Lessons From Joe Allard

My old teacher Joe Allard was a saxophone psychiatrist, who taught far better players than me. He taught far better sax players than him. How he did that provides a lesson for all of us today — and not just about the saxophone.

(Art by Carlos Ayala)

Joe’s lessons went far beyond music. A half hour with Joe might include comments on Aristotle, Stanislavski and Charlie Parker, and watching him whittle down a Rico No. 5 reed. Here is the most important thing Joe taught me.

Musicians of all sorts — not just saxophonists — went to Joe when they had problems. He was renowned for helping musicians develop their own style. I asked him one day how he did that.

Joe said he watched his students as he listened to them — tried to “get into their head” to understand what they were trying to express — and then “tried to remove the habits they had acquired that interfered with it.”

In that sense, though Joe never said it this way, education was not a pouring in but a stripping away — assuming the students had already educated themselves, and were continuing to do it.

That’s why, Joe said, you should never try to imitate anyone. Not in the sense of not trying to play like Charlie Parker — everyone tries to play like Charlie Parker — but not imitating the way someone else holds his horn, his embouchure, or other physical habits. 

“You don’t know if what he’s doing is to compensate for some other problem he doesn’t even know he has,” Joe said.

He mentioned John Coltrane as an example. (I feel reticent about this, as Joe never gossiped about his famous students. He told me this because I was having problems hitting high G.)

In Coltrane’s “Ascension” and a few other late albums, you may hear an urgent, yet strangled sound from Coltrane’s saxophone. The sound was imitated by who knows how many other saxophonists in the poorly named “free jazz” era.

Coltrane brought an LP to Joe’s studio and played a track for him with those strangled sounds on it. Trane said he was trying to hit high notes and missing them.

Joe told him to make a simple physical adjustment: move his tongue forward in his mouth — “make your tongue like jelly.” He did, and the high notes popped out.

Human speech, and song, come from many sources, but must pass through the larynx. If you want to sing freely, don’t put pressure on your larynx. This is easily proved.

Point your head up. Open your mouth wide, stick out your tongue, and sing the highest note you can — or close to it. Then bring your tongue into your mouth. The high note will be cut off — because the base of your tongue has pressed against your larynx.

“OK, but I’m playing the saxophone. Why should I have to sing, with an Otto Link 5* mouthpiece in my mouth and a Selmer Mark VI in my hand?”

I don’t know. But it seems to be the case. Charlie Parker said: “If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.” Joe said, in essence: “If you can’t sing it, it won’t come out of your horn.” Joe told me to “sing everything you play.”

I’d chosen some wild, atonal, quasi-tonal pieces for my final exam for a master’s degree in performance from the Manhattan School of Music. Hard stuff to play and even harder to make sound like music.

“Sing everything you play,” Joe said, and man, that was hard. Flat thirteenths, augmented elevenths, jump from a to E double-flat …

I got my degree, but never really made it as a musician. That’s all right. I went on to have a happy life — thanks in part to what Joe taught me.

We all develop habits as we live our lives. Some are adjustments to problems we know we have, some to problems we don’t want to admit; sometimes we don’t even know we’re making the adjustments.

In the sad state of our country today, let’s remember what Joe said, and try to remove the habits we have developed, as a country, that are interfering with what we say we want.


Robert Kahn studied with Joe Allard at the Manhattan School of Music from 1974-1976.

%d bloggers like this: