It’s Sunday morning here, in New England.  I woke up, stepped into the 20 degree ocean air, only  to realize that something blew into my rx7 and damaged the front of it. Well, either that or someone vandalized it, and that really doesn’t make sense. It is an interesting kind of damage though, very pinpoint, I will say that. More money I don’t have. Awesome. #oceanlife  I also awoke to a comment on my Facebook that (for a lot of reasons), that even though there’s a chance they didn’t mean it to be as condescending and passive aggressive as it sounded, needed to be addressed. So i’m putting on some Coltrane to cleanse to the evil vibes, and spending a couple of minutes to set some things straight and give some perspective on a few things.

A few days ago, I posted the picture below. It’s my horn (Selmer  Super 80 Series II) and a bunch of mouthpieces. A harmless picture, simply meant to be funny. I go a comment that could possibly be interpeted as implying that i’m not playing correctly, or putting enough air through the horn. Nice. It’s always a joy to get such wonderfully positive and inspirational support from people. LOL. Ok, sarcasm aside, this brings up a few different discussions.

So first, lets talk about the picture. The mouthpieces in this picture are all Ottlinks, current generation Vandoren V16s, or Morgan Excaliburs. The sizes range from 6* to 8. Nothing extreme here, although the Links are NY, thus large chamber. The thing that mouthpiece overlords will no doubt notice is that all of these mouthpieces share one characteristic. They all have roll over baffles, and nothing revolutionary in the design of the chamber etc.  So, while a non mouthpiece dork might think that these mouthpieces are all over the map, they’re actually all very similar. There is a reason for this, and this brings me to my injury. I’m writing a book that will go into this, and other things much more in depth, but for now I will give a quick synopsis.

When I finally committed to focusing on saxophone, I was playing a straight up Meyer 6. Someone in my high school band got a Dukoff, and I got interested in it. About a year later, i ended up with a D7. I loved that piece. My band instructor did not. He one point in front of the band said “James pays $150 to be the loudest person in the band”. Priceless. LOL. Well eventually that got damaged, and because of a lack of stock (pre internet), I ended up on a D9. Huge. At the time, I didn’t think anything of it, because i was able to play it fine. Now Dukoff D’s legit peel paint. It is a steep bafle. There’s a reason they call it the “super power chamber’. So I was toning it down with a tad bit softer of a reed. The result was the sound wanted to spread sideways and be unfocused. This is what a bigger tip opening or chamber will do on the wrong reed size, or mouthpiece size for the player. I’m in high school, then college, so I had no experience with tech. We didn’t have the internet, so there were not articles and forums that give the wealth of information (for free) that we have today. So, I was on my own, not knowing I was doing anything wrong.

I got to Berklee, immediately saw my weaknesses, and started addressing them. I practiced 8/10 hours a day. There was no cable in the dorm room, but there were practice rooms at the end of the hall. I would come back from practicing, sit in the room for an hour or so, listen to my two drummer roommates argue about drummers, why the genres they played within made them better or suck (jazz or fusion, Chambers vs Philly Joe etc))  get bored, and then go right back into the sheds.

When I focus on something, I dive in. My work ethic is insane. I think I inherited it from my mother. She quite literally carried my family growing up….something I would learn more about as i got older. I didn’t know the half of it, which is something I would feel guilty about as I got older and more aware and intelligent. My uncle was always leading by example as well. Incredibly successful and intuitive, still to this day. Of course as a kid and young adult, I was clueless to a lot of it, but I was still lucky to have a couple of amazing role models to show me what work, and more importantly perseverance (as they both had major hurdles to overcome at times) looked like.

Well, that crazy work ethic finally caught up with me. About 3 semesters into Berklee, I started having issues. It started with me just getting a sick (sinus infections) every once in a while. It progressed into not being able to focus the sound, and having intonation issues. It got even worse to the point where i would just crack notes, even in the mid low register,  or make mistakes playing very simple things. Then  the glands on the side of my neck started to swell and become painful to the touch, and then any sound I had went away. i could no longer play. I went to the leading ear nose and throat specialist, who happens to be in Boston. I played with a camera that was inserted up my nose and fed down my throat. Not pleasant. Pretty gnarly actually. They couldn’t see anything, although they did notice that my throat was doing a lot of movement and modulating while i played.

I would leave Berklee and stop playing within a few months.

Years later, after leaving music for a while, entering the work force part time, and playing basketball 6 hours a day..(see a pattern here…that’s a later discussion for the book), I came back to music and started to confront why I couldn’t play. This leads me back to the mouthpieces in the picture.

One of the things I realized was that I could no longer play any mouthpiece with any type of steep baffle or sharp edges that speed up air. The baffle would create vibrations that would aggravate my sinuses and glands. I also couldn’t play these mouthpieces for long because the air would move so quickly, that it actually put pressure on my throat. It turns out a little bit of back pressure is a good thing, because it pushes any stress right down to where it should be, which is my diaphragm. I go into this more in my book, but basically this is why all the mouthpieces you see pictured are the way they are. They are all rollover baffles, the NY Ottlinks being a little higher of a baffle than the Vandorens and the Morgans. The other thing they all have in common is the chamber is very nondescript. They are basically very bland drain pipes. So while the Vandoren’s and even Morgans a little more streamlined in profile, the innards are basically the same.

Also, a mouthpiece that has too big of a chamber (and requires a stiffer reed to get the feel and air speed right) will also set me off. An example of this is my vintage Morgan Excalibur. NONE of my mouthpieces sound as good as that mouthpiece. That thing is just a joy to play. It’s arm, and with a little bit of a stiff reed, that thing sings. Incredibly warm. However, despite sounding great, and not being painful immediately, I will eventually just start not being able to play it, and my glands will hurt. Right back to square one.

So, as you can see, the window of my being able to maneuver in is quite small and defined. This actually creates issues once in a with friends in the business side of the industry. They want me to play their mouthpiece, which is incredibly flattering, and I literally can’t. I have to have the discussion of “your mouthpiece is amazing, I just can’t physically play it”. Quite literally the musical equivalent of the  “It’s not you, it’s me” discussion.  Awesome.

Even when I have the right mouthpiece/reed, I still have to deal with exaggerated day to day body changes. Even healthy playing still aggravates my sinuses. This is why I often look to go to the biggest chamber i can without over doing it. This is why the Link NY’s have worked for so often. But, because of these day to day up and down  conditions with my sinuses and throat, I often pick up the horn and I can’t make a sound right away. ..and even if  I can, i’m often working so hard to do it that my technique is a little off. So I have re learn the feel of my horn very often. This is just my path. I’ve had to accept it. Embrace it. Greet it head on every day. This means I have to work ridiculously hard just to continue playing…not getting better…just playing. In reality, the only way I play as well as I do now is because of work and perseverance. The tremendous amount of work that I did pre injury, as well as plethora of time I continue to put in.

It’s a grind. It is frustrating. It weighs on me. I deal with it by studying philosophy…finding joy, stability, and comfort in the way. Maintaining discipline yet at the same time approaching the instrument in an earthy, flexible, live in the present …let’s see what we have today mind set. It’s the only way I get by, and not have a mental breakdown and leave music all together.

I had a girlfriend say to me once that she didn’t think I even liked music.  She could sense it. I mean, yes, I straight up hate aspects of this industry and what it’s become….the social media (which is pretty necessary at this point for a lot of us)…the back stabbing and maneuvering to get gigs as well as keep people other people off of them even when they’re in line….the classist nature of those  “on the road” vs “those not” aspect of it, but that wasn’t what she sensed. She sensed my daily struggle just to keep keep being ABLE to play period. Remarkably intuitive for something I had never vocalized. It makes me smile thinking about it. Very sharp.

You never know what people are going through. You hear all it all the time, but you hear it because it’s true. Like right now, I can’t play the Ottolinks. The chambers are currently big to play with my reed size. I go up a reed size, cures the spreading of the sound, aggravates my glands. 6 months from now, that will change. I’ll deal with it. Right now i’m on a Morgan Ny, and it’s working, although it’s a little small of a chamber. I’ll probably go to one with a larger chamber shortly, to alleviate sinus pressure.

It is what it is. We all do what we can to get by. Everyone’s path is different. We have to be evolved enough to be aware and respect that.

Finishing up, i’ll impart a small portion of my philosophy. It blows my mind that someone could possibly insinuate that i’m doing things wrong after so many years. First, If you have nothing good to say, don’t say it. Seriously, the way musicians sometimes rail on each other is ridiculous. Typified by this past week. You’ve got someone that just killed their gig at the local bar coming home and shredding someone playing the grammy’s or the superbowl….a level of stage, conditions, and bureaucracy that they know nothing about. I mean, like wow.

Lastly, I play the way I play (barring the physical ups and downs) because I want to.  It’s true, I don’t play 5 million notes all the time. I don’t want to. It doesn’t mean I can’t. To me, technique is a tool, not a basis for style. Style in general can be limiting. Bruce Lee said it best. “Style is crystallization”. The act of expressing yourself is far more important than any confines you may put on yourself to find (or subscribe to) any style. That being said, finding your voice is the way. This took me the longest time to find, and to me it is the most important thing. Academic/incessantly technical playing may be worshipped online but it is far from the whole picture and to me the least important part of it. While I transcribe all the time, it doesn’t change my voice. It only adds to it, and only very subtly and when I let it. I do it for the joy of preserving our art, and analyzing other people’s philosophies. To gain perspective.

So be good to each other. Practice respect and compassion. Find your way. Enjoy the day.





Published On: February 18th, 2024 / Categories: Uncategorized /