Carrie Koffman - American Saxophone Soloist & Teacher
About Carrie Koffman
Carrie Koffman is Associate Professor of Saxophone at The Hartt School at the University of Hartford and Lecturer of Saxophone at the Yale School of Music. She has appeared at numerous World Saxophone Congresses, the SaxArt International Saxophone Festivals in Italy, the International Clarinet and Saxophone Festival in China and several North American Saxophone Alliance National Conventions.
Carrie is a graduate with high honours from the University of Michigan where she studied with Donald Sinta and also the University of North Texas where she studied with James Riggs and Eric Nestler. Carrie regularly appears as a chamber musician, and clinician and has been a featured soloist with numerous orchestras and bands including the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra and the Hartford Symphony Orchestra.
Committed to new music, Carrie has commissioned and premiered around 50 compositions. Her recording projects comprise twelve commercially available CDs, and she has an ongoing recording and performing series entitled “Pink Ink” that is dedicated to promoting the music of living women composers.
- Getting started playing tuba parts on the contra-alto clarinet.
- Learning with Donald Sinta at the University of Michigan.
- The most charismatic person met to this day.
- Building playing from the ground up.
- Studying jazz improvisation as a classical saxophonist.
- Getting jobs early.
- Interpretation as a function of improvisation.
- Juggling multiple teaching positions
- Changing practice routines as your playing matures.
- Learning and then teaching Kripalu Yoga.
- Using Pranayama breathing techniques in playing.
- Touring internationally with the Transcontinental Saxophone Quartet.
- Working with living composers.
- Removing tension from playing for a long and healthy career.
- 50% technique, 50% repertoire approach to practising.
- The importance (and possible addiction) of recording.
- Skydiving to learn about letting go.
- Carrie’s Website | Carrie on Facebook
- World Saxophone Congress
- Bill Street
- Donald Sinta
- Eric Nestler
- Jim Riggs
- University of Michigan
- University of North Texas
- Interlochen Center for the Arts
- Hartt School
- Yale School of Music
- Kripalu Yoga
- Kenny Werner – book – Effortless Mastery
- Feldenkrais awareness
- Composer Gilda Lyons
- Composer Susan Botti
- Composer Hilary Tann
Transcript of Podcast Interview with Carrie Koffman
Barry Cockcroft: 00:00:00 So a great place to get started of course is how did you get started on the saxophone?
Carrie Koffman: 00:01:51 Well, I’m proudly through my public school band program. I grew up in a very small town in the upper peninsula of Michigan. Sometimes maps don’t even include the upper peninsula, sadly. It’s called Iron Mountain. There’s about 8,000 people that live in the town of Iron Mountain and that’s considered one of the larger towns in the upper peninsula. And my parents got me piano lessons and then fifth grade came around and I was told that I could join band and I don’t know why, but I didn’t want to. But then by the time I got sixth grade, I had heard all my friends playing the theme song from rocky. And I said, I want to do that. That sounds fun. So my mom had a friend who had a clarinet that was going unused. So I drove, she drove me across town and I got the clarinets and that’s when I started so I could play the theme song from rocky on the clarinet and thenI went to junior high, there’s this big band, 120 kids in this small town of seventh, eighth and ninth graders and there were no Tubas. So the band director took out a contra alto clarinet in E flat. How often in your life have you seen this instrument, right?
Barry Cockcroft: 00:03:14 I mean, how often do you want to say that instrument too? It’s scary.
Carrie Koffman: 00:03:18 This is the question, right? And there was one instrument and there was one reed and he took it out and we played the lowest note and I thought that low note was so cool. So we said, who wants to play this? And I said, me I want to play that. So I played the Tuba parts on that instrument and very quickly got extremely bored. And then I looked around the room and I thought, wow, that saxophone is so beautiful, I look so beautiful and I love the shape. And I went downtown and I ran to the only music store and I rented a Bundy and I’ve figured out some notes and it was, it really was love at the first note. I was playing Barry Manilow songs about the first week on the instrument, which is just hilarious. So that is how I ended up choosing the saxophone.
Barry Cockcroft: 00:04:13 The clarinet can, can really encourage people to swap to the saxophone.
Carrie Koffman: 00:04:19 Yeah. So I was, I was drawn to the warmth, I think. And uh, and the, and even at that time really the colors, he’s the high school band a common way to get started in the States. Oh yes. I would say for so many people at the most common way with wind instruments. String instruments, it could, it’s a lot of through Suzuki programs as they are around the world. And they of course are designed to start at a much younger age. But depending on where you are in the states, it’s usually around age 10, occasional little earlier, occasionally a little bit later.
Barry Cockcroft: 00:04:59 So do you get private lessons with a specialist when you start in the band or is it all up to the band director?
Carrie Koffman: 00:05:06 It really depends on the district. I’m in Connecticut, my son got a group lessons with his teacher who happened to be one of my alums. I spent my first three years professionally as a middle school band director. I put my husband through graduate school as a middle school band director and there, that was not the case. We just had huge, large groups right from the beginning. So inconsistent.
Barry Cockcroft: 00:05:30 So it’s really up to each district to decide how they spend their money.
Carrie Koffman: 00:05:36 Yes, exactly. I don’t think I’ve spoken with anyone who has learned with Don Sinta. Yeah, absolutely. So, um, yeah, I had grown up in Michigan and like I said, in this little town and Lower Michigan might as well have been the other side of the world, for the way that it was that, you know, it was before the Internet. It’s hard to get information and the University of Michigan was 500 miles away from my, from my town, which is not that much in Australia I know. And I had gone to a summer camp where I had met the Canadian saxophonist Bill Street and, and I ran into him at the last national conference and, you know, I was just so hungry for any information.
I was already set up to go to the University of Michigan and I was not set up to be a music major because I didn’t know how to be a music major. I was going to be in the Honors College of Literature Science and arts. And I went to Donald Sinta’s saxophone workshop at Interlochen and met him there. And, you know, I just, I knew that I had to figure out how to study this instrument with this man, who was the most, you know, he’s the most charismatic person I’ve still met to this day. The turning point is he played Debussy’s Syrinx for slumber music, which was this outdoor thing and the cabins were, all the kids are going to sleep and I just have this vivid memory of tears streaming down my face because I was so moved by the experience. So that was my introduction.
Studying with him. So I, I just, you know, so I went to Michigan and I, I studied with one of his alumni that I auditioned and I transferred into music for my second year and I just was never happier at that, you know, it was an extraordinary experience. So he was this wonderful balance. He’s all passion, all energy, but also great with nuts and bolts. I mean, he built my playing from the ground up. He gave me an e mbouchure. He taught me to control my vibrato. He taught me to build my facility, but at the same time he told me once years later that the most important thing he could do was to love all of his students and I just thought that was such a great summary of how he was because he just had this way of taking each student and making him feel like they were the most important human at that moment, in that space, in that time.
It just had this remarkable way of believing in everybody that he worked with. So it was, yeah, it was a beautiful thing and it was not without frustration. There were lots of frustration as there is in a learning an instrument and trying to engage with this sound in space and time that we call music. That part was great. And then later, you know, I worked for him at Interlochen and he’s really important. He actually introduced me to my husband. I’m almost 30 years ago. So, we have a 13 year old son and his middle name is actually Donald because of that introduction. Yeah. So, but at this particular time in this particular country, we have to be very clear about which Donald he is named for. So yes. Um, and, you know, he can, he continues to inspire me to this day, the whole reason I went and did my master’s degree at North Texas because I was inspired by Don Sinta’s sabbatical, studying improvisation and he sent his own son there. So I would say that the mentorship was strong for me and everybody else that I’d meet that worked with him as well. Highly individualized, I think the curriculum was not the same for everybody. He was very good at looking at a person. Showcasing their strengths but servicing their weaknesses. I’ve tried to model my teaching after that as well, you know, how do we showcase your strengths while teaching to your weaknesses? At the same time,
Barry Cockcroft: 00:10:02 Do you think that human element of teaching is a common approach where the person behind the student is taken into account and perhaps the teacher is, sharing their humanity?
Carrie Koffman: Well, I hope so, but everybody’s different, right? And teaching as an art, not a science. And I do know teachers who the first thing they do is take your students music and write the other owner markings in it. And I, that’s not the way that I like to teach. It can work different ways for different people depending on what people need at that point in their lives as well. I think sometimes we present something in a student’s not ready for it and they might come back to it years later and go, oh, that’s what they meant or they might never. But I think with the privilege of applied music where it’s all a one on one situation, I mean, yeah, I feel like it’s a personal responsibility to take advantage of the fact that I can design a curriculum that’s different for every single student. While at the same time look at, a uniform minimum level that everyone has to reach to earn the degree. Do you know what I mean? So it’s sort of that balancing act all the time.
Barry Cockcroft: 00:11:24 So how much of your own teaching has come from the influence of your own lessons as a student?
Carrie Koffman: 00:11:37 I think a lot. I’m turning 50 in a few months, so it’s actually hard to distinguish at this point. I try very hard because we’re this composite of so many years of experience. I’ve learned so much from my students directly as well. At this point, I have so many more years of teaching different students than I do having been a student myself and I try very hard to say, oh, this came from this experience or this came from this person or this came from, recording or this performance. But that’s hard to do after this many years. So I’d say, yeah, it’s a this beautiful, fabulous combination of definitely the Don Sinta approach. And, and also, you know, my, my two teachers at North Texas, Jim Riggs and Eric Nestler for totally different reasons. And then every student along the way, every colleague along the way, every composer I’ve worked with, every person I’ve collaborated with.
Barry Cockcroft: 00:11:37 It all combines together.
Carrie Koffman: 00:11:37 Yeah, exactly.
Barry Cockcroft: 00:12:49 Did moving from teacher to teacher, did that confuse you or did that challenge you in, you know, in a way that made you grow? Because I bump into students sometimes who have attended so many different classes, teachers, masterclasses, some schools. They’re a little confused sometimes. They’ve had so many different opinions sort of directed at them.
Carrie Koffman: 00:13:10 Yeah, I think that can happen and I think if I’m going to generalize, it’s harder for younger students than it is for more mature students to be doing that. But I think, you know, one of the things that were grounded philosophically right from the beginning was I’m this, I don’t know, sort of this individual path and I’m doing something that was improvisatory and in the moment and responding to that moment in time. And I think because of that, that particular thing wasn’t so difficult. Plus I was going to other teachers for very different reasons. You know, I went to North Texas to study jazz improvisation as a beginner. I mean I was learning very specific things, you know, Eric Nestler was very organized and he taught me a lot about baroque ornamentation and score study with pieces like the Denisov and he had put a lot of thought into his curriculum development and he shared that with me and Jim Riggs was much more global.
He’d say these large statements, that would be something like, oh, it just doesn’t sound professional. And then it’d be like, it would be completely up to me to figure out what he meant. But, you know, it was a powerful observation. I’d have to go, okay, all right, so what am I going to do about that? But he believed in my endeavor to try to unravel this mystery at the time. I am still a beginning improviser. When it comes to jazz, there’s improvisation in classical music all the time, but I still play in the privacy of my own living room. But I’m glad to have had that experience. I had such an unusual path. Just because I got jobs so early on, so I think it’s different than a lot of kids who stay in school and go through three degrees and never have a break. I was given the luxury of time and space to be my own teacher and unfold at a pace that was really unique to me.
Barry Cockcroft: 00:15:29 I’m pleased to hear that you mentioned improvisation, especially in classical music, because I find it a little bit of a lost art sometimes. They’ve got their music in front of them and they’re reluctant to step away from that and when they’re asked to step away from it doesn’t quite work. So what drew you to wanting to improvise or perhaps wanting to study it even more?
Carrie Koffman: 00:15:53 In classical music where we’re improvising with time and dynamics and phrase shapes and details of nuance and of color and not so much with notes and rhythms, right? In jazz improvisation where choosing the notes and rhythms. So that’s a very different thing. But for me, uh, you know, even in the practice room sort of creativity exercises involve experimenting and being imaginative and trying these things and improvising with these things and if that element of improvisation isn’t happening in the practice room, it’s not gonna happen on the stage either. So yeah, there’s, I guess that’s how I’d summarize it.
Barry Cockcroft: 00:16:35 Would you say that original interpretation comes through a process of improvisation?
Carrie Koffman: 00:16:41 Yes, I would say for me, absolutely. When I practice something it depends on what it is, right? If it’s repertoire driven, different pieces of repertoire require different things or different projects require different things. But I try to take a phrase or a section of music or a movement and find many different ways to do it. Sometimes I put a number on it, sometimes I’ll photocopy a piece 10 times and make 10 different interpretations for me. For me, that’s fun first of all, but it also helps me discover, I think more about what the possibilities of that music are.
Barry Cockcroft: 00:17:25 Have you come across that approach of copying somebody’s interpretation in students where, instead of perhaps exploring the interpretive side of music, they have a tendency to copy perhaps one of their mentors off an album.
Carrie Koffman: 00:17:40 Well, I think that it’s part of the process. One of the things that I do on a regular basis, is I do ask my students to transcribe and they, uh, they do. They have to do a jazz transcription every semester, but they also have to do a classical transcription every semester. And I try to encourage the greatest vocalists in the world. And this came from, you know, actually, Don Sinta saying listen to singers, listen to singers. And I sort of didn’t really get that. It was like, who do I listen to? Why am I listening to them? And that at some point I kinda, I said, okay, so let me transcribe them, let me figure out what it is, you know. So, so my barometer with music making is if it gives me goosebumps, I know something’s exciting and something special. So if I listened to a recording and I get goosebumps, I think, oh, I’m going to transcribe that and see if I can figure out why I’m getting those goosebumps, you know, what is it about that?
For me that’s a way of, gaining expressive vocabulary, gaining color vocabulary and having to do with, the nuances of tiny things, articulations and variations of vibrato and you know, really dynamic extremes in the text. So when my students do these, they have to learn to play it as close to the recording as they can and that they have to notate it, but they’re not allowed to use any notes and rhythms or staves. So they have to figure out a way to try to show in a visual way what it is that they’re hearing. And it’s also a way of showing just how limiting notation is. But then the idea isn’t that they’re going to step on stage and perform that piece exactly that way. The idea is just that they have this vocabulary with which to work. So yeah, if they’re coming in with say the Creston Sonata and they’re playing it exactly like a particular recording, it depends on where they are because if you think about learning a foreign language, there’s definitely a stage where they’re just repeating words and that’s kind of okay and that’s necessary.
You know, my son is studying Chinese in school and he’s just repeating words and he hasn’t started really yet to be able to put together very detailed sentences or tell stories in Chinese. So I think with music can be the same way. Um, so at some point, if that happens and that’s only the thing that’s happening. At the same time, I’m fostering creativity in many other ways, but it might be a smaller way. Maybe it’s a certain individual phrase or you know, we’ll say, okay, play that phrase now, find a different way to do it. Now find a different way to do it. And I try to use how Stravinsky said there’s a freedom in limitation. I may limit what they can do. You can only, you can only use this aspect in other words.
So the dynamic has to say exactly the same and you have to find another way to vary it. Now the tempo is to stay exactly the same. You can very x, do you know what I mean? So I’m taking different variables in and out. And it seems to really help them find other possibilities. So yes, because we don’t want them practising playing, playing like a computer file.
Barry Cockcroft: 00:21:00 I’m a little curious about your day to day activities because you have two teaching positions.
Carrie Koffman: I do, but yeah, it’s a lot of teaching hours for sure. And I love teaching, so the balance is difficult, you know, I mean I’m, I’m lucky I’ve spent 24 years of academia. I love school, I love learning, I love the academic environment. Academia by definition, at least in the United States is a triad position. A third of it is supposed to be teaching a third is supposed to be creative work and research and the third is supposed to be service and outreach. But during the academic year, teaching takes up way more than a third. So, you know, balance is hard and it, it does consume me and I just have to be very careful I guess. I screw up that balance all the time practically daily and that I try to be aware of what the consequence and what that’s doing and try and make a little adjustment when I can to try to nudge it back into some kind of serviceable arrangement.
Barry Cockcroft: 00:22:12 I’m always curious to know how people practice once they’re working as opposed to as full-time students. What are some of the things that you’ve adopted, the efficiencies that you’ve adopted that have helped you maintain your playing when perhaps, you have less time because you’re working?
Carrie Koffman: 00:22:31 Yeah, that’s a great question. I think the biggest way that my practising has evolved is I try very hard not to be sort of married to the same routines that I was stuck in as a younger person. Do you know what I mean? Like there was a time in my life where I really needed those routines and I was putting in my, my 10,000 hours as they say to, “learn how to do it”. I found I actually maybe got too devoted to those routines.
I do a lot of yoga as well. And one of the things that Yoga taught me is this idea that, you know, especially Kripalu Yoga, where I did my training, up in Massachusetts, you step on your mat every day and you ask yourself, what do I need today? And you know, maybe it’s, maybe you need something a little more intense or a little less intense. And I had a senior yoga teacher once that said his practice for a whole year at one point was to take a nap in the afternoon. And that was really important to me. So I actually, when I pick up my instrument, I asked myself what do I need today? I still practice scales and they’re important to me, there are certain things that are non-negotiable. I have to have a pitch reference every day. I have to practice for vibrato every day or I can’t control it. So more control gives me more freedom. I have to find ways to keep that control. Um, but you know, what I need from day to day could change. And that’s been really good for me to say, Oh, maybe I, you know, maybe today I need to, I don’t know, maybe I need a whole hour of playing harmonic minor fifths, so I don’t know, maybe I need only to practice altissimo. Maybe I’m doing a work that has a lot of double tonguing and I need to really make sure that that’s physically something I can use at that moment. So I would say at the level of mindfulness about what I’m doing, why I’m doing it and how I’m doing it is much greater than it was when I was a student.
I can definitely go through the motions and then I have to catch myself and say, wait a minute, why am I doing that? What is it I’m trying to accomplish? You know, it’s basically like a lesson plan. I try to get my students to be better about that too. What do I want to accomplish? How am I going to accomplish it? And then how will I know whether I accomplished it? So I’ve become, and I work to be far more intentional about what I’m doing than I used to be.
Barry Cockcroft: 00:25:24 Do you think that’s something that could work backwards? If a student was to learn some of those things at the start, could that apply or the. Does the student have to go through the process of, all those hours and experimentation?
Carrie Koffman: 00:25:40 There’s a quote by Suzuki about what ability is 10,000 hours plus whatever. Um, it’s hard to see the end when you’re starting out. I think it’s hard to see the end when you’re in the middle. I can’t see the end, you know, I, I’d love to know my 19-year-old self, what she might have to say to me now. I think that we have to trust at some point we have to trust our teachers to know, you know, like we’re at point a, maybe we can see point b, but we can’t see point d, e, f, g yet. But they can. And so with my students, I think if I’m saying what do you want to accomplish, I try to get them to see point be, and if they can see x, y, z great. But usually they, well they don’t know, they just haven’t lived it yet.
Barry Cockcroft: 00:26:41 And the Yoga, are you teaching your music students aspects of yoga as well or is that a separate part of what you do?
Carrie Koffman: Yeah, I do. I teach one class at Hartt. It’s the only one that I teach. It is a yoga for performers course, so it’s, it’s mostly musicians, but it could be theater and dance students as well. And it’s really a course that’s divided into thirds. There’s a heavy component of Pranayama breathing and meditative aspects as well as movement and poses are also there, which is what we tend to think of as yoga. At Kripalu where I did my training, there is a senior yoga teacher named Stephen Cope who founded an institute – the Institute for extraordinary living and he’s basically asking the question, what does it mean to live a fulfilled life? And I thought that was a pretty great question, what does it mean to live a fulfilled life? And he is right across the street from Tanglewood, which is the summer home of the Boston Symphony.
He got Harvard Medical School to study the results of yoga on the Tanglewood musicians – on the Tanglewood fellows, and he really found two things. He found that there was a reduction in skeletal muscular disorder, which is kind of how I got started in the first place, but that wasn’t the main thing. The main thing was there was a significant reduction in performance related anxiety and a significant enhancement in students’ abilities to enter into flow states or these states of heightened concentration. There’s a book by a University of Chicago researcher, that initially introduced that idea of a flow state. But you know, we think of it as like athletes call it being in the zone and it’s that state of just being so focused that you lose track of everything else around you. So the course is really designed to take some of those aspects and try to help students that are engaging in music. I learned some of those skills because music is intense and music schools are intense and you know, it can be, it can be. It’s going to be tough for them to foster those skills in these environments that are so pressure filled. And so that’s why I decided to offer it.
Barry Cockcroft: 00:29:11 It’s funny in music that the intensity essentially comes from your activities being concentrated into such a short amount of time. So I know you’ve played many concertos with orchestras and bands and you can say afterwards, ‘Oh, I had a tough day, I did fifteen minutes work today,’ and someone might laugh at you for that. But the intensity and concentration required for those performances is intense. And it sounds like that if you have developed some tools along the way that takes away some of that intensity, then surely you’re going to perform at a higher level.
Carrie Koffman: 00:29:48 Well that’s the idea. Yes. And it’s a, it’s a long term thing. But I do find that for me it’s survival. I tend to have a high level of anxiety, energy and it has helped me a lot to be able to deal with, not just that, but like you’re saying they required level of focus and concentration. I can feel my mind disengage. There’s a significant component of yoga that has a Sanskrit word, it’s called aparigraha and it means non grasping and the yogic view is that when you’re concerned about the outcome, it’s interfering with the moment. It’s interfering with both the physical and the psychological aspects of that particular moment. And that happens to us on stage all the time, right? I mean, you’re playing along, you miss a note. If you take the time to worry about that ms dot note or how it’s going to ruin the performance later at the recording later, you’re going to miss the next note and then you know, then you go, oh no, I really, I have to focus. I really have to focus. So then you missed the whole next passage. Right? And so this idea is to find ways to not be worried about the outcome, you know, that was a big deal for me to say, what do you mean not worrying about the outcome and the jazz pianist, Kenny Werner writes about that in his book called the Effortless Mastery and it kind of blew me away when I first read that. It’s like, what do you mean? Of course, I have to care about the performance, but that’s he meant. He meant that he’d be so, so engrossed in the moment in the task at hand, in the sound that he was making, that he didn’t have any energy leftover to worry about what was going to be like, what it was over. So that’s very important to me because otherwise, you know, that’s what helps keep some of the joy. It’s too easy if you’re worried about a product all the time. The Joy has gone, the fun has gone. The whole reason for doing it. That level of communication at the moment is missing. So yes, I think it’s extremely important – for me and I suspect for a lot of others.
Barry Cockcroft: 00:32:15 I think my biggest draw to playing music is the present moment because you can’t escape it. Every note is in the present and after you’ve done it, it’s in the past, but it’s gone and as you said, if you’re thinking too much into the future, then, of course, the new tripping over yourself. So you very much have to be mindful of the present and I don’t think there’s really enough time spent in that state just in general, so I think music is a wonderful place to be because it takes you there.
Carrie Koffman: 00:32:40 Oh, I completely agree.
Barry Cockcroft: 00:32:42 Now, a few years ago you joined the Transcontinental Saxophone Quartet. Now that sounds complicated.
Carrie Koffman: 00:32:59 Well, those guys were together as students and they played a lot for at least a decade and then because they were so far apart, Italy and Cyprus and North Dakota, they, they, you know, they were doing different things in their lives and then they decided to have a 20 year reunion and they’re tenor player had left and I happened to be there and so yeah, we did. We did a tour of Italy and that was so much fun that we ended up doing a tour of Cyprus and that was so much fun that we did a whole thing in North Dakota and then this past year we did a thing in Michigan that was centered around the concerto with the with the Jackson symphony who has a wonderful new conductor named Matt Aubin that I know from the east coast, so it is complex and it’s rooted in friendship and an exchange of cultural ideas and everybody has these wildly different strengths and careers and cultural heritage and it’s just, it’s so much fun and so fascinating.
But yes, because of the distance, it’s something that tends to happen one time a year, not multiple times of the year.
Barry Cockcroft: 00:34:21 Something for a specific project that you can work towards?
Carrie Koffman: 00:34:21 Exactly. Exactly.
Barry Cockcroft: 00:34:26 Now you’ve worked extensively with composers premiering their works. How important has it been to you, first of all for your career, but I guess personally as well to play new music and to work with living composers?
Carrie Koffman: 00:34:41 Extremely. Right. I mean, first of all, it’s kind of our obligation as saxophonists, but I don’t do it out of obligation. I do it because the relationship with those composers matters to me. That relationship of course changes depending on the composer, so they’re all different people. Their compositional process is also different and so each project is completely different. Some of course, like a lot of information about the instrument and about me a fraud and some, like to present a finished work with no interaction whatsoever. So I’m like to send drafts along the way to hear them. But for me, it’s this beautiful, wonderful way to continue to learn and grow myself through each project and hopefully, create this beautiful piece that people will react to in some way. And I like just being me, I tend to favor the possibility of more collaboration along the way rather than less. But I’ve also received some wonderful pieces as finished products. I work at a university that also has a large composition department. We have about 40 composition majors. So it’s also something my students do on a regular basis. There’s always collaboration going on between my students and the composers and that any number of things. It could be pieces that are getting played on campus or maybe in a local art venue or who knows, whatever they come up with.
Barry Cockcroft: 00:36:25 Do you think there’s something in a composition that makes it stick? I mean, you’ve seen so many new pieces. Are they ones that afterwards keep getting played and really become part of the repertoire and others slide by the wayside, have you found any common element either with the composer or the composition itself that could help a piece find an audience?
Carrie Koffman: 00:36:54 Mmm, that’s a very interesting question. I can’t, I’m not sure I can find a unifying element that would tie all of those pieces together because you’re right. How do you know what reaches somebody and why? And then you get back to that question earlier where I mentioned my personal barometer is, do I get goosebumps? Why did I get those goosebumps? Is it the same in x-piece versus y-piece? In a way and it’s kind of one of those stereotypes, but I think that there’s some truth to it. For me, when I hear a performer when there’s a really good match between that person and their performance, in other words, like it’s very authentic. When they finished playing and I feel like I know them better as a person because of that performance. That’s what I like to. It’s fine if they’re playing a character for a particular thing, but if I know them, if I know something about them that I didn’t know before, to me, I’ve really appreciated that. And I think the same is probably true with a composer, performer collaboration. If there’s something vulnerable that comes across in the composition. Is there a certain level of vulnerability? What is that? Is there a personality? Is there something that’s unique to that particular person in particular collaboration. That might have something to do with it, you know, as opposed to, I won’t name names, but let’s say American public school band programs that tend to have composers that, you know, they might write 20 pieces that all sound the same to me. There’s something about it that’s a that unique statements there, there, there’s no vulnerability required. So somebody is willing to let me say something about that knows something about them here, something about these experiences something that I wouldn’t have known otherwise. I, I know there’s more of a philosophical thing, but I really think there’s something to that.
Barry Cockcroft: 00:39:17 Do you think that the composer, it extends the instrumentalist or the instrumentalist extends to the composer? Oh, both. Absolutely. Both. Um, you know, I mean, look at the pieces that were the hardest thing when I was a student or played by almost all undergrads now. The level has grown ridiculously. I think it’s been both. You know, sometimes it’s the performer saying, look what I can do. And the composer says, that’s cool. Let me write it. And sometimes the piece gets written and the performer goes, good, God, I don’t know how to do that. Let me figure it out.
Carrie Koffman: 00:39:57 And sometimes that works sometimes it doesn’t work as we know. Give it a try and see what happens.
Barry Cockcroft: 00:40:11 Maybe this involves yoga, but do you have any tips that could help perhaps a young saxophonist have a long and injury free career?
Carrie Koffman: 00:40:22 Yeah. And I think that’s very important. I have a technique class that meets once a week that is largely based on that. So we’re looking at the instrument. The whole reason that I started to practice yoga as I was in pain and I tried everything. I took pain medication, I did therapeutic stretching. I did Feldenkrais awareness. I did a rolfing and therapeutic massage and I just sort of did everything. For me, yoga was the one thing that I could do on my own every day. So a massage was great and it helped, but I couldn’t afford to do it on a regular basis and I realized that it wasn’t overused, it was just this extra level of tension. So I was approaching the instrument with way too much tension for a very long time and I think a lot of students do that as well. So yes, there’s a level of awareness that they need to develop in terms of how they pick the instrument up and approach it over time. So I like to see them with the instrument as much as I possibly can so I can kind of monitor that and teach them breathing exercises and stretching that is very specific to the muscles that we use when we go to pick up the saxophone. How long to play before they take a break is another part of it. But largely injury-free comes down to the least amount of attention necessary to play the saxophone. I think. So becoming aware of the tension, learning how to release that tension is the summary of what I just said.
Barry Cockcroft: 00:42:14 Now, I have some rapid fire questions for you, so feel free to be brief or not. It doesn’t matter. Is it something that you believe that few people agree with?
Carrie Koffman: 00:42:34 Yeah it’s hard because I don’t know really what other people I don’t necessarily know who would agree or disagree with me. I know within my university I try to always ask the question first what’s best for students and hopefully everybody else asks that too, but I’m not sure it’s always the case when you’re dealing with a bottom line a budget. I know there are some aspects of my curriculum that are somewhat unique and we talked about that earlier, dealing with classical music transcription and notating it in a way that doesn’t involve any pitch and rhythm that’s a little bit different. Um, and I don’t know that anyone was doing that before me, even though the concept, you know, I explained for that came from. So that’s a tricky one.
Barry Cockcroft: 00:43:30 If you just had one piece of music that you could play from now on which piece would that be and why? It would have to be and why?
Carrie Koffman: 00:43:40 It would have to be the Bach A minor Partita because I don’t get it, I could play it my whole life and never be done with it. And there’s always something else to hear and do and solve and the piece just absolutely fascinates me. So yeah, probably if it had to only be one, the Bach A minor Partita. I also love playing Lera Auerbach, The Prayer. She did this version for me. I just love the way it feels to play it. It feels like a meditation. It’s so highly individual and it’s different every time.
Barry Cockcroft: 00:44:17 If you just had one hour to practice, how would you spend that one hour.
Carrie Koffman: 00:44:22 Oh, okay. So it depends on what I need, but I’m with my, especially with my younger undergraduate students. I really do suggest some time management. Then it’s kind of a 50/50 approach. So 50 percent of the time is dealing with warm up and technique and I mean, I use the word technique more globally. It’s not just how fast have your fingers about the technique of breathing, the technique of vibrato, the technique of voicing etc. And I divide that to 25 percent the things that happen inside the body, like breathing and long tones, dynamic control and intonation and then 75 percent what’s happening externally, facility development scale, etudes, altissimo and then 50 percent repertoire or transcribing. I do have my students to do some playing by ear. And that can be, that can be anythIng. It could be something they’re memorizing, it could be something that they’re just working on ear training. Sometimes I follow that myself. It’s very regimented organized. I’m going to do 10 minutes of this and 10 minutes of this and 30 minutes of this. And so if it really is only one hour and there’s a particular thing I have to get done and I’m not in a ‘I think I’ll spend the next hour exploring 20 ways to play the same phrase’. It depends because it could be that if it’s what if it’s something that’s what I need that day, then that’s what I might do. But I do, I do find more technique gives me more freedom. I do have to be able to maintain a certain set of skills to be able to just play the instrument. It doesn’t play itself. Even after all these years.
Barry Cockcroft: 00:46:12 I had a call from a friend today who told me his saxophone weighed a kilogram heavier because of all the dust that had accumulated on it.
Carrie Koffman: 00:46:23 Yeah. You got to dust it off, man.
Barry Cockcroft: 00:46:27 You have recorded a lot of albums, haven’t you?
Carrie Koffman: 00:46:29 I think a lot is relative, you know, more than some, not as much as others. How about that? I think it’s really important for me because of course you have to be on the outside and it’s just, it’s the microphone picks up things that the human ear doesn’t perceive and it’s a way to learn. So I think it’s essential. I actually make all of my doctoral students record at least one work while they’re still in school so they can get used to what that process is like. But yeah, we have to do it and I live with a microphone in my studio for practising. Um, yeah, it’s really important.
Barry Cockcroft: 00:47:07 Years later, are you good at looking back at your former self?
Carrie Koffman: 00:47:12 Yeah, well I actually got I think too good at it. I would in a way that was unhealthy. Here’s what happened. I was recording myself every single day in the practice room, which is great because things were changing. But I almost got to the point where I couldn’t hear it properly unless it was coming back through the microphone. I had to step back and find a better balance there. And I also, I used to walk off the stage and listen to the recording immediately and now I make myself wait at least a day because it was never good. It was never good, I shouldn’t say that. It was helpful. It was very helpful and sometimes it was reassuring, but it was a little bit too much like an addiction and I had to let go of it.
Barry Cockcroft: 00:48:04 I guess there’s that danger of losing the moment too because instead of just listening immediately while you’re playing, you can just listen later.
Carrie Koffman: 00:48:15 Right yeah, yeah, exactly. It’s that idea of aparigraha and worrying about the outcome as opposed to what’s actually happening in the moment.
Barry Cockcroft: 00:48:23 Is memorization, something that’s important to you and if it is, are there any specific techniques that you use to help that?
Carrie Koffman: 00:48:31 So I, I do require my students to memorize. We have a concert every year called Hartt by Heart with Heart. And so they all have to do a significant solo work and an ensemble work by memory. Some of them love it. They do it all the time, some of them don’t and I want them to know it’s a scale that they can learn and practice. I find that taking away that music, I can do it. I have done it. I find that it disconnects me because there is a, there’s a, there’s a fear of not having it. I didn’t grow up doing it. So I find, for me, there’s often a disconnect and so I practice it, I do it, but I usually don’t perform from memory myself, for that reason. I’ve decided for my 50th birthday, I’m going to walk the 500 miles of the Camino de Santiago across northern Spain next spring. And I’m going to bring the soprano because it’s lighter and I had originally sort of intended it to be this, I’m going to just bring random music to random places and you know, kinda like a portable busking situation and just kind of see how that experience went because I’ve never done anything like that. And I just read an article in the New York Times that there’s a cellist who played concerts in the churches along the way and I thought, oh, that’s interesting, but my intention is to play from memory there. So ask me in a year and I’ll let you know how it went. So.
Barry Cockcroft: 00:50:10 Well, you play the Bach A minor?
Carrie Koffman: 00:50:14 Yeah, that’s, that’s on the list because after all these years I haven’t played it in public and that seems like a good, you know, a thousand-year-old trail. I think it seems like a good pairing.
Barry Cockcroft: 00:50:28 Who would you consider to be one of the most successful contributors to the saxophone?
Carrie Koffman: 00:50:33 Oh my gosh. Okay. So, of course, Adolphe Saxe because he gave us this beautiful instrument with which we have to create art. But I really have to go with my teacher Don Sinta. I think it was the Dalai Lama that said something about the best way to achieve immortality is through teaching. And I just have to say that, the legacy of Don Sinta’s teaching is incredible. I think through his teaching, through his students, it sounds cheesy, but it really is this fabulous way of spreading the love.
Barry Cockcroft: 00:51:14 If we learn from our mistakes, is it okay to make them?
Carrie Koffman: 00:51:18 Oh, it’s essential. We don’t learn without them. And I mentioned earlier this willingness to be vulnerable is key to musicianship. And I think that’s absolutely true. But it’s hard. It’s hard. It’s hard to let ourselves make them and it’s hard to forgive ourselves when we make them, but we have to make them.
Barry Cockcroft: 00:51:40 Do you have any strategy for forgiving yourself if you’re not happy with the performance on stage?
Carrie Koffman: 00:51:47 No, I’m bad at it. I’m horrible at it. I try, like you said, it’s truly in the moment. I mean, I have a tattoo on my left ankle that means impermanence and it’s my attempt to embrace that the one constant is change. That the very art of making music is impermanent because it only happens in place and time. I do all these things. I went skydiving specifically to learn about letting go and I thought if I could jump out of the edge of an airplane that I can certainly let go of a few mistakes on this day. So I worked very, very hard at it.
Barry Cockcroft: 00:52:25 You’ve played as a soloist on many occasions and in a couple of weeks time you’ll be performing at the world saxophone congress. Is there something specific that you do before you walk on stage right before the performance to help you play at your best?
Carrie Koffman: 00:52:41 Yes. I use a breathing technique to slow down the metabolism. There are two. One is their yoga techniques, but they’re really not fancy. One is just called yoga pranayama and is completely filling and emptying the lungs in a three-part breath. And I set the timer on my phone and I do that for 10 minutes. Even better than that as an alternate nostril breath called Nadi Shodhan, which calms the nerves. It produces more alpha waves in the brain, the ones that are responsible for relaxation and a calm mind. If we are breathing quickly we’re producing beta waves, so that actually increases anxiety. So very specifically use breathing techniques to calm my nervous system before going on stage.
Barry Cockcroft: 00:53:35 Now looking back with a bit of hindsight, could you give your younger self a piece of advice that you would have loved to have heard?
Carrie Koffman: Oh! You know, I’m not sure I would because I am who I am because of the experiences that I’ve had. I wouldn’t trade who I am. My dad used to tell this story about a rabbi. There was a Jewish rabbi who serves the leader of this community and he, there were problems and everyone was complaining and the rabbi became really exasperated and came up with the solution and the rabbi said that he would take away all their problems and all they had to do is write down their problems on a piece of paper and put that piece of paper in there. I think he called it the pec. It was a little backpack that hung on a short poll and they had to bring that pec to the town square. It was like a Yiddish backpack and the next day they all showed up with their little pecs and the rabbi told everybody to form this large circle in place, their pecs on the ground in front of them and so they all put down in the ground in front of them.
And then the rabbi announced that everybody had to take one step to the left and everybody did. And then he said, you have to pick that up and look at it. And everybody did. They, they looked at that other person’s set of problems. And then of course what they did is they all took one step back to the right.
Given the opportunity. They really wanted their own set of problems. I think that’s what I mean by that. It’s sure would I have loved to have had some early training that was, that was, you know, helped me be things early on? Yes. But at the same time then I wouldn’t be as aware of the processes and adults and I think that helps my teaching, so I think we kind of take those challenges and those things that we call weaknesses and sometimes there are vulnerabilities, they can be our strengths. They help us. Maybe this is what I would tell my younger self. It’s going to be okay. I’m imagining myself being 90 telling me this now, any choice you make is going to be the right choice. It’ll all be okay. I’m going to go with that. Is that all right? Okay.
Barry Cockcroft: 00:56:09 Now what are some of the changes that you’ve seen in the saxophone world and what are some things that haven’t changed that you thought might have changed?
Carrie Koffman: 00:56:19 Well, I think what I mentioned earlier, just with the level of playing and the level of repertoire and the widespread availability of, so many people are out there, there are so many beautiful players and beautiful teachers and that just wasn’t the case 30 years ago. I think that some of that are, you know, at least in this country, our main early teachers produce so many wonderful students that have become wonderful teachers, that there’s just more going on. And then undoubtedly they, social media and the internet has made the sharing of information available in a way that it just wasn’t when I was a student. Yeah, I was, I’m that level. I went to college with a typewriter and a record player and a phone on the wall and by the time I graduated there were CDs and we had to turn in assignments on a word processor. Not even a computer but a word processor. So those four years were when everything changed. So it’s fabulous. You know, these students have these wonderful networks of support and they know everybody all over the world and they think nothing of reaching out and asking a question and I mean, look what we’re doing now, how unbelievably great is this that we’re able to have this conversation. So that is what changed the world, but it’s certainly changed the saxophone too. Some of the things that remain the same, you know, kids are kids, and humans are humans and in terms of our human needs, we haven’t really changed all that much, you know, we, we still value connection. We still value the privilege of collaboration and being able to say something in a way through music to another human that loves them to take it in and change as a result.
Barry Cockcroft: 00:58:30 Is there a particular place that people can find out more about your activities. Is your website something you keep up to date? Do you prefer social media? What’s your go to?
Carrie Koffman: 00:58:38 Oh, you know, I’m not so great at it. My website is accurate, but it’s intentionally kind of a bare-bones website. I do use Facebook regularly. I’ve not taken on Twitter, Instagram and my students have asked me to get better about it. So I am trying but if you want to learn more about me, right, call ask questions just like you’re doing now. I love to ask questions of other people. I value curiosity. I value curiosity in other people as well.
Barry Cockcroft: 00:59:15 Now, is there a recent project you’d like to tell us about something you’ve been working on lately or might be coming out sometime soon?
Carrie Koffman: 00:59:29 I have a couple of things. I am trying very hard to create more service opportunities, more community engagement. We are this private university with a public purpose. I’m really interested in taking students into different environments where there are different kinds of possibilities of connection. I’m not sure where that’s going to take me. I’m really interested in this new field called music-thanatology, which is essentially, But at the same time in terms of performance, I’m embarking on a new project that I think I’m going to entitle Voiced and it’s still formulating, but I am going to share the first installments at the world socks from Congress, which is a piece by Gilda Lyons and in this case I’m giving voice to a kind of a gendered experience, but using my speaking voice and the saxophone (I’m not singing I can’t sing), but the idea with the project is to give voice where there historically has not been a voice and I have some ideas that I’m hesitating to share just because I don’t know whether they’re going to actually happen yet, but I have to say I’m really excited about it and I’m really happy to be very excited about it. I have this ongoing pink ink series of recording and performing music by women composers and I’ve got a couple of pieces that I’ve recorded that just haven’t been released yet. One is a concerto by the fabulous composer Susan Botti that I love, so I hope that people will listen to that when it comes out. There is Hilary Tann who wrote a piece that’s done, it just needs to get released. And so I’ve got a few things from that particular project that hopefully will have a nice result.
Barry Cockcroft: 01:01:36 Now you’ve made a wonderful contribution to the saxophone over many years, both as a performer and a teacher. What would you see for yourself over the next 10, 20 years?
Carrie Koffman: 01:01:50 Hopefully being able to bring some of these ideas into to life and hopefully continuing to engage with my students in a meaningful way. I’m constantly working to adjust and adapt and evolve as the times change in the students change and requirements change. So it’s very challenging. So in a way, you know, kind of this ride that I’m on this musical ride, the saxophone ride, this professional ride, this teaching ride. I want to stay on, stay on the ride and keep reaching out to make a difference in the ways that I can make a difference. At the same time, there’s an old Jewish proverb that goes, if you want to make God laugh, make plans. I find I’m someone who, I’ve never been a person that said, oh, in 10 years I want to x and, and I feel like I’ve always responded to the situation I’m in by paying attention to the situation that’s right in front of me. And then things happen as a result. You know, my first job at the University of New Mexico, I mean, everybody else would have thought that this is a terrible job. I had seven students for $20 an hour and, you know, I didn’t go to work saying I’m going to build this program. I went to work and taught those kids as best I could. And as a result, the program got built and then the job changed and that it turned into a tenure-track position. Things happen because I’m paying attention to what is happening in the moment, so I think I’m going to keep doing that. But with an awareness that maybe helps me look at all the ways that, that changes and evolves. No, I don’t want to do the same thing in the same way. Being able to make music and create art with wonderful colleagues and students. That’s what I want to do. You know, there’s an Abraham Lincoln quote that I really like that I live by, which is simply this. I’ve simply tried to do what seemed best each day as each day came.
Barry Cockcroft: 01:04:14 Thank you very much for taking the time to have a chat with me and I can’t wait to see you again in a few weeks’ time.
Carrie Koffman: 01:04:21 Oh, I’ll look forward to it. Thank you for asking the questions. All right, bye.