I’ve played a musical instrument for most of my life. There were the basics of course. I played flutophone and recorder along with the rest of my music class in elementary school. Sometime in late elementary school, I started piano lessons. And kept at those until sometime in early high school, I think. In fifth grade, I joined the strings program and played the cello until the end of high school. And in sixth grade, I joined the band program and started playing the clarinet.
And, if I do say so myself, I was a good clarinetist. I took private lessons for a while, I placed well in solo/ensemble contests, I was consistently first or second chair in my school band, during high school I played some in the local university’s band, and so on. But, when I went to college, I wanted to be in the jazz ensemble. I got in on the strength of my clarinet playing, but I had to learn the tenor saxophone. Now, on the surface, there isn’t a huge difference between playing the clarinet and playing the saxophone. But there are differences, and I was not a saxophonist. I was a clarinetist who also played the sax.
That hit me hard recently. Over the years since college, I’ve played my sax less and less. That was partly because I didn’t really have anyone to play for. But it was also because I owned an old King Cleveland student saxophone that I had bought off Ebay for something like $600. I still have that horn. It’s not a very good one. And while having the right gear doesn’t make someone a good player, having the wrong gear can certainly make someone a worse player. Then, for my last birthday, my wife very generously bought me a new tenor sax: a P. Mauriat Le Bravo 200. Not the best horn on the market, but a very good one, and a vast improvement over my old King Cleveland.
And I’ve been practicing… almost every day. I still don’t really have anyone to play for, but I’m working on changing from being a clarinetist who also plays the saxophone to being an actual saxophonist.
And here’s something I noticed recently.
This is a clarinet. It has a lot of keys, and, if you look closely, you can see that some of those keys are just rings that go around a hole in the instrument. If you put a finger over one of the holes, that changes the note that the instrument plays. And the ring make sure that other mechanisms on the clarinet move, improving things like tone and intonation. Those rings also make it possible to play more notes than you can play on, say, a recorder.
This is a soprano saxophone. It works a lot like a clarinet, but if you look closely—you can click on the image to see a larger version—you’ll see that there are no rings! The tone holes are completely covered by keys and pads. All the mechanics are the same, it just uses the pads to cover the tone holes instead of using the fingers directly.
And that changes technique. When I’m playing the clarinet, I need to life my fingers away from the rings when I want the tone hole that the ring is on to be open. If I leave my finger there, it will close the hole a little bit and change the pitch and tone of the instrument. But when I’m playing the saxophone I need to leave my fingers on the keys. If I move my fingers away like I would on the clarinet, then I can’t play as fast: I end up needing to move my finger to the key and then push it down. That extra step slows things down.
So, I need to change my technique. But how?
This is how. That’s a closeup of my saxophone (again, you can click for a bigger picture). And that’s tape on the keys. It’s gift wrap tape, so it’s not super sticky, but it’s a little sticky. And now my practice sessions include twenty minutes or so of doing scales and arpeggios and loop exercises with that tape on the keys. If I can’t feel the stickiness, my fingers have gotten too far away. And I know it’s a little weird, but it helps. Even when I don’t have the tape on the keys, I can feel it when my fingers are getting away from the keys and I can get them back where they belong. There’s plenty more work to do with the tape—I still feel my pinky fingers go flying off the keys—but I’m getting a little better every day.
So why am I telling you this? Because real change is hard. It’s easy make superficial changes: to make a statement or pass a resolution or whatever. It’s much harder to make real, substantial changes in our personal lives and in our organizations: it means looking at the fundamentals of how we do things and practicing doing them differently; it means constantly looking for the ways that we are falling back into old habits and correcting ourselves; it means taking the time—the long hours of practice—to teach ourselves new ways of being.
And it means having some grace. We need to understand that we will slip into old habits and that we will make mistakes. We need to know that that’s okay. And we need to stop, correct ourselves, and get on with doing the new thing.