Jean-François Guay - Canadian Saxophonist and Professor - 29
About Jean-François Guay
Jean-François Guay studied at McGill University in Montreal and at the Conservatory of Bordeaux, France, where he received his gold medal under the direction of Jean-Marie Londeix. He also holds a Masters in performance from Laval University in Quebec.
In 2000, Jean-François was the director of the 12th World Saxophone Congress held in Montreal, Canada. A specialist in contemporary music, he has commissioned numerous works for the saxophone.
Jean-François is currently a professor of saxophone at the CÉGEP Marie-Victorin in Montreal and the University of Montreal. He is the founding member of the Nelligan Saxophone Quartet which was formed in 1994 with the mandate to showcase the contemporary and classical repertoire for the saxophone.
- Organising the 12th World Saxophone Congress.
- Fundraising for saxophone events.
- The silence after the intensity of a large event.
- Starting the Association des Saxophonistes du Québec.
- Bringing Canadian saxophonists together.
- Getting to know the world’s saxophone players.
- Limited Canadian opportunities for saxophone and orchestra.
- Getting started playing the tuba.
- Learning with teachers Rémi Ménard, Abe Kestenberg and Jean-Marie Londeix.
- Having encouraging and critical teachers.
- Squeezing in practice around other activities.
- Learning to be efficient out of necessity.
- Thoughts on working from memory.
- Keeping fit for a long career.
- Recordings as a documentation process.
- The importance of living a rich life.
- Teaching at CÉGEP Marie-Victorin and the Université de Montréal.
- Working with great Canadian composers.
- The importance of playing good music.
- The Art of Fugue.
- The joy of being with people.
- Focussing on the task and not the risk.
- Always be over-prepared.
- Exciting new projects coming up.
- Being part of an orchestra but feeling apart.
- Having a fire inside of me!
Transcript of Podcast Interview with Jean-François Guay
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: Et maintenant en Anglais.
Jean-François Guay: Ça va être en Anglais Barry, oui? It’s okay.
Barry Cockcroft: First of all, Jean-François, thank you very much for joining me here in Columbia.
Jean-François Guay: Okay. Thanks for having me.
Barry Cockcroft: It’s an unusual place for an Australian and a Canadian to meet. Great. Fantastic. It’s good to see you again.
Jean-François Guay: Yeah. Good to see you. Thanks for inviting me, very nice of you.
Barry Cockcroft: It’s a long time since I’ve been familiar with your name, because in 2000, I went to the World Saxophone Congress in Montreal, and you organised this.
Jean-François Guay: Yeah.
Barry Cockcroft: No doubt, with help?
Jean-François Guay: Yeah.
Barry Cockcroft: Since then, your name has always been in the back of my mind. Last year, I heard your students playing at the Sax Congress in Zagreb and we reconnected, which was nice. I was very pleased when I heard that you were coming here to Columbia, because I’d been wanting to talk to you.
Jean-François Guay: Yeah. First of all, again, thanks for having me. It’s very nice. Yeah, it’s a long time ago that that adventure, I would say, with the World Congress in 2000. For me, it was a big step for my career, for everything after that came. I was quite young at that time to organise this congress, because I had not much experience in the saxophone world, but for me, it was an idea, I said, I have to do something. Then, I said, why not a World Congress.
Jean-François Guay: I did that. The old organisation, it’s something big, it’s a big thing to organise. After, and going through all the pain, I would say sometime, and all the fun, the joy of this thing, but after, I was … It helped me a lot, but I was so happy, I left much more confident, I knew many more people, I knew you and other people, and I don’t know, it helped, and after, I said, I did that, and okay, I’m more ready for the saxophone world that came after.
Barry Cockcroft: Had you had some experience before that, organising smaller events in this arts organisation idea, where you can build an event? Had you done this before?
Jean-François Guay: Yeah. I did that before, Barry, but it was a smaller scale for sure. I founded before the congress, an association named l’Association des Saxophonistes du Québec, and I did that before, and we organised, we invited people to come in Montreal, and give concert masterclass, but on a smaller scale. I would say, I don’t know, two or three days conference, that we would organise in Montreal, in Quebec City, also, in Quebec. A few cities in Quebec.
Jean-François Guay: We did that for two years. We had a magazine, for the Association des Saxophonistes du Québec, so we wrote articles and we did all of that organising things. Then after, that was the big … One of the main goals, I would say, with this association, to have some big thing, and it came like this a bit. We said okay, now, it’s the World Congress. That was the experience we had before.
Barry Cockcroft: Did you choose yourself to do the congress, or were you encouraged and pushed, let’s say, to do it?
Jean-François Guay: Yeah. I wouldn’t say pushed, but I was close to Mr. Londeix at that time, and we still, I’m close to him. We talked a lot at that time. Talking to him and said, okay, him saying, “You should do it maybe, and I will help you.” He helped us a lot before, because we had to build a file, a dossier. We did that. He pushed me a bit, but with help. It’s not okay, yeah, you can do it, and okay, now do it. He said, “You can do it, but I will give you advice and everything.”
Jean-François Guay: We communicate, and he was really helpful. It’s a good thing that he was there.
Barry Cockcroft: I’ve seen sometimes, a congress can help to bring the different saxophone players from a town or a country together, because it needs a lot of support. Did you find in Canada that it brought the Canadians together, as an international event?
Jean-François Guay: Yeah, for sure. Oh yeah. It help a lot. We just a small example during the congress. The repertoire that was sold in the store, the saxophone music, there was not that much at that time for a saxophone player. With the congress, surely, we asked the store to have more music, more saxophone music. They order a lot of stuff from everywhere, a lot of new music, and it stayed in the stores. Now, we have a bigger choice, we have much more music.
Jean-François Guay: It’s a small example, but it was important for us, because before, it was difficult, and I would say that for every aspect, I would say technique, instruments, those kind of things, it was really helpful. For sure, Canada, it’s a big country, and it helped a lot to connect with people from British Columbia, which is really far from Quebec, and now with the technology, it’s easier. At that time, we had time to talk, to share things with people that we knew the name, but it was not … We didn’t know very much what those people were doing. At that time, it connected us. Then with all the improvement, technology, we stayed connected, knowing what everybody is doing.
Jean-François Guay: It helped a lot, yeah.
Barry Cockcroft: I’ve heard sometimes in Canada, because you have two languages, and two histories, kind of, was there ever any division between the English speaking saxophone community, and the French speaking saxophone community?
Jean-François Guay: No. Not saxophonistically. Sometimes, yeah, politically, but not in the saxophone world. No, in Canada, there’s a lot of, not a lot, but there’s a few different concepts, people that sometimes are different from a certain person, and it’s normal, but no, there’s no division. We try to do things together, we try to play music from everywhere in the country. I would say this congress helped a lot for this. We share all the same things, the same instrument. It’s not a big world. We try to do things together.
Barry Cockcroft: It brought everybody together, and now you’ve stayed together.
Jean-François Guay: Yeah, for sure.
Barry Cockcroft: That’s good.
Jean-François Guay: Oh yeah. We stayed together. I would say more connection with people, that are far away physically, that was not obvious before, but now, at least we know when we do things together.
Barry Cockcroft: You mentioned that after the congress, it helped you to develop your career. Was that from having made the connections and contacts with the saxophone players from around the world?
Jean-François Guay: Yeah, for sure. It helped a lot, because I was saying, not far after the congress, I wrote about everybody important in the saxophone world. You can, I don’t know, you wrote to someone, and you can almost call him by his middle name. It’s like a friend. It’s not, you met him, you talked to him, shake his hand and everything. There’s a proximity that occurred.
Jean-François Guay: Yeah, for that, it was really, you write to someone, and okay, yeah, you’re the one who organised the congress in Montreal. It’s a lot easier.
Barry Cockcroft: What’s it like? It’s so busy, so many things to organise, what’s it like afterwards when it goes quiet?
Jean-François Guay: Yeah. That’s the hard part, Barry. As much as I was saying to myself, when it will be over, I will be so happy, it was great, we had a success and everything, but the Monday morning after the last concert, I will be so happy that it’s finished. No, it’s the contrary. You’re so busy for two years, and you answer to mails a lot, every morning, and you have to do it, because you cannot wait, you have too much to do.
Jean-François Guay: That Monday morning after the congress, you open your computer like you do for the previous two years, and no email, nothing. It’s like, how do you say that, when someone dies, it’s … In French, we say ‘un deuil’ [a mourning], when you stop working, nothing is happening.
Jean-François Guay: It seems like now, it’s not a depression, but it’s like, no, I’m useless a bit, nobody writes me. That feeling, and it lasts a few weeks, I would say. Yeah.
Barry Cockcroft: Okay. Maybe for the people listening, I’m sure you’ve got some suggestions on how they could find money to organise events, because the expense and cost of organising a big congress must be enormous, and you need money from different places. Have you got any suggestions for people organising their own events in their countries, of ways to get money and participation from groups and orchestras and things?
Jean-François Guay: Yeah. For sure, in Canada, we’re lucky because we have a great grant programme. We can … I would not say it’s easy, but you can have money for a project. I say that, and for the congress, it’s not true, because we had not much money from the government, because it was not … There was a reason, but we didn’t receive that much money. Still, we had some.
Jean-François Guay: In Canada with the government, it’s possible to have money for events that we organise. I work a lot with, I’m a Yamaha artist, and I work with Yamaha Canada, and when we need money to organise things, they help us. I work a lot with the D’addario, companies like that, stores in Montreal. For sure, it’s business for them, so they give you things, and you give back. That’s the way it works. That’s the way I do it in Canada, with all those things together. I would say like that. You can manage to have enough money, I would say, to organise what you want to do.
Barry Cockcroft: How do you get a symphony orchestra to play for concerto night?
Jean-François Guay: That’s, I would say, sometime in Canada, that’s the weak part. We don’t have many concertos played, saxophone concert played in Canada. Sometimes, but it’s not very often. That’s a shame a bit, because we have a lot of great pieces that could be included in programmation. You know what I do a lot, it’s played with wind band, that’s easier to … I don’t know the repertoire, maybe the type of repertoire that they’re used to playing, when we have a saxophone work, maybe it fits more in the programmation and the repertoire.
Jean-François Guay: Me, that’s what I do more, playing with the wind band. With orchestra, sometimes, it’s a bit difficult, like Montreal Symphony, It’s a big symphony, to have … They played Debussy Rhapsody, but it was six years ago, and that’s about it. It’s not easy. That’s a hard part, for us, in Canada, I would say in Quebec.
Barry Cockcroft: This is called the MSO, right?
Jean-François Guay: Yeah, MSO.
Barry Cockcroft: Because in Australia, we have the MSO, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. I remember walking to the concert hall saying MSO? Oh, I feel like I’m at home.
Barry Cockcroft: Now, I’m sure there’s other things to explore there. Let’s go back a little bit in time. Could you tell me how you got started with the saxophone or with music, when you were just starting out?
Jean-François Guay: Yeah. Me, it’s a fun story, because I started in high school, like most students, I would say. I started on tuba. In fact, a bit before, it’s a good story, but I wanted to do something outside of class hours. It’s like, activity at night. I started to do, it was, when you build a plane, little planes. Because I wanted to do something else than school. And so someone arrived and said, there’s music, there’s a music programme also at the same time as your plane activity. I said, I go there, okay, I want to do music.
Jean-François Guay: I started on tuba, that was the only instrument that was left. I played that for not long, maybe a month. The teacher never gave me fingerings on anything, so I was blowing nothing, and I didn’t know how to play. Then the same guy who I saw previously said, “One of the guy playing saxophone is quitting.” Okay, yeah, we’ll do saxophone. Then it started like that.
Jean-François Guay: I played saxophone, and I had a private lesson. I was young, 12 years old, in high school. I had saxophone lesson, and I started to play music that I liked. It came quite fast. Playing with band, I’m from a little, very small city in Quebec in Canada, and I play with the band over there. It started like this, with the university and all the things that comes after.
Barry Cockcroft: Could you perhaps describe the different teaching styles that you encountered when you were a student? I know we share one teacher in common. Go back a bit further. What was the difference in the teachers that you had on your journey through as a student?
Jean-François Guay: Yeah. In high school, I was lucky because in Quebec, in Canada, it’s a high school teacher that teaches all the instruments. He’s not very specialised in one. My teacher was a saxophonist. It helped me. I learned quite a bit with him until 16 years old. Then I went to CEGEP in Quebec, we have CEGEP, it’s between high school and university. In CEGEP, I had a teacher that came from France, and a really well-built, I would say, had a great time there studying with Marcel Mule. Very well-trained. I studied with him, with rigou, and it was very serious.
Jean-François Guay: It was good in CEGEP. I had to have this.
Barry Cockcroft: What was his name?
Jean-François Guay: Rémi Ménard. Maybe you know him. He died 10 years ago, prematurely. Rémi Ménard, and then I went to McGill University with Abe Kestenberg, who was playing with, maybe you know Gerald Danovitch, he was teaching at McGill University, he had a quartet that played quite a bit. Abe was the tenor player. Abe was totally the opposite. Abe, it was like, “You sound fantastic, it’s great,” and I arrived at my lesson, and you play something, it’s not … me, I would say, it’s not very good, and I had problem with … “No, you’re great, you’re going to play very later.” I was, there must be something that is not great.
Jean-François Guay: Very encouraging. I was happy for that, because it give me a bit of confidence. Then after I said, maybe I can do it. After that, I went with Monsieur Londeix, Jean-Marie Londeix, and then I went back a bit when I was studying with Monsieur Ménard, with the French tradition and everything. It was not like, “You sound fantastic.” That was good also for me, because before, it’s, there’s that I had to do, and it was a very good training with Mr. Londeix. That was for me, a great experience.
Jean-François Guay: Then I came back in Quebec, and I did my masters over there. Again, with Mr. Rémi Ménard. I work with him again on different pieces, with the same approach a bit, as Mr. Londeix. Then I did also at Université de Montréal, Montreal University, things on contemporary music with Lorraine Vaillancourt, who conducts the NEM, Le Nouvel Ensemble Moderne. I did things in chamber music, at the University of Montreal.
Jean-François Guay: I did that, and then I started a career.
Barry Cockcroft: I’m curious, because you’ve had the encouraging style of teaching, and also the, let’s say, I need to think of a good word, but I’ll say critical style of teaching, where perhaps instead of the best things you’re doing, being shown to you, it’s the worst things that you need to work on. How do you go, or how did you go psychologically, dealing with the criticisms and the suggestions? The polite suggestions.
Jean-François Guay: I would say at that time, Barry, I needed that, because it came at a good moment, because even when I was at McGill, with Abe, who is a great person and very good for me, I studied with a guy, maybe you know, Martin Fournier, who was a former student of Mr. Londeix. I studied a bit with him, because that was it, I said, I must not be that great, and maybe there’s thing that, I don’t know. I studied with Martin, and I discovered a bit again, what I had before with Mr. Ménard, a bit more critical and technical sometimes. I needed that.
Jean-François Guay: Then when I went with Mr. Londeix, that was again, a good … I don’t know, I remember that was really funny. When I sent, at that time it was a tape that you send to be accepted, and I sent that to Mr. Londeix, and I did the recording, and I listened, I was listening of my recording, it’s so bad. I don’t want to send that, he’s going to hear this, and it’s really bad. I remember, I had the tape, put it in the envelope, and give it to the post guy and said, my career is over. It’s really bad.
Jean-François Guay: Mr. Londeix wrote me, and he said, “It’s okay, you’re accepted,” but he said, “You have to work on ‘la justesse!’ [the tuning] but with five exclamation point. I said, okay, but at least I’m accepted. Then he wrote everything that I had to work already.
Barry Cockcroft: Already some criticisms.
Jean-François Guay: Yeah, oh yeah, already. Then when I arrived there. Like I said, it was good experience. It was important for me at that time, because I had a lot to work on.
Barry Cockcroft: I sent one of those tapes, and he wrote back and he said, “Thank you for the tape, your piece is too easy. I can’t tell if you can play.”
Jean-François Guay: I know, that’s typical.
Barry Cockcroft: I’m sorry, it’s the hardest piece I can play at the moment.
Jean-François Guay: No, but for me, it was necessary.
Barry Cockcroft: When you’re a student, no doubt, you practised many hours every day to master the saxophone. How do you describe the difference between the way that you practise now, compared to the way that you practised when you were a student?
Jean-François Guay: Yeah. I would say now, my life context is different. Now, I have a family. I try to practise two hours a day. Mostly, I can, but it’s not two hours, it will be like okay, I have 20 minutes, you take it, and you have 15 minutes, I don’;t want to do it like that, but you do it like that. At the end of the day, you have played for a few hours.
Jean-François Guay: Now, you have more experience, you know maybe you get more to the point, practise really what you need to do. You have thing that you learn before, that stays in you, that you not really have to work on very much. That’s it, you have to be efficient, it’s what I do, I use that time very efficiently. No waste of time. It’s really, get to the point. It’s manageable, I guess, to have all the other stuff. You know you have small children, you have to be there also.
Jean-François Guay: Before, when you were student, that’s your life. You arrive at the school, you sit in the room, but when you have a few, you have classes, but other than that, you sit in the room and you stay there for a long time. Even at night, you can say.
Jean-François Guay: I would say sometimes, thinking about it, maybe at that time, I was not that efficient, because yeah, you have a lot of time, so you do, maybe you’re less focused or … You talk to your colleagues, how many hours you practised today? “I did six.” “Oh yeah, I did seven.” “You’re better than me.” It’s not the way it works, I think.
Jean-François Guay: At that time, if you’re efficient, you don’t maybe need to do that many hours. Today, I don’t have the choice. You have to play. If I don’t practise for two weeks, it’s not very good.
Barry Cockcroft: Is there something that you do in your practise, something efficient, that you would recommend other people do?
Jean-François Guay: Yeah. I always keep, I would say, Barry, I have at least 45 minutes of pure technique. I always did that. Pure technique to, I don’t know, to be able to have any challenge that you have to do, any piece that you have to practise. Technique is scales, sound, intonation, thing like that. Just to be a good saxophonist, technically. Then, I work on the repertoire that I have to practise.
Barry Cockcroft: Does memorization form out of your practise, and then following on from that, do you perform from memory when you perform in public?
Jean-François Guay: Yeah. Sometimes, I do it. Yeah, I perform from memory. When I practise, I do it quite a lot, Barry. When I learn, I have to work on the technical aspects, I learn it by memory, to repeat it. I do that. I would say, when I play like, there’s pieces that I didn’t have the choice, because there was specialisation and things like that, you have to learn by memory.
Jean-François Guay: I would say it’s half and half. I’m not that comfortable playing with memory. I manage to do it, but I’m not that comfortable. When I have to do it, I do it. Working, when I practise, what I have to practise technically, but for sure, the scales, we don’t read them. It’s a passage in a piece, or I learn it by memory, and I repeat it.
Jean-François Guay: It’s funny, because my small story, my girls, they play piano, and they play everything by memory. I’m so impressed by what they do, it’s so impressive.
Barry Cockcroft: You’ve been playing for a long time. Is there something that you have done to avoid injury and to make sure that you stay healthy so that you can keep playing for years and years?
Jean-François Guay: Yeah. I did that. Especially, the last three, four years, first, I eat better. I lost quite a lot of weight. I train, I do muscle training a bit, because … I always did sport. I like sport a lot. I always did that, playing, I don’t know, badminton or running, cycling. The last four year, I do more of muscular things, to build the muscle.
Jean-François Guay: It’s funny, you ask me that, because the last month, I have tendonitis or something in the arm, and it’s about the first time that it happened in my life. I never had that before. It’s really, I don’t know, it’s okay. I can play, but sometime, it hurts a bit. I feel maybe a bit lucky, it didn’t happen and nothing happened before. I think this is very important to be healthy, to do sports, to … They do that at school. They do an emphasis on it. It’s really important to be in shape, and to eat well. It’s important for me, and it’s a good thing.
Barry Cockcroft: Let’s go back a little bit again to the start of your career. Did you have a plan, or did you follow each opportunity bit by bit and it evolved very organically?
Jean-François Guay: Okay. I would say it more developed like this, there was opportunity … Like I say to my students, maybe not, it’s maybe not the best, but I said, when I started, I said yes to everything. Someone calls me to do something, no problem. In fact, with my colleagues from the quartet, we were talking about experience, previous experience. Funny things, but I said yes to everything. So, it opened up things, some things that were not very good, but some things, okay, it gives you other opportunities.
Jean-François Guay: I had maybe not a plan, but goals that I said, at that time in my life, I would like to be there, I would like to do that. The way for me to do it, it was to practise, play repertoire, like I said, say yes to … I live in Montreal, someone told me, “You come in Quebec City, there’s a contemporary festival going on, can you play?” Okay, I will be there. It’s a two hour drive, and you play 15 minutes, and you come back after. Those kind of things.
Jean-François Guay: I said, maybe, I don’t know, maybe it will … Yes, it helped for other things. That’s the thing. Sometimes, if you want to live, maybe sometime more normally, you won’t say yes to those things. That was the way I did when I started. I wanted to play.
Barry Cockcroft: Do you think saying yes to an opportunity then gave you more opportunities through that?
Jean-François Guay: Yeah. I think so. For me, it did that. I believe a lot in this, to say yes, and after you did the thing, you can say, maybe I won’t do that another time, or this will … No, there’s nothing. I always say to myself and to my student, try it, and then you’ll see, you’ll be able to make a decision.
Jean-François Guay: That’s what I did. Often, you meet people and … Oh, something’s happened.
Barry Cockcroft: Actually, that’s another question is, do you think by meeting people, that’s one of the things that leads to further opportunity? Not just the way that you play, but also the way that you interact with other people?
Jean-François Guay: Yeah. I think that’s the thing I learned when I was at McGill with my teacher who was really positive. That’s an important thing he told me, he said, “You have to be a professional musician, you have to play well, but you have to be nice with people, you have to act like a nice person.” I think yeah, this is very important. You go, you play, you have to be … You can be the best player and be like you’re not a person that you want to be with, and it’s not good. You have to …
Jean-François Guay: This, I try. I always try to be positive and to be ready, and to be nice with people. It’s important.
Barry Cockcroft: How important has the recording process, albums, recording at home for yourself, how important has that been, both for your development, but also for your career?
Jean-François Guay: Yeah. For my development, it’s for sure, I think the recording is your best teacher sometime. You hear a lot. I always have a little recorder, a very small, that when I can, I record myself, what I do. Recording CDs, first, I think it’s a great experience, because it’s … You play the CD, you play your piece, you can play as much as you want, and it’s going to be okay with the editing. It’s such, sometimes, it’s so stressful, and it’s a great experience. I remember the first CD we did with the quartet, we were very ready, and it went really well, but sometimes, it’s a bit stressful.
Jean-François Guay: It’s like, you’re so proud of yourself, and you’re so proud of the product, and I think this process is important. When I teach also my students, I always try to organise a session or something to play. You play okay, you have to play in front of people, it’s important, that’s your job maybe later. To record, to play with a mic over you, it’s another feeling, and it’s important to do all of those things.
Barry Cockcroft: I did a recording recently and soon as I saw the microphone, I could not play anything.
Jean-François Guay: Yeah.
Barry Cockcroft: It had been a long time since I’d done that formal studio recording. I was really surprised. I’m comfortable playing in front of people. Now, I’m falling apart in front of a microphone.
Jean-François Guay: Yeah. We did that with MSO, a recording with, there was saxophone playing, and it was tough part on tenor. You know, they follow you with the score and everything, and you don’t have much time, especially when you do it with the orchestra. Yeah, it was so stressful, and the … I don’t know, what I’ll say, okay, it’s rolling, and you start playing, it’s so stressful. I don’t know, they hear everything, and it has to be perfect. It’s not easy.
Barry Cockcroft: Of course, there’s no way to edit, because everybody’s playing together. I remember one time, I think it was with orchestra recording, they asked the whole orchestra okay, it sounded okay, but did anyone make a mistake? You had to put your hand up if, maybe you could do it better or different. No one really wants to put their hand up, but at the same time, if you don’t, it means it’s in the recording.
Jean-François Guay: Yeah, for sure.
Barry Cockcroft: Is there something else that you do besides playing music, that forms part of your career?
Jean-François Guay: Me personally, I like a lot of things. That’s, I think, it’s ‘la richesse’, it’s a richness a bit, that you’re interested in a lot of things. Sometimes, I said, if you would be more focused, maybe it could be better, or music maybe, I don’t know. I do, like I said, I do a lot of sports. I like a lot of sports. I’m in charge, not in charge, but I do badminton, but I’m the one who is the coach, and things like that.
Jean-François Guay: I do sports, some sports, at quite a high level. That is important for me. I have music, I have this, all the sports thing, and what I do also, I like wine.
Barry Cockcroft: I’ve noticed.
Jean-François Guay: I have an interest in, I’m interested in wine. I like, you see, I don’t know. I like everything. I’m interested, I read. That maybe, sometime I say, that’s maybe a weak part that I don’t focus that much, I don’t know.
Barry Cockcroft: If you had to choose between living more or practising more, which one would you advise?
Jean-François Guay: I think a balance is better. I would say living more, because, maybe an example, when I was studying in France, even Monsieur Londeix said to us, go visit, go see things, yes, practise, and spend time learning what you have to learn, but also, manage your time, so that you have time to see. Maybe you won’t come back here. I would say, this, you have to take the opportunities, as if you were, okay, you have to practise, to be prepared, for something, a performance or something, but beside that, I think it’s more for the person to know things, and to … I don’t know.
Jean-François Guay: I would say living more.
Barry Cockcroft: I remember one thing that really surprised me with Londeix was, he would be so strict, and critical, and let’s say, professional. He was doing his job. Afterwards, once a week we’d go out for dinner, we’d drink some wine, we’d tell stories. No one talks about music. It’s completely different. I found that there’s a huge, extreme difference between being in a lesson and then sitting down socially.
Barry Cockcroft: It took me a long time to be able to reconcile those two things, to understand that it’s okay to criticise someone’s music, because it means you’re not criticising that person. For me, maybe in Australia in general, if you criticise someone’s music, people take it very personally. It’s difficult to separate the two things. If you can’t separate them, it’s very difficult to progress.
Barry Cockcroft: I think for me, it was a very valuable lesson to see someone who could be so professional, but at the same time, be so good in turning off, relaxing, having a good time.
Jean-François Guay: Yeah. I think it’s important. That, I learned the same lesson, and I saw the same thing, Barry. If we talk about Monsieur Londeix, Monsieur Londeix in the lesson or the professional aspect, which was really strict, and also, when he invited us to this place to drink wine and talk and, it was completely the opposite. I think it’s important, to separate those things, when you have to be professional, you’re professional, you do your thing and you do it like a pro would. Then after, it’s something else.
Jean-François Guay: I think it’s important.
Barry Cockcroft: I think we’ve talked about your student days. Shortly afterwards, you became a teacher. You’re still a teacher. You teach at two schools, right?
Jean-François Guay: Yeah.
Barry Cockcroft: Could you describe to us your typical teaching day?
Jean-François Guay: First, I teach two levels, CEGEP, which is before college, I would say, and that Université de Montréal. I teach in Cégep Marie-Victorin, and Université de Montréal. The two places are very different, I would say. At CEGEP, I teach saxophone, saxophone ensemble, quartet and things like that. I also teach, and this, I enjoy it a lot, I teach music history. 20th century mostly. This is very interesting.
Jean-François Guay: I do that. A typical journey first, I arrive and I try to practise a bit, so I try to arrive early. Sometime, it’s not easy when you drive. I try to arrive early, practise. Then, meet students, and it depends on the schedule, if I have a class or, for the history class, but I practise, meet students, a quartet or other things, and then if I have a class, I prepare. I read a lot of things before the class, for sure, at other places.
Jean-François Guay: Then, each time, like I said, each time I have a moment, the saxophone is always with me. It’s always on me, and I practise, I go in my office, and I practise. It’s like that. It’s practise, prepare for the class a bit, give the class, and then practise again. It’s like this. When I arrive at night, at my place, it’s something else with the family, and I don’t want to take my sax at 8:00 at night, practise. I want to stay with them.
Jean-François Guay: At university, I only do private teaching. It’s the same, I arrive early, practise, and then see the students, and then depends on what is the schedule, I go back home or I stay and I practise there.
Barry Cockcroft: I noticed that you’ve been travelling quite a bit. How does that fit in with your schedule, with your teaching jobs? Are they flexible to allow you to travel? Do they encourage you to travel? Or, is it a battle each time?
Jean-François Guay: No, I’m happy for this, Barry, because when I need to travel, it’s quite easy, I would say. You have to tell them for sure, I believe you have to ask officially that I won’t be there for a week, let’s say. If you do that, you write something and no problem. It never, I always worked for me. We organise thing, organise the classes and everything. It works.
Jean-François Guay: That part, I’m really, really happy. It’s quite easy.
Barry Cockcroft: It sounds like classical saxophone has been in Canada for a long time. Is there a difference now for the students, compared to when you were a student?
Jean-François Guay: I would say now, the students, they do more … When I was a student, it was like, in Quebec, especially, it was the French tradition. You want to be a classical saxophonist, okay, you have to find a pianist, and play the repertoire that we learned. It’s a funny thing, not playing that much music from Quebec, and it was … I don’t know, there was not much music, and when I started to be professional, I tried to, you ask people to write music, at least to play Quebec music, Canadian music.
Jean-François Guay: I would say at that time, that was a bit like this. Maybe that’s why you say, I’m going to be a classical saxophonist. “You won’t do anything, you don’t play jazz, you don’t do,” I don’t know. No, I want to be a classical saxophonist. “Yeah, but you won’t earn a living playing Desenclos,” things like this. I don’t know.
Jean-François Guay: Today, I would say that that part of connecting with composers with the young saxophonists in Quebec, they’re really into that, and playing with venues that are not usual, that I did when I was, what I did before. They’re much more open. They find things, find places.
Jean-François Guay: Me, because I did that a bit, but not as much as they do today, I tried to stay, like you saw with the Ensemble in Zagreb, those are the people, they are my students, and I try to play with them, to do a bit what they do, because it’s fun, it’s fun to be with them, and to do this, that I didn’t do before, and it’s something else.
Jean-François Guay: I would say, this, today, they are maybe more entrepreneurial, and they find ways to do something, and they manage to play, to teach, and they do things, yeah.
Barry Cockcroft: You’re very well-known for your love of contemporary music, and your development of contemporary music, from when you really started out. I heard you play two days ago, a beautiful concert with your saxophone quartet. You played an all Bach concert. How many different styles of music do you play in general? Do you have a focus on contemporary music, do you balance, what’s your preference?
Jean-François Guay: I don’t focus on contemporary music. I tried to find for me what I think is good music, and I try to play anything. We play Bach, we recorded it, we played it quite a few times. When you play that music, it’s like, I don’t know, it’s not only the music. For me, it’s an experience, it’s something else. It’s great music. Maybe sometime in our music, we say, that may be the weak part a bit, music, that is at that level. It may be not as easy to find, but when you play that kind of music, the Bach or, as a musician, I don’t know, there’s a lot of things emotionally or musically or anything, spiritually, that comes from there.
Jean-François Guay: I try to … I like music a lot. Any kind of music, I try to find music that I like, that I would like to play, that I think is good music. I would say my range is quite wide. I listen to a lot of music, a lot of different formations. I want to play still, if there’s a thing that I could appreciate now, I’d like to play. Still, I’m now 54 years old. You say, maybe it’s a bit of a decline, but no. I like to play music, and I like contemporary. I did a lot of this, I still do it. There’s other music.
Barry Cockcroft: One thing I was particularly impressed with, was at the end of each movement that you played, you have the final chord each time. Every time, it’s perfectly in tune. I’m a little curious, how your quartet managed this. Is there an approach that you take to work on the intonation?
Jean-François Guay: Yeah. We work on the intonation, we work on sound also, to try to have a blend. We did the work, thinking about after, we did that work that was really technical, I would say, to make sure that a record has to be in tune. Now, that work has been done, and I think there’s good roots, I would say, for this. The pitch, it’s usually not too bad.
Jean-François Guay: Now, we try to think about it like it’s written, like Contrapuntal music, which every line is melodically interesting, and it’s not like the verticality of the thing is so important. Even if we worked on that, but now, that approach, that we think melodically, each line more, but that work has been done before, for pitch and things like this. It falls well for the pitch.
Jean-François Guay: I don’t know, there’s reflex I think, that arrive on certain …
Barry Cockcroft: The intonation has been a fundamental technique early on, which the stays with you, that’s something you can draw upon, like scales.
Jean-François Guay: Yeah. I think for me, intonation is a quality of the sound. You can have a good sound, but you don’t play in tune, for me, it’s not a good sound. It’s a part of the sound. Intonation is very important. It’s complex, intonation, but you know it very well, it’s complex and it’s important. Especially, that music, it’s all tonal, it’s chords, minor or major chords, dominant, that kind of harmony. When it’s out of tune, it shows a lot.
Jean-François Guay: You have to do this, but being … If we talk about the Art of Fugue being very complex, complex lines that are together, that melodic aspect is very important also.
Barry Cockcroft: You’ve had your quartet for a number of years. Was it ’94 when …
Jean-François Guay: Oh yeah, ’94.
Barry Cockcroft: ’94. That’s a while.
Jean-François Guay: Yeah.
Barry Cockcroft: I imagine you’ve had some different members at times. How important has the quartet, has a chamber ensemble been to you, as an outlet for music?
Jean-François Guay: Yeah. It’s been quite important, because I spent 20 something years playing. I like being with people. They are my friends. It’s fun to be with people, play music together, talk, I don’t know. It’s an important, very important part, musically, for sure. Socially, I would say you create links between the people. It’s been important. We’ve had great projects with the quartet, we travelled a lot, we did a lot of things. During the year, we change personnel for quite a few times.
Jean-François Guay: We stayed with the same mentality. Even with the new people who’re coming, it’s, okay, we fit together also, person and musically, and it’s important. I notice when you get older, I don’t know, I think I like being with people, so play with a quartet, that’s very good.
Barry Cockcroft: Now, part of the aspect of contemporary music is working with composers. How important has it been to really work side by side with composers, creating original music?
Jean-François Guay: Yeah. I had privilege, because I worked a lot with, maybe you know Robert Lemay, maybe, Canadian composer, we met early. I was at beginning of my career. It was important, because at that time, what I was doing is playing what I learned before, I would say. That was a new part for me. I met Robert, and we start working on things together. It’s funny because we travelled together, we did all kinds of things together, but working within, that was my first really important collaboration with a composer, really, if I write that, is it okay, can do it, it’s possible.
Jean-François Guay: He made me do things musically that I would not imagine that I could do, and also, because, the theatrical aspect is very important in this music, and do things on the stage that I never thought I would do, Barry. To do that, I was happy to do it. Before, it was no, I’m not doing that. You do it, and okay, yeah, I can do that. Then it opens up things.
Jean-François Guay: That was an important collaboration at the beginning. Then it lasted for quite a while. Then, I met for sure, other people that we worked together, and I had that background, that really open background. Sometimes a funny story, I say, sometimes I feel like the kamikaze of the saxophone, the guys, okay, the girls, can you do that? Do funny things. Okay, no problem, I did that before.
Jean-François Guay: It opened up the thing when I met other people, okay, I’ll do it, and I’ll try to do that the best I can. With no boundaries, saying oh no, I’m not doing that. At the beginning, with Robert, that was important.
Barry Cockcroft: Would you say that the composer extends the performer, or the performer extends the composer?
Jean-François Guay: It’s a bit of both. For me it depends when it happen. Like I said at the beginning, I would say the composer extend what I could do, saxophonistically or otherwise. Then, it depends on the collaboration or the person, maybe I would say, I would extend some ways where the composer maybe is not really used to writing for the instrument, or how it works. I would say, I try to, at least, he knows more the saxophone, if we work together.
Jean-François Guay: Me, I would say it was both. It was really … With Robert maybe because I was young, and I didn’t know very many things, so I said, what I had to do is completely, something else. I think it extended me quite a lot.
Barry Cockcroft: Have you seen, or can you think of a quality in any piece of music, that can help it to endure? Because some pieces, we play once and we never touch again. Other pieces become part of our repertoire, and they start getting played more and more. Have you seen anything in common that could help a piece to be embraced by many players?
Jean-François Guay: Yeah. I think, if the piece, first it has to be I think, well-written, we can I think see okay, I don’t know, there’s a few ideas, but they’re well-developed, and we sense that there’s a … How we say that, there’s a plan, I don’t know, there’s a structure or something. For me, it’s important to have a structure. I think if the piece, it has to be played by people.
Jean-François Guay: If people plays the piece, I think that’s a very good sign that it’s a good piece. I think that’s the important thing, when you … The piece, I don’t know, popular music, everybody can sing it, and it plays everywhere. I think maybe not writing popular music, or maybe, I don’t know. If the piece is played, then it’s played all over the world. I think it’s good music.
Barry Cockcroft: Have you yourself been involved in composition?
Jean-François Guay: Not that much.
Barry Cockcroft: A little?
Jean-François Guay: I did some arrangements. I do improvisation. I like it very much. I do it myself, I do it in performance, I do it with students, I started a CEGEP improvisation class. We do that, and I like it very much. That’s maybe the nearest of composition part, I would say, that I did, that I do. It’s very, very interesting.
Jean-François Guay: I did some arrangements, but I don’t know, it doesn’t … I don’t have that much interest in doing that. When I do it, I listen to what I write, and it’s not very good, and I say, maybe ask someone who is good at doing it, and I’ll play it.
Barry Cockcroft: Now, I’ve got some rapid fire questions, they’re short questions with perhaps a short answer. Is there something that you believe that other people disagree with?
Jean-François Guay: Repertoire, sometimes, or concept.
Barry Cockcroft: Any particular concept?
Jean-François Guay: I would say repertoire. Sometimes there’s, I don’t know, there’s different … The different things about what you should play or what you should not play. Do things that are good, but this, you shouldn’t play that. I see that.
Barry Cockcroft: Then you’re okay with, let’s say, presenting repertoire, that other people might say, you shouldn’t be playing this?
Jean-François Guay: Yeah. I’m okay.
Barry Cockcroft: That’s your, I guess that’s your mission.
Jean-François Guay: Yeah. If I can take a few seconds, we talk about the Art of Fugue, when we did that, why you do that.
Barry Cockcroft: Was that pressure or criticism coming from the saxophone community, or the wider musical community?
Jean-François Guay: I would say mostly the saxophone community. The wider community, we had a great critique, I would say.
Barry Cockcroft: I always think it’s funny, because on one hand, people say the saxophone is a young instrument. At the same time, maybe people cling to tradition. You have to play something this way and that way, and it seems ridiculous, because we don’t have this deep, deep history that some instruments have. To suddenly say that we have to play in a certain way, or we can’t do this music or that music, it seems strange to me, because we’re still developing.
Jean-François Guay: Yeah. Sure. That’s the important, I think, me, it’s important to try things, and to play things that we think are valuable.
Barry Cockcroft: Now, if you just had one piece of music to play from now on, which piece would that be?
Jean-François Guay: I would say the Creston Sonata. Yeah, it’s funny because, when I started playing saxophone, that’s the first piece, and I heard Mr. Londeix practising it, I was really young. This piece gave me the, not a taste, but it said, you should play saxophone and play that kind of music. That’s why I say that there’s other piece. This, is the piece.
Barry Cockcroft: It’s touched you in some way that now, it’s with you forever.
Jean-François Guay: Yeah.
Barry Cockcroft: If you just had one hour to practise, what would you do?
Jean-François Guay: I always do technique. I would say mostly technical, and then maybe a bit of certain passages on pieces.
Barry Cockcroft: You’ve talked about Mr. Londeix a lot. Who would you consider to be one of the most successful contributors to the world of saxophone?
Jean-François Guay: Oh. The great saxophonists, like Mr. Delangle, I don’t know, United States, Mr. Rousseau, Donald Sinta, those people are, for me, when I was young, the great, and still are, the great saxophonist.
Barry Cockcroft: Is there a quality they have, not just their great playing, but is there something else that they do, that helps contribute to our community?
Jean-François Guay: Yeah. First, they play well, they are good people, they managed their career well, I think. They do the business side of the show business. They do it well. I don’t know, they do the right things. For me, those people, they do the right things, what you have to do.
Barry Cockcroft: If we make mistakes, is it okay to make mistakes?
Jean-François Guay: Some people, I say, it’s okay, but in certain circumstances, maybe it’s not that good. I think you have to accept, we’re not machines, it can happen.
Barry Cockcroft: Are you okay if something goes wrong in a performance? Are you okay with that afterwards?
Jean-François Guay: It depends on how went the performance generally, if the, I don’t know, the mood was good, and we had music, it was intense, I don’t know, there was the bigger part of it was good, if there’s a few thing that happened, it’s okay. When there’s a feeling, you finished to play the piece, and it’s like this, if there’s mistakes also, it’s awful. If you say, no, it was, I don’t know, something happened, or a few notes, but it’s okay.
Barry Cockcroft: Do you have any advice on focusing on the positive aspect of a performance instead of the small negative things?
Jean-François Guay: Yeah. For me, I focus on the positive. Before, I think maybe it’s getting older, I don’t know, Barry. When I was young, it was really … It’s always the mistake that came up. Now, I try to, like they say, to focus on the ‘jeu’, in French we say the ‘jeu’, to play, instead of the ‘enjeu. [We focus on the task and not the risk]. What could happen if something goes wrong. To be on the stage and to play and to enjoy, instead of, there’s a certain person and I don’t want to do mistake, because he or she is going to hear it.
Jean-François Guay: To think about the ‘jeu’, to play instead of what could happen, if you will.
Barry Cockcroft: Is there something that you do personally before you walk on stage, to ensure that you play at your best?
Jean-François Guay: First I have to play early in the day. It’s important for me to play in the morning, if I play at night. Then, before I try to arrive not too early, to play a bit, but I do stretch a bit, a few stretching exercises. Thinking about the music, but being positive. For me, it’s important to be positive, if I’m with a quartet, we talk with them and okay, yeah, happy, laugh a bit, and okay, we go on stage. We know if we’re well-prepared, it’s going to be okay.
Jean-François Guay: At least to be on stage with a positive attitude, and try to build that before. To play in the morning, it’s important for me.
Barry Cockcroft: Do you think when we play, the conditions are always perfect?
Jean-François Guay: No.
Barry Cockcroft: It seems in the practise room, we have a very controlled environment, and we can get pretty good in the practise room. Then sometimes on stage, things are not the same.
Jean-François Guay: Yeah.
Barry Cockcroft: Do you have any tips for, particularly students I think, that can allow them to deal with all of the things that go on around the stage? Is there a way that people can be sure they can keep their concentration going and play really well, despite the distractions going on?
Jean-François Guay: Yeah. I think a word that I use a lot is to be ‘être sur preparé’, over-prepared. You’re in your practise room, everything is perfect. You are over-prepared. If something happened that you are not … I think it’s going to be okay.
Barry Cockcroft: Could you describe maybe the most unusual or the strangest performance situation you’ve found yourself in?
Jean-François Guay: Oh, there’s a few. No, playing in … Mostly, very contemporary, but really ‘éclaté’, things where you play in funny venues with, I don’t know, with other art around you, and sometimes … That was very good. That was very funny. I played a piece with percussion, and I was driving two hours, I arrived and I had to play right then. Then in my tenor, I forgot I had all my reeds and everything in my bell, and start to play. During the performance, I had to remove everything.`
Jean-François Guay: That was funny. That was in a really weird concept, not concept, a weird concert. Everything fits. We moved the reeds.
Barry Cockcroft: Is there a piece of advice that you could give to yourself, your younger self when you were starting out, that you would’ve liked to’ve heard?
Jean-François Guay: I thought maybe, be more focused on the music. When I think about it now, I’m not so sure. Before, yeah, I was … Yeah, be more focused, do this in a very, I don’t know, maybe sometime practise more, or … Now that I think about that, I’m not that sure about this. I think still, it would be a good thing.
Barry Cockcroft: In the saxophone world, in general, what are some of the things that you have seen that’ve changed, and what are some things that just stay the same?
Jean-François Guay: Change for sure, with the younger people, first, the level is incredible. The repertoire is wider, there’s more variety. A lot of transcriptions are played nowadays, that I noticed. I think it’s wider. People play more, I don’t know, jazz and classical. At my time, if you played classical, then it was like this. The second one?
Barry Cockcroft: What has stayed the same?
Jean-François Guay: Stayed the same, maybe for us in Canada, it’s like, or in Quebec maybe, it’s like the non-saxophone, as a soloist, I would say, with the big orchestra and things like that. This stayed the same. It’s not very good.
Barry Cockcroft: Do you think that’s something we need to aspire to, do we need to be part of the traditional classical music world?
Jean-François Guay: Now, I not so sure about that, because there’s a lot of things that you can do, to have a good career. I think it’s a good thing, if you can play a piece with an orchestra. It’s a good visibility, and it’s very good. If it doesn’t happen, there’s a lot of things that you can do also.
Barry Cockcroft: Now, could you tell us something recent that you’ve been working on, a project or …
Jean-François Guay: These days, I’m working on that … I have a new duo that we do with the piano. We play modern music with piano. I tried to go back a bit, to do a mix with modern and things that are more traditional, things like that. With the quartet also, we’re working on, we have a big project, we have a transcription of Le Sacre du Printemps [the Rite of Spring], Stravinsky, we’re working on that with piano and percussion. We do that, but we would like to play in 2020.
Barry Cockcroft: That’s the Rite of Spring?
Jean-François Guay: Yeah, Rite of Spring. That’s it. We do that. It takes a bit of time, because it’s not easy to play, and to play together. With the quartet, it takes a bit of time. I do a lot of orchestra also, playing in Montreal. I do that quite a bit. It’s all kind of things.
Barry Cockcroft: What do you do if you’re playing with orchestra? What do you do to prepare to go in, so that you are … What’s a good way to say this? So that you’re an integrated part of the orchestra and not the extra who comes in every now and again?
Jean-François Guay: I don’t think … There’s an orchestra that I play often, and I never feel that I’m really part. They’re happy, they’re happy that there’s a saxophone playing, and that it’s okay, but I always feel that it’s the black sheep of the … I don’t know, I have friends that I know, but as a member of the orchestra, I don’t feel that much a member. It’s okay.
Barry Cockcroft: Other groups, you do feel …
Jean-François Guay: Oh yeah.
Barry Cockcroft: … a member.
Jean-François Guay: Yeah, for sure. Especially with saxophones, or even with … More chamber, mostly chamber music, that you feel more integrated.
Barry Cockcroft: Now, where can we find out more information about what you do?
Jean-François Guay: I have a website, jeanfrancoisguay.com. I’ll have a new website coming in September, which, it’s a rebuilt website, with information. Like everybody, Facebook and places like that, that I write in Instagram. My website has things that you can find.
Barry Cockcroft: Which platform have you found to be most useful for the musical side of things, for telling people about what you do?
Jean-François Guay: Yeah. Today, the ‘media sociaux’, social media, I think it’s, you have to go by there. We do that a lot on social media. I like the website aspect, to put things, I think, documents, CDs, things like that. I think maybe for me, a bit more convenient, a bit more in my days. Facebook, it’s a bit new for me.
Jean-François Guay: With the social media, we do a lot of things.
Barry Cockcroft: I feel like social media is more for the now, and a website can be more of a documentation and a record of what we do. Social media platforms change as we’ve seen. You remember MySpace? If you invest your documentation in a platform which then disappears, that can be a problem. I really like this idea that a website, particularly for musicians who have so many facets developing through their careers, as a real record of what they do and what they have done.
Barry Cockcroft: The documentation aspect of saxophone players, I think is missing somewhat, which is a shame. We’re rushing from one thing to the next, and we don’t always keep a record of what we’ve done. I think those things can be very interesting. Not that many people are involved in the collation of history and, you mentioned you teach history. I visited Paul Cohen recently, and saw his collection of saxophones. There’s only a few people I think that are really, that have that passion for collecting the history of what we do. I think it’s really important.
Jean-François Guay: Yeah, it’s important. Only the, to make a CD, the physical aspect of … To have a document, to have something physical, we lose that. I think we say, why you do CD? Nobody listens to this today. It’s important, like you said, to have documents, something that is physical.
Barry Cockcroft: Now, finally, you’ve made such an incredible contribution for many years, to the world of saxophone and beyond. What do you see for yourself in the coming years?
Jean-François Guay: I feel myself like in, still a growing process. I don’t know, because I changed a bit of my life, I’m a bit rejuvenated, I would say. This, taking a re-opportunity, like I did when I was younger, it’s not like okay, now I’m that age and, it’s more like a decline. No, still, I want to do anything, projects, and things with my students. I have older students that are really good and really involved in a lot of things, and I want to do that with them. I’ll say no, I’m not in shape to play with them, but I want to keep that level.
Jean-François Guay: Until it will last, I don’t know. In my life, I’m in that space now. I want to … I don’t know, sometimes I say maybe I should have done that before, and it is thing that I didn’t do, and now I’m … No, there’s a fire inside me.
Barry Cockcroft: Jean-François, merci beaucoup. Thank you very much for sharing your time with me today.
Jean-François Guay: Merci beaucoup Barry. C’est tres gentil and thank you very much for inviting me.