How To Master The Art Of Woodwind Doubling

Here’s a link to a short article that I did for Vandoren a few weeks back. 

I actually thought that it went pretty well! The info is very much “surface level” sort of stuff and not too much technical info as I was more interested in motivating younger players to expanding their instrumental horizons, not write a dissertation on the technical nuances between lip pressure and diaphragmatic pressure between clarinets of differing bore sizes!

Anyway, enjoy! Please let me know if you found something worth remembering in it and if you have anything you’d like to ask me feel free to send me a note anytime!

“How to be a Musician”, or alternatively titled, “An Afternoon with Dan Higgins”

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!

Improvisation and The Jazz Olympic Games

In my experiences, I’ve met a lot of musicians who are greatly intimidated by the idea of improvising. I think the blank page of nothing but chord symbols paired with the collective blank stare the rhythm section gives you on that first downbeat is enough to cause anyone to say “Nah, I’ll just stick to Bach thanks.” In reality, improvising should be the most natural thing for a musician to do on any instrument. After all, we spend so much time practicing and learning to sound good, isn’t about time that we put that aside for a moment and just played the horn? There’s just one problem- if right this second you suddenly developed a love of instrumental jazz music, I think you would be intimidated too, and have every reason to be feel that way.

I recently had a friend of mine who is a wonderful clarinet player tell me that she wanted to learn how to improvise, and if I had any materials I could give her. Being such a great player, I thought that she could handle the truth- she needed to do transcriptions, not read books and do exercises. I asked who, if anyone, she liked to listen to, and she said Eddie Daniels. Great! So I set off looking for a nice tune that I thought she would enjoy transcribing, and that’s when I ran into a hurdle. Eddie Daniels is probably the world’s premier virtuoso jazz clarinetist. He’s an AMAZINGLY good improvisor, and everything he plays is a lesson in great clarinet playing. The problem was, his playing is so great, that it’s almost too much to take in if you aren’t accustomed to doing transcriptions. As I searched and searched, the same was true for a LOT of jazz clarinetists besides Mr. Daniels- they were all great, far outside the ability of most people to handle as a first transcription. *Now don’t get me wrong here*… I’m not saying that Eddie Daniels isn’t beautiful and melodic in his playing, I’m just saying that if you’re going to sit down and transcribe every single note of a 3 minute Eddie Daniels solo, you’re going to be sitting for a long time. This doesn’t apply just to clarinetists of course, saxophone playing is the same way; the language has evolved. Just as Olympic athletes beat world record times each year training to be faster, stronger, and more efficient, musicians are doing the same. Transcribing such virtuosic solos for the first time and hoping to get anything out of it is akin running your first mile and hoping for a time under 5:00.

Anyway, after a bit of searching through some recordings I have, I settled on a wonderful solo by LA legend Terry Harrington. I fell in love with it at first hearing. It’s short, isn’t terribly technical, and EVERY SINGLE NOTE Terry plays has something to say. It didn’t take me too long to do it and I was really happy with the return I felt like I got for the rare bit of practicing I seem to be putting in these days. I’ll be putting up the written out PDF of it soon.

No matter what instrument you play, you should be on the lookout for examples of great playing like this as an excellent way to build up your chops for improvisation. Remember that technicality in solos is just a means to an expressive goal, and won’t necessarily teach you how to sing on your horn. The best way to learn is to take joy in your playing, be critical of yourself, and *puts on jazz cap* “just PLAY man.”

Here’s a video of me playing the solo!

Musical Acting – The Importance of Style

As my musical career has been gaining momentum lately, I’ve been noticing something about the various musicians that I work with. So far, I’ve been lucky enough to generally play with extremely talented people who are often academically trained, play for a living, etc. Besides that though, I’ve found that the difference between good players and great players is a concept that I’ve come to call musical acting.

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(Close, but no cigar- by the way, look up Martin Fröst if you don’t know who he is)

What I mean is a person’s ability to put on different “hats” when they’re playing different styles of music. I run into a lot of people who are great at playing rock, funk, jazz, latin, you name it… but you know what? They sound exactly the same no matter what they’re playing. Personally I think the college environment is really bad about this. Students are more or less asked to play music that demands very little of them besides what’s written on the page. There’s just no accountability for playing in a stylistically idiomatic way. When I was playing in the Jazz band at my college, all the players would just show up play the music. We had a great band, but I imagine that we all, myself included, just played the same way that we did in our lessons. When I was hired to play in the big band on a cruise ship, it was the first time I’d played in a professional jazz band. Once I got there, my entire philosophy on playing got flipped over on it’s head. I was a decent player fresh from graduation, but I was guilty of the same inability to “act” that I’m talking about. I got there, and even though I could play the notes in a “jazz style,” our musical director was extremely keen on having me emulate the sound of Johnny Hodges. When I say emulate, I mean EMULATE. The only difference he wanted between me and Johnny Hodges was about 75 years and white skin. Anyway, I ended up loving the way I sounded when I copied him and ever since then, I’ve been applying that same strategy to anytime I play a certain style of music.

Especially in the professional world, I can’t stress how important this is. For example, If you get hired to play Yakety-Sax and you sound even the slightest bit different from Boots Randolph, you’d better believe people will notice it. There are some versions of songs that are just so famous that everyone knows how they sound, and that’s how they expect to hear it. When you play these songs differently, you’re subconsciously shaking that fragile sense of trust a person has when they’re listening to something (or someone) that they’ve never heard before. By emulating other musicians, you also add a level of diversity to your playing that you just can’t get any other way. This level of versatility is in my opinion what makes a good player great. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve heard regarding being a professional musician was not to worry about how good YOU sound, but how good you’re making your BAND sound. As a musician, you’re often “filling a spot” in whatever setting you’re in. Drummers in rock bands don’t sound like drummers in jazz bands, so you shouldn’t make that mistake either.

I’ve had my fair share of people tell me, “But you’re destroying your personal style!” or “Music doesn’t have to live in the shadow of some recording.” Here’s the truth: if you’re worried about never gaining you’re own personal style by playing everyone else’s, firstly- you’re not the only one, and secondly you simply couldn’t be more wrong. Jazz musicians worry about this all the time once they start transcribing the solos of their favorite players. There’s always that one guy who thinks that if he listens to Charlie Parker all day then one day he’ll/she’ll wake up one day and be unable to sound like anyone else. In reality, you DO pick up nuances of what you listen to in your playing, but these are just grains of sand in the beach of your personal style. As for the second point, the simple answer would be that yes, some music does live in the shadow of older, more famous recordings or musicians. There’s nothing wrong with bringing some of your own ideas to the table, and I don’t want to discourage musicians from experimenting, but sometimes the standard left behind by others is so strong that we have to pay homage to it in some way. So in conclusion, be unique and do your thing, but always do your research as well and make your band sound better by fulfilling your role.