I’m joined by Brendan Ross from South Africa to talk about why you should learn pop covers on saxophone.
Do you love playing pop covers on saxophone?
Just about everywhere you look on YouTube these days, saxophone teachers are encouraging you to play jazz. I know I do that sometimes, too. But today I want to encourage you to pick up your sax and play some pop songs. I want you to love it and have some fun with it, because it’s good for you.
And to help me I’m joined by an incredible pop sax player –Brendan Ross from South Africa. He’s going to share 3 things that we need to be aware of, when we start playing pop covers on saxophone.
Why learn pop covers on saxophone
Amongst our thousands of members in Sax School Online, we’ve got loads of people from all around the world who love to play pop songs. And although I’ve spent my whole career playing jazz and blues, and performing all different types of music, I also quite like playing pop songs.
Because I find playing pop songs quite challenging. It’s good for your tone and it’s brilliant for your expression. So all together, playing pop covers on saxophone helps me, and you, to become a better player. And it’s also a whole bunch of fun.
Introducing: Brendan Ross
To help me dig into this topic, I’m excited to be talking to Brendan Ross. He’s an amazing saxophone player, and I’ve been checking out his channel for ages. You should check it out too here if you haven’t seen it.
I love Brendan’s playing. He’s a great sax player and I love the way he connects with pop melodies. On his channel he’s playing Afrobeat songs, and pop songs, but he plays in such a lovely, melodic, lyrical way. There’s lots for us to learn from him.
And I’m also excited to have Brendan as part of our tutor team now, over at Sax School Online. He’ll be helping our students to understand pop sax playing, and he’s doing a special masterclass inside the members’ area very soon.
So let’s get started and hear from Brendan about these three things that we need to be aware of when we start playing pop songs on our saxophones.
#1: Start with songs you know
“Start with songs that have been part of you for years, that you can sing without having any kind of reference going,” says Brendan.”Because these songs will naturally be part of you, so you don’t have to think about the notes too much.”
With songs you know well, you focus on the emotion and the expression, instead of worrying about the notes. “You just have to think about the way the lyrics come out, or maybe the way that the original artists express themselves. And that helps you to just put some expression and life into it, rather than getting to grips with a new melody” explains Brendan.
Most of us have got songs that we know and love, and we’ve already got an attachment to them. There’ll be some sort of emotion that we feel, or memory even that we get when we listened to those songs. So you can tap into that too, when we’re playing a song that we’re familiar with.
” The reason why we [play music] is to touch people, and to move people through sound and performance. And it’s so much easier when you’ve internalised the music,” says Brendan.
#2: Know the Lyrics
“I find it helps to have a good grip of the lyrics,” says Brendan. “For example, like the Sam Smith cover [Stay With Me], I’ve sung the song a bunch of times as well. So when I play the song on the sax, it helps to just have those lyrics flowing in my mind. It helps a lot with my phrasing. And it helps me to find the most emotional parts of the song, and the parts which are a little lighter. And you can hopefully make that translate into the way you perform it on the sax.”
#3: Use expression to move your audience
We’ve got to find ways to move your audience”, says Brendan. “So if it’s a happy song, you’ve got to find ways to bring that out in your playing, whether it’s bopping along with it – if that helps you, then great! If it’s a sadder or a romantic kind of a song, then you’ve got to find ways to bring that emotion out through the sax.”
Brendan has a few tips for getting that expression into your playing. “It could be through articulation,” says Brendan, “or it could be adding a bit of extra reverb if it’s a nice romantic song and you want that schmaltzy sort of smooth thing going on.”
Brendan has this advice on using reverb to add expression to pop covers on saxophone. “I grew up listening to guys like David Sanborn and Grover Washington. So it’s about trying to find a way to [add reverb] tastefully without it getting obvious that you’re trying to oversell the expression.” If you know the song well, you can let it guide you. “If I’m thinking about the vibe of the song, it comes as second nature. …So just let the song move you… and hopefully, that can take you to an expressive performance.”
There are also some essential playing techniques which can add that emotion and expression to your playing. “Use articulation, vibrato, dynamics – .those are the main things that’ll help you get over the finish line,” says Brendan.
It’s a great idea to listen closely to the way the singer performs the song to help you with expression. When he’s making his recording pop covers on saxophone for his YouTube Channel, Brendan listens to the song many times as he builds up the track. “while that’s happening, the song is kind of sinking in,” he explains, …”and by the time I get to the end, I’ve got a good sense of what the vibe of the song is, from what the vocalist was putting across. And I feel that instinctively becomes part of the performance in the end.”
I hope you found that helpful. Let’s just recap those three things that Brendan talked about today.
- Start with a song that you know and love
- D into the lyrics
- Create expression and emotion with dynamics, articulation, vibrato, – taking inspiration from the original vocal version of the song.
I hope that’s been helpful and it will encourage you to go and try learning some pop songs now.
If you want to dig into the process further, we’ve got a bunch of resources inside Sax School Online that will help you get there. Brendan’s doing a whole masterclass inside Sax School for our members. You can get access with our 14-day free trial. It’s a great way for you to jump in, and get full access to all of the lessons – there’s over a thousand in our lesson library! You can check out some masterclasses, plus you can get help from our tutors, reach out to our Community and get involved in some of our monthly live events.
Most importantly, keep having fun with the saxophone.