THE HORN SECTION: Performance Preparation.



One of the great pleasures of saxophone performance is playing in an R&B, soul, funk, or rock horn section. Hitting syncopated unison horn shots at high volume with a driving rhythm section feels so incredibly fantastic, for both players and audiences alike. But this kind of work is becoming both increasingly rare and highly competitive, so the following tips will help you maximize your preparation and skills for horn section playing.

Succeeding at horn section work is really the art of the chart, as these tips also apply to musical theater and jazz big bands, as you will most often have to learn a full set of 35 to 40 songs in harder keys like C# major at fast tempos. So to be a skilled horn sectionist, you must practice the hardest keys three times more than the others. Singers very rarely do songs in their original keys, so it is important to be extremely comfortable in keys like B, F#, C#, D♭, G♭, and C♭ (all major and various minor scales). This helps you get used to seeing a giant pile of sharps or flats in the key signature, while not getting thrown off when accidentals appear in the arrangement. Also, a significant number of charts have short modulations a half step up from the original key or, in the case of many big band arrangements, multiple key changes that make the music hard to play or hard to keep track off as the sharps, flats, and accidentals rapidly change.

Once you have gained key fluency you must then learn the rhythmic language of the songs: slowly clapping through the charts with a metronome to get a foundational sense of the flow. It is a good idea to use a metronome that has a rhythm feature where you can set the tempo to sound sixteenth notes to be as exact as possible, as most soul music charts will have segments of mixed eighth and sixteenth note flourishes, which need to be razor sharp to have maximum impact. This is also the time to make sure you get used to counting rests as well. Even one missed beat in your bar count means you come roaring in at the wrong time and REALLY wreck the music/mess up the band. Other than the drummer dropping the beat, the flubbed horn line is the other great “sin” of music in jazz and pop, etc. So we must do our best to make sure that ferocious intro we are playing int he horn section doesn’t turn into an embarrassing bowl of shit soup.

Charlie Parker once said, “If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn”. This is very true with being able to sing your horn parts, which is the next skill you need. Slowly singing through the charts is an essential way to discover just how well you really know the flow and feel of music: if you can’t sing it, you can’t play it. So to get started, use sung syllables for different rhythmic values. For example, as I study a chart I will sing the rhythms using syllables like “diddle-diddle” for sixteenth notes, “da” for unaccented eighth notes, “dat” for accented eighth notes, “bap” for unaccented quarter notes, and so on. This kind of prep is useful for many styles: from classics by James Brown and Stevie Wonder to The Brecker Brothers’ fusion anthem Some Skunk Funk… all the way to Frank Zappa’s powerful horn arrangements (Oh No, Dupree’s Paradise, City of Tiny Lights, Eat That Question, Black Napkins, Pygmy Twylyte, Echnida’s Arf, More Trouble Every Day, the hilariously complex Zomby Woof and an absolutely incendiary intro to The Torture Never Stops, from the albums “Make A Jazz Noise Here”, “Roxy & Elsewhere”, and “The Best Band You’ve Never Heard In Your Life”).  It will also be very, very useful if you ever have to play blistering intros like Hang In Long Enough or The West Side by Phil Collins.

This is where extensively listening to jazz, funk, R&B, soul, etc., really pays off. Not only is there tons of fantastic music in each genre that will make your life a joy to live, you will also have a keen sense for how and when horn sections are utilized. Thus if you are not familiar with such genres, a great place to start is with the music of Earth, Wind, and Fire. Great harmony singing, classic horn section riffs (see: JupiterCan’t Hide Love, Serpentine Fire, or the super-soulful Sunday Morning with its soaring chorus and guitar solo), their music is a great summary of the things that give funk, soul and so on their dynamic power. On a personal note, I just would like to say yet again, R.I.P. to lead singer Maurice White, who died this year at age 74: brilliant songwriter, singer, and producer, he was a shining star in the sky of so many of us fans of great American music, and will be very very sorely missed.

Of course, as mentioned, James Brown’s music is so incredibly fun and funky, everyone should be a fan if his, horn player or not. From the sly grooves of Get On The Good Foot, Mother Popcorn, or Make It Funky, all the way to soul gems like Funky President, Out Of Sight, or The Payback, James Brown’s music is a dozen Ph.D.s worth of education in how to play with great time and feeling. I also recommend listening to The Isley Brothers in particular, as their unique blend of soul and rock music is fantastic preparation for playing hybrid horn parts. Classics like It’s Your Thing, The Pride, their cover of Stephen Stills’ Love The One You’re With, or the Latin flavors of Lay Away and Spill The Wine will both inspire you and give you a great sense of the possibilities of phrasing and syncopation.

Although Prince is a world famous artist and everyone knows his music, not much mention is made of the brilliant work done by Eric Leeds (tenor saxophone) and Matthew Blistan (aka “Atlanta Bliss”, trumpet), Prince’s two man horn section in the 80s. LIke the brilliant horn section on Frank Zappa’s aforementioned 1988 tour, Leeds and Blistan had to memorize all of their parts and to play so much music so flawlessly night after night is a real accomplishment. Many of Prince’s songs were not originally recorded with horn parts, but it is very common to see horn arrangements of his B-sides and lesser known hits. Thus, it is important to know his work in advance if you come across such arrangements. Thus, make sure you are as familiar with songs like Controversy, 17 Days, Adore, Erotic City, Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?, Another Lonely Christmas, and Wanna Be Your Lover as you are with Red Corvette or Purple Rain, because you will be surprised how often such tunes show up in the set lists of (the best) modern funk bands. A particularly powerful example are the horn lines at the end of If I Was Your Girlfriend, from the live DVD of Prince’s “Sign O’The Times” tour. Though simple, they add a significant tension to the song, creating a mood like no other. 

Special mention must also be made of the horn sections used by Phil Collins on his tours, most notably 1990, and 1998, as documented in the live DVDs “But Seriously, Live” and “Live and Loose In Paris.” Even if you do not get the chance to perform the songs Phil used horns (plural) on, his music is an excellent study of effective horn writing (by legendary arranger Tom Tom Washington, who also wrote for Earth, Wind, and Fire, and The Jacksons). A perfect example of this is Collins’ aforementioned The West Side, with the horns dramatically punching into the song’s into, right before Daryl Stuermer’s stinging, sustained guitar and Don Myrick’s plaintive alto saxophone melody. Returning again at 2:18 into the song, the horns ferocious accuracy drives the song’s emotional pitch even higher, a perfect demonstration of what horn sections do best.

Knowing all this music also gives you an amazing advantage if you have to audition for your place in a horn section, as having an extensive knowledge of the standard songs from such genres greatly increases your chance to being able to sight read charts. Plus, if there is a song you may not have heard before, like Vehicle by The Ides Of March or You Can Leave Your Hat On by Joe Cocker, your mind and technical abilities will have already been fined tuned towards being able to instantly express the proper feel of such horn lines. 

Then, when you actually pick up your horn and practice, begin by halving the written tempo (minus a metronome marking or two), practicing very slowly to really get the flow and feel down, i.e. practice a chart marked at 120bpm all the way down at 58bpm or lower for at least a half an hour straight before moving to 60, 63, and 66bpm, for 10 minutes each before finally shifting up to 120. When you get to the faster tempos you will find that even the most insane 16th note runs flow like butter, and you won’t have practiced flubbing it over and over at higher speeds until it somehow became correct. Playing it slow and perfect for 30 minutes means you won’t play it fast and wrong for an hour trying to just make it work. Remember, the goal is to make every chart inspiring, musical and dynamic, no matter how slow or fast.

Also, to have total mastery of a chart you must specifically isolate each individual bar in a chart that is even moderately challenging, and specifically repeat them over and over, even though they are written to continue on as part of a phrase. This kind of practice also guarantees we avoid become complacent and fall into a semi-conscious comfort zone when we are playing a longer pattern that repeats itself for most of the chart. This is because these kinds of patterns often contain clever variations in the latter half of the song that will have you stumbling if you are not paying attention. Even one “surprise” altered eight note in a pattern can throw off both your playing and your mental control, causing you to have to stumble back into the right pattern, which creates a very noticeable mess in the music overall. A fumble in a solo saxophone piece is minor, but even a tiny fumble completely ruins the feel and power of a horn line. This includes learning how to properly tongue fast passages, as you will find many instances of having to staccato tongue a single note extremely fast in a syncopated chain of sixteenth notes and rests.

Another extremely important activity is taking very exact notes on any changes to the repeats, coda section, or dal segno markings made by the bandleader, as these will often be occur to accommodate the length of a performance. These changes are most often are made to solo sections to save time, or to reflect who is soloing in what order, or to signal that the solo now leads back to a different part of the song than originally arranged. So always have a soft pencil on hand to make delible marks on the score.

Lastly, it is also a major advantage to have learnt how to properly play hand percussion for such gigs, as knowing how greatly (very greatly!) increase your employability and reputation as a horn player. Way too many horn players think that you just kind of shake a tamborine or LP shaker in time and that is all there is to it. But actually buying and studying such instruments as a guiro, agogo bells, a triangle, maracas, a small cowbell, and so on means the rst of the band can trust that you won’t interfere with the rhtyhm section by not being able to hold the beat as tightly as they do. In my many, many years of horn section-ing I have witnessed so many “crimes against rhythm” committed byboth amateur and professional horn players (and back up singers, let’s be fair!) alike that I have witnessed the modern horn section become percussionless over the years; horn players being seen by other band members as untrustworthy if you hand them even a small shaker. So to be able to really groove on these small musical instruments means studying them with the respect they deserve, and that respect and dedication will send the message to everyone that you are very serious about being a great musician no matter what you do. 

Also, if you want to start playing either stick or hand percussion instruments, an essential rhythmic education includes the classic book Stick Control For The Snare Drummer, by George Lawrence Stone. The ideas and exercises in even the few pages alone can be studied and applied endlessly to your rhythmic abilities. If you want to super charge your understanding of rhythm, also purchase a copy of Trichy Sankaran’s book The Art Of Konnakkol, which teaches you the basic concepts and principles of South Indian drumming

No matter the style, horn section work is exciting and challenging, and I really hope you get the chance to play all the amazing, funky music that is out there.


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