Jazz Robots #1&2




Saxophone slings & throat constriction

Recently I bought a saxophone sling (neck strap) that had two apparent advantages over my old ones, as explained here:

Major nerves and the blood supply for the brain run through the cervical vertebrae. With the XXX Sax-Strap this area of the neck remains open while the weight and pressure are distributed to the muscles of the left and right sides of the neck.
Carotid Artery
Conventional slings can cause unpleasant pressure on the right and left sides of the neck, compromising the carotid arteries. A spacer just above the sling-length adjuster reduces this.

ceb sling.png

Now, that second feature of the XXX Sax-Strap is very useful, but the problem with the neck cushion design is that the sling has to stay completely symmetrical. My playing position skews it slightly, causing sideways pressure on the neck vertebrae from the RH cushion. After two rehearsals the consequent pain stopped me playing for a couple of days.

One solution is to stick with a conventional neck strap and use a spacer, such as Andy Scott’s Libero, which retails for £75, about twice the cost of the strap itself. So, here’s my solution, costing £1 in materials, taking 15 mins to construct, and weighing in at 1oz (28 grms):

With spare parts and tools from a child’s construction kit, in this case Meccano, here is what I used for my alto sax:



This simple version with just 2 nuts and bolts worked fine, but here’s a refinement using a rubber band around the two nuts to ease the gaps for your strap, while protecting it from chafing against the nut:


Finally, to guard against slippage once the spacer is positioned comfortably, two nuts may be added at the ends. Here I’ve added a central nut for bracing, plus stopper bolts.


Playing the Saxophone & Sailing

John Harle’s advice on tongue position when playing the saxophone has come as a revelation, liberating my playing from constant bother about intonation, tone and dynamic range. It got me thinking about parallels with sailing (an old passion of mine): e.g.

  • you can’t steer a boat unless it has power, you can’t play the sax with ease and accuracy unless the breath is properly directed;
  • the need for multiple navigational clues when piloting a boat in and out of harbours, as well as when improvising on an unfamiliar chord progression.


Back at last

I’m back after the great platelet escape of 2017, which is too boring to blog about, apart from the steroid-induced psychosis, which I’m still getting my head around. More importantly, I’m playing sax again after a gap of 5 months, which reminds me of a Bill Crow jazz anecdote:

Trumpeter Burt Collins [worked with Dizzy Gillespie, Neal Hefti et al] met trombonist Merv Gold in the street one day, and asked Merv, “How can I lose 35 years’ worth of chops in two days off?”
Merv answered, “I lose my chops during an 8-bar rest.”
Having spent some time reading John Harle’s brilliant if sometimes bewildering book, I’m adopting a more relaxed embouchure, correcting tongue position, playing quieter and enjoying the freedom of expression and better intonation that this technique allows. Also getting my lip back in faster than expected, as a consequence. This will be a significant factor if illness interrupts play again.
One of my current projects is working with jazz guitarist Dave Thomas, tuning and warming up with this exercise:
Tuning Alto Sax to Guitar



Saxless Practice #1

Some things to practise when you don’t have your sax (but not like the guy above) …

Relaxed posture: shoulders at rest, back straight, long neck, head up and forward.

Dynamic breathing: shoulders remain at rest and upper chest is static; lungs and lower ribs move smoothly outwards and inwards, forward and side.

Tongue position: breathe in gently through your nose, half filling your lungs, and out through your mouth; with your tongue at rest, exhale slowly and smoothly to create a snake-like hiss (an ‘aah’ sound indicates that your tongue is not at rest and your mouth is open too wide).


Saxes stolen in the UK may end up abroad

…  a list of instruments stolen this month from Dawkes, and also the saxophones stolen from Sax.Co back in April/May – SEE BELOW

In the early hours of July 12th we were victims of a break-in at the shop. The gang of thieves forced their way into our Sax Suite and stole 40 saxophones that were on display (full list below). The police arrived on scene and are investigating the matter further. Sadly this is the most recent in a spate of Music Industry related break-ins with the thieves clearly targeting certain locations and stock types. It is unlikely these instruments will appear in the UK marketplace but we have listed a full inventory below of what has been stolen, please be aware or on guard for any 3rd party re-selling or auction sites offering these models. Any info can be passed to us or Thames Valley Police (Ref: 43170204724)

Read more

Saxophone technique

If you’re serious about saxophone technique, and willing to question much of what you think you already know, study John Harle’s brilliant new book. The really significant chapters are taking me 2-3 weeks to get my head (and the rest of my upper body) around, so it’s value for money. Chapter 1 alone has made playing more comfortable, power breathing more natural; it’s improved my stamina, tone and intonation, thus allowing me to concentrate on the wider issues of expressive performance.

This book is not a set of ‘quick fixes’, so you have to persevere with each chapter, until the detailed instruction, copious diagrams and carefully selected exercises finally sink into your greater understanding of how lips, tongue, throat, lungs and head resonance work together. Your existing technique has to be challenged, changes made consciously and then, after sufficient practice, your improved technique will become intuitive.

Jazz and pop saxophonists may find themselves sounding a bit ‘classical’ at first, but once these techniques are fully embodied, they can be adapted to any style of playing. One caveat, however: several exercises are best suited to alto and soprano saxophone (Harle’s preferred instruments), so adaptation will be required by tenor, baritone, bass and sopranino players, specifically over issues of head resonance and the relationship of saxophone registers to the singing voice. This may seem a deterrent for some of you at first, but Harle’s philosophy is all about understanding how YOUR body works when playing, so self-analysis is essential to players of all saxophones, under Harle’s expert guidance.

Here’s a page from volume 1 (© 2017 Faber Music Ltd):

00 Power Startup


Sax Harmonics

Here’s an exercise on harmonics, from Earl Bostic’s alto playing, bars 9-11 of ‘Bugle Call Rag’ (1956). Alternate upper register G with normal fingering and the same note produced as a harmonic of low C (no octave key). Start slow, then see if you can match Bostic’s virtuosity. This is a way of making repeated notes more interesting and a useful exercise to build up altissimo technique.

bostic harmonics 1

Bostic hits a super high B near the end of this recording, which is really a little over the top for most players.