Mar 22, 2021

Review: Six Bach Cello Suites, arranged for saxophone by Trent Kynaston

Over the past year of social isolation, teaching via Zoom, I and some of my students have gotten a lot of enjoyment playing saxophone transcriptions of the six Bach Cello Suites. We've been using Six Suites for Violoncello Solo, transcribed and edited by Trent Kynaston (Advance Music, 1995). The music is perfect for our present situation - Bach wrote the Suites for unaccompanied cello; the pieces are self-contained, with harmony and counterpoint embedded in the melodic lines. The music is uplifting and satisfying in its beauty and logical perfection. 

As teaching material, it's very effective. In normal times, I use duets quite a bit in teaching. It's not possible to play duets on Zoom, due to lag, but the unaccompanied Bach pieces can be taught through demonstration, and don't need any accompaniment to sound complete. In Kynaston's transcriptions, the pieces mostly sit well on the saxophone, and are just challenging enough for an advanced high school player.

Saxophonists are at a bit of a disadvantage when it comes to classical repertoire. Because the instrument was invented in the 1840s, it wasn't in existence for Bach, Haydn, Mozart, or Beethoven. Even through the 1800s, it was slow to be accepted in the world of classical music. If I want to familiarize students with classical "common practice" music, I've used pieces like the Ferling etudes (originally for oboe), or Kuhlau flute duets (playable on saxophone). Kynaston's Bach transcriptions have really filled a need. I can recommend them to teachers, as well as to saxophonists who would enjoy hearing Bach "from the inside," so to speak.

The book is not entirely error-free. One note puzzled me enough that I did some internet research, looking for an original manuscript, to check that note. In his preface, Kynaston states that his edition, as well as all others since 1825, is based on a manuscript "in Bach's own hand, held in the Prussian State Library in Berlin." He states that the manuscript showed no articulation marks, and that he had added articulations that are stylistically appropriate, and effective for saxophone. He advises readers to feel free to change them, if we prefer. For the most part, I like his articulations as printed.

The question of original sources led me to jsbachcellosuites.com, a great website that, among other things, displays facsimiles of the four most definitive extant manuscripts of the Cello Suites. One was copied by Anna Magdalena Bach (Johann Sebastian's second wife), another by Johann Peter Kellner. Both of these copies were created in J. S. Bach's lifetime. The other two manuscripts were created somewhat later, by persons unknown. There is no known existing manuscript by J. S. Bach himself. Kynaston was undoubtedly referring to the version by Anna Magdalena. This version has served as the basis for most (but not all) of the editions printed in the last two centuries. Kynaston was not the only editor over the years to have mistakenly assumed that Anna Magdalena's version was in J. S. Bach's hand.

Anna Magdalena's version does in fact show slurs, which may represent bowing indications, rather than slurs as wind instrument players understand them. But still, bowing decisions do result in certain phrasing. Articulation and phrasing are intertwined concepts. Unfortunately, the exact placement of her slur marks is often unclear. The slur markings in this source might not actually have been so useful for a sax edition.

Digging a little deeper, I ran across a 2016 doctoral thesis by Zoltán Szabó. It's an extensive exploration of the sources for the Cello Suites, as well as many of the editions that have been printed between 1824 and 2016. If you're interested in some state-of-the-art scholarship on this subject, it's great reading.

Szabó makes a strong case that although we have no definitive source for Bach's exact intentions, the manuscript by Kellner may be the closest that we have, as it may have been copied from an original manuscript that J. S. Bach created at a later date than the version that was copied by Anna Magdalena. Szabó discusses articulations, but does not treat that subject extensively; he considers it beyond the scope of his thesis, which already runs to 272 pages.

Even if we allow that Anna Magdalena's slur markings might be helpful in deciding on appropriate articulations, the extant sources and the various printed versions are nowhere close to agreeing. Below is a page from Szabó's thesis, comparing markings for just one measure, as shown in various sources and editions. Source A is Anna Magdalena; source B is Kellner; sources C and D are the other 18th-century manuscripts; source E is the first printed edition (perhaps based on a different, lost early manuscript).

All the examples are marked differently:



Although the question of appropriate articulations for the Suites has been the subject of endless scholarly discussion, it seems that in the end, players have to consider different printed and recorded sources, and make their own decisions. 

The Kynaston edition can be purchased from Amazon through this link. The Cello Suites have also been transcribed for other instruments, including guitar, mandolin, viola, violin, horn, double bass, clarinet, flute, tenor banjo, trombone, and organ.


Jan 23, 2021

Medical research indicates reduced life span for saxophonists - Joke, or just really bad science?

I just ran across a 1999 article from the British medical journal The BMJ, presenting a purported study of "the impact of too much sax on the mortality of famous jazz musicians."

The article states that saxophonists can be expected to have a reduced lifespan, probably due to frequent use of circular breathing: "Raised pressure in the neck region can increase mortality either by reducing blood supply to the brain (cerebrovascular ischaemia) or venous stasis (thromboembolism)."

You can read the article here.

The authors of this article appear to be idiots. As scientific method, this study fails in basic ways: 

  • Their initial assumption, that circular breathing is a common technique, is just wrong, as they could have ascertained by asking any professional sax player. 
  • They ignore or dismiss other probable factors affecting longevity: environment, socioeconomic status, the state of medicine in the early 1900s, stress of a touring musician's lifestyle.
  • Their sample (813 musicians born between 1882 and 1974) is not particularly large, and is not representative of the actual sax-playing population.

At first reading, I was astounded by what appeared to be incredibly bad science, from authors who had no idea what they were talking about. Upon further reflection, though, I'm pretty sure the authors were just having some fun.

There are a number of giveaways. For example, the caption to the article's Figure 1 states that in circular breathing,

Intake of breath fills the chest and stomach; cheeks and neck are inflated when air is halfway up the chest. While forcing air from cheeks and neck into the instrument, the player simultaneously breathes in through the nose to the bottom of the stomach.

Note: we breathe with lungs, not stomach. 

Figure 2 indicates that not even one saxophonist in the sample reached the age of 70 (a strong indication that the authors just made up the figures, and did no actual statistical analysis at all). 

There were a number of tongue-in-cheek tipoffs, including the statement,

Further research is, however, needed in this area: it is anticipated that attendance at a number of national and international concert venues would resolve this issue, and the researchers are currently seeking funding for this.
Fittingly, the authors of the sax-mortality article closed with a quote from Sonny Rollins, 69 years old at the time of the article, and 90 years old now.

According to Wikipedia, The BMJ is a respected journal of medical research. However, they have a history of printing less-than-serious articles, for example, a 1974 article describing a condition known as cello scrotum, said to afflict male cellists. Although meant as a joke, this article was apparently taken seriously by some in the medical community. 35 years later, in 2009, the author finally wrote a letter to The BMJ revealing that the article had been a hoax.

Unfortunately, the article on sax-mortality was likewise believed by quite a few people, as you can see in the responses section in the online article. It's pretty amusing, and worth a read. At least a couple of "real" medical research articles have taken this one seriously enough to cite it as a reference (click here).

I first ran across the sax-mortality article in a reprint that was posted by the NIH, without any notice that it might be a joke. That wasn't helpful. We don't need any more spurious medical information, particularly concerning saxophones.

Some people will believe anything. 


Dec 27, 2020

Tunes published in 1925 will be entering public domain in 2021

As of January 1, 2021, U.S. copyright will expire for works published in 1925, including the following songs: 

Always (Irving Berlin)
Remember (Irving Berlin)
Dinah (Harry Akst)
Sometimes I'm Happy (Vincent Youmans)
Squeeze Me (Fats Waller) (not to be confused with "Just Squeeze Me" by Duke Ellington)
Sweet Georgia Brown (Ben Bernie, Maceo Pinkard)
Manhattan (Rodgers and Hart - aka "I'll Take Manhattan")
Yes Sir, That's My Baby (Walter Donaldson)
Don't Bring Lulu (Billy Rose, Lew Brown, Ray Henderson)
If You Knew Susie (Buddy DeSylva)
Davenport Blues (Bix Beiderbecke)
Sweet and Lowdown (George and Ira Gershwin)
That Certain Feeling (George and Ira Gershwin)
Bye Bye Blues (Fred Hamm)
Paddlin' Madelin' Home (Harry M. Woods)

This year, the big ones would seem to be Sweet Georgia Brown, Bye Bye Blues, Manhattan, the two Berlin tunes, and the two Gershwin tunes.

In the realm of classical music, Gershwin's "Piano Concerto in F" is losing copyright protection. Other modern classical works entering the public domain are listed on the Wikipedia page 1925 in Music, including pieces by Copland, Elgar, Prokofiev, Respighi, Shostakovitch, Sibelius, Stravinsky, Villa-Lobos, and others.

United States copyright law is quite restrictive as compared to many other countries. According to the provisions of the Copyright Act of 1976 and the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1988 (aka "Mickey Mouse Protection Act"), works published or registered before 1978 remain under copyright for 95 years.

With the passage of the 1988 law, the cutoff date for works entering the public domain became 1922, with any works published in 1923 or later remaining under copyright. Beginning in 2019, however, the clock began running again, with each new year bringing one more year of songs and other works into the public domain. Over the next 20 years or so, most "Golden Age" jazz standards will lose copyright protection.

Many other countries have shorter terms of copyright; one common formula is the life of the author plus fifty years (see this table). For example, in Canada you can record songs written by Wes Montgomery (d. 1968) or John Coltrane (d. 1967), without paying royalties.

Last December I posted an article similar to this one, listing tunes that became public domain in 2020. I'll probably do a yearly update - unless Congress messes with copyright law again, to rescue Mickey Mouse from becoming fair game in 2024.

Notes:

Some internet sources show the copyright date for "Bye Bye Blues" as 1930. Although this is the copyright date shown on the original sheet music, the first recording (by composer Fred Hamm) was released in 1925. According to U.S. copyright law, recordings publicly released can establish the effective copyright date, the same as printed material.

Wikipedia cites 1924 as the year that Harry M. Woods wrote "Paddlin' Madelin' Home." However, this appears to be incorrect. Secondhandsongs.com shows specific dates in 1925 for both publication and for first live performance; the original sheet music also shows 1925.

Cliff Edwards, aka "Ukelele Ike," a popular entertainer in the 1920s, was the one who made "Paddlin' Madelin' Home" into a hit. Edwards had an interesting life in show biz; his Wikipedia bio is worth checking out. Among many other accomplishments, he was the voice of Jiminy Cricket in Disney's "Pinocchio," singing When You Wish Upon a Star

Copyright Law of the United States (Wikipedia)


Dec 22, 2020

"Children's Games,” “Chovendo na Roseira,” and “Double Rainbow”

Here are a few more observations about one of my favorite Tom Jobim compositions (discussed in a previous post).

"Children's Games," "Chovendo na Roseira," and "Double Rainbow" are alternate titles for the same Jobim song. The chronology seems to go like this:

March, 1970 - The song, titled "Children's Games," was first introduced as a part of the soundtrack for the 1970 film The Adventurers. At that point it was an instrumental piece. In composing it, Jobim adapted musical material from two Debussy pieces: "Reverie," and "Le plus que lente, valse." "Children’s Games," along with other melodies by Jobim, was arranged by Eumir Deodato for the soundtrack (apparently this is the reason that some internet sources credit the song’s first recording to Deodato). The song is played with a swing feel in Jobim's versions, but with a straight beat in some later recordings by others.




July, 1970 - Jobim included it in his album "Stone Flower," again with the title "Children’s Games," and again as an instrumental.

1971 - Osmir Milito recorded the same song as "Chovendo na Roseira." It now had lyrics in Portuguese, by Jobim. The new title (in English, "Raining on the Rosebush") reflected the theme of the lyrics. Also in 1971, Luis Carlos Vinhas recorded it with the same title, with the same lyrics. I don't know which of these recordings came first. 

1974 - Sergio Mendes and Brasil ‘77 recorded the song with English lyrics by Gene Lees, a fairly close translation of the Portuguese lyrics. The song was re-titled "Double Rainbow." This new English title referenced the English lyrics.

Also in 1974, the song was recorded by Jobim and Elis Regina as part of the "Elis and Tom" album, under the name "Chovendo na Roseira." Elis sings the lyrics in Portuguese.

1980 - Jobim’s album "Terra Brasilis" included the song as an instrumental, arranged by Claus Ogermanunder the title "Chovendo na Roseira." 



For sound clips of various early versions of "Chovendo," see this nice writeup on the "Brazilliance" website.

For my previous post on "Chovendo," with some Youtube clips including the Debussy pieces, click here. 

Over the years, the song has been recorded by many other artists, under one or another of the three titles. Joe Henderson’s album "Double Rainbow," a tribute to Jobim, oddly enough did not include this song. I wonder if Joe recorded it, but ultimately decided not to include it in the album?

Recently I noticed in Howard Hanson’s Symphony #1 (1922) an appropriation of the same Debussy phrase from "Le plus que lente, valse" (1910) that Jobim used in “Chovendo.” The theme occurs at 2:00 in the clip below:




Interestingly, Howard Hanson gives this phrase to the flute, while the original Debussy piece was for solo piano (Debussy also arranged the piece for strings). In the original 1970 arrangement of "Children’s Games," arranger Eumir Deodato also gives Jobim’s extremely similar phrase to the flute (on the repeat), as does Claus Ogerman in his 1980 arrangement. It’s a perfect orchestration choice for this phrase. 

A few questions are left unanswered: Was the flute orchestration for the phrase Deodato's idea, or Jobim's? Did Deodato or Jobim know the Hanson piece as well as the Debussy? Or was the flute orchestration in Jobim’s piece just a coincidence? And did Hanson realize he was quoting Debussy?


Nov 29, 2020

Andrew White, 1942 - 2020

Andrew White passed away on Nov. 11, at the age of 78. The obit in the New York Times described him as "a profusely talented and proudly eccentric musician and scholar...saxophonist, multi-instrumentalist, composer, author, business owner, teacher." Andrew had some humorous but accurate self-descriptions as well. In his unique way, he was a towering figure in the jazz world. 

Here's a video of Andrew visiting St. John's Catholic Prep School in Maryland:



And of course,  Giant Steps:



According to the Washington Post obit, Andrew had no immediate survivors; his wife Jocelyne passed away in 2011. I hope whoever inherits his business will continue to make Andrew's massive catalog of John Coltrane transcriptions available, as well as Andrew's recordings and writings, including his amusingly readable autobiography, "Everybody Loves the Sugar."

Thanks for everything, Andrew!


Sep 15, 2020

Teaching music lessons via Zoom

I've been teaching individual saxophone and clarinet lessons since the 1970s. Before the pandemic, I was not particularly interested in teaching online. Seeing students in person is better in so many ways: a more real personal rapport, real-world acoustics, the ability to watch embouchure and fingers more closely. Online lessons can't address those things as well, and online playing does not allow for playing duets, or accompanying in real time. And who wants to stare at a screen for an entire teaching day?

The only actual advantage I could see was that with online lessons, both teacher and student could work together from just about any two locations in the world that have internet access - and I didn't need that; I've almost always had a full schedule with local students (I still do - I'm not currently taking new students).

The pandemic changed my views. Like many music teachers, I've switched to Zoom lessons, and I'm thankful that in spite of its imperfections, we have a way to continue to teach. I'd much rather be teaching in person, but realistically, I know that it will be many more months before it's safe to do so.

I've been teaching online for about six months now. Following are a few thoughts about what works and what doesn't in Zoom lessons.

First, a few technical items. This is all pretty much common knowledge among teachers these days:

•  Duets and live accompaniment won't work, due to lag time (latency). As a substitute, students can use recorded accompaniments, played on their side of the meeting. For working on jazz improv, there are plenty of "backing tracks" on Youtube.

•  Zoom sound quality is often very poor. Sometimes this is due to inadequate internet speed. Home "high speed" internet service usually has good download speed and poorer upload speed. This works if you are streaming movies, but internet meetings require good upload speed as well. Sometimes a neighborhood has spotty quality. I've found this often to be true even for students living in upscale neighborhoods.

•  Zoom sound is optimized for speech. Music quality suffers because the software senses music as background noise, and suppresses it, causing the music to cut out. This problem can be alleviated by changing some Zoom settings. The important ones seem to be these: Turn on "Enable original sound," disable "Suppress persistent background noise" and disable "Suppress intermittent background noise." These settings adjustments will eliminate much of the troublesome Zoom sound processing. You should be able to Google for instructions on how to do these things. Not all of these adjustments are available on mobile devices. Note: I am no technical expert.

•  Wi-fi works better if you are close to the modem. A wired connection to the modem is even better.

•  For bad connections, sometimes logging out and then rejoining the meeting can help.

•  It doesn't matter if you have a good camera. Crisp video doesn't really matter for music lessons. A good mic is nice, but the built-in mics in iPads and computers are usually adequate. I just use an iPad Pro with the built-in camera and mic, with some external (wired) speakers, and it's fine for me. Bluetooth speakers are no good; they just add to the lag.

• Personally, I don't like using headphones or earbuds. When I'm playing, I'd rather hear myself acoustically. Headphones are just too physically restrictive over a 6- or 7-hour teaching day. And it puts me just a little further into a virtual world, not a good thing IMO. 


Again, I'm no technical expert. But as a constant user, I can attest that Zoom still has some work to do to make their platform music-friendly. In addition, Zoom's instructional videos and website explanations need some simplification and editing for clarity, to be useful to everyday users like me. Zoom, if you're listening...


Technical and equipment issues aside, here are some things I've learned about online teaching:

•  One teaching technique that works quite well is demonstration and imitation. It develops the student's musical hearing and memory, and requires extra listening focus. 

•  Sometimes I give students an assignment to record themselves playing one of their pieces as well as they can, and send it to me. This encourages the student to be self-critical and to set their standard of perfection a little higher.

•  If it seems helpful, sometimes I'll record a demo and email it to them, so that they can refer to it during the week before the next lesson.

•  With in-person lessons, I was able to teach timing by playing along with the student. Since this is not possible with online lessons, I often demonstrate the passage on my side with a metronome while they read the music and follow along, then have them copy me, playing with a metronome. A longer piece can be broken into 2-bar or 4-bar segments, and each segment worked on separately. There are plenty of free iPhone metronome apps available. 

•  If we are working on improv using a "backing track," I'll typically take one to three choruses on my side of the meeting, demonstrating some point (e.g., leave space, or rework the melody, or use certain chord tones), then the student will take a turn, playing to an accompaniment track on their side of the meeting. Trading fours is not possible in an online format.

•  After each lesson I send a follow-up email with any points to remember from the day's lesson, and next week's assignment. I find I need 15 minutes between each lesson to send the email, do a little stretching, and to get ready for the next lesson. No more back-to-back students, like I often had with in-person lessons. This means a loss of income, of course, but it's necessary for me. 

•  Before my teaching day starts, I make a list of the day's students, then look at their follow-up emails from last week, note what their assignments were, and consider what we should focus on in each student's upcoming lesson.

•  At lessons, I have always mixed playing with theory and ear training. With online lessons, if the connection is just too awful for playing (as sometimes happens), we'll concentrate on theory or ear training.

 

With school back in session, most of my students are already spending half the day in front of a computer screen. It's unfortunate that their sax or clarinet lesson adds another 30-60 minutes to that, but I think they all welcome it. At least they are engaged in the real-world physical activity of playing an instrument, and the creative activity of making music. With virtual lessons, I make an extra effort to keep the lessons fun and low-pressure.

I am looking forward to the day that we can return to in-person lessons. I think just about everyone agrees that real-world human contact provides a superior educational experience. There seem to be some studies underway into whether or not instrumental music is risky in terms of spreading the virus, but no conclusive results so far. From what I can see on the internet, clarinet and sax may not involve much risk of aerosol dispersal. But I'm in a higher-risk age group, and I won't be going back to in-person instruction until it's safe.

School music programs are making the best of a difficult situation. School band, orchestra, and choir are just not possible at this point. If the risk with wind instruments turns out to be low, outdoor marching band will be the first to return. Assignments in school right now often seem to be for students to learn their individual parts and send in a recording. Recordings can be mixed to produce an ensemble performance. Theory and music history can still be taught effectively. I'm sure it will take a while for school music to return to normal, not least because of the potential risk to teachers.

The positive side of all this is that virtual lessons are available as a way to keep music education going, and I'm thankful for that. One other bright spot: Before the pandemic, I would typically catch a cold about every 6-8 weeks. With social isolation and no physical lessons, I haven't had a cold since March. But I'd happily trade that for a return to normal.