Steven Banks

Saxophonist. Educator. Inclusion Advocate.

"To play a wrong note is insignificant; to play without passion is inexcusable"

- Ludwig van Beethoven

Reaching Greatness? (Disclaimer: I'm an INFJ)

"There's no rest. This is the rest. I get to play with Walter, Vic, and everybody. That's the rest."        - Wynton Marsalis

It is 4 o'clock in the morning here in Berea, OH. Usually, I am either asleep or having deep conversations with myself in my own head at this hour. Today, however, I wanted to see if I could get out of my own head a bit and see what you might have to say.

I recently watched a short film about the collaboration between Wynton Marsalis and violinist Nicola Benedetti to bring Marsalis' newest violin concerto to life. All of the quotes in this blog post are transcribed from that film. I am always intrigued to see what musical masters have to say about their craft and to hear about how they live in general. They lead extraordinary lives that they've built for themselves with an extremely high level of artistry, ability, and real-world prowess.

"I really care. I'm not going to lie about that. Some people will just either not be honest about that or they don't, but I REALLY care."                                                                                                 - Nicola Benedetti

As an aspiring concert-artist, I am so perplexed by the work-life balance of people like Marsalis and Benedetti. They are ALWAYS working! It's mentioned in the film the Benedetti practiced 14 hours one day. It's also easy to tell that they both have strong personalities and personal commitment to what they do. They are fortunate to do what they love but at the expense of some other parts of life. When I look back at many historical figures that have made a major lasting impact on the music world, I find that there is a shared obsession with something or at least something that makes them stand out as particularly unique. It could be practicing, bird calls, time or anything really. People remember them for that and think critically about how their personality and life circumstances might influence the understanding of the music they created. I could be wrong, but I don't imagine that they all had the greatest sense of life balance or concern for mental health. I'm not hoping to imply that you have to be crazy to be significant, of course, but it seems like there's always something unusual. I'm curious about your thoughts on this. 

"The last two months I've been up at four and five o'clock in the morning, getting up after going to bed at two, and working all day doing gigs and being on the road."                                              - Wynton Marsalis

Today, it seems like many of us are taking more steps to take care of ourselves and lead healthy, robust, diverse lives. We are working to be more mindful, sensitive to the needs of others, and easy to work with. I am constantly struggling to find the balance between being easy to work with and "nice" while still trying to maintain and respect my own love and obsession for pushing myself to the absolute limit to create something new that will make a lasting impact on the world.

"It's so difficult to have those conversations where you trying to say to somebody that you think it's great, but maybe it's just...not this or not that. Ugh, I hate it."                                                       - Nicola Benedetti

I've never really been one that loves pleasantries when it comes to working on and rehearsing music. I like to get down to business and make things happen, and maybe relax and celebrate at the end of the process. Of course, I have learned (sometimes the hard way) how to be more agreeable, accepting, and flexible in rehearsals. However, I genuinely think that is sometimes at the expense of creating the best product.

"I don't know if too much is done like this. It's unorthodox. I think if you want unusual results you have to do something unusual."                                                                                                              - Wynton Marsalis

I'm very interested in hearing how others approach this dilemma. Where do your priorities lie? Is it wrong to care more about legacy than being happy in the moment? How can we expect greatness by doing what we're "supposed" to? What is hard work? Is being innovative and interesting a new substitute for developing a more focused depth in one type of artistry? How can one live by the book and still write a story no one has ever heard?

Parts of a Beautiful Tapestry

Knowing your own value and strength is no easy task. In this time in which impression is often prioritized over character, it is easy to constantly compare yourself to what seems "normal" for other people. With social media profiles at the forefront of lots of communication efforts, it is easy to see WHAT others are doing, but not HOW they are really doing. It's easy to take in information and jump to conclusions based on what someone chooses to share with you. However, this is not a luxury that we have with ourselves.

We see every flaw, remember ever failed attempt, and often focus on our bad experiences that others may never even know about. Being in your own skin can often give you tunnel-vision to the negative instead of staying forward-thinking and goal-oriented. 

The good news is that we do indeed have a choice in what we focus our energy and brain power on. While we all of have areas to improve, we also all have a wealth of talent and perspective to contribute to the world. Instead of being held back by our shortcomings, we can choose to allow them to create opportunities to connect with others that may have strengths where we are weak. We can choose to be happy yet humble and create a community of friends and colleagues that will elevate everyone involved. 

This is one of the greatest things that I have learned this year and in my life so far. No awards, achievements, or accolades can bring us closer to happiness and contentment. For me, close relationships that challenge me to improve, working towards goals that I believe in, and allowing myself to be human are the things that have helped keep me sane. 

I have the fortune of knowing so many amazing people with a wide range of knowledge and expertise. I want to thank all of you for being awesome and cheer you on as you continue to push towards what is exciting and important to you.

Even the people that seem the most "successful" have scars from painful times in their lives. Instead of focusing on our own painful experiences, we can realize this common ground and use it as a way to empathize with others and be an encouraging light on them. Don't we all need that kind of person in our own lives? I hope to share this spirit of growth and collaboration with as many people as I can so that it stays alive within me! 

These ideas were floating around in my mind this evening, and I hope that reading this post will be encouraging to someone out there!

That's Gon' Be A Fascinatin' Transition (Yes, It's a Kimmy Schmidt Reference)

INTRODUCTION

I am confronted by the fact that I no longer have the safety net of being a student musician. As such, I am actively considering the characteristics that the successful professional musicians that I admire have. I need to be sure now more than ever that I will be prepared to sound my absolute best anytime I am called for a gig or give a public recital. I find that my favorite single and double reed performers and teachers have objectively incredible sounds, but bring something unique and easily identifiable to the table as well. In this post, I will focus on the search for the ability to create the sound that you visualize in your mind’s eye.

If you dig deep enough, you will find that the common thread is that we all create our sounds by vibrating a reed and allowing our instrument to be an amplifier for those vibrations. All of our pedagogical ideas are in some way helping us facilitate the vibration of our reed and how those sound waves travel through the instrument. Realizing this simple fact has helped me refine my overall approach to saxophone playing.

There are two concepts that I have found most helpful in quickly developing and improving sound for myself and my students. The first is to consciously think about allowing the reed to vibrate freely. The simple change of mindset from playing your instrument to allowing your instrument to sound has a wealth of benefits. The second is to do regular spectral analysis of your sound to ensure that the instrument is amplifying those free vibrations in the exact way that you want it to. Talking about sound can be very difficult since we all have different definitions of terms like bright, dark, warm, round, among others. Seeing a visual representation of these sounds takes out the guesswork out of your own practice sessions and when explaining a concept to a student.

 

ALLOW THE REED TO VIBRATE FREELY

Embouchure

As saxophonists, the first step to making sure that the reed can vibrate freely is to optimize the placement of our embouchure around the mouthpiece. The point of contact with the reed should be at the point where the reed and the facing curve of the mouthpiece separate or possibly even further towards the ligature. This will ensure that neither our natural embouchure pressure nor vibrato usage is dampening the natural vibrations of the reed. In my experience, most classical saxophonists do not take in enough mouthpiece to ensure free reed vibration. Sometimes the answer to taking in too little mouthpiece is to consciously keep the chin more forward, and other times there needs to be more mouthpiece taken in all around. I believe that classical saxophonists often subconsciously dampen the reeds vibrations because it reduces the upper overtones in the sound. This “dark” or “covered” sound is lucrative, but it ends up making it much more difficult to play in tune, articulate, have a natural sounding vibrato, and certainly takes away from the natural acoustic resonance of the instrument.

Similarly, it is vital that the embouchure is incredibly consistent and firm so that the pressure on the reed is as consistent as possible. If you look carefully at the embouchures (particularly the upper lip) of top-tier professional single reed players, you will notice that there is virtually no movement, even in extreme registers and with large intervallic motion. This is because they realize that any disturbance of the reed actually makes these difficult gestures more difficult. Once you truly internalize the fact that the embouchure must stay completely steady, you can focus your energy on the things that should actually be flexible like tongue position and air pressurization.

One extremely effective way to make sure that your embouchure is strong and consistent is to spend time practicing with a double lip embouchure. The double lip embouchure gives you more awareness of your upper lip musculature and decreases your chances of biting. Many people give up on double lip before they experience the effects of it because is definitely harder to get the same amount of flexibility and control as playing single lip. However, this is precisely the point. If it hurts your upper lip to play with the double lip embouchure, then you probably rely too much on biting in your playing. If the sound is really muted or covered when using this technique, then you can experiment with taking in more mouthpiece or making sure that your chin stays forward so that the reed can vibrate freely. While double lip playing has lots of benefits, its ability to make you focus on the right muscles in your embouchure is undeniable.

Another common flaw with the saxophone embouchure that takes away from reed vibration is the bunching of the chin and lower lip into the reed. Bunching into the reed increases the surface area of skin that is actually touching the reed which, in turn, takes away from its natural vibrations. Some students have not developed the ability to control their chin and lower lip muscles, so it is imperative that they consistently monitor their practice in the mirror or by video recording their practice sessions.

 

Breathe, Don’t Blow

There is a fantastic article by bassoonists C. Robert Reinert and Alan Goodman entitled Breathe, Don’t Blow, in which they discuss the idea that using excessive force when pushing air through your instrument actually negates your ability find the maximum resonance and vibrance in your sound. This idea is best understood when listening to players back to back in a large hall. Some have an ability to consistently project while staying relaxed, and others may look like they are putting a lot of physical effort into their playing without actually having a sound that resounds in the hall.

Physically speaking, there is truly not a great amount of air that can actually go through the tip opening of the saxophone mouthpiece at one time. The amount of air you push through the mouthpiece does not determine how loud the sound is that comes out. What matters is how you manipulate your airstream to get the maximum vibration and full spectrum of overtones out of your particular setup combination. Through using spectral analysis, which I will discuss more fully later, I have learned that many times forcing more air through the instrument makes some of the overtone spectrum less present than if I back off on the air pressure and make sure that my chin is forward and out of the way of the reed. This method of projection also makes you hyper-aware of when your sound may be starting to spread or distort. Spreading or distortion is a result of pushing more air through your setup than it can handle. If this is happening (assuming that you are not biting), something in your setup needs to change so that it can handle your full, natural airstream.

 

 Find the Right Setup

In my personal quest to allow my reeds to vibrate freely and enjoy the natural acoustic qualities of my instrument, I have found myself making lots of changes in my setup (ligature, reeds, neck, mouthpiece, etc.). The two most notable pieces of equipment that I have started using are the Silverstein Original brushed silver ligature and the lefreQue sound bridge. Both of these products give me the ability work less hard to create a sound that is vibrant, relaxed, and still capable of projecting.

The Silverstein ligature is exceptional because of its customizability and capability to have a firm, yet free grasp on the reed. This ligature has what the company calls “fine tuners,” which are two metal bars that the player can easily move to prioritize different characteristics in the sound. For example, when I’m looking a sound that naturally has less upper overtones, I move the fine tuner bars as far away from the reed as possible. When I need projection and extra vibrance, I can move these bars so that they are actually touching the reed and enhancing the vibrations like a metal ligature would. This customizability enhances my ability to find a wider palette of tone colors during a single performance. This is certainly not a replacement for practice in finding the full spectrum of your sound. This does, however, make that search for different colors significantly more easy and natural.

The cord that Silverstein uses in their ligatures allows it to have a small surface area of contact with the reed, that still holds the reed securely in place. In the quest to free the reed as much as possible, having less contact with the reed is desirable. I find that this ligature allows my good reeds to play their absolute best, but is not as forgiving of a reed that is not sealing properly, cut well, or made with bad cane. In the end, this actually saves me time, because I don’t spend as much effort using bad reeds and wondering if the problem is me or my reed.

The lefreQue sound bridge is a fascinating invention that is capable of being used on any wind instrument that has multiple parts. The product is a pair of metal plates that connect the vibrations of the various parts of an instrument (for saxophone: mouthpiece to neck, neck to body, etc.). Scientifically speaking, the lefreQue allows the fundamental and overtones in your sound to travel through the instrument more naturally. It allows the sound waves of the overtones to match the length of the fundamental and, therefore, makes the instrument generally more in tune. The previously troublesome overtones contribute to the sense of difference resistances on each note. The lefreQue’s effects help to even out the resistance of each note on the instrument. This, in turn, makes intervals more connected, your instrument more even throughout the range, and gives you a greater control of dynamics. Again, this piece of equipment gives you the ability to have the greatest amount of musical flexibility with the least amount of mental and physical exertion.

 

ANALYZE YOUR SOUND REGULARLY

Sound is one of the most difficult aspects of music to discuss objectively with other people. Terms like bright, dark, warm, rich, and other descriptors can easily get lost in translation between teacher and student as well as among colleagues. However, I believe that the future of this discussions will be based on facts and less on terms that can not actually be defined. I have already had a lot of success using this as a teaching tool in lessons and as a way to maximize blend and tone matching in chamber music, in addition to the amazing realizations that I have had about my own solo playing.

With the help of an amazing app called SpectrumView 2, we can now analyze our sound with a smartphone, just as easily as using a tuner. The app comes with a spectrogram, spectral analyzer, recording capability, and the ability to turn off the auto-gain feature on your device's microphone (very important!). It is also free, and the only in-app purchases that you would encounter allow you to import your favorite recordings from iTunes and SoundCloud to find the sound makeup of your favorite performers in real time. The possibilities with this technology are seemingly endless!

As a teaching tool, spectral analysis facilitates discussion about sound, evenness of intervals, projection, articulation, connectivity of line, and more. When it comes to sound, I have found that students find it extremely helpful to be able to see the makeup of their sound in comparison to yours as the teacher. Many times, students cannot hear what makes their sound different from their teachers initially, but seeing a visual representation of these differences is undeniable and makes a cognitive bridge from the eye to the ear. As a student starts to make aural connections to what they see, they develop the ability to hear more clearly the nuances of sound that are possible. This app gives you the ability to visualize the effects of allowing the reed to vibrate freely. Resonance and projection in a come from there being a clear representation of sound at a wide spectrum of the overtones for each particular note. Using this app, you can realize that pushing more into the instrument is not generally what does that. You can begin to experiment with other contributors to your sounds makeup and literally see the effects that they can have.

When teaching evenness and connectivity, spectral analysis gives the student a clear path to success that has not been capable before. When tackling a tough interval, I first have the student play the two notes in question and analyze the sound of each note. Generally, higher notes have a wider spectrum of overtone peaks that are further away from each other, making them more and more unstable as you go up, but great for projection. Low notes are based more firmly on the fundamental and don’t project as well because of the lack of overtone representation. Once they have played the two notes separately, we find a strategy to make the shape of the analysis curves look the same. This means that there is a similar representation of overtones in each note. Students usually have to find a way to enhance the spectrum of the lower note to match the higher one. I find that ensuring that the reed is not being dampened (keep the chin/bite point forward, not overblowing, etc.) in any way for the lower note generally opens it up to a greater overtone spectrum. Once they are capable of making the same curve shape on both notes, they must practice doing so while going between the two notes with no break. This is another case when you have to think about the reed vibrating without interruption. The hiccup that happens between two is a quick moment when the reed has been disturbed. Sometimes this means that they need to depressurize the reed before the interval and other times it requires more pressurization. Either way, a successful interval will keep a similar curve shape when before, during, and after the note change.

 

CONCLUSIONS

I have already seen the effects of this approach in my own playing, in chamber groups that I am in, and with students that I teach. For the first time in my life, I am very confident that the sound that will come out of my instrument every time I play is very close to the one that I visualize in my head. If it isn’t, I have pedagogical tools to help me get it back very quickly. It is important to note that these advances have absolutely been facilitated by changes in equipment. Since my priorities have changed, I have switched my mouthpiece (S-90 180 facing), ligature (Silverstein Original - Brushed Silver), neck (Selmer Series III - Solid Silver), and added lefreQue sound bridges to connect the mouthpiece to the neck, and the neck to the body. This equipment has not necessarily changed my sound, rather it makes it significantly easier for me to get the sound that I want consistently. Sometimes I forget that saxophone pedagogy is still rather young, so it is exciting to have the opportunity to be a part of its development!

(IN)VISIBLE: Carl Alexander

Last night, I had the distinct opportunity to see a multimedia and collaborative vocal performance by Carl Alexander, a wonderful countertenor and someone that I know to be a renaissance man (vocalist, composer, photographer, I'm sure more things that I don't know). The recital was entitled Shelter: A Glance into Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome. I don't really even know how to begin to describe how important the experience was for me. 

I'll start with musical aspects of the performance. Carl's voice is absolutely amazing. He sings with such unmistakable character and mastery that you never even begin to think about intonation and accuracy because it is always impeccable. More importantly, every moment he was on the stage was an opportunity for him to communicate something very genuine to the audience. All singers learn to act to a certain extent, but his presence on stage was something so far beyond acting because it was true and real.

This is something that I have come to notice as an amazing trend with my colleagues that are black classical musicians. We never have a shortage of feeling and humanity to communicate. We are a deeply expressive people. Why? Because all of those things that others can't and may not want to understand go directly into our instruments, voices, and batons. We may be told that we're doing too much or being "distracting" to the music, but the truth is that were expressing our personal experience through the lens of whatever piece may be on the stand. I can honestly say that the only time I even think about stage presence is when someone is telling me that I'm doing too much (not so ironically, those people have never been minorities). This is why I love to watch people like Carl, Andre Watts, Anthony McGill, the Imani Winds, and so many others. This is also another reason why creating a diverse conservatory environment is so important. Younger students need to be able to hear feedback about expression from someone that might actually understand how they feel and resonate with the music.

While the music was impeccable, the subject matter, multimedia presentation, collaborative artists, and everything else was perfect as well. I could never cover everything thing that was touched on in the recital, but what resonated with me the most was the very last image I saw on the projector.

It said, "visible yet so invisible." These four words so truthfully represent the experience of being a minority in the white-dominated conservatory environment. You are on one hand extremely visible and on display because you may be "the only one." University marketing teams may purposefully find you for the purposes of portraying diversity on their promotional materials (not saying that's entirely bad). People look to you when there are matters of race or gender that come up in the classroom since surely you must know what all minorities think. People are surprised when you speak well and say things like "you speak so well for a..." Some may finish that sentence, and others realize how awful what they were about to say is. These, I promise you, are just a FEW examples off of the top of my head.

On the other hand, you are utterly invisible in this environment on a much deeper level. People know you, but they can not see you. They can't understand your experience in the world and many times they feel no inclination to try. Why should they? You're just 1 out 200 others that it might be easier for them to interact with during the day. Sometimes the effects of this are debatable. Other times they are so incredibly clear that it's saddening. There are so many times that I have been in social situations at school in which I will try to contribute to a conversation and am completely and utterly ignored to my face. I don't understand how it's possible. I know they hear me (6'4", 210 lbs, loud voice...), but somehow their subconscious mind tells them so strongly not to engage that they just pretend that I didn't say anything at all. Many of you will not believe me, but those that have been close to me long enough have seen it with their own eyes.

In many music classes, teachers call themselves "cool" by including some examples in class with popular music. Many times this manifests examples from The Beatles, Taylor Swift, AC/DC, etc. What they don't realize that this doesn't make the concept any more relatable for a student that grew up listening to Motown, Ray Charles, and gospel music. These are small things that can be very isolating. While everyone else may be enjoying the song and feeling a shared experience, you are left alone thinking "I've never heard this in my life." Again, these are just a few examples that came to mind, and I don't want to go on forever.  

Carl's recital touched on SO much more than the visibility/invisibility idea, but this resonated with me very strongly and I have to give him the credit he deserves for a truly inspiring performance in every capacity. PLEASE check out his website, and look for Carl Alexander's name in lights someday soon. 

 

 

 

SaxHax: The Power of Being a Student

Being a student in the arts can be a truly daunting task. If you are doing it right, the deepest parts of your emotional self are on display and receiving critique. In something so personal, regular scrutiny of your art can easily be confused as regular scrutiny of who you are as a person. Striking a balance of learning openly and maintaining a strong sense of your own values is extremely difficult. I think that constantly thinking about this balance, however, is extremely important to finding your own sense of success.

Let’s start by thinking about some of the most wonderful aspects of being a student of the arts…

  1. You get to learn! - This may seem obvious, but it’s true nonetheless. As a student in the arts, we are constantly gathering and processing information. We learn the finer details of how to play, write, perform, dance, choreograph, and more. We learn the history of our craft and make connections that inform our own careers. The constant state of learning is not only in our own lessons and coachings but also in being aware of our teachers and colleagues. We learn from each other how to walk on stage, how to engage with an audience, how to teach, how to find a sustainable work-life balance, how to take care of our bodies and minds, and so many more things about how to be an artist, but also a human.

  2. You get to challenge your own truth! - I have been in school for nearly twenty years now. One of the best realizations of being a professional student is that you are truly never done learning. What you now think you know and believe to be fact will probably be altered the next day, week, month, or year. Some see this as a frustrating, some ignore it and remain stubborn, but I do my best to choose to approach this as an amazing opportunity and something that fuels my continued excitement for my art. Challenging yourself to consistently reevaluate your thoughts keeps your humble, open-minded, and forward-thinking.

  3. You can practice learning to build trust! - This point is the most interesting to me. A student-teacher relationship is really built on a foundation of trust. In order to learn effectively, we have to trust the perspective of our teacher. That doesn’t mean to blindly accept everything that they say. However, we have to develop that sense of respect for our teachers in our area of expertise and as people. Otherwise, we can’t learn freely. We have to trust that what they are telling us is well thought out and demonstrates their best efforts to help us. If we can’t trust our teachers, then the relationship is not healthy and we are less likely to take their challenging advice seriously. The ability to trust is an extremely valuable skill and certainly applies to our everyday lives.

On the other hand, being an arts student can cause us to…

  1. Forget to think independently - When we first start playing an instrument, dancing or acting, it’s often because of our sense of wonderment with the art. There’s something magical, expressive, and free about performing. However, as we learn more, it is extremely easy to lose that sense of self and sense of love because we are now too busy trying to emulate what our teachers and colleagues say we should and shouldn’t do. We take our teacher's word as fact instead of a perspective. Yes, we should always think very deeply about their perspective and implement their ideas. However, we can’t forget to keep searching with that same sense of wonderment that got us into the arts in the first place.

  2. Lose trust in ourselves - You’re in a lesson and the teacher makes a suggestion. You try to apply the concept without really thinking. As soon as you finish playing, you look at your teacher and say “was that it?!” I think we’ve all done it. It’s important to remember that you have ears too! I would argue that 60-70% of the time, you will know whether you have successfully implemented their request. Of course, if you’re learning a completely new technique, you may need to have more hands-on guidance from your teacher. However, if they’re asking you to be mindful of something or to highlight something slightly different than you were before, then really give it some thought and demonstrate it in the best way that you know how. Chances are that you’ll know whether your attempt was successful or not. Just remember that what you hear/see/feel/think is valid and don’t be afraid to challenge and ask for more clarification if you don’t feel like you can understand how to make something work. Most teachers (good ones anyway) I know would much rather you ask for a deeper understanding for yourself than blindly follow what they are telling you.

  3. Be in need of constant external approval - So many students of art that I know determine their ability level based on what an instructor has told them. If your dance instructor compliments you in class, then you feel like you must be on the right track. If your music teacher says that you’re not improving as quickly as they would like, you feel like you are so behind and might even consider quitting. The problem is that teachers have certain objectives to fill and in some ways their own goals for you as a student that are often not aligned with yours. They don’t automatically know all of the wonderful things that make you unique. Unfortunately, these special things about you are precisely what will make you valuable in whatever field you are in. Yes, there are lots of objective and fundamental skills that we all need to be professionals. However, these skills that you seek approval of do not give you value and relevance in the world. No one can tell you what makes you important, but if you trust yourself and search for what makes you happy, you will find it. There is no form of external approval that will satisfy your need to do something valuable in the world. In art school, this is difficult to remember.

With all of this in mind, don’t forget to…

  1. Believe in your own thoughts and ideas! - Realize that it is ok to be different! This is what truly makes you amazing to others around you. Your own beliefs can be difficult to identify because you live with them every day. They become easier to identify once you start to interact with other people that don’t see the world like you do. Once you find your values, commit to them and let them motivate you. For any saxophonist nerds out there, in my recent success in the Northwestern Concerto Competition, I used a Legere reed and did my entire first movement excerpt using a double lip embouchure. I was nervous about this, but only because doing anything differently than one of the major professors in our field is often so stigmatized. People say “what the heck made you do that?” However, I felt comfortable. I just like to try new things and push myself! This comfort brought my first competition success as a soloist since my sophomore year at IU.

  2. Be open and hungry for critique and suggestion! - It can be very hard to put yourself on display as an artist. However, this is the reality that we live with every day. Realize that critique, as one of my good friends says, is not a critique and an “I hate you.” It is just that person’s perspective. Use the feedback that you get to inform yourself about what is working and what may not be serving the artistic mission that you hope to convey. I think it’s important and natural to be defensive of your own perspective at first. That means that you care and that you’ve invested in your decision. Just don’t allow that initial defensiveness to keep you from growing and thinking outside of the box.

  3. Realize and revel in the fact that you can’t please everyone! - You can’t please everyone. Ever. Stop trying to! Easier said than done, I know. Think of it this way...You can’t please everyone, but you can use your experience of the world to create the most genuine and sincere product that you can. Control what you can, other people will like it or not. If you are genuine and sincere in your art, most people will at least respect that fact, even if they disagree with your methods.

The best of part of all of this is that you can apply all of these concepts to your life outside of your art as well. These things have really helped me in my struggles with mental health in the past year. As I know these struggles plague almost all of us at some point, I hope that this provides some perspective and helps someone realize that they are not alone. Onwards and upwards!


 

SaxHax: Experimenting with the Double Lip Embouchure

I recently attended a recital and masterclass by Jose Franch-Ballester, the great clarinetist and chamber musician. He is, of course, an incredible performer and teacher, but there was one particular concept that I took away from the class that has changed my playing significantly. While working with a student that had a problem with air escaping from his embouchure, Jose suggested that he try playing through a passage using a double lip embouchure because it makes it nearly impossible to leak air. This immediately helped the student fix this issue, however, Jose went on to discuss the technique a bit further. Apparently, the first clarinets were made with the reed placed on top of the mouthpiece, so everyone had no choice but to play with a double lip embouchure. After the class, I did a bit of digging around on my own and found this video of Ricardo Morales discussing the benefits of playing or practicing with a double lip embouchure. While the saxophone is definitely a different instrument, there is no denying the wealth of parallels that there are between the two instruments as single reed cousins.

After these experiences, I had to give it a try on saxophone. My first attempts at playing with this new embouchure were laughable. I sounded like a third grader that could barely make a sound on a middle C. Once a got a little bit more comfortable with using this method, I tried to do some scales and long tone exercises. I found that I had a lot of trouble maintaining the musculature of my embouchure, and even more trouble trying to play in the upper register. Altissimo was totally out of the question. Most people I’ve told about this generally stop at this point, laugh, and say that it doesn’t work for them.

However, it only makes sense that this would not work very well at first since you may have been practicing with a different embouchure for 10+ years! Just like the first time you learned the saxophone, you have to identify and strengthen new muscles that you may have never used before. For me, some of these muscles were ones that I should have been using better all along! After experimenting with double lip embouchure for a few weeks, I’ve seen concrete improvements in several areas for myself and my students.

 

  1. Increased awareness of tongue position: There is an incredible physical phenomenon that occurs when the upper lip is rolled over the top teeth, even without an instrument. The tongue naturally shifts back and up into the position that it actually needs to be in for playing. When playing and practicing double lip, altissimo, going over the break, articulating in the low register, and large leaps are eventually more successful because the adjustments have to be made solely with tongue position and air direction. I always thought that I was doing this already, but the fact that I could barely play above a C with the octave key told me that I was somehow involving my embouchure in these techniques as well. Now, anytime I have a passage that involves any of the aspects mentioned above, I make sure that I can play it well double lip before practicing it with the stability of the top teeth on the mouthpiece. Generally, if I’m starting to have trouble with a passage again, when I go back to playing double lip, it will show me where I am going wrong.

  2. Strengthening and increased awareness of upper lip musculature: I also previously thought that my upper lip was well-developed and strong. However, when I started practicing double lip, I started getting really sore in my upper lip and corner muscles, almost like when I first started playing. Most people have found that they neglect certain muscles that should be used when making an embouchure. I also started to realize that my upper lip had weird tendencies to move around in random instances (going over the break, when articulating at loud dynamics, etc.). I began to notice this tendency in a lot of my students and colleagues as well. Over the past few weeks, this soreness has been gradually decreasing, but I can still feel that the muscles are not fully developed. This newfound awareness has helped in so many ways!

  3. Greatly reduced chance of biting: This one is a bit more obvious. If there is flesh on both the top and bottom of the mouthpiece, it’s going to really hurt to bite or have too much tension in the embouchure. My younger students find this particularly telling and their sounds generally open up very quickly when they understand what not to do. This is particularly helpful in the altissimo for all players as well. My range has increased from an altissimo F to the Ab above that in the past few weeks!

  4. Increased awareness of finger technique: When practicing double lip, the instrument is less stable, since you are not holding on to the mouthpiece with your top teeth. This means that every move that you make with your body is amplified and can cause a lot of extraneous movement of the instrument. This is why you see the reed slide around a lot in bassoonists mouths when they play technical passages. I find that this allows me to be much more aware of every movement that my fingers make. The result is more nuanced and fluid finger technique!

  5. Better response in low register on baritone and tenor saxophones: I honestly don’t know exactly why this works yet, but it has helped me immensely in passages where I need a clean articulation on a low note at any dynamic. This is the only case where have actually used the technique in performance. I used it extensively on the most recent Kenari recital at the University of Michigan!


At this point, I practice with double lip embouchure about half of the time (especially when working on technical passages). Definitely, don’t do this at first. Just start with five or ten minutes at a time! Nothing should ever hurt. I hope this helps in some way! Message me with any questions!

Lost in the Fight

What an awful feeling it is to be legitimately afraid to go outside. The hate in the world is despicable. I don't know what to protest or what to push for that can change what lies in the depths of the hearts of the perpetrators. It hurts, but I believe we have to continue to love those that hate us. We must keep our heads held high, and continue to reach our maximum potential even in the face of those that hope to hold us back. I take pride in being a black man and none of us deserve to be feared and mistreated because of that fact alone. Blackness is not a personality trait or a measurement of character. It's important that we all remember that. If you saw a person of color do something bad on the news once, that doesn't mean that it's in my blood or anyone else's to commit crimes. The separation of race, cultures, genders, and sexuality goes so deep into our nature that it is, indeed, work to stay aware of your privilege. Perhaps life isn't as comfortable as we want it to be. Our minds crave definition and generalization, but a human soul can't be defined. There is always more to understand. Our minds tell us not to care about people and things that don't directly change the course of our lives or have an impact on our personal success. Unless we are conscious of this, so many people are left behind, forgotten, and victimized. Moreso than a change of legislation, we all need a change of heart and perspective. How do we get there? I really don't know.

Keep on Keepin' On

Artistry is an elusive concept. Many artists strive to develop their work, at the least, to a point where it is artistically viable to an audience that can support them. Most young artists look for validation of their artistry from teachers, competition panels, and their peers. I believe that this search for validation and approval is good in some ways.  It ensures that you are aware of how your work is being received and how it fits in the pedagogical lineage of your particular art form. However, searching for validation in one's artistry can be detrimental if you allow it to take away from the integrity of your work. Many successful artists and creative minds (particularly the ones that I admire) will tell you that being comfortable with your true voice is of utmost importance to fostering a lasting, successful career.

The great concert pianist, Andre Watts, once told me that he stopped reading his reviews many years ago because he realized that it is not possible to please all of the critics. When I asked Mr. Watts about finding my own musical voice, he told me very plainly that one should not search for their musical voice at all. He said that one's musical voice already exists within, and we have to have the confidence and wherewithal to follow our intuition and let that voice shine through. This advice was not meant to discredit the value of making informed, thoughtful decisions in one's creativity, but to show what he believes should be a top priority for an artist. 

Following one's inner voice goes far beyond the fine arts as well. Many of you may be familiar with Steve Jobs' (creator of Apple and incredible innovator) opinion on dogma and creativity:

"Don't be trapped by dogma - which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of other's opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. "

These lofty concepts of self-confidence and creativity are much more easily said than implemented. It seems that nearly everyone has to pay dues by doing things that don't fit into their personal creative vision. It is almost as if you have to earn the right for your opinion to be considered viable by the world, and once you have passed this threshold, you are much more free to express what is in your heart.

Speaking as someone that has not yet passed this threshold in the classical music/classical saxophone community, it can be extremely difficult to hold on to an artistic vision before you've been "validated" with a teaching job or some incredible accomplishment. Before reaching this point as a musician, it seems that many are listening to judge or evaluate. After an audience has learned what you have accomplished, I often notice that people are then listening in a much more positive frame of mind to confirm to themselves what makes you worthy of whatever your standing is in your community. If nothing else, they can find something about the performance to say, "oh, this is why they're well-known and respected." There will, of course, always be the jealous ones, who are listening to find any possible way to bring someone down,  but in my experience so far, there are less of these people than some would believe.

Please do understand that these are just my thoughts as a 22-year-old striving musician, and I am very aware that my thoughts on these issues will change as time passes and I experience more of the world. With that said, I have written this post to challenge myself, other artists, and creative people in my position to stay the course and to value your intuition, passion, and ideas. There has never been, and never will be, another YOU on this earth. You might as well rejoice in the beauty of your individuality. 

 

A Few Thoughts

I am at a pivotal time in my life. I'm full of questions about what makes our lives meaningful. I'm full of ideas that I feel could drastically impact how the world works. As a recent college graduate, I imagine that these questions reside in the minds of many of my peers as well. In some ways, it's a great feeling to have beliefs and motivation to create change in the world. However, it can be overwhelming and intimidating at the very same time. I wonder if anyone else has the concerns that I do, and whether my interests and concerns will yield any lasting benefit for the community, country, or the world.

As a person, I struggle to understand why people treat one another as they do, and why we struggle to recognize our striking similarities as people and let our differences subside. The emotional and psychological spectrum that we all live with is so universal. We all feel nervous, proud, home-sick, heartache, joy...so why is it so hard for us to identify with others when they do? Of course, everyone's life experiences amalgamate in a different way, but by the time you are out of college, chances are that you've experienced a lot of different situations, victories and misfortunes. Have you ever embarrassed yourself? Yes, YOU. Have you ever been made fun of? Have you ever felt judged? Have you ever had financial shortcomings? Chances are that at least one of these things has happened to you and most everyone else you know. I can't understand why we don't all have such strong empathy for others when they are going through something that we know is traumatizing. I'm certainly not saying that I always do the right thing and make everyone feel great about their shortcomings and insecurities, because I am just as guilty as anyone else. However, I wonder why it's not a more inherent part of our nature to empathize and do unto others as we wished someone had done for us in our time of need. 

In music, I'm starting to ask myself questions about why I like certain things more than others. The more people that I meet and perspectives that I understand, the more I realize that it is absolutely impossible to please everyone, no matter how hard one tries. There seems to be a very fine line that we have to walk as musicians (and people in general) because we must have strong convictions and an approach to music-making that can be defended intellectually, but we also have to realize that others will have a totally different perspective on the same idea that can be defended just as well as yours. In my experience with music competitions, it's very difficult to judge performers because they may have a very different set of values than the judges. If a performer is very passionate about adhering to the composers' intent, it's nearly impossible for a judge to understand that unless they are watching a score or know the piece deeply. Otherwise, that judge is evaluating them based on their own interpretation of what a good performer or ensemble is. I always say to myself that I want to play in a way that anyone would be blown away by. I want the judges to feel the genuineness of my love for music and the saxophone, as well as respect my ability to play musically and professionally. However, in most cases, it's so hard for your competition performance to thoroughly wake up and blow away a judge that has been sitting there listening to performers for 4 hours already. I believe that performers have to be willing to accept and believe in what they value, and present to the world a genuine representation of their musical identity. However, the fact is, simply put, that there are always going to be people that disagree...and that's ok!

As a classical musician, I'm striving every day to provide an answer as to why performance is important and relevant to our society. I understand that all musicians probably think about this at some point during their career, but I often feel that most of us just push it to the back of our minds so that we can keep up with our busy daily schedules. We practice, analyze, teach, compete, network, and perform...but to what end? Many times we earn doctorates in performance and never give anywhere near as many performances as a musicians that's never even considered going to music school. Other times we learn so much, and our end goal is to be able to teach others to be able to teach others to be able to teach others to be able to teach others...I think you get the point. This face is daunting for me because my dream is to build a successful career as a performer, and THEN use that wealth of experience to teach my students the saxophone and the ins and outs of the music business. We can scoff at the music of our time all we want and talk about how the direction of music is sad and has lost some of its' sense of artistry, but in reality, this music is what people of our generation turn on when they want a little pick-me-up, or want to deal with a bad break up. They don't turn to Bach, Beethoven and Brahms...they turn to Taylor Swift, One Direction, Bruno Mars and so many others that are singing things that are easy to understand and that they can jam out to in hopes of escaping from reality for a few minutes. There's not much more that I want than for people that do not study classical music to find the raw enjoyment in it that I do when I listen. However, even more than this, I want my music to give the listener an experience that takes them away from reality or helps them cope with the ups and downs of life without having to go through 10 years of music school to decode the musical language.

These few paragraphs barely begin to scratch the surface of the ideas swirling around in my head these days. The list goes on and on, and spans issues from music to religion to global impact and beyond. I always wonder if other people are thinking about them daily like I am, and I have to hope that we are all thoughtful and curious people that are simply trying to navigate our own path through life. I hope that I can, one day, find peace in my answers to these questions so that I'll be more equipped to live the life that I truly want to live.

Who Do YOU Play For?

When I was in high school, I developed such vivid dreams of where music would take me in my life. I thought about playing in Carnegie Hall, traveling the world to play concertos with major orchestras, playing solo and chamber recitals in the world's most beautiful halls, and using music as my major contribution to society. I dreamed of being able to join my musical heroes like Andre Watts (my favorite video of his), Anthony McGill (Anthony's website), and Albrecht Mayer (his Berlin Phil page) as one of the world's most powerful and passionate performers. I never listened to anyone who said that I couldn't do it because I grew up with the mindset that I could do anything that I put my mind to. I loved the music of Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and so many other iconic composers of classical music. I never truly realized that, as a saxophonist, I wouldn't really ever be able to play the works of these master composers on a regular basis. I truly felt invincible, and I was so excited to continue down this path that I had laid out in my dreams. 

Over the years, these dreams have become more and more hazy as I learn more about the real world of classical music, classical saxophone, and the music business. I see that being "talented" doesn't get you performances around the world for sold out audiences. I see that I play an instrument that practically never plays the music of the composers that I truly love and believe in. I see that being a world-wide performer isn't really on the list of jobs that I can have. Currently, the options are: become a college professor or join a military band (after going thousands into debt from getting a doctorate because so many jobs require it...). For a guy like me, who isn't truly passionate about band, the options are narrowed to an even greater degree. However, through these dark, ever-present clouds, I can still see my dreams in the distance.

Unfortunately, many of my most passionate performances have been written off as immature, uninformed, or overdone. One of the most difficult aspects of classical music performance for me to internalize is that it's not "right" to use your intuition to transfer your emotions and feelings to the audience. Many teachers don't believe that we should let our fleeting feelings of the moment determine how we play on stage. It's very hard for me to believe this for myself because I've always used music as a means of expressing my true emotions in a way that words could never accurately convey. When I was a sophomore in college, I performed Bach's Flute Partita in A minor and was told by a colleague that the performance almost brought him to tears, but that he could easily give me a long list of reasons why it wasn't appropriate for the performance of baroque music. This troubled me so much at that time, and still feels a little counter-intuitive today. I believe that music should be a meaningful exchange of emotions, feelings, and characters above all else. My first musical memories come from hearing people sing in church. The feeling that fills your soul and softens your heart when you hear someone sing out of genuine praise or thanks is like none other. I want my performances to create this feeling in anyone who is listening. This feeling is the reason that I play music at all. If my performance moves someone to tears, I won't even remember if I missed a note or used vibrato on a note that I wasn't supposed to.

However, I think that so many musicians (especially music students) feel that their feelings shouldn't matter because their teacher is the one who should lay out their approach to performing a piece. It's so easy to lose one's self-confidence when you are told as a student that your ideas are wrong that and that in order to be a good student, you should do as you are told by your teacher. I know that constantly hearing feedback on my juries, recital hearings, recitals, and other performances can make me feel like I literally didn't do anything right but play the correct notes (and sometimes not even that). I understand that every performance is a learning experience, but I've never once gotten a comment back discussing if my performance was emotionally relevant. I've never been critiqued on whether my performance created a sense of timelessness in which the listener was properly prepared to experience the piece before even starting. In my experience, a performance can be made or broken by how you let the sound clear in the room after your last note, or whether a listener can tell that you are engaging with a piece on a personal level. I think that understanding how to successfully engage with an audience as a musician and performer should be viewed as even more important than whether your tone is spreading in the upper register, or if you didn't put a tenuto on the note that you were asked to in your last lesson.

It seems to me that the lack of emotional connection while performing classical music may be a primary reason that it is not as popular with contemporary audiences. This music doesn't use electronic sounds, or have a heavy beat that you can jam to, so audiences and listeners are able to understand that this music can still have the power to give you an emotional reaction when you listen to it! Just the other day, someone casually stated that the audience for my music probably consists of "other saxophonists and old people." I was initially slightly offended, until I realized that they were totally right. The saxophonists listen because they already love the instrument and the repertoire, and many older people just describe the music as "pretty and relaxing." In my dreams, I saw my audiences consisting of people of all ages and backgrounds. In my reality, this is not so. 

This leaves me with a few questions to ponder.  What do we have to do to make classical music relevant, or is it truly dying? I'm not talking about dressing it up with fancy spectacles that can appeal to our ever-shortening attention spans...I want to know if my dreams are worth while! What will bring a 35 year old male, for example, to a performance for the pure sake of personal enjoyment?

Maybe we don't have to change the music or add a gimmick...perhaps we have to overwhelm the world with the humanistic sincerity of an emotionally charged performance, instead of one that would simply get an A+ at a recital hearing at a conservatory. Perhaps we can get carried away every once in a while. Perfection does not mirror the human experience. Struggle, triumph, depression, joy, awkwardness, and kindness (allowing with countless others) are elements of real life that music can tap into. If we put our humanity before our pedagogical suggestions, maybe we can actually give an everyday listener something to truly enjoy and relate to.

I know that this isn't an easy thing to do for us trained classical musicians, because we feel that we have to gain and maintain the respect of our colleagues. To be honest, I don't even know if I have the courage to let go of all the rules and regulations of music that I have learned over the years. I have struggled so much in the past few years, because I don't feel that I can ever present an interpretation of a piece that would please other saxophonists and classical musicians, much less a panel of judges. When I play from my heart, I'm described as underdeveloped and indulgent. When I play with the "rules" in mind and fully base decisions based on logic and intellect, I'm described as a boring and safe player. So what do we do? I still don't know how to please everybody, but perhaps I am focused too much on pleasing other musicians than inspiring the general public by using the power of music to express emotion and spread love and joy. Maybe then I will be able to use my knowledge of music and technical abilities to create opportunities that reach beyond the boundaries that the classical music society has confined itself to. Perhaps then I can truly turn my dreams into reality. 

I know that these ideas are all easier said than done, but I truly believe that they would  be better done than just said. I'd love hear all of your thoughts on this issue, because I think it is an important one!

 

 

 

If You Can Sing It, You Can Play It...Really?

Sound in Motion is easily one of the most thorough and well thought out music books that I have ever read. In his book, David McGill (professor of bassoon at Northwestern University and former principal bassoonist in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra) aims to give musicians the tools to present expressive, passionate performances that are still deeply rooted in an intellectual engagement with the music. I have recently finished reading it and I'm very eager to go through it again to really soak in some if it's finer details. It is so easy to present biased opinions when writing about music, but, in my opinion, he does an admirable job of presenting information in a way that does not seem aggressive or closed-minded. I, myself, may be a bit biased, however, because I happen to agree with most of his points! 

Sound in Motion is unique because  the concepts that are heavily based on personal taste are all compiled into one section called "Controversy." This section includes issues such as tone, intonation (just vs. equal temperament, etc.), ornamentation, and, the issue that I've been pondering recently...vibrato. 

For me, vibrato has always been a bit of a setback to my ability to play expressively. I, and lots of other saxophonists, have the tendency to just turn it on and off as if using vibrato is synonymous with playing with passion. I will never forget receiving the recording of the first concerto I ever played with orchestra. I took it to my teacher, Taimur Sullivan, and couldn't wait for him to say something about how great it was (which was my first mistake). Instead, he seemed pleased, but pointed out to me that I seemed to be keeping the beat by turning my vibrato off on every beat, creating very staggered and unmusical lines. I have, since then, tried all sorts of different approaches to being conscious of what my vibrato is doing at all  times, but I still haven't found a product that I'm 100% proud of. David McGill's writing, however, has launched me on a search to truly develop my approach to using and teaching vibrato in an intelligent way. 

As a saxophonist, I was taught to use a jaw vibrato. It was just what I did, because that's what I was told. I did all the exercises to develop the speed and facility necessary to do it with various intensities. I knew that some players use "diaphragm" vibrato, but I didn't really like how that sounded for me, so I left it in the back of my mind for the most part. I always knew that other instrumentalists used other techniques to create vibrato, but I never really thought about it. 

Throughout Sound in Motion, McGill discusses many of the ways that music relates to speech and the human voice. In relation to vibrato, he talks about using the same technique that a classically trained singer would use when using correct technique. From taking a few vocal lessons with a graduate student Indiana University, I knew that vibrato was not something that you had to try to do while singing. My teacher explained it as something that came as a result of using correct technique, but at that point I just took his word for it and didn't look into it any further. 

With all of these ideas about vibrato floating around in my head, I have recently decided to find out exactly what was happening when singers create vibrato. I found this article by Karyn O'Connor that succinctly explains the anatomical process of correct vibrato (as well as incorrect vibrato). I would STRONGLY recommend checking it out, because she goes into great detail. 

O'Connor Vibrato Article

Working this into my playing is still very much a work in progress, however, I have already noticed a widening in my palette of vibrati. Additionally, I feel that having an awareness of the connection between playing an instrument as an extension of one's voice has drastically changed my approach to playing. Allowing the vibrato to be a relaxation of the throat muscles in conjunction with slight jaw movement literally gives me the same feeling as singing with classical technique (although I'm certainly no expert vocalist!). Saxophonists work constantly to increase our flexibility by doing exercising in voicing. I feel now that many of the same sensations that one feels while bending a pitch or a changing the color of a note on the saxophone are very similar to those feelings of doing so with the voice. I'm very excited about the possibilities that come with opening yet another new door for myself to gain more expressive potential!

Below, there's a very short little diddy that I recorded in one of my first days working on this concept. I honestly have no idea what piece or etude it's from, but I used to watch Taimur Sullivan's YouTube instructional videos (here's the video if you want to geek out) just so I could listen to his playing excerpts at the beginnings and ends of the videos...so it's one of those with a wrong note or two... :)

This, of course, is not the only way of playing or using vibrato. There are situations in which the vibrato needs different levels of intensity, varying widths, and potential to create differing colors. Even within the nine second clip above, I tried to alter the vibrato style according to the shape and intensity of the line. For me, having another tool to use will allow to make very conscious decisions about the sounds that are appropriate for each situation. My end goal is to eliminate the auto-pilot vibrato that tends to creep into my playing and is an issue for lots of instrumentalists!

I am sure that many others before me have understood this connection on a much deeper level than I, but this way of thinking is totally new to me. I also feel that being able to articulate what I'm doing will help me when teaching such a lofty concept that is somewhat ambiguous. For more insight into this idea, I would really recommend reading Professor McGill's book for yourself. I'm very excited to be able to work with him a bit in the fall at Northwestern. I hope to gather some more insight for myself as well! I'd love to talk with any of you that may have experience with this or that may have questions about anything in this post!

 

I Think I'm Gonna Like It Here :)

Interlochen Center for the Arts is a pretty magical place. It has such a fantastic (in the most literal sense of the word) history, in which many of the world's greatest musicians have taken part. Since it's inception in 1928, talented youth and adults have come here to develop a lifelong passion for the arts. After close to 90 years of service, this spirit of inspiration and passion still remains strong. I think this is why I love it here!

When I first came to Interlochen in 2011 as a high school camper, I had such an unadulterated love for music and the saxophone, and I was so excited to learn from the distinguished faculty. I really enjoyed being around other students that were extremely motivated, no matter where they were in their development. Most importantly, I enjoyed being around other students and faculty that shared the love and passion for the arts and were proud to admit and act upon it. However, at that point in my life,  I didn't really appreciate how lucky I was, since I had come from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, which was a community of similar values. I thought that this was just an average way of being for musicians and other musicians alike.

I had never viewed studying music as "work" before college because it was truly a central source of joy for me and I never had to think twice about it. People told me that I would get burned out from my work ethic when it came to practicing and focusing on my art form, but I never believed them because I wasn't ever TRYING to be intensely focused...it was just part of who I was.

However, once I got to college, I started to realize that the infectious community of artists at a place like Interlochen or UNCSA is not something to be taken for granted. Some grew tired of practicing, didn't like to go to performances, and some didn't really care to learn about the music they were playing at all...it was just a matter of getting through the next lesson, jury, masterclass, or audition. Whether these feelings where true, or just I way of seeming "chill," this way of feeling really started to get to me. I couldn't understand why some were so proud to be preparing for their lesson the night before, or why I would go to recitals at which the only attendees were other members of their private studio (if they were lucky...) and their private teacher. Without the environment I was used to, I began to feel very lonely as I began to feel like I was in the minority in my perspective of studying my craft. 

I, of course, realize that everyone is entitled to do as they please, and that others actions should not really effect me to the point that I would change anything about myself. However, I think that we can also all understand the feelings of loneliness and wanting to be at home in a particular community. Unfortunately, I subconsciously succumbed to these feelings and my natural passion and excitement began to slowly diminish over my four years of college. I, honestly, didn't even recognize this in myself, until my junior and senior years. I, too, had begun to dread music history, find any reason to get out of going to a performance, and cram for my lessons a day or two before I had to perform. I was "just too busy" or "just really tired," but, in hindsight, I feel that the true reason is that I had lost some of that genuine passion to learn for enjoyment and too better myself for my own happiness. Instead, I was doing it to get an acceptable grade, and to gain the approval of my teachers and peers. By then, I felt like it was too late to just change back to the most natural form of my personality, because I felt like people already knew me and I didn't want to just be different all of a sudden, because I wasn't sure how people would react to the quick shift. Looking back, I wish I would have just gone for it, but again, we all understand that such decisions are much easier said than done.

This "funk" has actually lasted for years, and has developed to be a pretty complex issue, in my opinion. However, I can tangibly recognize that this bind is beginning to slowly unravel in just two weeks of being back at Interlochen! Passion and excitement are in the air, and the best of the best are here to share their knowledge and experiences. In these past two weeks, I have been able to sit in at least 6 hours of masterclasses by the PRISM quartet, see them perform, watch an extremely memorable performance by members of the Interlochen Cello Institute faculty, and watch young, talented saxophonists perform on their institute recital. These musicians have performed all over the world, and experiencing the fruits of their expertise is so exciting! I am  now recommitted to allowing the music into my heart for pure enjoyment as it was before, as opposed to listening only for critique and judgement. There is certainly a time for both ways of listening, but, for now, I will be a kid in a candy store and let myself get excited for all of those special moments that are created in fine music performances.

Meeting so many new people is an awesome way for me to redefine myself with fresh eyes as the genuine music and art lover that I am, and to let music surround me at all times. For me, it's not work or a chore to think about music and I know that the only way I'll be burned out is if I STOP following my heart and doing what is natural to me. As I enter my master's degree studies at Northwestern, I am committed to staying true to my artistic identity so that I can truly live up to the potential that I know is within me! In fact, I hope to share these experiences with others so that they, too, can know that it is always better to do follow your instincts, talents, and dreams than to acquiesce to what may perceived as "normal." 

All of this is just too say how thankful I am for this summer here at Interlochen, for giving me some time away from the professional world of academia, and giving me a community of artists that love what they do. It's truly refreshing for me and I certainly won't take it for granted this time! 

Please share this post if you know someone who could use the message! 

 

 

A Prayer for Charleston

I have to say, firstly, that this post has nothing to do with music or the saxophone, and if you would prefer not to read into any social-political views or perspectives, this is not really the post for you.

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The shootings at Emanuel A.M.E. church are frightening, senseless, and hateful to say the least. Again and again, people argue that America is a "post-racial" society, but it's simply not true. There are far to many examples to prove that our society has not fully moved on. From the case of Trayvon Martin, and other controversial cases within the last few years, to this horrific shooting that is undeniably atrocious, it's just too much for me to take in sometimes.

There is no controversy in what has happened in Charleston, SC. There is no argument that this was anything but an act of hate. Hatred of an entire people. The suspect has been reported to have said that his motive was "to kill black people." As an African-American, this hurts, plain a simple. I ALWAYS try to look at these hate crimes with unbiased eye. I don't want to jump to conclusions or assume that every non-black person has it out for us. I truly want to believe that we are all intrinsically good. I know it is an unattainable goal to be without bias, but with this man, I don't have any thing to grasp onto at all to keep my hope that he had an ounce of humanity is in his heart. It's hard to accept the notion that any drugs he could've been taking would've been the difference between following through with this hateful act or remaining peaceful, and I, personally, don't accept that argument at this point.

As a classical musician, the fact of the matter is that I don't spend a lot of time with people that look like me. There is, of course, nothing wrong with that fact alone, but I have to say that it becomes nearly impossible for me to share these sorts of thoughts and feelings with my peers because many just can't relate. However, issues such as this shooting in Charleston just can't be brushed under the rug. Quite frankly, I think that the nation should be very sad. I don't know if I've been this sad in a long time. Just to think that someone could think this way, much less act on it, is beyond me.

This event is hitting even closer to home for me because my great-great grandfather, Rev. Lewis Ruffin Nichols, was the pastor of this church in the late 19th century. My grandfather, Rev. Ruffin Nichols Noisette, was named after him, and I, Steven Nichols Banks, continue to carry that name. My grandfather is, and always will be the greatest influence on my life. He was the kindest, most thoughtful man that I could ever imagine, and he was the one that I always looked to as a role model, whether he ever knew that or not. Just to think that some of his friends and their relatives may have been involved brings me to tears in writing this. 

I ask God that he would heal our hearts and minds, and that these deep-seated examples of hatred would be removed from our society. We will never understand these situations and how they come about, but I certainly think that we need You now and always. Be with the families of the lost and all of those effected by these horrible acts. Amen.

 

A Classical Saxophonist's Perspective on Legere Reeds

I'm very excited to have joined the amazing musicians at Legere. Legere makes high quality synthetic reeds that are played by musicians in ensembles such as the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and more. It's an extremely liberating feeling to be able to have reeds that are truly reliable and will help you create the musical moments that you need, EVERY time.

This is going to be very nerdy, detailed post on some of my experiences with Legere reeds, but I hope that saxophonist's will find it somewhat helpful when considering these reeds!

All single reed players know the frustrations of inconsistent reeds, the break in process, paying for reeds every month or so just to find that the entire box you bought is not really even usable. For me these things are deeply frustrating and often take away from my time that I should be practicing musical ideas and refining my interpretation of whatever piece I may be playing.

My first experience with Legere was on baritone saxophone with the Kenari Quartet. As all saxophonists know, the bigger saxophones like tenor and bari are so temperamental when it comes to reeds. The reeds are larger and have a much higher potential of warping and seemingly changing strength during a practice session, rehearsal, or even a performance. I had several performances with my quartet, where I felt that I totally held up the group because my reed "died" during the performance. For me, this is such a terrible feeling because it has nothing to do with my preparedness or how much we had rehearsed. As a result of all of these frustrations, I decided to try Legere reeds! I have played on several different Legere's since then, but the best by FAR is the new line of Signature Series reeds. I have tried several and found the ones that work best for me and have had much success on them since then. Kenari has had success at numerous chamber music competitions and played on some of US's most notable stages. I, of course, don't attribute these success to the reeds, but I think that this proves that these reeds are viable options when performing at places such as the Kennedy Center, Fischoff Competition, and beyond!

It took me much longer to switch to Legere reeds on the smaller instruments like the soprano and alto saxophones. I honestly never thought that I would play on a synthetic reed in a recital setting or at an audition on the smaller instruments, because the sound is much more personal and needs to be very flexible for changes in color, articulation, and volume. However, I can now say that I advanced to the semifinals at my first military band on audition playing on a Legere reed! I received comments from the panel saying that they particularly enjoyed my sound, and none of them had any idea that I was using a synthetic reed. 

When looking for a Legere reed, my biggest recommendation is to try at least 2-4 reeds of strengths 3, 3.25, and 3.5. In my search, I tried to do a blind testing and eventually found the 2-3 the work best for me that I could use in rehearsals, performances, and while practicing. I personally like the 3.25 and 3.5 reeds on my Selmer Concept mouthpiece, but, like cane reeds, everyone will need something that suits their particular setup. When trying these reeds, I would just make sure not to settle for one that just works, because I believe that you can find one that will create a great sound, without having the stereotypical sound that one might associate with a synthetic reed!

If you have any questions or comments about Legere or anything in this post, just let me know by commenting on this post, or sending me an email through the comment page and I'll do my best to find an answer for you!

My current preferred setup:

Soprano Saxophone: Selmer S-80 C* or Selmer Concept, Legere Signature Series 3.5, Selmer Series III Saxophone, Ishimori (Woodstone) Gold-plated Ligature.

Alto Saxophone: Selmer Concept Mpc, Legere Signature Series 3.25 or 3.5, Selmer Series II Saxophone, Ishimori (Woodstone) Gold-plated Ligature.

Baritone Saxophone: Selmer S-90 170 Mpc, Legere Signature Series 3.25, Yamaha YBS-62 Saxophone, Ishimori (Woodstone) Brushed Gold-plated Ligature.

Here are a couple of sound samples on the Legere reeds!

Glazunov Concerto Opening Statement

 

Brahms Clarinet Sonata Excerpt