Joe Viola- 'Yoda of the Saxophone'

Here are some overtone exercises that I got from Joe Viola. They are actually pretty standard, but very helpful. Joe V had a personal way of teaching. He knew how to get each student to do exactly what he wanted. Sometimes he would make me honk like a sick goose to get me to open my throat, I was usually pretty embarrassed because Tony 'Antonio' Hart was always waiting outside for the next lesson. Other times he would put on a little latex finger cover on and go prodding around my mouth to get my tongue into the correct position. When I try to remember exact the things he taught me I kind of draw a blank. Most of the time we just played duets or etudes in unison, he would stop every time my intonation or something else was not right. Aside from being kind of like a 'Yoda' of the saxophone he was almost saintly, he reminded me of what a real priest should be like. He set a high example of spiritual and moral conduct for all of his students and I'm sure that everyone who knew him also probably felt the same way about him as I did.
Once at a woodwind recital at the main performance hall some of his students surprised him by doing a hip-hop number at the end of the show. The students dressed up as rappers, with gold painted chain link necklaces and rapped a hip-hop number about Joe V while Go-Go girls in sparkling skin tight body suits danced on either side of the stage. I was sitting right next to Joe during the unexpected finale and saw that was laughing so hard he cried, he was really touched.

Joe really took me under his wing. He would sometimes take me to classical saxophone recitals at other colleges given by visiting professors. He also honored me by having me sub in his own double quartet (sax quartet + rhythm section). That was some of the hardest sight-reading that I've ever had to do in my life.

Most people don't realize just how many of the great saxophone players of today were taught by Joe; players like Brecker, Branford, George Garzone, and Charlie Mariano. He was right up there with Marcel Mule, Joe Allard and Sigard Rascher. The Selmer factory would bring them all him to the factory when they were working on the Mark VI. I don't think that he really even considered himself a Jazz player, just a woodwind player. He was amazing on ALL the woodwinds. There is an album that he recorded for the Berklee label years ago that he overdubs all the woodwinds- oboe, flute clarinet, English horn, EVERYTHING. He once told me when I asked him about the difference between a classical saxophone sound and a jazz saxophone sound that," A good saxophone sound is a good saxophone sound, period". He wrote only a few books, the ones I really like are his 'Technique of the Saxophone' volume II and his sight-reading studies book. Technique Volume II was so good that it has recently been republished for all the other instruments. You really get a sense of his harmonic and melodic concept in these books, his lines are incredibly cool. George Garzone told me that even though Joe V never really talked much about these things, he got his melodic and harmonic sense from playing out of Joe's books.

Joe knew everything there was to know about every single note on the saxophone. He had tons of alternate fingerings for every conceivable situation that a saxophonist might encounter, for example playing with trumpets or flutes. It is even said that he taught the famous 'Sax Doctor' Emilio Lyons everything he knows about fixing saxophones. More importantly he knew just how to inspire and motivate each student. He was always compassionate, nonjudgmental and was never critical, except when he knew that I really hadn't worked as hard as I could have. Then he would just flash me a quick look that let me know that he was dissapointed in me for not doing my best. I had never had a mentor like that before then and I probably won't have another one.There was only one Joe V, there will never again live anyone who has truly mastered the saxophone to the degree that Joe V did. He was the last of a now extinct breed.

Here are some more articles about Joe V-


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David Carlos Valdez said...

Now that Joe V is gone I don't have a problem repeating that he thought Sigard Rascher and all his students had horrendously AWFUL tones. He said that they didn't even sound like saxophones. He did respect the fact that they could play those insanely high overtones, but at what price?

David Carlos Valdez said...

Let me stress that he did think that overtone exercises were very valuable in order to gain control of the upper oral tract. It seems to me that players should not expect to be able to play through the entire Rascher 'Top Tones' book without switching to a Rascher type setup. As I said before, who would even want to sound like Sigard Rascher in the first place?

Anonymous said...

Yes, that nails the essence of Joe V. 41 years later I still remember the slight sidelong glance when it wasn't dead on! Not intimidating , just meaningful, and for those who put forth the effort, always encouraging and willing to share. Too few with those qualities. We who studied with him surely received a legacy.

Anonymous said...

I don't know why, but, I was amazed at how a quiet, unassuming, "regular" type guy, who loved to bs about golf in between lessons(and when you had goofed off, hadn't prepared your lesson), was absolutely genius with the saxophone and as a teacher.

I'll never forget sticking my finger in his mouth(sans glove, before the aids scare)so I could feel the proper embouchure pressure.

Anonymous said...

The cool thing about Viola WAS....he was not into creating clones or lil' guys who were politically correct sax wise. The students he had ranged from myself, of course, to...Ernie Watts, Charlie Mariano, JimmY Mosher, Bill Pierce, Garzone, Jane Ira Bloom, Billy Drews,the amazing Claire Daly...plus thousands of guys I do not know of.
Joe was so open-Garzone & I are still compairing notes on it. Some 32plus years later!!!! Actually I think, Joe mighta been more out than we even could imagine STYLE wise if he had his druthers. Mighta made Garzone & the rest of us look like club date cats-hahahaha. < i'm very serious >

G.Tomassi said...

Glenn Tomassi. I studied with you at Berklee and most say that he was a great teacher. I would come very prepared for my class and he would always give me a little extra push and ideas to approach what I was working on it did not matter if it was Giant Steps or the Concertino da Camara by Ibert he would always have a fresh approach an was able to get the best out of us. I teach the saxophone so Joe's legacy is passing on I often find my self remembering him in his studio giving me some advice or showing me something or simply talking about music. I'm fortunate to have been his student and friend always with us Joe Viola YODA of the Saxophone...

Don Davis said...

I studied with Joe in 1974. I love his chord study book and always feel like I've been to the gym after practicing with it,ready for anything after that! He would use his covered finger help correct your tongue position for articulation. A steady and sure instructor who inspired you to practice. He told me that I would be a good ballad player someday......so I got more work to do!