Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Working with Composers: Jonathan Elliott

Sometimes you just get lucky. 

One day I received a phone call from composer Jonathan Elliott.  He had heard a recording of the Master’s Degree recital that I had performed at Northwestern University and he wanted to write me a piece.  What do you say when a composer asks if he can write you a piece?  I was thrilled. 

Jonathan, a doctoral student at the University of Chicago at the time, wanted to write a work for soprano saxophone and piano. Back then, I didn’t have a very useful soprano.  I managed to talk him into writing an alto piece by telling him the alto had this great altissimo range.  I was working on John Anthony Lennon’s Distances Within Me at the time and truly believed that altissimo should be used, as Lennon seems to have done, without regard for the fact that it can be difficult.  So I told Elliott that the range of the alto went to the altissimo F.  I gave no other qualifications.  He decided to write the piece for alto because he wanted to “use some of those low notes.”

Some time later, the piece arrived in my mailbox.  Epiphanyfor alto saxophone and piano by Jonathan Elliott. Probably half of the piece was in the altissimo. I spent a year learning it.  It became my altissimo etude book.  Every day I spent lots of time playing the convoluted passages, large intervals and tremolos he had written above the ‘normal’ range of the instrument.  Needless to say, it really got my altissimo chops in shape.

Epiphany, as the composer states, is a piece written for two virtuosos. Yes, the saxophone part is crazy difficult; but the piano part is insane!  I performed the piece in Chicago a couple of times—once at the University of Chicago, and once at the New Music Chicago festival.  The piece subsequently won an BMI composers award.  It is a very powerful piece of music.

I picked the piece up again to perform at the 1998 Biennial Conference of the North American Saxophone Alliance that I hosted on the campus of Northwestern University. My goal in choosing music to perform for other saxophonists, is to share new or neglected music that I’d like other people to hear and want to perform themselves.  I had hoped that my colleagues would get to know this amazing piece of music and choose to add it to their repertoire.  I was surprised by the reaction to Epiphany.  Many people praised the work, but seemed too terrified to take on such a difficult piece.

A few years later, the composer did remove much of the altissimo from the piece when other saxophonists suggested it was unplayable as written. I still hear it in the higher range, and think it is more successful that way.  If you want to work on the piece, contact me and I can let you know how to convert your score back to the original version.

In 1999 I received a grant to explore the composer-performer relationship. With this funding I was able to commission a new piece and travel to the World Saxophone Congress in Montreal for the premiere performance. Reflecting on the reactions at the 1998 NASA conference, I asked Jonathan Elliott to write an easier piece.  My hope was that saxophonists would hear this piece and want to play it.  Jonathan had moved to New York by this time and was reconsidering his compositional style.  No one in New York would spend a year learning your music. So this project seemed to come at a good time.

The result of this collaboration was Jonathan Elliott’s  Odd Preludes, for saxophone and piano. I premiered the work at the WSC in 2000.  You can hear it on my recently-released album on the Centaur label, American Music for Saxophone and Piano.

Elliott wrote Field Music: Ash for me in 2005 after I asked him for a work for saxophone and cello. He decided to use the opportunity to revisit and work through his feelings regarding the 9/11 terrorist attacks of 2001.  He lives in Brooklyn Heights, quite close to the World Trade Center.  He witnessed the event up close which had a profound effect on him (and this piece).  Elliott lost some friends on that day and the creation of this work became part of his grieving process. When he finally sent me the score, he admitted that writing it was one of the most difficult things he had ever done.

Performances of this incredibly moving work are always met with a strong emotional outpouring from the audience. At one concert in Shanghai, China we were overwhelmed by the audience response.  They stood, they clapped, they cheered, they cried.  Unbeknownst to us, our concert had been scheduled on the second anniversary of a Chinese national tragedy (the Great Sichuan Earthquake of 2008).  Field Music: Ash, written in response to an American national tragedy, touched the hearts of the Chinese people that night in Shanghai.

You can hear Field Music: Ash on my new CD, Music for Saxophone and Cello, to be released in early 2012 on the Centaur label.
Works for saxophone by Jonathan Elliott:
Epiphany (1986), alto saxophone and piano
Six Motions (1992), alto saxophone and piano (originally, cl/pno)
Revolve, Seven Views (1994), alto saxophone and piano
Odd Preludes (2000), alto saxophone and piano
Friss (2001), alto saxophone and guitar (originally, fl/gtr)
Saxophone Quartet (2010)
Work in progress for saxophone ensemble (2012)

Should you be interested in performing some of Elliott's music, you can find him at:

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Programming for the Web

As a graduate student in the late 80s, I became one of the first beta test users of the Northwestern University email/Internet system.  (my email address was: jah@nwu.edu)   Things were different then.  The Internet consisted of just a few locations, delivered as plain text to terminals with a connection.  The only half-way interesting thing (the only thing, really) I can remember from those times were the newsgroups—forums where topics from sports, computers—especially computers-- and many other interests could be discussed.  Over the next few years, some of my friends at universities around the country obtained email and long-distance, almost instantaneous, email communication became possible.   Before long, the Internet went graphical.  It was quickly populated with thousands of commercial sites.  In fact, there was so little content of interest online, I dismissed it as just a big advertising venture.  It was easy to ignore.   A few yeas later, in the early 90s, I began a hobby of writing web sites using the HTML programming language.  I never did anything serious with this until 2005 when I created the University of Florida Saxophone Studio web site.  This site is based on a template provided by the university that I highly customized by editing the HTML code.  I continue to maintain this site by editing the HTML.  http://www.arts.ufl.edu/music/saxophone/
Since then, I’ve read a lot more on HTML, XHML, CSS, web design, information architecture, etc., and I've created a few more web sites:

► An individual account at UF which serves as an index to my various professional pursuits, and hosts some documents for the Executive Committee of the North American Saxophone Alliance.  http://plaza.ufl.edu/jhelton/

► A site for my duo, http://plaza.ufl.edu/jhelton/saxcello/  This site has proven very useful for marketing the duo for concerts and tours worldwide.  I created this site from a generic template for a two-column page layout. This took a bit more work than my earlier sites since this template was very basic and included no content or placeholders.

► The Onyx Saxophone Quartet site: http://plaza.ufl.edu/jhelton/onyx/index.html  This was the first site I composed entirely from scratch.   I now see a lot of room for improvement here, but am not sure when I'll find the time to get back to it.  I spent a lot of time making the graphic buttons and header image.

► Recently, I created http://www.jonathanhelton.com.  This site was created on the Blogger Blog site using their content management system.  It is easy to set up, customize and run a blog at blogger.com, but it took a lot of work to edit it so it looks and acts like a “normal” web site.

► I’ve also created a new site for the Duo at:  http://heltonthomasduo.blogspot.com/  Another adapted blog site.

Original duo site.
New duo site.
Last week’s project was to re-create my personal site (jonathanhelton.com) for use on another web server.  The blogger-based site is rather complicated.  It has all the code in one file and uses a number of convoluted if/then statements, javascript, etc. to display the different “pages.”  Plus, there’s all that blog code that I don’t need for my site.  The design is pretty straightforward, so I thought I could clone it by writing code from scratch.  After a bit more research and several hours of trial and error, I think I’ve succeeded.  Take a look at my clone site at: http://plaza.ufl.edu/jhelton/jh/index.html
The tricky parts were:
► The navigation buttons.  Emulating the look and function of those on the blogger site took some work.  I knew the basic CSS technique of creating navigation buttons from an unordered list, but getting everything to line up, getting the entire “button” to change colors when you hover the mouse over it, making the entire box clickable, hiding the dotted outline that appears around the link when you return to a page, making the borders look good, matching, colors, etc. all took some time.

►Aligning the CD images on the discography page with the associated text also took a few minutes to figure out. The text and the images all wanted to behave their own way.  A few CSS class designations later, and now it works great!

The rest of the design was pretty straightforward.  It was a good XHTML/CSS project.  I gained a much better understanding of how to position and format things with CSS, creating a clean, useful, and standards-based, web site.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Why I love to practice

The other day I was anticipating my first practice session of the morning and contemplating the act of practicing.  How many times have you put off your practice?  “I’ll write just one more email” or “I’ll read one more chapter” or "Let's check Facebook one more time"….  We’ve probably all made excuses at one time or another. Now, however, I find that I really like to practice.  This transformation of attitude has come for me, I think, because I have become a very effective practicer.  I really can see improvement happen from day to day and I find this to be very exciting.

Some things I do:
- Slow, accurate practice.  I often tell my students to “never miss a note.”  If we are alwaysplaying the right notes, mistakes are much less prone to happen.
- Many, many repetitions.  I had a piano teacher once who told me that he never practiced anything up to tempo, because what we really need to do is to teach our fingers where to go; the speed will come naturally. I find that after a zillion repetitions my fingers just play the notes all by themselves.
- Stay relaxed. Tension is like static for the brain.  If we play with tension then the brain is busy sending signals all over the place when all you really need is to just move one finger down 37/100ths of an inch.  Relaxed practice really helps my fingers to remember what they've done so I need fewer repetitions to actually learn something.
- Practice small bits.  I always break difficult passages into small pieces, often as small as two- or three-notes long.  Smaller groups are easier to learn.  I often boast that I can play any two-note lick.  (And, of course, this is probably true for most anyone.)  Isn’t everything we play made up entirely of two-note fragments?  And practicing small bits helps me stay relaxed.

“There is nothing more precious to an instrumentalist than the ability to work efficiently -- to know how to accomplish the maximum in beneficial results while using the minimum of time to do so.”
–Ivan Galamian

Ivan Galamian (1903-1981) taught violin at the Curtis Institute and at the Julliard School during an American teaching career that spanned more than 40 years.  He was a teacher and mentor to many of the world's most celebrated violinists including Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, Jamie Laredo, Dorothy Delay, and Glenn Dicterow (concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic). In his 1962 book, Principles of Violin Playing and Teaching, Mr. Galamian describes three different kinds of practice:
1. Learning notes.  An essential, and rather self-evident, step with which we are all well acquainted. For many, this takes up the bulk of the practice day.  Great performing artists need to do more than just this type of practice.
2. Shaping the music.  This is a separate way of working on a piece where musical concerns take priority.  Maybe you miss a note, or have bad hand position at times, but during this type of practice the focus should be on shaping the phrases, refining the vibrato, working to be sure the music sings through your instrument. To some extent, this is a part of all of our practice.  However, consecrating more time solely to this pursuit may make the difference between becoming a good player or becoming a great player.
3. Practice performing.  Performing on stage in front of hundreds of people is quite a different experience from the woodshedding most of us do in the practice room. Regular time spent visualizing the concert experience and playing sections without stopping and with great energy and concentration helps to make the concert experience a bit less foreign.

Someone recently remarked that many young players put down their instruments because they are not happy with how they play. They went on to say that many of these people should really be the ones continuing in music because they have a critical ear and can tell that something needs work.  I would add that the trick is finding the way to improve. Good teachers, a discerning ear, and excellent practice habits are essential keys to making significant musical progress.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Working with Composers: Augusta Read Thomas

This is the first in a series of posts describing various performer-composer interactions.

August Read Thomas.  Photo © Young Lee
Augusta Read Thomas has held faculty positions at the Eastman School of Music and Northwestern University, and served for nine years as the Composer-In-Residence for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  In 2009 she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the highest formal recognition of artistic merit in the United States. 

Her music has been described as "striking in concept, texture and timbre."  "Thomas's music…fairly explodes with an extroverted boldness of utterance audiences and musicians alike find challenging yet immediate. It's music that doesn't sound like anybody else's — music that insists you pay attention."

My duo with cello has performed and recorded Lake Reflecting Stars with Moonrise by Augusta Read Thomas.  When we first approached Ms Thomas to obtain copies of the score, she couldn’t have been more enthusiastic about the prospect of us playing her music.  It is so nice to have composers really voice their appreciation for what performers do.  As we prepared the work, and performed it during our 2010-2011 season on concerts in Florida, Canada and China, we stayed in close touch with the composer.  She was also very eager to meet with Steven (my cellist) when they were both in New Haven, Connecticut working with the orchestra there  As a result of our feedback regarding the piece and, I’m sure, of her having now revisited the piece, she made a number of changes in the parts—changing rhythms, adding new notes, re-beaming rhythms.  Many of these changes were only finalized two weeks before our recording of the work.  Through this entire process, Ms Thomas was the epitome of the gracious, open, generous, and appreciative composer.  Such a joy to work with!!  So much so, in fact, she ingratiated us even more to her piece.

Look for the world premiere recording of Lake Reflecting Stars with Moonrise by Augusta Read Thomas on our new CD, Music for Saxophone and Cello, to be released in early 2012 on the Centaur label.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Méthode pour Étudier le Saxophone

Just finished re-reading this book by the eminent saxophonist Jean-Marie Londeix.  I studied with him one summer at the International Music Academy in Nice, France.  I’ve never seen anyone work as hard as he does. I am always inspired when reading his writings, or reading about his life and work.  James Umble’s biography of Londeix, Jean-Marie Londeix Master of the Modern Saxophone, is a very inspiring description of his busy musical life (see my review in volume 26 of The Saxophone Symposium).  As I stated in my review, the book was mesmerizing; I didn’t want to stop reading.  I was torn between not being able to put it down, and desperately wanting to go practice!!

Londeix’s Méthode pour Étudier le Saxophone was published in 1997. It is intended to guide the student of the saxophone to the appropriate study materials; it includes a few specific exercises, and some instruction on the basic approach to embouchure, holding the instrument, etc.  Included also, are nice annotated and graded lists of recommended etudes and repertoire. The volume concludes with “master classes” by Londeix on three works from the saxophone repertoire. These are very detailed performances notes on how to play extended passages from these works. In most cases he provides a paragraph or two on the interpretation of a measure or two of the musical text.  The works studied include: Bizet – L’Arlésienne Suite, Debussy – Rhapsodie, Milhaud – La Création du Monde.

Londeix includes some great tips for practicing intonation, finger speed, and tonguing. He also emphasizes the importance of the expressive element of music.  In his words, “To learn to breathe and to direct the air is more important than learning to play fast.”

Londeix, Jean-Marie.   
Méthode pour Étudier le Saxophone.  
Paris : Henri Lemoine, 1997.
84 pp. In French, Japanese, English, and Spanish.
Highly recommended.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

My New Web Site

I’ve recently created a new web site:  http://www.jonathanhelton.com 

It is hosted by Google on their Blogger.com blog platform.  My site is based on one of their “simple” templates.  I tweaked it a lot to make it look and act like a web site (not a blog).

Take a look and let me know what you think!

Friday, September 16, 2011

Performing Chamber Music

Last night, I had the opportunity to take part in a faculty chamber music collaboration that featured nine School of Music faculty members. This was the inaugural event in the University of Florida School of Music Faculty Chamber Music Series.  Nine faculty members were involved in the concert.

The work I performed was Charades, a piece for violin, tenor saxophone and piano by Sherwood Shaffer.  Shaffer was my college theory professor at the North Carolina School of the Arts.  His first work for saxophone, Summer Nocturne, was dedicated to me and is on my CD American Music for Saxophone and Piano  that was released earlier this year.

Charades is, as the title suggests, a parlor game played by the three instruments.  The program as depicted in the music has the instruments taking turns presenting their “charade” while the other instruments try to guess it.  Sometimes they will guess correctly, pat each other on the back and continue the game.  Sometimes they are not such good sports and quarrels ensue.

One of the great joys of music is the privilege of sharing the stage with fantastic colleagues. Whether performing in a duo with a pianist, cellist or percussionist; playing chamber music with a mixed ensemble or saxophone quartet; joining the traditional orchestra; or presenting a thrilling concerto performance; collaboration is one thing that makes performing music such a great experience.  I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with some very fine musicians during the course of my career. I owe them a debt of gratitude for helping to shape the musician that I am today.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Chamber Music Concert

I'll be performing on the inaugural University of Florida School of Music Faculty Chamber Music Concert Series,Thursday, September 15, 2011 at 7:30 pm in room 101 of the Music Building.  Admission is free!  Bring your friends.

The piece I'll perform:

Charades - Sherwood Shaffer
   for violin, tenor saxophone and piano
   w/Janna Lower, vln & Kevin Orr, pno

Other tunes by Debussy, Haendel, Bach, Rossini.and Kopetzki will be performed by Kristen Stoner, flute; Laura Ellis, Harpsichord, Kenneth Broadway, marimba; Chip Birkner, percussion; Steven Thomas, cello, and Kevin Casseday, double bass.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Touring China

In May, the Helton-Thomas Duo (http://heltonthomasduo.com) completed its second recital and master class tour of China. This year we performed recitals and presented master classes in Shanghai, Hangzhou, Tianjin and Beijing.  Concert repertoire for this tour was taken from our CD which we recorded soon after our return home.

The food is amazing.  During my first trip to China, every day for ten days I was treated to magnificent meals (banquets, really) for both lunch and dinner. I was stunned by the tremendous variety of foods; we went to a Szechuan restaurant, a Hunan restaurant, a Hot Pot restaurant, a Beijing Duck restaurant, and many more. Each one was radically different from the others. In fact, it was five days (ten restaurants) before I even saw one dish repeated. The contrast with what we call Chinese Restaurants in the US couldn’t have been more striking. 

After three visits to China (2007, 2010, 2011) I have become a more adventurous eater.  Some of the more exotic foods I have tried have included: snake, duck gizzard, calmari, kiwi juice, abalone, dragon fruit, sea cucumber, duck lung, and a number of things I could not even identify.  I even liked a lot of it (the kiwi juice was amazing; snake, quite tasty)!

The cities are huge.  Beijing is a city of 30 million people.  Forty-five minutes away by train is Tianjin, a city of 8 million people.   Okay, so it was a bullet train that cruised at 355 km/hr (220 mi/hr), but still...so many people, so near each other.  And when you are in the city on foot, you quickly learn that the maps make things look quite close together when they really are not. A good pair of walking shoes is indispensable!

Jet lag.  It seems that most people can adapt to the 12-hour difference in time pretty well when travelling from the US to China.  The difficult part is adjusting to the time change when flying from China to the US.  It has taken me two weeks or more to get back to normal after one of these trips.

The people are nice. Everyone we met in China was very gracious and generous toward us.  Everything from their smiling faces as they welcomed us in airports and train stations, to the lavish welcome dinners with friends, to their attentiveness in master classes and concerts, and the genuine interest shown in our experiences and opinions, displayed the genuine warmth and good-heartedness of everyone we met.

We're looking forward to our next visit in 2012!!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Recording Tips

In June, the Helton-Thomas Duo recorded the first CD devoted entirely to original works written for saxophone and cello:

Edison Denisov – Sonata (1994)
Libby Larsen – Bid Call (2002)
Augusta Read Thomas – Lake Reflecting Stars with Moonrise (2008)
Dorothy Chang – Walk on Water (2004)
Mark Engebretson – Four Short Songs: a certain sadness (1991)
Jonathan Elliott – Field Music: Ash (2005)

The recording sessions were held in Steinbrenner Hall on the campus of the University of Florida.  This is a large, exceptionally quiet hall that proved acoustically ideal for our purposes.  The recording was done by Candlewood Digital (www.candlewooddigital.com) of  New Fairfield, Connecticut.  Wayne Hileman was the producer, and Richard Price engineered the disc.

Recording is an extremely demanding exercise.  It bears little resemblance to performing. We recorded for four days, five-and-a-half hours to seven-and-a-half  hours per day. While recording, the senses are heightened and the pressure is on to perform everything perfectly, over and over again. A concert performance lasts maybe 90 minutes and everything flies by once. Performers don’t get tired, and the excitement and energy brought to the event by the audience is revitalizing.  But in the recording studio there is no applause.  Every “take” is under the microscope.  Should we re-do that section because the nuance of one note was not exactly right?  Do the performers have the chops to play that lick 10 more times?  Is there time?

This is the second solo disc I have recorded with world-class producers and recording engineers.  (The first was recorded in Prague in 2004 and released in 2010.)  Here are a few tips on making a great recording:

Hire the best producer and engineer you can afford.  In this day of super-available technology, some musicians want to save money and record themselves.  While this may be fun, exciting, and a lot of hard work, it won’t result in the best product.  Professional recording companies bring with them amazing equipment—most notably, microphones worth thousands of dollars each that can make a huge difference in the sound of your recording.  Perhaps more importantly, they bring a couple of additional sets of experienced ears to the recording studio.  They can hear if something is not exactly in tune or exactly together.  They make sure all your articulations are consistent, the balance is right, and the music is performed as it is written.  They hold you to a higher standard.  It’s like having 25 hours of private lessons in one week!  Working with talented producers can be a tremendous opportunity for growth as a performer.

Be prepared. Know your music cold.  It is best to have performed the music many, many times before entering the recording studio. In order to make the best use of your time in the studio, you need to be able to play the pieces over and over again, consistently.

Get in shape.  This is something we don’t think about much, but recording sessions are long and grueling.  They take more chops and much more physical and mental energy than we routinely put into our art.  Practice, yes, but also make sure you are in top physical condition.   This will pay off at the end of every day of recording.

Be patient.  Keep your sense of humor. A good producer will help you to feel comfortable in the studio.  You will get a good take, eventually.  If you are relaxed and enjoying your music, you will get a good result.

Plan to use two or three reeds for one CD.  Your reeds will die.  They will get waterlogged.  They will crack.  This much playing is tough on reeds.

Plan for the effects of travel.  If you travel to a recording studio, give yourself time to get over jet lag.  Make sure to keep your reeds in a humidity-controlled environment; you really don’t want to get to the studio and have no working reeds.

Take care of yourself.  Sleep well; watch what you eat and drink.  You need to be at your best for several days.

Wear warm socks.  You won’t wear shoes while recording!

Music for Saxophone and Cello with Jonathan Helton, saxophone and Steven Thomas, cello, will be released in early 2012 on the Centaur label.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

A. Lincoln

I just finished reading this 2009 best-selling autobiography of Abraham Lincoln by Ronald C. White, Jr.  Normally, biographies do not show up on my reading list, so I was a bit apprehensive when I picked up this 796-page tome. I was pleasantly surprised to find this book a tremendously engaging read.  It is full of political intrigue, Civil War strategy, and well describes Lincoln's growth from small-town lawyer to the commanding leader of a growing nation.  Lincoln's eloquent speeches take center stage in this narrative, illuminating the sharp mind, the sense of fairness, the ability to navigate treacherous political and interpersonal situations, and the growing faith that this great man possessed.

White, Ronald C.  A. Lincoln: a biography. New York: Random House, 2009.
Highly recommended.

Friday, August 26, 2011


Well, I'm on sabbatical for the 2011-2012 academic year.  So I've started a blog.

Sabbatical projects for the year include:
- Recital and Master Class tour of China (Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, Hangzhou)
- CD recording of music for saxophone and cello
- Visiting Scholar Residency, University of Western Ontario
- Saxophone and Cello Recitals
- Saxophone and Piano Recitals
- Perform Paul Richatds' Bat out of Hell concerto with the UF Wind Symphony
- Record Paul Richatds' Bat out of Hell concerto with the UF Wind Symphony
- Write a saxophone technique book
I'll practice, read, and write something daily,
For a year and a day....