Two roads diverged in the woods, and I-I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.
I know it’s a cliché, but over breakfast this morning it occurred to me that I am 15 months away from being fifty. I’ll be fifty, with gray hair…and in grad school. That’s right, what on earth am I doing here?! How did I get here at this point in my life? The entire situation is surreal but has left me with some unique insights I thought might be useful to those young saxophonists just beginning their journey.
So, how did I end up here? Well to understand that we have to think about 1988. In 1988 I was graduating from a high school in rural west Tennessee and had made the decision to study with then Memphis State University Professor of Saxophone and Don Sinta protégé Allen Rippe. He already knew me and had called Prof. Sinata to get permission for me to attend the Interlochen All-State Saxophone program. This is a two-week program at Interlochen, usually reserved for only Michigan resident saxophone students. I was excited and dreamt of being the next Allen Rippe, maybe the next Donald Sinta, I was on my way.
So What Happened?
Well, as it would turn out there were three major issues in my life, which at that time, would prevent me from moving forward. First, I had undiagnosed ADD. This made long practice sessions nearly impossible. The second issue was girls. I discovered I was far more interested in girls than in the practice room. Third, I had developed a misguided notion that all a person needed to succeed on the saxophone was a good sound. You see, Allen Rippe had mesmerized me with his sound. Soprano through bari, he just sounded amazing. I was working summers at Interlochen and hearing Donald Sinta and so many of the Michigan player, that I foolishly assumed that all I needed was to develop a beautiful sound and that everything else would fall into place. I worked incredibly hard on my sound and ended up developing one that other Interlochen campers such as Otis Murphy and Tim McAllister were impressed with. The PROBLEM was, that the sound was all I had. I never wanted people to hear me struggle with my technique so I did almost no technical study, falling further and further behind my peers.
Around my junior year in college, I realized that I had dug myself into a hole so vast that I couldn’t dig myself out. I decided to change majors and somehow, ended up spending a few years on the University of Memphis football coaching staff as an assistant strength coach. I bounced around, found a job, got married, limiting my playing to a rock band on weekends. I was playing but I was miserable. This wasn’t where I was supposed to be and this wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing.
Fast forward to 2012. My marriage had fallen apart and as I was about to hit rock bottom a little voice inside told me to call my father. He was a math professor at the University of Tennessee- Martin and after a long conversation suggested I come to UTM to study music. A funny thing happened while I was there, I got back in the practice room, and there I rediscovered my dream of being a saxophonist.
Where I discovered I wasn’t meant to be a band director I solidified the fact that was and always would be a saxophonist. If it means no new car, a smaller house, working until I’m 80, it wouldn’t matter, this is who I am.
I switched to a unique degree for UTM, Saxophone Pedagogy (I believe that I’m the only one to ever receive that degree at UTM), and started looking for grad school. I decided to attend a grad program that wasn't traditionally known as being a center for classical saxophone; The University of Nevada-Las Vegas where I would study with then professor Mark McArthur.
In June of 2017, Mark called to let me know that he’d left UNLV. It was the excuse I needed for a reset. While at Martin, I met and started dating a clarinet student who had accepted a grad assistantship to Texas A&M- Commerce. She was interested in my joining her in Texas and from there, things came full circle. The professor at Commerce, Dr. Chris Beaty, received his doctorate at Memphis and studied with none other than Allen Rippe. I felt as if I were home.
THINGS I’VE LEARNED ON THIS JOURNEY:
Treat your time in school as a blessing; not a chore. YOU GET TO PLAY SAXOPHONE AND STUDY MUSIC! It’s a pretty cool job and one that doesn’t always last.
Everything you are studying is important. Even if don’t see it right now, you will use music theory, music history and yes, even class piano. I know that learning about Machaut and Palestrina may seem ridiculous but it will make sense to you later, I promise.
Fundamentals never stop being important. All the scales, articulation exercises, etc. that I didn’t want to take the time to learn when I was young? Well, that’s why I’m not a contemporary of McAllister, Otis Murphy, and Chris Creviston. One doesn’t learn scales to learn scales. One learns scales to learn how to play music. The point of mastering fundamentals is so that you can get out of your own way and say what you want to say on the saxophone.
Stop comparing yourself to others. Admire those better than you and emulate aspects of their playing that you like. I have a friend who is a brilliant flutist, Lilah Senibaldi. She was convinced at 19 that she wasn’t a good player because she wasn’t Paula Robison. I got heavily into the comparison game when I returned to school, seeing that peers like Otis Murphy and Tim McAllister had built careers I once dreamed of. It was a really unhealthy mindset to be in and caused a lot of frustration and negativity. The ONLY you should be focused on is yourself. If you need to compare yourself to someone else, track your progress through videos and recordings.
Practice rooms are the same at big schools and community colleges. Get your instrument, metronome, tuner, and pencil and get to work.
We all get there when we get there. A few summers ago I attended a masterclass clarinetist Yehuda Gilad. He made a wonderful statement about making progress: “We all get there when we get there.”. Wise words. Keep working.
You have people in your corner who want you to succeed. Remember that you always have people why want you to succeed. They are there. Don’t overlook them and be thankful for them.
Watch the bridges you burn. Dr. Doug Owens gave a masterclass and he told our studio “Watch the bridges you burn.” In this age of social media, everyone knows everyone. If you are difficult to work with, if you talk poorly of others, it will follow you.
Good deeds go a long way. On the flip side of my previous statement, if you strive to be a decent person who works hard, keeps your promises, and is positive towards others, you will be rewarded with friendship.
You are your own PR firm. Don’t be afraid to promote yourself. Humblebragging gets old. Promote yourself with your good work. Take recordings of your public performances and share them through SoundCloud, websites, and other platforms. I was fortunate enough to win the concerto competition at UTM one year. I put the recording on Soundcloud and shared it on Facebook. That summer at Interlochen I had three saxophonists, whom I’d never met before, tell me that they enjoyed my performance of Whitney’s Introduction and Samba.
Perform any chance you get. It doesn’t matter if you’re nervous, learn literature and perform it. If you’re in a combo or a big band, improvise. You are a musician and your job is to perform. It doesn’t matter if your degree is performance or music education, if you can’t handle a performance on one instrument, then how are you going to lead 20-30?
Learn to play in as many generas as possible. The saxophone is a wonderfully versatile instrument. Be it jazz, classical, funk; they are fields but they are also an industry. The more you learn the more you have to bring to the table to get your hired.
Look everywhere for influence. Don’t just listen to saxophonists. Listen to everything. It doesn’t matter if it’s TMac, Marcel Mule, Cannonball Adderley or Casals it’s all important.
Life has shown me that we don’t choose music, music chooses us. Enjoy every part of your journey and share with others. At fifty I am more passionate about music than at any time in my life. Now…get back to work!