What Classical Saxophonists Can Learn from James Ehnes and Edgar Degas

If you haven’t watched the whole thing already, I recommend checking out Part I and Part II of this masterclass at Wells by my favorite violinist, James Ehnes. He discusses his personal history, playing philosophy, approach to sound, practicing, and the pressures performers face. I love hearing that even violin-gods have the same anxieties as the rest of us.

This article addresses the two points James makes in the above video:

  1. how to draw from tradition to acquire your personal sound
  2. how your technique should always serve the music.

Ehnes’ first violin teacher had an immense record collection of all the great performers, which Ehnes listened to extensively. From an early age Ehnes was imitating the great violinists of the past, which is something I recommend saxophonists do (with saxophone recordings, of course) in my article How to Improve Your Saxophone Sound and Tone.

This kind of deep listening and imitation exposes musicians to as Ehnes says, “a broader tonal palettes from which to draw.” Musicians are not the only artists who learn from imitating the greats. Painters like Degas insisted that, “You have to copy and recopy the masters, and it’s only after having proved oneself as a good copyist that you can reasonably try to do a still life of a radish.” Saxophone legend, Dave Liebman, described an archive of Picasso’s early paintings that were exact copies of paintings by Renoir and Monet. Liebman said about Picasso, “that cat could really play the changes.” While Liebman was talking about transcribing jazz solos, Ehnes essentially argues the same point. Eventually all musicians must come to terms with who came before them. Bruce Lee famously said, “Absorb what is useful. Discard what is not. Add what is uniquely your own.”

Ehnes mentions how the old recordings were the foundation of his development as a violinist. Too often saxophonists look for inspiration from their peers and contemporaries and neglect the old greats! Most saxophonists dismiss Marcel Mule’s playing because of his “old-fashion” vibrato, but if they got over that initial reaction they would discover his enviable technique, sound, and musicianship. The same goes for Sigurd Rascher. How was that guy able to play altissimo so effortlessly on an old saxophone and mouthpiece that so few people use today?

If you don’t like the way old players sounded, then maybe you should question your assumptions as to why that is the case. I’m pretty sure Marcel Mule liked the way he sounded, and I’m also certain that other people liked his sound too otherwise he wouldn’t have been able to get any work let alone teach at the Paris Conservatory or play Ibert with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. A lot of players are critical of Beuscher horns and Caravan/Rascher mouthpieces, but I haven’t heard any of those same players play the high double-Bb in the Brant Concerto like Rascher.

Another advantage of studying and imitating the fathers of classical saxophone is that no one else is doing it! It’s quickest and surest way to develop your personal sound. You’ll discover a whole new universe of sound that a lot of modern players dismiss.

Masato Kumoi is a saxophonist whom I admire greatly, and I believe he successfully incorporates the sounds of the past and present . He sent me a Facebook message in this regard saying:

n the liner notes one of Masato Kumoi’s CDs he mentioned how he used to listen endlessly to a solo recording of Daniel Deffayet . He stopped himself when he realized he was sounding TOO MUCH like Deffayet, stating that in the end he wanted his own sound. I think two things stand out about Kumoi: 1) he has a natural, effortless, big-room sound that he isn’t preoccupied with over-controlling, and 2) no one sounds like him. So if being unique is something that interests you then you should employ the Ehens/Degas strategy. Today Kumoi enjoys a busy career as a teacher at Kunitachi College of Music and Shobi University. He is also an in-demand performer, and, most famously, is the leader of the Masato Kumoi Quartet. So there you have it, a successful saxophonist with some old-school in his veins!

Here’s two videos for comparison, one of Deffayet playing Creston and another of Kumoi playing a Ferling etude. Can you hear the influence of Mule and Deffayet in Kumoi’s sound? What do you think? Is Kumoi’s playing compelling or too old-fashioned? I would love to hear your thoughts, so please leave a comment below!

Ehnes also spoke about faulty technique impacting musical decisions. This article is long enough already, so I’ll let Ehnes wrap it up:

“When listening to your own playing, say, ‘Well if I were somebody else listening could I always tell when you’re on a first, second, third, fourth finger. The idea is that you make any sound, on any finger, on any place on the violin. And that’s something worth practicing. So often we end up, sadly, making musical decisions because of technical limitations…Well, the only way I can really play it is with this kind of sound, so therefore that’s the kind of sound I’m going to use. And that’s another case of you lowering your standards too much at that point. If you’re playing something, and you realize the way you’re making it sound is not out of choice but out of necessity then that’s the place you need to practice. You should be able to, in theory, in any place in any piece make any sound you want and that of course becomes very, very challenging.”

Your saxophone technique should not hold back your music-making! If it does then please catch up on some of my articles on intonation, embouchure, sound, and jaw pressure. Applying these ideas will surely make it easier to play the saxophone, thus making it easier to play music!

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  1. Hey Sean,

    Great points-really enjoyed the article! Listening to others and borrowing as Lee suggests is an excellent way to develop your own personal sound.

    Along those same lines, I always found it super helpful to imitate the sounds of others that I didn’t like. In fact, I learned as much, if not more, by doing that. Sometimes, especially for young players, developing a concept of your ideal approach is easiest by also identifying what you don’t want. Slow vibrato, pinched sound, etc. This also comes in very useful later when identifying problems in your students approach!

    Anyway, to answer your question, I love Kumoi’s sound-always have. The fact that he has a unique approach and immediately identifiable voice on the saxophone is a great thing!

    1. Thanks for the note, Dr. Nabb! I agree completely that people should be able to imitate sounds they don’t like. Having that ability demonstrates a whole new level of control and technique because it shows that a player has meticulously curated their personal sound. In other words, they’re not stuck in any one approach. That’s also a great point about Kumoi’s unique sound. At the highest levels saxophonists should distinguish themselves from rest of the pack. In the end, that’s what creates progress in our field.

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