Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Practice Profile: Alex Terrier

One of the best parts about having relocated to the New York jazz scene is the access to so many other musicians at various stages of their artistic "development." The default expectation is that the talent level is going to be really high, and you run into a lot of amazing people up here...so I thought it would be cool to profile some of the different players that I've met and really examine those concepts with which they are currently working.

Like I wrote about earlier, jazz is a life-long study, a huge challenge just to achieve the technical proficiency to play the music at a high level. Jazz musicians are constantly searching for new ways of practicing which will enable them to raise their musicianship. In a way, I suppose it's like code-breaking: you try dozens or hundreds of combinations, not randomly but within some sort of logical system, in hopes that one will unlock a sense of greater understanding. There is no one magic bullet-- usually progress is made through the process of searching-- but people come up with some very innovative solutions...

...which brings me to Alex Terrier. Alex is a fantastic young saxophonist, who hails from Paris, France. He actually attended Berklee College of Music on the Joe Viola Scholarship-- which was created in honor of the legendary Joe Viola who was one of the "founding fathers" of Berklee, as a saxophone guru and a wonderful man (Joe was my teacher, friend and mentor for 10 years until his passing in 2001). The scholarship is supposed to go to a very gifted and advanced woodwind player, and Berklee couldn't have made a better choice than Alex! Since graduating Berklee, Alex has been touring, recording and teaching worldwide though he's based in New York.

I had the pleasure of sitting in with Alex's group a few weeks back, and I was extremely impressed not only with his advanced musicianship but also his respectful and diligent approach to music in general. One of the first things to grab you when listening to Alex play is his flawless technique. He executes the most acrobatic of passages with a casual ease that belies the skill needed to do so.

Alex was kind enough to share what he's currently working on with me, a series of exercises designed to build technical and rhythmic fluency. The basic idea is to take a particular underlying pattern of music (which has its own inherent challenges), and then vary the pattern's rhythm. Alex does this very logically and mathematically, starting with grouping of 2's, 3's, 4's, 5's, 6's, 7's and 8's.

By the way, I feel like this entire entry should have one of those "technical stuff" icons that the "For Dummies" books have to warn people about upcoming content (which is not at all directed at any readers here, by the way!), so please accept my apologies in advance for too jazz "shop talk."

Anyway, I asked Alex to tell me why he developed these specific exercises, and this was his response (edited slightly for length, and stick with him, these are some great insights):

"I keep the metronome at 60 [beats per minute] and go through each exercise. I think it is important especially for improvisers to be able to play them without reading, not to be able to play them as it is during a solo, but to have them in the fingers available just like a library of data in which you can instantly go and pick something. I really internalize each example so that it feels natural. I play the most common ones with different articulations but when it comes to odd groupings (quintuplets and on) I tongue [saxophone articulation] on the down beat to emphasize the feeling of those groupings. Also one thing I find useful is to take one pattern like that and transpose it on each degree of the scale with the metronome always. Sometimes I take two groupings and transpose them. One can also take one grouping of quintuplet and one grouping of triplet for instance...

...I guess I came up with those exercises over an extended period of time and for several reasons: one is to practice the time, which is a very important thing, and to master odd groupings which will make it a piece of cake to play 8ths and 16ths right on the pocket. Also I like to imply a different tempo from what the rhythm section is playing so if you play quintuplets with a 8ths swing articulation that's pretty sweet. One can also take the half note triplet and feel that pulsation as your quarter note or half note, but I guess that would be an entire other chapter.

Also it gives me the opportunity to practice scales in a new and more interesting way than just going up and down and speeding up the metronome.

But really it is all about feeling the time as a space in which you are free and not constricted to play 8th notes and 16th notes. You can play very different if you feel the quarter note, the half note, the whole note, two bars or an entire 8-bar section.

Also, when I say it is important to memorize and internalize them, it is because when I'm actually playing I DO NOT think about all that. everything one seriously practices will come up somehow when one improvises, but the goal is to be natural and fluid, just like one speaks or thinks for himself."

Anyway, a special thanks to Alex for taking the time to share his work and ideas. I tried playing through his exercises and can attest to how challenging and enjoyable they were. Alex is the kind of person who takes the time to answer any questions that you have and I'd encourage you to check out his website (www.alexterriermusic.com) and get in touch. I know that he makes many of his exercises available to friends and fans...

So, what about the rest of you? I'd love to hear what you're working on! Let's get more of these great ideas out there...


  1. Just seeing that sheet music makes me wish I still had daily access to a piano...consider yourself lucky for being able to not only *have* music in your daily life, but being able to *create* music every day. It's a wonderful thing.

  2. Ditto. Except for the piano part.

  3. Believe me, I remind myself of that every day :-)