“So let me get this straight,” he said. “You can barely play Bach and you work at some bebop with a dash of Glazunov, and you’ve never even heard Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’? What about ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’ or maybe ‘Happy Birthday’? Do you know how to play those tunes?” My ears were bright red and my face was hot—I was speechless. Americans are supposed to be the kings of sarcasm, not the French! Here I was making the effort to embrace the best of the classical saxophone aesthetic after having moved halfway around the world and my first lesson was a criticism on what I would play if my mother were listening. Clearly, I had missed something.
Music lessons with Christian Lauba rarely produce a dull moment. They are a roller coaster of experiences from elation to despair to relief, especially when you figure out how to realize his musical demands. Working with him carries a two-fold focus: one on fundamental instrumental abilities such as timbre and tuning and the other on ear-training abilities. That’s not transcribing, but rather the ability to immediately recognize the different Brandenbourg Concertos and Kindertotenlieder by ear, for example. Some noteworthy divergences he took from other teachers were a substitution of Bach studies (normally movements from the cellos sonatas) instead of Londeix and Lecour études as well as a focus on the character of a performance of a piece. You played the work happily, with vigor, or angrily according to your desired interpretation or what the composer might call for. Lauba guided me to control my emotions on stage so that I could say what I wanted to say in my own way, any day.
Each week our work together began with the normal regimen of playing a scale, always slowly. Often, saxophone players practice flashy without focusing on fundamental matters of intonation and finger control; this rebuilding work neatly exposed all of the flaws I had simply blown past for years—I was the kind of guy who played his scales as loud as possible to the rhythms of Paul Van Dyk. With Lauba, I would begin with an A major scale (C concert) because this is the most difficult to maintain in tune. Saxophonists quickly learn this because of the naturally kinky open C# and full D notes in the saxophone’s middle register—they’re tuned opposite of the way a major 3rd and perfect 4th ought to sound. Another important hurdle we corrected concerned the naturalizing of the timbre between registers. No longer was it appropriate to fluff my way through the deep register with a woofy Ben Webster sound only to reappear cutting and overblown like Eric Marienthal in the palm keys. I listened to the evenness of Itzakh Perlman’s timbre on the Paganini caprices and learned to play with an even resonance no matter what note I was playing; according to the style called for, I learned to shape an appropriate sound.
Within this warmup exercise Christian would normally harmonize the scale with me on the piano. There was always an emphasis on fitting inside of the sound to create a homogenized effect instead of one instrument layered on top of another. I stopped blowing so hard and placed that energy into listening for the appropriate pocket fit of the two instruments. It’s kind of like sports when a basketball player cannot miss 3-pointers (case in point—Mike Miller, Miami Heat, Game 5 2012 NBA Finals). There is a groove to be found, and I listened to manipulate the materials at hand to catch the sounds we were looking for. From there I would usually simulate a performance situation of the work I was studying. Christian maintains a degree of intensity when it comes to these moments, and so little by little I worked to develop a performance bubble so that musical instincts would play out when the spotlight was on and people were watching.
Lauba also gave me a crash course list of essential works to know by heart on classical music, which you can access here. Put simply, it is a beginner’s anthology for scratching the surface of Lauba’s listening background or perhaps a workman’s guide for classical music dummies. In absorbing this new music, I learned to appreciate some of the most cherished works of the fine art canon. It serves spectacularly as a point of departure in a world glutted with more music than anyone will ever have time to totally listen to.
However, that’s only half the story. Ultimately, studying music with the composer is a lesson in humility. You realize you are not all that, you are blatantly confronted with your weaknesses, and you are forced to come to terms with your listening acumen. In short, studying with Lauba is a musical roast. He cheerfully laughs at you if you play out of the style at hand and holds you to the highest of standards. Friendship is an important matter, but the music is the most important. No element is left un-confronted. A bad lesson with Lauba is the only time in my life where I quite literally wanted to throw my instrument out of the window!
Working with Lauba installs a new mentality inside your sensibilities, a brand of thinking that reflects his economical approach to music. Because he didn’t begin studying music until he was thirty years old, the man simply had little time for extraneous musical efforts. Being the late bloomer that he was, he inherently placed himself in a position where it was important to make quick decisions about the musical issues immediately at hand. As a result, with Lauba, there is good music and bad music; one finds aesthetics that reflect a healthy finesse or approaches that debase the Western fine art form. A good place of departure for understanding this viewpoint is found in my article Art-in-an-ugly-box, which I wrote after a particularly memorable argument at the beginning of the year. Finally, his musical ideas aim for creating new works that embrace the past while pointing forward. Most of his favorite composers come before the 20th century (a notable exception is Ligeti) and fundamentally, I contend that Lauba is at heart a classical composer. But that is an argument for another day.
When it comes to music, Christian carries strong opinions proposed with a smile and defended with a bullwhip. He is particularly critical of classical saxophone teachers in America and Europe who routinely teach students without really helping them, who collect a salary while perpetuating a mediocre performance level, and fail to champion the quality repertory apart from the inferior. He resists such 20th century devices as indeterminacy, expressionism, minimalism and especially free (spectral) improvisation. He is convinced that most concert saxophone players come from the country or some backwoods culture; but then again, perhaps he was just talking about me! At any rate, the point is being musically broad with a well-rounded listening background.
Working with Lauba, nevertheless, will change your life. He is not the shamelessly self-promoting shark trying to overrun the next composer; he would rather let his music speak for itself. Because of him, I learned to play music with greater expression and live life without fear. I laugh more. I take myself less seriously. I hear more details in conversation and in music. I accept risk as the pathway to my goals. His approach to life and music is a bit elementary. You simply listen, perceive, compare, and adjust accordingly. This is the Lauba way. Observe and respond, develop your talents . . . trust your instincts.