Saxophone is Hard

I was able to get up early and get ready for work quick enough to have about 30-40 minutes worth of pre-commuting music time.  All of the vocals are done, so there’s only fun stuff left to do.  I decided I would start the work week by tackling some saxophone.  I still had three songs to work on.  I picked one and it was off to the races.

I cheated when I set all of this up.  Standard tuning on a guitar puts the open fifth string at 440 hertz (roughly) which is commonly referred to as the note A.  Most wind instruments do not follow the same convention.  In order to better allow the notes the instruments can play to show up on a standard sheet music staff, the reference pitches are shifted a bit.  A trumpet or a tenor sax take that A at 440 hertz and call it B.  For an Alto Sax that note is called an F# (F sharp) or Gb (flat).  All this made life very confusing to the fifth grade kid learning to play the alto sax.  When the teacher said to play a Bb concert, I played a G.  What the hell?  Why do those lucky stiff flute players get to play a Bb?

When tuned to standard pitch (A = 440 hertz), which is also referred to as concert pitch as hinted above, the lowest note you can play on a guitar is an E.  That’s the lowest, sixth, string played open.  Because of this, a huge percentage of the rock and the roll music is in the key of E.  A song in the key of E concert is in C# on an alto sax.  Changing keys on a guitar is easy, you just play the same patterns in a different place on the neck.  Changing key on a wind instrument is the bitch to end all bitches, and C# is pretty much the bitchiest of them all.  To combat this bitchy problem, I tuned the guitar so that 440 hertz is an A#/Bb.  That allows me to pretend I’m playing in E but the actual sound produced is in Eb, which also allows me to play the alto sax in the key of C.  Any kid playing a piano knows that C is as simple as it gets.  Now, having said all of this I was generally writing in a minor key and C# minor isn’t really the end of the world, and C minor is only a little bit easier, but I still have oodles of life experience soloing on a C minor pentatonic scale and it’s pretty much my favorite place to be.

I also wrote a couple of songs in A minor, tuned down to Ab minor, which is F minor on the alto and that’s a bit of a pain in the ass, but I just dealt with it.  I could have tuned up a half step on that one to put the key into Bb which would be G on the sax and that would be fine, but enough’s enough.

You know what?  I might be off on all of this discussion by a factor of two.  Is the open fifth string A the one that’s at 440 hertz, or is it the second fret on the third string?  One is 440 and the other is either 880 or 220 (can you figure out the physical relationship between octaves from that?).  I can’t remember which is which.  Similar to the wind instruments, a guitar’s pitch is shifted for the purpose of readability too, but in the guitar’s case the shift is one octave so an A is still called an A.  It’s just a different A.  I don’t remember if the shift puts 440 up to the third string or down to the fifth.  Whatever.  Let’s just take it as written and if I am wrong you can take my heartfelt apology and kiss my ginormous ass.

So the first song I messed with this morning, file name RPM 2020 06 iPad, was in the key of E minor, turned down a half step to Eb minor, which let me play in my favorite key for soloing on the alto, C minor.  Amen, brothers and sisters.  I had left space for two solos, both eight measure long, as well as some additional little fill in noodling during the choruses.  I picked off the first solo after 3-4 takes and picked off the second solo in two takes.  The noodles didn’t take long either.  Hey man, Robbie’s on a roll!  Waze on my iPhone was running the whole time and my estimated time of arrival at the office was still only 8:20.  I had been playing for something like 15-20 minutes and I could likely keep playing for 15-20 more.

Now I’ve mentioned this on my wittle bloggy a few times before, but there are physical limits to how long you can play a musical instrument.  At some point your body just refuses to continue.  On the guitar that can mean your fingers don’t form the chord shapes anymore, or you are unable to bend the strings.  On the saxophone it means your jaw ceases to be able to control the mouth piece as it should.  You combat this fatigue point by practicing your ass off.  The more you practice, the longer you can play before fatigue stops you.  It’s like any other physical activity, it takes practice and exercise.

I have played the alto saxophone for maybe 45-60 minutes total since the last time I played it on an RPM project back in 2013.  I’ve probably played saxophone for a total of maybe two hours since the mid-90’s… if that.  Suffice to say, I am massively, hugely, hilariously out of playing shape.  In my previous two sax playing sessions this month I did not hit the wall.  Today, I totally did.

The second song I worked on this morning, file name 10 Mac, is a goofy little 12 bar blues.  The first phrase (12 measures long… get it?) is free of vocals and I was planning on doing some noodling there.  I set up a loop for those 12 measures and hit play, intending to practice a run through or two before hitting record.  Instead of soloing over the changes, I found myself playing along with the guitar part.  I liked it.  That would be a cool way to intro the song, have the sax playing along with the guitar instead of improvising over it.  Nice!  I stopped the loop and hit record.

Over the course of the take there were a few notes that were kinda squawked.  They didn’t sound good.  Let’s do another take.  This time there were a couple of notes where I failed to hold the pitch.  On the sax it is possible to press the keys to form a note and then actually produce a note an octave higher.  When you do it on purpose you call that playing an overtone.  When you don’t do it on purpose you call it sounding like dog shit.  I was sounding like dog shit.  Each take was worse than the one before.  I was struggling to produce notes on the low end of the horn.

It has been so long since I’ve played the sax that I didn’t realize what was happening.  My body was revolting against me.  I did another take but instead of listening, I focused on what I was doing.  My teeth were coming off the top of the mouth piece.  My jaw was relaxing when I attacked the notes.  Yup, the ol’ chops were dying on me.  For the first time during this sax playing experiment I had officially pushed myself too far.  It’s now about six hours later and I can still feel it in my jaw.  It just feels wrong.  It doesn’t hurt or anything, it just feels off.

So I was only able to pick off one of the three remaining sax parts today.  I am going to the gym after work, and then cooking dinner for my beautiful bride.  After that, I might try again.  I want the sax parts to be out of the way so I can rip through the last guitar parts and then start mixing in earnest.  If I have problems tonight I’ll put it off until Thursday and record some of the guitars first.  No biggie.

171/365

Sax Continued

Okay so tonight’s recording-in-my-bedroom session has answered two important questions.

  1. Can I still play the saxophone?
    The answer to this question is yes.  I can still play the saxophone.
  2. Can I still play the saxophone well?
    The answer to this question is an emphatic, hilarious, no.  I cannot still play the saxophone well.

I can still improvise on a blues scale in C though.  It’s like riding a bike.  Totally second nature.  It took a little more time to get acclimated to improvising on a blues scale in F, but I blundered my way through that one as well.

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I think I may have answered another question too. I mentioned in a previous post today that my computer fell off my desk this morning. I had no idea how that could have happened. Then when I came back to the office after my little recording-in-my-bedroom session tonight I saw this:

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Ms Patches sitting pretty, shamelessly right in the middle of the laptop stand. I think Scotland Yard has itself a chief suspect in this case. Elementary, my dear Patches.

Sax

I posted something on the RPM Challenge site last night that included a passing mention of me needing to record some saxophone.  Someone commented asking if I played.  I wrote a reply and I figured I would add it here for posterity… or not, whatever.  I’m posting it.  Sheesh, the judgmentaling going on.

Sax was my first instrument. From 89-91 I was a music major in college and sax was the instrument that got me in.

When I started playing guitar in high school though it took over all of my musical interest. Every now and then I feel a need to re-establish my sax skills and I’m feeling that right now in a big way. I don’t think I’ve played at all since… 2013? Maybe?

The biggest hurdle is going to be stamina. The muscles in my jaw are not ready for me to start playing again and I expect I’ll get a solid five minutes before I’ll have to stop and rest for a while. I’m hoping I can play a little and then rest a little and repeat until I finish everything.

It’s going to take a while and it’s going to sound bad, mostly, but I kinda need to do it.

Also… I don’t own a tenor sax. I only have an alto. As saxophones go, tenor is the shit. Alto is meh. I need to get my hands on a tenor.

I really just wanted an excuse to use blockquote tags.

What Else?

I’m so hyper focused on music right now that the world is passing me by.  What am I missing?

The New Hampshire primary was last night.  The top three places were all held by people I could reasonably see myself voting for on Super Tuesday.  Sanders was my pick last time around.  Buttigieg seems fine to me.  I’d like to see a little more grass roots and a little less big money, but policy wise he’s fine.  My step son has done some volunteer work for his campaign and I am bursting with pride over it.  Klobuchar was a surprise but I’ve liked her since the day she announced her candidacy.  I have this vague image in my head of her beating the living shit (figuratively speaking) out of the people who are making a bad joke out of the Constitution. I see her as someone who could clean up the shit show.

Warren has been my main focus and I’m a little disappointed at her showing so far.  I saw this primary as a Warren vs Sanders showdown with Biden kinda peeking in from the sidelines.  There’s still time for Warren to improve relative to the others, but if we have to settle for her as our esteemed US Senator, I’m fine with that.

Realistically, whoever ends up winning the nomination is getting my vote and at least a chunk of my money.  That nazi piece of shit in the white house has to go.  Of course he won’t.  The Senate has already approved his attempts at rigging the election, so the very concept of a legitimate election has already been flushed down the toilet.  He’ll rig it and he will win it.  Our democracy is already dead, I’m just clinging to the tiny shreds that are left behind.  Mostly just out of habit.

At least the Bruins are still doing well.  That awful dip in the standings prior to the all star break is going to bite them on the ass.  Their huge lead is gone and Tampa is right on their heels.  I was very pleased with their play of late, but losing to Detroit really grinds my gears.  We get the Canadiens tonight.  There are few things that could cheer me up as my country descends into a fascist dictatorship as much as watching the Bruins beat the holy hell out of Montreal.  No pressure though, okay Bruins.  You just go out there and have fun.

A week or so ago, Larry and I were having a discussion about various Quentin Tarantino movies and he made a joke about a scene in Kill Bill and it went right over my head.  I saw both volumes in the theater and had never re-watched them.  I thought they were both fantastic and I loved every second of them… I just never revisited them again.  I fixed that error over the weekend and watched both movies.  They are just so good.  The violence is way over the top and the story doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but every scene is perfect.  I forgot about so much.  In my memory the first movie is just blahblahblah Crazy 88’s and the second movie is just blahblahblah Superman’s disguise.  I forgot about all the other twistedly delightful stuff.  I kinda want to watch them both again, but instead I’ll watch the two movies I still haven’t seen: Hateful 8 and Django Unchained.

Note: I don’t think “twistedly” is actually a word.

Okay, I have to mention music again.  I can’t avoid it right now.  I did some recording this morning.  After being late to work on Monday because I stayed home a little too long, and late to work on Tuesday even though I left on time, I came up with something to try and keep me on track.  After I set up my laptop to record some voice parts, I brought up Waze on my phone.  I put in my work address as my destination and I left the phone on the table next to me.  As I worked through the two songs for today I kept an eye on the estimated time of arrival.  When it reached 8:45 I packed up and left.  It worked.  I was on time today.

Unfortunately when I was packing up I put my MacBook onto the stand on which it sits on my desk in the office (grammar, bitches), turned off the lights, and left the room.  A couple of minutes later I heard a bang.  What?  My laptop FELL OFF THE STAND!  It was still working okay, but it scared the crap out of me.  I managed to back up this morning’s work onto an external drive, but if my lappy is dead I might be in big musical trouble.  I know it’s not dead, everything was functioning within normal parameters… still… how scary is that.  BANG!

Friday is Valentine’s Day.  We don’t have any plans.  I’ll see if my beloved love wants to do anything after work.  It’s also a kid weekend so my step son will be around.  He went to a mock UN weekend last week and I can’t wait to hear about it.  Tonight will be the first time I see him since he came back.

I went to the gym last night.  I am planning on going again tonight and tomorrow night and as many days as I can between now and Disney World.  I need to build up some stamina for long walks.  I’m still stuck at the 15-minutes-before-my-back-starts-complaining point.  Every little bit helps though.

What else… I’m thinking about playing a little saxophone tonight.  If you hear crying it means I can’t pull it off anymore.  I was a music major and sax was my primary instrument of study.  I haven’t touched it in years, but normally when I start playing again a lot of the old skill is there.  What isn’t there is the muscles in my jaw.  I get a few minutes of solid playing followed by fatigue so bad I can’t play anymore.  My plan for the next week and a half is play a little, rest a little, repeat.  That’s assuming I’ve still got it.  Boy, do I hope I’ve still got it.

When you are 48 years old the phrase, “Boy, do I hope I’ve still got it” comes into play almost every day for a seemingly infinite number of topics, wouldn’t you say?