Sleepless is Sax-attle

Sometimes making it to the practice room is the hardest part.

Today the struggle was real. After working until almost midnight and attending an 8AM class on approximately 5 hours of sleep, my choices were drink lots of coffee or pass out. Classes ran well into the afternoon, which was right when all that caffeine came crashing down. Really, all I did was delay the pass-out until right before practicing.


But I still made myself do it.


The trick is I just tell my brain "all I will do is walk into the practice room, if I really don't feel like practicing then I won't." And 100% of the time I feel up to it once I'm there.


The short version:


20 minutes on scales (tertian series and neighbor tones)

10 minutes playing transcription

45 minutes on repertoire

10 minutes transcribing/licks

Today I began with the tertian series. The tertian series exercise I use is, diatonically, I move from the bottom of my horn to same note in thirds and back down again. Then, I move up a scale degree and repeat. For example, in F major, I would start on my low Bflat-D-F-A-C-E-G-Bflat-, and back down again. Then I move up to C-E-G-Bflat-D-F-A-C and back down again, moving through all the scale degrees of all keys.

The tertian series is an exercise in many things. Moving across a large range in a single breath (virtually bottom to top of my horn) requires a very precise embouchure and control of minute facial muscles to preserve my best tone the entire time. It is also a brain/ear exercise greater than the challenge of step-wise scales. With easier scales (such as C major), I really focus on hearing the sound of how one triad leads into another, the movement of major to minor in the span of a second.


Below is a short video of me playing this exercise. Unfortunately, the audio quality is not great but it serves as an adequate demonstration.



After the tertian series, I pulled up my “Cheesecake” transcription and played through several passages. Using the software "Transcribe", I was able to play along with Dexter Gordon. The goal here was to imitate Gordon exactly, down to the most minute inflections. Focused imitation helps me immensely to sound stylistically authentic, and it helps train my ear so that I can produce the tone I want in my mind eventually rather than relying on these frequent reminders, if you will.


First and foremost I concentrated on his tone and exact rhythmic timing, as well as articulation which I view as closely related to rhythm. Subtleties such as dynamics, bends, scoops, and vibrato came next. I only focused on a small passage, which took about 10 minutes to nail.


I returned to “Jordu” (a swing tune I mentioned yesterday by Duke Jordan). However, today I delved much deeper into this tune. I played it for a solid half hour at varying tempos. At first, I played pretty much free of goals, simply to solo as if in performance, mixing all of my skills together. This is a form of checking on my progress and making sure I actually put the little things I practice in isolation  to good use.


After playing the head about 5 times and soloing over about 20 choruses, I grew tired of the tune and felt I was making little progress, so I took a break and switched to neighbor tones.

My neighbor tone exercise is a great way to access chord tones. Put simply, it is a 4 note pattern repeated on every 1-3-5. Using G major as an example, the pattern starting on G would be to play G-A-F#-G, then B-C-A#-B then D-E-C#-D. In other words, take a chord tone, play it, then move up a diatonic step, then move to a half-step below the chord tone, then finish on the chord tone.


Every key starts on the lowest chord tone of the horn, moving up all the way to the top and all the way down again. Then switch keys in the circle of fifths.


I played this exercise in swung 8ths, although for a long time I played it in straight 8ths and still do occasionally.

Then I put on a recording of "Jordu" by Clifford Brown/Harold Land.

I imitated their approach to the head to really lock in deeper to the intricacies of their swing and tone. Then I copped three licks from Clifford Brown's solo and practiced two of them in all the keys (moving according to the circle of fifths to become ever-more familiar with V-I's).


Listening closely to Brown's solo, I noticed that his individual licks were good but not necessarily amazing. What struck me was his mastery of intrigue; some people call it storytelling. His highs and lows, short and long rhythms, louds and softs. I jumped back into improvisation using these metrics as guidelines instead of purely harmony. My percentage of "right notes" actually increased, and I was able to get away with more "wrong notes" because of my improved expressiveness.

I closed out the session with a final chorus of improv. Finally a good one.


The struggle continues tomorrow, with another video. Stay tuned for my first interview Monday with an incredible jazz pianist. Happy practicing!


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