which? I play a Selmer Super Action Alto Sax serial number 30226 with Vandoren V16 Reeds strength 4 and a Vandoren 35 mouthpiece. My soprano is a Yanigisawa s880 with a Vandoren s35 mouthpiece and Vandoren V16 4 reeds. My clarinet is a LeBlanc with a Vandoren mouthpiece. I use new Vandoren ligatures on all the instruments. I sometimes use a Cigar Cutter Alto as a back-up.

when? I began playing Clarinet at the age of ten and then moved on to alto sax two years later. My first records that got me into Sax were BB King, James Cotton and Sun Ra thanks to the good ol kiwi garage sale. While living in New Plymouth most of the local music was Dixieland or Brass Band fare so I began playing a lot of soprano to replace the Clarinet parts. The track which made me first fall for the sax was this one with Johnny Hodges playing “Passion Flower” :


why? I liked the fact that the Sax was in the same range as my voice. I liked that I could play so quietly with string players and still unamplified with loud blues bands. I also liked the scent of of my alto sax from the moment we met.

who? I’m often asked which Saxophone players I liked. Most of the instrumentalists I admired were not Sax players but if I had to give an answer I would say Johnny Hodges, Art Pepper, Warne Marsh, Stan Getz, and all the other players who didn’t simply play with their fingers. Once you have realised that so many of the lines coming from us sax players are as a result of what lies well beneath the fingers it becomes unbearable to listen to pattern-based players.

how? “The saxophone player provides a flow of air at a pressure above that of the atmosphere (technically, a few kPa or a few percent of an atmosphere: applied to a water manometer, this pressure would support about a 30 cm height difference). This is the source of power input to the instrument, but it is a source of continuous rather than vibratory power. In a useful analogy with electricity, it is like DC electrical power. Sound is produced by an oscillating motion or air flow (like AC electricity). In the saxophone, the reed acts like an oscillating valve (technically, a control oscillator). The reed, in cooperation with the resonances in the air in the instrument, produces an oscillating component of both flow and pressure. Once the air in the saxophone is vibrating, some of the energy is radiated as sound out of the bell and any open holes. A much greater amount of energy is lost as a sort of friction (viscous loss) with the wall. In a sustained note, this energy is replaced by energy put in by the player. The column of air in the saxophone vibrates much more easily at some frequencies than at others (i.e. it resonates at certain frequencies). These resonances largely determine the playing frequency and thus the pitch, and the player in effect chooses the desired resonances by suitable combinations of keys.” Source

Teaching 2011

As I have been engaged in more teaching this year I wanted to write some more about my teaching concepts relating to the saxophone, improvisation, and jazz.
I mentioned in one of the last posts some of the areas I would be working on in Greece this summer and I think it would be good for me to expand a little on those.

First, allow me to back up a little to the 1995 when I first began to study with Frank Gratkowski at the Cologne Musikhochschule. This point is important for the following reasons. When I met Frank I had already reached a decent technical level on the saxophone. I was playing tunes in all keys, circular breathing for long periods, and could play plenty of difficult classical etudes. I had transcribed all of “Motion” and was sailing along Konitz-esque. What happened when I met Frank, was the realization that all of this meant nothing unless it was transposed into my own music via the saxophone. “That’s great”, he would say, “but where are you in the music?”. Through several years of listening to worlds of musics my ears were opened to sounds beyond jazz and I was able to start forming my own approach to music.

Frank also showed me a quarter tone fingering. From that moment in 1995 something sparked inside and I started a long journey of developing a microtonal saxophone system and, most importantly, turning it into a functioning music. This is the catch: now I have a lot of players coming to me and asking me about microtones, the fingerings, how to practice them etc. but I can clearly see that unless they have an idea of the music they want to make they are useless. It’s like giving a Ferrari to someone who can’t drive. The point is and the main lesson I took from him is that the technique is a means to an end and the end is the music making. Sounds simple but I find it needs to be made clear to young players who are more attracted by the sign rather than the thing signified.

All of this has another level as well. It’s not enough now to come out of your cosy little music school nailing Giant steps at 300 BPM and playing Berio Sequences backwards, dating the hottest korean violinist, und und und. There are plenty of players who can do that and are still effectively nowhere. The technique of the instrument has to be perfected to each individuals potential-no doubt-but if young players want to get anywhere they have to work on their own language and develop a personal style. This is one of the main thrusts of my teaching- helping to find this personal touch which is what really counts in the end.

With regards of the techniques of the instrument I reduce my formula to 1) maximum speed, proficiency, and fluency with the minimum of effort, and 2) no blockages between intention and execution. In fact, intention and execution form the pillars of what I teach and they take many years to understand and refine. I am deeply interested in the breath and it’s relationship to our bodies and our state of mind with and without the instrument. For this reason I introduce some elements from the Eastern martial and contemplative arts to aid the player.

By focusing in on the inner intentions of the player I have found that one can automatically squeeze out those nasty jazz pimples like pattern based playing, cliches, licks, sonic testosterone, and all the other things we have heard over and over.

For the bread and butter sax technique I like to work on selected works from the Baroque and classical literature and of course 20th century music like Scelsi, Stockhausen, Ligeti, Messiaen. It is essential that young players are not only familiar with the techniques employed in the solo literature of the last centuries but also the compositional devices behind them. Understanding the techniques behind the grafting of these musics is a big help and an important part of what Frank also taught was using the techniques of 20th century music in improvisation.

Technique is not so much speed in my definition but more control. Control of tone, coloring of individual notes, infusing each note with a vocal quality, working with the irregularities of the copper cylindrical bore we pass our breath through and turning them into musical elements- these are the traits of a good technique in my book. If I may toot my own horn for a bit, here is a short excerpt on Soprano Sax I played which is for me, technically satisfying because it fits the above definitions applied to a classical piece. It’s the vocal quality I’m most after, even if I am playing music that is not what I usually am submerged in:

Tele Piece

Music has been trivialized and commercialized in our recent history and young players are forced into promoting themselves and basically dealing with the whole “business” side of the field. Every Tom and Harry has his flash website and 12 page colored digipack CD to offer. All this is well and good but we have to spend the majority of our time and efforts on the music itself- we can never afford to lose this focus. This relates to the “intention” I mentioned above and this must remain as pure as it first was when we heard that first beautiful tone somewhere and something inside was set alight.

Improvisation and composition are closely related and so a basic grounding in counterpoint, and construction of form is essential. I have been very lucky to work intensively with the artist Rebecca Horn who taught me a lot with regards to proportion and form in her larger installation works and paintings. An inter-disciplinary approach to form is vital in helping to understand proportion and balance in music.

We are not all composers, some of us are simply players and in the field of interpretation and here there is much to be explored. For my part I am involved in “jazz” and creative music in which the player is more often than not the creator . The great saxophone players in my tradition have always been great composers- both writing composers and “instant” composers. Composing today means being familiar with a long tradition and the best way to go about this is to study the works as we also learn them on our instruments. In our saxophone group work we have transcribed vocal music from Gesualdo as well as pieces by Stockhausen. By playing and analyzing them we can also understand the intentions of the composers and through osmosis their compositional processes and organization skills can be used to inspire and help our personal language on the instrument.

I am deeply interested in “opening” the saxophone sound and use the voice, overtones, the natural breath, and the mental focus of the player to attain it. By “opening” I mean removing obstacles that stand in the way between the player’s sound intention or inner voice and the physical sound that emanates from the bell. A compete mastery of the saxophone for me means a huge dynamic and sound control of the instrument- something I rarely hear anywhere. The instrument itself has this massive potential for ultimate pianissimos through to soul-rousing fortissimos and we should use them all. I am not so interested in mouthpieces, horn types, reeds, and related. Doublings like flute and clarinet are perhaps important for getting jobs later but I don’t teach them much, I am more focused on removing all the technical limitations on the saxophone than mixing up other embouchures into the blend.

From my beginnings in quarter tone fingerings for saxophone I have progressed to be interested in tuning according to the overtone row and all kinds of alternate tunings. There is a profound connection between intonation and timbre and the ears have to be trained alongside the fingers.  This is a massive area and it verily opens up the ears and minds of young players. Well-tempered western music has it’s place but the future lies in using the other models and combining them in new and meaningful ways. Again, I will always repeat: there has to be music made out of it. Whatever structures, etudes, or ideas I come with I will always try to lend it a form and turn it into a piece of music.

The group saxophone work I began in Greece 6 years ago has become an important part of my teaching. In these groups we are able to explore overtone tuning and all kinds of textures that are not possible in a solo setting. Also, each of the players can bring different ideas- it is like an open laboratory for saxophone, tuning, and much more. The groups have varied from 4 to 16. Anything is possible here.

After listening to Stockhausen or Berio or Schnitzelscheisshausen back in my studies with Frank, we would usually finish each listening session with a track by Hendrix, or an early blues recording. In other words- for all the wonderful complexity in our recent musical tradition we can never forget some of the roots. Above all, it has to stay true to ourselves. It’s a sacred art which is all the more vital in these troubled, speedy, and confused times.

2010 post-workshop:Digging around I found this piece from last year which I think I never posted. Some ramblings re sax meaning my life meaning everything from last year’s workshop in Greece.

Questions to a Ramblin’ Man.

I´ve achieved a good level of microtonal playing, I know all the fingerings and can hear the intervals better and better- but what now?
I am often asked by players that have achieved a good level of microtonal playing on the Saxophone : “What now?” Well, fundamentally nothing has changed in the creation of the music itself except that you have more tonal possibilities. This means that all the laws of dissonance and resolution, of attraction and gravity, of tension and release, are all the same. Giving yourself more choices or even taking them away changes nothing at all at the level of natural creation. It follows that the microtonal techniques developed serve to extend the musical vocabulary already learnt. If you are at a loss for what to play then you must go back and study some of these laws which govern composition and thus improvisation.

It seems really difficult to create anything really “new” anymore.
I think it´s important to finally leave behind us the idea that we are creating anything “new”. This is one of the major problems that hinders our creativity, the feeling that we should somehow be creating something “new” . It is especially prevalent in types of music where improvisation is in the foreground. The whole idea of creating something “new” with sounds is loaded with paradoxes. For starters, every single tone we play on our instruments is “new” and has never been played in such a way ever before, nor will it ever sound the same again. You get my drift. Freeing ourselves from the need to be “new” in our music will already in itself automatically open up a small world of possibilities. “New”? No thanks.

The word fractal as used in geometry refers to a figure where no matter how much we zoom in , the complexity of the original figure remains. In other words, the smaller parts resemble the whole ad infinitum. I have often wondered how this can be applied to music and began by simply “zooming in” to say a bar of music and analysing what details can be found. This bar can then be slowed down until certain patterns emerge that perhaps mirror perhaps the whole form. Within musical creation we are able to take great liberties, in this sense I can form my own patterns out of this single bar as I see them and give them accordingly a musical role; microtones are often are great help here.

There are certain countries where it is highly valued to say exactly what you mean and there are, if I may say, more subtle geographic regions where this is considered highly offensive. I wonder how this could be grafted into musical parameters? I can tell you what the modern visual entertainment version is, one that you can observe in any mainstream television series or film. There is not one single detail, not a single word spoken or object on the screen, that is not directly related to the plot and making it as understandable and idiot-proof as possible. Now, almost exactly the opposite is what I am interested in with music in which the  meaning is constantly hidden beneath layers, not burying the truth for the sake of it, not by any means, but making the journey enigmatic and suggestive.  When I say truth this could mean a whole range of ideas, from a melody to a numerical combination.  Microtones are an excellent tool for this. We can incase and hint at melodies without laying them out bare. Not everything needs to be given away or dumbed down to the lowest common denominator. A good example of the punch-in-the-face level of subtleness in jazz solos is the quote, the wink-getter par excellence. I´m not saying it´s a bad thing, as long as you are aware what you are doing.

I have noticed that despite all our best efforts, the Saxophone remains a wild beast when it comes to tuning. The classical method is to flatten out the broad intonation discrepancies by narrowing the sound. This is a dead end street for me. I believe we should work with the natural harmonic inconsistencies of the instrument and turn them into an advantage, ones that broaden our tone and tonal variants. We should work first and foremost to open our sounds, even if this does not serve to even out our intonation- if it has to be a trade off, I would take the open sound any day. Having said that, if the mouthpiece/reed/instrument set-up provides no unnatural obstacles to the air flow, there should not be any major intonational discrepancies. The types of music that require a stringent intonation are small indeed compared to the worlds of music which do not. Even when are playing with the mother of all detuned instruments, our dear pianos, I would rather listen to a full bodied sax sound with some intonation “problems” than it´s diametric opposite, the constipated pseudo-classical sound that comes painfully close to the tempered ivories but leaves us desperate for whiskey or murder after the gig just to rebalance.

In Pacman and other early arcade games there is a final stage called the kill screen when the program breaks down and it is impossible to predict what will happen next. Once all the levels have been completed the kill screen sets in and controlled chaos ensues. The computer itself ceases to think in the way it has been trained and basically lets go. This is a state of mind whilst playing I like to aspire to but it needs just as much preparation and time as it does to reach the last levels of the game. Basically our minds stop the incessant chatter involved with playing ( my lip hurts, that g was sharp, that girl in the front row is hot, this gig is underpaid) and the music takes over. Sounds simple, but beating the mind is much harder than you think- music is a noble path and an effective way to achieve this state in a peaceful, non-striving way.

One technique or path I like to teach is called “The Middle Way”. It can be expanded and taken as a base philosophy for many ideas and approaches but I start with the feet and move it to the Saxophone via the pelvic floor. (So glad I managed to pull this piece back to the pelvis.) We start by standing normally and then shift the point of balance on our feet to the furthest extremities. Circling from the front to the sides, the back, and back we experience just our far we can push the centre of gravity without falling over. We do this for a while until we gradually return to the centre, thus finding our true centre of gravity. This kind of circling around the true centre can also be practised with other parts of the body to find the optimal position. In music and with the saxophone I could for example experiment with extreme dynamics with a single note- this also helps me to find the note´s “centre” – by that I mean both in tone and in dynamics- each note having a dynamic level by which the note “sings out” best.

Flexibility is vital when we step out and play with others. Gathering a group of like-minded souls around us to make music with is essential but we will always be cast into situations where this is not the case and we simply have to fight through. The most common factor and obstacle when you go out into the abyss is playing with musicians who are not really listening- neither to you nor themselves. Take every situation as a challenge and a chance to improve one part of your playing. Jazz sessions are more often than not, the most unmusical situations out there so take them with a heavy drop of irony and use them to say improve your altissimo, for example play your entire solo above high D- who cares if it sounds like a dying seagull, some of the biggest leaps you will make in your playing will be in front of a crowd so take the plunge. Believe me, for years, even lifetimes to come, they will remember that sax player on that session who was really out there. If you feel that the rest of the band is not listening then stop listening to them and go as far out as you can- play a semitone or a quarter tone out, use as many false fingerings and special effects as possible, finish and begin your solos at unexpected points, play the theme of the song starting one beat late or early- you get my drift. All of this should serve to sharpen your concentration and possibly open some ears in the process. Another technique I like to employ is to completely switch off your harmonic thinking and perception and play only rhythmically, focusing in on what the drummer is playing. Play off and around his accents and consider yourself a primarily rhythmic instrument, heavy slap tongue can come in handy here.

Ear training is a perpetual activity so don´t cease to test yourself. Intervals are given to you daily in every possible combination so make the most of it. I like to visualize playing even when the sax is not in my hands, this internalizes the sounds and makes actual playing more rewarding. The same goes for composing as long as you can retain your ideas. Lost ideas disappear into the void, often never to reappear. Keep a notebook handy, possums.

Is there a difference for you when you play for a human audience or when you play to a field of sheep? Should there be? Do you sweat more or less for the sheep? Do the sheep or the humans give you more attention? In other words, should we really even bother whether someone is listening or not? Should there be a difference in the way we project our sounds? I say nope, Johanna, nope Johanna, till the morning comes.

Update April 2010:

Regarding my Masterclass in August in Greece I wanted to write a little more about the topics we will work on this year.

I do not run the class in a traditional way with me speaking and students listening, rather it is more of a laboratory and testing ground for ideas related to the saxophone but not exclusively (I expect some Violists this year too). Out of the last 4 years, different ensembles have formed and continued the work we began in the village. The last 2 years have seen us focus on:
-Expanding the repertoire for saxophone ensemble without notation
-Intensive Ear Training and Intonation work (microtonal and overtone related)
-Various Improvisation models for ensemble
-Continued exploration if extended techniques for saxophone (Here is our multiphonic piece from last year’s concert)

This year I will be sharing my current research which combines elements from the Taiji form with saxophone technique- a kind of Sax-Chi-Gong if you like, in which positions, breathing, and saxophone elements are combined into a specific form. (Yes, there is more to this than simple hip twisting)

We will continue to explore new ways of practising scales and intervals using “brain strechers” without notation. We will then apply these to our ensemble work.

Moving deeper into the Breath we will examine the connections between breath and tone, breath and mind – this quickly takes us to the topic of meditation which will will explore further especially how it can help us with our playing in general. Understanding the function of breath relating to saxophone and beyond can open many doors of perception.

Moving beyong stylistic boundries means developing a universal apparoch to music via the saxophone that makes styles in themselves redundant. Put simply, it doesn’t matter what kind of music you are playing, your sound and timbre is always the central and forging element and should always have the same intention and result. This is perhaps easier in theory than in practice but it is a crucial point. I often experience how difficult, even impossible it is, for many listeners ( and surprisingly “experts” and journalists” ) to take in the music without the framwork of styles – this requires and appreciation of timbre and a different kind of listening, a “deeper listning” if you like. As for us players, it is also important to develop a musicality that goes beyond styles. Styles are useful only up to a certain point. In a nut shell, I don’t give a xxxx if you play bebop or country, I just care how you sound and how close your saxophone sound is to the inner voice you hear.

We will intensively work on the connection between our voices and our playing, using singing exercises to strengthen this connection and understand how a greater control of our voices gives us a greater control over our saxophone sounds.

We will walk to various locations on the beautiful Pilion Mountain and conduct many of the classes outside.

I will invite some Greeks to teach us some of the many odd-meter dances so that our clumsy musician bodies are challenged and we can begin to groove with the dancing centaurs around us.

A Short Meditation on Reeds

This is short meditation on the nature of cane and bamboo which is what our reeds are made out of and therefore the source of our saxophone sounds. I don´t know if I have lost more liquid through my spit on the reeds or through my tears because or their irregularity; until of course that fateful epiphany when I was struck by the beauty in their inconsistency and the true nature of this plant. No, this is not a poetical laudation of my endorser, it is a statement of humble admiration for another mystery of nature which we have made sound from.
Already in ancient China, bamboo (and before I forget, what beauty there is in the name already, how wonderful it feels to pronounce bam-boo slowly and deliberately!) belonged to the “8 sound materials” (Bayin) from which instruments were constructed. Throughout East Asia the plant in its many varieties is widespread and it is revered for its lebenskraft– sprouts reach over 10 cms in only a few days and after one or two months the plant has risen to several meters. Whatever the Japanese made from this plant, the wish to share in its energy was always present.
It is the south of France where our dear saxophone canes are harvested. It takes them a year to grow to their full size and another year to gain in strength and body.
The harvest of the 2 year old canes is carried out when the moon is waning and the sap is still. They are then laid out under mighty Ra who infuses the cane with his golden rays, hence the color of the reeds we play. I can feel my mouth watering already.
All of this is carried out in pristine ecology-friendly conditions. My endorser even states that: “We should like to mention that electric vehicles are used to get around our production site in Bormes les Mimosas and that Mr Van Doren, the initiator of this procedure, drives a hybrid car.” Now I really am getting excited.

Notes from the workshop in greece, Summer 2006

When I taught this summer in Greece I prepared some noted on some of the main areas of teaching I was interested in. Each of the sections is very condensed and was designed so that I could take a few ideas and expand on them in each session.

When I read it now I see I speak a lot about being aware and internalizing the music. I would have to explain in more detail what I mean by this. Put simply, I want to automate only the absolute basics of playing and have everything else at my disposal to use and change as I please. When I listen around today, much of the playing seems “automated” and uninteresting to my ears. It’s the same feeling I have often when I hear people speak and all that comes out is clisches and distortions of what they have heard in the media- there’s nothing original in there.

The same way language is misused today and grossly over-simplified, music too has seemed to suffer. It is fine to learn by imitation but at a certain point we have to inject the sounds with our own signature- developing a personal sound and melodic language is part of this.

I am trying to unite breath, mind, fingers, ideas, and saxophone into a meaningful and practical system. These simple sections were a simple outline for the workshop which followed.



Overtones are what make up the sound of the Saxophone as we know it. Overtones make a sax sound different to say a clarinet and make one player sound different to another.
Working with overtones gives us more control over the instrument and a richer, deeper sound. It also sharpens our perception of sound in general. Thus, by practicing one thing, we are subconsciously training others.
There are several sources where you can find all the theory you need about overtones. Here I will give you the main exercises I have used. They are never “perfected” as such but rather continually worked on alongside your other material.

Warning! Once you open your ears to overtones there is no way back.

These exercises are the ones I have used over the years as warm-ups and tone developers. They are effective when practiced outside. They are performed legato.


If we think of our chest cavity as a cylinder, there are three ways we can increase its volume : extending the cylinder floor ( diaphragm) downwards,
-expanding the walls outwards, and-moving the top upwards.

These are called respectively:
-clavicular (breathing)

and “experienced” respectively with these sounds:
the in-breath requires the most attention
-the diaphragm can be strengthened by training
-we become aware of all the types of breathing by isolating them, using the seed sounds, observing, and relaxing
-we use long tones to strengthen our lungs
-remember, we are “relearning” breathing- one of the most natural processes
-we are using the saxophone to master our breath


When we practice anything to do with tone on the saxophone we leave the tongue out of the equation as it only gets in the way. We must always be aware where the tongue is in the mouth so that we use it only when we really need it.

-play staccato passages only using your diaphragm
-without using the tongue find the point where air becomes tone and back. -articulation is one aspect of saxophone playing that can easily become completely automated but be wary of this as we still must be able able to vary and mix things up, just like a martial artist adjusting to his opponent
-experiment with different strengths of tongue on the reed

b.a.c.h. (breathe and chase harmony)

Works such as the cello suites or the violin partitas are great studies for sax technique. the partitas can be transcribed directly for soprano sax. If you learn them this way they will stay with you longer and be more internalized. Many have already been transcribed for sax. How do we practice these?

-you can never play them enough. For dexterity, endurance, melodic invention, and harmony they are perfect. Because they were never written for sax they are all the more tricky and therefor all the more useful.
-use your own phrasing. ALWAYS ignore editorial phrasing as they are merely someone else’s interpretation
-be aware of the harmonies as you play. Break down the pieces into parts and dissect them to facilitate this
-improvise yourself in the style of any piece trying to use the same kind of modulation and melodic approach. then return and play the original.
-record yourself and put your intonation and phrasing on trial. Be harsh but stop short of the death penalty- rather go for parole
-listen to the great interpreters such as Casals. Listen-play-listen-play-L I p S l T a E y N !

unlocking the keys

It is vital that you can read, play, improvise, think, and hear in f-sharp as easily as you can in C. How do we achieve this?
-take simple tunes you know and transpose them to all keys. Always have the harmonies in your head as you go. Play them as slow as it takes.
-mastering all your scales and exercises in all 12 keys is only the beginning. Harmonic movement in f sharp has to become as natural to you as in any other key.
-find out for yourself the sonority of each key. Listen to how composers like Brahms or Mahler worked with this.
-be tough on yourself. If you are playing a blues alone at home for fun, do it in a flat. -start composing in unusual keys.

melodic improvisation

The goal of improvisation as I perceive it is the creations of new melodies. We don’t need to debate here what a melody is or isn’t, we simply need to hear it. Here are some possibilities for expanding your melodic faculties and refining your melodic inventiveness.

-improvise within a certain key or chord progression based on any particular interval. Use this interval as the root of your material, a kind of generating device, or the lowest common denominator in your melodic calculations.
-play music of a certain composer and then improvise. Use other styles- irish, asian,balkan,african, whatever, as a melodic base for improvisation.
-listen.play.listen.play. L I p S l T a E y N !
-Sing to yourself whenever you can
-play along with whatever you can- the radio, your dog, church bells, the wind, the wind over the earth.
-try to notate your favorite melodic fragments, for this always carry a notebook.
-learn as many songs/pieces on your instrument as possible

ear training ( tear raining )

-keep your ears open all the time! Pick out intervals in everyday life- sirens, peoples voices, background music.
-transcribe solos and melodies without your instrument
-sing as much as you can
-when listening to ensembles try to pick out the middle or inner voices. Follow the bass lines. Try and hear the pitch of the drums. Constantly test yourself.
-Remember, your hearing is the only sense which is active 24/7
-play “by ear” as much as you can, especially when learning a new song.
-play with other musicians in different settings. Put yourself in the deep end where you are forced to play without notes.


In the west we are raised in a 12 tone-per-octave musical system. When we listen to music from other parts of the world we hear that there are many other possibilities- worlds between the tones. It is possible on the sax to play 24 tones per octave with reasonable accuracy from low C to high F. this also gives us more tonal possibilities and sharpens our hearing.

-the following exercises I used to slowly develop my manual and aural ability at the same time. I often stop myself and try to sing what I am playing. This internalizes the music.
-microtonal fingerings use more keys on the sax meaning more resonance meaning a fuller sound.
-once we have achieved proficiency in the 24 tone system our melodic possibilities have been greatly increased. We can begin to use this in a playing situation.
-study the different kinds microtonality in ethnic music- blues, arabian, japanese, etc.


With special fingerings we can produce two or more notes at the same time. Some of these are easier than others and vary depending on the instrument and mouthpiece. they are also excellent embouchure trainers as they require a lot of flexibility and strength to be played well. -once you have mastered a few you can begin to find out your own combinations- keep a record of these.
-practice them at different volume levels
-try and use them in playing situations, only then have you internalized them

circular breathing

This is a useful tool enabling us to hold a note or play a phrase much longer than the duration of a single breath. The air is stored in the mouth and upper throat and released whilst taking in short “sniffs” of air though the nose.

-start with a straw and water then move on to the mouthpiece and neck. Creating resistance by covering the neck makes it easier.
-don’t worry at first about keeping the tone steady, simply concentrate on feeling where the air is and storing as much as possible in your throat and cheeks.
-later move to the sax and try holding notes in the middle range. Also try with a very soft reed. -after a few hours of breathing in, remember to let some air out.


-playing outside is a great way to develop a full sound, it’s the musical version of running on the beach for training. However, beware of playing for extended periods at the seaside, rust can set in to your sax.
-any place where you have to fight for a good sound is a good practice space.
-play up against a wall only sometimes in order to hear your direct sound.
-be aware of how your instrument projects in a larger space. when playing in a larger hall try playing to the last row with your pianissino.


-regularity is the key. Om a daily basis we chip away at the ol’ block
-when we practice it should often sound “bad” as we are working on the things we have not yet mastered
-have a glass of water close by, most musicians and public speakers are dehydrated
-use the early morning if you can
-begin each session with a quiet moment where you clearly visualize what you wish to achieve -be aware of your mind- when it starts to drift either close the session or whip it back to the present with an exercise by you for this purpose
-outside disturbances such as neighbours, noise, traffic, etc. should have no effect on your concentration
-never forget the having the time to practice and having an instrument to practice on are privileges – so make the most of it!
-many skills can be practiced without the instrument, you can run through fingerings and melodies anytime
-use your sax practice to better your breathing and posture in general
-practice or play with others whenever possible

ensemble playing

-learn to transpose at sight. Being able to play from a C part will be a useful tool.
-use ensemble playing as an ear-training device. Listen to and follow the other parts whilst you play.
-be constantly aware of tuning. Each note needs to be pitched differently depending on its harmonic function and the other players.
-NEVER sacrifice a good tone for volume. For this reason be careful of big bands.
-as a saxophonist you have a unique ability to blend with strings, woodwinds, and electronic instruments whilst still playing acoustically- explore this.
-if you can, listen to the sound of your ensemble from a distance. Listen to how different instruments project in different ways.


When playing the sax you should be grounded, feeling as if you had roots into the ground, irrespective if you sit or stand.
Ask yourself these questions:

where is my weight, on the front or back of my feet? Is it evenly distributed?
-am I hunched over with my shoulders rolled forward? Or am I straight around a central axis?
-where does the center of my body feel when I play?
-are my knees locked or slightly bent?
-am I flexible of stiff?
-are all my joints and limbs relaxed?
do I feel light? heavy?

This is all about feeling yourself in your body- sound strange? Get these things right at an early stage and avoid all the problems that go along with bad posture later.


-learn how to maintain and fix your sax yourself, it’s not that hard.
-almost all reeds can be played- the most important is the break.in period. To do this I:
-play about 3 minutes on the reed
-leave it a day
-play another 3 minutes
-seal it by rubbing it between thumb and forefinger
-leave it some days
-then either play it, or repeat the procedure

-choose a set up that gives you maximum flexibility in tone, volume, timbre, expression. Avoid extremes such as hard reeds or very open mouthpieces. YOU should make the sound, not your equipment.
-a good open sound should go hand in hand with clean intonation. This certainly does not mean that we have to narrow our throats thus sound in the classical sense
-having a vision of which musical situation you wish to focus on will help you form your sound and choose the right equipment
-few other instruments offer you so many possibilities with timbre


-everything you need to know about composition is right in front of your nose- scores, recordings, and musicians to play what you write
-improvisation and composition are closely related, like love and marriage, you can’t have one without the other.
-arranging can only really be learned by trial and error. Try writing for a group you know and have it played
study variation in all its forms. Hear how a small motive can be worked on to create a larger work
-the saxophone has NOT had a lot of great compositions written for it ( maybe 2), but by stealing from the oboe, clarinet, and flute literature we can learn a lot about “classical” composition as well as improving our technique.


-we could translate this as “the power of imagination”. with the sax, our sound, phrasing, ideas, and our playing with others can never exceed our “vorstellungskraft”.
-all of the “feelings” and “sensations” of playing the sax can be experienced without holding the instrument. thus, if we can broaden our “vorstellungskraft” so to can we broaden our faculties on the instrument.

have a clear image of what you want to achieve before you begin a practice session, OR simply play for playing’s sake- but don’t drift in the middle.
-recall positive musical memories- the situation, the timbre, the intensity- relive it as fully as possible
-make the thought of your playing the final one before sleep sets in at night
-when encountering difficult passages try to master them first in your head, then on the instrument
-keep a notebook handy for when ideas come up
-be aware of the wandering nature of our minds
-with training and “vorstellungskraft”, we can acquire relative pitch.


– rhythm, the first step is to learn how to spell it
-practice using a metronome at every possible chance. Be inventive in using it with your exercises and pieces.
-learn some kind of percussion instrument
-observe and feel the rhythms of your appitite, moods, friends, seasons, whatever you can think of. Remember, everything is in motion, everything in motion makes a sound,and everything that makes a sound makes a rhythm.
-whenever you feel comfortable with an exercise then vary the tempo and test yourself -what is the tempo of your walking? breathing? your heartbeat?
-try to estimate the passing of hours without looking at your cock. If close to a bell tower, feel the chimes just before they ring.You see? We can train anything.
-wake yourself 5 seconds before your alarm goes off


Here are some recordings of our classes in Pilion from 2008. All together there is around 7 hours of material, ranging from microtonal work to improvisation. The material is not edited, I simply pressed record whenever I could!
We focused on developing a working model for Saxophone ensemble without written music. Within the recordings you will hear a lot of my warm up and ear-training exercises.
It was all recorded onto my laptop.

Download part 1
Download part 2
Download part 3

Kaum Quartet Round the Fire…

During our rehearsal week for the Kaum Quartet in a lonely cottage in county Wicklow, Ireland , we found ourselves around the fireplace talking of all manner of things, music and saxophone related. Somehow Sean managed to leave one of the mics on and there are some funny moments in this discussion. Frank goes off on a long journey concerning classical and jazz saxophone, the true nature of improvisation and subjective reality in music. there are some bits where he really hits the nail on the head as far as classical versus jazz saxophone issues go. The whole deal is uncensored:


Here is an older text I wrote which could be of some interest. It is one I wrote when I was 19 or so, and heavily washed in esoterica and theosophy, I spare no punches when it comes to assessing the current state of humanity even though I was supposed to be writing about the Saxophone. It was one of my compulsory papers at the Music Academy and I still like the bit about playing the Sax with one´s feet, something I still try to do on occasion: Sources of Power.

Here is some more information I have collected on such subjects as Breathing, recording woodwinds, and more. They are all PDFs. I have credited the authors, please follow them up if you like what you read.
An Article on Breath
Flute Breathing
Introduction to Saxophone Acoustics
An Essay by Jon Hassell
Recording Woodwinds
History of Selmer Saxophones
Breathing for the Shakuhachi
Trumpet and Breathing Excercises by Markus Stockhausen

all photos © 2007 |–|å¥d€n (h1sh0/m