Clifford Leaman - American Saxophone Professor - 22
About Clifford Leaman
Clifford Leaman is in great demand as a soloist and clinician throughout the world and has been a featured guest artist in China nine times. He has performed as a concerto soloist with the ShenZhen Symphony Orchestra, at the XII and XV World Saxophone Congresses, and the North American Saxophone Alliance’s 2006 and 2014 Biennial Conferences. He was also a featured concerto soloist at the 2008 International Navy Band Symposium in Washington D.C.
Professor of saxophone at the University of South Carolina, Cliff received the Bachelor of Science degree in music education from Lebanon Valley College, and the Master of Music and Doctor of Musical Arts degrees in performance from the University of Michigan where he was a student of Donald Sinta.
An avid supporter of contemporary music, Cliff has commissioned and given the world premiere performances of numerous works, including concertos by Pulitzer Prize-winning composers, Leslie Bassett, William Bolcom, and Michael Colgrass.
He has released four critically acclaimed compact discs of works for saxophone and piano on the Equilibrium label. Cliff has also performed extensively with percussionist Scott Herring, giving concerts and masterclasses throughout the world since 2005 when they formed the RoseWind Duo.
- Live podcast interview from the Melbourne International Saxophone Festival.
- Getting started on the saxophone but missing out on trombone.
- Playing in the school band.
- Studying with David Bilger and Donald Sinta.
- Having seeds planted in my brain.
- Letting out my inner demon.
- Teaching in Universities for 34 years.
- The importance of listening to others play.
- Milk the time that you have.
- Tips on how to avoid embarrassing yourself on stage.
- Juggling 18 pieces at once.
- The joy of music can be a great motivator.
- My next performance is my motivation.
- Practising in rhythms.
- Leaving our legacy in our students.
- The importance of making recordings.
- Recordings as an artistic snapshot in time.
- The right repertoire for the right audience.
- Travelling and playing.
- Frequent travel to China.
- Always play at your best to give a great first impression.
- Juggling administrative work and music.
- Commissioning composers becomes a legacy.
- Improvising in music.
- Spending time alone right before a performance.
- Future projects.
Transcript of Interview with Cliff Leaman
Please enjoy the transcript of this podcast episode. With thousands of words in each episode it might contain a few typos and may also have been edited for clarity.
Barry Cockcroft: Thanks for coming – my live audience. It’s amazing. It’s a little bit different to just being on the Internet, where you don’t get a response except for later. It’s the delayed response, so it’s very nice to be able to talk in front of people. So we’re going to keep it intimate. Has anybody listened to an episode of The Barry Sax Show? One, congratulations. No, that’s good. It’s been an interesting project which I started in February, and I’ve recorded now 22 episodes of the show. It’s been fascinating to talk to different people from different countries with different backgrounds, but I’m interested in how people get to where they get to their story.
Barry Cockcroft: It’s the sort of thing you can’t read in a biography, you can’t hear on a disc, and you can’t hear in a live performance. So that’s why I’m doing this, and I think over time, what can be discovered will reveal itself. That’s the end game, to find something in there. It’s my great pleasure today to welcome Cliff, and thank you very much for flying all the way from the States for this interview.
Cliff Leaman: Thank you, Barry. It’s great to be here.
Barry Cockcroft: My starting point I guess with everybody is, how did you get started with the saxophone?
Cliff Leaman: That’s actually a bit of a funny story. In third grade I started playing piano, which was my parents tradition to start all of their children in third grade on piano. Then either a stringed instrument or something else later, and I chose the violin. They wouldn’t let me do it at the school because I was lefthanded, and they said lefthanders can’t play string instruments, which if you think about it seems backwards but at the time we knew nothing. So we just took their advice, didn’t start on the stringed instrument. The next year the music store sent a representative, and they played all of the different wind and percussion instruments. There’s one I particularly liked, but by the time they brought the form out, what seemed like three years later, I couldn’t remember the name of the instrument.
Cliff Leaman: One of my friends said it was saxophone, and I said, “No, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t.” He said, “No, I know it is because my uncle’s got one, and I’m going to play his.” I said, “All right then your memory’s got to be better than mine.” So I put it down, and was very disappointed it didn’t have any movable slides when I got it. My parents had proudly pronounced that they spent $300 on this instrument, so I needed to take care of it and I didn’t have the heart to tell them it wasn’t what I wanted. So I’m a saxophonist.
Barry Cockcroft: Did you start in a typical environment of a school band setting?
Cliff Leaman: Yes. In Pennsylvania and in then in the U.S. they start regionally at different ages. In Pennsylvania, it was fourth grade. So when I was nine was when they brought all the instruments, and then we started in band at that time.
Barry Cockcroft: Who was your first teacher? The band director or did you have a specialist?
Cliff Leaman: My first teacher was the band director until eighth grade. Four years later when my mother decided it was time to get me some lessons and see if, I think it was probably self preservation on her part. So that what she had to endure at home was sounding better. My band director asked her the perfect question, which was do you want the best teacher in town or is just anybody good enough? Mom didn’t think just anybody was good enough. So they went with the best teacher, and that’s how I got hooked. His name was Frank Staco and he taught all the woodwinds, was just a spectacular teacher in pedagogue. Near the end of his career at that point, but he got me loving the instrument.
Barry Cockcroft: Did you find having a nonspecialist to get started with a disadvantage in the sense that your specialist teacher then had to adjust, and fix things up that you might have picked up along the way?
Cliff Leaman: I’m not sure if I remember that far back to be honest. I remember at one point my band director asking, did you always have that pure, pretty sound or is that since you started the lessons? I didn’t even know at that point, because what did I know? I was completely unschooled musically when we started.
Barry Cockcroft: So you played in the band at high school, and you obviously enjoyed that enough to then go and study science at university.
Cliff Leaman: Well that’s an interesting degree. The Bachelor of Science is what you’re talking about. I didn’t study Science, although I intended to when I went there. I really wasn’t convinced I was going to be a music major until the end of my freshman year. I thought I was going to switch over to Chemistry, which was another of my big loves in high school. That school rather than giving a BM in Music Education, gave a BS in Music Education. So really I never took a Science class in college.
Barry Cockcroft: It’s an interesting degree to have against your name.
Cliff Leaman: I think it’s one of, yeah, I feel it’s against my name. I think it’s one of the oddities of that school. They were known for their music education programme. They were the highest placing school as far as getting jobs after graduation at that time, which was very low. I think it was 25% of their graduates got jobs teaching, and I just assumed that I would make sure I got into that top 25% and was able to land a job. I really thought I would teach public school for my career at that point in time, but it worked out. So I did teach middle school band for one year and then went to graduate school.
Barry Cockcroft: One year. Was that a once in a lifetime experience?
Cliff Leaman: It certainly was. I learned a lot about music, I learned even more about people that year.
Barry Cockcroft: Yeah. So what drew you into further study into your Masters?
Cliff Leaman: Into the Masters, by the time I graduated from undergraduate school where I studied, where I studied with Dave Bilger, I had enough success that I felt like I could do this at a high level, and really wanted to see if I could get into academia at the university level as a career. By that point, I hadn’t made that decision very firmly.
Barry Cockcroft: Did you go straight into a doctoral programme after that?
Cliff Leaman: Sort of. I had a year between the undergraduate and master’s degree where I taught middle school band, and then I had a year between the master’s and the doctoral degree because of some snafus that made it financially not advantageous for me to go right into that next year. I stayed in Michigan. I studied with Don Sinta during that year, where I wasn’t technically a student. I was also teaching at the university level by that point at Eastern Michigan. So I had a lot of part-time college level jobs, did some teaching at Michigan as an assistant to him. It felt like I was in school, though technically I wasn’t until the following year.
Barry Cockcroft: So you’ve experienced a range of teachers in your training, but also you had I guess with Don Sinta, someone who’s regarded really as one of the gurus of saxophone teaching. Could you describe some of the differences that you’ve come across in your learning between the different teachers you’ve had?
Cliff Leaman: Sure. Some of it is personality based and style of teaching, and some of it was just where I was musically at the time. My teacher in high school, Frank Staco, was very nuts and bolts. He taught me how to practise, how to overcome technical problems and how to approach music to a level that I was probably intellectually capable of at that time. It didn’t rise to the level of artistry, but it rose to the level of paying attention to dynamics and all of the details on the page. When I got to undergraduate school, I studied with Dave Bilger at Lebanon Valley College, and Dave was a protege of Sigurd Rascher. He had also studied with Don Sinta early in Don’s career, but he really, he showed the influence of Rascher more than Sinta at that point in his life. He just had a real love of making music that was very special and very unique, and helped me get attracted even at a higher level.
Cliff Leaman: My experience has been, and this has become a bit of a theme in the way I go about teaching, is that the better I sounded, the more I enjoyed it. The more I enjoyed it, the more I wanted to play. So I played more, and the more I played, the better I got and the better I got the more … So it took over for itself and became my own internal motivation. I try and motivate my students that way. Sinta was completely different than anybody. He’s a very unique personality. He fools around what, he’ll pull out his key chain and say, “These are all keys. They all unlock something. This one is my house, this one’s the car, this one is something else. My office door. They’re all similar but different.” He would search around till he found the key that unlocked the learning for a student. I still operate a lot on that philosophy, and he found mine.
Cliff Leaman: He would say little barbs in a lesson that would irritate me and I’d think about them all week, which was the goal. I would just, I would practise on that issue until he stopped nagging me about it. It was never cruel or unkind, but he just knew how to plant the seed in my brain so that I knew what I was working on at any given time. Then I was brought up rather conservative, and Don saw the need for me to break out of that. He encouraged me to listen to great artists at a level that I hadn’t prior to then. I had always thought I listened to music, but I listened very differently and a lot more frequently when I got to Michigan at his prompting. Then he just encouraged me to find in my soul, all the things that I don’t think I am. For instance, at his retirement concert, I was invited to come up and play Lilith. If you know that piece by William Bolcom, it’s about the most evil woman in the history of the planet.
Cliff Leaman: Seems like an odd thing for me to love the most, but it was the one thing that he taught me is that I have an inner woman. I have an inner demon. I can let them out when it’s appropriate, and I think I’m far more artistic musician than I would have been without that prompting.
Barry Cockcroft: Do you think your teaching now is informed by the teachers you had yourself, or has your style evolved and moved on?
Cliff Leaman: That’s a great question. I think all of us reflect our teachers mostly in the early part of our career. I’m in now my 34th year teaching college. For the first three years, I think I said a lot of things that were not my voice, but voices of my teachers. If I was teaching young students what Frank Staco would’ve said, more advanced students what Dan Sinto would have said. I actually jumped out of my office one day and stood at the balcony of the mezzanine of the concert hall where my office was, started laughing that the advice I had just given that student was not my advice, it was Dan Sinta’s.
Cliff Leaman: I don’t have that so much anymore. I think all, if you look at composers, they reflect their teachers for the first third of their career then come into their own in the middle, and then getting rather uniquely personal at the end of their career. I think I’m somewhere in that second moving into the third stage, and I think we do the same thing as teachers.
Barry Cockcroft: Could you give a piece of advice to a student starting at let’s say they’re in their undergraduate or early stages, could you give them a bit of advice that you might have liked to have heard?
Cliff Leaman: Sure. Many different things, but the most important I think is go to concerts and listen to great artists and just where, what they’re doing, understand it. Listen again and again and again until you figure out why they do what they do, and how they do what they do. I’ve always been a big proponent of working hard on a daily basis, but the truth is if you’re just completely self involved with what you’re learning, you’re not open to what the rest of the world has and it’s a big world and a lot of great things.
Barry Cockcroft: You have to actually get out of the practise room in order to improve your music.
Cliff Leaman: First thing Dan Sinto told me shocked me, this is why I still remembered. He said, “I think you need to practise less.” I said, “What? Nobody says that. Nobody ever says that. What do you mean?” He said, “Well, next week there’s a big concert coming into Hill Auditorium and instead of practising for those three hours, why don’t you go ahead and go to the concert?” So he really wasn’t asking me to practise less, but he was asking me not to give up those kind of experiences to keep completely in my own personal experience.
Barry Cockcroft: One of the last tours I did in Australia, and this is the reason I stopped doing them, but I gave a workshop and there was a concert that evening. I invited the people who were in the workshop of course to come to the concert. They said, “I’m sorry we can’t come tonight.” I’m like, “Why can’t you come?” They said, “Well, because we have a rehearsal tonight.” I get the feeling sometimes that people get so fixated with what they’re doing themselves, that they don’t venture outside.
Cliff Leaman: Yeah. I think it’s been at least 35 years since I knew more than everybody else in the room combined. Maybe a little longer I hope.
Barry Cockcroft: Now I’ve heard students say they find it difficult to find enough time to practise. The irony of that of course is when you’re not a student anymore, there’s even less time.
Cliff Leaman: Exactly. Yeah, milk the time you have while you have it, because it doesn’t get easier.
Barry Cockcroft: What’s the difference now as a really busy person compared to being a student? What’s the difference in your practise?
Cliff Leaman: That’s a great question. My practise has evolved, and we like to say in the U.S. necessity is the mother of invention. If you have limited hours of practise per day, but a goal that you have to achieve so you don’t embarrass yourself in front of a public audience. I like to think my life is a sequence of avoidance techniques for embarrassment, so I don’t do something I’ll regret when I’m on stage like this afternoon. The truth of it is I’ve learned to be absolutely ruthless in choosing what needs practise today, and what can be left alone. I’m braver. Occasionally, I make mistakes and I find that out on stage.
Cliff Leaman: Maybe I should’ve spent a little more time on that one. For some reason it jumped out and bit me, but the truth of it is a month ago I was juggling 17 pieces. Then that grew to 19 or 20. Then as each successive performance happened, it shrunk and I’m down to about seven or eight right now. There’s no time to practise everything every day, and you have to know what needs it and what can be left alone.
Barry Cockcroft: I must admit, sometimes I find myself practising the bits I can play, and the bits I can’t play I’ll do those tomorrow. Is there anything you have found that can just help that typical kind of approach?
Cliff Leaman: Fear. Personal fear helps me with that, but I understand that and there’s validity to that too, because if you’re always working on things that you struggle with, the pleasure isn’t as great. When you do something that you can really handle and you get joy, that joy then I think functions as a real useful tool for the need and the desire to practise the other things too.
Barry Cockcroft: Would you say the next performance is your motivation, or do you still have the joy of just practising for practise sake?
Cliff Leaman: I don’t have that joy anymore. I did as a student, but now I set up performances on a very regular basis and that’s what motivates my practise. If I didn’t have a performance until December, I could take the today off, but I have one this afternoon so I was in early this morning warming up.
Barry Cockcroft: Is memorization something that forms part of both your practise and also your music making?
Cliff Leaman: Early in my career more than it has lately. I won concerto competitions with Ibert and Glazunov and things, and have played them from memory numerous times. I had a terrible experience in one competition that I actually won, where one of the judges was sure my pianist flipped two pages, because I was flying along just great and all of a sudden it’s like those Imax theatres where here and the helicopter and all of a sudden, the bottom falls out and you’re … That’s how it felt. One of the judges was convinced that it wasn’t my fault. I have no idea to this day exactly what happened, but I’ve had a couple of scary incidences like that, and I’ve performed from memory less and less over the years as a result.
Cliff Leaman: For me having the music there, even if I’m not reading it is a safety net, and I think I opened up more musically as a result. There’s a lot of validity to memorising music as you look at it differently. You analyse it, you size up the chord structure in the harmonic basis of a phrase. I think a certain level of your understanding grows from doing that, but after I’ve done that then I want to have the music handy just in case.
Barry Cockcroft: You say one thing you do in your practise that actually saves you time, something so efficient that it’s really useful tool.
Cliff Leaman: On a technical basis, I practise in rhythms all the time. I have a set group that I use. I use them every morning in my scale warmup, and what it does is it takes a lot more precision to move in a set rhythm than move steadily. Londeix calls it training the reflexes, and I do that every morning, retrain them. If I get out of that routine for more than three days, I notice it because they’re just little inconsistencies that I usually don’t have to deal with. So that’s what I did this morning too, rather than practise the music that I’m going to play this afternoon. I went through my regimen of scales, and the regimen of rhythms so that I know when I want an E it comes exactly then, not a nanosecond later or earlier.
Barry Cockcroft: It would seem students are by nature inefficient in their practise, and they throw time to solve problems. Efficiency is something that’s gradually learned over time. Do you think we could shortcut that and encourage people to be efficient right from the start, or is it a natural process we have to go through?
Cliff Leaman: I think it’s a combination. I spend a lot of time teaching my students how to practise. If they come in and with the problem that was not solved in the lesson, we’ll solve it in the lesson, and I’ll show them the techniques that I would use. Hopefully then they use the same kinds of techniques when they go off on their own, but I do think if it was as easy as turning on a light switch, we wouldn’t need as many lessons as most of us have needed. I know I wouldn’t have.
Barry Cockcroft: Now you’ve played for decades at the highest level. Is there something that you’ve done to maintain your health as a saxophonist so that you can always play your best?
Cliff Leaman: Yeah, that’s another really good question. I have had some issues over time with my hands. I played a lot of racquetball at one point in my life, not that long ago and I still play some. I took a racquetball off the knuckle and a year later, it was still swollen and sore. So I went to a hand specialist who said, “Well, it’s not a big deal. You just have osteoarthritis in all of your joints, no problem.” I said, “Did the nurse tell you what I do?” He said, “No, what are you doing?” I said, “I’m a musician. That’s a big deal to me.” So I’ve learned that I have to be very careful with my hands if I have pain anywhere. I’m very receptive to trying to alleviate that and pay a lot of attention. I’ve had some inflammation of various tendons that I’ve kept at bay.
Cliff Leaman: My philosophy is and my experience is if you catch it early, you can keep control of it. If you let it go down that path till you have a problem and have to shut down your playing for a while, you’re going to deal it a lot longer. So I tell my students to pay very close attention to what their body’s telling them. If they’re feeling a pain, we try to figure out what’s causing it. It’s almost always tension based. Sometimes it’s genetic, but even at search, I think I have another 15 or 20 years to play before the arthritis is going to slow me down. I certainly hope so. That comes from a good regimen. I do a lot of stretching exercises to keep things moving, and the fingers mostly. Of course there are the neck and back problems that saxophonists tend to have. That one I haven’t solved. If anybody has the answer, let me know.
Barry Cockcroft: Maybe Don Sinto had it right, you need to practise less.
Cliff Leaman: Yeah. No, I don’t think so.
Barry Cockcroft: Would you describe your career development as an organic process, or was it something that was very much planned and goal oriented?
Cliff Leaman: Again, probably a combination. I always had in mind that I wanted to end up at the university level, and that by the time I retired feel like I had made an impact on the saxophone world at some level. I feel like I’ve achieved that. I’ve had three basic jobs. Eastern Michigan for four years as an adjunct, and then Furman University of very highly academically oriented liberal arts college with a great music programme. I did that for 11 years. Now I’m starting my 19th at a major research flagship university with a really strong music programme, and a much larger one. So that has grown in the right direction for me.
Cliff Leaman: I am not a job hopper, but I’ve made the change when it’s been warranted, and I’m very happy with where I’ve landed. I have now 15, I believe of my former students teaching at the university level. So I feel like the impact that I’ve made is going to last for a long time, because they’re all teaching students. That was my main goal is to have an impact so that when I retire and die, I can breathe a breath of relief and say, “I made a difference in my part of the world.”
Barry Cockcroft: So in that sense, one of your legacies is the knowledge you leave in your students. You pass that on again.
Cliff Leaman: Certainly hope so.
Barry Cockcroft: Recording it would seem has been a big part of your career, both through releases and albums. How important professionally has that been, but also artistically?
Cliff Leaman: Very important. My first recording that was released commercially was while I was at Michigan, recorded the Henry Brant’s Concerto because at the time I was one of the few people who slapped tongue with a lot of speed and regularity, and the Brant’s Concerto which was written for Rascher. Anybody know that piece? It’s not all that well known. It’s terrific, but I had recorded that for a project that I wanted to do that then fell by the wayside but was picked up by another CD project by one of my colleagues at Eastern Michigan. My first full length CD was done in ’97, ’98 at Furman. It was terribly difficult for me to cut the cord. I’m a perfectionist, I’m a little bit OCD or maybe a lot OCD and it was very, very difficult for me to put anything out knowing it would never get better.
Cliff Leaman: So that one was a struggle for me after the dam broke and we did that. I realised the world didn’t end, my career didn’t end, everything was going to be okay. Then I started recording a lot more. I have four full length CDs with piano, and two with percussion. I started a saxophone marimba duo about a decade ago, and we’ve done a lot of commissioning and a lot of recording, and I find that to be a great outlet. The thing I learned in that first recording in ’97 when I started listening to the takes was some things that I didn’t like about my playing, and I’ve listened to myself much more carefully than I did at that time. I thought I was listening to myself very carefully.
Cliff Leaman: I think that CD’s really strong, I’m very happy with it, but I was shocked by little things that I didn’t appreciate about my playing when I heard it. It caused me to change what I listened for in my practising , and my playing and I think I’ve improved enormously as a result.
Barry Cockcroft: How would you describe the process now of instead of sending out highly curated recordings, there’s a lot more live performance being released on YouTube, for example. Do you think that’s a beneficial process for a student, or is it also potentially something damaging that they have to live with forever?
Cliff Leaman: I think actually probably the opposite. When I grew up on recordings of Vincent Abato playing Glazunov and Ibert, and Londeix and Rousseau and Mule. I thought because they were recorded, that’s how the piece goes. Then I started making recordings and I realised that every recording I make is a snapshot in time of where I was at that three or four day period, and I’ve recorded the Schumann Romances and a lot of other romantic language pieces. I would never play in the same way now, or wouldn’t have played them the same way the day after the recording session. I try to encourage my students to understand that. I think when you listen to live recordings on YouTube, you’re probably more likely to understand that that is, that snapshot in time. Everything isn’t perfect. That’s the other thing about CDs.
Cliff Leaman: You can edit until you have everything you want. Whether you still want that six months later after it comes out is another question to answer, but that idea of perfection in live performance can be debilitating to some people. I think the fact that they can hear live performance where there’s a little thing here or there, and I’ve back to some of those old recordings and they’re not perfect either. That’s when I started realising it’s okay to not be perfect. I think the live performances on YouTube, there’s certainly a lot more information available to students now. They can hear almost any piece they want to play, played by a multitude of people. Some better than others, but they get to hear that spectrum and they get to hear more choices. It’s much more readily available than it was when I was growing up.
Barry Cockcroft: Would you say interpretation therefore is broadening, because people have access to a different range of playing?
Cliff Leaman: Potentially, yes but I also think that in a lot of ways it’s brought the saxophone world closer together. I think the French and American schools in their sound concept are much more similar than they were when it was Mule and Teal and Sinta, and people like that and Londeix. I think what I hear coming from Europe today and what I hear coming from America, and of course Japan and Australia and all of the other places, I think it’s a little bit more unified to be honest. That’s probably part of the factoring of that.
Barry Cockcroft: Is it just another symptom of globalisation that we’re starting to play in a similar way?
Cliff Leaman: I would say so. In my opinion, it is.
Barry Cockcroft: So is that a gain or a loss?
Cliff Leaman: I prefer to think of it as a gain. I can see how both could be possible, but I prefer to think of it as a gain.
Barry Cockcroft: Have you actively sought to develop an audience to encourage people to experience the events that you run?
Cliff Leaman: Probably not. That may be a shortcoming in my career. I try to grab audiences where I play and it’s always better if you get invited back to the same place, because that’s the best indication of whether they appreciated what you brought. In that sense there’s a core audience that comes back, but as far as the global audience, I probably haven’t pursued that much.
Barry Cockcroft: The saxophone is often played before other saxophone players. Now that’s created an academic environment where our audience members are often made up of people who play our instruments. So they have a unique insight into our performance. Is this something that you do that also helps take the saxophone out into the wider community?
Cliff Leaman: I think the repertoire choices that we make are the biggest impact there. If I play for Chamber music series in Florence, South Carolina, I’m going to play a lot more tonal music a lot more. If I play something more contemporary, it’s not going to be Lilith. I’m sorry, I won’t play it in that audience, but I’ll play it at my school in my university and other universities. So I like to programme a combination of fun and stretching and learning, but how far I’ll stretch will be determined by the audience I’m playing for.
Barry Cockcroft: Because you do want to be invited back.
Cliff Leaman: Exactly.
Barry Cockcroft: How important has travel been personally as an artist, and also professionally for your development?
Cliff Leaman: Crucial. This is one of the things I like best about my job is that it’s flexible enough that I can travel. I try not to travel all the time, because I have a family at home that I love dearly, and I like to see them as often as I can. So when I was 18, I think my goal would have been at least secretly if not overtly, to travel the world and play 150 concerts a year. Once I got married and started having children, that would have been closer to hell than heaven for me. So the college job is a great base for me. I loved the teaching. I love working with students and I get to go home to my family every night, but if I didn’t do any of the travelling, I wouldn’t be satisfied either. So for me, it has to be a balance. Fortunately my wife is very supportive of the balance that works best for me emotionally, so we’ve made that work. That balance has changed over time. When the girls were really young, I didn’t travel as much as I do now.
Barry Cockcroft: China seems to have been a particular audience space for you. Say something that either drew you to China, or that China wanted from you?
Cliff Leaman: Yeah, it was very serendipitous in a lot of ways. I was on a gig playing a Broadway musical, probably Chicago in Greenville for the national tour, and having a blast and I got a strange cell phone message from a person I didn’t know. I was about to delete it when I heard him mention a saxophonist named Ken Radnofsky that I did know and I thought, “Okay, maybe this isn’t just spam.” It was, “Hey, we’ve got this great thing going in China. We need some terrific saxophonist. Would you be one of the team?” I thought, “Yeah, they just didn’t feel legit.” When he dropped Ken Radnofsky’s name I thought well, I know Ken and this was a clarinettist Jonathan Kohler, who I didn’t know at the time, but learned to. Went to my clarinet professor and I said, “Do you know this guy?” He said, “Yeah, he’s terrific.” I make my students listen to all of his recordings. So I was sold.
Cliff Leaman: I called back and they brought me over to a festival in Yantai. I went hoping that they would like me enough to invite me back one day. I went home wondering if I needed to buy a summer home in China, because it went extremely well. Then I got to be the point person to help him organise in who to invite the following year. Then I kept making friends, and I’ve been back to China nine times. Though not in the last couple of years, I hope to fix that soon again. A wonderful country, wonderful people, but it burgeoned out of that first festival and making new friends, and being invited back year after year for a while.
Barry Cockcroft: I guess it sounds like part of that organic process where one thing leads to another, you really have to take those opportunities, don’t you?
Cliff Leaman: Yeah. I always think back to a story about the Carpenters. If you were alive in the 70s, you knew the Carpenters pop group. How they got their start was they won some competition to give them an hour of recording studio time, to record a single. So they practised and practised and practised and practised. They came in, played the single for five, 10 minutes into the hour and the recording people said, “Well actually that sounded really good. Do you have anything else?” Well they did, they came prepared and they brought a whole album. So this free recording session for a single turned into a free recording session for a complete album, and it’s what set them on their way. One of the things that I like to think that I do well is when I show up to a new place and meet new people, I make sure I’m at my very best because I want that same kind of impact. I think it was Thomas Edison who said a lot of people miss opportunity, because it shows up in overalls and looks a lot like work.
Barry Cockcroft: It sounds like your university is quite flexible in allowing you to pursue your professional career outside of teaching. I bump into people sometimes who struggle with the opposite of that, where they’re actually, they’re hired to do something and their employer’s reluctant to let them outside of that work. Is there a way that you’ve found to help lubricate those negotiations?
Cliff Leaman: I think a lot of is just the person you work for. My current Dean who has been at USC for all but my first four years, so I think he’s been there 14 years or so, is just the most supportive administrator I’ve had in my career, and I’ve had some other good ones. He early on said to the entire music school, we’re going to find money for travel, because we know you need to do this. We know you need to get out in the world, and that’s when it started opening up for me and my travel budget multiplied by about six or seven fold in the year that he took over. Then it shrank when money got tight, but then has burgeoned back up again. So he wants to make sure if I have an opportunity that I can afford to do it, and don’t have to worry about finances.
Barry Cockcroft: Sounds good.
Cliff Leaman: Yeah, it’s great.
Barry Cockcroft: It seems you’re getting more involved with the administrative side of teaching. How do you balance that with your artistic duties?
Cliff Leaman: I just work a lot late at night. I am now, I have been for five years associate Dean and undergraduate director of our school of music who as soon as I get home, I’m going to become graduate director and pass the undergrad director off to a colleague. So I’m setting up meetings with the outgoing graduate director on email late at night, trying to figure out when we’re both going to be in town to make sure I know what I need to know to get the year started. I was supposed to cut back my teaching to about a two thirds load to make room for the administration, which I did over a couple of a year period. Didn’t enjoy it. So I’ve built a teaching back up to about a full load, and the administrative things are extra.
Barry Cockcroft: So you’re busy.
Cliff Leaman: I’m stupid that way.
Barry Cockcroft: **Edit problem** You’ve premiered meaning new pieces. How important has working with composers been to you?
Cliff Leaman: I think it’s the most exciting thing I do. In the last couple of years I’ve premiered concertos by Frank Ticheli and William Bolcom, and just recently Stacy Garrop. Had dinner with Stacy when I was visiting my daughter in Evanston last month, and commissioned her to write a new piece for saxophone and marimba. Our latest CD of that duo was seven pieces all written for us, all that we premiered and the premiers get us in some ways all over the world. I thought early in my career, even as a student that no one will ever forget Sigurd Rascher. The reason isn’t so much because of his playing as it is because of the pieces that he got for us, that he commissioned. It occurred to me that I thought, if I want to have a longterm legacy past when I’m done playing, probably commissioning good music is the best way to secure that.
Cliff Leaman: So I have tried really hard to commission the best composers I can afford, and that’s gotten better and better. Sometimes just you’re on upstarts whose star is on the rise so that you catch them when they’re affordable. Then later, I caught Frank Ticheli when we were both students, and I got his first saxophone quartet written for me and premiered it in one of my dissertation recitals, and it was cheap. Then about five years ago, we commissioned Frank to write a concerto and it was decidedly not cheap. The fact that that quartet was written by the same composer brings the value of it to the core of the saxophone world, and outside the saxophone world at the same level as his more recent works that are just a lot more costly because he’s worth it.
Barry Cockcroft: Is there a quality you’ve seen in these new pieces that you think helps a piece to endure, so that it will be played many times in the future?
Cliff Leaman: That’s really very personal. I’ve premiered a lot of pieces that are very esoteric and very difficult for your general audience, and then a lot that are very pop oriented and very rhythmically based and fun for anybody. I think the core sophistication becomes evident over time in repeated performances, and what we may think of as the best piece we commissioned today may end up being one we don’t play in 10 years, and it’s something else. For me, Lilith, when I first learned the piece, I didn’t think I was ever going to play the thing and it rapidly as I grew to understand it. The reason I didn’t think I’d play it very often is all the noises that I had to make. When I realised why they were in the piece and what they did for the character, then I learned to love it and it became my very favourite piece to play, and I played it everywhere. I need to put it back on a programme this year, I think.
Barry Cockcroft: An extension of composition is improvisation. Is that something that you use one in your own practise, but also in performance?
Cliff Leaman: For me, that’s a bit more limited. Bolcom requires you to come up with your own cadenzas sewn in essence that there’s an improvisation, and I’ve improvised more at the cadenza level. Worked with jazz some early in my career, realised I was never going to get to the top end of the jazz world. So I invested myself more heavily in the classical world. Certainly pieces like Fuzzy Bird Sonata, I have some improvisation as part of it and the Noda improvisations of course, things like that yes. In the jazz style, that’s not really my thing. I wish it were. I encourage my students to get started earlier than I did, because I think it’s easier. The problem is the better you get as a classical player, you have a self esteem issue when you come in at a different level as a jazz player. That self esteem issue can be very difficult to overcome.
Cliff Leaman: I actually ran the jazz programme at Furman for the 11 years I was there. I’ve gotten very conversant. I think I can swing. I’ve done a lot of listening, but you’re not a jazz player if you don’t improvise well. So there it is.
Barry Cockcroft: Now I have some rapid fire questions for you, so feel free to give a brief answer or not.
Cliff Leaman: Okay, or not.
Barry Cockcroft: Is there something that you believe that few people agree with?
Cliff Leaman: As a saxophonist, potentially the mouthpiece pitch that I prefer all the books say A, I like B. I like B for what it does to a lot of different things including tongue, and double tonguing because the back of the tongue is closer to the roof of the mouth.
Barry Cockcroft: What effect does it have besides the articulation?
Cliff Leaman: Well it gives you a lot more flexibility for pulling pitch down. I move my mouthpiece to a point where the lower registers in tune comfortably, and then I have to fight with the upper. If I’m already submarine in the back of my oral cavity to get to that spot, then I have to work much harder to bring those sharp pitches down. If I’m on the higher side, and I don’t personally prefer the C although I know a few people who do. For me, when I hear a student do the C it sounds tight, but the B for me still feels really open and then gives me much more flexibility in the back of the oral cavity to do the things I want.
Barry Cockcroft: If there was just one piece of music that you had to play from now on, which piece would that be?
Cliff Leaman: Boy. Probably the Bach Partita 1013. Sorry. It wasn’t originally written for us. I judged a competition five or six years ago where I heard 45 Ibert’s and 45 Kronos and 45 Sarabandes from that partita. After 45, I didn’t really need to hear Ibert or Kronos for a little while and I loved those pieces, but I couldn’t stop listening to the Bach. So that I think with all the ornamentation and all of the things in it, would probably keep me interested in more than a lot of pieces.
Barry Cockcroft: If he just had one hour to practise, how would you spend that hour?
Cliff Leaman: For instance, this morning. Probably the first quarter of it, 15 minutes or so doing my warm up and getting the reflexes in shape, and then the rest of it would be determined by what I’m doing next. Since I have performances this weekend, I went right into a couple of pieces that I just wanted to feel comfortable. It was good because I forgot how to play a couple of measures in one piece, and I had to re-remember how to do that.
Barry Cockcroft: Who do you consider to be one of the most successful contributors to the saxophone world?
Cliff Leaman: Well, certainly as a pedagogue, Don Sinta. If you look around the saxophone world, particularly in the U.S. he has had an enormous impact. Partly because he’s such a beautiful musician and player, and partly because he’s such a unique teacher and is, in my opinion, probably one of the most astute assessors of people. When you walk into, I walked into his office and he looked at me and told me all of my lifelong goals that I had never verbalised to anyone. My first thought was, “Wow, that’s a bit presumptuous.” My second thought was, “But he is spot on.” He’s very good at assessing you, what you want and then how to get you there. I think his impact in this saxophone world’s been huge.
Barry Cockcroft: If we learn from our mistakes, is it okay to make mistakes?
Cliff Leaman: I don’t think we have a choice. I think we can learn from our successes and our failures. Frequently the lesson is the same. I should probably work harder, but we’re going to make mistakes if we can use them as a tool for learning. Absolutely.
Barry Cockcroft: Are you okay when you make a mistake on stage? Do you move on easily?
Cliff Leaman: No. No, I scold myself for long periods of time, but not while I’m on stage. That’s for after I walk off.
Barry Cockcroft: Now you’ve come to Australia to perform. What is something that you do before you walk on stage that helps you to perform at your best?
Cliff Leaman: If I can have five minutes alone, I love that because I focus on what I’m about to do. I get the energy level up. I welcome the adrenaline into my bloodstream. Adrenaline is a wonderful drug. People pay a lot of money to get adrenaline rushes, all those theme parks and those rides where you think you’re going to die, but you hope you don’t. I don’t need that because I play the saxophone in front of other people, so I get the adrenaline there. I got to be honest, you can’t rely on any routine. If you have a routine that you have to have, you’re going to come up short sooner or later when you can’t have it. I’ve been in green rooms with four people smoking like chimneys and talking loudly, and I can’t warm up and I can’t breathe, and you go out and you play your best anyway because that’s what the audience deserves.
Barry Cockcroft: Now with a bit of hindsight, is there a piece of advice that you could give your younger self that you would have loved to have heard?
Cliff Leaman: The thing that changed my life the most as a musician and I wish I had done five, 10 years earlier is going to more live concerts, and listening to more great artists.
Barry Cockcroft: Now what are some of the changes that you’ve seen during your career with the saxophone, and also what are some of the things that haven’t changed that have just stayed the same?
Cliff Leaman: The core pedagogy, the core repertoire is still there and we still play it, but the new repertoire written in the last 20, 30 years has just ballooned at a level that’s enormous. I think the style of composition in the U.S. has changed a lot since the 60s, where they were much less interested in audience appeal and more involved with the misunderstood genius, and all of those things. I think the composers that at least I work with by and large have come back to, let’s see if we can’t say what we want to say musically in a way that is palatable to more, a larger audience and see if we can’t win them back.
Barry Cockcroft: Do you think that ultimately will help the saxophone find a larger audience?
Cliff Leaman: I hope so. I think so. I think the saxophone is finding a larger audience. Certainly we have some people doing a lot more concertizing in orchestras – Tim McAllister with the Adams concerto. It’s been a huge boon to us. Certainly Branford Marsalis and what he’s doing with crossover things and in the classical and jazz worlds. A lot of people are out there. I think the audience is growing, and I think the stigma that a lot of us felt in the 60s and 70s is going away. It’s a slow process, but I think it’s going away.
Barry Cockcroft: Yeah. Could you tell us about a recent project that you have been working on?
Cliff Leaman: Well, the one that I hate to say it’s completed, but April I premiered a new concerto by Stacey Garrop that just blew the lid off some things that I thought I knew how to do. Incredibly demanding piece, but very rewarding called Quicksilver. You’ll find it on the web. A couple of people have their performances out there. That’s been a great thing and that led me to have the conversation with her to commission a new piece in Zagreb. I was chatting with another composer that I really respect. I’ll not name him at this point since we haven’t cemented the deal, but hopefully over the next two, three years I’ll have another full CD’s worth of new projects that I’ve commissioned for saxophone and marimba.
Barry Cockcroft: Now where can we find out more about your activities? Is your website something you do? Do you prefer social media? What do you like?
Cliff Leaman: Yeah, that hasn’t been a strength for me. I find myself busy enough that I haven’t maintained the … I do Facebook. I have just about 40 more spots available for friends on Facebook, but I go long periods without doing much with it. I try to remember to stay active there, that would be my most active social media presence.
Barry Cockcroft: Now you’ve made an incredible contribution to the saxophone throughout your career, and I get the feeling there’s a lot still to come. What do you see for yourself over the next decade, two decades?
Cliff Leaman: I’ve thought about that a lot. I’ve started doing some arrangements for saxophone ensemble, did an arrangement that’s published by Jeanne Inc of the Dvořák Op.44 serenade that I think is just a stunning piece of music. There are some other arrangements of it out there as well, but I think I may do more of that. I’ll probably continue to record for another couple of projects at least maybe over the next five, seven years. At that point I think I may slow down on the recordings. We’ll see. It depends on what projects I have. I would love to do a recording of all concertos that I’ve commissioned. We have enough repertoire out there that it would make a really good full CD of what I think are terrific pieces. That I will stay with, but I do think I’ll probably get more into some finale and arrangements and things.
Barry Cockcroft: Cliff, thank you for your time today. I wish you the best for you performances this weekend, and thanks for joining us.
Cliff Leaman: Thank you very much for having me, Barry. Appreciate it.