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...