Some of us have spent years pursuing the holy grail of "the perfect saxophone setup." And it is understandable. There are so many things that affect the sound of you and your saxophone. The sax, the mouthpiece, the reeds... and yes, even the ligature affect your sound.
Pretty much anybody can understand that the basic purpose for the ligature. It holds the reed against the face of the mouthpiece so that the reed vibrates properly when you play.
What is not so obvious is how (or how much) the ligature can affect the sound, for better or for worse. And the reasons for this are more complex than you might first imagine.
Your saxophone sound is created by the vibration of the reed causing resonance in the air column that you create in your saxophone when you blow. Let's take a look at some very bad artwork I did in Microsoft Paint to give a rough rendering of the function of the ligature.
As you know, the table on the mouthpiece is flat where the base of the reed sits on the mouthpiece. At the other end, it has a curve away from the reed.
When you squeeze it slightly and blow, the thin end of the reed vibrates against the moutpiece, causing a resonating air column. But the reed doesn't stay there by elfin' magic. It has to be held in place. That's were the ligature comes in. So far, so good. And so basic. We all get this.
I am a bit of a collector and I've been a real "experimenter" over the years, looking for the perfect mouthpiece and ligature combination. I've got (between tenor, alto, soprano, clarinet, hard rubber and metal moutpieces) a collection of about 30 ligatures in different configurations. They do play differently and they do sound different.
My experience with these critters and my reading and studying this over the years leads me to understand that their intention with the ligature is to come up with various ways of contacting the base of the reed, with varying tensions and firmness in various places.
Let me show you some of the different locations on the reed that my ligatures attempt to contact the reed.
Some of their intention is to try to find the perfect way to hold the reed in place. And to be honest, I have to think sometimes, they simply want to be unique. You can't rule out the possibility of coming up with a marketing gimmick. At least, reading through the literature, that is my conclusion for some of them.
Quite simply, you're changing the physics in the setup by clamping the reed in different spots. If you pluck a guitar string in the middle it sounds different than if you pluck it near the end. And if you touch the string the middle and pluck it lightly at the end you can get it to resonate at a different harmonic. Reeds and mouthpieces are the same way. Clamping that reed differently will cause it to vibrate slightly differently. I will give you different subtle changes to the sound and the feel of how it plays.
Let me throw some more bad Microsoft Paint artwork in here for you to see what I mean.
Of course these are very rough renderings of what the shape of the reed would be if you shot it with a high speed camera while you were playing it. My point is that it is easy to see how the reed could vibrate slightly differently, depending on the amount of pressure on the reed and where and how many pressure points they apply to it.
But how much difference does all of this really make in the sound? Well, let me start out by making this simple statement:
One of the things I didn’t know about me until I had been playing forever is that I could get too fixated on finding the perfect ligature. And so, I wasted a lot of time and money, missing the importance of embouchure, scales and arpeggios, listening skills and the like. Most of those ligatures now sit unused in a closet. They only "come out of the closet" for the occasional photo op or if there is some reason I have to go to a mouthpiece that needs a different size ligature than the one I am using. But I've pretty much settled on a couple different setups I use now on my tenor (my "Gatling gun" of choice). I tend to have one mouthpiece I use for live gigs and another I tend to favor for the studio.
But there are some things worth thinking about when you shop for a ligature, if you feel you need to do so. And it might actually be the case that you DO need to upgrade your ligature. So if you need one, or if you think you do, let me share some thoughts with you.
It's pretty much any sax player's wish that he or she could pick up the sax and play like greased lightening. A good solo is always awesome. But a fast solo is like a good martial arts trick. It leaves everyone in awe and almost worshipping the musician for their technical prowess. But while speed makes for an amazing technical demonstration, we sometimes miss what it takes to get there.
And one day I discovered something by accident that opened my eyes to the benefit of practicing slowly.
I'm one of those guys that tends to live a little dangerously with the level of gas in my car. But every once in a while, it catches up to me. And one day, I ran out on a 4 lane divided highway. And I had to go for a walk.
It's fascinating the things you notice about the road at a speed of three miles per hour that you just don't notice at seventy.
I had actually stumbled onto the little factoid of the length of the lines in the centre line of the highway and the length of the spaces in between. When you're driving in a car, it's easy to incorrectly estimate the size of those little suckers.
If you've already been told the numbers on these stripes and spaces, it's a little easier to imagine it as you're driving past them. But they blast by so quickly. Most people guess the lines are anywhere between 3 and 5 feet long.
If you've never been told the numbers, let me give you a little surprise. The length of the dashes on the highway are ten feet long. And the spaces - get ready for it - are thirty feet long.
I actually remember that day I was out walking. There was a break in the traffic and, since I had that little factoid in my head, I just had to test that out. So, I got out there with my size 12 clogs and paced those lines out. And then I paced the spaces out. And then I quickly moved out of the way of that semi-truck. Because unlike me, he wasn't going slow enough to appreciate the length of those lines.
But, yes. The lines are 10 feet long and the spaces are 30 feet in between.
I was finally able to get a perspective on the length of those lines, and the fact that I had missed the reality of that fact about them up until that moment. I knew it in my head. But I experienced it that time. The thing I noticed, too, is that once I gassed up and was driving again, I noticed some of the things I saw at three miles per hour in a different way at seventy. I knew what I was watching for after I had seen them at slow speed. And now I could see them. And now, I could more easily imagine those stripes as actually being 10 feet long.
For those of you who don’t know who he is, Jamie is the father of the play-along CD series for learning jazz improvisation.
By his website, there are 133 books in his series of books now. And I’m sure there are hundreds of thousands of users of these books over the years, if not millions. They’re effective if used properly. They help to develop a facility with the different scales and modes - major, minor, playing the blues.
I’ve been aware of him for over 30 years now. And his recordings and books have been around longer than that. He is in his late 70’s now and starting to slow down with his schedule a bit. But he has done music camps and clinics all over the world. And he has a passion for teaching people to play by ear and to improvise. I’ve learned a lot about him lately, from stuff I’ve read and discussions I’ve heard him in.
One of the things I didn’t know until recently was that he started out doing these recordings so he could have something to practice to on his own. But a good idea takes on a life of its own sometimes.
He is a master at teaching people how to be more confident as improvisers. And I thought it would be good to put together a list of things I’ve heard him say or read in his books as a summary of some good points to keep in mind on your journey to learning to play better.
In another post, I wrote about a concept sometimes referred to as "muscle memory." You can read that post if you click this link; but essentially, muscle memory is a term that refers to your body and brain forming connections so that your body "remembers" how to do certain motions.
Essentially, according to Wikipedia, muscle memory is "a form of “procedural memory” that involves consolidating a specific motor task into memory through repetition, which has been used synonymously with “motor learning.”
In other words, muscle memory is how your body turns your practice sessions into "not wasted time" if you do it right, and "somewhat wasted time" if you practice wrong, because your body remembers the form and the detail of what you practice as much as the course motor movements. It really is worth a read.
One of the topics I addressed in that post was the importance of not practicing beyond your "fatigue limit," especially when working on tricky stuff - like trying to hit low notes when your lip is really tired. The reason is that in a case like that, your body is going to start to do all kinds of things (little things, but all working together against you) to compensate for the fatigue to try to get those notes out anyway, but if you can't control what you're doing, you're not going to control how the body remembered (wrongly) how to do it that last time you practiced when you were tired.
If you're new to playing the saxophone or you don't have a lot of experience under your belt yet, you might have the "luxury" of not yet having gone down the rabbit hole of going through the motions of selecting the perfect saxophone mouthpiece for your horn.
I hate to refer to the process in terms of going down a rabbit hole. Because having the right mouthpiece for your saxophone is important. The saxophone mouthpiece affects your sound in so many ways. But for those of us who have done it before (and believe me, there are those among us - you know who you are - who have dozens and dozens of mouthpieces, and ligatures, and brands of reeds, etc., etc.,) it can get to be a frustrating game. Sometimes, it feels like it's never "better," but just different.
The fact of the matter is...
When you practice a physical motion with your body, the body tends to "remember" how to do that motion. For those of us who can walk and ride a bicycle, you realize pretty quickly when you think about it that you don't think much about these things when we do them. Your body just does those things pretty much without thought.
As a matter of fact, if you hop on a bicycle after having not been on one for years, you realize how quickly you can get on it and not have to rethink how to keep that sucker upright. It just stays up. This is a phenomenon that occurs due to the brain-body connections that form through repeated cycles of activities Part of it is something called “muscle memory.”
According to all things Wikipedia, muscle memory is…
a form of “procedural memory” that involves consolidating a specific motor task into memory through repetition, which has been used synonymously with “motor learning.” When a movement is repeated over time, a long-term muscle memory is created for that task, eventually allowing it to be performed without conscious effort. This process decreases the need for attention and creates maximum efficiency within the motor and memory systems. Examples of muscle memory are found in many everyday activities that become automatic and improve with practice, such as riding a bicycle, typing on a keyboard,… playing a musical instrument…
And for reference, and to round out the picture, the wikipedia article references a concept called “motor learning.”
Motor learning is a change, resulting from practice or a novel experience, in the capability for responding. It often involves improving the smoothness and accuracy of movements and is obviously necessary for complicated movements such as speaking, playing the piano and climbing trees.
So practicing your wind instrument will cause changes in the brain - those changes develop in relation to the muscle movements that are involved with playing the instrument. (It seems that is the “motor learning” part. And then, as you do it more repeatedly, it starts to become more “second-nature.”)
We've all heard how important it is to practice our scales and chords. But sometimes it's hard to know where to start. There are major scales, and then there are minor scales - melodic minor, harmonic minor and normal minor scales, without even mentioning the dorian scales and a whole bunch of other patterns to learn.
But is it possible to perfect them all, all the time, forever? Does it feel like even if you could work all that into your practice schedule, you'd be spinning plates?
Sometimes it can be overwhelming to try to figure out where to start down a road to getting to where you want to go. If you're floundering with conflicting feelings about how or what to practice, or where to start, sometimes you just have to start somewhere, and go from there.
Have you ever had one of those moments where you saw something, and then, once you did, it was all you saw?
I remember once watching a movie with my kids, when my youngest boy started to chuckle. I asked him what was up, because it was a drama we were watching, and so I didn’t think it was something in the lines of the actors or anything.
As it turns out, he had picked up on something the film editor had done: he had made use of the “Burns effect.” But just a little too much....
Years ago, I took some lessons from a guy named Steve Woods. He was a music professor at a community college in the metropolitan Detroit area. And even though I only had a handful of lessons with him, some of the concepts I took away from those lessons has shaped the way I practice and the way I have played over the years.
One of the "sound bites" that Steve said to me that has stuck over the years is the idea that music is a language and the musical phrases we learn to articulate become the vocabulary we use to express ideas in that language.