Listen Before You Play: Stylistic Advice

with Adrian Barnett

Adrian Barnett is a Regional Artist. The goal for the Vandoren Regional Artist program is to enhance the quality of the music experience through education and the assistance of Vandoren. The clinics they conduct cover a broad spectrum of topics and, based on your input, can be customized to fit the needs of your students. Request a clinic

How important is style in the jazz world?

Adrian Barnett: Style is important in every genre of music – it’s not limited to jazz. A great place to start learning different styles of music is by listening. I encourage all of my students to listen to recordings of the music they are studying, whether they are learning a new tune in their jazz combo, commercial music ensemble, or studying a new piece of classical saxophone repertoire.

When a student brings in a piece of music to their lesson the first question I ask them is: “Did you listen to any recordings of this piece?” If they say yes, I inquire about which recording(s) they have listened to and follow up with another question: “What did you hear?” This creates a dialogue and room for conversation about listening. If they have not yet listened to a recording of the music the next step is to find one.


What kind of styles are most important in a jazz band setting? 

 AB: That depends on the music being played. Many different styles can be utilized in a big band setting, including swing, funk, rock, and Latin. Listening to recordings of the music being performed in the band is a great way to understand and develop concepts of style. Again, it comes back to listening. Listen to music with other people in the band and talk about what you hear. Listen to individual instruments and understand what their role is in the band.

Regarding the saxophone section in a big band, flexibility of sound is extremely important in this setting. It’s important in any ensemble.

If each player in the section played like they were the soloist at all times the section would sound dysfunctional. Blending of sound is key. When doing clinics with jazz bands and ensembles, I suggest that players in the section try to fit their sound inside the sound of the person next to them. The lead alto player in a big band should have a more authoritative sound and lead the saxophone section. The baritone player needs to have the flexibility to blend with the saxophone, brass, and rhythm sections, or play independent lines at times. John Thomas wrote an excellent article for the WAVE on jazz saxophone section playing. For a more in-depth discussion of the saxophone section in a big band setting I suggest reading John’s article.


So what is it like for you to transition to each new style? Was it all “on the job” training? 

It has been a combination of “on the job training” while playing with many different ensembles, and listening. What I have learned from playing with a wide variety of different groups and ensembles has been invaluable. Playing with other people also helps develop musical communication. For me, every playing situation provides a learning opportunity. Along with making sure I do my job well I’m always open to the opportunity of learning something in every situation.

I have also learned a lot from watching directors work with ensembles in rehearsals, really listening to what they have to say at all times, and paying close attention to how they run rehearsals; this has been important in my development as an educator and musician. Just like listening to the master musicians of past and present, observing a master director or educator work with an ensemble is a great learning experience.

Wrap Up


This is the key to understanding various jazz styles. Ask yourself, what role does each individual instrument play?

Ask your students questions.

  1. “Did you listen to any recordings of this piece?”
  2. “What did you hear?”
  3. If no, find a recording together!

Play with other people. 

This helps you as a musician to understand a breadth of styles and to learn from those experiences.

Know each instrument's role.

The lead alto player should have a more authoritative sound and lead the saxophone section. The baritone player needs to have the flexibility to blend with the saxophone, brass, and rhythm sections.

Join the conversation