Paul Cohen - New York Saxophonist and Historian - 24
About Paul Cohen
Paul Cohen is one of America’s most sought-after saxophonists for orchestral and chamber concerts and solo recitals. He has appeared as soloist with the San Francisco Symphony, Richmond Symphony, New Jersey Symphony, New York Virtuosi, Ridgefield Symphony Orchestra, Bergen Philharmonic, Charleston Symphony and the Philharmonia Virtuosi. His many solo orchestra performances include works by Debussy, Creston, Ibert, Glazunov, Martin, Loeffler, Husa, Dahl, Still, Villa-Lobos, Tomasi, and Cowell.
He has also performed with a broad range of orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic, Cleveland Orchestra, Santa Fe Opera, New Jersey Symphony, Oregon Symphony, Long Island Philharmonic, Group for Contemporary Music, Greenwich Symphony, Charleston Symphony, New York Solisti, and the Manhattan Chamber Orchestra.
Dr. Cohen is on the faculties of the Manhattan School of Music, Rutgers University, Queens College and New York University.
Dr. Cohen holds M.M and DMA degrees from Manhattan School of Music. His teachers have included Galan Kral, Joe Allard, and Sigurd Rascher.
He has published more than 100 articles on the history and literature of the saxophone in music journals such as the Saxophone Journal, Instrumentalist, CBDNA Notes, Clarinet and Saxophone Society Magazine of Great Britain, The Grainger Society Journal, and the Saxophone Symposium, and since 1985 a feature column, “Vintage Saxophones Revisited,” for the Saxophone Journal.
Combining his musicological pursuits with performing activities, Dr. Cohen has rediscovered and performed lost saxophone literature, including solo works for saxophone and orchestra by Loeffler, Florio and Dahl (for winds), as well as rare chamber works by Grainger, Ornstein, Sousa, Cowell, Siegmeister, and Loeffler.
His company, To the Fore Publishers, publishes his arrangements and settings for saxophone ensemble as well as original, historical, and contemporary saxophone works from selected composers. Dr. Cohen frequently presents lectures on the saxophone, illustrating his talks with rare instruments, manuscripts, and archival material from his extensive private collection.
The Paul Cohen saxophone collection.
Starting out as a chemistry major.
Choosing music because it is a passion.
Working eight days a week.
The satisfaction of students learning something new.
The musical level of saxophonists is not rising as fast as the technical and tonal aspects.
Learning with an orchestral oboist.
Learning with Joe Allard and Sigurd Raschèr.
Working on the Dahl concerto.
Having a unique way of teaching.
The importance of the flexibility of tone production.
Productive practising in the middle of the night.
Never playing from memory.
Joe Allard and tone production.
Learning to play vintage mouthpieces and equipment.
Learning adaptability at a young age.
Practising in short bursts.
Allowing a few days to learn a passage.
An organically evolving career.
Dividing lessons into three parts.
Teaching on the weekends.
The importance of working with composers.
Doing non-jazz improvisation.
Avoiding long tones.
Achieving orchestral parody of the saxophone.
Sounding the same on any mouthpiece.
Mistakes are inevitable as part of our humanity.
Current and future projects.
Transcript of Podcast Interview with Paul Cohen
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: So first of all, Paul, thanks for the tour this morning, of your amazing collection of saxophones.
Paul Cohen: It was a pleasure to show it to you and it was really great to show your whole family all these instruments, they were as excited as you were.
Barry Cockcroft: They were really excited and when I said to them the other day if they would like to come along, we’ll be visiting a museum, besides speaking with you. They’re like, “Yes, let’s go, we want to go.” Because when you visit New York, you could visit the Contemporary Art Museum, The Natural History Museum, there’s museums everywhere, but actually sometimes what means more to kids is something much more personal. So it’s been a great tour, thank you.
Paul Cohen: Well great, and we’ve only just started.
Barry Cockcroft: Yeah, that’s right.
Paul Cohen: Many more to go.
Barry Cockcroft: So we will be back next week for the rest of the tour. So what I wanted to talk to you about to start with is how you actually got started with the saxophone in the first place.
Paul Cohen: It’s not a very exciting story. In my grade school, in public schools, we were all expected to choose an instrument in our fourth grade. And my brother play clarinet, so I couldn’t play clarinet and my other brother played tuba, so I couldn’t go in that direction. Only girls played in flute in my fourth grade mind, and what was left was the saxophone. So not knowing much about it, I played the saxophone because it was there and available and we had to choose something. Little did I realise that the saxophone was the perfect instrument for somebody of my temperaments and personality. And as I grew older and got to see what the sax was all about, it really meshed well with my particular interests and so I kept going with that.
Barry Cockcroft: Did you find that you had a teacher initially, one who was a specialist in your instrument and also was able to give you the direction you needed?
Paul Cohen: In high school and I only started lessons later in high school, I had a very fine commercial saxophone player as a teacher. He was a saxophonist but he also played flute and clarinet and he was very much involved in doing shows and commercial work. But he was a very fine musician and very good teacher, so that got me to a level of proficiency that was sufficient for my playing in high school. When I went to college, I was not a music major at first, I was a chemistry major. But I was so much interested in continuing my saxophone interests that I kept a toehold in the music conservatory at the college I went to. And that toehold never stopped, so I became so involved in the music making in the conservatory in my first semester in school, that I transferred my major into the conservatory and continued as a music major from then on.
Barry Cockcroft: All right, so did you ever feel, when you started being a chemistry major, did you feel you were misplaced or you were you happy to be in sort of a foot in each door?
Paul Cohen: Because I was a chemistry major I was able to test out of the first chemistry classes I would take. So that gave me more time to pursue my music interests, so I never really got to be a full-time chemistry major. I had a little bit of ability as a chemistry major but I had a lot more interest in being a music major. So the music was something I just loved to do and the chemistry was something I was sort of okay at, was pretty good.
Barry Cockcroft: And did you actually choose that path or was it, let’s say encouraged by your family to follow a certain path?
Paul Cohen: My family was wonderful, they wanted me to follow the path that I was enthusiastic about, that I could succeed in. And even though, being a chemistry major would have been much more secure for further employment, they realised that in early college, fighting your passion, being able to learn how to succeed and becoming very satisfied at what you do, was more important than a specific vocational career path. So they were very happy that I was doing it.
Barry Cockcroft: Do you find that today, that students are choosing music for the same reason? That they’re following a passion or are they choosing for other reasons?
Paul Cohen: Most of the students that I come to work with are either really passionate about music making, the saxophone or some of my schools, they have a real interest in having a career in education, in music education. So they love the idea of being music educators and the saxophone is their instrument to help with that music education, okay. So it’s different branches of that.
Barry Cockcroft: So you have a number of teaching positions it seems.
Paul Cohen: Yes.
Barry Cockcroft: Reading through what you do each week, it must be quite a juggle.
Paul Cohen: I do work eight days a week, three shifts per day. I’ve scaled back a little bit the last two years because I’ve been doing a lot more performing internationally and doing a lot more touring. But I still keep my affiliations with at least three or four schools and it is a bit of juggling act. But it’s all good because I learn as much from my teaching as my students learn from me. And as long as I don’t become exhausted by it all, I find that the teaching I do really influenced my playing, so I play better.
Barry Cockcroft: Have you been able to find a way that allows you to keep that freshness because sometimes the demands of students can be overwhelming, teachers can become burned out or they need a break from it? I mean what’s your way of dealing with that?
Paul Cohen: When I see the students reactions to learning something truly new and understanding it, that, to me is a great satisfaction and a great exhilaration. So over the course of my teaching from week to week, when I can make these little awarenesses or these major breakthroughs on a regular basis, from day to day, week to week, that reinforces my enthusiasm for being able to teach and to make real differences for them. So it’s not just showing them a better fingering and it’s not just telling them about articulation, but it’s showing them something deeper within the music they’re playing or deeper within processes they need to develop in order to become better at what they’re doing, to achieve a higher level they’re becoming aware of. Those things are extremely rewarding to me and that helps to sustain.
Barry Cockcroft: I’ve heard a lot of people say that the standard of students in the last 20 years has skyrocketed throughout the world. Do you think there’s a particular reason that the level is becoming so high?
Paul Cohen: I find that the technical level of saxophonists has risen a lot. I found that the tonal qualities of saxophone players have risen a lot. I have not found that the musical level of saxophonist has risen as much. Sometimes it’s camouflaged by better saxophone playing, but I don’t always find that in better musical playing and that’s a real issue that I contend with because many people will say, “But he plays so well.” And I will say, “Yes, he does play so well, finally we have a saxophone sound that is beautiful to hear, is consistent up and down. Finally, we have intonation that is more or less consistent throughout and finally we have an advanced technique that can play almost anything.” All those are great improvements, but I still find there’s a lack of artistic expression, a lack of musical understanding.
Paul Cohen: As to why saxophonists are now playing technically better these days, I think now that in this current generation of saxophone teachers, the teachers have gotten away from parochial institutions of the schools that were very divisive may years ago. And now we’re listening to the saxophone more in a universal context of when music making, and not just the camp that they came from or the particular teacher’s exact way of playing. So just starting to let other factors filter in, that are more universally recognised or accepted as norms of sound and playing younger students are able to pick up on that more easily and more quickly. So I think we do get to a much higher level of saxophone playing.
Barry Cockcroft: Right, now you’ve had a number of different teachers over the years when you were a student, could you describe the differences between the teaching styles that you encountered as a student?
Paul Cohen: Well, that’s really interesting. My first teacher in college was not a saxophonist, he was an orchestral oboist, who his role at the conservatory was he had to teach saxophone. So he immersed himself in understanding about the technique of the saxophone. And there was some relationship between that and the oboe. So the tremendous benefit that I got from him was that unlike most of the teachers of saxophone at that time, this was in the late ’60s, he had no preconceived notion of the saxophone playing. He wanted to hear it as an orchestral instrument.
Paul Cohen: He was used to playing the Baltimore Symphony, and he had this great understanding of orchestral sound, so he approached the saxophone as saying, you belong in the orchestra. That translated to the quality of sound he wanted, to the mouthpiece he recommended, to the way he taught the literature and that was my first introduction, to real, serious saxophone playing. So that was a quality of playing that stayed with me, very, very important. We always joked, students in the studio, that we would give our teacher saxophone lessons over summer, so he could learn the saxophone better because he never played.
Paul Cohen: But we were so appreciative of what he taught us about how to play the instrument from a technical point of view and from the great tonal and musical elements that he instilled in us, about how to play. That was as an undergraduate, as a graduate student, I studied with Joe Allard, the famous New York teacher. He was a great player in clarinet and saxophone, he came from a very different school of playing. He was very much associated with the French school. But he was a master of that, a genius at understanding the real mechanics of tone production. Although when I went to him, he had me change mouthpieces from what was then a Raschèr mouthpiece to a Selmer C*.
Paul Cohen: And that was quite a change for me, but what I learned from him about the mechanics of playing, what goes into tone production, what we need to do in order to create the sound that we want and how to control it. The pedagogy involved in learning how to play was invaluable and is a very important part of how I teach today. So I spent four years with Joe Allard too as a stint as a doctoral student and that made a tremendous change in my ability to play the instrument. It gave me the versatility to play all the different saxophones that I do and was just a tremendous influence on my playing.
Paul Cohen: I also spent some time with Sigurd Raschèr, not as a traditional student, I never really took a lesson with Sigurd Raschèr. But I spent a lot of time with Sigurd Raschèr, not only in his many clinics that he had during the summers, but as I became friendly with him and he sort of adopted me as a junior, junior colleague because I was able to find things in the saxophone world that he did not know about. Some of them were instruments, some of them were music and he was very taken with the fact that I would be doing this kind of research and bringing it to him. Including coming up with the original Dahl Concerto score and parts which I had been working with for quite a while now, which he thought was a gone and dead issue.
Paul Cohen: So he would invite me up to his farm in upstate New York several times a year, over a period of many years and I would spend a lot of time discussing all things musical and saxophonic with him. But not how to play, we would talk about the philosophy of playing, we would talk about the artistic visions of playing, we would talk about the practicalities of how to make a piece of music more viable or what one needs to do in order create musical situations and scenarios. We would talk about the state of music playing and the state of saxophone playing. And that philosophic and artistic and pedological vision also had a great influence of how I not only prepare my own playing and the standards that I put, also how I address my students and what my expectations are for the students and how I teach them. So these are three major influences for both of those.
Barry Cockcroft: Would you say your own teaching now is informed by the way you learned as a student or has your own teaching method evolved over the years to become unique for you?
Paul Cohen: I have a complete unique way of teaching but it’s all based upon my prior experiences with my other teachers. So for instance, Joe Allard had some mouthpiece exercises that he would have us do, I took those and expanded them into a whole other set of mouthpiece exercises which are fundamentals that my students use. His ideas that I just took and then augmented on. We all use Sigurd Raschèr’s Top-Tone book for overtone development and I learned that overtones, a lot with Joe Allard, but mostly from Mr Raschèr, is an essential part of our learning. So I wrote my own altissimo book, I’ll give you a copy before you go.
Paul Cohen: That is an extension of the Top-tone book, after the Top-Tone book then you played my book of a way of expanding my teachings. That whole notion of how to play concerti and how to teach concerti came from my discussions with Sigurd Raschèr. Very interesting stories from him, his attitude about playing piano reductions. I’d always play piano reductions of concertos, of course we do that. But his point was, that was not how it was intended, he never played a piano reduction because he always played it with an orchestra. They were written for him, he played it with an orchestra. Piano reduction is not the way you present the music, the music was really designed to be played with full orchestra, so that made a big impression on me.
Paul Cohen: Of course, we played piano reductions as students, we do that for essential learning purposes, but I don’t programme and I advise against my students who are playing professional concerts to play piano reductions of concertos. We have plenty of other music to play and we can find appropriate pieces that won’t diminish the quality of the work by putting it into a piano reduction just for our own convenience. You would never hear Itzhak Perlman playing a piano reduction of a Beethoven violin concerto, it just won’t happen. So those are some things that go in, the idea of repertoire and what’s appropriate to play, when not to play, was informed by work with these teachers. But then again, also informed me, was my own experience as a professional player.
Paul Cohen: Especially my work as an orchestra player, not soloist with an orchestra, but within the orchestra and hearing what my wind colleagues do in order to create the great sound and the great blend and the great level of playing and that the saxophone should play it like that. And how do we get there? And what’s the reason for that? So a lot of my teaching goes along in those lines also. Rigorous discussion about tone, tonal consistency, tonal interests, how we can approach philosophically and how we get there technically. The mechanics of really high level tone production for really high level, artistic playing. So that’s something that more or less came from my own experiences, the other pedagogy influence but augmented by my other teachers.
Barry Cockcroft: It sounds like your idea of tone is that it must have a context, so it would depend who you’re playing with, what group you’re playing with.
Paul Cohen: Of course, look, we’re so lucky. The saxophone is such a great, versatile instrument. It’s a perfect instrument for rock and roll bands, it’s the perfect instrument for contemporary music ensembles. It’s the perfect instrument to play with the church choir or with the chorus. It’s a perfect instrument to play in an orchestra, it’s a great recital instrument, it’s a great instrument for playing jazz, whether you be playing bebop jazz or big band jazz. But all these ensembles, all these venues have different tonal qualities them, it’s a different context. So of course, to make the instrument sound authentic in that, we have to be able to know how to create a sound quality that’s going to sound authentic to the genre that we’re playing in or the venue.
Paul Cohen: So it’s all contextual and that goes along with teaching students the flexibility of tone production, so that they have the chops literally, to go into a situation and adapt their playing to match the situation better. So there’s a certain versatility that’s built into my teaching them and not only in just the mechanics of playing but the equipment they use. I cannot use my orchestral mouthpiece when I’m playing in a big band, nor would I use my big band mouthpiece to play in an orchestra. I could come close, but it wouldn’t be at the level, the most authentic level possible. So that is part of it, yes, it’s all about context.
Barry Cockcroft: Do you think the idea of specialising is becoming more prevalent where people or even students will choose a particular area of saxophone and focus on that, and so that these issues perhaps, no I don’t want to do big band music or I don’t want to do that, do you think that’s becoming a way of approaching the instrument where you choose a specialty early on?
Paul Cohen: It may be, but I hope it’s not. In good conscience I couldn’t provide a pathway for a student that would only be in that central area. And having said that, a lot of my graduate students, the Dartmouth students come up a specialty they want to pursue, but I’m always reminding of the need to use these skills that we’re developing and be ready to apply in different areas, just for employment purposes. So that you may be working on the Dahl Concerto, but if you get a call to play in a wedding band, you’ll know what to do. So yeah, people become more and more interested and more and more specialised, but I never ask them to be exclusionary for that, I always want them to be aware of that.
Barry Cockcroft: Now that you are working eight days a week, how would you describe the way that you practise as opposed to when you were a student and you were perhaps working only seven days a week? How do you approach practise now, with so many activities taking up your time?
Paul Cohen: My third shift comes into gear here. I tend to practise in very early mornings, literally between 1:00 and 3:00am, when I’m preparing, is a good practise time for me. But I find I got to be very efficient, my past practise times were quite efficient when I was a student. So I learn my skills carefully and I retain these skills well, so when I’m practising it’s really about learning the particular issues of the music I’m playing and not necessarily reacquiring skills. Some skills I have to keep highly refined, when I’m playing slow or when I’m playing fast passages, I have to really make sure I retain the technical agility necessary.
Paul Cohen: And then it becomes, it’s a question of focusing in on the part. So I will often provide my, when I’m practising and preparing for a major event, my practise session isn’t always in the illustrious, artistic playing of this music. Sometimes I’m just playing for the notes, sometimes I’m going to be playing two pages of a practise session with a practise read and it’s just getting to be comfortable and familiar with it. Other times I will play just for the sound and making sure that I have a sound that’s going to reach in the registers that’s required or that’s going to… things that have a very delicate tonal context, I’m aware of how to approach that and I don’t worry with the notes. So my practise sessions become very specific, very, very focused and at odd hours of the day.
Barry Cockcroft: Do you feel that memorization is an important part of performance and also in practise?
Paul Cohen: At this point I’ve appeared before wind groups, orchestras and chamber groups as a soloist hundreds of times. Not once have I played from memory. I don’t memorise very well, so the necessity or being imposed memorization is only going to detract from my performance. Even though, when I go and play a concerto, it’s 95% memorised anyway, just the fact that there’s a possibility of something going askew, not having that reference, seriously compromises my ability to play. I’m not an advocate of memorization, if one can do it without impacting your performance, have at it.
Paul Cohen: But when people come to hear me play, they really come to hear me play, they don’t come to see me play. So I’m not an advocate of imposed memorization and I don’t feel that at a performance level it helps. When I am preparing different passage of a work, I find that if I do memorise some of those passages, it allows me to concentrate better on its execution. And in performance having that memorization will help me in performance, even though I still have the music there. So it’s a little more complex, that memorization in specific small areas can be helpful in learning parts. But I, myself, do not use memorization when I play.
Barry Cockcroft: Do you think for instruments like the piano or the violin where it is really imposed, do you think that might be leaving out some people, who would be in the same situation, where they would say, “My memorization skills are going to let me down.” Therefore, they get pushed aside and we never get to hear those musicians?
Paul Cohen: I believe so, look in piano it’s a little more practical to memorise, just from page turns. In violin, not so much so. But I believe that why are we punishing people who may not be able to memorise, when maybe because we’re artists and have great insight to their music. What is it about the memorization that it’s more important than about the quality of the musicians from our artistry that we hear. So yeah, I believe that is possible and there is a trend these days with wind players, many times you’ll see the principal players of an orchestra, playing concertos with the orchestra as part of seasons thing.
Paul Cohen: And most of the time they’re using music, for several reasons. One, the music is more complex, not necessarily technically harder but just more complex in its constructions, so it’s not as easy to get the flow of it. And secondly, they just don’t have the time to memorise it, whereas these excellent musicians can much more quickly learn to play it at the highest level with the music there for their use.
Barry Cockcroft: Now we’re sitting in a room and we’re surrounded visibly by let’s say 30 instruments, how have you developed the proficiency to play, not only multiple saxophones, multiple sizes, multiple keys, but also instruments from different ages of the saxophone history? What have you done in your practise that has allowed you to be so flexible in approaching different instruments?
Paul Cohen: Two things, one is, with Joe Allard, I received great instruction on tone production and the flexibility we need in order to produce sound. So that allowed me to not be locked in to any particular embouchure for any particular mouthpiece for any particular instrument to play. I developed a freedom of relationship between my tone production mechanism and the mechanics to music, that’s one. Secondly, when I was in school, my main alto was the Selmer Mark VI, one that I still use. But I went to one of the Raschèr clinics, I heard Carina Rascher playing soprano saxophone, it was the most beautiful soprano playing I had ever heard.
Paul Cohen: So I went and found an old Buescher curved soprano saxophone, which she used and had it overhauled. I started playing it with the mouthpiece that she had played it in a bigger chamber mouthpiece and that was a completely different experience in producing sound of the instrument. Totally different from a modern instrument with a modern mouthpiece. But being in school, I took the time to do that, I had that sound in my ear and I learned to not be locked in with certain embouchure specifics. And so I learned to play the older instrument proficiently and started to use that.
Paul Cohen: So very early I was comfortable in playing the older vintage instruments with the older mouthpieces, as well as the modern instruments with the modern mouthpieces and that happened early on. And from that I just learned to have this flexibility, where now… and because I learned my overtones technique really well, while I was in grad school and I began to really develop the flexibility to play overtones. Especially learning on these chamber mouthpieces, which is much harder than on the traditional mouthpieces. I developed a definite technique that allowed me the flexibility to, I could play on the saxophone, not on any other instrument, I can play any instrument up here.
Barry Cockcroft: Do you think that flexibility is easier to achieve at a younger age, when kids are studying or would it be something that you could approach later on?
Paul Cohen: I think earlier is better.
Barry Cockcroft: The earlier, the better.
Paul Cohen: Earlier is better, yeah because I’ve come across students in third or fourth year of college, who have been so used to one way of playing and introducing other concepts is very challenging for them sometimes. That is, it’s hard for them to get away from what has been working for them for so long. And literally, not philosophically, but physically to learn to undo certain muscle motions or learn to develop a certain independence of muscular groups within the oral cavity settings. It’s challenging for them to make some of these adjustments, so I think earlier is better to do that.
Barry Cockcroft: You mentioned that you’re quite efficient in your approach to learning your music, is there something specifically that you do, that is very efficient, that you would advise others to do?
Paul Cohen: All practise habits are quite individualist. But what I found that helps me a lot is I will practise in very concentrated short bursts, maybe 20 minute bursts. And sometimes I’ll work on a particular passage for a short time, but very intense and when I’m done with that, I stop, I let it go, I take a break and then I’ll come back and then do something else. That’s one thing that I do, so I really, really, really work hard but enough so that I don’t burn myself out entirely.
Paul Cohen: The other thing I do which I think has been very helpful to me, is I set to learn certain passages over a period of time. I allow myself a process of three or four days to learn something to where I want it to be. So if I have a passage that’s going to be really, really difficult, and let’s say the goal tempo is 140, I’ll spend the first day doing an 80 and I stop. I don’t go beyond that because I know the next I’m going to come out, I’m going to then bring it up to 100 and I stop.
Paul Cohen: Now the next day I’m going to go and work at till I get to 120 and then I stop. So by giving myself, understanding the process of development in these things, I don’t try to cram it into one time, learn it there and then the next day go to another section and cram it in. That allows me to learn the passage more reliably and it makes the execution of the passages in performance much more reliable, there’s a greater probability of it coming out. So the process of learning over a period of time is important as well as the focus of time.
Barry Cockcroft: I guess in that process then you actually have probably not made any mistakes because you’re playing at a slow tempo, therefore, the number of times you’ve played it correctly is greatly increased.
Paul Cohen: Yeah, it’s a deliberate positive reinforcement of perfection. I’ve had plenty of times when I perform, where I’ve been very lucky at getting the rest to come out. I’ve had plenty times where I’ve not been so lucky. So I find that I increase the probability of the perfection by doing it this way. There’s no point… in preparation of music, there’s no point in kind of getting it and getting the gesture. The point and really getting the perfection of it. In performance, there’s more of a point in getting the gesture to work, but if we can do both, get the perfection and get the gesture then it becomes a completely higher expression of the music. So that’s what is attempted.
Barry Cockcroft: Now you’ve played for decades, what’s the secret to a long, healthy physical capacity to be able to play these instruments for so long?
Paul Cohen: I played baseball every day after school, all the way through college and I continue to be physically active. I play a lot of competitive table tennis, a very aerobic kind of thing. I do a lot of conducting and believe it or not, the conducting is a great aerobic exercise, so that, that keeps me physically fit.
Paul Cohen: So of the many vices that I have, those that I’ve bypassed include smoking and drinking, so I don’t smoke and I don’t drink socially. So those are some things that I’ve done and also, I keep playing, consistently, even when I’m not, don’t have major things to play. I’m always doing something, I’m either getting ready to record or I’m doing some recitals or I’m doing chamber music concerts, so they come to see you play, is literally keeping the chops engaged and ready to go.
Barry Cockcroft: Yeah, you’ve had a very diverse career it would seem because you’re doing a lot of different things. Did you start out with that vision to have specific things that you wanted to achieve or did they just sort of evolve over time, very organically?
Paul Cohen: It evolved organically, my interests when I was an undergrad was, I want to be like my friends who play in the orchestra. My colleagues would play flute and clarinet and bassoon and trumpet in the orchestra and I love that music, I love that genre. And I wanted to play in those things but people kept telling me, there was the music to play. So I started to start looking to find what music was available the saxophone could play in. I started doing some natural research for that. This was before this explosion of awareness of music in the orchestra with saxophones, before that happened. So I started finding lots of music that had saxophones that I didn’t know about.
Paul Cohen: And then I did the same thing with chamber music, I wanted to find chamber pieces because I love playing with different groups that were not just saxophones. I started finding a tremendous amount of unknown music that used saxophone, that spanned hundreds of years. That was just a natural, organic interest in my wanting to create a parody of my playing with my colleagues. That was one path and that was sort of a historical musicological path. That intersected with my interest in instruments, when I started to learn about the history of the instrument, and so many diversified kinds of instruments and what they sounded like, so already used to doing some research, I just continued that research by exploring the saxophone’s past farther and farther.
Paul Cohen: As I was doing that, I started to give some lectures on it, I was encouraged to start writing about it. That’s when I started my column for the Saxophone Symposium many years ago, which evolved into the Saxophone Journal columns called The Grainger Society Journal, I did for many, many years, where I talked all things related to, not only just older instruments but music, performance practises, legacies of playing etc`. And all these things that I’ve done, have only informed my playing as a professional performer, it just made me a better player, all this background. A practical example, just a few weeks ago, I was sort of a saxophonist in residence with the Allentown Symphony, Allentown Pennsylvania, has a first rate regional orchestra, it’s about 100 miles from here.
Paul Cohen: So I conducted a saxophone ensemble, I gave a demonstration of solo instruments, which I had sopranino. I was also being hired by the orchestra later that week to play in an all Gershwin, well three Gershwin pieces, An American in Paris, Rhapsody in Blue and I Got Rhythm. I was initially hired the play An American in Paris because of research I had done on the Gershwin An American in Paris and I had found out that the saxophone use in the An American in Paris that we play today, is very different than what George Gershwin originally orchestrated. In the version you play today, you have an alto, a tenor and a baritone part but in the original version, the alto doubled on soprano, the tenor doubled on alto and soprano, the baritone doubled on alto and soprano.
Paul Cohen: And there’s a brilliant section in there, in which the three soprano saxophones are playing with indication to the score bells in air, in three part harmony. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard soprano saxophone playing in three part harmony… So I found the original score and from the original score, I extracted the original saxophone parts, integrated those parts into the rental parts that we had now and made it available to any symphony orchestra that wanted to do that. The director heard about that and she was really intrigued by this version of instrumentation, so she hired me to do this. That’s one example of my historical research getting engagements, got me hired for that.
Paul Cohen: So while I was there, I played sopranino and one of my favourite sopranino demonstrations is to play part of the original orchestration to the Rhapsody in Blue, which called for sopranino solo… In the middle of the piece, the section where the sopranino and baritone are playing that solo, where the piano is scampering around in the middle. In the orchestra version, that music was taken over by the bassoon and the oboe. But in the original Paul Whiteman dance band version, it was sopranino saxophone and baritone saxophone. I played a demonstration earlier in the week, and the conductor of the orchestra who was there was so taken with it, that she asked me to play it in the actual concert. So in the orchestral concert, I play the solo instead of the oboe, the oboist was very happy to not play the solo.
Paul Cohen: So it was interesting that she actually made mention of it before the concert and I played the solo before the piece began, to show the audience the sopranino saxophone and to show how it added a real bit of 1920s colour and sass to it, that enlivened the piece some more. And then I played that piece in the orchestra, so here’s an example of my research informing my performing, my ability to play different instruments, helped me get engaged with this. And I can play them all at an orchestral level of performance, so it wasn’t something bizarre that was screeching out there, but it sounded like it belonged in the orchestra with a particular saxophone colour. That’s just one example of how I put all these things together.
Barry Cockcroft: Each aspect of your career informs each other aspect and probably collectively puts all of those at a high level.
Paul Cohen: It’s all integrated into one and they all feed off each other. So when I demonstrate my instruments, I try to demonstrate them as if I was playing in the orchestra. See even though I’d be playing a slide saxophone or a straight alto, I usually want to make it sound as beautiful as possible and not just like a freak show. So generally I will play orchestral excerpts on these instruments, so people in the know can hear a quality performance with an unusual timbre on a strange looking instrument.
Barry Cockcroft: What is the function of recording been to… as you’ve done a number of different recordings. What purpose does it serve for you personally?
Paul Cohen: Okay, I do it for two and a half reasons. One is to reveal to saxophone players a repertoire, a repertoire that they don’t know, a repertoire that should be part of what we present to an audience that we just are definitely with. So I like to play pieces for the most part that are just unknown. And the second one is to show a quality of playing that may be different from what they’re used to hearing, the saxophone, that may have a level of aspirational refinement.
Paul Cohen: I aspire to higher levels that may be able to be used as a model for saying, “Wow, I want to be able to phrase is a certain way, I want to be able to play it a certain way.” It’s not about play with his own quality or it’s not interpreting like he does. But it’s more about having refinement of presentation that could reflect better on us musician artists as we do now. And the other half part is that the recordings I make, the CD, the lighter notes are extensive and it gives a lot of background to not only the music itself, but the process of finding the music, which I think can be very helpful to people in understanding what we can do to enhance the stature of our instruments within ourselves.
Barry Cockcroft: And again, you’ve got the historical background informing a component of that recording, both the playing but also the information that you provide.
Paul Cohen: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Barry Cockcroft: Great, now how would you describe a typical teaching day for yourself?
Paul Cohen: My teaching day is divided between either a class that I give. I have structured classes at all my schools, in Manhattan School, it’s called the Saxophone Repertoire Performance Class. Where it’s a lecture class with performance projects. At Rutgers, Institutional Studio Class, which focuses much the same way. Then I will have coachings, then we’ll mechanics of saxophone ensembles, and then I’ll have lessons. My lessons are structured into three parts, one part is technical development, where we work on overtones, we work on altissimo. Another part is, can be tonal development and expression, and the third part is repertoire.
Paul Cohen: So students have to come in with a technical 18th ready to go, they come in with some of the developmental studies ready to play for me. And then we will do repertoire. For my students beyond the sophomore year, I encourage them to come in with more than one saxophone to play for me. Some people come in with sopranino and tenor, rarely, but usually it’s soprano or alto or alto and tenor, tenor and baritone. And I like to encourage people to become very familiar with those instruments. So my teaching days are divided like that throughout the course of the week.
Barry Cockcroft: And logistically, I’m very fascinated by this, but for a number of years you’ve taught at these different schools, how do you coordinate, even just timetabling all of this activity?
Paul Cohen: I have a very good computer, with a good calendar. I actively teach on Saturdays and Sundays, which is not always common. So that expands some time for me, I teach deep into the evenings, as the evening and it’s amazing what you can do. For a while I was teaching at Oberlin Ohio, at the Oberlin Conservatory, which is near Cleveland, it’s about an hour plane ride from here. And I would have days where I would teach at Manhattan School on Sundays and Mondays. Fly out to Ohio on Tuesdays, come back Wednesday afternoon, go down to Rutgers on Wednesday afternoon through all of Thursday. And then Friday, go to Queens College. I don’t do that any more, but if I could make integrate so well, then what I’m doing now without the travelling is relatively calm.
Barry Cockcroft: Yeah, so now you’re feeling your days are much calmer?
Paul Cohen: Not really because I fill those days in with much more performance, much more touring, which I really, really love, much more conducting and much more recording. So it’s as busy as before, but just a different direction.
Barry Cockcroft: Do you think the opportunities that students have today are different from what you were exposed to as a student?
Paul Cohen: Yes, I think they’re much greater today. I think there are many opportunities for students to play… because saxophone is used in so many different situations, more than it was when I was a student. So I think… and especially in this area, the New York area, where there’s so many different performing ensembles, that today students have great opportunities to play in different areas, in different contexts, so that’s quite exciting.
Barry Cockcroft: Is there a level of competition in such a dense city where there’s many people, essentially competing for the same positions?
Paul Cohen: Yes and no. Competition almost suggests that people are playing against each other to be chosen, but in many of these situations somebody’s recommended to the contractor or to the conductor and they get called and they get asked to play. Sometimes I’ll be called to recommend somebody and I’ll give a few names and the one who is available, will be the one to do it. And then if they’re my student, I make sure I go over the music with them before they go to the rehearsals, so I did that. So yes, in this area there are far more people who can play than there are positions but that’s true for any instrument. Even for violin, but in terms of the actual competition, these days it’s almost not we’re having an audition for this, it’s I got your name, can you do this? Can you play this?
Barry Cockcroft: So the audition in a sense is having developed a reputation amongst your colleagues until your name is put forth for something?
Paul Cohen: Yes, and you develop that reputation with your colleagues by associating with your colleagues, sometimes it happens from within school. And playing in an ensemble and making a great impression, which is why I train my students with the idea that your first rehearsal, the first rehearsal of the ensemble is your performance. Go into the first rehearsal knowing your part so well that you stand out and make a tremendous impression to the conductor saying, “This person knows what he’s doing and he sounds great. I’m going to remember that.” And that’s something that people aren’t used to, the idea that you go to a first rehearsal being prepared for its performance. But I’ve had so many situations where I’ve done that, and even though I may have screwed up the concert, I still get rehired because the conductor knows that I know what I’m doing.
Barry Cockcroft: Now what is it about the travel that you’re getting more and more involved in? What is it about that is stimulating to you so much?
Paul Cohen: I very much enjoy imparting to people around the world aspects of my unique experiences in the field. Whether it’s playing music they haven’t heard of before, that I think is very important for them to learn. Whether it’s conducting some of my arrangements for saxophone ensemble that are now being heard worldwide. By my interest in when I’m doing the conducting, to instil upon the orchestra a level of play that they’re not used to doing. So we get into the minutia of performance with articulation and with blending and with balancing. And with interpretive things that they may not be used to playing and they can really feel how their level of playing is being elevated. It is just tremendously rewarding to me.
Barry Cockcroft: Yeah, now you’ve worked a lot with composers, how important has it been for you to work closely and personally with people and their music?
Paul Cohen: It’s quite vital. When I ask a composer to write something for… I have an interest in presenting the saxophone from this more orchestral tradition of playing. And the saxophone has such a great reputation of versatility that a composer could write something in a jazz context or they can write something in a hip hop context or they could write something in a folk context or any kind of things. And there’s so much of that out there now that’s really great music, that I’d like to see if I can just bring them more towards writing in a more traditional sense for the instrument, so it could be played within that context.
Paul Cohen: So that’s one of them, then the other technical thing is, I want to make sure they don’t write too low, they don’t write too high, for me, they don’t write too fast. Those kinds of things, but mostly in trying to see if they can write in a way that I would like to… because there are so many wonderful players of the saxophone these days, who are comfortable in playing in this contemporary classic of style or this contemporary classic of style or this contemporary classic of style, I like to try to find composers who will write in the contemporary style is of interest to me. So that’s part of what you work with.
Barry Cockcroft: How important are the creative aspects and improvisation to you, both in your practise and also in music performance?
Paul Cohen: I do a lot of non jazz improvisation. I was once in a group that was a non jazz improvisation group. And so I believe very much in the idea of the spontaneity of hearing something and playing something. And making up something that you hear and then being able to have it sound that rings true. That’s a direct connection of thought expression, which I think is very valuable for us to have. It keeps us fresh, it keeps us creative, it keeps us always exploring different ways of understanding the relationships that we have musically. In performance, I like to take advantage of the moment in my rapport with the audience, that I sense what I’m playing, to be able to move my interpretation in order to maximise that rapport with the audience.
Paul Cohen: So there’s a sense of freedom there, now it can’t be freedom where I disregard the pianist or disregard the ensemble I’m playing with. That will get me booed and fired. But there are some things, where there’s certain dramatic elements that there’s a certain freedom there, I won’t call it improvisation but it’s not locked in to where we can really breathe with or feel with or rapport with the environments that we’re in and create a more meaningful dialogue with that. And then what comes about from having the competence of improvisation and freedom.
Barry Cockcroft: Is it therefore something that you encourage in your students as well?
Paul Cohen: Yes, I do that. This will be controversial but many of my students come in saying, “You know, I practise my long tones every day and that’s helpful to get my embourchure.” Okay, stop, don’t do long tones, I don’t believe in long tones, I believe in overtones. But sometimes with long tones I feel that you’re as much reinforcing bad habits, it’s like playing something and then letting it go for a long time, as you are reinforcing good habits. So I’d like you to replace long tones with lyrical improvisations, close your eyes and make up your own folk songs and play them on the instrument, and play them with beautiful sound, play them with good expression and just have that experience 15, 20 minutes a day, of just playing freely to mind. And get more in touch with what your mind hears and what your fingers play.
Barry Cockcroft: Now I’ve got a couple of rapid fire questions, quick question with a quick answer. Talking of controversial. So here’s the first one. Is there something that you believe that few people agree with?
Paul Cohen: Yes, that was a quick answer.
Barry Cockcroft: Well what is it specifically that comes to mind?
Paul Cohen: The ability to achieve orchestral parody of the saxophone, to the other orchestral instruments. We haven’t done that yet. Second controversial thing, the more experience, the more mature we are as players, the less the equipment matters and I found that out quite personally. Now I can sound 99% like myself on anything, here is a long story to show you that. I was hired to play the Rachmaninoff: Symphonic Dances with the Charleston Symphony, Charleston South Carolina, it’s in the deep south. And I was coming there from Cleveland Ohio, which is in the north part of our country, so it’s an hour a half plane ride. So I finished my teaching in Oberlin, jumped on a plane, took a flight to Charleston and got to the rehearsal 10 minutes before they were starting the Rachmaninoff.
Paul Cohen: I timed it too well, there was a little delay in there. So I got into the dressing room, pulled out my mouthpieces, put on a mouthpiece, started warming up and it was a very warm day in Charleston, beautiful weather, as it is oftentimes there. And I was thinking to myself, “Wow, my practise is really paying off, I can really play, this is really great, my high notes are coming out better than ever, because I don’t need it for the Rachmaninoff, but I’m warming up. This is great.” So I went there, played the rehearsal, conductor was thrilled to see me because he had regularly hired me and I played the Rachmaninoff solo part and it was just fine. I had to work a little bit harder, but I just got down there, I was tired, reeds.
Paul Cohen: And then I thought the solo lasts for 35 measures and then I’m done for the day and they don’t need to rehearse it again because they had other things to rehearse and I knew my part well. So I went back to the dressing room to put my horn away and to go to my hotel room. Took my mouthpiece off and found that instead of putting on my Caravan mouthpiece, I had put on my Otto Link 7*. They look the same from the outside, they both had Rovner ligatures. I was too in a hurry, I didn’t realise that. But it did make a difference in my playing because I still made it sound the same, I worked twice as hard and of course, that’s why my high notes came out better because it’s a commercial mouthpiece.
Paul Cohen: But I was able to make it sound virtually the same and I had a good laugh over that because although I felt something was different, the sound was just about the same and they heard it the way they’re used to hearing it. For the other rehearsals I used my regular mouthpiece and I was more comfortable. That’s an example where I’m able to overcome the material’s difference to make it sound the way I want it to sound because of my experience in playing, I was able to make those changes. I couldn’t have done that 10 years earlier, where I was still more susceptible to the equipment. So the more mature we get, the better we get, the more experience we get, the less the materials matter.
Barry Cockcroft: If you just had one piece of music that you could play from now on, what would that be?
Paul Cohen: [Gasp] I can’t answer the question. I spent the last 25 years promoting the original version of the Dahl Concerto in a way that I hope the rest of the wind community and the saxophone community will embrace and allow to be entered into the saxophone repertoire. It can’t now because the publishers aren’t allowing it, the publishers have said that we will continue to sell or rent the revised version but not the original version unless, through your efforts, we’ll let you perform it, we’ll let you record it, we’ll let you lecture about it, but you can’t copy, you can’t give it away.
Paul Cohen: And if enough people from the community of the winds and the saxophone say we want this, then maybe we’ll take it on. That’s going to cause celeb for me for a long time and I had to perform the piece of that 14 times over the last 20 odd years. So that’s a piece of great, great importance to me, and a major work anyway. So that’s one that with have to be at the top of un-do-outable. But after that, there’s about a list of, this long of great saxophone works that I think are comparible to any great wind works of the 20th century that are really important.
Barry Cockcroft: If you just had one hour to practise, how would you spend that time?
Paul Cohen: Eyes closed, improvising.
Barry Cockcroft: Right, who would you consider to be, through your personal experience, one of the most successful contributors to the world of saxophone?
Paul Cohen: This is radical, in my mind the greatest contributions for the saxophone are going to be expressed in the literature written for those players. Less so in terms of the great artistry, the artistry comes and goes, but it was the artistry that inspired these pieces to be written. So for that I say three people, Cecil Leeson, who many people don’t know about, but I do a lot of lecturing on. Marcel Mule and Sigurd Raschèr, just for the repertoire. And in ranking those three in terms of repertoire, we have Sigurd Raschèr of course, for the amazing repertoire written for him. And then Marcel Mule, with tremendous gratitude for Cecil Leeson for who we have the Creston pieces. The Grainger work that I just gave you and some smaller works that we play in this country all the time, by Lawson Lunde.
Barry Cockcroft: I we learn from our mistakes, is it okay to make mistakes?
Paul Cohen: Mistakes are inevitable as part of our humanity. So instead of having an attitude that pro or con, we just sort of accept that yes, we will be making mistakes as we continue our life’s journey. Whether it’s going to be as a player or whether it’s going to be doing anything else we do. So making mistakes as inevitable as it is becomes a profound learning experience for us and we can learn from those in a tremendously positive way if we don’t punish ourselves for them, in helping us to overcome these shortcomings that produce the mistakes and to become less mistake prone. So I know sometimes my students, the mistakes that they make are tremendous opportunities and windows and enlightenment and path directions that can open up a whole other way of understanding something that they couldn’t have known unless they’d made the mistakes.
Barry Cockcroft: Are you, yourself, good at coping and dealing with any mistakes that may occur, if they occur of course?
Paul Cohen: In my own playing?
Barry Cockcroft: Yeah.
Paul Cohen: I’m tremendously cognizant of those errors and depending upon the day I’m either very accepting and work towards them or I use language not appropriate for this podcast. But yes, in fact, it’s going to sound strange but in fact, with the efficiency that I require for preparation of music, I use the mistakes that I make as tools to help me contour the nature of my practising, so that I can get better results sooner. And if I didn’t have those mistakes, then it might not be as efficient.
Barry Cockcroft: Is there a piece of advice that you could give you younger self that you think might have been beneficial to you when you were just starting out?
Paul Cohen: Learn more about the politics of bureaucracy. If I had known how the systems worked, I was very naïve about these things. If I had known how the systems work, it may have allowed me to have gotten more opportunities to do other things that I’m doing now. So I think having an awareness of how systems work and how people interact together and the reality of what will create appropriate opportunities could have been much better for me.
Barry Cockcroft: I think we could probably talk for hours about that, this is a very interesting aspect. Is that something that you discuss with your students to help them understand what’s going on around them?
Paul Cohen: Absolutely, and I will use my own experiences how naïve I was, as examples of what we cannot do any more these days. I was very, very lucky as a working saxophonist to have gotten by on my naivete but my enthusiasm and my preparations really helped me to get to places. But that probably would not work today. So a lot of what our discussions, like students about career development and how to get positions. I don’t mean even academic positions, I just mean how to get hired for things, is very different than what I went through. But I now know all this, I know all this by seeing it and by being affected by it. So now I can give them some really salient and practical advice as to what we need to do to take our excellent talent and abilities and to give it a practical nudge towards employment.
Barry Cockcroft: Now, is there a recent or a current project that you’re working on that you would like to share with everybody?
Paul Cohen: How much time do you have? There are several projects, I’m very excited to be recording the original Dahl with a very excellent wind ensemble in this area and that’s going to be happening next season. That will be the first commercial recording of this piece ever and I hope that will give the impetus as people hear it to become, new students who want to do what’s necessary to make it available. I’m also in the midst of preparing another chamber music CD of pieces that are unknown or little known for the saxophone.
Paul Cohen: So I’m doing the piece for bassoon and saxophone and we did it on harpsichord, which is originally for harpsichord. Doing a piece that was written for one of my students, for flute, saxophone and piano, Alexa D Cohen, a local composer. A piece that I helped to discover by Charles Loeffler from 1903, The Pavane Carnivalesque for flute, saxophone, oboe, bassoon and piano.
Paul Cohen: A major chamber work, tremendously sophisticated writing, from 1903, it’s a masterpiece of chamber writing by a well known American composer from 1903. I found it, I reconciled and restored it, I published it and now I’m recording it. So that is a chamber CD that I’m very excited about. Also, on that will be some music I play on the Conn O sax with string quartet, a piece by Erica Wasen for saxophone and string quartet. So those are some things that I’m very excited about.
Barry Cockcroft: And where can we find out more about your activities, where can we keep up to date?
Paul Cohen: Soon, a revised website of mine will be coming online, until that time you can look at my publishing company called totheforepublishers.com and you can see some things that are happening there. As well as some of the titles that are coming on, which I’m very excited about, some chamber works that are unknown that I think are very valuable to know about. And so there’s a work that I just recorded for clarinet, violin and cello, piano, by an American composer and really separate work that I had published, we talked about that. And some other titles of pieces that I think all saxophonists should be aware of and to be able to draw on or there are certainly good programmes that are oftentimes not known because maybe saxophonists have their own limited repertoire box and they don’t know enough to come out of that box. I don’t have a box, I have archives.
Barry Cockcroft: Great, now, Paul, you’ve made an enormous contribution to the saxophone and continues to this day, what do you see for yourself long term in relationship to the saxophone?
Paul Cohen: It’s a difficult question because I’m working so hard to get all these other projects happening so fast that I’m not looking… I want to get these things there because I think the impact of what I do will help make a difference, but I’m not looking so long term as to be looking back yet. I’m still scrambling to get just one step ahead of myself. But ultimately what I hope is that there’s going to be a greater awareness of the rich traditions and history of the saxophone, in a meaningful way, not just a superficial parody of what we read here and there.
Paul Cohen: That we become aware of a phenomenal repertoire for instrument that could be useful and serviceable in any situation, that will help to dignify the institute and then give us more opportunities to play in other situations. And if I’m lucky, raise the level of saxophone playing to a higher level, to where, to the discriminating listener will actually have parody to those of orchestral colleagues. And that’s just beyond a nicer tone, a more fluent technique, better intonation, beyond that. It’s about how we take these things and create a much greater artistic listener for that.
Barry Cockcroft: Paul, thanks very much for your time this afternoon. Thank you for showing me around, thank you for welcoming me and my family and it’s been a pleasure to meet you.
Paul Cohen: Oh, it was great to see you as well, thank you.