What I Learned from Attending David Sanborn's Master Class

On Sunday November 1, 2020 at 3 PM Eastern time, I attended a Master Class with master alto saxophonist Mr. David Sanborn. If was the dream of a lifetime: I have seen David Sanborn live about 35 times, and I have been carefully studying his recordings since I first heard his "Straight to the Heart" album. The album was released in 1984, but I didn't hear it until about 1986. It is a fantastic album, and you can learn more about it here.  

The Zoom Master Class with David Sanborn had the following format:

  • It was limited to about 15 people so that everyone would have time to ask questions.
  • The theme for the class that I attended was "David Sanborn MC #1 - Rhythm: The Foundation of My Playing".
  • The first hour and a half was David talking about the foundation of his playing.
  • The second hour and a half was time for us, the audience, to ask David questions.

They Key Things That I Learned

There were three major takeaways for me from the David Sanborn Master Class:

  1. You develop your own sound by playing along with records A LOT.  David said that he spent a lot of time playing along with the records recorded by the artists that he loved: Ray Charles, David "Fathead" Newman, Hank Crawford, Phil Woods, Clifford Scott, Ornette Coleman, Gene Ammons, Lee Allen, Little Richard and many more.
  2. Practice listening to, and playing along with, things that challenge and develop your ear. David said that he studied with master tenor saxophonist George Coleman during the 1980s, and that Coleman used to kick his butt. George would randomly change keys while accompanying Sanborn on piano. Sanborn admitted that he would get lost and Coleman would encourage him to "use your ears to figure it out". The fundamental message: you don't grow if you don't play things that challenge you. Learn to play songs in all 12 keys, and don't run away from difficult situations: those difficult situations make you grow faster than anything else. What David Sanborn said gave me greater confidence in what I already knew: I need to practice everything that I know in all 12 keys, and at all tempos. More importantly, I need to be constantly working on learning new music: things that I don't know.
  3. When you play, IMPROVISE. True improvisation means that you are responding to what is going on around you: you are not just playing licks that you have memorized. You do all of the hard work beforehand, and when you get on stage, you throw it all away. When you are playing, you should not be thinking; great improvisation comes from the heart in response to what the other players in the band are playing, the audience, the environment and mood of the room etc. etc. When you truly learn to improvise, you will never get bored because you are truly playing something new each night.

The David Sanborn Master Class was truly a marvelous experience, and I would highly recommend it for any musician, not just saxophonists. You can learn more about the David Sanborn Master Classes here

I have to stress one very important thing at the end: I admire David Sanborn, but I don't want to sound anything like him. A make a very conscious effort to NOT try to sound like anyone else on saxophone. I listen to their music and soak it in, but I do everything in my power to avoid sounding like them. I don't want to sound like David Sanborn, Sharel Cassity, Vincent Herring, Phil Woods, or any of the saxophonists that I admire. I want to develop my own sound where people instantly recognize me as me when they hear me play. What I can learn from other saxophone players is the work ethic that allowed them to achieve the deeply personal sound that they achieved. I have learned how to believe in myself, and I have learned to dig deeper within my own soul to find out what I have to say. My mission is to find out why I was sent to this world, and what message I am designed to deliver, in Jesus' name I pray. Amen!

Until next time, Happy Practicing!

You should also read:

An Additive Theory to Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 Hours Theory from "Outliers, The Story of Success": The World is So Heavily Biased That You May Have to Actually Go Crazy to Succeed (Applicable to Performing Saxophonists)

This article is a follow-up to this one, and it is cross-posted on Reddit; the html version of the article is here: https://saxtalk.com/an-alternative-concept-to-malcolm-gladwells-10000-hours-theory-from-outliers-the-story-of-success-the-world-is-so-heavily-biased-that-you-have-to-actually-go-crazy-to-succeed.html…