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Commercial Playing

Confessions of a Weekend Warrior

The Do's and Don't's of Commercial Playing
by Skip Spratt

Things to Keep You Out of Trouble!


Last night's gig was just terrible. Well, not the entire gig, but at least the first set. Things just weren't clicking. Although there was no written music (charts), the songs and chord changes were of the familiar type-the same stuff many gigging sax players have played for years and years-including myself

Now that I have your attention, let me tell you about myself, last night's gig and why you might give a listen to my advice in this column.

I've played saxophone professionally for over 20 years. (Yes, I get paid even when I don't play my best.) Although the first 10 years were spent touring, gigging and performing, the last 10 years have been been a mixed bag of musical tricks! Most of my time is spent teaching private students or kids in my public school band program. Although teaching occupies much of my time, performing is something I MUST do. A lot of importance is placed on these gigs in the sense that the quality of my playing directly effects my self-worth. When I play great, I'm on top of the world. When it's a less than stellar performance, ranting and raving in an online column seems rather therapeutic!

The venue last night was a Debutante Ball in Philadelphia. (Yes, they still exist!) Honestly, it was my first Deb Ball. No, not MY own coming out party but this event had gowns, full formal military dress complete with epaulets on the shoulder and tuxedos with tails. There was a society band that alternated sets with the rock band that I played with on this evening. As I waited backstage warming up, those on stage were pumping out standards like "As Time Goes By", "Teach Me Tonight" and "Never On A Sunday". It was all stuff many of us have played for many years in many keys. Playing the rock stuff would undoubtedly be a piece of cake compared to weaving through the changes on a tune like "Midnight Sun" or "Tenderly". Well, notexactly...

The society band finished with a rousing rendition of "One O'clock Jump" (or something from the swing era) and we took our places. Quickly the call went out, "Hold On, I'm Comin' in C". Duh dut dah dah dut dut, Duh dut dut dah dut dut, Duh dut dut dah dut dut, Duhdut dah dut dut-HOLD ON! Well, that was cool and I relaxed and was lulled into a sense of self-confidence that would not be regaineduntil later in the evening. The second tune was "Respect" but which key? The guitar riff started the tune the horns jumped on and we wereoff and running. As the female vocalist went into "Aretha mode" I thought to myself, "Is this one of the bands that lets the sax soloon the verse changes or do they modulate like the record?" Andrew Clark had written an article in the Saxophone Journal on the dangersof playing this modulation on an otherwise simple tune but I was confident they weren't going to modulate. By the time I haddetermined that they would likely not modulate, we were at the solo and they MODULATED! Under normal circumstances, I would haveintellectualized the situation. We all know from experience that the sax solo goes up a tritone to the minor seventh chord for thebeginning of the solo. That's all fine and good but it was too little too late. I jumped into the solo on God knows what hot lick I couldconjure up and promptly proceeded to flounder around these simple changes. I finished the solo on the highest altissimo note I couldfind and retreated to my section position, tail between legs.

The remainder of the first set was difficult as my confidence was blown and I struggled to make a contribution with the fine trumpet player beside me. Most often I'm the only horn and I can play whatever-stock lines, fill in the cracks-whatever. The trumpet manplayed his stuff and I made a fair attempt at finding harmonies. It was not a pretty sound! Fortunately the remainder of the evening wasmuch better and I felt like my old self after blowing the cobwebs out of the tenor during that first set. At the end of the night everyonesaid, "Yeah man, sounds great." just like always yet I was left with the memory of the less than stellar first set.

Enough about last night and me! Let's talk about You, your playing and how not to let some common pitfalls sideline you on your next gig or performance.

Ten Things to Keep You Out of Trouble!
  1. It is essential to stay on top of your axe(s)- everyday.This means all your horns. In my case it's soprano, alto, tenor, piccolo, flute, clarinet and an admittedly dusty Yamaha WX7 WindController. If you play and teach on flute, clarinet and alto sax all week, don't expect to pop the tenor in your mouth on Saturday nightand sound like Clarence Clemons and Joe Lovano all wrapped in one! In the case of the fore mentioned gig, I had taken a few days off forthe holidays then taught a couple days on alto and doubles. You can't pick up your tenor after a week off and playing other instruments andexpect to find everything where you left it!
  2. Be prepared for anything. Don't walk onto a gig expecting the same exact thing as the last time you played it. Theremight me new personnel, new tunes, new arrangements-no arrangements! Although it might only be two horns on a rock gig, you can't expectto play what you feel like when the guy next to you is throwing out line after line for you to jump on. Your ears and "radar" can neverbe too keen in a situation without charts.
  3. Develop a good working combination of the ability to readAND play by ear. If you can read virtually anything at sight butcan't match pitch by ear, that's not going to help you when there areno charts. On the flip side, if you are accustomed to playingeverything by ear and someone throws a chart in front of you beprepared to read it down the first time.
  4. Work on developing good transposition skills. Reading from concert pitch to Bb and Eb are the obvious places to start. Throw away your Bb or Eb Fake Book and use a Concert Fake Book (If you use one at all!). If you play flute, having these in concert pitch makes more sense in that regard as well. After you have a good handle on transposing for alto, tenor and soprano, work on moredifficult transpositions. i.e. alto to tenor, tenor to alto and soprano to alto. Being able to read up and down a 4th and 5th fromthe written pitch will cover all of these possibilities. Lastly, work on transposing from written pitch to any interval. It is difficult atfirst, however you can start with whole notes if need be. When playing a recent gig with Tommy Tune in Atlantic City, the contractorhired two of us for second alto. When I got there, there was a tenor book in front of me. I had to play the first half of the rehearsalreading tenor charts on alto! Ouch!!
  5. Become flexible with time keeping and pitch. Yes, of course you must be able to play with a metronome and have good,steady time at first. When playing a Count Basie chart or faking one of his tunes, be prepared to play behind the beat. Dexter Gordon was also well known for his laid-back feel on tenor. When playing and up tempo Latin tune do the opposite. Push the time to stay on-top of the beat. When playing funk I feel most comfortable playing directly on the beat and just a little behind. Understand your own tendencies. In my case, I tend to rush when excited. If you plan to play behind the beat in these situations, you will likely end up where you want to be-right on the beat!
  6. Knowing where you like the pitch will help you understand what you need to do when it's hot or cold. Remember when a horn gets cold itgoes flat and when stringed instruments get cold they go sharp! A digital keyboard will stay in the middle and that is where you haveto meet. In this particular region there is a definite change in pitch between Atlantic City and Philadelphia. It's accepted among mypeers that Atlantic City pitch is higher yet it has nothing to do with the weather! Go figure...
  7. Become confident in playing different styles. Although you are hired for a rock gig, you may have to play and unexpectedstandard or bossa nova. Fortunately the resurgence of swing and Latin music in the last 5 or 6 years has mandated that "rock" sax playersdevelop a feel for these styles as well. It doesn't matter what your "personal style" is on a commercial gig. One must play what isexpected to "fit in". Playing bebop on "Old Time Rock and Roll" won't make it on most gigs. By the same token, playing the blues scaleexclusively over "As Time Goes By" likely won't make the phone ring next time.
  8. Consider doubling if you don't already double. Having the ability to play flute, clarinet and keyboards and sing backgroundvocals may be the difference between sitting home or being on stage. If you study these instruments as you have the saxophone theexperience can be quite rewarding. Years ago you could turn on AM radio and hear a sax solo or horn lines played in virtually everyother pop song. Turn on the radio now and you are far less likely to find a sax solo or horn lines on every other song.
  9. Transcribe those you want to sound like. Learning to play minor ii-V-I patterns in 12 keys will definitely help yourtechnique and ear-However, if you want to sound like David Sanborn or Richard Elliot, learning your pentatonic and blues scales will bemore productive at first. When you write out a Richard Elliot solo you will clearly see his use of pentatonics and blues. In the case ofmany smooth jazz artists the notes only tell part of the story. Pitch bending, grace notes, tonguing techniques and false fingeringscontribute greatly to the way these artists sound.
  10. Study seriously and regularly with a qualified teacher.Even the best information sitting in front of you doesn't give most players the structure they need to reach goals. A good teacher willinspire and motivate you as well as give realistic goals week to week or month to month. The objective ear of a qualified teacher is anextremely valuable tool to have. Seek out this person through local colleges and universities or better yet, a personal recommendationfrom someone you trust.

In conclusion, I am thankful for my experience last night. It mademe reevaluate my priorities with regard to my own playing and hopefully has helped me share these positive experiences with you.-Remember, there are no negative experiences in music as long as youlearn from the bad ones!

Stay well and play well.

©2002 SkipSpratt

About the Author:
Skip Spratt holds a (BM) with honors in Jazz Saxophone and an (MAT) in Music Education from The University of the Arts, and a Certificate from Berklee College of Music in Boston. He is the instrumental music teacher at Berlin Community School, Secretary of the NJ-IAJE and has taught saxophone at Rowan University.

Skip is the keeper of The Saxophone Shed ( He is available for private instruction of all levels in saxophone, flute, clarinet and improvisation in the Philadelphia area. Additionally, Lessons by Mail are Cd lessons available to students in any region. Just click on the Lessons by Mail link at
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Created: January82002.

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