Tips from Saxophonist Lenny Pickett

Lenny Pickett is one of the most famous saxophonists of our time (Tower of Power, Saturday Night Live Band). Lenny grew up in Oakland. In this interview, Conversations With Lenny Pickett, Lenny talks about his history, what he practices, and his four rules for success. I have summarized his points briefly below:

Lenny’s practice recommendations:

(1) Scales
(2) Long Tones
(3) Play flute and clarinet etudes – up one octave for practicing the altissimo range.
(4) Play along with recordings – for helping with intonation.
(5) Practice every day.

Lenny’s Four Rules for Success:

(1) Always say “Yes” (to whatever opportunities come your way).
(2) Show up on time.
(3) Never complain
(4) “It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice.”

Learning by Rote vs. Mastering Technique

My friend has several parrots as pets. Now, the interesting and entertaining thing about parrots is that they can talk, by picking up and echoing the sounds they hear around them. This is quite fascinating and entertaining. But, the birds do not understand what they are saying.

Now, there are some students who like to approach music as if they were a parrot. They would like to learn a song, by simply repeating what they hear, or perhaps by laboriously learning the notes by rote from a teacher, or from  sheet music.

But my personal preference is to learn by concept. I would prefer to get the “big picture” of what the song is about, how it works, how it is structured, where is the theme, where are the repeating sections…. all that kind of information. Knowing the composer, the style, and how this music is different from other music. All those concepts help to engage me, and my mind, so that I can travel deeper into the music. When I do this, I am more interested in the music, and therefore I can spend more effort learning the song…… and not just this one song, but other songs that are similar will now be easier because I can see the relations between the two songs, their construction, their notes, harmonies, everything.

There are many ways to learn a song. One way is to laboriously learn it by rote, note by note. The problem with this method is that every song will be just as hard to learn. A better way is to study music techniques, such as scales, chords, and music theory. These are the building blocks of music construction. Then, each time you learn a new song, you can use these “tools” to learn new songs faster and more easily.

Is There A “Routine” To Success?

What if there was a routine that you could follow, and you could methodically practice this routine each day, and by doing so, improve your musicals skills to such an extent that you could become an excellent musician just by following this simple routine?

Sounds too good to be true? Well, the truth is, you can! And this is not news. It’s just that a typical student does not see the long-term benefit of this type of study. But, it works!

A long time ago, in 1873, in France, a gentleman named Charle-Louis Hanon came out with a method book called “The Virtuoso Pianist”. In the Preface to this book, Hanon claimed “This entire volume can be played through in an hour; and if, after it has been thoroughly mastered, it be repeated daily for a time, difficulties will disappear as if by enchantment, and that beautiful, clear, clean, pearling execution will have been acquired which is the secret of distinguished artists.”

From the sound of this glorious statement, it appears that advertising and hyperbole existed long before our generation! But — is there any truth to Hanon’s claims, and his methods? Are there routines that you can follow, that will lead to mastery of the piano? Or, any other musical instrument, for that matter?

Yes, in my opinion, there is truth in Hanon’s claims. But the problem is, we live in a time period of “instant gratification”, and very few students, or prospective students, see the value in practicing routine exercises, when there is the allure of playing a very interesting and fascinating piece of music that they enjoy.

Even though I am a commercial musician who makes a living playing jazz, rock, and every type of popular music, I was brought up in the classical tradition. I studied flute and piano in the traditional classical way, learning scales, arpeggios, and all the traditional technical studies for those instruments. My mother was trained in this tradition, and I simply followed that path because as a child I knew no other alternative.

So, did I benefit from those classical methods? Yes, I did! I believe that Hanon was right; if you do follow his book, and practice all of his exercises on a regular basis, you will become an excellent pianist. Of course, many other teachers have different opinions about Hanon. Some teachers find fault with his particular methods. But his was not the only method. There are certainly many other mehods of practicing that will get you to the same place as Hanon’s method.

I bring up this topic because so many students come to me for lessons, and they want some sort of instant gratification. They may have a specific piece of music in mind; they may have set a certain goal of learning a specific piece by a certain time. There is nothing really wrong with having such a goal. But, it is also like carving a new sculpture out of marble. Yes, you can force yourself — or have a teacher force you — to learn each note tediously, by rote — and do this over and over again until finally you can play one piece.

Or, there is an alternate path. As Hanon says, “If all five fingers of the hand were absolutely equally well trained, they would be ready to execute anything written for the instrument, and the only question remaining would be that of fingering, which could be easily solved.” In other words, by acquiring the necessary technical skills, learning a new piece of music would be more like molding clay, rather than laboriously carving hard marble.

Just like any physical sport, learning a musical instrument involves real physical activity. If you have the patience to work on this technique, you will make real progress. The good news is, any form of physical activity has rewards. Any time you take to learn basic technical skills on an instrument will be its own reward; the reward of developing better hand and finger coordination. And, by taking the time to practice an artistic skill, you are putting yourself in higher place of concentration, which is ultimately a better place.

By Ernie Mansfield ©2011 Windsailer Music (BNI)

Are You Committed? Or Just Interested?

By Ernie Mansfield – May 2011

Many people tell me their stories of how they always wanted to play piano. Or, how they used to take lessons when they were a kid. Or, how they were taking lessons, but then something came up, and they had to stop. Or, they don’t have the money for lessons. Or, they don’t have the time.

And then there are people who call and say they are ready to start lessons. So we just do it.

See the difference? Are you committed, or just interested?

If you are really committed to learning the piano (or any instrument), then now is as perfect a time as any time to start. And furthermore, spending some time practicing will not be a problem. You will just do it. It can be done.

Business coach Steve Chandler, in his book, “Time Warrior”, says: “When I work with a client who is ‘overwhelmed’ with too much to do and not enough time to do it I will often ask them to give me an example of one of the things they are burdened by every time they think about it. The client will give me an example and we will do that thing right now. The client is amazed.”

If you are committed to learning an instrument, then you will find the time to learn it.

Of course, there are many factors that make our lives complicated, and very busy. I’m not saying that our lives are simple. But what I can tell you is that what most adults do is think too much, and, as Chandler says, “then they compound the problem by studying the feelings that come up for them as a result of that thinking. All this time that they have been thinking and feeling they could have been taking action.”

For example, many adults already have a notion of what a great pianist is. They listen to music, and they have their musical idols. And when they start to compare themselves to that “idol”, they become defeated. But the reality is: when you get away from the comparisons and start to just play, you get exercise from doing it, and you also get pleasure and enjoyment out of it.

Most adults can learn from observing young children. Many children will just do things, like learning to play piano, because they just want to, and they don’t have any pre-conceived notions or standards about how good they have to be, or how bad they might be compared to someone else.

Take a lesson from a child, and start learning something new today!

© 2011 Ernie Mansfield (Windsailor Music, BMI)

How Do You Learn an Instrument?

Someone once asked a well-known writer, “How do you write a book?” The writer replied, “Well, you get this magical device, called a pen…and then you get some magical stuff called paper…” implying, of course, that there is nothing particularly tricky or secret about writing a book, except doing it!

By the same token, there is really nothing that mysterious about learning a new musical instrument; even as an adult. All that you really need is a desire to do it, and a willingness to spend a few minutes a day practicing at home. This time is needed because the fingers and hands need their own time to learn the new skills. Although we would all like to be able to learn other skills, sometimes we don’t realize that simply logging in enough hours of practice is what we need to develop that skill.

Learning a musical instrument is a physical activity. It depends on developing some hand-eye coordination, and getting the fingers and hands used to being in the proper place and playing the correct notes. Much of this is physical muscle memory. Once accomplished, it makes learning very, very easy, and also fun!

The main difference between adults and children in their learning abilities is that a motivated child will just jump in and start playing, whereas by contrast, an adult will often try to use mental energy to “force” the fingers and hands to move in the right direction. This doesn’t work very well, and results in a lot of frustration. If I can convince an adult that there will be a reward – if they just make the time to practice a few minutes a day – then, after a while, they begin to improve. Then they start to really enjoy the whole experience of playing. They gain a feeling of accomplishment and start to feel good about their abilities.

So, what holds most adults back from learning an instrument? Most often, it is just a time management factor. If they knew that they would start to improve, and if they new that this would make them feel good about themselves, wouldn’t they do it?

This is why I recommend spending 15 minutes a day practicing. Most teachers recommend a minimum of 30 minutes. However, it is much easier for most people to find 15 minutes a day than 30 minutes. And, the way I see it, practicing 15 minutes a day will result in more minutes logged per week than trying – and not succeeding – in finding 30 minutes per day.

Many adults come to me because they want to finally start music lessons, but then they quickly get bogged down in the frustration of having to start from “ground zero”. I try to give them this perspective: from the time they were born, they had to learn so many things that they knew absolutely nothing about. From learning to walk, to learning to drive, to learning job skills; all these skills took trial and error, and failure along with success. As adults, they take all these skills for granted, and become unmercifully hard on themselves when they cannot instantly master a new skill. But often what it takes is not a heroic effort; it just takes a few minutes a day of working the fingers and hands on the new instrument. Once the fingers begin to master their new job, it is so much less stressful because the fingers seem to have a memory of their own.
Sometimes it is helpful to take a step back and observe yourself from a distance. Are you willing to be patient with your own self? Are you willing to be child-like, and take small steps to work on a new skill? If you are, then congratulations! Your chances of success are great!

© 2010 Ernie Mansfield, Mansfield Music/Windsailor Music (BMI)

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

From time to time, I will post answers to frequently asked questions that I receive from customers and prospective customers. Please feel free to post a question here, and I will do my best to answer it. For more immediate response, please call or email.

What is the best type of Guitar for a beginner?

I usually recommend either a Classical (Nylon-string) guitar or an electric guitar. The advantage of a Classical guitar is that the strings are easy to press down, the fingerboard is wide and therefore easier to pick out the separate strings, and you don’t need to learn to use a guitar pick to play it. However, there are advantages to starting out with an electric guitar. Those advantages are: electric guitars have a “low action” (ie, the strings are usually very close to the fingerboard) which means that the strings are easy to push down. Starting with an electric guitar would make sense if the student really identifies with electric guitar music, which is mostly what you hear in rock and pop. One disadvantage of starting with electric guitar is that you need an amp, so that is an additional investment. The guitar that most beginners should avoid is acoustic steel-string guitar, because it is generally more difficult to play.

I strongly recommend buying a guitar from Guitar Center, if you have one located near you. In my area, there is one located in El Cerrito. They have a 30-day return period, and their prices are very low. This allows my students the opportunity to bring the guitar to a lesson so I can check to see if it is a suitable guitar for them. If you find another store, be sure to check whether there is a return period.

Can You Teach Yourself To Play An Instrument?

I recently had a conversation with a friend. He doesn’t play the piano, but he wants to learn. In fact, he has been wanting to learn for a long time. I mentioned to him that I would give him a couple of free lessons. He countered that he had found this great learning video series on the internet, and for a few hundred dollars, he would be well on his way to learning all by himself!

Well, it so happens that I have also seen this internet advertisement. I found the website the same way he did, except that I was looking for ballroom dance videos. This website must be very well-positioned, because it seems to come up quite often in searches. And it advertises many self-learning videos in many subjects.

So, is it true? Can you teach yourself to play an instrument? Or to ballroom dance? Or anything else, for that matter?

I think it depends. For example, it is pretty easy for me to pick up and learn a new musical instrument. Then again, I had 13 years of combined private lessons and formal music education, plus another 30 years of professional experience, including workshops and advice from experts. I spent twenty-five of those years working in music book production for publishers of educational materials. I already have enough acquired experience to pick up and learn another musical instrument on my own. However, when it comes to learning a language –that has not worked out too well for me!

Another one of my colleagues – a college linguistics major who learned to speak Spanish as a second language at an early age – has had little problem learning and picking up languages, mostly on his own.

So I think that it is certainly possible to teach yourself a new skill, especially if you have experience and training in similar, related skills. But having little or no training will make this task much more unlikely.

But, getting back to my first paragraph: did my friend ever learn to play piano from the hundreds-of-dollars video series? Unfortunately, he did not. Because in fact my friend never even purchased the videos; he still hasn’t even purchased a piano! This leads me to believe that procrastination is often the real problem when it comes to self-instruction.

This doesn’t mean that self-teaching methods are bad. Some self-motivated folks are good at learning on their own. But if you find that months or years have passed and you are still not learning that instrument you set out to learn, it’s time to seek out a teacher.

©2010 Ernie Mansfield, Windsailor Music

About Practicing

Students – and parents of students – often have concerns about how much time should be devoted to practicing instruments at home. I think it is important to understand that being overly concerned about practice can lead to unnecessary levels of stress, and can actually detract from learning an instrument. In a perfect world, every music student would play their instrument every day, out of sheer enthusiasm for the joy of music! However, life is complex, even for young children. Some may be transported to 2 different homes; some may just be overloaded with homework. And, the bottom line is, most children (and many adults) have to learn what practicing is, and how to do it.

Quite honestly, some parents tell me that they cannot start their child on lessons, or they must discontinue lessons, because the child does not want to practice. The problem with this is, how is a child going to learn to practice if they are not given the chance to study music in the first place?

I tell my students to start by playing for 5 minutes a day. “Play” sounds like more fun that “practice”. It is much easier to find 5 minutes in a day than 30 minutes. Secondly, if someone enjoys playing music and can find the 5 minutes to play, it is much more likely that they will play longer.

I believe it is much more important to inspire a student to play, than to force a student to practice.

What Is The Purpose of A Teacher?

By Ernie Mansfield

There is a story about Leopold Auer, who was a famous Russian violin teacher. Auer was the teacher of Jascha Heifetz, who later became one of the most famous violinists of our time. Heifetz was the first violinist to perform the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto up to speed. Up until Heifeitz, no one had performed this concerto up to tempo, including Auer. So, how was Auer able to teach Heifetz to do something that Auer himself was not able to do? Because Auer was not teaching Heifetz to play like Auer. Auer was teaching Heifetz how to teach himself. This, I think, is the key role of the teacher.

In my own life, I had many good teachers. Some of them were pretty well-known. But one of the first teachers who really changed my life was relatively unknown. His name was Dr. Doy Baker, and he taught music composition at Interlochen Arts Academy. Dr. Baker had a doctorate in music composition, but I don’t think I ever heard a piece of his performed, nor do I think I have ever heard anything about his compositions. But through his interest in me, I decided that I wanted to compose music.

What did Dr. Baker do that encouraged me? He listened; and he had a genuine desire to help young students. This quote from the Traverse City Record Eagle (2003) sums it up nicely: “Beloved for his gentle spirit and tireless dedication to the teaching and guidance of young musicians, Dr. Baker was valued as a quiet innovator by his students and colleagues. Of particular benefit to his students, was his commitment to bringing the most respected composers and performers of our day, to both the music department in Dubuque and to the theory department at Interlochen. His teaching innovations include an individualized approach to teaching music theory, and an integrated theory and music history text that was used not only by him but also in many schools across the nation.”

Later in life, I had a very flashy, impressive teacher. He was pretty well known as a composer, and in fact he looked kind of like Beethoven. He was sort of rock star in the contemporary classical world. I really enjoyed hanging out with him, and being part of his entourage. This professor was a composer first, who did not care that much about teaching. In looking back, I did not learn as much music from this professor, although I did learn something about being flashy and impressive! But the first professor, Dr. Baker, changed my life.

My point is this: if you are looking for a teacher, look for someone who listens to you and cares about you. A good teacher will know when to push you and when to just sit back and be supportive. Look for a teacher who is interested in your development. In my opinion, this is the best teacher.

If you want to have an impressive resume, then by all means study with famous teachers. Before you can study with a famous teacher, however, you need to be good enough to be accepted by one. So first, study with someone who cares about teaching, and cares about you. Someone who can take you to the next level.