I began, like most kids in the US, when I was 10 years old. You know, middle school band. But I was extremely lucky to hook up with a fantastic teacher, Larry Kirkman. He produced a whole gang of fine saxophonists through his charisma and dogged insistence on excellence. I learned the fundamentals of sound production, technique and musicianship from him and I will always feel immense gratitude to him for all he taught me (both in music and in life).
One of the “gems” he gave me was to appreciate the importance of sound. Sound is one of those words that takes on many different meanings. If you think only in terms of tone quality, you’re missing a large part of the subject. Through Kirkman, I learned to think in terms of tone quality, phrases and the emotional output of music as one thing, sound. They must all work together to make good music. I needed no explanation when I heard the masters talking about someone’s “sound” – I knew they meant their entire musical being.
Later, when I was studying with Eugene Rousseau at Indiana University this same concept held and was strengthened by Dr. Rousseau’s gifted insights into music. But, given what I think to be an excellent education, David Liebman’s book “Developing a Personal Saxophone Sound” finally gave me the information I needed to really find my “own” sound. I had already been using the overtone exercises for a long time but what helped me tremendously were the mouthpiece alone exercises (playing scales, arpeggios, etc. on only the mouthpiece). These studies exaggerate the techniques involved in playing the saxophone and really help you master them quickly. I highly recommend them along with lots of long tone and overtone exercises.
Because I have such a strong fundamental base to work from, I have achieved a high level of technique with the saxophone and can pretty much always play exactly what I’m hearing. I am comfortable playing in all registers between low Bb and double F and rarely miss phrases I attempt to play. Sorry to sound like I’m bragging here but what that really means to me is that I’m free to conceive the music any way I please and am not limited, to a large degree, by what I can play on my instrument.
I have to admit though that I made a large mistake that I hope you won’t. I came up learning jazz with the Aebersold play-a-longs and all the books. Unfortunately, I got caught up in the technique and analytical sides of the music. Despite repeatedly hearing my teachers and clinicians tell me (and most of my colleagues) to listen and transcribe, I stubbornly went down the wrong path. I was determined to be able to play as fast as Bird and Trane and mistakenly thought I was picking up the music at the same time. I was quite accomplished in the bebop tradition and got one of my dream gigs – the J.J. Johnson Quintet – in 1988. It was there, playing every night with J.J., Cedar Walton, Rufus Reid and Victor Lewis, that I learned what real music was. I am so thankful for that experience because it changed me into the musician I am today.