An Interview with Michael Brockman
by Dr. Boyd Phelps
Saxophone Journal (Sept 1999) Cover Story
Phelps: Could you tell us about your educational background and some of the important saxophone instructors you have studied with?
Brockman: I started playing saxophone as a fourth grader living in Portland, Oregon. I was snooping around one day under my parent's bed and found my dad's old saxophone. I never knew he had one. I figured out how to put it together from pictures I'd seen in music class and started honking on the thing. My dad ran upstairs when he heard me and said, "Boy, what the heck are you doing?" I think he was tickled that I had put it together and had figured out how to get a sound out of it, so he let me use it. I spent the summer learning to play by ear without any instruction. I learned to play the five or six of my favorite songs--some were TV or movie themes, a couple of Beatles tunes. Looking back, that was the luckiest step I ever took starting in music: my first introduction to an instrument was playing by ear. By the time I got into the fifth grade band I already had a good sense of the instrument without relying on written notes. Of course, I learned to read like everyone else, but I always loved playing by ear. Band was my favorite part of school as a kid, and we had great teachers who were good musicians and who taught us lots of different kinds of music. My first bebop solo was as a seventh grader. It was terrible playing, but I got to stand up and play in front of the band at a school assembly, and man, that was it! I can still remember playing that first solo. Our high school had an excellent music program (both symphonic and jazz), so I really benefited greatly from the public school music programs.
I never studied privately with anybody until college, which was probably unfortunate, but I always had a pretty good sound and a smooth technique, and I never seemed to run out of things to practice on my own. The key for me was that I was always listening to recordings and finding other saxophonists to imitate. There were great horn sections in a lot of the popular bands (Blood Sweat and Tears, Tower of Power, Chicago), and beginning in ninth grade I was ALWAYS in some sort of garage band rehearsing blues and funky rock tunes to play at school dances. We memorized our parts from records. As a saxophonist, I was also drawn to jazz, and listened to albums like Miles with Cannonball. I bet I wore the grooves right off the "Something Else" album. My friends and I also went to local clubs in Portland where we would listen to the local jazz players, and sometimes we were allowed to sit in. That's where I learned how to listen and listen HARD. There's nothing tougher than trying to fake your way through a tune you don't really know in front of an audience.
After high school I went to Lewis and Clark College in Portland where there was a very strong classical saxophone program, and that is where I really became serious about the instrument.
Who was the saxophone instructor at Lewis and Clark College?
Brockman: Jerry Luedders. He completely kicked my tail both in terms of mastering the instrument on a technical basis, and in terms of learning to interpret music--he never tolerated playing music in a static form or without giving it a personal interpretation. Our interpretations were based either on listening to other recorded performances and recitals, or just devising a musical interpretation that made musical sense in some way. A wonderful lesson I got from him was to trust my own musical instincts: my sense of art was as good as anyone else's so long as I was really being honest about it. If I had a true vision for how it should be played then that's an honest approach to the music. If I was just faking it and didn't really have a sense of what emotional content a piece called for, or what style the piece was written in, then I had some homework to do. In college I also really started to love great classical music, especially by Bach, Bartok, Schubert and Stravinsky. In our dorm my roommates and I thought it was cool to blast the Brandenburgs on our stereo at full volume while everyone else was playing Pink Floyd. I also learned some bassoon, which made me glad to be a saxophonist, let me tell you.
Actually, when I entered college, I was a German major. I had always taken German language classes all through school, and in my sophomore year I spent 9 months in Europe as an exchange student. In Germany I became inspired by that cultural richness in Europe (art is everywhere) and by the dedication artists gave to their crafts. I took some composition courses at the University in Germany and thought maybe I would become a composer, but in truth I was still not serious about being a musician. I got depressed there because I'd meet streetcar conductors who knew more about music than I did! Of course, they knew all about Bach and Mozart, but then they'd ask me about American composers like Copland or Ives and I just went dumb. I met German and French high school kids who knew all kinds of stuff about jazz, you know AMERICAN jazz--Ellington, Parker, Lester--that I hadn't even HEARD of. It was downright embarrassing! The high value that all Europeans place on art inspired me. When I got back to the US, I made up my mind that music was really where my heart was, and that I was going to get serious. I also realized that I was an American musician and needed to be evangelical about the music we create here. At that point I REALLY put my nose to the grindstone and started practicing the saxophone day and night. I was playing everything that I could find, especially classical literature. Luedders pushed me as hard as I wanted. Between my junior and senior years I spent a summer at Berklee School of Music. That's where I studied with Joe Viola, and a little with George Garzone.
Phelps: Tell us about studying saxophone with Joe Viola.
Brockman: Joe Viola was fantastic. He took the technique I was developing as a classical musician and showed me how useful it was to the technique jazz musicians need. That was a VERY important threshold to cross. There are far more similarities than there are differences between classical saxophone and jazz. It's just a question of shifting for the style you are playing, like being more flexible with the vibrato. But that's true of any music; you can't play Bach the same way you play Haydn. The stylistic shifts for Jazz are no different. Viola showed me how to transfer all of those scales I was learning as a classical musician into the context of how a jazz player would use them-such as articulating off the beat instead of on the beat, and starting the scales on notes other than the root. It was important to Viola that I should be able to start on any beat and any note of the scale. So, for instance, if I was working on a G altered scale or a diminished scale, I needed to be able to start on beat 3 with a Db and then play the scale in any direction from there. It's not earth shattering stuff, but these were valuable lessons that set me toward a lot of realizations about the true meaning of technique. Viola also showed me a lot about transcribing, and lots of great ways to borrow ideas from other Jazz players.
Phelps: What did George Garzone show you on the saxophone?
Brockman: What I got from George Garzone was how to utilize the intrinsic, unique sounds of the saxophone as part of my solo so that I'm not afraid to let the saxophone growl, squawk, bend a pitch, or do something that is very "saxophonesque" in order to remind the listeners that I'm playing a unique instrument that is flexible and special. Studying classical music, I was always pursuing that consistent, pure, perfect sound on every pitch, and that made my improvising sound very pure and, frankly, over-controlled. Taking what I play and putting in jazz inflections made it sound not only like a saxophone but more human.
I also took a couple of lessons from Jerry Bergonzi in Boston, which was mostly about harmonic ideas. Instead of just thinking about a chord and the appropriate scale that might be used for it, see if you can stretch the chord upward in interesting ways. You shouldn't always stretch a major 7th chord just by adding a triad that starts on the 9th. There are lots of other interesting, wonderful sounds you can always be stretching for when you arrive at a chord.
That first time I lived in Boston was very inspiring because when I left, I had five notebooks and a portfolio of ideas, projects, and assignments to work on. After Berklee I got back into some REALLY heavy duty classical saxophone literature, but I continued transcribing solos by Parker, Woods, Cannonball, and Gary Bartz. Those were the guys I was into from the very beginning. I transcribed a little every week. I finished my classical music degree at Lewis and Clark and had finally struggled to a level of playing where I was nearly caught up with the other students working with Luedders. I decided that the accelerated sort of academic environment of a college was going to get me where I wanted to go the fastest, so I made up my mind to go to graduate school.
I spent a year teaching in public schools, practicing, and playing gigs around Oregon--taking any jazz gig I could find. At that point I decided that I wanted the main focus of my graduate study to be jazz. I auditioned at graduate schools around the country and was accepted into New England Conservatory back in Boston, which was my top choice for a single reason: Joe Allard was the saxophone teacher there.
Phelps: Please tell us about the venerable Joe Allard.
Brockman: At our first lesson, I played for about ten seconds, and he said, "O.K., put down your horn," and he proceeded to tell me my entire life's history from a saxophone point of view. He absolutely pegged me from the very beginning. He said, "Your previous instructors told you to do this with your tongue...am I right?" And I said, "Yes." "They told you to do this with your embouchure...am I right?" Again I answered, "Yes." He went down this litany of about twenty-five central components of my playing that he had no more then ten seconds to assess, and he was on the money with every one of them. I was sitting there thinking to myself, "Wow, he recognizes what great technique and talent I have!" and then the next words out of his mouth were, "They were all WRONG! Forget all that." I was absolutely crestfallen. Allard spent the next two months dismantling my playing down to ground zero, and then he spent the next six months putting it back together. By the end of the school year I had his system figured out, at least in theory. But then began the hard work of making his method my "normal" way of playing.
Phelps: What specific literature were you studying with Joe Allard?
Brockman: Oh. a little of everything. I was doing bebop transcriptions, French classical pieces, funk solos, and some avant-garde American classical literature.
Phelps: Did he critique you regarding your bebop playing?
Brockman: He never said a word about improvisation but would tell me about the technique required to nail the style of that particular piece. Every week I would bring him the different pieces that I was working on. He was very flexible about whatever I wanted to do, and he absolutely left it up to me to choose what pieces of literature I wanted to play. His method of teaching me was extremely effective because it was always "real world." We would work on pieces of music that I was preparing for a recital or a performance of some sort with one of the jazz groups or the NEC wind ensemble. One time the wind ensemble was playing this immense symphonic band work (Concerto for Band???Find out)by William Thomas McKinley, one of the heavy composers there at the conservatory, and the first alto saxophone part was nearly impossible to play. My first reaction to it was that there was no way I would ever be able to play it. I brought it to Allard and showed him how little of it I could play. His reaction was "oh, bah" and then he calmly showed me three or four exercises that would help me develop the technique necessary to get through the piece. We never worked on the actual piece even once. He never added his interpretation to the piece. He left that to me. But he always gave me pointers and technical exercises that would get right to the core of my problem. The thing about Allard is that he understood better than anyone in the world, in my opinion, the mechanics and physics of blowing the instrument, and he had an uncanny ability to listen to someone and analyze what was going on inside their mouths, chest cavity, or throats, without the aid of any sort of oscilloscope or sonic analysis equipment. I swear the guy had x-ray vision! He just so thoroughly understood the mechanism of blowing a wind instrument that he could analyze and correct what you were doing wrong. He completely rebuilt my playing, and had I not worked with him I don't think I'd have a music career. For one thing, I would have given up trying to play all of the different saxophones. My greatest frustration was that I could sound good on my alto but I could never really play the soprano, tenor, or baritone--until I worked with Allard. His philosophy of sound production is universal and transfers to all single reed instruments. Allard could take the funkiest old mouthpiece--it didn't matter what brand or size--and he'd blow on it and it would sound great! I'd sit there with my mouth hanging open and ask how he could do that and he would point to his temple knowingly and whisper, "It's all up here." And he was right. One mouthpiece or another will give you certain advantages, but in the final analysis it's how you blow and hold your mouth on the piece that makes the difference. He showed me how to experiment with sound production using a variety of parameters so that I could zero in on the sound I was hearing in my head. The jazz sound I was hearing in my head was a combination of Parker, Cannonball, and Phil Woods. The classical sound I was hearing was a combination of Mule and Hemke.
Another big, influential thing going on while I was at New England Conservatory was the repertory jazz ensemble movement, which was started in Boston by Gunther Schuller (the former the President of NEC). I played in the Medium Rare Big Band at the Conservatory. That was one of the greatest big bands I'll ever play in. The level of playing was very high, and the spirit of the band was true Jazz. Period.
After I graduated, I got a job as the saxophone professor at Shenandoah University, located outside of Washington D.C., and I eventually became head of Jazz Studies. I immediately got to put into practice all of the pedagogic techniques I had learned from Allard, Viola, Luedders, and produced some pretty good students. So, I found out that this was a career I could be successful in and enjoy. I taught there for five years and continued to play jazz in clubs in D.C., to give classical recitals, and even played some symphony orchestra gigs.
Phelps: When did you become the saxophone professor at the University of Washington in
Brockman: I left Shenandoah and moved to the University of Washington in 1987.
Phelps: Could you tell us about your saxophone studio at U.W.?
Brockman: The over-riding premise, which reflects my musical background, is that I insist that everyone maintain a very open mind about all kinds of music, and all kinds of saxophone music in particular. Specifically, when freshmen come in to my studio, I need to be open to my giving them assignments that may be well outside their normal comfort zone in terms of what they have practiced and played in the past. I find almost consistently, that new students have not really done the fundamentals of saxophone technique. I bet this is a universal statement from all saxophone teachers at the college level--that most of their incoming freshmen need to rebuild their technique in terms of playing scales, arpeggios, and being able to control all ranges of their instrument equally.
Phelps: How do you approach teaching jazz to the saxophonist with only a classical or "straight " background?
Brockman: Well technique is technique is technique, and as Allard always said, music is music is music. Everyone has to do the fundamentals or forget it. That means scales, arpeggios, intervals, etudes. But, to keep it fun I'll shape the scales a little differently for the classical musician and assign slightly different scales than I do for the Jazz player. However, they'll all have to do their scales in all keys and in all different types of structures. Scales, arpeggios, and intervals are all done aurally--I don't write them down for anyone. If the student needs to know what the notes are then I just tell them what the scale STRUCTURE is, and it's up to them to figure it out. However, if they're making mistakes, and if by writing it down they can help eliminate the mistakes, then I encourage them to write them down. I would NEVER hand them a sheet of notated scales and say, "Here, learn these." Why make them handicapped? It's unnecessary, because anyone can build a scale, figure out an arpeggio. Now for the jazz musician, they may be more comfortable playing their arpeggios as a major 7th chord or a major 9th chord. That's okay, but I will also make them do straight arpeggios--root, third, and fifth--up and down their instrument with no added tones. It is VERY IMPORTANT to their playing that Jazz players do this well. It's much easier to hide bad intonation when you add lots of notes to a chord. When you trim a chord down to its root, third and fifth, or even just the root and fifth alone, then nobody can hide bad intonation. All my students have to do those basics, no matter what their backgrounds are. There are some etudes that I really like because I don't think I've thrown them on anybody who didn't grow from them. Those are the 48 Ferling Etudes that Marcel Mule compiled, and I have yet to see a student who didn't grow at any age from playing the Berbiguier Etudes. If they haven't done them before, then they should do them. After that, I will tailor-make their program of study according to the developmental needs of the player, selecting different sets of etudes and repertoire. I make all of my classical players learn jazz. They have to do some transcribing, some playing with play-along records, and they have to play in some jazz group. All the jazz players have to do classical playing, learn repertoire, and play in a classical group. In fact, I make the jazz players do quite a bit of classical playing. My reason is this: in Jazz we spend so much time thinking about the notes we are using and the shapes we are improvising, that there is a lot of room to hide bad intonation and sloppy technique. I want insist that all of my jazz players sound every bit as musical and in control of their instrument as anyone else. That doesn't mean they play with a straight-laced approach, just that they are thoroughly trained on their instrument. Also, keeping an open mind about a variety of musical styles is really important to me. I try to teach all the literature that I play, and that includes a very wide array of styles and techniques. I think that is the key to being employed as a musician in this world.
Phelps: How do you guide your saxophone students towards a professional career?
Brockman: Obviously, everyone will have a particular focus to their playing that's their special thing, and I encourage that because that is what keeps us inspired. You have to have a career goal as you're developing and an image in your mind of what you're going to sound like. The broader the spectrum of musical styles I can introduce to my students to, and get them proficient in, the greater the likelihood that when they get a call for a job they can say, "Yes," no matter if it's with a funk band, a classical saxophone quartet, a symphony orchestra, a jazz trio, or whatever--and on any saxophone. I want them to be able to say, "Yes, no problem. I'm your man." Even if they're a woman, I want my students to say that.
Phelps: Are there particular saxophone models, mouthpieces, and reeds that you recommend
for your students, and what are your set-ups?
Brockman: My philosophy is that you should choose the equipment that makes it easiest to sound the way you want to sound. I don't have really strong feelings about what my students play on, so long as it is of REALLY high quality. If they come in with some no-name equipment that is honestly capable of giving them what they want without a lot of fuss and manipulation, then that's great. However, that's not often the case. Take mouthpieces and reeds. Most of my new students grow out of their original mouthpiece within a few months of coming to me. It becomes obvious to them that their old mouthpiece is no longer able to deliver what is required without a lot of work. So we set out to find more worthy mouthpiece, and then match reeds to it. This is often the case with their instruments as well. Most students have not been lucky enough by age 18 to have found their "forever" instrument. You can't be married to a saxophone if its just to much trouble to play. Now personally, I prefer to play VERY old instruments (my altos and tenors are all antique Selmers), and I also play a Yamaha soprano that is excellent.
But, there are some good standard mouthpieces and horns that students can start out with as a good foundation for developing the sound they want. On classical alto, I recommend the Selmer S-80 mouthpieces or, better still, the old style Selmer Soloist mouthpieces. Those have very reliable intonation and consistent tone up and down the entire range of the instrument. They are not entirely consistent, in that you can play on two identical mouthpieces and they can sound very different from one another, but if you find one that plays what you imagine to be a beautiful saxophone tone, then you've got a mouthpiece that will provide a solid foundation for development. But you have to remember, a mouthpiece that sounds good on one horn may play badly on another. For jazz, I think one of the most reliable pieces for anyone is the Meyer 7M. I use a Selmer Soloist C* mouthpiece on alto for classical and an old New York Meyer 7M for jazz. I play an Otto Link hard rubber for classical tenor and use a Selmer Soloist for soprano. I play Vandoren reeds--the classical cut--for both jazz and classical.
Another thing I learned from Allard is the technique of scraping reeds. I adjust absolutely every reed I ever play. That art of shaping and scraping of reeds is not taught to enough saxophonists, and yet I think it makes all the difference in the world! You can buy ten boxes of reeds and if you play them straight out of the box your chances of finding one that plays just the way you want it to is negligible. I scrape my reeds and end up using eight out of ten.
Phelps: How do you break in a reed?
Brockman: I soak them and then let them dry again and again. I do this for a few days. Then I'll play on them to discover their true nature and then decide whether it's a reed I want to work with or not. Reeds change pretty drastically after you've soaked them a few times. The cane needs "seasoning" before you can tell how a reed will play. Over a period of a few days, I'll play on it for a little bit then put it back; play it, put it back, and so on. When I feel the reed is beginning to reveal its true character, I'll start scraping and adjusting it. I don't ever play on reeds that I haven't reshaped and scraped, and that's my reason for playing on Vandoren reeds: they seem to have the most wood to scrape away.
Phelps: What are the major challenges of music education that affect you?
Brockman: The single biggest problem is our public schools cutting back the importance of arts in a young student's education. Instead of finding ways to limit the number of hours a student is involved with the arts, we should be going in the other direction and finding MORE hours for students to be spending in some creative process. But the arts are not viewed as commercially viable. Instead, schools are taking time out of the day to teach little kids how to use a computer. Students are being taught facts and figures and computer code that may serve to get them their first job, but they are not learning the skills they need to survive a lifetime career. The skills kids REALLY need are to be able to look at a situation from a creative point of view and devise a creative solution to the problem. Half of the computer programmers that we're training in our schools now will be obsolete in ten years because the code will no longer be used by any major companies. The students who learn how to teach themselves, and to apply themselves creatively to any given situation, and to think in abstract symbols, and to think in non-verbal abstract methods, will excel and be the survivors. This is true about every career. Bankers, doctors, managers, salespeople, everybody has to be creative or perish. But only 20% of our students are getting creative arts in their schools.
The real challenge to all musicians is that for 90% of the American public, listing to music means staying home and playing a CD, or worse, watching whatever the TV feeds them. Most don't understand the meaning and thrill of live music. And making music at best means using a cheap MIDI device to record bland, repetitive sequences that sound like bad disco. If 90% of your friends think that heartless, push-button music is great, it takes a lot of guts to overcome that. And unless a live performance is wrapped in a clean, flashy package, and delivered to consumers at their favorite shopping mall, the public won't bite. Somehow, we've got to make going out to hear live performances easy, fun and cheap for everyone. That has to happen if we want the public to regain its love of real music by real musicians. All our music organizations need to make a priority of retraining the public to want to come out to real concerts.
Now, at the University I am in the enviable position of having students arrive with excellent training. It seems that the small percentage of kids who HAVE enjoyed a good education that includes the arts are truly stellar. I see the current generation of young musicians as a very motivated, inspired group. And they are rejecting the notion of playing push button, commercial music just to make a buck. The next century of music will be incredible when the current generation comes into its own. We all just have to make sure there is an audience for them that looks forward to the creation of live music.
I took a MIDI course at a community college and every one of the other students
were there to create sequences for their rap music. It really amazed me that they really thought they were creating music.
A lot of kids who THINK they want to be musicians go the route of doing electronic music. Instead, they should be pursuing music as a personal art form that you create with a single instrument that is completely dependent upon your artistic training and your sensitivity to that instrument. Whenever I get to work with kids in the public schools, I find that what they dig is movie or television music--music that is attached to or serving as accompaniment to something else. They are often judging music on its celebrity value or how awesome the visuals are, but never HOW THE MUSIC SOUNDS. We have to make certain we NEVER teach music in those terms. It is to the detriment of the art form to justify it according to its support of something else, and it destroys the students' ability for abstract listening--to absorb sound without having to visualize a movie to go with it. Plus, it undermines the importance and meaning of music to our culture. Music is the world's most important and universal art form. Period! Diluting it makes it meaningless.
So how do we overcome that? Make it immensely easy for school kids to get out and hear real, live music. And, get our schools to provide a genuine music education to MORE kids, not LESS. It is a mistake to allow a standard music education to be privilege of a small group of talented kids. As I said, if you are one of only 10% of your peers that rejects the idea that push-button music is cool, you will feel mighty defeated. And, we HAVE to stop trying to use computers to teach musical CREATIVITY. Computers are great for notation and ear training (I use them all the time) but they are a barrier to creative composing. The really good MIDI musicians were real musicians FIRST, and then learned to use MIDI as a time saving tool.
Phelps: While many musicians are bemoaning the fact that jazz music is not accessible to the public and that there are not enough gigs, you have done something about the
situation. Could you tell us about the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra that you've established?
Brockman: Clarence Acox--a drummer and a close friend--and I had always wanted to establish a repertory Jazz band in Seattle. We had a group organized that was playing the Duke Ellington sacred concerts each year in Seattle. It's been going on for ten years and has become a Seattle holiday tradition. It is an immense undertaking to present these concerts, because it takes really good players and a band full of good soloists. Also, the scores take quite a bit of preparation and transcribing. That annual event was such a big success that after the '95 concert, Clarence and I decided to make it a standing group to do repertory concerts by all sorts of jazz composers three or four times a year. What is really outstanding about our group is that we have the veteran grandfathers of jazz in Seattle. These are the guys that had been here during the very first years of the Seattle jazz scene prior to World War II. We also have some middle aged guys who are playing in their primes, and we have four or five of the youngest players in town, fresh out of school, who are making a name on the local jazz scene. So we have this beautiful mixture of players from all ends of the jazz community, and we get along famously and have a lot of fun playing together.
Phelps: How is the SRJO organized?
Brockman: Well, Acox and I co-lead the band. We are responsible for finding the music, and I'm often responsible for transcribing arrangements. We only
rehearse for specific concerts. When we have a project in mind, we start about six months ahead of time. We'll decide the project, choose a theme for the concert, decide the literature, collect the pieces or arrangements from around the country by hook or crook, and transcribe anything we haven't been able to find. Everyone in the band is a professional musician, so each musician is paid for rehearsals and each performance. Therefore, we have to sell enough tickets to cover the expense of rehearsals leading up to a concert, and pay for the actual gig plus hall rental, equipment rental, and concert production costs. It's been a break even or slightly better than break even venture. This says a great deal about Seattle. We're not playing schving hits from the war years, we're playing the great works from the early repertoire of jazz. We recently did the music of Monk and Mingus, and that was a sell-out concert. We also did a concert of the music of Quincy Jones who is embraced as native son of Seattle. That concert was well received, and we won an award from Earshot Jazz, the local jazz association. All the concerts scheduled for 1999 are dedicated to the music of Ellington in observance of the 100th anniversary of his birth. We're playing a Duke Ellington 100th birthday celebration in April to coincide with his birthday, and we'll do two other Ellington concerts during the course of the year.
Phelps: So you have set up the Seattle Jazz Repertory Orchestra as a non-profit organization?
Brockman: Yes, we became one this fall so we can start building on what we've already got going. We will apply for grants and fund raising like any other non-profit organization.,
Phelps: You have just finished a European tour. Would you comment upon that?
Brockman: This concert tour was premier works at several festivals in four countries in Europe, including Croatia, and we did all kinds of music. We were playing pieces for choir and soprano saxophone. Four of the pieces were contemporary American compositions by Effinger. We also did some avant-garde pieces by various composers, including two pieces by the conductor of the chorus, Gil Seeley. These include computer sounds played over PA speakers while the soprano sax improvises and the choir does all kinds vocal acrobatics, yet they are very stirring, beautiful choral works. We also played a lot of jazz. The choir sang some Jazz tunes and I improvised bebop lines in and around what the choir was doing. The Jazz pieces were the biggest hit of the concerts--even in deepest, darkest Croatia. I also played as part of a trio of musicians within the group that played Moroccan folk music calling for the Moroccan oud (ancestor of the lute), a Spanish guitar, and soprano saxophone. It was a wonderful eclecticism on stage that made it extremely fun for everyone.
All of this plays beautifully into my philosophy about music. I love a lot of different kinds of music and want to play them all, and for anything that calls for a saxophone, I want to be able to say, "I'm your man." While I was in Europe I got a fax from the Seattle Symphony. There's a concert coming up in which they need a soprano saxophone. When I got back home, Ray Charles was in town and they needed a tenor player for the band. So it's like all my plans are paying off: I try to be ready for any call.
Phelps: What is your practice routine?
Brockman: I always start with fundamentals. Specific fundamentals, starting with open fifths, which are the equivalent of long tones, and I take increasing larger breaths as I'm warming up. I play in the middle of my instrument and go through all 12 keys. That gets my wind going, intonation straightened up, and the reed warmed up. Then I'll do scales as 16th notes at a slow pace. I always start in the middle range of my instrument and go down to the lowest note and then to the highest note in the practical range and then back to the middle. As I get more warmed up I stretch into the altissimo range as well. As I progress to the more difficult keys, I'll quicken the pace, but I don't have a specific speed that I try to achieve. I just try to play up to the speed that feels comfortable that day. My reason is that I think it's more important to practice a light technique on the keys and keep the fingers on the pearls than it is to try to achieve some particular speed. One major thing about learning a piece of music--a classical piece or a transcribed bop solo--is that I'll play it at a snail's pace for weeks almost to the point of lunacy. My rule is that I strive to never make a mistake. So I simply play at a pace where I can play the piece without making any mistakes. The next day I find that I can execute the piece a little faster. If I do that for twenty days in a row it will have moved up to a nice tempo. There are hardly any pieces that will not accommodate this process. Of course there have been pieces that took five months to learn that way, but that's the fastest and surest way to really learn a piece of music.
Phelps: What has sustained you in terms of being a professional saxophonist?
Brockman: It's a good rule to always play music you really love and steer away from music that you don't. If you don't like what you're playing, the audience can tell. That rule has kept me in love with my career.