By HERMAN THORBECKE
A little over a fortnight ago I watched my favorite dog, Chester, die an agonizing death. I’ve lost many during my life, but somehow Chester’s death touched me deeper. It was a painful experience and to somewhat lighten my loss, I rewarded myself with a saxophone.
I had been wanting to do so for many years, but never quite believed I deserved an expensive instrument like that. Up to Chester’s death I had filled my music-making needs by playing a recorder and also the blues harp. Both pretty badly, as many of my friends will be glad to attest.
I also listened to and watched videos of Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, John Coltrane and many others playing their saxes and thought, that can’t be all that difficult. They all just stand there, blow into the one end of the thing, fiddle their fingers a little and the most fabulous tunes come out of the other end.
Well, I found out it is a lot more difficult than it seems and certainly a lot harder than playing a blues harp. I stand there blowing till I’m red in the face, and at times the only sounds I make emanate from my rear end in b flat. It became obvious to me I needed lessons.
After ’consuming’ all of the free lessons I could find on the internet, all I had learned was to make a lot of noise. There’s a thing called embouchure, which some crazy Frenchman came up with. It has to do with how you grip the mouthpiece of the instrument with your upper teeth and lower lip. And then there is also the need to tuck in the corners of your mouth. Try that for fun.
The quality of the mouthpiece appears to be very important, too. I have a cheapy that came with a relatively inexpensive Chinese instrument, but Charlie Parker had his mouthpieces custom made for big bucks per piece. No wonder he played so well.
And then there are the reeds. A sax is a woodwind instrument. Woodwind sounds so sweet and harmless, like a breeze through the trees. The only wood in my woodwind is a sliver of bamboo that comes in many different strengths and qualities.
Old Charlie had his reeds also made custom. An unfair advantage, I would say. I tried to make do with the chunk of bamboo that the Chinese sent me, but soon ordered some special ones from Amazon. The nice ones cost a handful of cash, and it is a good thing I have above average credit.
I also ordered an expensive mouthpiece and soon found that at my level, it makes absolutely no difference. You can’t buy competence. It comes with practice, lots of hard work.
Since Chester’s death I have been practicing several hours per day and now can play, more or less, Mary’s Little Lamb and The Saints are Coming Home. When I play The Saints, it sounds like they are trying to come home but have lost their way.
Jean Jacques, my surviving dog, and Lea, my wife, are seldom at home these days. When the poor dog can’t escape, he either howls like a wolf or hides under the bed with his paws over his ears, and Lea, after developing a dazed look in her eyes, now finds daily excuses to go shopping.
When she does stay at home she keeps coming into my “music room” with offers of stuff to eat while wearing earplugs. It is very hard to play a sax with a full mouth, or even with just little cookie crumbs. They have a way of ending up between the reed and the mouthpiece, and goodbye melody.
After exhausting all the free courses, I overcame my stinginess and signed up for a series of lessons (at Udemy.com.) for Alto Sax beginners.
I am making some progress. I know, as both Jean Jeacques and Lea have changed their attitude. Jean Jeacques now howls in tune, and Lea eats all the cookies herself. In the meantime I am actually learning to read music for the first time at my old age and enjoying it.
And Chester, old boy, “Rest in Peace.”