Timothy McAllister’s Secret to Perfect Saxophone Technique

When I was in high school there was only one thing that mattered to me:

That little clip was on Dr. Timothy McAllister’s website in 2002 (you know you’re hardcore if you remember when it had the yellow/gray color scheme). This earth-shattering display of technique blew my 18-year-old mind. How could anyone play this fast and clean? Is he even human? Is he a cybernetic organism? Living tissue over a metal endoskeleton? I journeyed to Interlochen in 2003 to find out.

Shortly after arriving, Tim handed out his infamous technique packet. In it were a myriad of technical exercises addressing each register of the instrument, along with voicing and articulation drills. I caught on to just about everything until I ran into a bunch of charts: 24 sheets with 10 columns and rows numbered by twos from 50 to 200. Sarah Connor didn’t warn me about this part of my adventure.

“This chart,” McAllister explained, “is the key to learning your scales.” Teenage Sean protested in his mind, “Yeah, but I already play my scales at 152. Why do I need this dumb sheet?” McAllister was quick to retort, “Some of you may think you can already play your scales at 152, but I assure you,” pointing emphatically at the chart, ” this will show you the error of your ways.”

Apparently the A.I. from 2029 is telepathic.

He laid out the rules for his charts:

  1. Each sheet represents one key
  2. Each column represents scales, scales in broken intervals, and different scale patterns
  3. Each full range scale is to be played 5 to 10 times in a row PERFECTLY (start over if there is ANY mistake)
  4. Fill in one box upon completion
  5. Move the metronome up two clicks
  6. Repeat steps 1-4 from 50 bpm until you reach 200 bpm

Performing passages 10 times in a row has a long musical history. Ernest Dras wrote about Leopold and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart practicing together in Slow Practice Will Get You There Faster:

The elder Mozart would place ten dried peas in his son’s left coat pocket, and for each successful attempt at a difficult passage, Mozart would move a single pea to his right pocket. When he failed on any piece, even if it was the tenth repetition, all the peas had to be placed back in his left pocket — Wolfgang had to begin anew. What usually happens when using this method is that the student slows down his tempo in order to play the passage perfectly.

Mozart was not born a genius, he just had a nasty habit of DEEP practice. The world first discovered DEEP practice in Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code. Coyle’s book was formative, and taught me that I have control and responsibility for my talent–that it’s not left for the gods to decide. There are three rules to DEEP practice:

  1. CHUNK IT UP
  2. REPEAT IT
  3. LEARN TO FEEL IT

If you want perfect scales, or any passage for that matter, you have to interface with Coyle’s system. Now let’s put McAllister’s and Coyle’s systems through their paces, and see what juice we can extract from a simple full-range C major scale.

CHUNK IT UP

Metronomes ready? Good. Set it to 50 and play C major in sixteenth notes. Go ahead, I’ll wait. How did it go? Was it perfect? Here are some of the pitfalls you might have encountered:

  • Low-C attack: Could you start it cleanly 5-10 times in a row, or is it a little shaky and uncertain?
  • Smooth, homogenous: You must play the scale with perfect connection between notes. Third-space C to fourth-line D have to match in tone and timbre, so the D doesn’t pop out suddenly.
  • Palm Keys: Many people have little grace notes in their palm key because their timing is off.
  • Finger technique: I have a rule that my fingers must always touch the pearls even when I’m not pressing that key. There’s some nuance here when it comes to palm keys, but when students tell me, “I don’t know why my fingers just fly off the keys,” I know they didn’t put in the DEEP practice.
  • Posture, Tension: Do you wince or shrug your shoulders when you play in certain registers? Is your airstream  smooth, constant, and uninterrupted? Are your hands and shoulders relaxed?

These certainly look like good CHUNKS to me. Addressing these chunks is much more efficient than playing the whole scale over and over. If you know where the problems are hiding, then it’s best to burn off the deadwood to spare the forest. Isolate each chunk and create exercises to improve them before putting the chunks together again. The more detailed you are, the more chunks you’ll create. The more chunks you fix, the more technique you’ll gain.


REPEAT IT

5-10 times in a row sounds good on paper, but is painful in practice. Take the low C for instance. If you really stripped it down and threw the whole (method) book at it, would you be able to start it 10 times in a row perfectly? Or would Leopold’s cold, dead hand reach into your right pocket and take all of your dried peas?

Unfortunately, it’s only through repetition that you can make your technical fortune, so if you’re having trouble you need to break your chunks into sub-chunks™. Your low C isn’t speaking? Try starting notes above low C and work your way down. Perhaps you have a leak, in which case you need to visit a trusted repair tech. It could also be your reed selection. Is there another reed in your box that will get the low C to speak? Do you need a softer reed? Harder reeds? Maybe start the low C but without using the tongue. Try the aforementioned exercise with no tongue. This drill gives you data on the timing of the low C response. Experiment with different tongue and embouchure positions to see which improves response. Or key pop it into submission…don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone.

Before I lump the whole scale together again to get in my 5-10 repeats, I like to play mini-scales. I usually make an eight-note loop for my low notes, my palm keys, and any other technical issue (thanks, Larry Teal). Play SLOWLY so you can focus on the other chunks simultaneously: Smoothness, Homogeneity, Posture, and Tension.

I’ll share one other technique to help break up the monotony of repeating a passage so much. Put it through rhythmic variations. Take our 8-note loops for instance and play it once as written, then apply the five rhythms I list below, and, poof, you just did six repetitions! You could also play the passage alternating between single-lip, double-lip, and no-top-lip embouchures for extra fun.

It’s in the repeat phase where the real dirty work gets done. Do not cheat yourself. Play slowly enough that it’s almost easy to do perfectly. Teeter at the edge of your ability, but never jump off!

 

LEARN TO FEEL IT

Once you’ve solved all of your chunks, you can put the whole thing back together. I think you’ll be pleased with the results. Wait. Not so fast, just because you played each sub-chunk™ 5-10 times in a row perfectly doesn’t mean you’re done. Play the whole scale again 5-10 times in a row perfectly, and then color in that square. You should have a completely different experience playing C major now. Unhindered by technical limitations the scale kind of flows from you effortlessly.

Kenny Werner describes this as “the space” in Effortless Mastery. “The space” is a judgement-free zone, where the conscious mind releases control and the subconscious takes over. You’ll know you’re there because you’ll be fully enveloped in the process of making beautiful sounds, in a state of psychophysiological bliss and equanimity. Matter will dissolve into psychedelic fractal geometry as you are swept under a tidal wave of egoless consciousness. The true nature of reality will manifest itself before you: we are all one, connected by a quantum web of interdependent, benevolent potentiality.

Okay, maybe that’s going too far, but perhaps you’ve had a taste of “the space.” Have the hairs on the back of your neck ever stood up? Have your eyes welled up with tears because you got caught up in the beauty of the moment? Do you know the feeling when you’ve got the audience in the palm of your hand, and you react to and feed off the energy in the room? I’ve had these experiences, and they’re the reason I pick up the horn everyday. You might call me a space junkie.

My only exposure to eastern philosophy growing up.

The surest way to maximize the frequency of these experiences is by improving your technique. Think of technique as the barrier between you and “the space” aka “the good stuff.” Kenny Werner relates this story in Effortless Mastery:

A teacher once told her student to master technique so that he could “soar with the divinity of music.” Isn’t that beautiful? Once after I played a concert, an interviewer asked me, “If you could add anything to your playing, what would it be?” Without hesitation, I answered, “More technique.” He looked at me strangely, because I had shown a lot of different skills in this performance and that didn’t seem to be my most pressing need. Also, it was not the most politically-correct answer. He asked why, and I replied, “Because I love to let the great spirit manifest through me. She only gets stuck when I go for something that’s not there technically. That distracts me from the bliss I am receiving.

Hopefully you’ve caught on that this doesn’t just apply to scales. You can use Coyle’s and McAllister’s systems on any technical passage. Furthermore, Coyle’s system helps with the acquisition of any skill, not just those that are saxophone-related.

There are so few things we can control in music, so it’s nice to outsource some uncertainty to a system that’s guaranteed to yield the desired results. If you’re willing to look deep enough and sacrifice a lot–it’s around 750 perfect repetitions from 50 to 200bpm–there’s no limit to what you can accomplish.

 

Download the Saxophone Performance version of McAllister’s technique charts here!!! Fill in the bottom row with scales, patterns, or measure numbers from a difficult piece and start your own DEEP practice.


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