Welcome to the Educational Resources page.
We will be posting various educational material here on an ongoing basis. Some “snippets” of things to practice, links to videos with interesting information, and some more substantial guest posts from our friends and colleagues in the musical community. Here are a couple of links to get things started. First of all, a video of a legend in saxophone education Joe Allard. Here he is talking about his approach to sound production and breathing (for both saxophone and clarinet). Mr. Allard taught many of the saxophonists considered to be masters of the last 40+ years. This includes David Liebman, who I had the good fortune to study with at the Banff Centre, and in New York, in the early 1980s. Here is “Lieb” carrying on the Allard message in his inimitable style. And, one more link. This one from Steve Neff’s excellent website. The interview with David Dempsey that Steve’s article links to is very interesting. After reading it I realized that a lot of the stuff I do must have been implanted in my brain as a result of my time with Allard students like Lieb, and Steve Grossman. Hope you enjoy the material that is posted here. Phil Dwyer.
Back when I was 16 I went up to the Banff Centre for the summer jazz workshop. That was the first time I ever met Don Thompson, as well as Kenny Wheeler and Dave Holland. Over the years I have the chance to play with Dave on a couple of occasions and with Kenny fairly often. Don and I on the other hand, almost from the time we met, formed a pretty special bond that has been central to my life for the last 35 years or so.
My formal study with Don was minimal, my informal study intensive and ongoing. Don epitomizes the idea of complete devotion to learning and practicing the craft of music. Much has been made of his ability to play piano, bass and vibes with equally remarkable skill, and this is certainly not something to be undersold. For me though it is more about his complete immersion in the musical process and how, despite being at the top of the game for a long time, he is constantly looking to improve and refine his skills. That is pretty inspiring. Don stayed at my house for a week once and practiced Young And Foolish every day for about 2 or 3 hours. Unreal.
We have played together in pretty much every format from duos up to orchestra. Lots of amazing gigs with Kenny Wheeler over the years. Once particularly, for me, amazing night in Toronto with John Handy, Dave Holland, Terry Clarke and Jim Hall. Not sure what I was doing there but I’ll take it!! Here is a track from a recording that I did with Don’s quartet. It won a Juno when it came out…around 2005 I think.
Don and I used to teach at a cool summer camp in Victoria…he also taught at my PDAMCA camp several times. Anyway, he used to hand out this “things you really have to know” sheet and I always thought it was pretty cool. Take a look and, as always, take the time to really consider what he is saying and play through the examples.
I had the pleasure of spending some time with Lee Konitz at the Banff Centre in 1982. I was too young (16) to really appreciate the depth of his offerings, but enjoyed it immensely nonetheless. The first time that the saxophone master class met we went around the room with each student playing for a little bit, and after I had played Lee looked at me and said “Phew, that’s great….someone that plays sharper than I do”! Anyway, over the years I have occasionally reflected on one idea that Lee presented to us: the 10-step improvisation method. Even at my young age I recognized that this was something of great value and I’ve tried to keep it in mind as much as possible. I was pleased to see if posted on saxophonist Mel Martin’s website recently. Here it is. If you have an interest in becoming a more coherent improviser I think this is a great approach. And here is a link to a video that I absolutely love, Lee playing Melancholy Baby, with Bill Evans.
“Our goals can only be reached through a vehicle of a plan, in which we must fervently believe, and upon which we must vigorously act. There is no other route to success.” -Pablo Picasso
If you want to improve musically, you need a plan. There’s no way around it. Some musicians have a plan in their head that’s more or less intuitive. Some follow a teacher’s plan, while others use books that lead them through a step-by-step curriculum (a great example of the latter is, in my opinion, Jerry Bergonzi’s Inside Improvisation series). Planning comes in all shapes and sizes, but the more intentional you are about it, the more likely you are to be successful (whatever that means to you).
There a lot of ways that you can plan your progress, but in this post we’re going to look at one area in particular, which is all about establishing effective goals using something called S.M.A.R.T. objectives. I know, this probably already sounds a little corny, like something that belongs in a corporate board room rather than a jazz education blog. However, if you stick with me, I think you’ll find that this idea has some really solid value with the potential to help you make a lot of consistent and intelligent progress as a musician.
The acronym S.M.A.R.T. reminds you to set objectives that are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound (Banks and Presley). Let’s go through these ideas one-by-one.
Use clear language that communicates exactly what you want to accomplish. When you’re too vague, you end up with an objective that is both immediately attainable and completely unattainable at the same time.
Let’s say your objective is to “get better at playing Coltrane changes.” From the time that you complete your first practice session, you will have improved in this area, so in some ways, you already will have accomplished your objective! However, since it’s always possible to get better at playing Coltrane changes, in other ways, you’ll never accomplish it. This objective doesn’t give you clarity in the practice room; it just leads to more questions.
A better version would be to “master major 1-2-3-5 patterns through Coltrane Changes in all 12 keys at a metronome speed of 120 bpm.” That’s a mouthful, but it’s much easier to work with. You’ll know exactly what you’re trying to accomplish, and you’ll know exactly what it means to succeed or fail. This brings me to the next concept.
Part of the reason that the objective to simply “get better at playing Coltrane changes” doesn’t work as a S.M.A.R.T. objective is that there are no built-in criteria for determining success or failure. What does it actually mean to accomplish it? Every musician would give you a different answer. However, the improved version has clear parameters for success and failure, and is therefore much more helpful.
A good way to test the measurability of your objectives is to put them to what I call the “stranger test.” Imagine that you’re going to be responsible for assessing a complete stranger on his ability to perform the requirements of each objective that you set. The point here is that you have to do it without hearing him play prior to the evaluation day!
The idea is that your assessment of success or failure cannot require a comparison to some previous level of ability. The language of your objective should stand alone as a clear statement of achievement that leaves no room for interpretation.
Let’s put our sample objectives to the stranger test. How do they stand up? The first, to simply “get better at playing Coltrane changes,” turns out to be completely unmeasurable, partly because it only makes sense through the use of a comparison to some previous level of ability. However, the second requires no comparison, and is therefore clearly measurable. The stranger either will be able to perform the requirements of the objective or he won’t; it’s that simple.
Define your objectives in such a way that a real human being in the real world actually could achieve them. They should be realistically and thoroughly attainable without approximation and without any room for interpretation.
If your objective is to “play with perfect time,” then you need to adjust your wording, because it’s simply not possible for a human being to achieve. Aspiring to play with perfect time works as part of your musical blueprint, because at that stage, everything is hypothetical. However, when it comes to setting S.M.A.R.T. objectives, everything has to be practical.
Of course, it’s possible to develop such a strong sense of time that it feels perfect to you and anyone who plays with you. However, in that case, it’s far better to express your objective in wording that describes what that perfect-feeling sense of time actually means in practical terms. You could express this objective by saying that you aim to “stay in sync with a silent metronome for up to four bars at a time.” This is attainable, partly because it’s specific and measurable. Therefore, you can see how each of the steps in the S.M.A.R.T. objective formula helps you to stay on track with the others as well.
The next step is to make sure that your objectives aren’t only attainable in an objective sense, but realistic for you in a personal sense. Aspiring to stay in sync with a silent metronome for up to four bars at a time may be attainable, but it may not be realistic for you at this point in your development.
A more realistic goal for you might be to “stay in sync with a silent metronome for one bar at a time.” You always can increase the difficulty as you progress, but it’s important to make sure that each of your objectives is well-tailored to your personal strengths, weaknesses, and musical needs. There is no quicker way to mastery than taking your ego out of the equation and challenging yourself at a realistic level of intensity.
Of course, the degree to which a specific, measurable, attainable goal is also realistic for you is only a matter of your time frame. This brings me to the next and final step in the S.M.A.R.T. objective formula.
Like the carton of milk in your refrigerator, your goals must have an expiration date. If your objective is to “stay in sync with a silent metronome for up to four bars at a time,” then it might be totally unrealistic for you if your time frame is one or two weeks. However, if your time frame is twelve months, then it might be entirely realistic, and this is why having a time-bound goal is so vitally important. It helps you to determine what’s realistic for you and what’s not.
Resist the urge to make your time frames vague and general. Like your objectives themselves, your expiration dates should be specific so that you accurately can measure how close you are at all times to your proposed date of completion. This will help you to hold yourself accountable and stay on task.
Every time you step into the practice room and begin to work on something, ask yourself what goal you’re trying to reach, and then take the time to refine it using the S.M.A.R.T. objective formula. Even if this feels corny to you, it’s important to realize that you’re always goal-setting whether you’re intentional about it or not. You may do it intuitively, but I guarantee that you still do it. So why not make a point of doing it in a way that gives you the best chance of success?
All the best,
Banks, Renee, and Todd Presley. Work in Progress. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2014. Print.
Pursuant to the last post, and the “do as I do, not as I say” one here is a final thought. I used material by Sonny Rollins, Bud Powell, and Freddie Hubbard in those two posts. I also used the Oxford comma in my lists, but that is beside the point. What I would like to mention is, if it’s not obvious, is that you have to work with the material that really gets your blood pumping. I always had pretty wide ranging tastes in saxophone players: I enjoyed listening to everyone from Stan Getz to Albert Ayler to the guy from Supertramp (John Helliwell). There is probably more Getz in my playing than Ayler or Helliwell but I learned something from all of them.
Depending on what kind of music you like you will gravitate towards certain players and maybe use some of ideas in my last two posts to build up your vocabulary in the style of music you are most interested in. Everyone is a product of the people who came before them, I was listening to Shotgun by Jr. Walker yesterday and was struck for the first time by the fact that David Sanborn must have, at some point, internalized that tune; or, he listened to whoever Jr. Walker listened to. Some of this ties in with Pat MacGibbon’s posts on transcribing, but I was always too lazy to transcribe more than a few bars of stuff here and there (but don’t tell Pat that). Anyway, off to my gig right now, but I’ll be back.
ps – I always wondered if Steve Jobs transcribed the “one more thing” lick from Peter Falk?
A while back I posted on a particular Sonny Rollins phrase and how it related to my approach for developing technique, style, and vocabulary. A few further thoughts on that topic. If you want to be an improvisor you have to practice improvising. So, if you were to take a look at the Sonny thing discussed previously and wonder what you could do next here are a few ideas that involve taking one simple idea and, by exercising your creativity muscle, transform it in different ways so you get maximum value. For example you could do this: ; this ; or this.
Those are just examples off the top of my head, obviously there are a lot more possible variations. Along these same lines, here are a couple of other fragments that I use as warmups but which are also – in various forms – part of my vocabulary. The first one is a bit of a Freddie Hubbard tune called Happy Times. Here it is as it appears in the tune. And this is a variation that I use as an “all keys” warmup. Once again, as with the Sonny phrase, use your own imagination to see what kind of variations you can come up with and how you could apply them.
Finally, the opening phrase of a great Bud Powell tune called Wail. If you took a half-dozen phrases from Bud Powell tunes – Dance of the Infidels, Bouncin with Bud, Parisian Thoroughfare for example – and put them through the ‘theme and variations’ process you would be well on your way to developing a great bebop vocabulary.
Back when I was about 16 I used to go to Vancouver and hang out with some of the players who were making there mark on the professional scene there. Perry White, Patric Caird, Tom Keenlyside (who was more established) and Campbell Ryga were all very encouraging and they turned me on to a lot of music that I might never have found on my own. I remember hearing John Coltrane play But Not For Me at Pat Caird’s place and having my mind completely blown. Cam was listening to a wide variety of stuff, I heard Eddie Harris, David Sanborn, and Bunky Green for the first time through Campbell. Another recording that Cam played me was the first Michael Brecker/Claus Ogerman collaboration. One track in particular really stands out in my memory, so I was happy to see what appears to be a very accurate transcription show up on the intrawebs. Check it out here.
A lot of times when I’m teaching I find myself expounding on things which don’t necessarily reflect how I approach music or my general philosophy. An example would be teaching someone scale theory, or modes (although I rarely mention the latter unless it’s in the context of something to put on ice cream). That’s all well and good, but teaching someone the ‘bebop’ scale is somewhat akin to handing a medical student a scalpel and saying, “here, we use these…have at ‘er.” The resulting butchery in medicine and music is likely to be similar, albeit with varying degrees of danger to the patient. I think part of the reason for defaulting to this approach is that I find it really hard to quantify how I learned things. Over the next little while I am going to try and decode it a bit, if only for my own edification.
I was never much of a theory guy when I was learning – at least not in terms of how much time I spent thinking about theory relative to the amount of time I spent playing. However, one thing that I did find very helpful over the years was to extract short motifs from recordings and use them as the basis for my practice. I think the reason I was attracted to this method is that I would get the dual benefit of improving my technique and, by emulating the phrasing, articulation, etc., from the recording I would improve my time feel and other conceptual aspects of the improvisational process.
I was pondering this the other day while I was playing my horn and just kind of randomly started playing this particular phrase that I learned from a record called The Sound of Sonny (Sonny being Sonny Rollins). The tune was a kind of a silly tune called Toot Toot Tootsie but as usual Sonny made the most of it. Near the end, after the piano solo there is a solo break where Sonny modulates up 3 semitones with a repeated phrase going up chromatically, with the last phrase leading beautifully into the top of chorus. Here is it is.
I’m not even sure this is 100% accurate, but that’s not even the point exactly. It’s certainly close enough to get the benefits. If you took this 12 bars of music, played it along with the recording many times until you had it embedded in your brain, and then worked it through a bunch of different keys then you would really done something of value to your saxophone playing and overall musicianship. More on this later, but for now I have to get back to studying legal cases! Best, Phil Dwyer
After that excellent series by Pat MacGibbon on lifting solos, we thought it would be good to show some examples of well done transcriptions. Montreal saxophonist/composer and educator Remi Bolduc is legendary for his transcribing. You can find many of his ‘lifts’ here. Among them is a solo played by SeaWind co-founder Phil Dwyer on his 2004 recording Let Me Tell You About My Day. Here is “Afternoon in Paris“.
In two recent posts entitled “How to lift solos (and actually learn something), part 1” and “How to lift solos (and actually learn something), part 2”, I introduced the idea of different levels of thinking. Here’s a quick recap in case you haven’t read those articles yet.
Common things like melodic patterns, diminished and whole tone licks, arpeggios, triads, scales, and all other kinds of similar ideas benefit you most if you engage with them at the higher levels of thinking.
What do I mean by that? Well, you know the musician who knows every Charlie Parker solo, but only ever plays Charlie Parker licks? He does that because he’s only ever processed that material at the lower levels of thinking. Compare him with the musician who has taken the time to deconstruct those same licks on a conceptual level and is able to play in the style of Charlie Parker without actually reproducing any of his exact licks.
This idea echoes the philosophy of jazz trumpeter Clark Terry as quoted at the beginning of this article. It’s also inspired by an educational theory called “Bloom’s Taxonomy,” which is far too in-depth for one little blog post, and far more complex than what I’m presenting to you here. However, if the idea of different levels of thinking intrigues you, then I recommend that you check out Bloom’s theory further.
For our purposes, I’ve broken the learning process down into three basic levels of thinking:
2. Locate Your Light bulb
3. Adapt and Create
You need to go through all three levels of thinking if you want to learn an idea in a true and complete way. In fact, I would go so far as to say that anyone who learns anything truly and completely always goes through all three levels of thinking whether he’s intentional about it or not.
You can’t proceed to the higher levels until you’ve dealt with the lower levels, but it is possible to deal with the lower levels and then neglect to move on to the higher levels. That’s why it’s so important to understand how the process works. Sometimes you can progress through all three levels very quickly, so that you barely notice them, and other times it takes far longer. Regardless of how much time you spend on each stage, the process is always the same. It applies to learning things like jazz improvisation and composition, and it also applies to learning through-composed repertoire in a way that allows you to interpret it freely and masterfully.
In the previous installments of this article, we looked at the first two levels. Let’s take a look at the third level.
Adapt and Create
This level of thinking is about becoming so familiar with the conceptual information that you’ve extracted in the second level of thinking that you’re free to reach new creative heights by turning it into ideas of your own. You do this by adapting that lick, pattern, scale, idea, or song in as many different ways as possible while keeping the core conceptual content intact.
This is where, having done your dissection, you put everything back together and turn it into something new (to you)! It’s not enough just to deconstruct an idea and tear it down to its foundation; you have to rebuild it again and then find a way to make it work for you creatively. You can do this in a number of ways, but my most commonly used strategy looks like this: Think of a lick or idea that you’ve transcribed (or learned in some other way) and analyzed thoroughly. You know the notes, rhythms, and other basic details like the back of your hand, and you’re aware of the conceptual information on which it’s based. Now it’s time to get creative, and you can do that in the following ways:
Change the beginning, and keep the middle and ending the same.
Change the ending, but keep the beginning and middle the same.
Change the middle, but keep the beginning and ending the same.
Change the beginning and middle, but keep the ending the same.
Change the middle and ending, but keep the beginning the same.
Change the beginning and ending, but keep the information in the middle the same.
Change everything, but keep the overall conceptual framework the same.
Do all of the above over different harmonic forms.
Do all of the above over different rhythmic forms and time signatures.
Combine it with other concepts and ideas.
Does It Always Apply?
To be realistic, not everything that you practice needs to go through all three levels of thinking all the time. Some activities exist to build basic mechanical skills on your instrument. Brass and woodwind players do certain activities to build their range. Pianists do certain activities to encourage dexterity and independence in each hand and finger. Many of these exercises are little more than repetitive tasks that produce muscle memory and build a certain level of technical skill.
I suppose you could dig into why they’re effective at producing the desired result and then adapt them to come up with new exercises that accomplish the same purpose, or adapt them to suit whatever your particular needs are with maximum effectiveness. That might be highly worthwhile, but I doubt that you’ll go through this process with every activity of this kind that you practice.
However, there are certain things that you always should take through all three levels of thinking without fail. These are the items that target the creative aspects of your musicianship, like activities that deal with melodic conception, harmonic conception, and rhythmic conception.