Kenneth Tse - Leading the Classical Saxophone
About Kenneth Tse
Widely recognized as one of the world’s leading classical saxophonists, Kenneth Tse is certainly one of the instrument’s outstanding proponents on any saxophone aficionado’s short list. He burst onto the scene in 1996 as the winner of the prestigious New York Artists International Award, which resulted in an acclaimed debut recital at Carnegie Hall, after which he was hailed as “a young virtuoso” by the New York Times. Since then he has been a frequent concerto soloist on five continents and featured artist at events such as the triennial World Saxophone Congress and North American Saxophone Alliance conferences. Prestigious universities and conservatories worldwide, such as Moscow Conservatory and Paris Conservatory have invited him to give master classes. He was recently a judge, representing the USA, at the 6th Adolphe Sax International Competition in Dinant, Belgium.
Kenneth has been an active recording artist since his first CD for Crystal Records at age 23. His discography now includes a total of six Crystal CDs—presenting a wide variety of saxophone repertoire, most of it new, some with assisting artists—as well as six other releases and more in process on RIAX records, Enharmonic records, Arizona University Recordings and MSR Classics.
In 2009, desiring to give back to his home city, Hong Kong, Kenneth created the first Hong Kong International Saxophone Symposium which attracted over 70 saxophonists from around the world to join the event. With the tremendous success of the premiere event, Kenneth has formed the Hong Kong International Saxophone Society as part of an effort to facilitate more interest in saxophone performance as well as to continue hosting the symposium every two years to expose Asian saxophonists to world-class saxophone performers and teachers.
Kenneth is currently Professor of Saxophone at the University of Iowa, former President of the North American Saxophone Alliance, and is currently president of the International Saxophone Committee.
I have known Kenneth now since he first toured in Australia in 2005. Since then, I have always been delighted in hearing him play live and his sheer excellence inspired me to compose ‘Rock Me‘ for solo alto saxophone for him in 2007. He has since played that piece far and wide which led to the writing of another piece ‘Rock Us‘. We premiered this together at the World Saxophone Congress in St. Andrews, Scotland. Since then we were adjudicators together in Dinant, Belgium and I recently had the pleasure of playing together in an ad-hoc quartet at the 2018 AS Festival in Bled, Slovenia. It was my pleasure to sit down with Kenneth and have this in-depth and far-ranging conversation for the Barry Sax Show.
Links from the show
- Kenneth’s Website | Kenneth’s Facebook page
- Eugene Rousseau
- Debra Richtmeyer
- Hong Kong International Symposium
- AS Festival, Bled, Slovenia
- Iowa Saxophonists’ Workshop
- Kenneth’s saxophone publications
- International Saxophone Committee
- A surprising first band instrument.
- I never had a saxophone teacher.
- Support from family.
- An unconventional way to learn classical saxophone.
- Meeting an American saxophone mentor.
- Moving to, and studying saxophone in the USA.
- Saxophone masters and DMA degrees.
- Saxophone teaching is a feeling.
- Do what your music teacher tells you to do.
- You can’t just do the minimum.
- Time to practise is harder to come by.
- Playing from memory is for communication with the audience.
- Kenneth’s favourite music.
- Working with composers writing for saxophone.
- Fitness for a healthy performance career.
- Being a positive person.
- 10 years to build an audience base.
- Teaching students to be responsible for themselves.
- Highlights of touring the world.
- You just have to work harder.
- Dinner with Jean-Marie Londeix.
- New saxophone recordings coming out soon.
- Making playing effortless.
Transcript of Podcast Interview with Kenneth Tse
Barry: So, perhaps you could tell us how you really got started on the saxophone.
Kenneth Tse: Yeah, well my mom was a music teacher for a long time and when I was a kid and she always encouraged me to do music, which is unusual. Most parents, they don’t do music, they do something else, you know, do business or something. She loved music and she encouraged me to do violin when I was seven, and then she started me on piano when I was nine, but neither of those instruments kind of stuck with me. When I was in seventh grade, which was when I was 12 or 13, I decided I wanted to play a band instrument, and I wanted to play trumpet actually.
I went to my band director’s room and I said, “Hey, I would like to play trumpet,” and then he looked at my hands and he looked at my teeth and he say, “Here you go,” and he gave me a saxophone. Not until later that I found out he needed a second alto in the band, that’s why he made me.
I always say it’s not a very inspirational start, but that’s how it was. I said, “I want to play trumpet,” but I was given a saxophone and I say, “Hey, I never knew about this instrument,” so I said, “Hey, I’ll try.”
Barry: You grew up in Hong Kong, right?
Kenneth Tse: Right, I mean in Asia and in general the things that we do are not unlike in other countries, like choir, band, and orchestra. We didn’t have jazz bands. Even today, jazz is not a big thing. Even when I was first studying saxophone, there was no teacher, really, no saxophone teacher at that time. I studied with my band director who was a bassoonist, and I later on studied with a clarinetist and so it was challenging and I never really experienced jazz music either. Classical music was really the main thing when I first learned the saxophone.
Barry: So, how did you transition or move from Hong Kong, all the way to the States? That’s a big decision.
Kenneth Tse: I never thought about studying abroad at that time, but as I said, I didn’t have a teacher so I had to find some way to learn the tonal concept. Of course, at that time I didn’t really think about tonal concept or technique and all these things, I just thought, “Hey, I need to know what I’m doing.”
So, I listened to recordings and there were only two recordings, LPs at that time. CDs were around but there were just two saxophone LPs in our high school library. One of them I liked a lot, particularly, and listened to it. In fact, I made a copy on the cassette tape, listened to it day and night and I liked it a lot. One of the pieces on that was a Dubois concerto, so I listened to it a lot.
Then, one day when I was in maybe 10th or 11th grade in high school and somebody called me up and say, “Hey, Kenneth, we have this master coming from the US to give a masterclass. Would you like to play for him?” I said, “Ah, okay.” Didn’t even know what a masterclass was at that point. So, I went and applied to play for this master and during the masterclass he played something for the audience and I listened to it and I say, “Wait a minute, that sounds really familiar.” And so I look up his name, I look up the name on the LP and sure enough it was Eugene Rousseau. I was, of course, shocked at the revelation.
He stayed in Hong Kong for a few more days, so I kind of, like a kid, following him around, you know, the practice room, and took him around town and it was a really good time together.
The next year he came back to give a recital in Hong Kong and being a mom, my mom scheduled a dinner with him and his wife, Mrs. Rousseau. I’m at dinner and she wanted me to study with him abroad basically. That was an embarrassing dinner because, you know, as a mom she was telling how great I was and, you know, how talented I was, and basically told him to take me, you know.
So, that was the beginning of my journey, and I started applying for Indiana University, where he was teaching at that time, and the rest is history.
Barry: You did your undergraduate with Dr Rousseau?
Kenneth Tse: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Barry: Then your Master’s Degree and then a Doctorate at other places.
Kenneth Tse: Right. Well, actually it started as an Artist Diploma at Indiana University because I didn’t think about doing a degree, actually. I just wanted to learn the saxophone, but then decided when I was there with him, I may as well get college degrees. So, I changed to an undergraduate degree, and then went on to masters with him, and so I was doing three things at one time in a way. And then later a doctorate at the University of Illinois with Debra Richtmeyer.
Barry: How would you describe the differences in the teaching styles that you started to come across?
Kenneth Tse: For me, I think it’s a little bit different in philosophy to others, maybe because of my Asian background. Even today I sometimes tell my students about it, is I think of learning anything, really, it’s following one master. Like in Chinese Kung Fu we’ll call the Sifu, you know, we follow one Sifu in that Dojo, in a way, and then you just follow it for life.
So, for me at that time, obviously, you know, the story I was just telling about Rousseau and how I found about him, the really, for a teenager, it was very deep, the meaning. He always will be my mentor in my heart because just how I started and how he helped me during my studying.
For me, I think of a more linear learning than learning how to stay with just one and I follow that way of playing and teaching. Not that I don’t like the other ways or how people approach things, it’s just I guess I’m a more loyal person, I guess, so I tend to just play on one team and don’t think about others. Not that I don’t respect others, I respect many of my colleagues nowadays, of course, first-rate teachers, employers, but I still, in my heart, I will still follow the same Sifu, you know.
Barry: You are teaching those same types of students you once were.
Kenneth Tse: Right, right.
Barry: Do you continue that tradition of teaching or have you experimented at all?
Kenneth Tse: Yeah, well I mean as I said, it was more just like my own feeling. Maybe I shouldn’t call it the philosophy, maybe just the feeling. Especially in America and even Europe now, people tend to go around and study with different teachers, which I think is a great experience and necessary almost for learning, but for some students, it can be confusing, especially some that are extra analytical about things. They will go, “Hey, how come when I do some things like this,” and then the other person says, “No,” and then you go to the next person and say, “No, the third way.” You know you get completely confused in your learning.
I think what I usually tell my students now is, you know, just be careful whenever you go around and learn. If you try things and you like it, that’s the way you want to follow, then try to stick with it and try not to … You can never please everybody. It’s important is how you as an artist express yourself and how you do things and follow that to that end because it’s no fun if you go to a teacher and when the teacher tells you something and you don’t like it and you don’t follow him, don’t do it, then what’s the point? It’s not very respectful either.
I think I would rather just stick with one and then, you know, do that than trying to argue with another person or something, you know.
Barry: Would you have one piece of advice for a student starting out? What’s one thing you think could apply to most people that could really help them?
Kenneth Tse: Yeah, that’s a heavy question. Try to always become what you want to be. Meaning, I think the easier way to put it is just ‘become your degree.’ Meaning, if you want to be a performer and studying music, then do everything you can to become that if you want to become a band teacher then do everything to become that in your study. Then obviously you can’t just do the minimum and, you know, the [inaudible 00:10:31] considered minimum, really, for artists, I think, who have to, on the side, we have to go out and build connections with your colleagues outside of your school, do extra things like performances. In the beginning, you’re not going to earn money, but just the experience and, really, the connection that you need with friends is very important. It’s going to help you down the road.
Barry: Do you think it’s a good idea for musicians to try and earn their living through playing?
Kenneth Tse: Well, for some instruments maybe, but definitely not for the classical saxophonist, you know, unfortunately. But, you know, again, like yourself, obviously it is doable outside of an academic setting, you know. You have [inaudible 00:11:27].
What I say was getting a degree too is also, you have to be creative with your career. Like yourself, you work a lot of businesses and just ideas, always constantly have new ideas in your life, which is really, really important I think.
Barry: One thing I’ve noticed with saxophone players is they do seem to be quite creative in finding other things to do to help [crosstalk 00:11:56]-
Kenneth Tse: We almost have to.
Barry: You almost have to, just they’re not the same opportunities as say, a violinist, where there’s if you like, a career path that you could follow. We have to be much more creative in creating our own path, and I like that about saxophone players. They’re often quite creative in different ways.
Kenneth Tse: Right, right, right, yeah.
Barry: Is the way that you practice now, as a seasoned professional, different to the way that you practiced when you were learning?
Kenneth Tse: Well, definitely different. As you know well yourself too, sometimes it’s hard when you’re older now with family and obligations with your students, with your family, with your kids. It’s just much harder. Time to practice is harder to come by, so whenever I talk to younger students I say just practice as much as you can now, because you’re building the foundations later when you really don’t have a lot of time and you have to be able to pick up and do it quicker. You just don’t have hours to warm up and do scales before you actually play something, you know.
Barry: I always do laugh when I hear students complaining that they don’t have enough time.
Kenneth Tse: Right, yeah.
Barry: Just wait.
Kenneth Tse: Yes, yes.
Barry: I’m a little curious about memorization, and I wondered if you had any specific approaches that you have, whether you think it’s a good idea to use memorization, if there’s some efficient ways to do it, or if there’s times where you’re actually better off with the score in front of you?
Kenneth Tse: Even nowadays I think people talk about it more and I think a lot of saxophonists are getting to want to paly from memory more. I see it more in competitions and performances in general. I don’t have a very strong feeling whether one should, like, you have to play from memory or else you’re an inferior performer. I don’t believe that. In fact, I have many conversations with concert pianist that they all complain about, you know, the pressure of having to play from memory all the time because they’re expected to do it. Most of those pianists I talk to they say if they’re given the chance they will use music.
So, for me personally, I enjoy playing from memory sometimes, purely for really just the feeling of knowing the piece well, in line with the music, and also that I don’t have to worry about looking at something when I perform, just really feel the music and my communication with the audience. Really, those are the two things that I feel are important if I were to perform from memory. I never just do it for the sake of just see how I can memorize this difficult and long piece, and perform it.
So, in terms of methods, again, each person is different. I personally actually like to perform a piece with music for maybe a couple of times so that I can feel comfortable enough, and then I will just do that, commit it to play from memory from there on.
Only a few occasions that I’m forced to play from memory. I say ‘forced’ because, you know, I have to learn the piece very quickly and it’s a concerto with an ensemble so I’m trying to do that.
That is just doing what everybody does, is you do a lot of repetition in sections and small chunks. Try not to rush it, you know.
Barry: Could you tell me about your typical practice session?
Kenneth Tse: Yeah, nowadays?
Barry: Yeah, nowadays. Not about how long it is, but more how is it structured?
Kenneth Tse: Right.
Well, you know it’s kind of like Marcel Mule was asked whether he still practice scales when he was teaching at [inaudible 00:16:22], is what scales? You just don’t have time because whatever time you have nowadays you just have to practice your next performance, for the next performance. So, I would say that I would try to maybe play a few long tones and maybe 15-20 minutes warm up, if I even have that. Then I’ll just go straight to the repertoire that I have to prepare, you know, recital, concerto, music.
In a way it’s a good thing, you know, going back to being creative, is when you have more projects it actually helps you to want to practice. Even when you don’t have time, you’re forced, right? You have to perform. When you’re at a certain stage in your career people expect you to give results. You don’t have the leisure of making a lot of mistakes anymore like when you were student, you know.
So, those projects kind of help me to, you know, keep my practicing up in a way, and yeah. In terms of routine, I don’t really have a routine besides working on what I need to work on according to the schedule of my performances.
Barry: So, essentially the upcoming performance creates the motivation for the practice.
Kenneth Tse: Oh, yeah.
Barry: Whereas I guess students, the motivation is getting better, not necessarily the next performance. It’s quite a different-
Kenneth Tse: Yes, of course. Rousseau always says you … Actually, he learned it from Marcel Mule, [foreign language 00:18:09], ‘You never arrive.’ So, you really just, you have to keep going, and I believe that. Of course, I want to improve too, but yeah, mostly now is performance oriented goal, but you can still improve for each performance that you do, you know. I try to shoot for that in a way.
Barry: This is a very personal question, do you have a favorite piece of music that you like to play?
Kenneth Tse: Yeah, that’s always difficult. Besides ‘Rock Me?’
Barry: I’ve heard of that.
Kenneth Tse: Yeah.
No, that’s always funny, in fact, recently one of my daughters asked me to visit her school, and the specific request was ‘Rock Me,’ seriously. That was great. ‘Rock Me’ is always fun to do.
If I had to choose, I think my favorite concerto would be … Well, I have two, actually. One is the Dubois, and one is the Larsson, Lars-Erik Larsson concerto. So, those three pieces I like. Dubois being because I first started out listening to Dubois a lot, and that’s really the piece that got me started really serious about learning to play the saxophone, so that’s very meaningful piece. The Larsson is just, I like the melody and the tonality that it gives.
I mean, other than that, you know, I work with a lot of different composers, like yourself, so I try to immerse myself in that person’s emotions and feeling. The interesting thing, each of them are very different in a way. It’s not just, you know, writing for saxophone as a saxophone piece, it’s very individual I think, so I try to get into their mind and interpret the way that they want in their music.
Barry: It’s about 10 years since I wrote ‘Rock Me’ for you.
Kenneth Tse: Wow, is it?
Barry: Yeah. It’s maturing.
Kenneth Tse: Yeah.
Barry: One really funny thing that I noticed with that piece once we started including it in your repertoire, was I could tell where you were in the world because every time you played that piece people would start buying it, and I would know, “Oh, Kenneth’s in Taiwan.” It was great.
For me, as a composer, it’s crucial that music is played by people who can take the music to other audiences and to other people, and that’s one of the things that allows a piece to become part of a repertoire, to spread. It has to be performed.
So, the composers that you’ve worked with, and I think you’ve had, what, more than 30 pieces written for you?
Kenneth Tse: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Barry: Do you find that you’ve got some intimate connection with those pieces because of your connection with the composer?
Kenneth Tse: Oh, absolutely. You know, often, especially nowadays, the economy is – well it’s getting better – but we don’t have a lot of money, as you know, you know, musicians. We just can’t, you know, put down $50,000 and commission a famous composer to wrote a concerto, so often people do [inaudible 00:21:49], which is a great, great idea and great concept by itself.
But I personally would rather directly with a composer because I believe in the connection and the communication between the two people and the creation of that work is deeper, I think, versus just, “Hey, let’s write a saxophone concerto please,” and then they write something and then say, “Okay, we’ll help premiere it.” Usually those pieces, very rarely are they pieces that really stay around with the large consortium. When you have individual, not necessarily tailored, but custom built for that performer, you have that deep connection and you actually tend to perform it more. That’s usually what I try to do anyway.
So, I would say, “I don’t have a lot of money, but I promise you I’ll play it all over the place.” Sometimes composers are like, “Okay, yeah, that sounds great.”
Barry: In the end, we have to play music that is compelling to listen to.
Kenneth Tse: Oh, absolutely.
Barry: I think anything that can strengthen the quality of the end result, whether that’s the personal relationship or working together, I think is vital, as opposed to the cash reward where they’re getting paid regardless of whether it’s a good piece or a bad piece.
Kenneth Tse: That’s right, that’s right.
No, I mean of course composers have to eat too, so I understand that, especially the freelance … Oh, not freelance, like the people that are not teaching at an academic environment. It’s very challenging and they have to live on commissions. I understand that, but it’s just harder, I think, overall.
Barry: Do you have something in mind that will allow you to have a long, injury-free career?
Kenneth Tse: Yeah, as we were talking about earlier, in the beginning, about physical fitness. I try to exercise every week, you know, try to keep up with just the physical demand of just holding the instrument, you know. It’s heavy. I try to keep my arm muscles a little bit stronger so that I don’t get tendonitis or things like that.
Usually, the problems that happen is because of weak muscle support, and so I think it’s important to keep up. But also, just like when I was in high school, I have to sacrifice something if I want to focus on my art. Not that you can’t do sports, but we hear a lot of scary stories of skiing and skating and things like that, that you break something, you know, a lot of times. I try to, I know it’s kind of [inaudible 00:25:05], but I try to avoid those kind of sports. In fact, I’ve never done ice skating until just recently. My first time in life, because I was afraid that when I fall down I put my hand and then the next person will ‘schwit,’ and then my fingers are gone.
Barry: Did your career … Did you ever plan, or did it evolve from one opportunity to the next?
Kenneth Tse: That’s a good question. I mean, I also talk to a lot of young players too, is they sometimes don’t want to stand how it works, if you like. A lot of them, they feel like, “Oh, as long as I’m a good player people will knock on your door,” and that almost never happened, frankly. Unless you, either you have a lineage from a very famous family of musicians, or big names, or if you’re a first tier kind of instrument like piano, violin, singers, or you have a great agent. I mean, if you have a great agent just being a classical saxophone, you know, already the opportunities are not that many, you know.
So, I think still what I mentioned earlier is just being a good person. You have to develop to be a positive person, to have a good personality that people actually want you to be around them, you know? It sounds funny but it is true. Some artists I know, some players I know that have a stronger personality and people don’t really want to be around. It’s not going to help your career, for sure. So, I think it’s good to develop a more positive outlook as a person and build a connection with friends and colleagues in general.
Then I always tell my students too, is try to think about what are you trying to offer. In a way it’s still a business dealing, you know, even in the art. They pay tickets to come see, but you have to give them something in return. What are you trying to offer them? Whether it’s the type of music that you’re specialized, or whether beautiful tone quality, or whatever that maybe … Think about something that you want to offer them, or special that you can do, if possible.
Then I think when you have something unique then people will start asking you to do things, I think. But it takes time. I mean, one time I talked to a very wise man in Japan. He wasn’t a professional player, he was just a technician fixing horns, but very famous one. I asked him about career and he said to give yourself 10 years, and it’s true. Almost to the point of 10 years that I remember that was when I had a lot more opportunities, because the audience base, it’s already built by then.
A lot of professional quartets, [inaudible 00:28:37], and saxophone quartets, yeah, they don’t have a full house on the first day. It took them 10 years to build the base.
Barry: So persistence and perseverance.
Kenneth Tse: Persistence, perseverance, and patience. Yeah, absolutely. Yeah.
Barry: You’ve done many albums.
Kenneth Tse: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Barry: How important is recording to you personally?
Kenneth Tse: Yeah, I think being creative about that also would help you. I think today is a little bit different than even when I first started. We didn’t have a lot of recordings. There were, of course, many great recordings, but even when we started off a lot of … There were at, I don’t know, maybe hundreds, but now there’s into thousand probably. Maybe even more. So, to compare the competition is really great.
My feeling about recording is really I’m doing it for myself, I’m not doing it for money. We don’t. Sometimes it’s always amazed when I talk to somebody, instrumentalist, even one time I talked to a euphonium player and he could actually sell enough CDs to pay for the next project. I say, “How do you do that as a euphonium player?”
Yeah, it’s really just for my own creative outlet in a way, projects. But it did help in the beginning of career where I was fortunate enough to work with Crystal Records, and some other labels that actually help propel my career, but today, as you know, self-publish is a big thing now, because of the internet and Facebook and all those. You can almost do it without any other help.
But again, the bottom line is what are you offering the audience that’s different than the person next to you?
Barry: We seem now to be surrounded by distractions.
Kenneth Tse: Right, right.
Barry: How do you manage, yourself, this constant grabbing of your attention from messages or contacts or whatever it is?
Kenneth Tse: Let me check my phone.
Well, yeah, you know having kids too is, we understand the temptation and difficulties of just having that phone always there and you always look at messages. But, you know, frankly it’s not like we always get phone calls or texts to say, “Hey, can you come play concerto?” We’re just looking on emails and Facebook and things.
I think as long as you just think of it as a, again, connection with your colleagues and friends and families versus using it as a pure, you know, platform to show off your work. I personally don’t think that should be the goal, you know, on social network just simply because you’re gonna end up either looking at everybody else, what they’re doing and trying to compare. It’s just not a healthy way of using it.
It’s nice to know if you have a new composition coming out, or you’re doing a new project, and it’s, “Oh, wow, that’s neat.” We get connected that way.
Barry: Do you find your students are managing the distractions? They’re trying to practice and master their instrument, are they too distracted?
Kenneth Tse: No, actually I was surprised that most of my students don’t go to Facebook that often. I actually go there often because of update. If they have a recital I will put it on our studio website and Facebook page just to promote their events, and things like that. So, it depends on the person, I think.
Barry: What does your typical saxophone lesson look like as a teacher?
Kenneth Tse: I’ve changed over the years now. In the beginning I used to be a lot more structured, meaning they’d come in, I would start with just scales and technical things to start with. All the keys with the scales and technique, just to go through it. And then we go to maybe etudes and then music.
Nowadays I try to teach the students to be responsible for their own lesson routine. Like, you can’t just come in and expect maybe to spoon feed them, you know. Like, “I’m here, teach me something.” You have to come in with some questions or reflections from your practicing, like what did you learn? Or how did you fail in your practicing this week? What kind of revelation did you find, like new fingerings? Things like that, that they need to show me that they actually put in some thoughts in their learning process, versus me just giving them assignments and then they just do it, and that was it.
So, that’s pretty much nowadays. I want them to come in and show me what they want to do. If they have questions about a piece of music, or fingerings and things like that, they have to ask.
Barry: Do you have a vision for how you might like your students to remember you?
Kenneth Tse: Yeah. I guess I’m not at that stage yet maybe. Maybe when I’m closer to retirement, maybe, maybe.
I want them to feel that I’ve helped them with their learning, but not just on the saxophone, I think, but also as a person. How to handle things, and like that. Yeah, again, I think maybe because of my background from Asia, and just my upbringing, I’m not the most buddy-buddy type of teacher.
Even Dr. Rousseau, you know, he was pretty …. How should I describe it? He was, not distant in a negative way, but he is the teacher, you know. He will always be my teacher. So, there’s this separation in that that demands respect. Not that I want that kind of separation necessarily, because I’m not really too much older, although some of them, I think, I’m a lot older.
I still want to have a close relationship with them, but I hope that I can, you know, show them that you can have a mentorship and also a friendship at the same time, I think.
Barry: Touring seems to be a big part of your performing. You’ve been to many places, and I was looking on your website recently and I saw that you had a list of highlights. It’s quite a long list. You must be accumulating some great experiences as you tour. Is there something that comes to mind from your highlights, the places you’ve been and the experiences you’ve had, that really sticks in your mind?
Kenneth Tse: Yeah. That’s always a hard question to answer because, I mean, I don’t want to sound like that ‘some places are better than others,’ but there are definitely places that I’ve always wanted to visit. I mean, seriously, not just because you’re talking to me now, but Australia was one of the places I was really excited to visit when I first went there. You know, I always hear about the ‘Outback’ and things like that, plus I have a lot of students from Australia, so it was a really interesting trip.
Actually, the more memorable places, believe it or not, are places like Inner Mongolia, for example, in China, where when you see people don’t have a lot of money and don’t have a lot of things. I mean, they have to rely on whatever they have in school, provided by the school. The enthusiasm that they have to learn, that to me is amazing when I visit places like that.
Kenneth Tse: I always kind of share those stories with my students, and kind of say, “Hey, you’re very fortunate.” I think when I travel I usually experience that kind of things, versus, “Oh wow, this place.” I even hear that Slovenia is gorgeous outside. In the podcast people can’t see, but it’s a beautiful view outside of your room here.
Of course, the views are great, but I think I focus more on the people, I think.
Barry: How do you actually fit your touring in with your teaching and your family life? How do you juggle those different activities?
Yeah, this is an often asked question, and my answer always to my students is, “There’s no free lunch. Somebody, somewhere is paying.” I mean, you know well too, you have family, and so whenever you travel, you know, your wife is paying because she has to pick up the extra load that’s leftover with your kids and things like that, and household things.
Of course, it begs the question, “Why are you doing that if you’re making your family suffer?” I mean, frankly, I don’t have really a good answer for that because we just know that’s what we do, you know. That’s what we do. We travel, we perform, and of course I try my best a lot of times to not be away so much. You have to somehow strike a balance, I think.
It’s difficult, because if you don’t travel, if you don’t go out, you don’t get connections, you don’t meet people. If you don’t know anybody, nobodies going to ask you to do things. Simple as that, right, and then your careers kind of down, and then you might get depressed or things like that.
So, yeah, unfortunately I don’t have an easy answer for it. I think just enough to know that somebody is paying for whatever that you have.
Barry: I don’t know this about you: do you improvise?
Kenneth Tse: I would say no. I used to play more jazz when I was in Hong Kong, but again, I wouldn’t call it the jazz that we were playing in America, in New Wave. I like listening to jazz, and if i have to do it, I’m pretty sure I can, but it’s just to achieve that level that I’m okay with, it’s going to take too much work. As you know, you just have to get comfortable with it, and the language especially. That takes time. That takes time.
I decided, I guess some point in my career, that I just had to focus on one area, but I always tell students too, that doesn’t mean that you don’t understand the style or be able to do it if you’re called to do it. You just have to work harder.
Barry: How do you find a way to play a piece of music that brings something new to it, but without perhaps upsetting the traditions as well.?
Kenneth Tse: Yeah, that’s a good question. That’s kind of related to what I was saying of what do you have to offer that’s different? That kind of related to it, the interpretation, you know, are you able to interpret it in a way that is appealing to the majority of the audience, for instance?
Now, obviously that’s not really the only goal. There are a lot of artists that are, you know, alienating the audience, but then they become very famous. We know the examples of a lot of pianists and composers.
So, I try to, again, when I listen to a piece of music I try to really listen and imagine what the composer is trying to say in that. All I’m trying to do is just maximize what the composer is saying, even to a point maybe the composer didn’t even know that. “Oh, wow, that’s cool.” Then I would try that, you know, for the composer. If he or she likes it then yeah, I think I’ve accomplished something.
Mostly I just want to maximize the expressions that’s already presented on the page.
Barry: Now, are you ready for some rapid fire questions?
Kenneth Tse: Rapid fire questions? Okay.
Barry: Here we go.
You may have already answered this. If you just had one piece that you could play forever, what would it be?
Kenneth Tse: Oh man, one piece. That’s tough. Well, I mean, I was joking a little bit, but actually, it’s true. I might, in my tombstone, I may have ‘Rock Me’ on it because everybody where I go, people just expect me to play that. So, I guess I think definitely ‘Rock Me’ could be one of the pieces, yeah.
Barry: You’ve got only one hour to practice. How would you spend that hour?
Kenneth Tse: Oh, man. Well, if there’s one hour I would play long tones. You’ll go, “Why?”
Because that’s really how I started when I was in high school because there was not a lot of material, my teacher wasn’t there, there was no teacher really. There was nothing to do so I’d just play long tones and try to make it beautiful. That’s how I started. In a way I kind of miss that time alone, you know, playing long tones. It’s kinda weird.
Barry: Who do you consider to be one of the most successful contributors to the saxophone?
Kenneth Tse: Beside Eugene Rousseau, my former teacher? Well, of course, I think Jean-Marie Londeix is definitely one of the many, actually. It’s hard whenever you name names. I don’t want to miss anybody, but there are just so many, but Jean-Marie Londeix especially. Even though I never studied with him. I know you studied with him. I never studied with him, and I mean, our relationship was purely just from knowing each other and meeting in conferences. Actually, he was always nice. He was always nice to me and when I visited him in Bordeaux one time, he let me stay there for a couple of nights and we had dinner and he was cooking some duck in the time, and we had a bottle of wine. We spent a lot of quality time listening to recordings, and just the amount of work that man did. It’s incredible, I mean, as you know. He spent a lot of hours, days, and nights just talking about saxophone. Everything he does is about saxophone, so his contribution is great.
Barry: If we learn from our mistakes, is it okay to make them?
Kenneth Tse: Of course. It’s necessary. There’s no such thing as no mistakes. You have to learn from your mistakes.
Barry: What’s the most important thing that you do personally before a performance?
Kenneth Tse: I don’t mean to sound funny, but I do actually pray because it kind of gives me a peace, and in a way I also kind of dedicate a performance each time. In a way, that is my worship on stage. It’s not active worshiping, in a way. So, yeah, I have praying and actively relax your mind.
Barry: Could you look back to when you were just starting out? What would you tell your younger self?
Kenneth Tse: That’s an interesting question. I never thought of that. Do you? Did you think of something like that?
Barry: I think personally I would say, “If you have something that you believe in, stick at it no matter what anyone else tells you.”
Kenneth Tse: Okay.
Barry: That’d be for me.
Kenneth Tse: I see. Yeah. That’s good, that’s good.
Yeah, I think because interestingly I never, I guess, because I studied in a boarding school and then after that I went to the States by myself, so my parents weren’t there to tell me not to do anything, or something like that. That was the thing that I did, you know, playing the saxophone and music. I never had doubt about that.
I would say, if I had to think of something quickly right now, is just do more than I was doing even. I feel like sometimes you get distractions like, you know, you’re doing other things outside of your career. Sometimes I feel like I need to focus even more.
Barry: Now, is there’s something you’re working on that you would like to tell us about? A new album, or a project?
Kenneth Tse: Yeah, this year especially has been quite busy, and I’m fortunate enough that at my university they have a lot of support for creative projects like recording funding. So, there’s really a unique situation because not too many places have that regularly every year.
So, this year I started a project with some of my colleagues at the university. We’re recording three pieces. One of them is a saxophone concerto by Kirk O’Riordan, an American composer. He wrote that piece actually for Dr. Eugene Rousseau’s 76th birthday celebration, and so I premiere that piece and finally I have a chance to play that. It’s with Chamber Group concerto.
Then the other two are also chamber music, like the ‘Creation of the World’ by Milhaud, and the Kurt Weill ‘The Threepenny Opera’ suite. That’s a, I think, an exciting … I don’t know if any university actually could have done recording like that together, so I think it’s a unique thing.
Also, I’m still finishing my sonata, my [inaudible 00:49:23] two sonata recording. I’ve finished recording it, just now editing.
And I also started another project is … Just yesterday I was joking with somebody, I said, you know, talking about saxophone quartet, I think Claude Delangle was talking about, “I always wanted to play, but it’s just the members kept leaving because of, you know, other things,” and so he ended up playing by himself. It’s kind of similar in a sense. For me it’s hard to find three other members that are just as dedicated and are in close proximity that we can rehearse all the time, or even play projects together.
This third project I’m doing is recording myself, but I’m playing all four parts.
Yeah, it’s a fun project. It’s not anything special. It’s more for myself to have fun, you know.
Barry: Now, I’m sure there’s a lot more to talk about, but where can people find out more about you?
Kenneth Tse: Yeah, speaking of Facebook, I have a Facebook page. I don’t really do too much. Sometimes if I’m going to places I’ll just send the photos here and there and let people know what I’m doing, but that’s really the extent. I don’t really, like journal, on the Facebook, for instance. Things like that.
People can definitely see me on Facebook and also I have a website, kenneth-tse.com, and again, I think people that even just have Facebook page versus webpage nowadays, but I do try to update it once in a while.
Barry: You’ve made such an incredible contribution to the saxophone already, what’s next in the future?
Kenneth Tse: Well, one thing I’m passionate about is, I still think after all these years, when I listen to, I mean, really advanced players in competition, international competitions and performances. I mean, they’re really, really high level in terms of their technical ability and sometimes musical, but a lot of things that could be even easier in terms of just making it effortless in their performances, or some of the things that they shouldn’t have to struggle with, for instance, artisanal range, low register control, or just control in general. So, I mean, for the past 10 years or so, I mean, I’m doing a lot of the lectures on just the mechanics of saxophone controls.
Speaking earlier about teaching methods and things like that, I still believe that there some ways that could be easier for people to achieve. That’s kind of my goal. Hopefully eventually, I don’t know if it’s still an in idea to write a book or something, hopefully, that’s my goal, is to write something to tell at least my side of the story of … I want people to, with that level of ability, they should be able to make it even easier so they don’t have to struggle so much, and have a higher percentage of success, I think, and control.
Barry: All right. Kenneth, thanks for your time.
Kenneth Tse: Yeah, thanks. I appreciate it.
Barry: Let’s go and play in the snow.
Kenneth Tse: Yeah, yes. Let’s go.