Telephone interview by Debra Jean McKim
Teaneck, New Jersey
From: McKim, Debra Jean. Joseph Allard: His Contributions to Saxophone Pedagogy and Performance.
Published Doctor of Arts Dissertation, University of Colorado, 2000.
Used with permission of both Debra Jean McKim and Paul Cohen
Copyright 2000, Debra Jean McKim
McKim: Tell me about your circumstances of study with Joe.
Cohen: I studied with Joe for my masters degree at Manhattan School of Music from 1973 to 1975 and also for my doctoral work, in the early 1980s. I lived in the next town over from Joe and I had my lessons with him on Sunday morning or Sunday afternoon at his home. Sometimes we were interrupted by a good baseball game or golf tournament.
You might be interested to know, Joe was a fierce Selmer advocate. You know of my collection of historical and unusual saxophones? It is one of the largest private collections in the world. Joe looked on that as a bad hobby.
DM: What concepts did you cover with Joe in lessons?
PC: I came to Joe with a completely different way of playing the instrument. I played a Rascher mouthpiece and had a very dark sound. To him, this was not acceptable. We spent a lot of time retooling embouchure and sound concepts. He actually threw my mouthpiece against the wall - I caught it before it hit the wall. And that was the last time the Rascher mouthpiece was ever mentioned in lessons. His interest was in showing me the proper physiology of tone production. Through details of excruciating embouchure re-adjustments and mouthpiece exercises, through looking at books of anatomy, through breathing exercises, he acquainted me with the relationship between physiology and tone production. I'm eternally grateful for this instruction for it fundamentally changed the way I play.
I switched to a Selmer C*; mouthpiece but he never did like the sound I got out of it. My C*; sound was still too dark for his tastes. I found that it worked well, especially in orchestra and chamber groups, but he was never happy with it. So in order to get my lip to be the cushion over the teeth and not bunched up. he would put toothpicks in my mouth to level it out. We had numerous sessions when we would play scales on the mouthpiece. I use those exercises as the basis for my own set of mouthpiece exercises.
DM: Could you explain in greater detail the toothpick exercise? I haven't heard about this before.
PC: He would put toothpicks on either side of my mouth with the mouthpiece in and have me look in the mirror and play so that the toothpicks were not bunched up. They stayed parallel to the floor. That was a way of forcing attention to my upper lip so it didn't bunch up. He was very concerned that the bunching of the lips would surround the sides of the reed and make them not vibrate as much. He explained how we would use the amount of lip over the teeth as a cushion, as a buffer to change the tone quality so you should never have the sides of the reed stopped up at any time. Bunching the lips did that and the toothpicks were one way to physically illustrate that.
DM: I assume you also did overtone exercises?
PC: Yes, we did overtones with his own way of doing the octave exercises. Playing the lower register with the octave key pressed, playing the upper register without the octave key and then going up the series with octave slurs, which were quite good. I also have the background of the Rascher book, which is quite methodical, so I was not a stranger to that. We did those things and not much more.
DM: Did you cover breathing in your lessons?
PC: Yes, extensively. Mostly I'd lie on my back and he'd stand on my stomach. Or he'd lie on his back and I'd stand on his stomach. That always frightened me because I'm not that small. But he was very strong. These illustrations were very powerful to me - they really illustrated what we need to do for proper and natural breathing. He'd put books on my stomach and have me push the books up and down. He'd take out the anatomy books and look at those. He would get very agitated about peoples misconceptions about anatomy and the terminology. We worked very hard at trying to breathe where the sides of the abdomen would go out as well as the stomach itself and how to be relaxed and take those complete breaths.
DM: Did he describe breathing as a three-step process?
PC: It may have started out as a three-step process, but it was integrated into one gesture. I cannot remember that detail. When I came to Joe he had already begun to show signs of his Alzheimer's - in small ways at first, and later on in significant ways. Whereas he would show no lack of knowledge in any of the things he would be teaching us, there often was no continuity from lesson to lesson. There might not be the intricate and discussed procedures of how to get from one place to the other, as there might have been in earlier years. That's not to say that he didn't instruct me in the three-step process, I might have just forgot it. All the knowledge was excellent and useful, but sometimes it was delivered haphazardly, especially toward the end.
We had lots of discussions about the music that I was playing and he always talked about the masters that he had studied and worked with - Tabuteau, Bonade, a little bit of Drucker. He would talk about the vocal expressions and how one sings things and how we must always look at the musical phrasing. He would instruct me to disregard the composers' markings whenever possible to make for a better musical effect.
His vibrato was very much attuned to the French thinking of vibrato. It wasn't as intense as that, but it certainly was in that direction, but a little slower and not quite as aggressive. Joe believed firmly in the jaw vibrato. We can acknowledge that vibrato can come from other places, but he dismissed others as being inefficient and old fashioned, and simply not viable.
That goes in concordance with Joe's teaching of embouchure. This so much changed my whole understanding of how to play saxophone, that it's a core part of my teaching today, and it comes directly from my work with Joe. He believed that all the control of the sound and the control of the reed comes from the chewing muscles of the jaw. The jaw controls the reed; the lip is only a cushion or buffer over the teeth to allow the reed to vibrate in a more musical way. This was one of the two major embouchure concepts that were prevalent in the 1930s, `40s and `50s. The other one, the older style, used the lip tissue as being that which applied the pressure against the reed, and not the jaw. You would have a lot of lip; it would almost be like a subtone kind of embouchure. You would squeeze against what would be a closed lay mouthpiece with a thin reed, and you would get a very warm, fuzzy, beautiful kind of sound kind of like Ben Webster, a sound that would have a wonderful warmth to it. The problem with that embouchure was that if you were going into the upper register of the horn, you just couldn't push the reed up with the lip tissue enough to get the pitch up there. It did not allow for any efficient altissimo register and it just didn't have quite the clarity and the intensity that a lot of modern playing was asking for. So there were a lot of drawbacks to that older style of embouchure. Merle Johnston, who was also a well-known teacher in New York was an advocate of that - Larry Teal studied with Merle Johnston and that's where Larry Teal gets a lot of his embouchure thoughts about the round wheel and about how the lip muscles are supporting. Joe is from the other school, where you have a rather flat and thin cushion and all the work is done with the jaw and teeth. You have a whole other kind of playing which was then what was being demanded in studio and all other kinds of saxophone playing. And that's the kind that most people use today.
DM: But at the time the other embouchure was more prevalent.
PC: In the '30s and '40s that's the way people were playing. But I don't believe Marcel Mule was playing that way. And I don't think Sigurd Rascher was playing that way. You can't, if you're going to play as high as he did, and you can't if you're going to articulate as well as Mule did. But in this country, for the kinds of playing that was going on, that was a very well known method, but it was by no means universal. I have as many books from the time that describe embouchure as a jaw approach as I do the rounded lip cushion approach. There was certainly a lot of both going on. I have this extraordinary demo recording of Arnold Brillhardt promoting his Enduro reeds and his mouthpieces and on this record, getting some of the great artists of the day to say, "I've used the Enduro reed for six months and my playing is swell." You hear maybe eight or nine excellent artists of the day playing and in that playing, you can just about imagine all the different combinations of embouchures, you can just hear it in the playing. Some have the clarity; some have the older style; they were quite varied.
DM: Are you primarily a classical saxophonist?
PC: I'm typed as a classical player, but I do commercial and jazz playing.
DM: Did Joe approach your work in different areas in different ways?
PC: No, because in my studies with him we really didn't talk about any jazz. We were centered on saxophone playing and the repertoire that I was doing for my degree.
DM: Was the literature that you studied literature that you chose?
PC: It was literature that I tried to choose. Eventually it came down to music that he felt comfortable in looking at. That was a much more limited repertoire than my current interests were. They were all solid pieces; Creston, Dahl, Bach and any French piece you would want, a couple of American pieces. Diverse literature was not a focus of Joe's teaching. He had his pieces that he liked and he felt very strongly about them. Some things that we studied together he didn't like very much; some he liked a lot. None of his thoughts about the pieces, when we got into playing them, deterred from the very high musical standards that applied to them. Sometimes those standards were in contrast to what the music indicated, but there was never anything that wasn't lucid, intelligent, artistic, sensitive or imminently listenable. But his tastes tended to go towards those things that Francophiles might appreciate. So a lot of the repertoire, that of Sigurd Rascher for instance, he immediately disliked, because it was that kind of music and because it was written for Rascher.
DM: Did he ever meet Rascher?
PC: I think he may have met Rascher when Rascher recorded the Debussy with Bernstein in around 1960 or so.
DM: That would have been around the same time that he met Mule.
PC: Mule played with the Boston Symphony in 1958, and they went on tour around the east coast, with Mule playing the Tomasi Ballade and the Ibert Concertino. Mule may have done some other things around the same time. I know he went up to Elkhart and did a masterclass, so he would have been around. And Joe was very fluent in French, so it would have been very natural for them to get together.
DM: You've really answered this already, but do you use a lot of Joe's concepts in your own teaching?
PC: Yes. I have some wonderful influences in my saxophone life. Sigurd Rascher has been a major influence. I never studied with Rascher but I went up to his house on many occasions just to visit and show him instruments and music I had discovered. He would share with me some music that he had, and stories; just philosophies of the artists. Those have been seminal in my development artistically. I didn't get many of the technical concepts of playing from Rascher except for overtones. Joe gave me this fantastic grounding in what it means to produce sound on the instrument and how to go about doing that, and the universality of a means of approaching the instrument so that it can be applicable everywhere. So because of my study with Joe, I can pick up anyone's set-up and play comfortably and well. I can take any mouthpiece and do what I need to do with it to produce the effects that I want. The materials that I use to play now are only a function of how those materials work within the style that I'm playing, not if I can play it or not. So I can take a Berg Larson mouthpiece and play Pictures [at an Exhibition] in an orchestra and work out just fine. I have to work eighteen times harder than if I take a C* mouthpiece. The effect would be the same; it's just a question of how the materials are designed to work within the style that you're playing. All that came from Joe, although he never articulated it quite that way. The flexibility I have in playing and my understanding of the process is mind-blowing at times to me; it changed my saxophone life and those concepts I embody.
DM: You studied with Joe rather late in his career. Was he still telling stories, still able to remember the stories?
PC: Yes, we heard many of the same stories over and over again. There were still a lot of stories. His studies with Tabuteau, his playing with Bonade, with Drucker, his experiences with Toscanini. By the way, a great deal of our lessons was in reed preparation. He was the reed wizard. It was humbling to me after three or four years of study to come in, take my reed off and have him within seconds, dust it off with a knife and have it come back and play great. And I couldn't figure out what he's doing. I would watch him carefully, I still to this day can't figure out how he did some things. His reed preparation was just incredible.
Towards the end he would concentrate on reeds a lot; I think because it was easier for him to do that than anything else. The one thing I realized over the years was that the reeds play great right here, right now for the lesson. Later that day or the next day, the reed was just gone. Why is that, how come it lasted for so little time? Why would he do that? I realized that he learned to do this for situations that demanded immediate attention. He'd be in the orchestra, and he needed something that worked right then and there. He developed the craft of fixing the reed right then for the immediacy of the situation. But not for anything long term, because that was all he needed. So that these reeds that would work great at two o'clock in the afternoon would be gone by seven, never to be retrieved. I used to just scratch my head over that. I teach reed preparation to my students; I go through all the basics that Joe taught me, but there is a certain artistry, a certain finesse, a certain insight that only comes through time and through patience and through need that Joe had.
He did everything he could to show me how to do it. Some teachers hide their techniques from their students. But Joe was right out there, "do it. here it is." So that took up more and more of our lessons that last couple of years.
Joe provided for me one-on-one lessons that were unique and invaluable. His name comes up in my work with students, very frequently and freely. On the other hand, Joe did not lead a studio in any school that he taught. He taught his lessons, and if a quartet formed, he would coach. But his interest, at least in the later years, was not to create the studio, not to be involved with the students other than the private lessons. It's different than what we do today in being involved as teachers. We have a repertoire class, we have our ensembles, and we are very much involved in how our students work within the school. That was not Joe at all. He didn't really lead the saxophone class at either of his main schools, Manhattan or Juilliard. He simply taught lessons one-on-one, and he did that more brilliantly than anyone I know of.
Joe was not a solo player. He was primarily an orchestra player and a studio player. Over time, he became so well known as a teacher - not necessarily better than his playing, but he was such a fine teacher that he could earn as fine a living teaching and not necessarily playing. Years after I studied with him, I realized that the scope of his interests were specific. In the specifics there was true brilliance and true artistry. Once you got on that wavelength of what he had to offer, it was unparalleled. I could not be the kind of player that I am today without his tutelage. I'm very grateful for that.