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Wynton Marsalis’s Twelve Rules of Practice

Wynton Marsalis has done a lot to promote classical and jazz music as a whole to younger generations. And the musician has had a fruitful career along the way. Marsalis is an educator first and foremost. The director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, one of the highlights of his career came in 1986 when he performed the national anthem at Super Bowl XX.

Performing under the Columbia, Sony and Blue Note labels, Marsalis has been a hit since the age of 8.

When most kids were out playing with friends, he was practicing and performing in the Fairview Baptist Church group. By the young age of 14, he would begin performing with the New Orleans Philharmonic.

His career flourished from here, and he would go on to release an educational series on jazz and classical music in 1995 on PBS. This is just the start of the education that Marsalis has divulged from his career.

If you ask some students, they may remember him coming to their school and passing out a print out of twelve rules of practice. These are rules that can make the difference between jamming out in your garage and hitting the big stage.

And I wanted to give you a little background on the maestro so that you can realize how important he is in jazz today.

close up sax

12 Rules of Practice by Wynton Marsalis

The twelve rules go something like this:

  1. Seek out private instruction.
  2. Set goals and chart your development.
  3. Write out a schedule for practicing.
  4. If you can’t concentrate when you’re practicing, put down your instrument and come back to it later.
  5. Practice the hard things more than the easy things.
  6. Practice slowly. Relax and play at a slow tempo, increasing the tempo every day slightly.
  7. Don’t show off. Play music.
  8. Play with expression. Invest yourself, participate and don’t be a cynic.
  9. Be optimistic. There’s nothing worse than pessimism coming from an instrument.
  10. Connect your music with other things. Everything is connected.
  11. Think for yourself. You may think of better ways to perform or do things. Methods are just a way of doing things.
  12. Never be too hard on yourself. Mistakes aren’t the end of the world.

And these aren’t his words word-for-word, but this is what I remember from memory. You want to give your everything and all while playing jazz and the saxophone, and your emotions will be heard through your instrument.

Musicians often forget that their instruments are an extension of themselves.

If you’re down or having a bad day, it will be reflected in your music.  The goal is to always try and be upbeat while putting every last ounce of emotion you can muster into your music. Practice slowly and know that you’re a work in progress that needs to start slow before he can master tempo and the true essence of classical music.

The music you play can be connected to everything you do in life. When practicing, try to find these connections and work on the things that are hard, not easy.

John Coltrane – The Man That Inspired Me

Who inspired me to be a saxophone player? This is a question I can answer with 100% certainty: John Coltrane. And for many of you, this is a man that needs no introduction. The pioneer of modes in jazz, “Trane” remains one of the world’s most significant saxophonists to ever walk the earth.

Giant Steps provides a smooth, upbeat sound that speaks to the soul, while Equinox is simply unforgettable in its entirety. Equinox is a personal favorite of mine, but everything Coltrane touched seemed to be magic.

A Chance at Any Age

What many people don’t realize is that Coltrane also provides hope. Yes, hope. The legend started his career as a sideman at 29 and didn’t launch his solo career until he was 33. All too often we forget that music can be broken into at any age – especially in the world of jazz.

But even more impressive is that he achieved legendary status despite dying at the young age of 40.

Coltrane’s legacy began as a passion. The North Carolina saxophonist received his first saxophone in 1943 at the age of 17. His first “professional” gig came in 1945, but he wouldn’t be playing the sax. Instead, he was playing the piano and guitar at a cocktail lounge.

In an attempt to avoid the draft, he joined the Navy where he would continue to express his musical talent and would meet William Massey, part of the Melody Masters, which he continued to play with when he left the Navy.

Playing some of the best jazz to ever be recorded, Coltrane would play with: Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk.

And this is just a short history of why John Coltrane is my inspiration. He had a never-quit attitude and was so musically inclined that he couldn’t be overlooked as one of the greatest saxophonists to ever breathe. While short, he ended his career with a legacy.


Why the Reed is So Important and How to Treat it Right

The reed is one of the most important parts of the saxophone, but it’s the thing most of us complain about. When you first start playing, it’s the tingling vibrations and the consequential lip-numbing that irks us.

But after you grow accustomed to not feeling your mouth, you find that reeds can be fickle. Humidity levels affect the way the reed feels and plays, and temperature fluctuations can mean the difference between a good practice session, and sounding like a dead cat. Adding to that, reeds from the same box can behave differently. Some are stable no matter what environment you throw them in, while others are complete duds right from the start.

Despite all of the complaints we have about reeds, they’re still a vital part of the saxophone. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to achieve that smooth, mellow sound we love.

sax reed

The Reed’s Lifecycle

A brand new reed is springy and a bit stiff. That’s what adds vibrancy and life to the saxophone’s sound. Each time you play, the fibers that make up the reed start to break down. Eventually, all reeds lose their springiness and have a hard time vibrating.

Reeds are incredibly vulnerable to changes in climate and moisture levels. Fluctuations in the weather can cause a reed to feel stiffer or softer.

How do you know when a reed is going soft? In my experience, I know that it’s time to toss out my reed when high notes start sounding flat. Reeds that are past their prime are usually easier to blow through, too.

How Bad Reeds Can Hinder Your Performance

Once a reed goes soft, you can hope that colder weather will stiffen it up a bit, but if not, there’s not much else to do but throw it away.

A skilled player can make up for a softer reed with good voicing and breathing. But if you play with a bad reed for long enough, your embouchure pressure will start slacking and you may have a harder time playing with a normal reed. On the other hand, if you haven’t developed your voicing, you may just boost your embouchure pressure if your reed starts to soften to improve the pitch.

In either scenario, players may find themselves unsure of new reeds – sometimes they feel softer; sometimes they feel harder. Even after giving the reed a day to adjust to the moisture levels, you may find that it just does not play well because your embouchure is out of whack.

To prevent this from happening, do yourself a favor and throw out any reeds that sound dead, or feel soft or hard. If you force yourself to play on a dud reed, you’ll wind up messing up your embouchure (and possibly your breathing) in the long run.

In some cases, it’s not necessarily the reed that’s forcing your embouchure to compensation. You may have the mouthpiece too far in, or too far out, which would cause you to sound sharp or flat respectively. When this happens, it can feel as if your reed is too hard or soft. Make sure that you’re in tune, so you can properly gauge whether your reed is normal, soft or hard.

Fitness for Live Gigs and Jamming

I’ve been happy to enter 2016 with a few gigs – nothing too big yet, but some nice local exposure. And this has allowed me to connect with a few other gig opportunities and jamming sessions that have really helped me grow as a musician.

One thing I quickly realized was just how tiring jamming out during a live gig can be.

You’re kind of forced to keep up the pace, and you can’t just kick back and drink a beer on the couch for 10 minutes before playing more. My first gig left me gassed, but I was working on adrenaline, so I didn’t notice until afterward.

Then I started to realize why so many musicians are jacked: gigs are taxing.

If I wanted to be able to perform to the best of my ability and really thrive out on the stage, I needed to take a step back and view my fitness level. And I found out that while I’m “fit,” I don’t have the stamina I need to play for hours.

saxophone gig

So, my masterplan to correct all of these issues goes something like this:

  • Workout: Just 4 sessions, or 4 hours a week will do the trick. I decided to also buy a rowing machine (they’re fairly cheap) so that I can get a decent full body and cardiovascular workout at the same time.
  • Diet: I had to cut out some stimulants, i.e. coffee. While I didn’t go cold turkey, I reduced consumption to one or two cups a day. I also cut out bad foods and tried to eat complex carbs before a gig.

Just these two steps have helped me a lot. And I am happy to say that I am trying to remain active as the weather gets warmer. Kicking the ball around for an afternoon or going on a hike has helped dramatically.

If you’re not trying to stay fit and perform a live gig or even a jamming session, you don’t want to be the guy pouring sweat in the corner and trying to catch his breath.

Daily Breath Support Exercises to Boost Control

Learning how to breathe is an integral part of playing the saxophone. To get the best sound possible, you need to learn how to deliver a big air stream. For new players, this can take quite a bit of practice, and breathing exercises can help you reach your goal.

From diaphragmatic breathing to low register pitch blends and breath attacks, there are a number of things you can do to improve your air stream size and strength.

Stanley Morton

Why Breath Control is So Important

When playing the saxophone, and most other wind instruments, breath control is vital (hence the name “wind” instrument). Why?

  • It provides good breath support from your lungs
  • You can play an extended phrase without running out of breath

Without adequate breath control, you’ll have a hard time playing properly.

Diaphragm Breathing

Playing with an open throat is a well-known technique not only for saxophone players, but singers and players of other wind instruments.

But controlling the pressure of air in your lungs is a challenge especially while keeping your throat open. Typically air rushes out of your lungs – unless you close your throat to stop this from happening.

The best way to achieve this control is to practice diaphragmatic breathing.

Breathing through the diaphragm is something that most people don’t do. We’re used to shallow breathing into the top of our lungs. Needless to say, learning how to change your breathing pattern will not be an overnight process. It’s something you’ll need to work at, but once you get the hang of it, it will be like second nature.

One of the most effective techniques for learning how to breathe through your diaphragm is borrowed from yogis.

Try this exercise at home:

Note: This exercise works best if you’re laying down on your back, but you can also practice while sitting or standing.

  1. Start by expanding your abdomen as you breathe into your lower lungs. As you expand your abdomen, try to imagine that your diaphragm is expanding down into your pelvis. Don’t worry if you feel tension in your abdominal muscles – this is normal.
  2. Now, expand your rib cage. Keep your throat open.
  3. Continue expanding to the top of your rib cage and shoulders, moving upward and outward.

Before you exhale, hold your breath for a second or two. Make sure that your throat stays open. Your abdomen, ribs and diaphragm should be working to stop the air from rushing out.

Now, breathe out in the same order as the inhale. Don’t forget to keep your throat open.

Other Breathing Exercises

Breathing through your diaphragm will immediately give you more breath control and support while playing the saxophone. But there are other exercises you can perform that will further refine your control.

Try breathing in for four counts, and breathing out for four counts.

Learning how to extend the in breath and the out breath will help you achieve a bigger air stream. The bigger your air stream, the easier it will be to tackle long phrases.

Once you’ve mastered breathing in for four counts and breathing out for four counts, you can extend the count. Eventually (with a lot of practice), you can reach 60 in and 60 out.