to clinics, read books and web sites on this, but none of these things has ever done more than give me a marginal bit of help. According to some of these people, I should be able to just take a few deep breaths and fix this, or maybe do some yoga, or meditate or contemplate my navel. Not that these things aren’t useful – they can be very helpful – but how could I have defeated this problem only to have it come back? If I truly defeated it, then how could it come back, and why now? Or maybe I never really defeated it at all, and there is something deeper going on.

These are the kinds of questions I’ll be addressing in the upcoming posts in this series. I believe I have some answers to these questions, and some prescriptions of what I need to do to work out these problems. I hope you will join me on this journey, and I think you may find it worthwhile, even if you think you’ve already conquered this problem.

You can click here to jump to the next installment in the Fear Series.

I’m currently in the pit with the Laurel Little Theatre production of 9 To 5, and I was just thinking about how this challenge is different from my other types of musical challenges, and how much I enjoy it – and especially how much I learn from it. This show is a particular challenge for me, because I’m juggling both reed books and doing the best I can to cover the most important parts from each one. This means I’m frequently leaving a saxophone hanging while I pick up and flute or clarinet and jump in 7 or 8 beats later. Going the opposite direction is not such a big deal. Sax is my first instrument, and I can switch to it quickly without really thinking about it. But picking up clarinet or flute and quickly getting all the fundamentals in place for good pitch, tone and articulation is still a challenge for me. As the show goes on, I am constantly analyzing my own playing, my own entrances, crescendos, decrescendos, etc. etc. and thinking about what went well/wrong, and how I can preserve/fix those things in my future playing. 

So as I was thinking about this, it occurred to me that I never practice like this at home. I never really put myself under the gun for quick changes. I just did my final Masters recital 10 days ago, but it was a completely different type of challenge, with plenty of time between instruments. The main issue there was simply fatigue – playing for an hour straight on four different instruments. In the pit, there aren’t many long blows like that – but there are plenty of frantic switches from one horn to the next. 

So my take-away from this is that I need to practice switching more often. My normal practice session is to have only one horn out, and to play it for 45 minutes to an hour. This is great for getting a good warmup, practicing scales, and working on an etude or piece of music. But it’s also deprives me of the opportunity to reinforce the most basic skills, such as bringing the flute up quickly to the right place on the lips, or quickly making the breath support changes from a resistant instrument (say oboe or clarinet) to a less resistant instrument like flute (or vice versa). 

What does this mean for my practicing? Well, mainly it means that I need to start putting some instrument switching into my practice routine. When I can, I set aside several hours and practice two or three instruments in a row – but each segment is entirely for one instrument, and then I put it away and pull out another. There really is no reason why I couldn’t set all those instruments up at the beginning of the practice session, and then occasionally switch to another instrument. In fact, it might be helpful to make some of these switches essentially at random intervals. Perhaps I could get my girlfriend to stop in randomly and pick one for me to switch to. Or maybe I could put the instrument names on paper tags in a hat and set an egg timer for every 15 minutes, at which time I have to grab another instrument out of the hat? I’m not sure exactly how to implement this, but I think it will pay big dividends for me in the future. My feeling is that this will not only help me with fast changes, but should also help me solidify the fundamentals, so they are more automatic, all the time, on all my instruments. 

As always, I would love to hear how you practice, and what you think about my ideas on this blog. Let me hear from you!

If you’re a member of the FLUTE mailing list, but things have gone strangely quiet for you in the last few days, then you may have been unsubscribed, due to some changes with the way Yahoo is handling their email. The good news is, you can resubscribe. 

For the record, back in my days as an I.T. guy, I spent many hours pulling my hair out troubleshooting Yahoo email problems. The reason they have so many problems is because they simply have no regard for standards. They are constantly changing things in ways that provide minimal benefits, but inflict maximum pain on users and administrators. My advice, get out while you can. If their problems haven’t affected you, it’s just matter of time.

Okay, so here is the official info on this from the FLUTE list administrators…

Date: Tue, 15 Apr 2014 21:09:30 +0100 
From: John Rayworth
Subject: Flute List email problem – subscribers deleted and email bouncing 

Dear All 

We apologize for multiple messages to Flute, but unfortunately, this is a developing and hard to understand problem. Here’s what you should do: 

– EVERYONE 

We have no indication of when a fix may be available. Please be patient, and we’ll try to keep you informed. [John is working really hard and really weary] 

– If you were deleted from Flute, Note that anyone with ANY kind of email address could have been deleted (yahoo, gmail, Hotmail, etc.) and it was not been your fault. In more popular terms, an email deletion was “collateral damage” from the real problem. You should not be deleted again, and unless you are a yahoo subscriber, you should be able to post and do everything on Flute you normally do. We have sent emails asking people to resubscribe. We hope to have reached them all, but probably missed some. 

– If you have a yahoo email go ahead and resubscribe, too. However, we have turned off your ability to post because (I’m sorry to say this) your posts from yahoo addresses are causing the problem. You can receive posts, you just can’t send. If you truly want to post, you might want to subscribe to flute from a non-yahoo email (if you have one). If you REALLY REALLY need to post something to flute, send a request to… 

flute-request@listserv.syr.edu 

… and we will accommodate *IF WE CAN*

Longer explanation 

Here’s our current best understanding of the problem. About a week ago, in an attempt to handle spam, Yahoo made changes to how they handle email. This change had unintended consequences that affect ONLY email lists such as Flute (as far as we know). 

As you well know, it’s not possible to send email without logging into a mail program or server. This is an authentication process to keep others from reading your email and from sending email that appears to come from you when you didn’t send it. In addition, authentication occurs at various points in the delivery process (email is not sent directly from the sender to the recipient, but goes through a number of intermediate servers; in Flute’s case it goes through Listserv, and then on through other servers to the final recipient). 

For complicated technical reasons, the changes that Yahoo made broke the intermediate authentications that occur after Listserv distributes the email. Those failed authentications generate error messages that are sent back to Listserv, and unfortunately, are linked to the *recipient* of the email, not to the sender. So if SomeFlutePlayer@yahoo sends toflute@listserv.syr.edu, the email proceeds fine until it heads off to the Flute list members. Let’s say one of the recipients is HappyFlute@gmail.com– then authentication fails as it gets close to HappyFLute, and the error message comes back to Listserv as being related to HappyFLute, not to the original sender (SomeFLutePlayer.) Whew! Yahoo caused it, but everybody else pays the price. 

Continue to send questions to flute-request@listserv.syr.edu (THANK YOU THANK YOU for not flooding Flute with questions. You folks are great!) 

John Rayworth and Nelson Pardee 
List Managers

I’m very excited to announce that my school will be hosting a brand new flute festival this June 7-9. This is a new festival this year, and it will be an annual event going forward. It’s called the Southern Flute Festival, and I hope you’ll take a moment to follow the link and look it over. The web site has full details for the entire event. There are 3 days filled with masterclasses, recitals, workshops, and several concerts that are going to be fantastic. 

Please take note of the competitions. There are two categories – high school, and then age 32 and under. There are significant cash prizes for the winners, and I think this is an especially great opportunity for students to gain experience in auditioning. Also note that the winners will be featured on the finale concert. 

Also please take a look at the fee structure for this festival. The pricing is extremely reasonable for what you are getting. In addition, it’s also very inexpensive to find lodging and food in this area, so you can come here for three days, learn a lot, and not spend your life savings on it!   

Lastly, let me point out that the Southern Flute Festival is occurring at the same time as another local arts event called Festival South. (Here is a link directly to their Eventspage.) There are a lot of great music events going on during Festival South, so you might even want to hang around the area and enjoy some of those events too.

If you’re a flutist, I hope you’ll give some thought to attending the new Southern Flute Festival‘s inaugural festival. It will be great fun, listening and learning. I hope to see you there!

(Update: I see now there is a Facebook Page for this flute festival.)

I was just practicing flute a few minutes ago, and had a real revelation about tension and awareness during that session. 

Just as I was about to start my warm up, I decided I was tired of wearing my glasses, so I took them off. I’m near sighted – not that badly – but if I take my glasses off, anything that’s not within about 18 inches of my face becomes blurry. Well I realized right away that I wasn’t going to be able to see my music, but I often do different kinds of warm ups anyway, so I decided to just make one up. One of the things I noticed was that as soon as I took off my glasses, things kind of folded in on me, and my mental focus really changed noticeably. Instead of focusing on the music stand, I instantly became more aware of how the flute felt in my hand, and also, my breathing, and when I put the flute to my lips, the feeling of the edge of the tone hole, and the pressure against my lips, and also, the inside of my mouth – tongue position, jaw opening, and also the very center of the lips where the air escapes.  

So I did a short warm up of mostly long tones, starting on G above the staff, and gradually working my way upward and downward from there. I was amazed at how much better I was aware of my body during that warm up. I could feel the tension immediately every time it tried to work its way into my body – whether that was hands/arms, neck, lips, or shoulders. This happened several times, and it was really obvious to me every time. I also felt very aware of my tone, and was able to make instant conclusions about exactly what changes I had made that produced those changes in tone. 

So then I went on to practice some of my upcoming recital pieces. I have them mostly memorized at this point, so with my glasses still off, I just started practicing the trouble spots – you know, the places where tension is most likely to creep in. Once again I could feel how the tension would creep in, and I could instantly hear how it affected my tone, articulation, or finger technique. I discovered several things I’m doing wrong (left hand position, and some lip motion during upward leaps that is causing notes to crack). So I began to think about this. I’ve been practicing this music for a long time, so I have actually associated some of that bad tension with the notes on the page. That is exactly what we don’t want to be doing as wind players! 

Not all tension is bad. You use tension to close your fingers and form an embouchure, and hold your horn up in the right position, and set your posture. That is certainly part of practicing music – to associate those elements of tension so they happen at exactly the right times and in the right ways. But in doing this work, we have to work extremely hard to root out the bad tension in our bodies. 

So it seems to me anything that can help increase our awareness of tension is a good thing, and anything we can do to decrease that external focus and divert it inward will be helpful in doing this. So here are some ideas I’m going to try in the future:

  • Memorize the warm up (or make one up) and/or my music (especially trouble spots), so I can play away from the music stand.
  • Play with my eyes closed, or in a dark room.
  • Wear comfortable, loose clothing while practicing.
  • Take a few minutes at the beginning of the practice session to calm my mind and think about what my goals are for that practice session. 

There are plenty of other ways to turn the focus inward and reduce tension. I would love to hear how everyone else does it, so let me know what works for you. If you already do some of these things (or decide to try them out) let me know how they have worked for you. Happy fluting!