Sometimes you have to just do things, not knowing for sure where you’ll end up.* Never blogged? Never fear! Never wrote music? Go ahead and try! Never played an instrument? What’s stopping you?
Surprisingly, not chaos…or not much anyway. But let me explain.
I was faced with a dilemma with my composition Birdsong. I heard it as a flute and piano duo. But I don’t play flute. I don’t own a flute. I had wanted to use the piece for an upcoming gathering of fellow piano students, but it would be too late to foist this on an unsuspecting flute-player. I tried turning it into a piano reduction, and wasn’t happy with the results. As I was trying to find a solution, I cast my eyes on the saxophone. Replaying the music in my head, I realized it would work.
It would, but would I? I hadn’t touched it in…decades.
Time to catapult.
What little I knew, I remembered.
What little I knew needed some tweaking.
What I had learned, decades earlier, was what one might call empirical saxophone. I had no access to a teacher. So, I pressed keys, blew, and matched the sound with a note on a keyboard.
Concert pitch is when the note on a page matches the pitch that is played. C means C.
Except it doesn’t when you’re playing an E-flat alto saxophone. In alto sax music, when you see a C on the music staff, you’re really playing an E-flat. The saxophone is a transposing instrument. This system makes fingering consistent across entire families of instruments.
If you’re a human tenor, you are also a transposing instrument sometimes–if your music is written on a treble clef with a little 8 under it, you sing it an octave lower than it is written.
Of course, back then, it didn’t matter—I didn’t have access to alto sax music either, so I was playing the music I had around (music intended for a keyboard) or by ear. So concert pitch worked.
But now it was time to learn things properly.
In this case, decades of neglect worked in my favor**, and, once I understood that a particular fingering yielded a pitch notated as Y not X***, it wasn’t too hard to learn the fingering for my piece, which was now written in the correct notation for the instrument.
Now, it’s just the small matter of technique (small meaning huge). My first new empirical results were that the cat really doesn’t like all this tootle-ing****, and the vibrations continuously set off my doorbell, making it sound like a cast of thousands is beating a path to my doorstep on account of my saxophone playing.
At this point, not likely, unless they’re an angry mob with cotton stuffed in their ears carrying torches and pitchforks.
Nonetheless, I persevere. I’m improving. And it’s fun!
And that’s exactly the point.
Keep catapulting, my friends!
*Do not literally catapult with a saxophone. And if you’re thinking of doing something, and one of the places you might end up is the hospital, please, DO NOT just do it.
**Instrument-learning kids: decades of neglect is a bad thing. Don’t try this at home.
***Not literally Y and X; there is no Y and X in saxophone music. It’s not that different.
Image attribution: Flying saxophone guy by C. Gallant, 2016.