Quality of tone first

I have been learning to work the saxophone for over twenty years. I practice on the street in my home town, by busking and earn a pocketful of coins in the bargain. The clunky keys and levers of a saxophone can be a real struggle, such as on dank, grey days, when the air itself is resistant to the vibrating column of air inside the brass instrument and the sound from the tone holes and bell is muddy and resistive. On hot dry days the air is resonant and clear, playing the saxophone is blissful, fragments of melody strung up and down the street, persist like spinning tops on a shiny smooth surface. These are moments of effortless musicality.

Recently I chose to play the jazz standard Take Five (by alto saxophonist Paul Desmond) in the original key. Years ago I learnt to play it in the key of A minor, but it was written in the key of C minor. Different types of musical instruments have unique strengths and weaknesses in various notes and so the key signature has a big effect on the way the song sounds. Take Five is tricky, with an unusual time signature, 5 beats to the bar, a ‘compound’ time signature – 1, 2, 3, 1, 2//1, 2, 3, 1, 2//. Take Five is also a mixed bag of arpeggios and blues scales and in my old familiar key signature it had become easy through repetition, but the new, correct, key was not. However with so much coffee fuelled playing this Summer I discovered a new phenomena, I found myself playing much better by forgetting the mechanics of fingering and instead, listening to the music as if I was in the audience. This enables a sweeter musicality because each part of the song leads to the next and the audience has a feeling for what they wish to hear and how the music goes. Even though I was confused and unable to visualise the new fingering in the new key signature, by listening to the song as I attempted to play it I was able to play almost perfectly. So despite hardly knowing how my fingers where operating the pearl buttons and brass side-keys of the saxophone, I was able to guide them via my ears. For a while I wondered if this was a sign my playing was deteriorating into a sloppy careless miasma, but Take Five was beginning to sound just like Take Five should. I know this because I was listening and enjoying it too, as an aesthetic experience of tone and melody.

It is a peculiar responsibility to forgo control of the mechanics of the saxophone in order to be able to work it effectively. My aim is to make music, not to be a technician. Many formal musicians work so hard at complete technical mastery and are accomplished in that, but to my ears the feeling of the music and tone is often absent in such players. I made a choice in my musical adventures to put ‘tone’ as the first priority of all the things I play, to ’always aim for the heart’.

My Samsung Galaxy S3 smart phone has a panorama feature in its camera settings. I enjoy playing with panoramas, such as taking vertical strips, instead of the usual horizontal, wide-angle panoramas. One reason these vertical bookmark shaped images are not generally popular is how unsuited to display a tall thin shape is. In this image of a flower on the banks of the River Deben in Suffolk, UK, the tone is the strongest element, the soft focus pink of the flower and the way the digital scan and stitch of the sky has given a compressed effect. For me tone and feel are more important than perfect representation of the photographic subject and musicality.