From the Inside Out

In July our saxophone quartet Quirk travelled to Zagreb in Croatia to perform at the World Saxophone Congress. We saw many great players and heard amazing new compositions. I talked to my hero Jean-Marie Londeix and was shown an altissimo range A fingering to be used at a low dynamic range by Nobuya Sugawa. It was wall-to-wall saxophone geekery.

As we were setting up to perform on the first day of the Congress there were two people sat quietly on the front row waiting and watching, eventually joined by two friends. Talking to them after our performance I learned that they were Ray Smith, Sandon Mayhew, Mark Watkins and Jon Gudmundson from the Four Saxophone Quartet. Sarah and I went to see their performance later in the week.

Wow. It was one of the most inspiring recitals we saw that week. All the music was composed by Dr Mark Watkins, the playing was superb and the improvisations reminded me of why I first became interested in jazz decades ago; the most exciting and inventive playing I’ve heard for a long time.


But it gets better......

Part of my delving into literature for my research degree involved looking at the main saxophone treatises, and their main focuses. In a (very) basic overview you have the Ronald Caravan Preliminary Exercises & Etudes in Contemporary Techniques for Saxophone (1980): mainly related to alto saxophone; Daniel Kientzy Les sons multiples aux saxophones (1982): multiphonics only; Jean-Marie Londeix Parameters of the Saxophone (1989): first in-depth broad catalogue of techniques; Weiss & Netti The Techniques of Saxophone Playing (2010): culmination of previous treatises but with a focus on the resultant sounds (listening) rather than measured by scientific instruments. Each has its place in the history and pedagogy of saxophone practice.

One of the difficulties with any technique is communicating the method of production from one person to another. Although a person may feel they are doing a certain thing, until recently what was actually happening in a physiological sense was uncertain. Person A describing what they imagined they were doing to person B, adding another layer of different physiology and imagining.

Until another saxophone treatise emerged by Dr Mark Watkins of the Four saxophone quartet: From the Inside Out (2018). Dr Watkins uses MRI scans and videos of internal processes to discover exactly what happens when a saxophonist employs various techniques. He covers pretty much everything: from the correct oral cavity and tongue position for the altissimo range, to the different types of articulation. All the videos are available to download, some are not the most pleasant viewing. He’s also devised a series of methods to check whether you are doing (internally) what you think you’re doing. These are described in his treatise, for example using small sticks protruding from the mouth as you play to discover if the tongue is raised or lowered etc. From the Inside Out might be a completely different avenue of discovery for saxophonists: taking the methods of the earlier treatises and adding a layer of physiological certainty.

How much talent can you have in one quartet; it’s hardly fair...
Search the internet if you want the book, or Amazon have it.

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