I was lucky enough to recently take a trip to L.A. for a yearly summit/conference where all the Vandoren people meet for a few days to talk about mission statements, product feedback, educational opportunites/strategies, and a little plain music nerding. Bernard Van Doren couldn’t make it as I assume he was preoccupied with his wine-making duties (He also makes wine! I need to get my hands on a bottle now, as if I didn’t already have enough obsessions). The trip as a whole was wonderful, getting to meet and chat with a number of the top musicians and educators all across the country, dining and seeing the sights in Hollywood for the first time, and lastly, meeting up and taking a lesson with my idol, LA woodwind artist extraordinaire Dan Higgins. The things he told me could fill 10 books, so this post will be mostly just my impressions of the information he passed on.
I got in touch with Dan about a month ago and asked if he had any spare time to meet with me during my short stay. I wasn’t expecting anything, but if you know me, I wasn’t just going to pass up an opportunity in LA to meet Dan. Luckily enough, he had the day off! We planned to meet in the early afternoon on my last full day in town. When I pulled up to his home, he came out to greet me at the sidewalk as if we were old friends, and his handshake was almost painfully firm. I went inside and met his equally friendly and wonderful wife Trish, and then we got down to business. First horn on the chopping block- the flute.
Things being what they were, I couldn’t bring a few of my instruments with me for the trip, since I couldn’t carry them all on the plane with me and checking them has never ended well for me (apparently there’s a big hubbub over grenadilla wood right now too). Flute was one of the ones I didn’t bring, but Dan was happy to simply talk shop while he performed and demonstrated for me. If there’s one thing that I took from Dan’s advice and expertise throughout the day, it would be this………………Long tones.
Aww, did that take the wind out of your sails? I apologize, let me say it again… LONG TONES. For all of about 30 mins, I simply watched and listened to Dan playing Moyse long tone exercises on flute, and it was probably one of the most telling and informative things I’ve ever seen or heard. Dan mentioned one key theme many times during the day; that the work he does so often in the studio is VERY different than any live playing situation. In the studio, there isn’t a raving audience who claps when you hold out an altissimo note or play a really hip lick over complex changes. The ONLY aspect of your playing that really makes it onto the tape is your sound. Therefore, it’s his job to maintain the highest quality sound possible at all times, and long tones are the golden ticket. While he was playing Moyse, he talked about how when you listen to a great principal player of an orchestra play a passage, it’s more than just the right notes. There’s a certain color and quality to the sound that makes it something worth listening to (Dan calls this “hair” and I called it a “shimmer”). In one sentence, Dan has spent a great deal of his time trying to get that “hair” in his sound on all his instruments. In my opinion, he’s miles ahead of anyone else on the scene in this regard, just listen!
As we went on through piccolo (one of the few horns that I DID have with me! He thought that was funny), clarinet, and finally sax, he continued to show me how important the fundamentals really are to each instrument, and it was clear that I was guilty of being too egotistical with my playing. For years, I had thought that because I played long tones in the past that I was “done” with them. I had paid my dues! Now onto beer, babes, and big bucks! I couldn’t have been more wrong. It’s so easy to get pulled into playing that super fast lick, soloing over those crazy changes, or playing that super high note. Doing it long enough had made me forget that your sound flavors everything that comes out of your horn! You could be playing the worst lick on the planet, but if you sound like a million bucks when you play it, it turns to gold just like that.
When we wrapped things up, I sat down on the couch with Dan and he told me some stories of what things were like doing what he does while I waited for an Uber to come pick me up. When I finally walked out the door, he insisted on carrying my sax for me, loading it in the trunk, and sending me off with a brown bag full of cheese, crackers, grapes, chocolate, and protein bars for me to eat on the ride back. After digesting all that had happened (the advice AND the food) over the last few hours, I’m still not sure I comprehend the gravity of it all, or that I ever really will. In the meantime though, I need to dust off my Moyse!