Time to go start playing tenor ? (again…)

Well, here’s a turn up for the books…     A friend came around last night with his (Lewin) Martin stencil tenor – he’d just started playing again, and couldn’t work out whether a couple of problems he was having were down to him or the sax.

  I had a bit of a play, and thought “Hmmm, I don’t remember being this bad on tenor…”  – so I got the leak-light out.  Two little problems found which both affected the lower notes.  Easiest to find was the little ‘forked’  Eb trill pad was leaking a bit – easily eliminated by corking it down, time for a permanent repair later. That made everything fine way down into the bell notes, but still fuzziness as soon as the octave key was pressed (especially around D2, E2).  That was fixed by a little gentle bending of the octave mech on the neck – the pad on the neck was slightly lifting all the time the octave key was depressed, instead of staying closed whilst the lower (body) octave pad was open.

Great, now it played like a dream, and I was really enjoying testing it with both Lawton and ebonite Couf mouthpieces – to the extent that I got my own (very similar but quite dusty) Martin stencil tenor out of mothballs to compare horns.  Exit one happy tenor player, having also acquired a couple of reeds for his daughters clarinet, leaving me tootling away on my old and battered tenor ( I like to call it ‘character ‘…)

After a while, I naturally put down the tenor and picked up my Martin C-Mel (well, it was  after 9 p.m. by then 🙂 ) – and what a culture shock !  All of a sudden, with the same mouthpiece/reed on the C-Mel, I was having to adopt a more measured (cautious even) approach to playing,  and getting much less back from the horn for my efforts.  My tenor hasn’t been out of its case for  at least a  year – probably very much more – but I suspect that things may well change from now on.

I still quite ‘like’ the C-Mel, but after exclusively playing it for some time, my C-Mel tone seems to have moved ever-so-slightly away from that of my original ‘small tenor’ sound, which was what I really wanted it for – it now seems to have developed into a bit of a gentler hybrid combination of alto/tenor sounds, when I make a direct comparison, something I hadn’t been doing for quite some while..  Oh dear, I was probably being just a touch naive…  😦   Maybe there is still a place in my life for Bb tenor after all ?  No doubt about it !

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18 Responses to Time to go start playing tenor ? (again…)

  1. Eric says:

    You’re being seduced by the Dark Side…………come join us………

  2. Mal-2 says:

    Of course there’s still a need for the tenor, unless you enjoy sight-transposing an entire book when you sit in with a big band (if they even let you once they realize what you’re playing). For me at least, the C-mel is most useful when I can call my own shots, or when I’m expected to fend for myself playing out of someone else’s book. For more conventional gigs, I pretty much have to play what’s written on the part, and I imagine you’re in the same position.

    The C-mel does quite nicely at standing in for both tenor and alto, so long as I can write for it. I don’t even find it terribly helpful for reading trombone parts on the fly, because there’s only one instrument where I think in bass clef — and that’s the bass. Clef substitution and an alto or bari is still easier in this situation. I have a full three octaves on bari but anything above F is finicky. Oddly, I have found that the fingerings for F#, G and G# that I have picked up for C-mel also work well on my Dolnet bari (though A and up is a different matter), and I may end up attaching a “high G facilitator” to the bari as well since it also lacks a high F# key and likes a slightly cracked side C on the high G. It doesn’t veer so wildly sharp if I open it all the way though, so this may not be necessary.

    Last gig (Sunday) the trumpet player said he liked the sound of the Buescher. Now that I have a neck that plays in tune, I quite agree with him. I was fighting to match pitch with him the first song and a half or so, but the rest of the night wasn’t bad at all. Then the bandleader said that our setup worked well. Trumpet-and-Cmel as a horn section was a bit experimental (and I’ve also written the book for tenor when he needs a sub) but everyone seems to be pretty pleased with it. The first gig we did with this setup was dominated by the fact that we (the whole band) just weren’t working together, so it was impossible to evaluate how well our little two-piece horn section did.

    As with most things, if you really want to do something off the beaten path, you may have to blaze your own trail.

  3. lewis Pelham says:

    Your experience is exactly what I reported when I sent you the photograph of both my Bueschers….the Big B & the TT C Melody.
    I remember saying that I had, in the past, never found a n intonation problem on the TT.  Returning to it briefly, following weeks the Big B’s good intonation, the C Mel was quite a shock.
    I had not realised how much effort I had been putting into the correction of intonation issues of the vintage C Melody.

  4. alan says:

    Yes Lewis, now I remember, it was in the ‘A pair of vintage Bueschers’ emails.  The fact that I’ve now embarassingly come up with the same conclusion, playing a pair of 30’s Martin (stencil) tenors against what I’ve always considered to be ‘the best’ Martin C, hits home quite hard…

    It also shows how much I’ve ‘accommodated’ the C’s – both tone and intonation – by even getting into a slightly different playing style.  Not so noticeable when going between alto and C, as I tend to do quite a bit, but very obvious between the Bb tenor(s).  During its ‘rest’, the tenor has developed a couple of small problems, so that’s now on my list of projects, I’d hate to think how it compares to the C when it’s 100%.

    Not that I’d ever stop playing C’s of course, I still find the C-Sop and C-Clarinet delightful little beasts, there’s just not enough time to play them all properly.

  5. lewis Pelham says:

    You say it all in “not enough time to play them all properly”.
    If you remember, I stopped playing my C Mel in the band when I realised that the tenor had so much more power. It was my intention to continue playing the C Mel at home.
    However, I became entrenched in the Bb frame of mind & did not need the inconvenience & confusion of thinking in C. Life is too short…especially at my age.
    Although my little TT is a little beauty, I cannot imagine ever playing it again. With my brain (of limited capacity) tuned to Bb I can find the correct key within a couple of bars….so why make life difficult?
    Then there is the intonation problem….which previously was not a problem! 😕

  6. Gandalfe says:

    I find it challenging moving from sop, alto, tenor, bari, and bass to clarinet. Each instrument takes me a bit to get in the groove. And I’m not nearly the player you fellows are. I have had a teacher recommend I just pick one and work on that. He probably is right, but I discount so much of what my teachers say. If I bought into what they are selling, I’d stop playing sax and clarinet.

    Reminds me of art in college–you’re never any good to a professor. And many a student has come out of music school to find they’ve lost their improv chops and can’t get a job. It really quite depressing sometimes. Maybe I should stop taking so many lessons.  :o)

  7. alan says:

    Jim – Maybe you should compromise.  Pick the instrument that you’re most comfortable on, that you really enjoy playing, and can return to with relative ease, and call that your ‘mainstream’ instrument.  Doesn’t have to be a popular one, just the one you really can’t resist. Hopefully all those ‘plusses’ point to just one ?  Makes sense, then just spend a little more time practising and playing that one.  Everybody needs a datum (or somewhere to run to…)

    For me, perversely, my main sax was the one instrument that I’ve recently been trying to do without, and it’s just risen from the ashes to bite me – for decades I played just (Bb) tenor and flute (ignoring clarinet as much as I could), tenor WAS my pro horn, and the stability.  Only in the last 10 years have I really expanded my musical options, and my confusion…  Alto has always been good to me as well, it was my first sax – but tenor – he’s ‘Mr Comfy’.  Everyone should have a Mr/Mrs Comfy… 😆

  8. Mal-2 says:

    I’ve had periods where clarinet was my primary horn, then it was alto, then bari, then alto again for a long time, and for the last several months it has been the C-mel. What amazes me is that this time around, re-learning to play in altissimo has paid dividends on bari as well, and tenor to a lesser extent. My YTS-21 is probably quite capable of the top tones, if I put the time into it that I put into the alto or C, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that my C-mel altissimo fingerings were largely transferable to bari. I never had a high G worth a damn on bari (it was more like an F-one-and-a-half-sharps) but since I have abandoned the usual F# using front F in favor of 1-3|1– I find that I’m not lipping the F# up and consequently not pushing up on G either. I get a slightly sharp G with 1-3|1C– which comes into tune if I only let the side C open 1 to 1.5mm. (On the C, this G is wildly sharp, but not quite a G#. It can be lipped and bent into shape but it’s far preferable to only vent the side C.) Even the G# fingering works on bari, which is a very simple 123|-C–. On both horns, it doesn’t matter whether the C is fully open or not, the pitch is pretty much stable.

    It is on A that things start to diverge radically between the two. On the C it’s -23|-23 or a slightly flat -23|—, or a slightly sharp -23G#|—.  Depends where I’m going next and how fast I need to get there. On the bari though, even -23G#|— is flat and I have to finger it D-23|— which is still fairly straightforward. Above A, even my Brilhart “oyster opener” bari piece doesn’t help me much with locating specific partials, and I feel like I’m lost in no-man’s-land similar to playing above C on the C-mel.

    I feel like I really don’t need anything but these two saxophones and a flute for the vast majority of what I play. I like my alto and had gotten rather capable at “hooligan sax”, but I’m re-learning how to do the same things on C-mel. Finding a D that works would be nice, but I’ve been able to get up to C# with some degree of reliability, and I still think of this as “the new horn” even though it’s 90 years old.

    Meanwhile, the clarinet, alto, and tenor are sitting in their cases untouched. The bass clarinet is out on a stand only to remind me to fix it one of these days. Alto would be my “Mr. Comfy” but I can see a day in the not too distant future where it’s the C-mel. I’ve never felt at home on tenor. Partly this was the posture, but also it’s that there seems to be a whole vocabulary specific to tenor that I just haven’t been able to nail down. Maybe if I *don’t* play it, people won’t catch on to the fact that I really *can’t* play it.

  9. lewis Pelham says:

    What a good expression of yours “….a vocabulary specific to the tenor…”.
    My old pro chum is an alto player who originally, for many years, played tenor.
    He claims that it took him three years to “learn” to play alto. Only another sax player would understand that, but you have nailed the differences exactly with your expression.

  10. alan says:

    Yesss…  I’m always told that my flute playing is ‘phrased like a tenor sax’  – I suppose it’s the downside of never having had a real flute lesson, something my flute embouchure confirms…  Lots of deep stuff in this post, it’d take me hours to reply properly !

    Just spent best part of a day playing Bb clarinets (another post, maybe later today) – as Eric says, the Bb dark side is reaching out to me, without a doubt.  “Come into the light…”   😯

  11. Helen says:

    “Stay away from the light”…  8)

  12. Mal-2 says:

    …”it’s a bug zapper.” 8)

    You had a previous post with Sanborn and Phil Woods and this is what I meant by “playing alto like a tenor player”.

    The C-mel isn’t really well-suited to popping out the bell notes percussively the way it is so commonly done on tenor. This probably goes back a long way, but I think Stan Getz really popularized it. My C-mel at least is just a little too narrow to do it with conviction. There’s no reason it can’t be as well-suited to blistering fast diminished scale/chord runs, and I’ve been working on those. I’m sure the upstairs neighbor just loves it. Diminished scales without a context can get old really fast (like any scales). Extending them into altissimo is probably driving him even more nuts, as is my habit of testing mouthpieces by leaping from the second octave to the third (to check intonation). Screw him, he has lead feet. 😈

    I know what these “tenorisms” sound like, I just haven’t gotten around to figuring out how some of them are done. Popping, diminished scales, blistering fast arpeggios, the “Texas Wobble”, trill fingerings, and some of the harmonic fingerings I have figured out. But there are still other aspects of “tenorese” that I don’t have names for. It seems odd to me that such fundamentally similar instruments can develop such unique dialects.

  13. Mal-2 says:

    I pulled out the tenor for the first time in ages, and threw the Link STM 8* on it with the Olegature that arrived in the mail yesterday. To my amusement, the altissimo popped almost as easily as it does on the C-mel, but the intonation was totally wack. I pulled out the hard rubber Meyer 6M, which is a responsive yet dark piece (slight rollover baffle, otherwise just huge inside), and put it on the C-mel. It wouldn’t go on far enough to play in tune and I wasn’t in the mood to wreck a cork I just put on last weekend, so I didn’t go very far with that. I put it on the tenor and found the altissimo response to still be adequate, but reasonably in tune using the same fingerings that were way out with the Link. The tenor just feels FAT in my hands. I’m sure I could get used to it again, but it was a bit of a shock. Soundwise — well, it sounds like a YTS-21, what else can I say? It’s a very middle-of-the-road tenor sound, with a bit of edge even the Meyer can’t erase (most likely due to the notoriously bright Yamaha student neck).

    The Olegature I ordered is a “2”, I thought I was getting a “1” as this was listed as an alto ligature and there are more alto pieces that take a “1” than a “2”. I put it on the Link and if I slid it way down the mouthpiece and tightened it up all the way, it sort of worked. So I took the screws out and flipped it inside out, then put the screws back in. This means I have to choose between the screws being on the left, or being on the right but under the reed. It seems to work pretty well in the latter configuration, though this makes it look totally different from the way it was designed.

    The Oleg size chart seems to go from “6” (largest) to “1”, “2”, “4”, and “17” (smallest). The Meyer 6M would take a 6, most of my alto pieces would take a “1” (but a “2” works in a pinch), and according to the chart, my Link tenor would really be best served with a “4”. The extra rib along the top does cause issues with ligatures that close on top, unless they stay open wide enough to cleanly straddle the rib. Soundwise, I can’t hear any discernable difference from the stock (and usually maligned) Link ligature, but the response is slightly different in that the low-altissimo response (F#, G, G#) is a little bit cleaner. I expect that I will keep using it, because it’s less finicky than the stock ligature, looks better, and the functional differences are small but positive. At $30 or so (eBay “Buy It Now” price), it’s a reasonable replacement for a missing ligature if you don’t like Rovners. Just make sure of the size you’re getting.

    Here’s a PDF that shows far more sizes than the five I listed above:

    Anyhow, the lot of you may be un-retiring your tenors, but I’m not inclined to follow your example. I’ll pull out the tenor if someone specifically asks for it (likewise with alto or bari), but if it’s my call to pick the right horn for the situation, it will probably stay the C-mel. It doesn’t have the punch at the bottom the tenor has, but it has more than the alto ever did, and almost passes for an alto at the top of the natural range.  High E and F sound more like an alto if I play them with palm keys, and sound more like a tenor in altissimo if I use the Front F fingerings (I can make them “split” just like the same pitches on tenor). It’s an odd mixture, but not in a bad way. Some say that the C-mel combines the low end of an alto with the high end of a tenor, but I find it to run somewhere in between at almost all times, leaning toward tenor at the bottom and leaning toward alto at the top. Outside the natural range, well ya get what ya get — it’s a bit “squealy” and it doesn’t really sound like any particular horn at that point. I mean it is 90 years old and little (if any) effort would have gone into optimizing for that range. I’m finding I can “recycle” my fingerings from the next partial down and get above C#, but I have to “pre-hear” the notes even more than is typical of altissimo. D and Eb are coming along, but E and F are still sketchy. It’s something to work on during my vacation week. I have not investigated to what degree the Olegature assists in this, but it probably is helping.

  14. alan says:

    Mal – I think that, although my Bb tenor will get used a bit now (shame to have neglected it) the Martin C is – as you’ve also found with a C-Mel – still the more flexible horn for my style of playing.  Add the Aquilasax C into the mix and there’s more than enough to keep my interest.

    The brief recent adventure with the tenor was interesting, but it still is (just) a tenor.  I don’t do the sort of gigs anymore that need the pure beef of the tenor, and I always did try and keep enough flexible harmonics playable on tenor to stretch up to the alto’s natural top – so the C puts me part of the way up for free.  I’ve always been wierd that way, even preferring big-sound’ alto’s that had a low-end like a ‘tenor light’.

    That was the thing that really got me into C-Mels. the in-between’ness – transposition and handling very sharp key signatures has never been a problem (occasionally an annoyance…), so the ‘C’ bit really is just a fringe benefit – bottom line is that I’ve invested enough time and effort not to just give them up.  What I need to do though, is to play the Bb tenor just often enough to keep it usable, horn and technique.  It’s out of storage, back in my life, but hasn’t taken it over – happily I’ve played tenor enough in the past that I can slip back into it quite easily.  Good compromise  😀 I think I’d miss the little intonation issues if I abandoned my C’s, I’d have to buy an old MkVI just to have a few on Bb tenor 😆

  15. Mal-2 says:

    If you do decide to ditch the Aquilasax, let me know and maybe I can take it off your hands. Mine apparently still isn’t ready and I’m getting a bit eager for a modern horn (black nickel or not) though the Buescher is more than adequate. Given all the modifications I’ve done, I doubt I will be able to sell it even if I wanted to, so it will remain in the collection even if I do get (and come to love) an Aquilasax. It plays really nice, but it has so many hacks and mods it’s far from “authentic” at this point. It is my favorite horn of the bunch right now, so it’s going to take a seriously impressive horn to supplant it. The YTS-21 isn’t it, the Dolnet bari isn’t it, and the Jupiter alto is close but not quite there. All of the bunch except the Dolnet bari are pretty well in tune so that’s not the problem, it’s more of a “does what I want, when I want” thing. The ever so slight increased delay in response going from alto to C-mel is more than offset by the inherently bigger sound and is compensated by playing more “aggressively” (meaning on the front edge of the beat, not brighter or louder). It’s just a sad fact of physics that the larger the horn, the longer it takes for the first pulse from the reed to hit the effective length and bounce back to set up the standing wave. The actual pitch does not matter — first octave D and second octave D will have the same delay in establishing the standing wave, so a soprano playing first octave D and a tenor playing second octave D are playing the same note, but the soprano will “lock in” about twice as fast. From there it doesn’t take much to figure out that on average, smaller horns respond faster. As long as it has the range and the sound for the job, smaller is better. This doesn’t even factor in the logistics of playing large instruments.

  16. ukebert says:

    See I really like the sound of the CMel. On the few occasions when I do play tenor it is a massive difference, but for the kinds of music that I play the volume and raucousness of the tenor can be a little superfluous. Certainly if playing in a folk session a tenor or even some altos would be hideously inappropriate. A Cmel is much better suited to that.

    Of course at the moment I am playing nothing but Melodeon and uke, although I didd pick up a cheap tabor pipe, which I’m having great fun experimenting with.

  17. Mal-2 says:

    I bet the intonation weirdness is in the neck. I had every wind instrument out at one time today, except for the alto that’s out on loan, so that I could take pictures. I also made sure each of them got played just a little before they got put back, sorta like the tradition that says a knife, once pulled, cannot be put away without drawing blood. Since I had both C-mels out at once, I decided to see if it was possible to swap necks between them, and if so, what this accomplished. It was possible (now that I’ve enlarged the tenon on the 1923 neck), though not easy.

    I really wasn’t all that surprised to find that the two horn bodies (leaks on the unrestored instrument aside) aren’t all that different with regard to intonation, and the difference in sound was about what I’d expect for one having resonators and the other one not. They both were reasonably well behaved with the 1923 neck, and they were both badly behaved with the 1919 neck. I’ll be trying the hot glue trick on the 1919 neck (I’m pretty sure I know where it needs to be narrowed) to see if that helps. If it does, maybe I can sell off the 1923 after all. I’d pulled it from the market since I’d appropriated the neck, but I’d really like to move it — with the Aquilasax in the pipeline, I just don’t need two Buescher C-mels.

    I think the left hand wide octave problem of the 1919 neck is a direct consequence of being visibly larger than the 1923 neck from just above the tenon to about where the octave key hinge is mounted. Since that’s the most severe problem, I’ll tackle that one first and see what that does to the other issues (flat palm keys, altissimo being quite flat) which are probably due to the same condition.

    Supporting my contention is that at a certain point, bari altissimo also goes severely flat, which corresponds to the fact that a bend “looks” acoustically like a widening of the tube. When the nodes start to fall in the upper U-bend, this causes those notes to drop almost a half step from where they lie on alto or tenor. (Most players just suck it up and “transpose”, the way a hand-stopped horn player has to do.) The altissimo performance of the 1919 neck is very similar, and I was also prepared to just suck it up and compensate, but the 1923 neck has no such problems.  With the 1923, the third and fourth harmonics are exactly where they should be, though the fifth and sixth are still a little squirrelly. I shouldn’t expect better, I don’t think the horn was engineered with their use in mind. With the 1919, the third harmonic is flat, and the second is sharp for a considerable number of notes.

    Hmm, where have I seen that behavior before… even harmonics too high while odd harmonics are too low… break out “The Physics of Musical Instruments”… this is caused by mixing cylindrical and conical bores improperly! Namely, some segment is too wide and acoustically resembles a cylinder. Since the 1923 neck seems to be reasonably close to the desired spec, it seems like a good bet that making the 1919 neck’s bore more closely resemble the 1923 bore can only be a good thing. Easiest way to do that? Lead golfer’s tape. Unfortunately that has the slight complication that it’s lead. It also would have hard edges that cause turbulence. Instead, I’ll stick some strips of hot glue in there and melt them. I’ll check the results as I add more material, and stop when it seems to work (though backing off IS possible without having to start over — warm it up, scrape some out, and melt it smooth again).

    Anyhow, my sample size is only two, but a poorly tapered neck can thoroughy wreck the intonation of any horn.

    Another thing I did before I put most of the horns away (flute, gigging C-mel, and bari remain out) was put the tenor mouthpiece on the alto to see just how much the mouthpiece can override the natural sound of an instrument. My alto is very bright and the harmonics are very accessible. The C-mel seems on the moderate-to-dark part of the spectrum, and the harmonics are likewise moderately accessible. How much of this is down to the horn and how much is down to the mouthpiece was what I wanted to know.

    Even with a tenor piece on it, the alto is still quite distinctly an alto. Oddly, it did not exhibit the intonation weirdness I was expecting, at least not severely. I was able to get it up to pitch and mostly in tune with itself. The sound certainly got darker and had more fundamental in the sound, but it still sounded nothing like a “small tenor”, just a beefy (yet still bright) alto. The “wobbles” at the bottom didn’t go away either, so I think it’s time for the leak light.

    Other things I realized having everything out at once:
    * The 1923 C-mel and its case still smell very musty. Ugh. Need dryer sheets.
    * The bari case no longer smells like melted cholocate bars, though it probably will when the weather warms up again. (I have never been able to identify the source of this smell. It’s not strong, and it’s not terribly unpleasant, but I’d like to get rid of it anyhow.)
    * My Dolnet bari isn’t all that good. It’s a low A bari and everything works, but it just isn’t up to standard. I should probably put it back as close as I can to the way I got it, then sell it. Preferably before the smell of melted chocolate bars returns. 🙂
    * The bass clarinet is still an enigma. Today it played perfectly. Sometimes it won’t play at all. Most of the time it has the wobblies. (Low priority, it was an impulse purchase.)
    * I still hate the cheap Chinese plastic piccolo. Sweet sound when I can get one (sounds almost like a recorder), but it’s a mechanical and intonation nightmare and isn’t very loud. The metal picc is reliable and loud, but shrill and lacking charm.
    * Now that I’m used to them, Fibracell reeds are far superior to any cane reeds currently in my possession, except on clarinet. Need to try Legere for clarinet.
    * The 1919 C-mel with the 1923 neck is the best-playing horn I have right now. Flute, clarinet, Frankentenor, and the metal piccolo are all passable, but soprano, alto, bass clarinet, and bari all have the wobblies to some extent.

  18. Mal-2 says:

    Update: It’s the neck. I think it may be a victim of overly aggressive dent removal in the past.

    Although the hot glue just made a mess and I ended up removing all but the tiniest bit, I was still committed to figuring out the intonation weirdness. Thus, I got out the socket set and started banging. With the assistance of a thousand tiny dents, I have corrected all of the bad behavior save for one thing — high E and F still are unstable. (The 1923 neck has NO PROBLEMS here.) C#2 is also somewhat flat, but since C#3 isn’t wildly sharp, this is manageable.

    Here’s a rough map of where I put the dents to tune each note:

    This pulls down the second octave but has minimal effect on the first octave.

    I’m not sure you are in the mood for deliberately denting your neck (I didn’t care because it’s already hacked), but perhaps some creative use of epoxy could accomplish the same thing. You’d probably need to use a bendy straw to get it located properly. Lead-free solder could also be an option.

    I’m still going to stick with the 1923 neck because it works so nicely, but at least I have a functional (if ugly) neck to pair with the 1923 body.

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