Javier Valerio - Latin American Saxophone
About Javier Valerio
Dr. Javier Valerio is widely recognized as one of the pioneers and leading classical saxophonists in Latin America. He was invited as a jury member of the 2014 Adolphe Sax International Competition, He is member of the International Saxophone Committee (ISC), Founding President of the ALASAX (Latin American Saxophone Alliance), Founding Director of the Sax Fest Costa Rica International, the Costa Rica International Saxophone Competition and founder of the renowned saxophone and percussion quintet, SONSAX.
After studying with the world known saxophonist, Eugene Rousseau, at Indiana University School of Music, Valerio returned to his home country, Costa Rica, and established the Saxophone Studio where he has been teaching as a Distinguished Professor of the School of Music at the University of Costa Rica and worked as the Director of the Instrumental Department. He obtained his Masters degree in Jazz Studies at Florida International University and obtained DMA degree from the University of Kansas, having the opportunity to perform at Carnegie Hall, New York with the KU Wind Ensemble in 2013.
He has been invited to perform as a soloist with many Orchestras and Wind Ensembles throughout Latin American countries, performing also on numerous occasions in the World Saxophone Congresses and North American Saxophone Alliance Conferences. He has travelled offering recitals, clinics, master classes and concerts throughout the world and is a Selmer Paris, Rico Reeds and Rousseau Mouthpieces Artist.
I first met Valerio in Dinant Belgium at the 6th Adolphe Sax Intentional competition. We spent an intense 2 weeks together listening to around 100 saxophonists compete for the world’s most prestigious saxophone prize. Neither of us is a big beer drinker, but when in Belgium, you really have to do as the locals do! We found we had a great affinity during this time and formed a close friendship that continues to this day. I was fortunate to meet his wonderful friends in the group SONSAX at the last world saxophone congress in Strasbourg France and after they had completed an energetic concert in front of thousands in stifling heat, I turned up backstage to pass on my congratulations and bring the most important gift – ice cold beer for the whole band! We have since performed together in Slovenia, where this interview took place and by chance, we met a couple of days before rehearsals started to visit the town of Bled and do what the locals do. Can you see a theme developing here?
Valerio Show Notes
- About parties and dancing a lot.
- I couldn’t play that music just sitting down.
- Valerio’s early days: he was a very, very, very good teacher.
- He encouraged us a lot and we just loved music.
- I got the tape, and I start listening.
- I was very serious about going to the United States to study with Eugene Rousseau.
- Every national band had saxophone players.
- You don’t always realise how you got there, but you are there.
- One of the most important elements for any saxophonist – the sound concept.
- Practicing saxophone with just the mouthpiece.
- Costa Rica is influenced by music from all over the world.
- I have to play salsa, I have to play merengue, I have to play classical, I have to play jazz, I have to play rock, I have to play all these different styles.
- I cannot just practise one way, because it depends on what I need to do.
- Getting distracted when practising? Just turn off the phone.
- SONSAX – Valerio’s group that has been playing together for over 20 years.
- Teaching is creating the school that you have in your mind.
- Founding the Latin American Saxophone Alliance.
- The person I’m sharing my life with understands and enjoys what I do.
- I didn’t have much time to practice because I was at the beach.
- Developing a close relationship with composers.
- Using improvisation in teaching.
- Playing really fast arpeggios just for the hell of it.
- There are too many people that I admire.
- If you don’t enjoy what you’re going to do, you’re wasting your time.
- Don’t ever be too uptight, be patient and think twice.
- The first and last thing that you do in life is breathing. Breathe.
Links from the Interview
- Valerio’s Website | Valerio’s Facebook Page
- Eugene Rousseau
- Donald Sinta
- Kenneth Tse
- University of Costa Rica
- Sax Fest Costa Rica International
- North American Saxophone Alliance
- International Saxophone Committee
Transcript of Podcast Interview with Javier Valerio
Barry: I guess I really wanted to know that if you weren’t going to be a saxophone player, is it true you were going to be a dancer?
Javier Valerio: Actually I like dancing a lot.
Barry: I noticed.
Javier Valerio: You noticed. Okay, but that’s just part of the culture.
Barry: Part of your culture?
Javier Valerio: Yeah, like a lot of people dances all the time.
Javier Valerio: Why I dance was I told you yesterday that my mother has many brothers and sisters, so she was number 10. So I remember when we have some trips with the family, or we have any … like Sunday mornings we used to go to a picnic or something like that, there was music. If I remember two of my aunts always taking me and probably they were heard some music bolero, salsa, or something like that, so they just grabbed me and start teaching me how to dance, something like that.
Barry: Is it like that? I mean, the kids in Costa Rica they grow up with music and dances?
Javier Valerio: Yeah. I mean it’s like basically you have … and there’s a lot of activities that go along with music and dancing, so it’s not like nothing formal there that you go, but like this I was in playing soccer with my friends, they were actually my cousins, and suddenly this aunt called me, “Hey, Valerio come.” I said, “Why? Why?” Then suddenly she grabbed me, “Okay let’s dance this.”
Barry: Is it everywhere I’ve been with you at any chance with this music …
Javier Valerio: Yeah.
Barry: … and usually some drinks involved? You’re always dancing.
Javier Valerio: Yeah, and also when I was a teenager, I had a really nice group of classmates that liked to dance too, also I was in a conservatory and besides painters and musicians, we have dancers. So we used to have a lot of parties and dance a lot, so usually that’s how I started learning even more and more steps and things like that. I also like music a lot so that’s why … yeah, but I really like dances as you say. I don’t know if I will be a professional dancer, but that was one of the things that I noticed when I go to a place, if I want to hear some music and something.
Also, when you play saxophone, especially down there with salsa bands and stuff like that, or you play some music, sometimes you cannot ignore the dancing part, because that’s part of the music.
Barry: I did notice with SONSAX, your group, that everyone’s moving all the time.
Javier Valerio: Yeah. The reason is because when we started 21 years ago, we were playing like the standards, like classical repertoire in some of the jazz repertoire, and it wasn’t until we … in 1996 we were in Chicago I think, and the proposal at that time was to play our music, and we were playing with a code, and we stand, seated on the chair when we were rehearsing, but we were playing all those Latin tunes and stuff like that. As you know, I like to dance and I couldn’t play that music just seated, I said, “No, no, no wait, no we need to stand up.” So we stood up and then suddenly I said, “No, you know, you got to really like play this moving, because that’s part of the … ” I felt at that time that was incomplete if I didn’t do it.
If you were playing some salsa and something like that, so you move, you do some steps because that kind of also portrays what you’re feeling and what the music is, and sometimes when you play with salsa bands or Latino bands, you will see the whole group, 16, 18 people doing a step, and dance, and move. It’s really nice because after that you kind of like … if let’s say you have to play a gig of three, four hours, it’s not the same thing if you’re just standing very straight and very poor playing than if you’re just feeling the music, enjoying it.
Barry: So when you see like a more traditional sex quartet, and people are sitting there with the music stands and their jackets, do you find that a bit stiff?
Javier Valerio: Nope. It depends on the music.
Javier Valerio: Yeah, you want to be playing dancing of like shaking your hands or something like that. No I’m not at all. I mean it’s just like it depends on the music, people just play but if you don’t move at all, I mean it’s okay as long as they feel comfortable …
Javier Valerio: … but when you’re with a group of people like SONSAX and you hear the bass line, doing something like that, and you’re just feeling it, you’re moving, you kind of like get along with the step.
Javier Valerio: Sometimes we move in with the different moves, and sometimes we just move at the same time with the same steps, because it’s just part of the pattern that we use.
Barry: So how do you actually get started on saxophone as a kid?
Javier Valerio: As a kid, my dad played saxophone as a hobby, but my dad wasn’t a saxophonist. He work in different stuffs, but I remember every year for the Holy Week, that was the main week of the year, he played with a small group in the church, the processions, so there’s always music in Italy, Spain, they all would have what they call the Philharmonia, it’s a small group. At that time were all the musicians from the town, so I saw him since I was a kid playing in those things, and I used to go next to him playing, working on the procession all the time. Later when I was in the primary school, there was a music teacher, and he’ll stay was gone solearse, and he was a very, very, very good teacher. He encouraged us a lot and we just loved music, the way he was teaching it, and I had a recorder and accordion and he just gave me stuff, and I learned very fast.
So he told my mom and my dad that I should consider playing and also when I was in fifth grade they thought I was a good idea to go to special school in Costa Rica, which is a conservatory that was the one I told you, and so I prepared myself with him, and learned how to read music and all that kind of stuff, and when I entered the conservatory, they asked me what kind of instrument I wanted to play and I said saxophone, because I learned, and I saw it, and I enjoy it when my dad was playing it. So that’s why I started the saxophone.
Barry: Wow. So going as a kid in Costa Rica to studying with Dr. Rousseau in America, that’s a big step.
Javier Valerio: Well the thing is, it’s funny because … and I think every country has the same story in the different times, but I was in the conservatory and basically we were just influenced by all the popular music, the Latino music, and a lot of the jazz that was happening in the ’80s, and there’s like funk, soul, and all that kind of stuff; but for some reason I also had some good friends, a clarinet player, trumpet player, who were very serious in to study music, because in that conservatory once you finish it’s like it goes to until … it’s like a high school level, so once you go to 12th grade, probably you don’t continue music, or painting, or the arts, you could just become a lawyer or whatever.
But there is also in every generation like a group that things very seriously to continue as artists, like musicians, and dancers, as part of that group with those guys. So those guys were really into classical music, and for some reason I was playing in there with the concert band and things like that, and I started doing something that the other saxophone players were not doing, which was getting more interested in this classical music, and the classical saxophone. There was another besides the Conservatory of Music, it’s called the Castella conservatory music. The National Symphony Orchestra had a youth program, which is called now the National Institute of Music by the time it was called the Symphonica… when it was a place where the orchestra used to have a lot of students who eventually will become part of the musicians or the National Symphony.
So what I did was starting to get really a lot of music, but one of the things that I think that this is my day, my point of how I decided to study classical saxophone, was that I had a friend who gave me a tape. He gave me a tape with some classical concertos played by this guy, but he didn’t really know who he was. So I got the tape, and I start listening and I heard Glazunov and Villa Lobos, and all those concertos, I was like, “Wow, you know, I never heard that sound the way you know … ” I was really interested in what I was hearing, and at the beginning I thought the guy that was playing was Hebert, something like that, because he just wrote the names with a pencil and I didn’t really know what it was.
It was later that I discovered that the saxophone player was called Rousseau, Dr. Rousseau , but it was through that day that I listened, and listened, and listened, and I start hearing a lot of the stuffs, and I kind of like imitated the sound, and I was able to get all the music at the Glazunov concerto. I remember writing letters to Alphonse Leduc at that time, and I was able to start buying … which was really, really hard at that time especially from Costa Rica right into France, and coming back. It took long, like weeks so you can get the stuff. So at that time, I started getting a little more and more serious about the classical saxophone, and there was another American professor there, a conductor, that play with Chicago Symphony many years ago, who was working with the Organization of American States, in programs in Latin America and he had to be there. He was a very close friend of Hemke too.
So it was through him that I learned, because he was conducting the winning sample. I learned a lot more about how to play the classical saxophone at that time, and later there were some students from the United States, because we had the North American Cultural Center who finally brought some musicians every year, they had like flute players, and there was for the first time ever a saxophone player who was there, and I was able to kind of test what I was doing with a real student from the United States, and that’s when I got really serious about … okay I was like around 19 years old at that time, I was very serious about going to the United States to study, because most of the saxophone players in Costa Rica at that time were just learning but there wasn’t anybody with a degree in saxophone.
I mean there were usually the same story, a clarinet player who plays saxophone in the bands, even though we have the music institute that is called the Ministry of Culture, Costa Rica doesn’t have an army, okay? But before the army was abolished, every city had like a military band. Once the army was abolished, the bands became national bands, and they became a very important part of the culture of Costa Rica, and everybody band had saxophone players, but mostly clarinet player who became saxophone players; but later I decided, no I really want to go and study abroad, and learn how to play a saxophone the way it should be, and get a degree, and come back to Costa Rica so I can start teaching and so nobody who wants to study saxophone doesn’t have to go through what I did, that didn’t have any books, any methods, and music, and anything.
So in my head I always … I wish I could study with Dr. Rousseau, but at that time I didn’t really know how. So back in the ’89, ’90, there was an option, the agency for International Development of the United States was given some scholarships in the country for anything, I mean Engineering, and any career that you want, and so I apply. They were like I don’t know how many, maybe like 10,000 applications or something, and I apply, and I was chosen in the last 50, and I was the only musician in that, and so at that time in 1990 there were 50 people who got the scholarship. It was a scholarship to go and do a degree in the United States, and I won the scholarship, and at that time I had already made contact with Donald Sinta because one of the students who was in that season of students that come to Costa Rica, there was a guy called Charles Young, composer and saxophone player at that time who studying with Donald the same thing.
He brought him a tape of the things that I was playing, and he was very proud because he noticed a guy from Central America playing all these classical saxophone. So he got very interested, and also I talked to Hemke, who knew that about me because of Garibaldi, the conductor, and also of course Dr. Rousseau in Indiana, but it was a funny thing because at that time, I had more chance to go to Michigan to study with Donald Sinta, but at that time I didn’t speak English, I didn’t know anything. So, fortunately the scholarship gave us some time to learn English, pass the TOEFL test, and be able to apply to the university. So I went through all that process in the United States, they just took us there and put us in the middle of Washington DC, and that’s how we started.
So once I passed the TOEFL test, and I passed all the process, the scholarship had some limits about budget for schools. So at that time, for some reason Michigan wasn’t an option because it was more expensive that what the scholarship had covered for me. So I ended up being in Indiana, I was accepted at Indiana University, but at that time I had not met or auditioned for Dr. Rousseau because they put me more like in a music education program kind of like … and I finish that process with English, I passed the TOEFL test, finally I was accepted to Indiana; meanwhile I was in a school English, like a university in Florida called Jacksonville University, I was there just English. But when I was there, one of the reasons I learned English a little bit faster was because I got involved with the School of Music, even though I didn’t have to be there. So I went and I nod, and even though I didn’t speak Spanish, I just … English I went there, and I ended up playing there with a big band, with a concert band and did concerts and stuff like that.
So I was very active with a lot of teachers and saxophone players, now in the United States. So once I got to Indiana, I was walking down the hall in one of the school buildings, and I saw this guy finally, it’s Dr. Rousseau who was in a trip, and still by there for a vacation because he was sabbatical that time. So that was a really nice thing, because I kind of went to talk to him and say, “Hi, I’m from Costa Rica and lately came here.” And he like, “Oh yeah, oh you’re gonna be a student here?” Yes, yes. He said, “What do you play?” A saxophone, and he asked me, “Oh okay, you know, I’ll be back for the Fall when the school starts.” So I talked to him and he asked me if I wanted to play something, and even though the first semester I wasn’t part of the saxophone studio, I was able to do a audition right there, like the first week for him, and that’s how … once he heard me, I play the Dubois concerto for him, the cadenza and all that.
He was very impressed that even though I didn’t have teachers before, like anybody with a degree with classes, he was very impressed that I learned how to play that with the vibrato, with the sound, and he asked me how, and I said, “Well, you know, I got your tape.” He was very impressed that I was able to get to a level of performing with just listening to his tape. So that’s part of the big step that I … for me just coming from nothing, from Costa Rica, and going directly to there. I don’t know at that time, but I just felt that for me was a very important decision to go to Indiana University and study with Dr. Rousseau because I was more familiar to what I learned through the tape, and through all the recordings that I had, because I don’t know how my life would have been if I went to Michigan for example. So it’s just part of the destiny how you kind of like start finding paths in your life that suddenly get you to a point where you don’t really realize how you got there, but you are there.
Barry: So do you think you had a plan through all of that time, or it was really one thing leading to another?
Javier Valerio: It was more like events that were connecting. I met this person, and I found his tape, and I talked to this person that brought me to another thing, another thing, another thing, another thing until I got there, because let’s say that for example the scholarship covered the amount of money they needed for Michigan for example, I probably ended up in Michigan and not in Indiana, but I think that there was something that was already planned there, that my plan was to go there. So being there was also good, because I was able to meet all those people, and students, and playing in a winning ensemble with great conductors like Kramer, and yeah I mean it’s just like this kind of thing in your life that you probably have a dream about something, but I sometimes think that you don’t really need to follow your dreams, you just need to follow your efforts, and that’s gonna lead you to places where you want to go.
Because later being there as a saxophone player, a student of Indiana University, and start going through saxophone symposiums, and congresses, it was really hard sometimes because, “Oh were are you from?” Costa Rica, “Oh really? Oh my God.” People look at you and okay, and later when they ask me, “And who was … who’s your teacher?” I say, “Dr. Rousseau.” Oh really, and so they come to you and ask you, “Oh really?” Yeah, it was really weird also at that time, in the ’80s. Actually I was one of the first Latinos that Dr. Rousseau taught. I think I was the only one. There was later another one I think in Michigan, no in Minnesota, a guy from Puerto Rico, but I told him like many years later, “You know, I’m the only Latino that you have taught.”
Barry: It’s very interesting you’ve approached classical saxophone almost like a jazz musician, where you’ve learned classical saxophone, essentially by ear.
Javier Valerio: Yeah.
Barry: You’ve come around in the reverse direction of a lot of people.
Javier Valerio: Yeah.
Barry: Have you found out the people who’ve learned in a similar way?
Javier Valerio: When I was in Indiana like in 1991 or ’92, I remember that Dr. Rousseau one day when he was teaching me a lesson, he said, “Oh I want you to go out and talk to this student that just came from Hong Kong.” And I didn’t really know because he was there like the first-second week, and it was Kenneth Tse, and I told Kenneth later, “You know, Dr. Rousseau want us to talk.” So Kenneth and I went to drink something that day or eat something, and he was telling me about the tape story too.
Barry: The same story?
Javier Valerio: The same story, yeah, but it’s funny that he had the same experience in Hong Kong, and I had the same experience in Costa Rica. So the reason why Dr. Rousseau wanted us to talk to each other was to share the same story. For him it was very impressive that we as musicians in different countries, in different parts of the world, got the same kind of story.
Javier Valerio: Yeah. Later when I talk to Kenneth, he was telling me that that was how he learned about classical saxophone too, through that. Later we got more recordings and stuff like that I remember about, I think that one of the clear examples that I have of somebody who learned in a similar way that I did about classical saxophone was with Kenneth, and the funny story just we got a tape. He was in the LP, it was just a recording that we got at that time.
Barry: So as a student, did you learn new technical routines that you perhaps hadn’t known before going to the States?
Javier Valerio: One of the things I learned when I was in Indiana was that besides Dr. Rousseau , he was able to … at that time he was doing a lot of concert, playing and stuff, I mean was one other time he was playing all over the world. So we gave that chance to also study with other teachers that he invited, so I study with Ivan Graf from Switzerland, a teacher from Japan, Jean Nancy who was one of the first women playing a saxophone quartet with him, and a guy from India… that was teaching. So I got all this also saxophone players from different perspectives that came and taught, and I think that one of the routines or things that I learned very well when I was with Dr. Rousseau, was about sound concept.
So how to sing with mouthpiece, how to sometimes try to polish your tongue, and your sound, your articulation, practicing with your mouthpiece first, and how later you can adjust that to the soprano, to the alto, bari, and especially how to use your airstream, your column and all that through that. So that’s one of the basics routines that I really like, and especially at that time that I really oh that’s … because I was just doing it, but I didn’t really know how, but once you can also practice with your mouthpiece and the long notes, and you can practice the vibrato through the mouthpiece first, and after you do it with your horn. That was one of the things that I was like, “Oh, okay. So this is something that you know, is kind of like improving more while you actually … you can do just with a horn … horn set.”
Barry: Do you find that you practice different things now to when you were learning as a student?
Javier Valerio: I keep some elements, but as a saxophone player from Latin America; especially from Costa Rica in the Central America, we get a lot of influence of music from all over the world, so we get from North America, we get music from South America, from the Caribbean, from Europe. So I cannot just play classical music, I have to play all the things, so I have to play salsa, I have to play merengue, I have to play classical, I have to play jazz, I have to play rock, I have to play all these different styles. So sometimes I learn that I cannot just practice one way, because it depends on what I need to do.
So I keep like the basics what I said about the way I practice sometimes, like articulation, things like that, but it depends on what I have to play that it’ll vary the way of playing. So if I have to play … I played many times with some Latin rock groups that were nominated for Grammy’s and stuff like that, so I needed to play with the harder mouthpiece, and brighter sound, things like that. So I think that I kind of change the way I practice depending on what I have to do, and I think that now with all the technology that you have, I have made variations of what I did. Like let’s say in the ’90s, like a lot of stuff. Sometimes I use some of the … for example, if I have to play, or I have to teach something related to for example the skirmish the first moment.
So I go through YouTube and I found like a really nice Samba rhythm bass, like a loop. So that in the ’90s wasn’t possible, I just needed to have that musicians with me, but sometimes I use the technology, so I can feel like because that’s a chattel, things like that. So I think that I have incorporated things that sometimes don’t distract me from the practicing because of the technology, once you start getting YouTube, you get Facebook, and you start watching the views as you do a little practice, but I do have some things now that I use. Later, I remember in Indiana, that was one of the biggest universities at that time, so you were able at that time to be in the library where you actually have the music parts, with the recordings, and everything. For me that was like a pressure, that was like wow.
I couldn’t do that in Costa Rica at all at that time, but now you have it in the phone, so you have everything there and you have different versions of different quartets, or like different concerto that you’re gonna play, and you have the music. So sometimes now the way you prepare, you practicing routine, it kind of changes because you’ve got more material, more things available.
Barry: Do you ever find yourself unable to cope with the technology that’s around? Is it too distracting now?
Javier Valerio: Yeah. I mean, if you let yourself get distracted you’re gonna get, because it’s very easy. I mean very easy. Like one of the first things that I do when I practice, and that’s what I tell my students, just turn off the phone, and the excuse is okay but I have my metronome, my tuner, and everything on the phone. So I say, “Okay, so put it in airplane mode.”
Javier Valerio: Because it’s very distracting now with the social media, if you have a phone in your stand, and you keep communicating with the world, immediately you start getting like an email, or like a text, and something, and the distraction is gonna be terrible.
Barry: I heard that every message you get, it takes something like six or seven minutes to refocus your concentration back to what you were doing. Imagine we probably get more than one message every six minutes.
Javier Valerio: Especially jokes. In Costa Rica we have a lot of chats, and people like to send jokes all over, all the time, memes, all the time. So once you start reading a joke, you want to send that joke to your other chat, your friends, and so by the time you know it’s 10 minutes you spent.
Barry: You were in America for 12 years right?
Javier Valerio: Yeah.
Barry: That’s a long time.
Javier Valerio: Different parts, yeah.
Barry: Different times.
Javier Valerio: Yeah.
Barry: So all of that knowledge you’ve taken back to Costa Rica, I mean considering that you were saying you were really the only classical saxophonist, now you have a teaching position at a university, and students, and other teachers, I mean the country has changed enormously…
Javier Valerio: Yeah. That was in 1994 that I finished, I got my degree, and I went back. It’s funny because the University of Costa Rica, which is a main university in Latin America, they had a saxophone position but they open it in the ’80s, but they didn’t have a teacher. The reason it was open was because there was a guy who played on the San Jose National Band, his name is…, he was a clarinet player but also played saxophone very seriously, and he was the first guy who was able to play the Ibert concerto in the National Theater at that time, because he was a composer that came from … a Costa Rican composer that was working with … actually he was in France and also in United States Eastman School of Music, and he was able to interact with saxophone players when he was in France.
So he came back to Costa Rica back in the ’70s and told to do saxophone player, or there’s a concerto. They did it once, I was a little kid when that happened, and that was the first time that this guy was able to play the instrument in a way that people didn’t hear before, but it’s funny because at that time at the conservatory music, saxophone wasn’t allowed to be played. So you couldn’t go there and you can play it, but you couldn’t play saxophone, because saxophone was for Latinos, they were for popular music, it wasn’t a serious instrument why they call. So I was very fortunate that when I got there at the university, they have a position but it wasn’t a full-time position, it was just like five hours of teaching, a professor, hours what they have.
So at that time, I was working for the first time with area National Band that was part of that system, and I start teaching. I got students at that time, but they didn’t really understand the concept that I was going to be able to start teaching, and so I started with the University of Costa Rica, and there was another position also at the National Symphony Orchestra. So I was playing with the National Symphony Orchestra when they have like a repertoire with saxophone, and that gave me the option also to start teaching there at the Youth National Symphony Program, where I have a saxophone studio too, and I was teaching at the university a little bit. So later, they saw what I was doing, I started with doing a saxophone quartet, and students playing out repertoire with piano, things like that.
So I start little by little, so from five hours I went to a quarter time, later half time, and through the years I was able to finally have like a full-time position at the university, and start graduating students. Later I got one of my first students who graduated being able to get a position at the university with also like a half time, part-time job there, and through that I started also in 1996 with other students, a group that now is called SONSAX but at that time it was just a part of the process. Yeah, and through the years I was able to graduate generations of students who became teachers, and they were able to start spreading around the country, and kind of like start creating the different school that I heard in my head many years later.
Since there, we have had now a lot of students who graduated, who now teach at the country, or other ones have gone through to do degrees outside. We’re kind of exporting student also, then we have students in the States, in Europe, some have gone to Latin America and they’re doing their stuff, they’re recording, they’re doing all these things; but it was really hard at the beginning, I mean it wasn’t like everybody was expecting me, “No, Valerio you can, we were waiting for you with your saxophone.” At that time, people especially the clarinet players, the teacher, the professor, the flute players, they didn’t take me very serious because saxophone was just for like having fun, and playing jazz merengue, and salsa, but once they start hearing the repertoire, and I was able to demonstrate how you can play.
The similar story that some people had in Europe, in States, at the beginning when they started too, so people got a little more credibility in what we were doing, they take us very seriously. The saxophone ensemble for example in the University of Costa Rica, last year was the 20th anniversary, and it has been one of the more consistent groups at the university, and some people in the other instrument haven’t been able to do it, but we have kept it for 20 years already, and we just don’t play in Costa Rica, we have been able to go to festivals and stuff like that. So they are there, “Oh my God.” We are able now to have like all the saxophone sets from the sopraninos to the bass saxophone set. So it took a long process, but at that time it was really nice also that I got students who were able to continue the idea that I was having.
Once we got SONSAX, once we get students who were doing all the things, we came to a place where we noticed that the country was ready to have a festival. That’s one of the things that I told Dr. Rousseau many years, “Oh, well it will be nice to have a festival.” I got there in 1994, but if I wanted to do a festival like in ’98, I didn’t really have the people, and the country wasn’t ready to have that. So it was like in 2007 that I start doing the Sax Fest Costa Rica International, it’s been now for 11 years, and that’s how I started to create different opportunities for a lot of students also to be able to perform and see other international saxophonists who came, and were giving concerts, master classes, and all that stuff.
Through that, that was the plan to do another dream that I had a long time ago, that was to do the Latin American Saxophone Alliance, because when I was in the ’90s in United States, I was introduced to the North American Saxophone Alliance, and being with Dr. Rousseau he told me about the experience he had with creating that with other colleagues, and at that time, and also with the world saxophone congress and how. So I got very well with that, and back in ’92 I was thinking about doing that at one point, but we needed to know who was teaching where. Even though we knew there were some saxophone players in different Latin American countries, we didn’t really know … and I think that we needed to wait until internet was invented, because once we got internet, and we were able to have email, that’s how we as Latin American teachers start like contacting each other.
So suddenly I got an email from Mexico, and I found out there was somebody in Guatemala and in Colombia, and like that. I think that after 2007, I was able to start making contacts to main teachers in different places, and start getting along. So it was until 2012 that we were able to do the first congress of the Latin American Saxophone Alliance, and it was in Costa Rica. So we hosted, and the idea was to start putting together every experience that all those guys had, and it’s the same kind of story that I was told you about how they started, like they have similar stories about the clarinet player who played saxophone who was a teacher but nobody had the music. Through all these years, we have been able to use our festivals as a platform to host the congress, so we already did four Congresses now. We started with Costa Rica went to another congress in Mexico … no it was Costa Rica first, Brazil, Mexico, and we just did it in Colombia.
So if you think back in the ’90s to do that, it was impossible. I mean nobody understood, who know what it was; but that was part of the plan, that I kind of start doing by contacting all these teachers, and one of the main goals the as an alliance that we had at the beginning was to learn about each other and later who we are, because we didn’t really know. So we’re still at that process, every time now there are like more festivals in every different country that we’re going to, to participate and knowing what they’re doing and stuff, things like that. But it’s been like … since I came back in ’94, like a little bit of things that are connecting, connecting, connecting. One of the reasons we were able to communicate with the Mexican teachers and students at the time, well because a student who graduated with me called Sophia.., she met somebody and she ended up … she ended up being in Mexico, and that’s how we got the connection, because she was playing saxophone and went to audition for Mexico, and the guys from Mexico didn’t know there was a saxophone school in Costa Rica like that, and so that’s how we got a series of events where start connecting people and experiences. So only this is what we got from all that.
Barry: Your group SONSAX has been playing for more than 20 years now, you’ve been traveling all around the world, how do you balance travel and you’ve got a young family on earth? How do you balance those things, your musical career, and also your job at home, and your family at home?
Javier Valerio: Yeah. Well, one of the things that led me I think do what I do, is just to have a wonderful wife that supports you, and also understands what you do, because I had friends who haven’t been able to go through what they want to do because sometimes they don’t get the support and that becomes a problem, but once you’ve got the type of wife I have where I told her, “I got an opportunity now to do a master’s degree in the States so let’s go.” And she’s like, “Okay, let’s go.” Even though she was a lawyer, she left everything and say, “Okay, let’s go, you know, I go with you and … and support you.” So I think that that’s one of the main basis that I have, that the person I’m sharing my life with understands, and enjoy what I do.
So another thing that I find that has been very flexible, is that the University of Costa Rica also their view is to have teachers who are active and participating in traveling, than having just somebody in the classroom. So that’s one of the things that I think is very important, especially in the School of Music, they actually encourage you to be out and to participate, and they support you in that aspect. So it’s not like, “Oh no you have to teach, and you have to be here because … ” No. So as long as you teach to your students, even before and after, you kind of like catch up with they okay, because they want … actually the idea is that everything that I do outside or I learning outside, that’s something that’s gonna benefit the students too. So the university has that philosophy, that’s not a problem if you have to go out, actually it’s good for the university that you’re out, because that means that you are working at doing a lot of active stuff.
The other thing is just that I try to kind of organize my schedules in a way that for me family is the most important thing. So the family’s first, and so I try to understand where are the most important parts where I can interact with my two girls and my wife, and based on that I put my practicing hours depending on if they’re at school so I could practice here, or if they’re doing some activities I could practice at different hours of the day, and also with the same way when I teach, I try to find different spots where I can have some spaces. So sometimes I teach like two or three students, so I give some space to go drink coffee, eat lunch, and after practice, and after keep playing, and with the rehearsals too. So I try to do it, and when I travel, I like and the way I do it is just like for example now if I have a trip, I contact my student before, and I say, “Okay, I’m gonna be out this week.” So I try to teach their lessons before I leave, so I can organize with them the repertoire. So by the time I come back they already know what they have to do.
I usually don’t like to catch up with the students after I come back because I’m tired, so it’s better for me just to do it before, and they feel more comfortable because even though I’m away, they know what they they do. Another thing that I do now that I wasn’t able to do before, is that sometimes when I’m traveling, if a student has a question or something they just send me a text, or I call them and we talk, and even sometimes I get sampled, “Oh listen I … I … I was practicing this.” And then they send me a little audio, and I tell them, “Oh do this, or do this or … or try to practice this.”
Barry: This weekend you’re performing as a soloist in Slovenia?
Javier Valerio: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Barry: Could you perhaps tell me how you have prepared yourself for that performance?
Javier Valerio: Well, I am playing a piece that I have never played, and I have two weeks to learn it. So what I did is, last Monday because I was traveling with my family, I was vacationing so I didn’t have much time to practice because I was at the beach, and traveling. So when I travel, sometimes at least I take my mouthpiece, so I can do some long notes and stuff like that. In this trip specifically I couldn’t bring my saxophone because I have six suitcases, and I didn’t have any time to. So I was playing with a saxophone that a friend of mine gave me in Mexico, because I was in a house, so I was able to get the home once in a while, but for this I tried to get in the mornings like at least two hours of practicing.
So the first two hours, what I did was just a little bit of warming up and stuff like that, and I just went through some slow passages through the piece, because this piece has a lot of jumps, like little jumps and jumps and it has some altissimo notes too. So I try to kind of recognize the piece from the beginning to the end, and do like a little scanning, but what I needed to do. Since I was on vacation in the last two weeks, I was able to add these two hours, have a little break, go walk, and do some exercise, come back, eat lunch, in the afternoon I practice at least two more hours, or three more hours, and I was able to get ready with some of the passages that I thought they’re a little more uncomfortable. Specifically for this one, there are some altissimo with big jumps, so I really needed to be very sure what kind of altissimo position I was going to …. the fingering I was going to use.
So I had to take some time to start writing down just to memorize how I’m gonna be using the fingering like that. So I think that I had a really comfortable session of practice in hours during the whole two weeks that I was able. Usually it doesn’t happen like that, because I will be working or something, but since I was on vacation for specifically for this week, I was able to have like a regular schedule every day, like wake up, eat breakfast with my kids, they went to school, so I was able to find afternoon practicing time, which is really good. Usually you will have to find other times. I went to the beach during the weekend before I came here, so we went to the beach and later I told them, “Okay, I’ll … I’ll be back.” So I went there, practiced an hour and a half, and went back to the beach. So that’s how I was able to kind of like learn the piece in two weeks in the way that I feel comfortable now with what I’m doing. I just need to check some stuff, and this is gonna be the first time I’m playing that with the sample so we’ll see.
Barry: It is funny that a saxophone player’s holiday involves practicing all the time, not exactly a holiday.
Javier Valerio: Exactly. Well, I think that yeah if you don’t do it, it’s like anybody who does exercising, your shape doesn’t get better. So I think that’s the way, but I think one of the beautiful things about this profession, what we call this, just like always you like to do music. Like this year I have to learn three new concertos that they have been written for me, so I’m playing one with the National Symphony Orchestra in June. Actually, it’s a guy who just got a Grammy for one of his compositions that was … and he wrote me a concerto, and I have another concerto for winner sample that I’m gonna perform in the Hong Kong Symposium, and I have another concerto with SONSAX we’re playing with the National Symphony for saxophone quartet.
Since now, I’m kind of like scheduling how I’m gonna be learning all these different concertos, because I have all the repertoire besides this new piece that I have to perform and play in other festivals I’m gonna be going, plus the music that I have to teach with the students. So I have a lot of students graduated this year doing recitals, and some of them are playing new music too that they have been commissioning, so I have to take some time to look at the piece and see what I’m gonna be able to tell them. So I need to practice the music they also play.
Barry: Is working with composers an important part of what you do?
Javier Valerio: Oh yeah. I’m a very good friend of composers. I mean I have a lot of composers. Actually, that one that I told you that just got a Grammy, got together with another composer who just got a Grammy too, and he’s a conductor and composer. It’s funny because in 1990, on ’88, ’89, this composer Carlos Castro, who was a little bit closer to my generation at that time, I was the first who commissioned him a saxophone piece, and since then he got very interested in composing for a saxophone. So through the years, this is a person that’s always doing a sonata and a concerto, and through him and two other more composers, we got like a generation of teachers who actually take saxophone compositions really seriously.
So when they teach composition their classes, usually I got students in my room asking me, “Oh I’m writing a saxophone concerto, and do you think your students can you know, try them?” So I usually have a lot of music written for saxophone, and my students are able to sometimes include that music in their recitals, and also some of my students sometimes getting interested and so they compose their own pieces and stuff like that. Especially like there’s a big new generation composers who are doing a lot of new stuff, and I always get really close to composers; because otherwise you’re just gonna get stuck with the same music all the time. So you need to evolve, you need to get new stuff.
Barry: Is improvising a big part of what you do?
Javier Valerio: Yeah.
Barry: Do you do that in your own time, with SONSAX, I mean where does it fit in?
Javier Valerio: Yeah. Some of the repertoire we play includes improvisation. So you really need to include it, and I do that in my classes too, because even though I teach at the school of music saxophone, my classes have to include not just classical saxophone. So I have to teach them how to play merengue, because eventually in a place like that, they will call a saxophonist, not a classical saxophone, they will call a saxophone.
So sometimes my students they can be playing a concerto with a winning sample, because we have many billion samples around the country, but at the same time that may include a repertoire that ask you to play some Latino stuff or thing, and they cannot say, “Oh no I just play sax … classical saxophone.” So part of the classes that I have to teach, I get sometimes, and we got CDs, and we got books how you play the merengue. I mean it’s exactly like if you’re playing classical, so I have to sit with them, you know how to like do slow stuff, and how to play the second voice or the tenor, and merengue usually is two voices, and sometimes when you play salsa, you have to learn about the clarinet and all the stuff.
So as a teacher I have to be able not just to communicate the knowledge through the classical saxophone, the sound, how to use the vibrato and all that kind of stuff, but also I have to teach that kind of stuff, which is very important because when they graduate, they have to be able to know that stuff, so otherwise they won’t be higher. So improvisation is important also within the class. Usually I got my master’s degree in jazz when I was in the States too, so I was able to learn how to teach some of the jazz techniques and stuff like that. So I usually make a combination, so when I’m doing scales, I try to teach them through the circle of 5ths, and do some patterns.
So when they learn the technique, it’s just not for classical saxophone, it’s for both. So I do a combination how to use the scales, and how you learn the degrees, and the chords, so you’re playing with the 7ths, and 9ths, and things like that, and I encouraged them a lot to use the pentatonic scales, the diminished scales, the whole tone scales, because a lot of the repertoire that we play, they have all these 20th century music in a language. That’s also using jazz, so when I teach them, I try to have them understand that that’s just music in the way you kind of like use that in a jazz standard, also is something you can apply when you play classical, because some of the scales are the same.
Having a diminished scale, you can find it in a concerto, a chromatic scale, and a concerto as well as you can use it for privatization. So I try to have them understand that it’s just music, so it doesn’t mean that if you learn how to use the pentatonic scale or the blues scale, you’re just going to be in jazz, no also you have to be able to analyze and find that kind of thing that sometimes composer use in their music. There’s some stuff that you find that Tomasi concerto there’s a lot of chromatic stuff, and I tell them, you are practicing this here too, so if you see you know, you already play that. It’s just a way there … a way of recognizing, okay what kind of like scale, what kind of like arpeggio are you using, and you’ll probably practice that through the circle of it when you are just doing the routine.
Barry: Yeah. You’re ready for some rapid fire questions?
Javier Valerio: Yeah.
Barry: All right. So here we go. So if you just have one piece of music that you could play, what would that be?
Javier Valerio: I mean there’s so much music, but if I have just one piece, I think that just for myself, I’ll do the Dubois concerto, because that’s like the piece that introduced me to all this world. That was like the first piece I learned, and I enjoyed, and kind of like brings me a lot of nice memories; especially when I was able to study finally with a person that I admire, so I think through that, when I play I enjoy it a lot, because it’s like a sample of something that I wish I wanted to do, and through that piece I was able to do that.
Barry: So you’ve got one hour to practice, how would you spend that hour?
Javier Valerio: The hour of practicing? I like playing scales, but in different ways, and different rhythms. So I usually like to sometimes practice the scales, then some salsa rhythms, and so we get like really steady or straight beat, and later I think that I will just play … I like to sometimes just play melodies, but just compose whatever comes to my mind with long tones, and go up and down, go up and down, going around. Also, maybe in that hour, I probably do like really fast arpeggios like just for the hell of it.
Barry: Who do you consider to be one of the most successful contributors to the saxophone?
Javier Valerio: Well in my case, I will consider … I mean it’s not fair because there are too many people that somebody who I admire, Dr. Rousseau of course. The reasons is that he was able to put the saxophone in places that the saxophone were not before, like with the gramophone, recording, and he was able to be like in juries that work just for the regular instrument that never thought a saxophone as a serious instrument to be, like the most certain competition and all that kind of stuff.
Barry: If we learn from our mistakes, is it okay to make mistakes?
Javier Valerio: Yeah, I think so, because that’s the only way that you will test yourself. So I don’t think that you have to do mistakes voluntarily, but if you made a mistake, and you didn’t mean to do that, you need to analyze why. So that’s why you kind of like improve where you want to.
Barry: What’s the most important thing that you can do before you have a performance?
Javier Valerio: I think it’s just to be aware that what you want to do is something that you’re gonna enjoy it. If you don’t enjoy what you’re gonna do, I think you’re wasting your time because you’re punishing yourself, you will get nervous and stuff like … I mean, it’s okay to get nervous and stuff, but if you feel not comfortable, then you are taking the experience you’re gonna do something negative, I think that’s not right.
Barry: What advice would you give to yourself looking back what you’ve learned now?
Javier Valerio: I will tell myself, especially me, to sometimes not be too uptight, to be patient, to think twice, and sometimes don’t do things by reaction, like really fast, because sometimes one of the problems I get into it, because something comes and my way of doing things are very fast, and like doing it now, and sometimes I think that my advice to myself is just take it easy, just breathe, think about twice, and do it. But sometimes I think if you think it twice, you probably won’t do what you do, but just to be a little more relaxed in some of the things, because that’s some of the … going back to all these years; especially now that I’m growing up and I’m getting a little older, I can see how I used to react when I was younger, and sometimes didn’t think about consequences, I just did it. But on the other hand, I say, “Well, if I ha- if I hadn’t done it like that, probably wouldn’t happen.”
Barry: Yeah. Is there something we should be doing that lets us have a long, healthy career?
Javier Valerio: Yes, and many people think that’s not important, but exercise. Like part of your life, it’s good, but before you do exercise, I think that you need to be very aware of how you breathe. I think the breathing, I’m doing breathing exercises, no as a musician, but be aware, because every time you tell somebody, “Breath in.” They’re like oh, but I think that one of the first things you do when you are born is breathing, and when the last thing you’re gonna do is dying is breathe. So if you don’t breathe correctly, and you don’t get all the oxygen and stuff like that.
Even though if you exercise and you do it correctly, it’s not gonna help; especially for us that we would play with instruments, we need air. So I think that being aware of how you breathe is something that is gonna help you a lot, and the advice I give people now, once I got to exercise regularly like a part of the routine, you don’t have to be worried about allergies and all this kind of disease that sometimes players get, because they are always like practicing and doing all this stuff, and so, “Oh my shoulder, oh my leg, oh I get sick all the time.” It’s just because they lack exercise. So if you do exercise, I think a lot of things are gonna be improved.
Barry: What are some of the changes that you’ve seen in the saxophone during your career, and also what are some of the things that haven’t changed that perhaps has surprised you?
Javier Valerio: Yeah. It depends on where you are, but I think that back in the ’90s, ’80s, when the schools were starting, there was a big division between the classical saxophone and what they called the jazz saxophone player, but through the years now you see more, and more, students and people who graduate, who are combining both. So that’s one of the things I’ve seen that has changed, and that’s because some of the teacher that are teaching now, they can do both. I mean they can explore, obviously some of them are gonna be more involved with one of those, but at least they can teach both, and I think the repertoire has increased. There was a point where you just got some of the same music, the same music, the same music, the same music, but I think that now I mean there is a little more interaction and connection with composer who are helping to develop new repertoire, new styles of music.
Basically, one of the things that probably haven’t changed that much is just that saxophone itself, like even though there are like new developments in the instrument, the saxophone keeps the same keys and things like that, not something that you have to learn a new way of doing stuff. So I think that that basically it.
Barry: So is there a recent project you’ve been working on that you’d like to tell us about?
Javier Valerio: Yeah. I’m finishing a CD. Well not CD but a recording, because now nobody uses a CD, of some Costa Ricans music repertoire for saxophone that I have some chamber music with other things. So I’m in the process of finishing that, and also I just realized in the last four months that I have … like by the end of July, I will have four saxophone concertos that I have recorded with Orchestra.
So I think that I’m gonna release another production with just that, because there are four saxophone concerto by Costa Rican composers, that were written and had not been recorded before, and I have had recorded them lately, so I think by July when I finish the last concerto I have to play, I probably do that. So I probably have two this year, two different production that I have. With SONSAX, we are finishing another music recording that we’re doing, so probably by December we have something coming up too.
Barry: Has recording been an important part of your development?
Javier Valerio: Yeah.
Javier Valerio: I think especially I do a lot of live recordings. Yeah, so it’s been part of what I do, and especially now that I have all these composers, I’m trying to organize a lot of the things that are written, so I can start documenting all that music.
Barry: So where can people find more about you?
Javier Valerio: Well I have my Facebook, javiervalerio.com
Barry: When your phone is on?
Javier Valerio: Yeah, and also there is a website, javiervalerio.com, where there’s my contact and there are some stuff. Right now it’s in construction, so it’s there but you’re gonna get eventually more stuff through that.
Barry: So you’ve made an incredible contribution to the saxophone, what’s next for you?
Javier Valerio: Well, I don’t know if I have made like a very big contribution, but I think as I told you, there is a lot of work to do in Latin America, so I really want to continue working even more and more along with the colleagues in the Latin-American Saxophone Alliance, to get to all those countries, and places, where the saxophone needs to be developed even more. So I see myself that in the next years I’m gonna be going through all those places, and traveling more, being able to have all those people learning about all the legend, and the history of the saxophone; but at the same time through those people, going to the world saxophone congresses, and go to all those places that had saxophone for many years as a tradition, to learn more about those countries who are just starting to create things for saxophone too.
Barry: Great. So thanks for your time.
Javier Valerio: You’re welcome.
Barry: Let’s get some coffee.
Javier Valerio: Yes.