Hans Groiner: The Music of Thelonius Monk

Here is an incredibly funny YouTube clip of Larry Goldings in a blond wig playing Austrian pianist Hans Groiner. Hans has made the music of Monk more accessible by making every tune totally diatonic. He has done what "Monk meant to do". We're anxiously awaiting episode 2 Hans.


Harder reeds?

This was a question in response to the last post on reeds. It deserved it's own post.

"Hey David - This brings up the question regarding how one moves from one reed strength to the next. I usually play 2 or 2.5 and am always astounded that people playing my same size mouthpiece are sometimes playing 3, 3.5 or even 4. I've read that the harder the reed, generally the better the sound and the longer the reed life. But if forcing yourself to play on a harder reed is not recommended, what is the process that a player goes through that allows them to one day play on a harder reeder? I've tried working out on harder reeds, and you're right, it really does not make practicing fun. And you're not the first person that I've heard of that suggests it's not like lifting weights - that forcing the issue with brute force is not necessarily the way to go. Can you offer any more insight on this process? Thanks, Roman."

A: Roman,
Great question. I usually forget that a reed that feels perfect for me is probably a little too hard for my students. I'm generally against starting students out on really soft reeds. I don't think that it is very helpful because it trains you to play with a much different embouchu
re than a professional would use. There is some amount of muscle and air-stream control that needs to be developed over time, but it's not like you need to become iron-lips in order to have a good sound. I was talking to Ralph Morgan, the master mouthpiece maker and former head engineer during Selmer's Mark VI production, and he was saying how he thought that no one should ever play anything harder than a 2 1/2 or 3 reed on a 5 tip opening mouthpiece.
He didn't think there was any way to have enough control pieces like 8s and 9s with hard reeds. In fact he was thought that there was no way I could possibly have control over my Slant 6 Otto Link and my 3 1/2 reeds. Of course I disagree with his assessment of my set-up, and I even think I could move to a 6*. He does have a point in general though. So many of the Jazz greats used softer reeds and smaller tip openings then many players today and they sounded amazing. Cannonball played on a 5 tip opening with a 2 1/2 or 3 reed, so did Phil Woods and many other great players.

You must remember that the strength of the reed varies from brand to brand and always must be considered in relation to the mouthpiece. A smaller tip opening, shorter lay, smaller chamber or larger baffle will make a harder reed easier to play. Also an stuffy immature 3 reed may feel harder than a 4 reed from really good cane. Dead and stuffy can't always be fixed be sanding or shaving. If the reed looks green after you soak it then it most likely will play like a much harder reed.

Personally I don't recommend extreme set-ups, like a 9 or 10 tip opening, which is what George Garzone sounds so great playing. He runs 10 miles every day to keep up that king of air-stream. I think stude
nt should start out on a strength or reed that is close to what a seasoned professional would play, unless of course the student is a little kid. I wouldn't suggest that anyone play anything more open than around a 7 tip opening, and that's even kind of extreme for alto. I was playing on an Early Babbit 7 alto piece for a while last year and it felt like I could put about twice as much air through it. My sound was MASSIVE! I ended up selling it after a few months because it was just a little to hard to control. I could have gone down to a softer reed, but I didn't want the extra buzz that would have added to my sound.

If I were your teacher Roman, I would probably move you up to a hard reed (3 or 3 1/2) and if you really couldn't cope I would have you get a mouthpiece with a smaller tip opening. I also like the warm dark sound of a large chamber piece, and dislike the overly buzzy sound of a high baffle. I recommend a 5-6* tip opening on alto and a 6-7* tip opening on tenor, with
2 1/2 to 3 1/2 strength reeds. This will get you a sound closer to Zoot Sims than Lenny Picket, and closer to Cannonball than Sanborn. If the reed is not hard enough then you won't have enough resistance to control it as as well, unless of course it a 4 reed. There needs be be enough resistance from the reed in order to be able to make subtle timbre changes.

If you are still having real problems playing harder reeds, even though you have a reasonable mouthpiece, then you need to get into the woodshed and spend some time doing overtone exercises. Overtone exercises are the fastest way to develop air-stream, embouchure, and upper oral tract control. There is no quicker way to a gain control of of your set-up. Here are the exercises that Joe Viola gave me to practice overtones-
OVERTONE EXERCISES from the Bb fundamental. Continue them from Bb up to low C#.


More reed problems

Q: "I play on Vandoren Java's. My M.O. is to go through a box of reeds and find the good one's; maybe practice/play on a good reed for a short while after it manifests; then mark an "x" on it's plastic holder and put it back in a box with the other 'good ones' as arsenal for my upcoming gigs. The "bad" (more stiff, difficult, cumbersome) reeds I save to practice on - sort of like baseball player swinging 2 bats in the warm-up area before going up to the plate. This of course makes my practicing less enjoyable. My question is: is this a bad philosophy? Reeds aren't cheap. I'm mainly doing this to make sure I have good reeds to play gigs on without buying boxes and boxes of reeds each week with money I don't have. But I'm also wondering if it makes sense, if it is constructive, to practice on more difficult reeds."
- Adam

A: First of all, sorry I haven't written much lately. I've had the flu, it kicked my butt.

Ah, the constant reed struggle, the bane of all reed players. Now that you have a baby, I'm sure that reeds are even less a priority than before.

Your tactic
is to practice on the shitty reeds and save the good ones for gigs. Bummer, who wants to really practice on a bad reed? It seems like if you always practice on bad reeds, then your chops will be unprepared to play on a good reed. I could be way off here. Personally, I can't even practice on a really bad reed. It's no fun.

I don't think that it is helpful to 'work your chops out' by using a reed that is too hard. If you do this regularly you may get used to putting too much bottom pressure on the reed. Contrary to some opinions, the saxophone embouchure should be very relaxed and almost loose. How can you practice relaxing properly on a stiff reed? My answer to your question then is to adjust your reeds to where they are no longer too stiff. These reeds may still not be concert worthy, but they won't force your chops into any unnecessary contortions.

When I first play reeds I categorize them with two factors in mind, hard or soft and good or bad cane. If a reed is too hard or too soft but the cane feels and sounds good to me, then it has the possibility of being playable. If the cane is immature and feels dead or chirpy then no amount of adjusting will make it good. I'll first pull the playable reeds out of the box and put them in a reed holder. Then I'll ditch the really bad ones back in the box, which goes to the bone yard in case a day of pure desperation arrives. Then I'll separate the reeds that have potential, except for the strength. If I were you Adam, I would be practicing on these reeds. Once your reed adjusting skills are honed, these reeds will even make it to gigs. The next time I practice I will soak these questionable reeds again and see if they're any better the second go 'round. Remember the thing that breaks down hard reeds the most is going from wet to dry. Each time you dry out a wet reed you really break down the Xylem and Floem (the fibers in the reed that carry water up and down the plant).

Break out your reed tools! You should never really need to play on a reed that is too stiff or too soft. A reed clipper, fine water proof sandpaper, a reed knife, reed rush and a piece of glass is everything that you will need to work on reeds. I also recommend Vandoren's reed resurfacing glass also. This is simply a piece of glass with sandpaper on both sides. They also have a model with rough glass instead of sandpaper.There is a strip of glass at the top that has no sandpaper on it. This is so that when you resurface your reed your can leave the tip as it is. The re-surfacer is a great way to make the entire reed softer and also to flatten out any warping on the bottom of the reed. Many times it is a safer bet it take a little off the bottom of the reed than to sand down or shave the top of the reed. Make sure you also have a reed clipper that fits the tip of your mouthpiece, or at least the reeds you like to play. For example if you always play Javas then buy a Vandoren reed clipper. Remember only to clip the tiniest sliver at a time off the tip of your reed!

Always check to see if the rails are equally hard. To do this turn your mouthpiece at at 30 degree angle and blow normally so that only one side of the mouthpiece is really touching your bottom jaw. Then do the same thing on the other side. You should be able to tell which rail is harder, then make adjustments with a knife or sandpaper. If a reed is shitty, then what do you have to lose by experimenting on it? Go town, carve the f%&# out of it! There have been many very strange things done to reeds for the sake of good tone. People have methodically split the tips of reeds with razor blades, carved circular divots out of the tops of reeds, cut channels into the tops and bottoms of reeds, and reeds have been treated with everything from Hydrogen Peroxide to highly refined Pig oil. Bacon flavored reeds aren't really my thing, but I'm willing to try just about anything else in order to get a reed to play.

Here is a very helpful reed adjustment chart to help get you started.

Remember these things abut reed adjustment:

A little at a time, not a lot.
Keep trying, you'll never run out of bad reeds to practice adjusting.

Terrible cane will always sound terrible.
Die Vandoren, evil scumbags! You'll burn in hell for all the suffering you've caused!

One more thing Adam, do yourself a favor and switch to Rigotti reeds.
Order them from Roberto's or WWBW. You'll never go back to Vandorens, I promise.