Category Archives: Educational

Posts in this category are contributions to music education and saxophone performance

16 ii/V Paths, inspired by Herbie Hancock

Ok jazz nerds, I have SSG Michael Kramer (guitarist, Army Blues) to thank for this little project. He told me about this great idea, and I’ve decided to blow some time at BCT cataloging its results. Behold:

2-5 Matrix (Herbie Hancock)

1. This first item is matrix of standard ii/V7/I’s, separated by minor thirds (repeat this matrix for the other two transpositions). Your standard jazz changes building block.

The theory here is that, due to the tensions and tendencies made possible by dominant/diminished scales (half-whole) and their limited transpositions (sharing content with similar scales built on roots an m3 away), one can draw any 3-chord path across this matrix from left to right as a substitute pathway for a typical ii/V/I. Using such substitutions instead of the half-whole scale should add tension, harmonic interest, and additional options in jazz improvisation or composition. It’s a way out of the ii/V jail cell, without totally leaving the complex.

This leaves a lot of possibilities, and some paths across this matrix will be redundant. Therefore, the matrix is of limited use when really approaching this idea in practice.

So, in an attempt to reduce the theory to a more readily usable form:



2. This second pic shows all the prime (reduced) forms of paths across the matrix, and is organized by root motion contour (or shape). For cleanliness’ sake, I’ve excluded the work I did cataloging all products of the matrix, and organized the paths into 6 basic shapes. One can see that regardless of starting point, we are left with a total of 16 possibilities, including our basic ii/V/I motion. Each of the 16 paths will has a signature sound and feel, though some have special relationships to each other (i.e., the nonlinear paths are all retrograde-invertible). Some paths are well-trodden, like the basic ii/V, the tritone substitution, and the “back door” ii/V. Some are not as common, and should provide some exotic alternatives.

3. Here’s a quick couple of PDF exercises with all 16 pathways, strung together in order by shape class, and then in order of net harmonic shift:

16 ii-V Paths By Shape Class Exercise (Herbie Hancock)

16 ii-V Paths By Net Shift Exercise (Herbie Hancock)

I wish I had a horn to practice these with, but I think I’ll have to wait until BCT is over (unless the 399th decides to toss me an ax: standby to standby). I hope it’s useful to the rest of you. Again, thanks to SSG Kramer (and Herbie Hancock) for the killer idea!

Theoretically Informed Intonation

As I update the Blackboard content for my students at Towson University, I came across a paper I wrote during my graduate study at Eastman School of Music and have decided that it’s worth sharing. If you are interested in how music theory might influence choices you make about tuning, especially in chamber music performance, then please read, comment, and share. Of particular interest is an experimental model of a hybridized tuning theory applied to the opening movement of Beethoven’s gnarly Op. 131:

Theoretically Informed Intonation

Catholic University Single Reed Symposium 2015: March 7

Single Reed Symposium 2015

Join Dr. Bob Beeson and Dr. Ben Redwine as the saxophone and clarinet studios join forces to present the CUA Single Reed Symposium 2015 on March 7th. Guest artists include Dr. Noah Getz from American University, Dr. Doug O’Connor from Towson, Mr. Robert DiLutis from the University of Maryland, and Mr. Pedro Rubio from the Royal Conservatory of Music, Madrid, Spain. The day consists of informative master classes and performances culminating in an all-participant saxophone/clarinet choir concert. Leading music industry companies will also be on hand with impressive displays for equipment testing.

Register for free at:

I will be playing David Lang’s Press Release on baritone saxophone at the final evening concert (7:30pm), as well as delivering a lecture on intonation physics and applications (2:30pm).

There is no charge, please be in touch if you can make it and I look forward to seeing you there.

Fast air, slow fingers

While practicing the opening of Luciano Berio’s Sequenza IXb today, I relearned for the hundredth time a concept I should have shared on here long ago: fast air, slow fingers.

Berio’s opening passage is made difficult by the need to slur large intervals into awkward registers at delicate dynamics—all with a spooky ease and panache. In particular, one must connect to a low B at a piano or pianissimo dynamic, both slurred and articulated.

Intervals are disturbed and made unstable by turbulence, especially the kind that involves even fractional movement of the saxophone mouthpiece in the oral cavity. It is extremely easy to slam down those pesky pinky keys, especially when bridging large intervals, causing that turbulence. The fix: start depressing the low-note pinky keys right away after the prior note. If the slur is F down to B, then the instant I arrive at the F I start moving my fingers to close the other keys, even though there is a duration to the F which is relatively long. The fingers have to move slowly, sneakily, and then there is this amazing sensation of the low B popping right out with ease, with the proper affekt even of the delicate dynamic. Although this particular passage is a good place to learn this technique, it is an effective approach to almost all areas of saxophone playing, especially the altissimo register.

To get an initial sense of this feeling, do a portamento slur from F# up to G using the key only. When that is smooth, try F up to G, doubling the interval. Soon, you will approach saxophone technique with a sensitive awareness of how far you let the keys open, and in what subtle timing multiple keys have to close in order to make one interval sound smooth and clean.

Efficiency and relaxation in saxophone technique

I used to be a ballroom dance teacher for about a year, during which time I greatly improved my saxophone technique. In dancing, balance is the key to both power and speed. Almost any time you see a professional ballroom star doing something with stunning speed and athleticism, most of his/her energy is not going into brute force, but finesse: the more balanced he/she is, the faster he/she seems to move (interestingly enough, the bigger they look on the floor as well, which explains why many of the world champions—who look huge onstage—are indeed very short persons or couples with a low center of gravity).

So if you balance your saxophone perfectly, you’ll see your abilities on the horn skyrocket for several reasons. I have this half-baked theory that a lot of difficulty in bridging larger intervals, including fast octave-key alternations and slurring in and out of the altissimo, is made much more difficult simply by air turbulence: that the airstream in your oral cavity is disrupted into a kind of chaos by the mouthpiece literally moving around in your mouth, albeit subtly, when your struggling fingers jam the saxophone around.

So, to experience what I’m talking about, practice in front of a full length mirror and check the following:

1.) Excellent full body posture: you should notice the balls of your feet, your knees, your hips, and your shoulders in two near perfect vertical columns, one element on top of the other, your tailbone relaxed and lowered (reduce the Lumbar region curve of your lower back), and your the 8-pound weight of your head floating comfortably above the tailbone. This feeling should feel both relaxed and powerful, you should feel ready for an earthquake. Your weight should be evenly distributed between both feet. For this kind of practicing, eliminate all bodily motion.

2.) Don’t mess with this once you’ve got a saxophone: bring the saxophone to your mouth, not the other way around, and use the neckstrap to do this. Let your elbow drop comfortably and ergonomically at your sides.

3.) This is for practice only: do not rest the horn on your body, hip, thigh, or side at all. Hold the horn out in front of you, stabilized (very precariously, I might add) by your RIGHT thumb (which pushes the instrument away) and your neckstrap (which counteracts that force). Again, find a relaxed balance here.

3a.) When holding the saxophone (for adults), take care to have your elbows near your hip bones. If your elbows go much behind your hip bones, you produce a very unnatural (yet common) shoulder manglement. Use that right elbow on hip as your stability point to hold the saxophone.

4.) Practice scales or other technical passages, and note how tricky it is not to have your horn shake around especially when playing palm and pinky keys. This position is designed to draw attention to that instability, to exacerbate it in order to force you to fix it. Force yourself to work through the physics of the way your hands move, slowly, systematically, and in a very disciplined manner, so that you can play even palm key and pinky key passages without the bell of your horn moving around. You’ll get, perhaps, a brand new feeling on the horn.

5.) Among the things you will start to discover in your search for saxophone balance are: i.) you must relax your grip and make your finger motions hyper-efficient: the harder you grip or depress a key/lever, the more chaotically you will release it and the horn balance will be lost (notice those pinkies, or especially left hand index finger, how often they fly off the key when opening, increasing the distance needed to travel and henceforth slowing your technique). ii.) that you no longer need to make drastic adjustments in your airstream, embouchure, or even voicing when bridging large intervals, you will realize how the small inaccuracies of technique will trick your body into compensating via the air column or otherwise, and your air technique will be more flowing and streamlined. This, by the way, increases the speed of response of notes when coming from far away notes, and allows you to play faster, cleaner, and easier. iii.) upon careful inspection in the mirror, you may notice that certain keys do not always open or close in perfect synch with other keys (most notably the octave vents). When your horn is balanced, you’ll have the opportunity to get intimately acquainted with all the in-betweens of open and closed, the rate at which the different keys open or close, their varied distances, and especially the positive effects in the altissimo when regulating the minute order of these discrepancies in technique. iv.) note how often, to your fingers, that faster gets confused with harder, and that this is not necessary. It doesn’t actually take much force at all to depress a low B or Bb key, nor does it to depress a higher palm key. However, when moving quickly, most of use use a little too much force, which gets dissipated into the body of the horn, moving it around a lot. By training yourself to use the exact quantity of force necessary to open or close keys (no more, no less) when playing very slowly, you will get used to this feeling and avoid the issue (mostly) when playing faster.

So, maybe, the next time you have to suddenly pop up into the altissimo, or slur from the higher octaves down to a low B or Bb, take interest in the physical disturbance of your saxophone’s balance and positioning when your fingers move to such a drastically different position, and be cheered by knowing that none of the keys open more than about half an inch (as opposed to, say, cello, where you must often physically travel the full parallel of that musical distance with your hand)! By coordinating and synchronizing various half-inch distance changes, you can finesse your way around virtually any technical challenge, even the more difficult leaps. As a final note, those of you with wrist pain or other risks for playing-related injury will drastically reduce your dangers by being cognizant of your saxophone’s balance. Good, efficient technique is what makes this possible, but I think that balance and posture are deeply rooted in the development thereof and are also not talked about very much in the area of technique discussion.