A brief journey with the classical saxophone

My name is Linus. I am a saxophone player, and I do not play jazz.


I have spent many, many hours in agony.  I take my saxophone out of its case, put on the mouthpiece and reed, and just before I play my first note, I weep.  The saxophone in my lap lays in silent sadness, unable to make a sound since there is no music besides jazz.

Well, no.  Not really.

I am certainly disappointed in myself for not tackling jazz while I grew up, but I had a different set of experiences instead that I need to justify to myself as good.  If I get around to studying jazz more seriously, I will be a late bloomer.  Or, I could learn how to rock climb.

“What else do saxophone players do?” you ask. The answer:

Marijuana.  Salsa music.  Rock music.  Funk.  Ska.  Fusion.  Punk.  Rap.  R&B.  Mostly, I myself have trained to play classical saxophone.


Linus, you’re confusing the babies.

The saxophone was invented in France by Adolphe Sax 173 years ago.  One of the primary reasons for its invention was to invent an instrument that could sound like both a brass instrument and a woodwind instrument.  Mr. Sax actually invented a lot of bizarre instruments, like something called the “saxotromba” — which has gone extinct — and the expanded the clarinet family with the bass and contrabass clarinet.


From left: Phillis, Billy, Susan, Bass, and Contrabass.

One of the most recognizable pieces of classical (orchestral) music that includes saxophones is Bolero by French composer Maurice Ravel.  Last night, I attended a performance of the Minnesota Orchestra, which included this piece on the program.  The sound of the saxophones playing was so liquid, so sultry, that it was difficult to discern whether it was really a saxophone or another reed instrument like the oboe or English horn.  Even though I have performed this piece and heard it many times, I was still fooled and found myself looking through the wrong section of the orchestra when I heard the saxophone.  D’oh!

My future family, from left: Sopranino, Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Baritone, and Bass. (Not pictured: John and Susan)

The recording below is the second movement of a sonata for alto saxophone and piano by American composer William Albright.  If you are interested in a bit of explanation about this piece, read below the video.  Otherwise, enjoy a performance of classical saxophone.

Sonata, Mvt. II: “La Follia Nuova”
William Albright

William Alright wrote in his program notes:

Of all of the movements, the second perhaps most deserves comment. This
movement is dedicated to the memory of the composer George Cacioppo who
died unexpectedly on April 8, 1984. Co-founder of the ONCE group and mentor
to two generations of composers, Cacioppo and his music and personality rest at
the foundation of my thinking. He would have very much appreciated the use of
the traditional title “La follia” (the madness) in my reincarnation as “La follia
nuova.” Like its Baroque antecedents, the movement is in a chaconne-variation
form, although at one point the sections jumble together, or intersect. The fact that
the key is F-sharp minor may be important, or it may not be.

Throughout the piece, there is a consistent descent.  The piano line is always going downwards, as a symbol for the descent of life into death, and the descent of a body into a grave.  Optimistically, Albright gives ascending lines to the saxophone to highlight the hope for an ascent into heaven.  Despite these efforts, I find this piece is horribly tragic, and it seems as though it ends without completing the mourning process.  The saxophone player is asked to step away from the piano and play distantly; usually, the performer turns their back to the audience and walks toward the rear wall, playing the final hymn melody by memory.  They remain facing away from you while the piano painfully performs the sounds of agonizing funeral bells.  The pianist is told to play as many repetitions of the bell chords as they wish, which can create a very elongated, sad, and uncomfortable moment. (source)

Imitation, Improvisation, and I

You know you're in a picture just like this one.

What could that cute-as-a-button baby have anything to do with this?

Notice the girl passing notes...

Or what does that cute-as-a-button baby have to do with this?

Did you know that babies will imitate facial expressions within hours of birth? (No one has proved that they do it immediately, since they’re usually busy crying and getting power-sprayed). What these activities have in common is imitation. Learning jazz involves extensive time not spent playing, but listening. Imitating other musicians that are admired is key until different elements from all those artists are chosen to create a unique sound. In the classroom, students are imitating more than we probably want them to. A their teacher’s attitude, their peers’ behavior, even speech patterns.

Humans, particularly children, learn naturally through imitation. It is one of the many traits cute-as-button babies get from ancestors. Darwin’s theory of natural selection at work: new generations are more capable of solving the problems that plagued those that came before. This is typical of basic tasks such as communication and movement.

The sciences of mind can provide a sounder conception of human nature, which ultimately underlies all educational policy. What is the mind of a child inherently good at? What is it bad at? ….An emerging view is that the human mind is impressively competent at problems that were recurring challenges to our evolutionary ancestors – seeing and moving, speaking and listening, reading emotions and intentions, making friends and influencing people. It is not so good at problems that are far simpler but which are posed only by a modern way of life: reading and writing, doing mathematical calculations, understanding the world of science or the mechanics of a complex society. We should not make false analogies that assume that children can learn to write as easily as they learn to speak, that learning math can be as fun as learning to run and throw, or that children in groups will learn to do science as readily as they learn to exchange gossip. On the other hand we can try to co-opt the mental faculties that work well (such as understanding how objects fall and roll) and get children to apply them to problems for which they lack natural competence. (source)

This information came at me while I have been learning how to improvise and play popular music on saxophone. I have only been, one might say, “classically trained.” Making music on the spot, without inhibitions, is a difficult procedure for me. A few days ago, I was given a new jazz chart in the university jazz band I play with, and it gave me a good startle. There was a solo. I stared at it. It stared back. Unabated. More frightening than the most complicated classical composition was the lack of any notes at all. Our relationship began there, and I let my eye contact fall to my baritone saxophone lying across my lap. No help came from that. All it was saying was, “I just do what you tell me to do.” The solo had won this round.

Learning to play jazz is a lot like picking up the speech patterns of your friends. I listen to other musicians that I want to emulate, and then listen to myself to see if it’s working. This usually involves playing my saxophone straight against a wall. I probably look like an imp.

“Who do you like to listen to?”
“A lot of Chris Potter.”
“Yeah, I can tell by your sound.”

But, it’s encouraging to read the above quote and think that my hours spent trying to imitate are bridging the gap between inherent abilities (imitating, listening) and complex problems (improvising over a Giant Steps progression. Not on your life, by the way).

I find Indian music very funky. I mean it’s very soulful, with their own kind of blues. But it’s the only other school on the planet that develops improvisation to the high degree that you find in jazz music. So we have a lot of common ground.

John McLaughlin

On the other hand, learning a new language is a lot like listening to jazz musicians. (See what I did there?) Last week, a former Spanish professor asked if I would be willing to record my voice reading a few paragraphs in Spanish. She is researching the depth of accents that both native and non-native speakers have when speaking Spanish, especially those who have spent time in Spanish-speaking countries. Her questions inquired about how much time I had been learning, where I had traveled to, for how long, etc.

“Where did you go?”
“I was in Chile.”
Nods. “I can tell by your accent.”

I am interested to learn about more of her findings over time. Am I some kind of anomaly, picking up an accent after only 7 weeks, while other American students who were with me clearly did not?  Or am I just a musician? Is it all just improv?

Learning through imitation is not cultural, it’s biological. As animals, we’re geared up to learn from day one, literally. Our environment and our genes is what does the teaching.

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.

Nelson Mandela

Just as a thank-you for reading, I present you with some Balkan-flavored improvisation. Enjoy!

Christmas: Jazz, Fish, and the Irish on my chin

It’s Christmas Day, and I’m sitting on my couch watching a fireplace on TV, while our own fireplace sits idle — or, turned off, I should say. Below it is a beautiful Turkish rug, red with patterns of flowers in white and deep blue (a gift from the East from our friend, McNick!). Santa’s gifts are lain on top scattered about empty stockings. A bare forearm reaches into the screen to stoke the fire (stoke! stoke! stoke!) while pop Christmas music plays through the TV speakers and my dad snoozes in the Lay-Z-Boy. I have to laugh at those pop singers. In an attempt to bring a new swing to old Christmas music, they start the melodies a beat later than the originals. It may sound to some like they are musical innovators. To me, it sounds like they’re a beat late.

Santa also gave me Mini Oreos in a Go-Pak. Om nom. I wonder how much more money it would have cost to put a C in the word Pak?

Holidays are also a time for good ol’ hometown church visits. I usually receive a phone call from the music director asking for a bit of saxophone at the Christmas mass, Easter mass, spring break mass, will-you-be-home-for-summer mass. If you’re available, no big deal, but please? Playing in my church is always something I enjoy, and oddly enough, it is my only outlet to play jazz. I can pop on my shiny new Super Session jazz mouthpiece and blow out a few Blues scales rather than furrowing my brow over tasteful vibrato, and avoiding shoving various objects into the bell of the horn for better intonation (right now these objects include a piece of styrofoam and a shower curtain ring covered in felt).

Back at home. I was in the kitchen making hot chocolate for myself (more on that hot chocolate in a later post, maybe). I turn around and suddenly find my mom standing directly behind me, waiting to comment on my chin beard.

“I like your beard!” she said. “And look, it’s red! Just like your uncle Charlie’s hair. Let’s show your sister.”

She leads me down the stairs.

“Look! His beard is red, just like uncle Charlie!”

“Let me see,” she says. “It is!”

“I think it’s the Irish bit of you coming out. There’s Irish coming out of your chin!”

So there you have it. That’s where it comes from.

Christmas Eve is when we give gifts to each other, after the annual family get-together that was canceled this year due to bad weather (that turned into rain. Um, what?). I had opened what I thought was everything; Gopher boxers, a large Irish flag, and other things that further define my identity. But, BUT, my sister vanished upstairs, and a moment later walked down with a fishbowl in hands, filled with water and tied with a red bow. She plopped it in my lap, and there swam a little pink female Betta fish with big black eyes. My own fish! To my roommates: I’m sorry if you find me talking to my new fish. Or staring at it. If Betta fish didn’t mind currents, I would totally attach the bowl to a fountain and get some Zen relaxation going. Staring at a fish with a soothing waterfall soundtrack sounds like brilliant procrastination.

Betta needs a name, but she does NOT need a boyfriend.

It’s now the day after Christmas, and I spent two and a half hours in the balcony of a dark theater watching Beauty and the Beast at the Ordway in St. Paul. I was nearly reciting along the entire time; my junior year in high school saw this musical being put on. I was Cogsworth. The clock. I was a clock.

In the second act, the Beast and Belle were beginning to fall in love. A magnificent table of food was prepared, and the Beast was anxiously waiting for Belle to arrive. At the top of the balcony, she appeared. Behind me in the seats a small girl clutched her baby doll and leaned over the railing separating her from my father’s head. With a gasp, she whispered, “There she is!” The face of her doll was turned toward the stage, and these two small heads watched the glittering scene unfold together. Belle’s golden gown flowed across the floor as she turned and descended the staircase, stopping halfway to gaze at the Beast below.