Prioritize and Diversify: How You Can Pursue Classical and Jazz Saxophone

Advice from Saxophone Professor Tom Walsh

Date Posted: August 03, 2017

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You are a highly-respected performer in both jazz AND classical saxophone music – a skillset that is becoming more and more rare. Was this a conscious choice you made early in your career, or just a natural occurrence?

It was both really. On the one hand, it was a conscious choice—in a sense it was a practical choice. I wanted to teach college and I saw a job ad looking for someone to teach jazz ensemble, jazz classes, and saxophone. I was more of a jazz player and I knew that teaching saxophone in a university at that time meant classical saxophone, so I decided to pursue my graduate degrees in classical saxophone.

But, it also grew out of musical experiences I had growing up. My parents have very broad taste in music and my older brother plays guitar, so I heard a lot of different styles of music—classical, pop, folk, rock, blues, maybe a little jazz. I started piano lessons at an early age and that was mostly classical. Singing hymns and hearing classical and folk music in church was also influential. I didn’t really hear jazz until I was in junior high school. I went to Blue Lake Fine Arts camp for jazz for a couple of years and then the Jamey Aebersold Summer Jazz Workshops for all four years of high school.

I had a series of teachers who were very influential in solidifying my interest in jazz—my early band directors in Buffalo Grove, Illinois, Alan Hollander and Bill Carroll, and my first real saxophone teacher Bill Uher. Then I moved to Louisville and studied with Mike Tracy, who really helped me develop a strong jazz foundation while still doing some classical study. Through the Aebersold camps I worked with a lot of great jazz musicians and educators who gave me the tools needed to develop as a jazz musician: David Baker, Jerry Coker, Pat LaBarbera, David Liebman, Rufus Reid, and many others.

My undergraduate degree is in Jazz Studies, so that was my primary focus in those years, but I was working on classical playing along the way. I studied with a grad assistant my first two years—David Kay—and at one point he gave me some encouragement about my classical playing, saying, “You could do this if you wanted to.” I studied with Eugene Rousseau my junior and senior years, and then I ended up studying with him while pursuing a master’s and doctorate in classical saxophone. I didn’t get really serious about classical playing until I started preparing to audition for the master’s degree. I ended up studying with Dr. Rousseau for six years. He always says, “When you first came to IU all you were interested in was jazz. I didn’t ask you to be a classical saxophonist; that was your decision.”

How has your study in both fields benefited you as a player?

I think of developing saxophone sound in terms of flexibility and focus. We need flexibility to be able to create different tone colors, to be able to move the pitch, to be able to play altissimo and multiphonics, and so on. We need “focus” to be able to lock onto a particular tone color and a particular tuning of a pitch, to be able to pick out the specific altissimo note we want, and so on. This concept applies to everything: rhythm, articulation, vibrato, phrasing, etc. In all of these we need flexibility and focus. The experience of rhythm in jazz influences the experience of rhythm in classical playing and vice versa. That applies to all the elements of music: rhythm, harmony, melody, texture, form. It really boils down to listening. Great jazz musicians listen in a particular way to the musicians they are playing with. Great classical musicians likewise listen in a particular way to the musicians they are playing with. In a way, working to a high level in each you notice how that type of listening and experiencing the elements of music are the same. You have to hear the result you want and be able to create that.

In terms of professional work, having a wide range of skills has helped me to have a very diverse performing career, playing in jazz small groups, lead alto in big bands, classical recitals, sitting in the orchestra, as a soloist with concert band, as well as playing for musicals and playing with rock and blues bands and a reggae band. I regularly play soprano, alto, and tenor, and sometimes baritone, and I double on flute and clarinet. I also use the piano virtually every day. I play chord changes for my jazz students and sometimes I play little bits of the piano accompaniment for classical pieces with my students. I also use it for learning tunes and composing jazz tunes. It’s an indispensable tool. I enjoy doing a lot of different things and I have been very fortunate to have a wide variety of opportunities over the years.

"Whatever it is you are studying, you have to take it seriously and put a lot of time and energy into it." - Tom Walsh

How has your study in both jazz and classical music benefited you as a teacher?

It really created the possibility for everything I have done as a teacher. Over the last 25 years, I have taught both classical and jazz saxophone, as well as related classes: saxophone quartet, jazz improvisation, jazz ensemble, jazz history, jazz theory, classical theory, saxophone literature, saxophone pedagogy, and jazz combos.

In terms of the actual teaching, I think the benefit comes in the form of perspective. In a very basic way, just being able to help players understand style—what it is that makes jazz sound like jazz and classical sound like classical. Beyond that, there are certain types of awareness you develop in each style that can be transferred back and forth between styles: ways of experiencing rhythm, sound, articulation, vibrato, phrasing, balance, ensemble, harmony, etc.

Do you have any advice for those strictly studying jazz or strictly studying classical?

Whatever it is you are studying, you have to take it seriously and put a lot of time and energy into it. You have to LOVE it. If you don’t give it enough love and attention, it won’t develop to a high level. That means PRACTICE! And, it also means listening to a lot of music that is going to feed your knowledge of music—all instruments (including vocalists), all styles. Listening to live music played by master musicians will change your life. We need inspiration and models so we know what it is we are striving for.

For Classical Players

I would say develop a sense of excellence and strive for that. What is excellence? A performance that displays beauty, grace, control, and contrast. That means a beautiful tone, a beautiful vibrato, very refined intonation, a highly refined sense of rhythm, accurate technique, highly refined articulation, and the ability to shape phrases dynamically in a way that the music comes alive. Seek out a teacher who will help you cultivate these qualities and learn standard classical repertoire as a foundation, then study contemporary and more “avant garde” repertoire. First, though, learn how to play a melody and make it compelling and beautiful.

For Jazz Players

For jazz players, improvisation is a huge part of the picture, but it is also important to work on reading and style. Fundamentals are incredibly important. That means developing a great jazz sound, solid technique, a beautiful vibrato, excellent intonation, clean articulation, and excellent rhythm. Style development comes about through imitation, so directly copying style from experienced players and recordings is essential. This is true for any style. Working on improvisation, we often talk about learning the jazz language. This happens both by immersion and by study. Immersion means being involved in it—hearing it through playing with experienced players, hearing master players live, and listening to recordings. Study means learning chord/scale theory, studying jazz rhythm and articulation, memorizing tunes (melody and chord progression), memorizing and analyzing solos by master players, practicing specific ideas that you can use in your own solos, and learning how to develop or vary ideas as you fit them over chord changes. Find a teacher who can help you with these things. That might mean having two teachers—a saxophone teacher and a jazz teacher.

"Listening to live music played by master musicians will change your life." - Tom Walsh

Do you have any advice for younger students looking to pursue a career in music?

Most important in the beginning is to develop your playing ability to a very high level. That means PRACTICE! The time you put in as a student will serve you for your entire career.

To echo what I said above, find a teacher and take private lessons. Find the best teacher you can. For some people this means having to drive a long distance, so maybe lessons aren’t every week; for others, it means finding an excellent teacher to have lessons with via Skype or Facetime.

Whoever your teacher is, master the things your teacher gives you to learn. Some students are only dabbling. They have a lesson with their teacher and they hear the things the teacher says, but they don’t practice them to mastery. Other students go from teacher to teacher seeking advice, but never master any of it. In the end you have to become your own teacher. You take what you learn from others and absorb it and master it. Your love for what you are doing and your desire to develop makes this a natural process. You have to apply it to your playing through practice and test it in performance.

Seek out opportunities to be around the best musicians you can. Go to concerts by great musicians. Find opportunities to talk with great musicians. Listen to what they have to say.

Go to a summer music camp. Summer can be a time of huge musical growth. Get involved with a summer camp that is going to challenge you to develop your skills. The only caution I have is that sometimes I see students going from one camp to another all summer long. That may not turn out to be to your benefit, depending on what you do with all that information and experience. The Aebersold Summer Jazz Workshop gives you enough material and inspiration in one week to keep you busy practicing for several years. You have to give yourself time to practice and assimilate all of that. If you’re running from one camp to the next, you may pile on more and more information and not ever have time to digest it.

In addition to taking your performance abilities to the highest level you can, it is important to understand that a career in music can mean a lot of different things and now more than ever everyone is encouraged to develop their knowledge of how the music business works. Find out, how do people earn money in music? Ask people with a career in music about what they do. Find someone who does what you want to do and learn about how they got to where they are. If possible, meet them or contact them. Be persistent. You won’t always get an answer on the first or second try.

Finally, it’s important to recognize the personal qualities that are needed to sustain a career in music: persistence, perseverance, discipline, time management skills, excellent communication skills—both verbal and written, being a positive person who creates a good feeling in others, and being someone who thinks creatively, creates opportunities, and who will take the initiative to make things happen.

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