Concerns For Beginning Saxophonists (interview)

The following is extracted from several interviews on teaching beginning jazz, which I did with educator Curt Sipes who teaches in the York, Pennsylvania area. We cover the teaching of jazz saxophone to a beginning student.

 Overview on Being a Jazz Teacher

DL: “In a way it’s an old world thing…being a teacher of an art form in the midst of the modern world is an anomaly in a way. The little power we have because we love this music means in a sense that we have found a truth serum. I’m not sure many people find this. My life is about music and jazz in particular which is a great source of truth and inspiration that has made my life a little easier. Because we know something that is deep and has a lot of rewards when you get delve into it, it’s our responsibility to turn on others. We really would like to do this for a kid and get him on this side. Not necessarily for him to go and study at North Texas State and be a professional. Maybe that’s not what his future should be. It’s not really our business. Our business is to culturally train young people so they can appreciate the finer things in life. That does not mean they can’t love whoever is hot in the culture. It means bringing into their life a music they might otherwise not get in their environment at home or possibly at school.”

“You have a very special place as a music teacher. You are the arbiter of culture. You are a life line to a source of vitality, strength and positiveness which is so rare in our society. It’s non-violent. We don’t kill anybody. We don’t manufacture cereal with artificial sweeteners that are going to give these kids cancer in thirty years. We are not doing anything wrong. This is not for everyone but there will be some kid who will say ‘Yeah, I’m into something special’ and will go on. Maybe that’s the kind of kid who needed music to be sane. I know I needed it. Music was the way I got my ego to sustain itself through those terrible teenage years. In a way you have to do a little brainwashing. The challenge is to get the student into higher culture. We can raise the level of society by putting out a good product. No matter what a kid becomes in life he can be a positive force because he saw something that is special.”

 Part 1: Scales, Articulation, Listening & Imitation

Curt asks: I’ve listed the major areas that I address with my beginning students with a description of what we have been doing. Could you comment on these recommendations?

DL: First of all, I start them playing a scale routine from the very beginning. I make them say the scale (C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C), play and sing it on do-re-mi syllables. They must do the scales from the bottom to the top of the horn. If they know ledger lines then they should write them out. Eventually any good book with scale routines will be fine.

CS: That’s what I was going to recommend. Go up and down, all the way below the root and back. How many scales a week do you give? Three major scales?

DL: A few per week depending upon the student’s rate of learning is fine. As they move on to other majors they should review what they have done each time.

CS: How do you get their minors?

DL: After they are comfortable with major scales we go to chords. I tell them to visualize a staff in their mind so they can get thirds a little more easily. Then we flat the 7th to create dominants for a week. The next week we do minor by flatting both the 3rd and the 7th.

CS: D minor, D, F, A, C and that type of scale?

DL: I link the chord/scale (dorian, etc.) up a little later. Eventually we do the chromatic, diminished, and whole-tone scales. My scale syllabus playalong, which is Volume 24 of the Aebersold series is a good guide.

CS: Legato?

DL: Three ways would be ideal: tonguing every note for obvious reasons, completely legato for speed and finger control and tongue/slur for the jazz feel. At the beginning they are not given any speed requirements. When they are comfortable then a quarter note equals 80 is fine, adding ten clicks a week.

CS: Initially, most of my students don’t know what they want. The tonguing thing can be confusing.

DL: If you’re a general music teacher then ta ta ta ta is fine. But, really, for what we do in jazz this is getting into the wrong thing right away. They are open and young and don’t know the difference. Why not give them right away tongue slur/tongue slur? I’m not saying to ignore ta ta ta ta, but as soon as possible I would get them on the metronome using jazz articulation. At this point you give them the idea that the eighth notes have a little bit of a dot. The biggest problem I meet everywhere is the dotted eighth. You try to teach a kid right away that eighth notes are normally dotted in jazz. So therefore, I would try to get a kid as quickly as possible into it. That’s one suggestion. The next thing is 2 and 4. You want them to realize as quickly as possible that 2 and 4 are what’s happening and that 1 and 3 thing belong to another world, another kind of music. We’re going to use the metronome and explain to them very simply that when we give 2 and 4 equal stress we lighten up the whole flow. This is not easy for somebody who’s never done it. After a couple of weeks it happens and good eight notes occur.

The first down beat is tongued and from there on in it’s every other one. Adding an extra note (the ninth or a 1/2 step between any two degrees of the major scale, 2 and 3, or 6 and 7, etc., gives them an even two bar phrase going up and down a scale, the 6th and 7th degree) makes the phrasing even for a two bar length.  Do this combined with the complete legato scale from bottom to top of the horn, again as quickly as possible purely for the sake of speed and digital accuracy.

After doing some scales I would immediately we have them start improvising. Get the student to start playing absolutely anything on the C scale. Explain to him what it is to make up a little melody. Give examples and have him repeat it to you. Let the kid copy you and then depending on where you’re at with him, have him do a little improvising until the next week. Try to teach him four and eight bar cycles, if you feel that he can. In fact to backtrack, by the second lesson as soon as he’s playing three notes (G, A, B) teach him to improvise. Right away he knows that he can play his own thing. I’ve never tried this with young kids, but it seems to me that it would work. It all depends on how you’re presenting it.

CS: This is very clear. I have times when I introduce all of this. Your mentioning it makes it logical.

DL: You know that’s the point. It’s the logic or the order of events. To go even further, start getting into the transcription thing. Use ”Freddy the Freeloader” (from Kind of Blue by Miles Davis) or any other simple blues solo to get him to start singing and eventually playing along with a record immediately. What we’re trying to accomplish is a couple of things: a looseness of rhythmic approach from the very beginning with a sense of improvisation. And then tie it to the masters right away. Say, “Play along with this guy.” Give them 8 bars and let them work on 8 bars for the next month. Or you put it on tape with a playalong. That’s why I did the Scale Syllabus. We did it two ways: every scale in a simple and a more complex version. I use only the notes in the scale. You can shut my channel off so it’s like a play along. I also have published the transcription of what I play so that eventually the kid can be playing with me, copying me, and sort of getting into what I’m into and then eventually play without me. Whether you use my playalong or not, the point is to copy somebody and get them playing some blues-type licks right away. So the whole idea of playing along with records can be instituted at the beginning. What we’re really talking about here, Curt, is the beginning basic pedagogical stances to get the kid on the right start. If you get those basics started right away within the first six months, you’ve got somebody for life. If they don’t like it they can turn around and pick up the ta ta ta again.”

 Part II: Sound, Breathing, Physical Warm-Ups

CS: The sound exercises I start pretty early, after they get comfortable holding on to their saxophone. I make them do overtones, octaves first, then the fifth.

DL: It’s a natural thing. It’s really a connection between brain, ear and body which involves a certain kind of mental acuity and a sound that has to be there in the ear to hear. Some get it and some don’t. If they play a low B flat and blow a little harder, they will get overtones. Even though this is not the way they will eventually do it it’s a good start to give the sensation, so say “over blow”. Tell them to blow harder. It’s a natural thing to do first, to over blow. Unless the student is extremely talented and natural, his ear will say, “I can’t get it any other way. I’ll have to force it. I’ll use the body.” That’s their first line of offense. They’ll get the first overtone by overblowing. It’ll be a terrible sound, but they’ll get it. We say; “That’s what we want, now here’s how we should do it.”

The octaves are really the first exercise, from low to high to low and reverse. Start in the middle register first because the low is hard. Begin G# to G#, then A to A, etc. Then you say “Okay, now I’m going to go to the overtones.” And you’ll explain to them why you’re doing B, B flat, C and C sharp only as fundamentals because they are on the bottom of the horn. Meanwhile, he’s actually played the first overtone of every note by doing octaves. He’s been doing it anyway. Now we’re going to build up. Of course, as you know, in my book our goal it to try to get five overtones off of low Bb, less for the others as we ascend.

CS: It works really good. After they can get from B flat to D; almost to the top of their horn. Then I get that *Rascher book. There are seven pages in the middle of that book where you play different fingertips for the melody. Students like that. They don’t mind doing that at all. (*Sigard Rascher’s Top Tones for Saxophone.)

DL: The thing about his book is that it is very organized. It really doesn’t matter, you can almost write your own exercises. The point is that you’re getting them to read something rather than doing it off the cuff. Just give them something definite to really practice a half-hour a day.

CS: I have several Jr. high students that are really on their top-tones. They really like it. Most of my older students can get a few.

DL: Do you have them play the mouthpiece alone? I think it is very effective. First of all there is a nice quirkiness about it and it appeals to the kids. I think it’s a good thing to do right away, because even if a kid can’t get the range of an octave, he can get a second and probably a third. Say, “Take the horn out, take the mouthpiece off, copy me.” The mouthpiece alone is very good because it really is teaching that the horn is only an extension of your vocal cords. The thing that makes the saxophone a saxophone is the mouthpiece. That’s the bridge between you and the horn. Let’s focus on the mouthpiece alone. You can make music on that. Here I’m going to do “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on the mouthpiece, and “When the Saints Come Marching In.” Any two tunes they want, a Pepsi ad or a McDonalds’s ad. Have them play it on the mouthpiece as if they were playing it on a kazoo. Maybe even take a kazoo out or paper on top of a comb. I urge everyone to start on the mouthpiece alone from the very beginning. Try to teach them that this is really a sound. They’ll say that this is weird. But tell them that they are actually hitting a note. This is an extension of your singing. Now sing the C, then the D and so on. Eventually little nursery rhymes lead to the major scale and singing and hearing the pitch in the inner ear. That’s good ear training. But there’s more to do at the beginning having to do with good breathing. There is one other aspect to the saxophone. Did you do anything with breathing?

CS: We talk basically about what you talk about in your sound production video concerning trying to fill the bottom area. I always make them play standing up.

DL: Yes, otherwise you’re crushing the abdomen. Again, depending on the age of the kid, the breathing can get too sophisticated like I do on the video and more so in the book. It’s not necessary. A kid does not need to know this. The technical aspects are not important at this point. You need to get across to him the difference between “top part” breathing and “bottom part” breathing. It’s very easy, make him run around the street and then bring him back. Say, “Look at the way you’re breathing. That’s top breathing. Why? Because you’re out of breath and you need air as soon as possible. That’s not the way we want to play an instrument. We want slow, even, deep breathing.” Whatever rationale you bring a kid in is up to you. The point is that you want them to immediately realize that they should do breathing exercises separate from playing the saxophone, especially the younger they are because they’re thinking about something when the horn is in their hands.

The first thing you should do is the breathing exercise alone. At least you and him do it, even if it’s just once a week. When he comes in to you before you take the horn out, do a couple of deep breaths just to calm down. Tell him to copy you, put your stomach out, pull your stomach in and put your hand on his stomach. Push him against the wall, put him on the floor, that whole thing I do in the video. Have him do that for at least five minutes and tell him that this is what deep breathing is. This will be something that he will intrinsically get anyway. He won’t understand it now, but later on he’ll understand what deep breathing is. Another thing to do is stretches. I’m talking about the top part of the body. I would have them normal things such as loosening up the shoulders, crisscrossing, pulling the shoulder blades back rotating the arms, etc.….all the basic exercises. Get the shoulders to feel good. That’s number one. Number two is the neck by doing neck rolls. Then we concentrate on mouth movement. We make faces and try to get some blood to go through this area, especially to the lips. Stretch them. Then the tongue sticking out to touch the nose and down towards the chin… a real stretch. Feeling the inside rim of the lip and teeth with the tongue to just get some sensation in the tongue. The tongue is a muscle. In fact what we are doing is sensitizing the kid’s whole upper body. Then go to the breathing exercises in the first ten minutes. If you have a class with 10 to 15 kids, it’s basically like going to the gym. I try to explain to them this is a physical thing you’re doing. Music is cerebral which is true. It’s inside us, but playing an instrument is physical. The saxophone is a very physical instrument, maybe not as much as the drums, but more than the guitar. We have a lot of stuff going on and I want that part of the body to be stretched and warmed up, just like a runner would do. You are using certain muscles. That’s why the breathing exercises. My point is, make the kid aware of the physical parts of the body involved with the saxophone.

 Part III: Ear Training, Reading, Philosophy

DL: Now ear training. What do you do?

CS: Solfegge singing. I try to get them to sing every scale that they have. After that, maybe do a couple of tunes so that they understand that concept. I really have difficulty getting them to transcribe things. That seems to be a real weak area.

DL: Okay, let’s back up a little bit. One thing about the solfegge deal. You’ve got to play Ella Fitzgerald for them or Joe Williams, somebody who scats. Say, “This is called jazz and this is called scatting.” Now I can’t see how a kid would not find this thrilling, cute and appealing. It sounds like fun. So, la, ti, do is not fun. It has nothing to do with our life. Why not have them do bip, de bip, de bip. Then have them do a simple little melody like “Twinkle Little Star” and “How High the Moon.” scatting. Have them get right away into jazz syllables, because jazz syllables are more natural and rounded.  Let them know right away that notes can be sung with a soft sound syllabication. As far as what material to use, try scales and repeating back some notes. Here you can really use the aid of a teaching tape. You can make up your own tape right there in front of the student and tell them, “I want you to be able to come in next week and play that melody.” In other words, this transcription thing has to be done gracefully for a young person. It can’t be over-the-head the way I teach it for older students telling them that they have to do it because of the time and nuance and there’s no other way to teach you about the feel. You already know what jazz is about. You already know your chords, yet you don’t sound good. You don’t because you don’t know how to swing, and I can’t teach you to swing. There’s no pill, no book, there’s no clothes to wear.  How are you going to get ga-ding, ga-ding, ga-ding, ga-ding (sound of the ride beat on the cymbal)?  But a 12 or 15 year old isn’t going to understand what imitation is and how valuable it is. So, you have to start him off with: “We’re going to do a little exercise and you are going to play it back to me next week.”  Give them some simple blues stuff. It’s okay to use melodies he knows from TV or whomever he’s listening to. Say “Why don’t you come in next week and we’ll try to play that.” Show him how you do it. Put the tape on and show him how to figure it out on the horn. Let him try to sing it and see how it works. There’s no other way to get him into it. He’s got to like doing it because it’s fun and he will get a good sense of accomplishment. Meaning, he’s got to get something down quick. Give him a simple melody. Let’s hope he can sing “Twinkle, Twinkle” or “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” nursery rhymes that are very simple. I think that is the only way to do it.

CS: This is a crossing into one of my own personal issues. Before I went to music school; this was a long time ago, I didn’t have teachers. I just played along with the radio. I played along to everything. When I got to college and I took ear training class …it was a bit of a drag!

DL: Those kind of teachers are coming from another standpoint where accomplishment of certain materials is considered part and parcel of being educated, whether it’s relevant or not. That’s the problem. They don’t think whether it’s relevant. You’re just supposed to be fabulous. That’s the old way of thinking which could damage your spirit. They made it so hard and ridiculous and irrelevant for you to be singing Bach cantatas. It’s not what you wanted to do. What good is that going to do you in the long or short run? You might as well sing something that you relate to. This is my biggest point about transcription. It’s got to be something the kid relates to. If the kid likes to listen to the radio, then you’re going to have to deal with the radio. It doesn’t matter, just that they’ve got to like it. Get something that they relate to and suddenly they’re transcribing and they don’t even know it. To avoid what happened to you, make them like the material. Relate it to them.

CS: They made me feel like I couldn’t hear anything. Until that point, I didn’t have that. I’m still wrestling with that issue. Sometimes I know what the changes are and sometimes I don’t … sometimes I just play the note that I like next.

DL: That’s the other thing. The real deal here is if the note isn’t right, you have to go a half step up or down. That kind of makes it easy for the kids. It’s not that simple of course, but in a way it is. I’m not a good singer. I don’t hit everything I sing. Some kids are going to be good and some aren’t. You do the best that you can. You try to get the kids to do a second and then a third. Make up your own little system for the first five weeks. As long as it has some relationship with their world, I don’t see how it could miss. There’s this point in the transcription video which is, if you’re going to do it you better love the thing you’re going to do because you’re going to spend a lot of time on it. It’s going to become a part of your life forever. You’re going to be singing and humming it. It has to start there. You want them to say, “I love it, I want to sound like that. I would love it if I could sound like Miles and his twelve bars. I would love to sound like him. Boy, my friends would say that I’m a really great player.” They’ve got to love it. You’re doing the right thing. At the same time you’re going to say, “Let’s listen to Slide Hampton and Curtis Fuller.” And it will knock the kid out. He’ll say, “What’s going on?” and you’ll tell him that this is what we’re working towards.

CS: You’ve covered everything but reading. Reading, I start as a standard kind of thing. I make them say it, make them play it and do ta’s and ti’s for rhythm.

DL: There is no short cut to reading except reading

CS: One thing that I’ve found is that when I teach the kids reading, I make them do 3 or 4 methods at the same time. So they go back with a whole bunch of stuff and they get to practice longer. I know they practice longer.

DL: You’ve got to remember that reading is familiarity. It’s habit. Really what you’re doing is getting somebody familiar with the rhythms. Repetition, over and over again. There are two things: pitches and rhythm. I would almost take rhythm separately. For example use any book that has snare drum stuff. It could be a classical book with crazy notes that nobody would ever play for an instrument. Let’s just read the rhythms. We’ll try to separate the situation into two parts: one is reading notes, the ability to see the pitch quickly and know the fingerings. Secondly is reading rhythm, the ability to recognize it and immediately spit it right back. So separating the two might not be harmful. I’m not sure, but I think it might be good to just do rhythm alone. You know you could play it and say, “Play this” and right then you would say, “You did it and this is what it looks like on paper. This is you copying me.” This is the whole idea of copying. You do and they copy, you do and they copy. Then intellectualize it. Show the kid this is what you just played, Two sixteenths and a triplet. Say. “Let’s go now, let’s really read this. You’ve got 3 or 4 lines of all those rhythms on only one note. Play a G, try to sing and tap the rhythms only on that note.” Then more complex. Sometimes taking the rhythm out of the picture helps the pitch. What I think about practicing in general is that one should be specific about what the goal is. If it has more than one major point and a minor point, you’re doing too many things. Why are you doing long tones? Certainly it isn’t for fingering. It certainly isn’t for rhythm. When I make a point I try to give them a big goal and maybe a minor one. No more than one or two because it’s confusing. So using rhythms only without pitches is good. Reading can be daunting when you have to know rhythm and pitches. A kid could easily get discouraged otherwise.

CS: Can you think of anything that I should be doing that maybe we haven’t covered?

DL: I don’t think so. It’s the whole idea of breathing, ear training, reading and  basic scale work. Then the whole concept of imitating you, the teacher, then next a master like early Miles, or ‘Trane, whomever. It is all oriented towards jazz. Underneath we’re getting the student to hear the swing feel without even telling him: “This is jazz articulation”. When you’re talking about a kid who has an empty blackboard, you’re printing deep without them knowing. Meanwhile you’re re-enforcing it with listening, encouragement and your love of jazz. So I say lay it right out for them as early as possible. The other thing is to make them understand what they hear on the radio and what they see on MTV. You can say to that kid “Hear that, that’s improvisation? Did you hear that little saxophone riff in the back? That’s not written, that’s improvisation. That’s from jazz. They got that from us. We all got it from blues, from somebody in the Delta.” The truth is they are improvising even when you put on “that music.” That’s a riff. That is improvisation. You’ve got to train kids to see that these categories exist outside of reality. Jazz is not something over there in the corner for eccentrics. It’s the real deal!!