A Sax School member’s journey from backstage helper to playing with a headline festival band!

Ever dreamed of playing saxophone with a major band on a big festival stage? Or to be confident enough in your playing ability to blow a great solo effortlessly, in front of a huge audience with really experienced pro musicians?

Nigel Casey is our Student of the Week, and this is his story.

Keeping the fun in music

Like lots of people, Nigel started playing as a kid. And he did quite well, although he wasn’t playing the saxophone. Growing up in Ireland he started out learning bass tuba and worked his way through music exams while playing with the Rathfarnham Concert Band (https://www.rcbs.ie/). 

“I was always the joker at the back of the band,” says Nigel.  “I knew my stuff and was always prepared, but back then I wasn’t improvising and so I never really made the connection between learning scales and how they were so important.”

After school though, Nigel decided not to pursue a formal career in music and continued his studies in Art & Design.

“I never intended to make music my job, as I feared it might end up killing my passion, but I certainly wanted to keep learning and to be able to just pick up my sax and jam along with other musicians”

Making the change to saxophone

Life took Nigel to Italy then on to Switzerland.  The tuba was left behind but he still had a musical itch.  “I had found an old Bundy alto sax at a flea market – that was my first ever saxophone, but it never played very well,” says Nigel. “My first real sax was a 1930’s King tenor, which I bought once I started working and earning.”

Nigel quickly found he could apply what he had learned on tuba to saxophone.  Things began to come together too as he started meeting and connecting with other musicians.  In 1996 he joined a local group called “NumberNine”. “We were playing soul and blues and it was great fun.  We even got a gig backing Candy Dulfer at the 1997 “I Feel Good” FunkFest in Locarno – no idea how we managed that one!” says Nigel.

Hitting a roadblock in my saxophone playing

More gigs followed with pro players as he joined the “Swing Factory” as a founding member in 1999. The band would later transition from Swing to Soul and become the “Soul Factory”.

I wanted to be able to just pick up my sax and jam along with other musicians.

“Although during this time we played some really important events across Europe, open air concerts, radio and TV shows and we produced two albums, I was never really satisfied with my live improvisation  … because I could read music well from my school days, I could learn anything with enough time for practice. But the whole thing about playing music for me is about being able to express yourself however you want, and to do it without having to “copy” people.  I wanted to be able to just pick up my sax and jam along with other musicians, and to be creative without just being stuck using a blues scale, or simply playing the same solos every time”.

Getting inspired backstage

In 1997 Nigel began helping out backstage at the blues festival “Piazza Blues” in Bellinzona, Switzerland. “It was so cool to meet guys like BB King, Chuck Berry, Ike Turner and Bo Diddley – all those guys were super-friendly and the scene was magical,” says Nigel. “Who wouldn’t want to be able to do that kind of stuff on stage?” 

Building confidence as an improviser

Although Nigel learned music theory in school, he knew he needed to figure out how to apply this to the music he loved – the blues. “Although I had learnt all my scales, I never really made the connection between learning scales and improvising when I was a kid,” says Nigel.

All I wanted to play was the blues and funk.

In 1996 Nigel enrolled at the School of Modern Music in southern Switzerland and spent three years studying under Gabriele Comeglio. The course was very helpful, but at the same time, it was a bit too focused on Jazz for what Nigel wanted to achieve.

“Studying Charlie Parker and Cannonball Adderley tunes was fun, but the theory of what I was playing was mostly going over my head. In fact, the standard was so high that it was almost embarrassing to admit that “all I wanted to play was the blues and funk …  and so, while I learned a lot, I also found it a challenge to apply what I was studying in the real-life contexts I was playing in”.

Finding answers learning saxophone online

Nigel began exploring different online courses for learning saxophone to get more help learning the blues. “Although I tried lots of different courses online, the most useful of them all was McGill’s Music Sax School and the Blues Mastery program” says Nigel.

“Because of my musical background when I was younger, I had seen a lot of the concepts before. But the systematic approach of the Blues Mastery program really helped me make great progress – it was so clear and structured” says Nigel. “I loved learning and working through real blues tunes, and they were in styles that resonated with me.”

A huge part of Sax School and the Blues Mastery course is the worldwide community of students, and the support and encouragement this gives you as you work through the lessons. “The community was huge for me because I could be a “Muppet” and try out ideas in such a friendly environment, sharing videos of what I was working on and getting feedback”.

The systematic approach of the Blues Mastery program really helped me make great progress – it was so clear and structured.

“The most inspiring part of going through Blues Mastery and the Sax School courses is that I now have that connection between improvising and all the “musical education” from my past, explains Nigel.  “With Sax School I know exactly where to find the lessons and I know it will be explained in really simple, clear terms. Plus, I know there’s a whole bunch of other people in there who can give me ideas, or I can even just share stuff with.”

“The community of Blues Mastery and Sax School means I’m not just doing it on my own, and that has helped me to stay motivated to practice regularly, to practice with focus and to have better musical conversations with pro musicians.”

A turning point on saxophone

Unlocking his improvising skills has made music even more fun for Nigel and this year he joined Swiss band Freddie & The Cannonballs. “We have just recorded a new EP album and have headline gigs at two festivals this summer,” says Nigel. 

“In the past I would typically learn a solo in advance and memorise it, but Freddie & The Cannonballs is all about old school blues, it’s got to be authentic and spontaneous, it’s certainly not just about reading music scores accurately.

When we were in the studio making the new album with Freddie, I could just blow solos that really “worked” and I knew I could do a bunch of takes with confidence. That is the biggest result from working through Blues Mastery for me.” 

Nigel will be playing as one of the headline acts at blues festivals this summer. “These are big gigs on huge stages – I’ll be surrounded by “monster players”.  I know I still have a lot of work to do, but Sax School makes the never-ending learning journey fun and I can now have better “musical conversations” with the other players regardless of what key signature they are playing in and that’s something I have always wanted to improve on!” 

“I could just blow solos that really “worked” ….that is the biggest result from working through Blues Mastery for me.”

“Whether you are just beginning with the sax, or you have already been playing the sax for some time, I highly recommend Sax School! It will ultimately result in zero frustration, zero overwhelm, an ever-increasing desire to practice regularly and a clearer vision of how to use the specific lessons you need on a very practical and personal level … so you can enjoy the learning journey and making music with others”.

Want to develop your blues saxophone skills like Nigel?

Check out the free blues workshop from Sax School here.

Nigel Casey will be playing with Freddie and the Cannonballs at the Bellinzona Blues Festival and the Blues to Bop festivals this summer!





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