Listen First, with Donna Schwartz

Today on the show we’re joined by Donna Schwartz, one of the best-known saxophone teachers online. As you’ll be hearing though, Donna’s expertise goes deep on sax but also wide on other instruments and musicality in general. Along with past podcast guest Nick Mainella, Donna hosts the “Everything Saxophone” podcast, and she is the creator of several interesting online courses, including “Get a Killer Saxophone Tone”, “Practice Smarter” and “Jazz Improvisation Explained”.

In this conversation we talk about:

  • how it was learning a second instrument that helped Donna overcome crippling performance anxiety on her primary instrument
  • the revolutionary approach to teaching and learning music which really shouldn’t be all that revolutionary and
  • the surprising key to producing a good tone that really projects

This was one of those conversations where we had to keep holding ourselves back because we could have happily dived into any of several areas Donna touched on and spent hours just talking about that! So we know you’ll enjoy this and go away keen to explore Donna’s website, courses and podcast for more of her insights and expertise.

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Christopher: Welcome to the show, Donna. Thank you for joining us today.

Donna: Thanks so much, Christopher, I really appreciate it.

Christopher: So I’d love to start at the beginning of your musical journey and hear a bit about what those early music experiences were like for you.

Donna: Okay. It’s not, some people may think I was born with a trumpet or a saxophone in my mouth and that is not the case, folks. I had a really good public school education. We had music available to us with general music but then at the end of third grade we were shown the band instruments and I was really, first of all I wanted to play drums. My mom said it was too loud (laughs) so I was, like, “All right, I’ll play trumpet. That’s not loud at all.” So, but the, in truth, the elementary band director was a professional trumpet player and of course he’s gonna show that instrument off the best and I’ll never forget that. I’m thinking of it right now. This is, wow, this is bringing back memories.
I’m sitting there in my third-grade general music classroom. We’re sitting on risers and he brings out this shiny, gold trumpet, not real gold, you know, it’s lacquer, of course, but he brings out this trumpet and he’s playing it and I was, like, “Wow. That’s me,” and so I chose trumpet but I could not get a sound out for three months. I’m not lying to you. I really could not get a sound out and I’m a very determined person, very persistent, sometimes to a fault and I just, I couldn’t do it.

Now, my older sister played the mellophone which is like a marching French horn. She didn’t have the best embouchure and embouchure is your facial setting. It’s the muscles around your mouth that help you to produce a tone on a wind instrument but my sister after a couple of months, she showed me the embouchure. I got it and I was off to the races. I do have to say this, though, during those first three months we were in, our band classes were in the attic of our school, a very hot attic and New York didn’t have air conditioned schools and there were 25 or 30 kids in that beginner trumpet class and I just couldn’t get it. I could read okay but I couldn’t get it. And every time he’d put me in the front of the classroom and say “This is what you’re not supposed to do.”

Now, can you imagine that today? Oh, my God. So, like I said, I was persistent, stubborn and I had this “f— you” attitude because I’m from New York, so I finally got it. I became the best player in that school fairly quickly and that shut him up, you know, but that experience alone made me feel that, you know, I would never want to make someone else feel that way about playing, you know, someone, so I kind of made a vow to myself that, you know, as I get older I would want to get people past any issues with tone production, okay, because, you know, playing a wind instrument you don’t see it. It’s inside your mouth, you know, or it’s inside a mouthpiece so it can be kind of tricky and I totally get that. I can totally relate to that.

So fast forwarding, like I said, I grew up in New York. I went through the school system. I got into all-county bands, all-district bands. In ninth grade in the entire district I had the highest score out of my district auditions, made it into all-state, all-county jazz bands and then I hit, as most trumpet players do, if you don’t have a good foundation, which I really didn’t because my sister’s embouchure wasn’t a level embouchure. French horn players have a little bit different angle to how they play compared to trumpet players. It’s just slightly more of an overbite, I’m gonna say and that will only take you so far in a trumpet and it took me so far as, like, the end of high school going into college.

At the end of high school I started to suffer from performance anxiety and I blew my Eastman audition because I was really, really terrified. I could play the music in my head without a doubt but I knew it was the endurance, it was the range and that came from a faulty setting and it came from a faulty approach. It also came from a faulty mindset.
Like we all say as we get older, “I wish I had the mindset that I do now and I wish I could have applied it to when I was younger because man that would have been great,” and I was great, as great as I could be until I hit that rock, that obstacle and then it got so bad. After high school I was accepted to Tanglewood and actually I was accepted into Tanglewood when I was in tenth grade. I was also at the time writing music. I was arranging music when I was very young, like, around ten years old and then I started to write my own music. I won some state and national awards for composition and I actually wrote a piece for the Olympics and I didn’t know where to send it. I actually found the Olympic committee and I sent it to them and then of course, you know, they sent me a nice letter and all that kind of stuff, whatever. They didn’t take it, but, you know, that was pretty cool. It’s pretty awesome but I had somehow contacted Boston University and the director, Robert Sorot (phonetic) at the time wanted me to attend Tanglewood. They didn’t have a composition program for young composers at the time.

I couldn’t do it, though. Unfortunately my parents couldn’t swing it but two years later when I graduated high school they started the young composers program at Tanglewood and I got into that. I was one of eleven composers around the world accepted into that program. Of course I brought my trumpet because I was going to go into Queen’s College as a trumpet major.

The first day at Tanglewood, I couldn’t play a note. I couldn’t play a note. My sound was gone and obviously I’m terrified. I’m in front of these amazing musicians, my head is an amazing musician, my mouth wasn’t and I had two months to get myself in shape to be a trumpet major. That was a really, really tough time in my life and I’m gonna be honest with you. It took me a number of years before — Oh God — not a number of years, a long time before I was able to hash out the embouchure problems that I had and make it work for me and I had the best instructors at the time starting with, at Tanglewood, Joe Foley and Joe was one of the guys that helped me to start to change my mindset and not rely on listening to the bell for, you know, what’s the word I’m looking for, for reassurance or anything like that but relying on my mind to create and then it comes out the bell.

When I went to Queen’s College I was encouraged to study with Vince Pantherella who is the second trumpet player for the Philharmonic. He played principal trumpet in another orchestras. Phenomenal person. Phenomenal teacher and what guys were telling me was that he saved the careers of so many people. So I got up the courage and I called him and he changed my life. He changed my life in terms of the way I teach, in terms of the way I think. Unfortunately my head was so messed up with all this performance anxiety I, it, I, he probably felt like I was one of his failures because I couldn’t succeed. My sound in the low range was amazing, you know, a lot of guys liked playing with me when I played second trumpet because I’d be, like, that rock of a foundation but I just, I had no range but the thing that set Vince apart from everybody else was he made me sing everything before I played it.

Now this is someone that, I didn’t like to necessarily speak out loud in public so much even though I was valedictorian of my high school. I had to make that speech. I was dying about that but I really didn’t like to speak so much and I hated my singing voice but I had to sing everything in fixed do before I was allowed to play it on my mouthpiece, not even on my trumpet, on the mouthpiece. Only then could I play it on the trumpet after I did those two things and that, wow, was that different than the way I was taught because as most people in the United States, and I’m not sure about other countries so much although I do have students all around the world but for most people they equate music literacy with reading.

It’s not that at all, folks. Music literacy is being able to have a conversation, like, you know, we’re not rehearsing this conversation. We have a couple of talking points but I just totally threw Chris under the bridge and said “We’re gonna do this,” and —

Christopher: I’m sitting back here thinking, “This is going great.” I’m doing a great job of interviewing you so far.

Donna: Yahoo! So, you know, this is improvisation right now. This is what we’re doing because we know how to speak our language. We know the thoughts and stories, that’s a key word, the thoughts and the stories we want to express and it’s flowing out because we have a command over our language and that’s music literacy. That’s music literacy. Now, yeah, you should, it would be great if you can read music and you, that’s a skill that you should learn but the learning of that comes after the speaking and we’re gonna definitely get into that some more after I get through my really ridiculously long history.

So anyway, so I’m in college, I’m studying with Vince, he’s totally changing my mental approach, physical approach as well. I still use his concepts to this day when I teach trumpet and saxophone players because it’s all related but what I also did in college, you see, I also always wanted to play the saxophone because when I grew up that was the age where they actually had saxophones on the radio, go figure that one out and these great saxophone solos, you know, the ones by Ritchie Cannata from Billy Joel’s band, Dave Coz was playing solos, all those types of things, I mean, you know, Clarence Clemens, great stuff, right? I always wanted to play but people always said to me, “Oh, no, you can’t play trumpet and saxophone. That’ll ruin your trumpet embouchure,” and I was like, “Oh, okay.” I said, “Enough with that,” in college and my, I had a really good friend, Allen Mandel who was a phenomenal saxophone player. He played every woodwind, I mean, he owned every woodwind in creation. I’m not talking the usual stuff. He owned the strangest stuff, too but he showed me the embouchure for saxophone and I started off a tenor and I just kept on goin’ from there.

That saved me also because it saved my sanity because it helped me to prove that I could still play an instrument because it gets to a point when you’re suffering from, whether it’s performance anxiety or not quite understanding how to create a good tone on your instrument you start to doubt yourself. You start to think you’re not a good musician and that could lead down a really bad downward spiral so taking the saxophone really helped me and I really, I loved it because I had a tonal concept in my mind, actually something that Vince taught me, I had a tonal concept in my mind, something to shoot for and that’s what I did so that’s basically how I started on trumpet and on saxophone and to this day the interesting thing with saxophone, I knew I didn’t have a performance anxiety problem because within a, what, a few years I was playing in front of hundreds and then thousands of people at shows on the saxophone and then I was able to transfer that mindset back to the trumpet.

The trumpet issue was an embouchure issue so, yeah. That’s basically my history when it comes to music. It’s not a pretty one but I do think that me struggling through all that crap has helped my students both online through my courses and private students and even I taught public school for about over 14 years. I think it’s helped all of them.

Christopher: No doubt. Well, there was so much packed into that that I want to circle back and dig into and I think, it’s funny, I’ve been taking my daughter, who’s two, to a Kodály-inspired music class and they really believe in that principle that if you draw the analogy between music and language it makes no sense to start from the dots on the page, you know, nobody starts learning language by writing it or reading it. You start by speaking it and hearing it and I think that is one case where the analogy to language works perfectly. It makes perfect sense that we should understand music in our head and with our voice before we ever think about, well, how would we put this down on paper.

Donna: Yes. Absolutely, in fact I always use this analogy because even when I go into new teaching situations, like, for example in Los Angeles I moved from New York to Los Angeles because I couldn’t take shoveling another snow storm, it just killed me so those of you that live in cold areas know that but you’re probably laughing at me right now.
So anyway, I moved to Los Angeles but what really struck me was how poor the music education is out here. I’m in shock because this is one of the entertainment capitals and some districts have no music, some have pretty good music programs and I’m gonna say it, this is gonna be obnoxious but they don’t compare to what I had in Syosset, New York when was teaching. I had an elementary band, a concert band, I had a beginner’s band, concert band and then I had a jazz band and my jazz band was good and I come out here and I just, it bothers me to no end about that so, yeah.

Christopher: I think one thing that’s really remarkable about your own teaching is what you touched on there which is you were taught at least once you got to college level to really think in terms of listening first and kind of imagining the music before you play it. I’d love to hear more about that, how you were taught and then maybe we can talk about how you bring that out in your own teaching.

Donna: Yeah. You know, I like that you said the word, imagining because it reminded me of exactly what Vince would say. He would say, because a lot of people that came to him had problems with performing and it was because they were so much into their head but he was saying get into your imagination. Get into that playground in your head. Imagine what you want to sound like. Imagine what this beautiful piece of music will sound like. He didn’t directly say this to me but what he said was this: even though I was a trumpet player he said, “Listen to the great singers. Listen to Jussi Bjorling (phonetic).” I had never heard of Jussi Bjorling. Now I’ve heard of a bunch of the opera singers at the time but not Jussi Bjorling. So he had me listening to singers to get an idea of tonal concept so with him that was the start of a formal, someone formally telling me to listen first.

The interesting thing is that when I was younger in New York we had these solo competitions. It’s called, NYSMA, New York State School Music Association. You prepare a solo, a certain number of scales and sight reading and what I did, I had, there was this kid, he was a year older than me. His name was John Narocki, actually. Great trumpet player. He studied with some really great people. He was, like, my mentor. He didn’t know it but everything that he did, I did the following year. So if he played the Hayden Trumpet Concerto, I was going to do that. If he did the Hindimuth, I was gonna do that but what I did the year before I was supposed to play that solo, yeah, I’m listening to John but I’m finding every recording I can of the Hindimuth trumpet concierto and I’m listening to WQXR which was the classical radio station in New York but I’m remembering the New York Times on Sundays they would put the radio listings for the week so I would look and see if there were any trumpet conciertos and I’d get ready with my cassette recorder because that’s all I had at the time and I’d do cassette recordings so I was training myself to listen first. Yeah, I could read these things but you can’t read phrasing. You can’t read nuances. You can’t read tone. So that’s — I was giving myself, as Vince would say, I was giving my brain good information and unknowingly doing that.

So fast forward to college. Studying with Vince, he would make me listen to great singers. He would make me sing everything. Now, folks, the way you know that you are really hearing something is if you can sing it. Now, I always get this question, “Oh, but my voice sucks.” Well, you know what? So does mine. (Laughs) And I had to sing it out loud in front of Vince. I had to sing out loud in my college courses when you do sight singing, you know, that’s a horror story to begin with. You know what? Your voice is your own imprint. Love it. Okay? Your speaking voice is your own imprint. Love it. And you know, use what you have.

We say to people, I say to people, “I don’t know if you are hearing it until you’re able to sing it and you’re not gonna know that either.” Okay? And that’s what the overall message from Vince was, so, you know, I got to hear it, I have to sing it, play it on the mouthpiece which still means you have to hear it because that mouthpiece, you know, there’s no valves on that thing, you know, all that stuff’s coming from your head and then you can play it and that’s actually Vince’s background because he grew up in Depression-era Philadelphia suburbs where they couldn’t afford instruments for the kids so if you wanted to play an instrument you expressed interest, they put you in a singing program where you learned solfege, fixed do and you’d be singing fixed do, all these types of transitions for five years, five years and then if you were still interested in the instrument, and he was, they gave him a trumpet mouthpiece and a valve casing. It wasn’t a total trumpet, just the mouthpiece and the valve casing and he did that for a year and a half and then he got a trumpet.

And then after a year of that he got into Carnegie School of Music which that is the best, you don’t hear about this but it’s the best music school in the country because it’s a free ride, okay, it’s full tuition. He got in there at 15 and graduated but he went into the army after that and he suffered a really, really bad injury to his lip. He was ejected from a Jeep and his face hit a rock and it split his lip open and he went through hell and back and he found these teachers, he found Vince Chickowitz, he found Arnold Jacobs. They saved him and it was like Vince’s destiny to save other people but all that story just goes back to the point of Vince’s upbringing. He had to find his own, he had to go back to his upbringing to save herself and that has saved a whole bunch of other people.

Christopher: That’s really interesting. I think it’s a stark contrast to the, you know, the teenage guitar player who thinks, “If I just have the Fender Strat then I’ll sound great and be a great guitarist,” you know, this is the opportunity. This is saying, “First off, look at what you have inside. Look at no equipment. Can you become a good musician? And then when you’re handed an instrument you will have something to do with it.”

Donna: Yeah. You know, wow, that’s a great analogy and here’s the thing, too, it’s not just guitar players, it’s saxophone players as well. Even more than, I’m going to say even a little bit more than trumpet players there is a fascination with getting the latest, greatest gear. It’s called “gear acquisition syndrome.” My student told me this one. It’s actually very funny. We feel like if we had the top-line equipment, oh, then we’re going to sound great or if we have the same equipment that our favorite player has we’re gonna sound just like them.

In fact, I had someone coming up to my door the other day thinking that I sold saxophones. I said, “No, I teach,” but then he said, “Okay well, you know, can you tell me where to go?” and I mentioned some things and I said, you know, he asked the prices of saxophones so I’m giving, like, beginning prices and stuff and then he’s showing me this professional model, what was it, Selmer Series III which is, you know, it’s an expensive saxophone and I said, “No, start off on a beginner saxophone and, you know, get a good teacher, you know?” and whether it’s online, because nowadays, folks, online, you’re gonna get the same benefits as live in person but whether it’s online or in person get the good teacher. Do not waste. Do not spend $4,000 on a saxophone when you can spend probably $1000 or rent — even better — rent at first and then go from there.

It’s that, its that thought that a lot of people go through because we’re also fed that, too, you know, we’re fed that in our society, as well. “Oh, you got to get this new Thiawana (phonetic) mouthpiece. It’s awesome.” Yeah, they are awesome but you know what? You got to know how to control it. (Laughs) That’s the thing. It’s because you don’t.

Christopher: Absolutely. I think it’s that cultural misunderstanding around where the music comes from and, you know, apart from the gifted few the rest of us get the music from the page and from the instrument, therefore we need the best sheet music and the best model of instrument when the reality is, you know, we all have that instinct that we can tap into if it’s for all of us in the right way and that’s where the music comes from much more than whatever, you know, model of saxophone you happen to have bought.

Donna: Yeah, and, you know, you’re touching on another thing, too, and that’s, this is something that’s really, I’m pretty passionate about. People feel, and I alluded to this before, people feel that they’re literate in music if they’re reading, okay, and this is not just the United States. This is all over the world. Somehow we’re fed the notion that, you know, “Okay, I’m a musician because I can read.” All right, I see this a lot out here, especially, but that’s really not the case because the thing is this: the notes on the page only say so much and just looking at the notes of the page you’d sound like a robot. In order to understand and give meaning to the notes on the page you’ve had to have done a lot of listening.

Now sometimes when you’re sight, sometimes people may ask, “Okay, Donna, well, let me try to trip you up with this one. What if I’m sight reading? I can’t possibly have heard it before. I’m sightreading.” Yeah. You’re right. But you know what? If you have a rich background of listening to all different types of music, of singing tonal patterns and echoing rhythm patterns and actually improvisation, sightreading’s gonna be a snap for you, all right? And this leads in to my training with music learning theory and we had spoken about this before.

After undergrad I just was really messed up in my head even though I had that great training from Vince. I just, it was my own head that messed me up. I got a social work degree so I was doing social work for a little while. I have a master’s in, you know, I was, being a social worker in senior centers, directing them, all of that kind of thing. I said, “I’ve got to get back into music,” and I found that I — I was private teaching at the same time. I was private teaching when I was in high school, actually so I had continued doing that and then, you know, people kept on saying to me, “You should just get your music ed degree. Get your music ed degree,” but the other thing that, you know, people always say is, “Oh, well, you know, those that can’t, teach,” you know, and I got to tell you that is so wrong because I’ve studied with some phenomenal players who can’t teach. (Laughs) They just can’t teach, you know, because they never had problems. They don’t know how to solve them.

So I did get my music ed degree and, you know, Queen’s College was really great for that but there were a couple of things that were missing from that program and one of the things that I found — this was at the University of Hartt in Connecticut. It’s part of the University of Hartford. They had a summer course. I would take a lot of summer courses all over the place because I’m the type of person, I do a lot of research, I dive into things and I like to know a lot about everything.

So I took this course called Creativity Through Improvisation by Chris Azzara. Now he was on faculty for Hartt for a while but then he went to Eastman. That course also changed my life because what it taught me was this whole process of music learning theory. Now music learning theory is well, that’s, it’s what it is. It’s a theory developed by Edwin Gordon who recently passed away. He studied how we learn music. He studied it in young children, all across the age span, put a tremendous amount of research into this and he found, like, the best way to teach people how to learn music.

Now we learn the most from ages 0-9. That’s when we’re like a sponge. We can take everything in. It doesn’t mean that after age nine that you stop learning, it just means that it’s gonna, you’re gonna have to do some work, you know, so, like, you have two areas of development, your rhythm and your tonal and for a lot of people they’re not equal. You may be better at tonal than rhythm and vice versa.

Once you get to the age of nine and afterwards the area that you’re weaker in you’re just gonna have to put in some more work, you know, to get it up there. But I took that course with Chris and, wow, I was blown away because we were learning songs by ear, no notation in front of us at all and we were singing melodies, bass lines and harmonies. Melodies, bass lines and harmonies. At the end of the week were all singing. We didn’t even need our instruments and we were improvising because we knew the melody, bass and the harmony.

So that course just totally changed my life and then after that I dug in to that. I did more research and I found out that there was certification for music learning theory and there’s an organization called the Gordon Institute for Music Learning. It’s and, you know, if you’re really interested in this definitely check this out. There is a bunch of us all over the world, actually that teach this way and it’s big in Italy and it’s big in Japan, too. In fact if you do a YouTube search and you see some of these Japanese youth orchestras I betcha a bunch of them are MLT-trained because they’re unreal.

What sold me on this theory was when I was taking that course I was shown a video of a fifth-grade jazz band. Dina Alexander was the teacher at the time and this was her band. These kids were improvising and I’m not talking that canned solo that you read on a jazz chart. They were creating, improvising their own solos in fifth grade and they were meaningful solos and they were meaningful in style, too. Now that just blew my mind.

I was sold right there. I said, “I’ve got to figure this out. I’ve got to get certified.” I did. I changed the way I taught and again I was taught from a very young age to read and play at the same time and people were dropping like flies because it’s too much to handle and it just doesn’t make sense as you’ve alluded to before at the Kodaly training. You really have to build up people’s ears first. You have to get them listening and get them singing. Get them hearing things that are not just in duple meter where you’re hearing the small beats in sets of twos (clap-clap) but hear them, have them hearing things to sets of threes (clap-clap-clap) having compound meters (clap-clap, clap-clap-clap, clap-clap) all those types of things. Listening to world music.

The more experience you have up in your head it’s gonna translate to making it easier to read and I’ve just found after I started using concepts from music learning theory I’ve rarely had people drop. I’ve rarely had people quit their instruments. It’s interesting because my first years of teaching in public school I taught the way I was taught and you’d get the usual amount of kids dropping and the orchestra teacher, same thing. I changed over. No one wanted to drop. All of a sudden everybody was switching from orchestra to band (Laughs) because we were having fun. You know, when you take up an instrument all you want to do is play songs, right? And I think people can relate to that. You don’t take up an instrument to play long tones unless you’re a masochist. (Laughs) You know?

So that whole concept, you know, from Dr. Edmund Gordon was just really profound to me and you know what? It shouldn’t be because those of you that like jazz, a lot of those guys back then didn’t necessarily have formal training, all right? They learned how to figure out to play their instrument but when they wanted to play and improvise what did they do? They went to live entertainment. They listened. If they had a teacher they listened to them, you know? They didn’t say, “Okay, wait. Hold on. Can I have the sheet music?” No. It was all ears. It was all ears and that, I think, is something that is sorely missing today from music education.

Now unfortunately I understand why and it’s because of the cultural concept and I mentioned this again before that, you know, we say to young kids, like, when you read books, you’re literate so people then equate that with music, when you read music you’re literate. That’s the first problem but the other problem is this: band directors, at least in the United States have such demands on them that they have less and less time to teach their kids and more responsibilities for putting on concerts so they feel that, “Okay, I got to get these kids reading music so I’m gonna stick music paper in front of their face and hope that they just figure it out on their own.” That’s the unfortunate thing.
That’s been going on for a number of years now and it pains me. It pained me every time I had open house night when I was a public school teacher and the parents of my young students came in, you know, and they’d say, “Oh, you know, I played flute when I was younger but I stopped after high school because I didn’t know what to play,” and that was a common theme and the reason why they didn’t know what to play was because they had to rely on someone else to teach them how to play it, to tell them how it goes, you know, as opposed to with music learning theory if you’re taught this process for learning music — and I teach this to my private students and I do this in all my courses — if you do this process you’re gonna be able to teach yourself. You’re gonna be like those jazz musicians back then and no, it doesn’t have to be just jazz. It could be classical. It could be anything you want but it’s all ear-driven. It’s not note-driven, so to speak. And then you learn how to read and then there’s a process for teaching people. The distinction between music learning theory and the Suzuki method is that music learning theory has a process for teaching reading also and that was really effective for me when I was teaching in public schools.

Christopher: Very cool. So I’m gonna ask a question I’m sure is on everyone’s mind because I have no doubt having heard you describe it like that the listeners are thinking, “That sounds amazing. Why doesn’t everyone do it like that?”

Donna: Yeah.

Christopher: Give us a glimpse of what it looks like, because I think probably everyone’s familiar with the sheet-music based approach where you show off on day one of learning piano. The teacher puts a page on the piano, says “This is a C. This is a D. Play the C. Play the D,” and it’s very kind of visual and kind of rule-based. The ear is almost not even involved. Give us a glimpse of what it would look like in your first lesson with a student or in once of your courses where you begin from.

Donna: Yeah. So here’s the thing. Because I teach a lot of adults I have to see, I have to problem solve, see what kind of background they have and some of them do have a reading background, some of them don’t. So what I’m gonna do, I’m gonna take it back to when I was teaching in public school, for the very beginner.

Okay. So I was teaching beginning, third-grade beginning recorder and then beginning band. So here’s what I did. I would sing a song and it would be a song they didn’t know. I made sure I did that. I would sing a song called, like, “Major Duple.” (Laughs) Boy, that’s exciting. Woo-hoo! That’s a hit. That’s a chart-topper. Anyway, so I would establish parameters for that. I’d be on the piano. I’m not a great piano player but I could play basic chords and I would go through the routine of singing that song many, many times but each time I would ask people to listen for or feel a different thing.

So getting people engaged especially with their ears but also with your body because folks, you don’t realize you don’t read rhythms, you feel them, okay, and that’s the big thing that people have a problem when they say they lose their timing. You’re not feeling the timing. You’re not feeling the rhythm. So I’d get people feeling the timing, feeling the rhythm, listening to the song, thinking about the direction of the melody, thinking, is it major or minor? What are the starting notes? What are the ending notes? How is this melody going? Any patterns? Anything repeats?

It’s an interactive process in the sense that you’re dissecting that piece of music. You’re not just passively listening as if you’re driving in traffic, you know, you’re listening to it and you’re thinking, “Okay I hear the melody,” you know, “Let’s see. How is that moving? Okay. Oh, I hear the baseline.” That’s a big thing, too.

I’ve found recently — I didn’t realize this — that one of my students wanted to learn improvisation. So we’re playing, you know, whatever, and we were using the Jamie Aebersold backing tracks, you know, one of his books, volume 24, the one with the scales, and he was having a problem with the chord changes. There were only two chord changes but he was having a problem keeping up with the chord changes and I said, “I’m not sure what’s going on,” and then I asked, “What are you listening to?” and he said, “Oh, I’m hearing the piano on the right hand going, “Doot-doot! Doot-doot-doot-doot-doot!” and I was like, “Oh, my God, I get it now.” He wasn’t understanding. He wasn’t feeling the timing and he was only listening to the higher sounding instruments.

We train our culture to listen to the melodies. We don’t train them to listen to the whole thing. We don’t train them to listen to baselines. So I definitely make it a point to listen to the baselines. In fact when I gig I need that base in my monitor because that’s what I’m keying in on more than anything else whether it’s jazz, rock, pop, blues doesn’t matter. So we listen to all parts of the music, okay, but the first thing I teach them is the melody. And I don’t sing it and you sing it back. Uh-uh. I sing the entire melody and then the key word is audiate. A-U-D-I-A-T-E. Audiate, audiation and what that is is basically hearing something in your mind that you may not have just heard, you may have, but you may not have just heard.

For example — this happens to me a lot — you wake up in the morning. Let’s say you have a radio alarm or something like that and it wakes you up to a song and it’s not quite your favorite song. In fact it’s an irritating song, right? People call it an earwig. Okay I just call it a, well I won’t say it but it’s just really annoying, right? Okay. I betcha you can picture that and you can hear that in your head right now, right? Nod yes. Yes. Okay, that’s audiation. That’s what it is but I try to have you audiate things you want to hear, okay? So, you know —

Christopher: So that Major Duple pop hit.

Donna: Yeah. Exactly. So, like, yeah. Exactly. And it’s so funny though because it’s an okay melody, it’s all right, but I would have kids come to me years later and still be able to sing that and still be able to play it on their instrument without having read the music because of that process, you know, and it all has to deal with that key concept of audiation and the way we develop audiation is through listening a lot, analyzing it, breaking it down into all the parts, all that kind of stuff and you really own your music, you own the melody when you own the baseline too because you have context there so that’s how I kind of approach that.

Christopher: Very cool. I think what I love most there is that the way you’ve described it it’s a very conscious and aware process, you know, I think there’s a trap when we start talking about learning music by ear and developing the instinct to play what you hear or to improvise. A lot of people think that means you just kind of immerse yourself and do it and do it and do it and eventually it clicks.

And what I’ve found is that for some musicians, sure, after three decades gigging they can kind of play by ear and they’ve kind of figured out how to do it subconsciously but they have no real understanding of how they do it which actually makes them quite nervous about doing because at any moment it could just stop working whereas what you’ve described is very methodical. It’s very thoughtful and you’re teaching the student not just to do it but to understand where that music is coming from and how they can go about replicating it.

Donna: Yeah and you know what’s interesting, ’cause this brings up something that I was just listening to recently. Bob Reynolds is a great saxophone player out here in L.A. and I was listening to an excerpt with a lesson that he had with one of his students and they were talking about enclosures and that kind of thing and the student played this really complicated lick like, dat-doot-dah-dah-dah-dah, dah-dah-dah-dah-da, something like that. Bob heard it once, got most of it and then he just said, “Play it a couple more times,” and then he got it.

Now he wasn’t trained in music learning theory but when you, when you’re, whether it’s studying jazz or anything else you should do a lot of transcribing and that whole process that I go through with my students, I show them how to transcribe, when you do that then at first it’s hell. I’m not gonna lie to you. It’s torture, okay? Not gonna lie, puttin’ it out there but after the first tune it gets a pinch easier for the second. It gets a little easier for the third and then after a while you get to be like these guitar players that they’ll hear something once and then, boom, they’ve got it.

So it’s, at first I would hope that for, like a lot of string folks and stuff like that that they’ve been trained to just really listen, you know? And the best players are the ones that are listening to more than just their part, you know? They’re listening to the whole picture and they’re breaking it down and they’re analyzing it. Absolutely. But in music education it’s missing today and they keep, in the States they keep going through, you know, changing the standards and saying, “Oh, we want our kids to improvise,” but then a lot of music teachers are not trained how to improvise and I really think that a music teacher, any music teacher should have taken Chris Azzara’s course. He probably still offers it.

Every summer they should take that course because then they will learn how to improvise and how to teach their kids how to improvise. It’s not a magic pill, okay. It’s not like, I, you know, I knew how to improvise before that course but that course solidified it and it made me a better musician. I’ve taken many summer music courses in different modalities and people came out worse at the end of the week but this course people came out better in terms of their skill level and, you know, improvisation’s a lifelong journey, you know, it’s not a magic pill. It’s not, like, “Oh, okay. I learned this process. I’m God, now. I can do anything.” I don’t think so. You could ask, like, Jimmy Heath, who was one of my mentors at Queen’s College or Sonny Rollins. In fact in a recent interview Sonny Rollins said, “No, I’m still, I’m always learning,” you know?

So it’s just gonna give you the process and the tools so that you don’t have to be that parent or that person that says to the music teacher, “Oh, yeah, you know, I quit because I didn’t know what to play.”

Christopher: Awesome. So we’ve talked about the power of listening for, you know, finding the notes by ear or having a good sense of rhythm but there’s one other big area of listening that you’re particularly expert in which is the whole topic of intonation and developing your tone and I wanted to take this chance to pick your brains a bit.

I know we have a lot of saxophonists in the audience who will be particularly keen to hear about your killer saxophone tone course but I think this is a topic that really cuts across all instruments to some degree or another. So I’ll just ask the broad question. How should we be thinking about developing our tone?

Donna: Sure. You know it’s, I’m so glad that you have me on this podcast because you’re bringing out a whole bunch of memories that I really haven’t thought of in a long time and this is actually great to kind of like solidify everything together.

Intonation is directly tied to a good tone. You see, you may think that you play great and all this kind of stuff but you may be wondering why your sound is not projecting. You may be wondering why you’re playing on a stage or whatever and your sound sounds thin. It’s because you’re out of tune most of the time. Now I will have this caveat: Equipment is important. It’s not the be-all and end-all, okay, because Charlie Parker played on a plastic alto sax, right? Okay. Just wanna put that out there.

But equipment is important but it’s not the be-all and end-all. The equipment makes you efficient but your brain, your thinking makes you a musician. Okay. So all this music learning theory type of talk ,learning songs, when you’re learning how to sing those songs you’re developing your intonation also because you’re also listening to base lines and you’re doing harmonies as well but just a fairly quick story.

So as I was playing more and more saxophone and I still play trumpet and saxophones, as I was playing more and more saxophones I can’t believe and I’m embarrassed to admit this but it’s, I’m going to because it’ll help people. Let’s see. As I was playing more and more I always thought in the beginning with saxophone, unlike trumpet, you know, you just tune it at the neck cork and then, you know, all the other notes will be fairly in tune. Boy that was dumb, because, no. (Laughs) No. What the hell was I thinking? No, it’s not, you know, especially an alto sax and forget it with the soprano sax. You have to hear those notes in tune in order to get them in tune, okay?

Now here’s where the equipment may have a problem with you and this is where I had a snag, myself but you have to, the process still has to come from your ears, okay? It still does and when I coach my students, you know, we use certain tools, we use drones when we practice whether it’s long tones or I call them interval exercises or whatever, you want to get that muscle memory, that sound in your head and get the muscle memory going also with your embouchure as well but in terms of intonation the story with me is that I was playing saxophone for a while and then I just was getting really frustrated because I just felt like my sound wasn’t projecting and it wasn’t just a mouthpiece issue per se. It was how I was approaching my embouchure. Again, another embouchure issue.

So I was directed to a person on Long Island, Jeff Lang. Great teacher. Great teacher and it was more of a physical type of let’s-see-what’s-going-on-here as opposed to developing the ears but he still was of that school of thought so he gave me direction in terms of using what’s called the Joe Allard method of playing which is different than what people see and different than what people are taught in schools and that’s fine.

So there’s two ways of playing. There’s the Larry Teal method, the oo embouchure and then there’s the Joe Allard method, the flat lip embouchure and a lot of people that use the Joe Allard method, whether it’s saxophone or clarinet have really full sounds and expansive ranges and once I made that tweak with my playing not only did it improve my range, my intonation got a hell of a lot better, okay, because more of the reed is allowed to vibrate when using a flat lip embouchure. So that’s the first tweak, so that’s a little bit of the physical one but that can’t come unless I’m hearing the notes in tune, you know, if I didn’t have the hearing background.

Now where people, even if they have a good hearing background and are using the Joe Allard method or whatever. You know, they have a good tone. This is where the equipment comes into play. So the mouthpieces I was using at the time were great mouthpieces but once I made that tweak to my embouchure those mouthpieces weren’t working for me any more. I was really out of tune and it distressed me. It bothered me because I was playing large stages.

So then I when down the rabbit hole of finding mouthpieces, down that journey and I eventually settled on a really good brand that worked for me and helped me to play in tune, helped me to, I should say this, to manipulate the tone so I could play in tune because, again, the mouthpiece doesn’t make you play in tune it just provides the efficiency for you to manipulate the sound to get in tune and then it worked great from there, you know, so it’s, you know, intonation again has to come from your hearing and then your equipment makes you efficient. Your equipment has to allow you to manipulate the tone.

Now the manipulation of the tone is something that I go through extensively in my Get a Killer Saxophone Tone course because, like I said before, you don’t just put the mouthpiece on the neck and expect to be in tune. You have to, you have to hear the pitches first but I go through tremendous amounts of, like, exercises and all those types of things to help you learn how to solve a, problem-solve. So, like, if you have a thin sound in your higher register you’re gonna do this exercise. If you want to expand into the altimissimo, well that whole course is gonna get you there because those are all the exercises that I’ve been doing all over the years that Jeff has shown me that I’ve done research on that have helped me plant altissimo notes and stuff like that and be in tune with them and allow them to come out when I want them to, not, you know, by a prayer.

So yeah. It’s a combination of a little bit of equipment but it’s mostly hearing and it’s mostly understanding the right exercises to manipulate the sound that helps with the intonation. Now does this apply to other instruments? Yeah. Like, trumpet you can continually play flat, you know, I mean, there’s less intonation issues I think with a trumpet than there is a saxophone but you are the master of the tone so you really, if you’re not hearing it we know it. (Laughs) We know it, you know? So you within really hear that pitch and tune and get the right embouchure setting and build that muscle memory to get everything in tune there and then you may explore mouthpieces that are gonna make it more efficient for you but any kind of brass instrument, you’re definitely the master of your own tone.

Christopher: Fantastic. And I think, you know, even if you’re playing an instrument like piano or guitar where the pitching is more laid out for you reliably I think everything we’ve been talking about in terms of listening to great players and transcribing and building that mental model before you try and bring it out from the instrument all totally applies to having the kind of tone and timber that you’re looking for.

Donna: Oh, gosh, yeah and you know what’s interesting? I’ve got a lot of students that play, you know, instruments like that, guitar. I have a lot of harp — they call it a harp — the blues harp players. It’s a harmonica. I’ve got a bunch of students that have played those instruments and the interesting thing is that the big concept for them, because they’re used to the instrument just being in tune, you know, you just tune it once and boom, you know, and of course guitar you have to keep retuning but you use your tools to do that or you go to the fifth fret and all that kind of stuff and you quickly tune and you expect all of the notes on that string, once you’re tuned, to be in tune.

It’s not the same on a saxophone. It’s not the same on a trumpet. You have to really rely on hearing it and the timbres as well, too, because certain pitches have a certain timbre to it and that’s what you’re recalling and that’s the thing, you know, that’s the thing that’s gonna help you to play more in tune, have better intonation.

Christopher: Well I think this has been a fascinating conversation in a number of ways. I think if there are any saxophone players in our audience or in fact any instrumentalists you should definitely be checking out the Everything Saxophone podcast and Donna hosts it with one of our other guests on the show here, Nick Mainella and you really dive deep into some fascinating topics that are not saxophone-specific. Maybe you could talk a little more about that Donna.

Donna: Yeah. Nick and I just started this project in 2018 and so far our guests have been Derrick Brown who has actually revolutionized the way we play saxophone. They call him the Beat Box Sax. Very nice, humble guy and when I interviewed him I, when I interview a lot of people I dig deep into their past, not only their journey, you know, where did you go, all this kind of thing but also what they were thinking, you know, what was your thought process? What was your practice regimen, you know, what set you apart? What did you go through over here?

So I interviewed Derrick, Jeff Koshuba, a contemporary jazz player. Nick interviewed Noah Preminger, an up-and-coming jazz saxophone player, great player. The last interview that is up is from Greg Fishman who is a renowned jazz musician, educator, he’s got tons of books out. That was an epic interview, folks. That was, like, almost two hours and he just drops knowledge bombs like you wouldn’t believe. And it’s not just saxophone, it was all, it was jazz, it was jazz concepts.

See, the thing that sets our podcast apart, yes, it’s the Everything Saxophone Podcast but it’s also getting into the mental game. It’s also getting into the mental aspects. It’s getting into the practicing. It’s getting into the jazz, you know, so it’s really, it is designed for all instrumentalists but we’re focusing on saxophone players.

Christopher: Very cool, and of course if there is anyone looking for trumpet or saxophone teaching at as you covered with lessons and with courses so definitely do check that out. As always we’ll have links to those in the show notes for this episode.

Thank you again, Donna for joining us on the show today.

Donna: Thanks so much. This has been really great. I really appreciate you having me.

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