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.

Chord-Tone Practice

In an earlier blog I noted the potential un-musicality of the popular chord–scale approach to jazz improvising. But there is an additional issue about this approach: i.e. the need to build skills from firm foundations, which this quote from Berklee makes clear:

‘… for beginner and intermediate-level players, the chord-scale approach has a potential downside. Many students begin studying chord scales early in their musical education and attempt to apply the knowledge acquired immediately on their instruments. Unfortunately, this often happens too soon in the student’s development as an improviser–before he or she has learned how to shape an appealing improvised melody by ear on a chord or chord progression using only, or mainly, chord tones.’ source

As a precursor (and possible antidote) to chord-scale theory, try improvising on chord tones instead, then incorporate this approach into your improvisations, as many great players do. Here’s an initial exercise to try:

Chord tone practice 01

Qigong, Posture & Playing the Saxophone

Any reputable guide to playing the saxophone or similar instruments will mention the importance of posture, but this topic is often passed over as general introduction, rather than an essential part of daily reflection in practice, rehearsal and performance.

Given Qigong’s repeated emphasis on posture and body-awareness, as part of physical and emotional resilience training, we might compare and contrast advice in these two arenas.

Firstly, before picking up the saxophone, study the featured image above, then practise these Four Qigong Exercises, noting the importance of correct breathing, a major related topic we’ll return to in the next blog of this series. Don’t expect to master these exercises, just familiarise yourself with them, for now.

Next, consider John Harle’s advice on posture in his recent and highly-acclaimed book The Saxophone (Faber Music 2017) pp.20-21:

‘Playing the saxophone requires your body to be alert and flexible.’

Before picking up the saxophone …
‘Imagine a triangle with the highest point at the top of your head (at the back) with two lower points at the bony ends of the shoulders. Make [this triangle] as big as possible, without straining upwards or downwards.’

Harle refers to this as the ‘Dynamic Triangle’.

‘Your shoulders [should] come down to a natural position of rest, your neck naturally lengthens and you head moves up and forward. Your back has straightened without feeling restricted or held.’

Now pick up the saxophone and follow Harle’s further advice:har

You will need to practise and reflect upon these two approaches to posture (Qigong and Harle) to understand what helpful compatibilities present themselves. For example, is Harle’s instruction to move your weight forward when standing helped or hindered by Qigong and Tai Chi’s slightly bent knees?

‘Find your feet!’

In both cases, the development of body-awareness and relaxation is essential, which will take time, care and concentration.

Your feedback is welcome.

Qigong & Playing the Saxophone #1

Richard Agnew states that:

Qigong is a perfect kind of exercise to integrate into a [music] practice routine because it involves:

  • Warming up and stretching the body
  • Relaxation – this is a fundamental skill of qigong
  • Postural work – encouraging a neutral posture, but it is also interested in understanding the impact of different postures on the body
  • Breath work, which not only helps relaxation but also massages the organs of the body and improves breath control and capacity
  • Meditation – qigong can be described as a kind of moving meditation, and helps to calm the mind and regulate the emotions

Together with John Harle’s detailed study of saxophone technique and body-awareness, I shall be exploring how elementary Qigong exercises might inform and be adapted to practising the saxophone. Of course, these suggestions may be used for a variety of wind and brass instruments, with suitable adjustments. Further adjustments may be necessary according to your physical condition.

Along the way, I plan to work with other sax players to see how these approaches might enhance our enjoyment, knowledge, understanding and skills. Your feedback is always welcome.

To begin at the beginning, here is a guide for gently warming up and stretching, which can be incorporated into the first 10 minutes of your daily practice. Afterwards, rest for at least 5 minutes before playing the saxophone. It’s important to feel energised but also relaxed throughout these physical and mental processes. Finding sufficient and appropriate times to practise is equally important, therefore.

Many other examples of Qigong warm-up can be found on sites such as YouTube, featuring individuals and groups.

In the next blog of this series we’ll consider posture.