John Franchi has been playing soprano, alto and tenor saxes, clarinet, flute, alto flute and piccolo in recording studios, theatres and concert halls for over 50 years. In this series he shares what he has learned about technique, styles, and the etiquette of studio and theatre playing.
Double or quit!
Want to be a working sax player? The message is simple – Double or quit! And in my opinion this holds regardless of whether you have come to the sax via the clarinet or flute, or the other way around.
Unless you’re good enough to embark on a solo career, or have aspirations to join a symphony orchestra, you will find it difficult to get employment in the hard and competitive world of music playing just one instrument.
And to make things more challenging, you need to be good on all your instruments to be competitive. So where do you start this journey?
Here are my top tips:
First things first
Chances are if you are already good on your main instrument, you will be tempted to teach yourself your new double. Bad idea! I think it’s so important to get lessons from a working professional. If you try to teach yourself you will pick up bad habits which are hard to get rid of, so you will be practicing the bad habits and eventually come to a standstill.
I actually started on violin as a kid and although I did end up being a bit of a whizz, I took flute lessons from the late Sebastian Bell of the London Sinfonietta. I can still remember the basic things he taught me.
Likewise the clarinet and sax were taught to me by good working pros from symphony orchestras.
“Get lessons for a working professional – it’s the fastest way to learn a new double.”
If you’re a clarinet player and think you can pick up a sax and play it because it’s comparatively easy, don’t fool yourself. The sax is a completely different beast from the clarinet. If you try and play sax with the same embouchure as the clarinet you’ll end up sounding like a lot of saxes you hear in symphony orchestras. Sorry about this chaps but most of the time they sound like badly played bassoons!
Check out Nigel McGill’s Sax School and his YouTube Channel for some very sound advice on the basics.
Find a good all round mouthpiece which gives a basic, full sound. For me the Otto Link mouthpieces work best for this. Try a few before you buy as they’re not cheap.
I switch between an ebonite 6 star and a metal 7 star. The metal mouthpieces are harder to play at first so it’s best to start with the ebonite. Maybe a 5* would be a good starting point.
I find the Link mouthpieces give you a great basic sound that you can then mold into different sounds for different styles. Getting a range of sounds from one piece instead of changing mouthpieces is always better in my opinion.
Just because you see somebody playing with a white mouthpiece or strange-looking metal one doesn’t mean you’ll get the same sound by using one. I can get a whole range of sounds from my Link, from old-fashioned Hollywood to David Sanborn. More on how to do this in a future article!
Try what I like to call the “Yoga of the Embouchure” which means you try the extremes. For example, use loads of bottom lip and then tuck your lip in right over the teeth, never mind what awful sounds you’re producing. Then gradually work your way back to what feels comfortable and gets a more acceptable tone. Likewise, put too much mouthpiece in your mouth and too little, play with just the tip in your mouth. You’ll find that by going to extremes you will gradually find the right spot for you. If you can make your mouthpiece squeak, chances are that you will learn how to stop yourself squeaking.
“A lovely sound reaches so many more people than technique.”
A good guide is looking sideways at the mouthpiece to see where the reed parts from the mouthpiece. This is a good starting point to place your lower lip.
Perform your Practice
Always perform when you practice. Don’t forget that we are basically playing for other people’s pleasure. The fact that you get pleasure yourself is a by-product.
Try and produce a beautiful sound, not just a nice sound. Record your sound if you can. Don’t forget that a lovely sound reaches so many more people than technique.
Most times when I’m warming up in a theatre pit with my bebop licks, all I have to do to get people’ s attention is to play the Baker Street solo. Then they probably think “Great – this guy can really play!”
So there we are – people like to listen to something they’ve heard before, or something very similar.
About the author:
John Franchi has toured and performed with most of the top American singers from Louis Armstrong to Frank Sinatra and Sarah Vaughan. He was the first call lead alto doubler in London for most of the West End musicals from 1980 to 2010 and has given recitals on all of his various instruments from recorder to violin. Although recovering from a long illness which stopped him playing, John is now back in business, coaching and “getting his chops together again”.