Killing In the Name for solo alto saxophone

For some reason, I’ve had in my head that I must write a solo arrangement of Rage Against the Machine’s Killing In the Name. It’s a completely inappropriate piece for a solo wind instrument given that it’s somewhat dependent upon percussive guitar, a whammy pedal for the guitar solo, and a vocal line that is almost spoken, but I had a hunch it could be done.

There’s a piece in the Sixty for Sax book called Sax Valsant, and it has this neat trick of maintaining what seems like a bass line and a treble line. The music doesn’t explicitly tell you this, but I can see it, and making the piece sound good relies on the player being able to detach these parts out with a mixture of dynamics and shape.

In short, Sax Valsant is two parts rolled into one, and it works. Still difficult for the students, but straightforward for myself, so it’s good teaching material.

This is what I figured could be done with Killing In the Name, a piece that seems to have 2-3 distinct lines to it; bass, rhythmic guitar and vocals. I had to figure out how to get enough bass notes into the music to “ground” it, and just enough rhythmic guitar folded into the vocal line to carry the tune.

The main challenge (and this is for pop music in general) is coming up with an alternative to spoken vocals. For an alto sax, Killing in the Name predominantly uses B minor pentatonic scale ((B, D, E, F# A, B), but sneaking in a C# and F natural can work in places too), so the only way to make the arrangement interesting is to make it more melodic. There is a lot of taking the vocal’s rhythm, but attaching pitch to it.

Then there’s the whammy pedal guitar solo. It definitely doesn’t work for saxophone, but what it does do is establish a descending line with the whammy’s octave jumps. You can here the sax arrangement use lots of pentatonic and almost bluesy scales through the line as it descends.

There’s a kind of interlude toward the end of the piece that builds some tension while the guitar is strumming and the vocalist is getting more riled up, but it ascends almost chromatically, so with some trills and playing the rhythms of the vocal line, there’s some great tension build up here. This then becomes ‘chaos-at-the-end’ so I just go all improv-like, hitting all the bass notes with octave jumps, and jumping up to do a swung-semiquaver-funk melody on top.

5 mins 40 secs of breathless energy building. That’s what this is. There are so many low lots on the first page that you can get exhausted pretty quickly unless you come up with a breathing/phrase strategy. I put in commas to help, but even I was running out of air for those low Bs. By the second page, it’s a necessity to dial it back to mezzo forte in order to recharge the stamina. Breathing all the time chops the music up too much, so it’s really important to keep any gaps caused by ’emergency breathing’ as short as possible.

Truth be told, it was an absolute mission to get a recording I was happy with, and even now, what I uploaded was merely “good enough”. I just had to let it go and run with what I had because all the practices and recording were eating away at my free time. I was doing this on my old student model Yamaha sax while the Yanigasawa is back in Japan (a story in itself), and I was trying to record this in high humidity in the bedroom. I almost achieved a performance that relatively free of mistakes until I realised the camera was all out of focus! Small mercy though, the following days were cooler and I got something recorded.

The ultimate goal was to write an arrangement, record it, release it to the wild and then make the arrangement available for download. You can get a copy of it on my newly established Ko-fi page, which will do until I finally make my own online store. No need for that I guess until I have more material. Hopefully something completely original next time.

On a side note, the music was written using Steinburg’s Dorico. Get it, it’s awesome!


Buzzing the Mouthpiece

There’s one trick that I learnt from another saxophone teacher that has stayed with me. Many, many years ago I took over Lance’s Saturday classes and for one week, as a bit of meet and greet between myself and students, I sat in on his lessons. Was I still a teenager at the time? It was so long ago.

The trick Lance used was “buzzing” the saxophone mouthpiece, i.e. just blowing the mouthpiece and reed to make a sound.

The thing is, I could make a sound with my clarinet mouth piece at the time, but not my saxophone one (not a good sound at least). It’s just something that I’d not really thought much about, and so never really did, and I guess I’d considered it more a party trick to make some silly sounds.

But here I am sitting in on one of Lance’s lessons and he’s getting one of his students to play the saxophone mouthpiece by itself to generate not just a sound, but a good sound; actually pitching the note!

Why is this important?

Embouchure shape

Embouchure is something that is hard to refine and hard to maintain. Hard to refine meaning its hard enough getting it right in the first place, but then, because of fatigue, it’s hard to keep steady. That’s not even including the variables such as reed and mouthpieces, that seem to fight you all the way to creating a tone you want.

By playing the mouthpiece but itself, you instantly realise a few things

  • There’s a high likelihood you’re gripping the mouthpiece too hard. This will make the tone sound a bit strangled. It’s important to note squeeze the reed too much. If anything, try squeezing (gripping) the sides of the mouthpiece with the corners of your mouth.
  • The shape of the inside of your mouth is critical. It’s incredibly hard to describe, but say “too” and “tor” and notice how the back of the tongue and the soft palette changes shape. The “tor” creates a better resonance.

Airflow and sustained tone generation

It’s quite difficult to maintain the note when playing just the mouthpiece with reed, especially if the reed is very hard, or the gap between mouthpiece tip and reed is really large. Getting a sound and sustaining it is obviously a prerequisite to anything that comes next.

Embouchure flexibility

It’s important to not grip the mouthpiece for dear life, and often squeezing too much is a beginner’s default embouchure.

As a prerequisite for pitching a note, you must be prepared to “bend” the note by loosing (and then tightening) the embouchure. Another way of thinking about this is loosening such that you’re dropping the jaw such that the reed has plenty of room to vibrate. Conversely, we tighten by starting to squeeze mouthpiece and reed to bring the pitch up.

Typically student struggle with pitching the note down, and I wonder if that is their mental inertia telling them that it will sound gross if they do so. The thing is, this is exactly what we want; loosen up and drop the pitch so that your reaching for the next note down, making it as ugly as possible.

Note that the lower bend, the more airflow is going to be required to sustain it. This too, is an important realisation.

Pitching Notes

By trying to pitch the note with just the mouthpiece, Lance was demonstrating that embouchure is not just for generating sound, but for assisting pitch. Even though the saxophone (and clarinet) have keys to press down to make the sound, it’s the embouchure that is assisting getting these notes in tune by almost being that note. In practise though, this applies to the high notes than the lower ones, and perhaps for the throat notes of the clarinet which have a tendency to go sharp.

As saxophone and clarinetists (I can’t speak for how an Oboe, flute or bassoon behaves), we get a bit lazy in that we blow air, push some keys, then expect the note to be accurate, but flexibility of embouchure is important for getting notes in tune. The advanced player is likely doing this without even realising it, and yes, obviously a quality instrument will have less intonation issue.

Unsuitable mouthpiece and reed combo

Once upon a time I saved up my teenage dollars and bought a metal Yanagisawa mouthpiece. It’s of the most difficult types of mouthpieces to pitch; it’s bright and aggressive and mine had a large tip opening, so quite difficult to get subtlety of control. Admittedly this was the early 2000s, so perhaps I could do that now.

What I’m getting at is there’s a chance you’re fighting your equipment, and your equipment is winning. Sometimes you just have to take a step back, try some different combinations, get things working, then work back into the equipment you really want to use. e.g. and Otto Link hard rubber mouthpiece with a size 7 tip opening, and a 2 1/2 – 3 strength reed is about as “average” as you can get. First of all, this is a great setup, but it’s also a baseline to which you can try out other crazy things, like metal Yanagisawas or massive Berg Larson grained ebonite.


The concept of buzzing is not just a brass-player thing but and core skill for saxophone and clarinetists too. Admittedly we musicians tolerate brass players warming up this way, but we’d get funny looks if we started doing this on a saxophone or clarinet at the beginning of a rehearsal.

As it’s core though, the concepts are the same, but it also reveals some truths about our playing technique that we may not have been aware of.

No. 40 from Progressive Studies for Clarinet book 2

It’s been difficult keeping my YouTube video releases happening because of all the other non work related activities recently. There was finally an overseas trip, the West City Concert Band played at the NZCBA festival, and of course there’s a bunch of running events to go to, and Chartopia to work on.

The consequence being that, even if even if there is a bit of spare time to whip up a video, the energy levels aren’t there to take the plunge.

But I finally got a video up that I’d been meaning to do for ages. I’d previous recorded number 40 from the Progressive Studies for Clarinet book 2 a few weeks ago, but I played it way too fast. Given that I’m trying to teach it, playing it too far beyond its prescribed moderato tempo didn’t seem a good idea. Admittedly, I was having too much fun with it to even realise I’d gone way beyond the tempo directions, presuming it was one of those kind of technical studies that implied that you ramp up the speed.

After the disappointment of realising I needed to record the video all again (and doing one take videos is hard work), I then re-recorded only to listen back and notice I’d played a certain note wrong all three times! I’ll admit I was pretty annoyed because I’m supposed to be the one setting the good example, but from this came an opportunity. I wanted to “declare” that the mistake was known about, so I learnt how to use the keyframe feature in DaVinci Resolve in order to do a simple animation of a “Wrong Note Alert!” image. I also learnt about some other features along the way which will hopefully stream line some of my video editing efforts in the future. DaVinci Resolve: yet another tool to learn; add it to the todo list.

See if you can spot my declarations.

EMC Funk

I wrote a funk piece! I have been wanting to write a non-solo composition for a long time, but with so much going on (day job, working on Chartopia, running events) it’s difficult to just sit down and write.

What happened is that Rubber Monkey, the audio visual store whom I’ve spent a fair chunk of my pocket money, held a composition competition for NZ Music Month. The basic rule was that the piece had to have at least one real instrument (excluding voice so as to not turn it into a singing comp), and a recording; either audio or video. It could have between written at any time in the last year, but I was going to try and pull it off in two weeks.

I thought about writing a clarinet or saxophone solo piece because I’ve been wanting to make a decent length piece that can be played by students for high school level performances, but fortuitously, my work colleagues have a covers band (drums, guitars, bass, vocals). Why not write a funk piece!

I really like classic funk for reasons I can’t explain. Maybe I respond well to its groove, especially bass lines. That’s how I started this compositional endeavour. I came up with a couple of cool bass line and started to form up a structure for a piece that would go for about 3 mins. This wasn’t to be 7 minutes of improvisation, this was to be a well formed piece with some structure, and be something that could be easily reproduced by anyone who wanted to play it.

With the bass line down, I sat at the keyboard and tried some chords that sat well with the bass line. It looked like I’d settled on C minor, so after a bass groove intro, the drums (playing a funky rhythm) join in with a lead-in fill, along with the guitar playing Cm7 rhythms. We’re off.

There’s no vocalist for this, because I’m no poet and I’m no James Brown, so it’s up to the saxophone to play the melodically interesting role. Bass intro, drums plus guitar, then the saxophone is off. We’re now at bar 10, so for a 3 minute or so piece at the tempo I’m after, we’re about a 6th of the way through. 60 or so bars to go.

Chords have to change, or else the music is a bit boring after a while. Rhythm can only sustain interest for so long when there’s no lyrics to listen to, so I needed another chord. For some reason, I settled on Bmaj7 at bar 6 of an 8 bar phrase and wow, that was a happy musical accident because it sounded great.

So that’s taken the music to bar 18, with an 8 bar melodic line established. Now for some development, but, why not pad this up: enter the 2 bar bass solo followed by 2 bar drum solo, and now we’re off to part 2. It’s the saxophone’s time to unleash and the bass line changes to something new. Now we’re alternating between Cm7 and Fm7 with a new cool bass line and I’ve sketched out some melodic ideas for the saxophone. 8 bars is enough, so I gave the bass another 4 bar solo to take us into another section. A new bass line and now we’re alternating between Cm7 and Dm. I quite liked the bass line for this one.

20 bars of saxophone led melodic interest, then I had the bass take a 4 bar “turnaround” to take us into a progressively busier 8 bars of Cm7 with the saxophone screaming some notes out to the finish. Boom done.

This is where I admit that the above didn’t happen in one go.

In fact, the idea of writing a composition was half baked when I wrote down some funky bass lines with some chords then took it to a Wednesday 4pm jam session with the guys in the EMC lab. I didn’t know whether or not a funk piece would even work, so I jotted down the ideas in Dorico after hammering out ideaa on the keyboard, printed it out and gave it to the guys. The drummer put down the beat, the bass player toiled away at my bass lines and the guitarist put down some funky rhythms with all my Cm7 chords. Meanwhile, I improvised on top, but trying to keep it as tuneful as possible. I didn’t want to go into crazy town with this.

I recorded everything on my refurbished iPhone 8 using the memos app, and lo and behold, the mics on cellphones have gotten so good now, that there’s no clipping when the drums are playing away.

I had a bunch of recordings that proved that this was going to work, it was just up to me to simplify the chords (I had some exotic ones in there that weren’t necessary) and write out some better saxophone lines. I didn’t want to improvise this thing, because it needed to be reproducible. I loaded the recordings into Audacity and proceeded to transcribe as much of the good stuff as possible.

I had a week to get the structure sorted, so the following Wednesday, we gave it a good shot. The guitarist knew his chords, the bass player relished his challenge and the drummer was super clued in. We did some run throughs and during it all, another work colleague recorded us via mics and a mixer, and filmed us on his phone camera.

As good as it was, it was still rough as guts, but everyone was keen to give it one last shot two days later, and the comp closed the following Tuesday. With the mixer recordings loaded into Audacity I had a better idea of what was working and what needed some tweaks. I extended some sections that had more to say, simplified more chords and wrote simpler bass lines toward the end. I took some of my improvised saxophone lines and transcribed the best motifs into the music to ‘set it in stone’. By request, I also gave a midi recording to the guitar player so he was sure he was getting the general idea (yes, we’re amateurs after all).

Eight takes later on Friday, we had something. Well done team. With a bit of Da Vinci Resolve smoke and mirrors, the rehearsal video recording of Wednesday was edited with the final take from the Friday session.

In case anyone is wondering, EMC stands for Electromagnetic Compatibility, which is something that is tested in the labs and Navico. It also doubles as the Salty Dogs‘ rehearsal venue.

A couple more videos

Life is busy, especially when you spend what feels like an entire Sunday afternoon replacing a bathroom tap, having it leak, freaking out, going to Mitre-10 an hour before closing to get a replacement filter washers, only to realise after a replacement flexi-pipe was ordered and delivered that I was never going to win that initial round. The original part was definitely missing a washer at best, and was the wrong pipe at worst.

That’s my long way of saying that I’ve been wanting to blog more and add more videos, but have had to juggle chores and things.

Here’s a couple of videos that were posted in April and May, and here’s my thinking on them.

Tips for faster tonguing was a request by the band director. There’s a WCCB piece that has some fairly quick notes, but no-one in the clarinet section can double tongue. The only thing for it (practically speaking), is to just eek a bit more speed out of a single tongue technique. Truth be told, I’ve never really tried to double tongue on clarinet and sax properly because I couldn’t believe it could be done faster than single tonguing without sounding like rubbish.

Well, YouTube proved me wrong, that’s for sure. Damn there’s talent out there, and now I’m a believer. See it to believe it, that’s for sure. I’m going to have to work on that technique, because it’s a gap in my technical arsenal.

I’m still not sold on double lip embouchure, but that’s a story (and video) for another time.

Notice the new saxophone in the video? After playing my Yamaha AS100 since the year 2000, it was time for an upgrade (KBB Music mad a lot of money off me this year). The new saxophone plays amaaaazing. I call it the C-3P0 of saxophones.

The next video, Grooving Sax, was something to help a student out. Some students still want online lessons, so it gets a bit difficult to describe pieces at times. Grooving Sax is just one more of the Sixty for Sax pieces. Great book that, so be sure to pick it up.

Lightning Lessons

For the latest video, I’ve tried a couple of new things. Firstly, I’ve themed the video as a lightning lesson, with the intention to create future videos using a similar format. In a way, it’s similar to what I was doing initially, by explaining the piece as I go, rather than performing the piece, then talking about it. I’d recently made an attempt to perform the piece first, because I figured most people are just seeking out the “answer”, rather than getting a lesson, but the problem is the videos go a bit too long. Plus, it’s really hard to ace a recording in such a way that I’m happy with. I can make a meal of playing a piece during an explanation, but it’s not a good look to have mistakes during a performance. Yes, the pressure is high for musical performance. Assumed perfectionism because everyone hears a mistake.

The second thing is the addition, finally, of a dedicated thumbnail. Let’s see if that has any effect on views.

Today’s video upload was a cool little Niemann piece in the saxophone Rubank book. Quite a few of my students converged on this piece at once, so I figured I’d make a video about it given it’s many interesting aspects. It seems to go through three different styles as if it doesn’t know what it wants to be. It would be interesting to know if this is a standalone piece or something that is extracted from a large ensemble piece.

What’s the point of long tones anyway?

Just practice long tones. You see that a lot on r/clarinet, but why anyway? Are you trying to play as long as possible? Are you trying to keep the sound generating evenly? Are you trying to strengthen your embouchure?

All the above are true, but what is the end game? What’s the point of being able to play for ages without taking a breath, keeping a level intensity, and strengthening your embouchure?

To play better? What exactly are we trying to make better?

“Persistence without insight will lead to the same outcome”

The Armorer to Din Djarin during Chapter 5 of The Book of Boba Fett

They sound like dumb questions with equally dumb answers, but the point is these exercises are pointless unless they’re applied to something practical. The real answer is phrasing and shape.

I say this because it’s phrasing and shape that are one of the biggest differentiating factors between an intermediate-advanced and advanced player. Sure, the intermediate-advanced student can play all the notes, play the prescribed dynamics and play without looking like they’re going to run out of breath, but if they have no shape to their phrasing, a huge aspect of musicality is missing.

A phrase is a “musical sentence” with a beginning and an end. The phrase must have shape in order to sound interesting, lest it be dynamically flat. But here’s the most important aspect…

The beginning, middle, and ends of phrases have to take on a quality appropriate for the type of musicality you’re trying to realise. Here’s some ideas.

  • A typical classical phrase will sneak in, dynamically shape up to a peak, then dynamically shift down, then taper out smoothly at the end.
  • A phrase that is trying to build tension may crescendo toward the end, clipping the last note in order to create space for the performer to snatch a quick breath. This adds and element of urgency as one phrase jumps into the next.
  • A jazz phrase may have ghost notes on selected quavers, but there’s always a sense of pull toward the end of the phrase which may taper out, or perhaps snap short with a marcato.

Here’s a few things that could go wrong with a student playing a phrase.

  • After an initial push of air, their energy levels die and the played notes are a mere whimper.
  • The transitions between notes are uneven and some notes will either ‘pop out’, or ‘disappear’ compared to other notes in the phrase.
  • The phrase is a like a solid ‘brick dynamic’, staying completely level and uninteresting.
  • The last note of the phrase will finish abruptly and sound choked off.

But what does all this have to do with long tones then?

The long-tones-drill helps maintain the energy, or, the forward momentum of a “basic phrase” until its end. It’s more than just a drill for stability of tone, it’s there for ensuring forward push to the end of the phrase.

The big issue for the students playing phrasing, is that after their initial push of air, the energy dies and they’re left with a weaker, “gutless” presence. Rather than projecting their phrase to the audience, they’re now merely mumbling to themselves. Sometimes this is because they’re so focus on notes that they forget about air, oftentimes is just mere laziness; the must-conserve-energy fallacy.

Here-in lies the challenge of progression; there are the levels of difficulty one has to step though.

  1. Play a long-tone with sustained energy, then
  2. Play with a long tone, but be able to crescendo and decrescendo on demand. Full control over air using the gut-muscles to keep that “push” feel.
  3. Play with sustained long-tone-like energy, but transitioning between notes, which often involve large leaps which could be across the ‘break’.
  4. Combine 2 and 3 so that there is dynamic change on demand, but where the note intervals don’t interfere with the long-tone-feel.

All of this is far easier said than done.

The most important things to remember, is that one will only ever progress with this until they can hear that something is amiss. Unless one has awareness of how they currently sound, and also have the vision of how they’d like to sound, then there’s no way to refine technique in a positive direction.

As the Armorer says to Din Djarin in Chapter 5 of The Book of Boba Fett

“Persistence without insight will lead to the same outcome”

Playing Loud

In the spirit of “keeping the engine warm”, I finally uploaded another YouTube video. I hadn’t uploaded one since November, and I do want to make more of this channel at some point. This time the topic was about playing loud, something I’m quite passionate about because, let’s admit it, most clarinetists aren’t making their presence known. What’s the point of having 2nd and 3rd clarinets in a concert band if they don’t bring their harmonically important notes closer to the foreground. The poor 1st clarinet(s) can only pull back their dynamics so far. Sometimes its lack of confidence, but I feel most of the time it’s just a lack of fitness, or lack of desire to work for the notes.

I quickly edited a video together and emphasised the major point, which is using the gut muscles to push air. I didn’t really go into phrasing and why working the air is so important for musical shape, but that’s an opportunity for another video. I could go on and an on but my “playing loud” video already got to 8 minutes.

I stuck in a couple of examples, extracts from Golden Wedding and a Rose Etude to show that, yes, a clarinet does in fact, have a loud quality, and that even classical music needs its own version of loud.

As with all my videos, once I do them, I keep thinking up more tips and tricks and techniques to help clarinetists break out of their shell, but perhaps that’s more an opportunity for a live stream; something that I’ve been meaning to do, but haven’t psyched myself up for yet.

Abracadabra and its improv pieces

I like how the Abracadabra book teases the student with improvisation by having a few fill-in-the-blanks exercises. They’re perhaps a little early in the book given the use of swing and syncopation, but perhaps the teacher is intended to guide this one a bit.

My favourite one is no. 58, Swinging Along, simply because it offers a cheat-sheet of notes for the student to use. This very basic constraint gives the student some rules by which to ‘play the game’ by, and by keeping to these notes, they can do some effective improvisation without it going off the rails.

The most challenging aspect then, is to count. As simple as it sounds, there are only six crotchet beats left blank for both the fill-in-the-blanks sections, but once the student gets engrossed in playing some notes, they often overshoot the six beats. Then there’s the matter of how to count them; it’s not 1,2,3,4,5,6, but 1,2,3,4,1,2. If swung, you then get your 1 & 2 & etc.

My recommendation is to keep things really basic; just stick to longer notes like crotchets and minims initially and making sure one knows where they are in the music. From there, move on to some swung quavers.

I wanted to capture this in a video as a way to show that such a piece is very accessible to beginners and needn’t intimidate them.

The Clarinet Solo from Melodious Thunk

I made a YouTube video in response to a question on r/clarinet again. It certainly makes for a good challenge and this time it was in regards to how to go about playing the clarinet solo from Melodious Thunk. This wind band piece by David Biedenbender is a fairly recent addition to the genre, and is something that a high school band could play. It does seem reliant on a massive percussion section knowing what it’s doing though.

At 1 minute 30 seconds in there’s a clarinet solo that, in the score, only has a grace note. If you listen to the recording played by the North Texas Wind Symphony, the clarinetist glisses from C to A. There’s also a bend down from F to Eb. How does one pull that off, was the question in reddit.

That was the topic of my video. How does one get that gliss from C to A given that you can’t really slide fingers for that? Well, it’s all about that awesomely disgusting pitch bend that clarinet can do. The klezmer ‘laughing’ clarinet technique that plays high notes so flat they’re almost the same pitch as lower notes. Move through that with chromatic fingering and with some skill and luck, you’ll pull off a lip gliss.

Going down is a bit harder, but the idea is the same, just bend the note with the embouchure and use chromatic fingering down to meet the note transition just in time. Easier said than done of course, which is why it’s helpful that Biedenbender has added a massive percussion hit at the point the clarinet reaches the Eb.