Sue McKenzie – Scottish Saxophonist and Improviser – 16

by Barry Cockcroft | The Barry Sax Show

About Sue McKenzie

Sue is a D’Addario Woodwinds Artist and a Claude Lakey Endorsee. She was the Assistant Director of the 16th World Saxophone Congress, 2012 and as one of Scotland’s leading contemporary saxophonists she has given UK and Scottish premieres of many new works. She is one half of the McKenzie Sawers Duo who recently released their first CD, “The Coral Sea”, with Delphian Records. 

Sue is also the leader and founder of the Scottish Saxophone Ensemble who were part of the Made in Scotland Music Showcase, 2013 and the Director of the Scottish Saxophone Academy. She regularly performs with Salsa Celtica and the Glasgow Improvisor’s Orchestra and recently performed with her own band, “Dark Grooves” at the Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival 2013. She was chosen as part of Serious Music’s talent development programme, Air Time, in 2014. Sue also plays in Syntonic with bass player Emma Smith and runs Bitches Brew which promotes female improvising talent.

Show Notes

  • Wanting a saxophone but getting a flute.
  • My first teacher, Mickey Deans.
  • Practising the night before a lesson.
  • Developing a love of sound with teacher Kyle Horch.
  • Lessons can be both positive and negative experiences.
  • Students are often neglecting improvisation.
  • Practising can be chaos.
  • Developing efficiency in practise.
  • Teaching students how to practise.
  • Being told to sound like myself and no-one else.
  • Developing the Scottish Saxophone Ensemble.
  • Taking music to the remote parts of my country.
  • Finding your own voice and acting on it.
  • Developing a distinctive sound to be memorable.
  • Adapting to and managing injuries.
  • The importance of stretching before playing.
  • Organising a World Saxophone Congress.
  • Releasing new albums.
  • Working with composers, including John Harris.
  • Finding more time in a day.



Transcript of podcast interview with Sue McKenzie.

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: Sue, thanks for joining me this morning.

Sue McKenzie: Thanks for asking.

Barry Cockcroft: And it’s great to see you again after quite a few years.

Sue McKenzie: Yeah. You too.

Barry Cockcroft: I think we met perhaps 2009 in Bangkok.

Sue McKenzie: Oh, yeah. It was. Yeah, 2009. Yes. Yeah.

Barry Cockcroft: And of course that led to the World Saxophone Congress…

Sue McKenzie: …In 2012.

Barry Cockcroft: That’s right.

Sue McKenzie: Yeah.

Barry Cockcroft: So it’s funny how these connections form in the first place, but also we meet seemingly every three years.

Sue McKenzie: Only every three years though.

Barry Cockcroft: Only every. Right. Any more than that …

Sue McKenzie: Oh, no.

Barry Cockcroft: So, Sue, I would love to know how you first got started with the saxophone.

Sue McKenzie: Okay. My dad had a small record collection. This is a bit of an embarrassing story, but I’m going to tell it anyway. And one of the albums that he had, on vinyl obviously, was a double album of the Glenn Miller big band. And when you opened this up, there were these incredible photographs inside of the saxophone section. And these were obviously black and white photographs, but they’d been kind of colourized in some way. And I’m sorry to be so simplistic, but it was the colour—the colour more than anything. I was fascinated. And I remember putting on these records. And that sound, the blend of the saxophone section, just completely blew me away. And that was it. I was hooked. Obsessed. Completely.

Sue McKenzie: And I went to secondary school and they said, “Which instrument would you like to play?” I said, “Oh, I really want to play saxophone.” And they said, “No, no, no, no. You can’t do that. You have to have flute or clarinet.” I said, “No, I don’t want to play flute or clarinet. Why would I want to do that? I want to play sax.” So I ended up starting off in flute, which I quite enjoyed. But I was not a flute player at all. I was not a flautist.

Sue McKenzie: And luckily for me, the guy that was teaching me at school was actually a really great jazz player, tenor saxophonist. Kind of quite known in the Glasgow scene, Mickey Deans. And my lesson was a Friday afternoon and he said to me, “You know, you really want to play sax, don’t you?” I said, “I really do.” And he essentially sneaked into the school music cupboard, stole a saxophone for me, and said, “Don’t tell the head of music. Take it home for the weekend and see how you get on.” So it was all a bit, you know, subversive. But, yeah, I was just completely hooked.

Barry Cockcroft: So did you start then with the teacher who was a saxophone specialist?

Sue McKenzie: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yep. Although … I mean, he was a jazz player and I don’t know that he had had much academic training. But he was just … we would just simply play through tunes. He knew every tune and we would just sit and busk essentially. It wasn’t particularly formal or structured, but it was just a really great fun start. And there was never any boundaries. There was no, oh you shouldn’t be playing that yet or you have to do it this way or you have to do it that way. It was just like, let’s just play.

Sue McKenzie: So it was actually a really great start. It was beautiful. And then the structure and formality came slightly later. I had lessons with a clarinettist who was more kind of classically based. And confession: I was not great at practising at all. If any of my own students did this now, I would be appalled. But I was your typical child student who practised the night before the lesson. God. But something happened just as I was about to finish secondary school, and I thought, hang on. I really want to do this now. And if I’m going to do this, then I really need to properly do this.

Sue McKenzie: And I applied for a place at Royal College of Music in London. And I got a place. And then from then on it was proper, serious practise from then on.

Barry Cockcroft: And were you learning with Kyle Horch?

Sue McKenzie: Yeah, yeah. I had a year’s worth of lessons with Stephen Trier, who had taught at Royal College for years and years. He was a great character. And then Kyle for the next three years. Yeah. Yep. Yeah.

Barry Cockcroft: So how would you describe the differences between the different teaching styles on your way through?

Sue McKenzie: Oh, massive differences. Yeah. Huge. Yeah. Actually now that you’ve asked the question, I think probably by the age of 18 I had seen four or five really different teaching styles. Good and bad, to be honest. Great from a musical point of view—just for the love of playing, for the joy of the music, to possibly complete disinterest.

Sue McKenzie: And we’ve all had lessons like this where you go in and it’s very clear from the off that the teacher is just, you know, I’m watching the clock and I’m just waiting to get my money at the end of the hour, and I’m not really going to put any input into this lesson. So, you know, there was a bit of that sometimes. And then those life-changing lessons, where you meet a teacher for the first time and they play. And it makes you re-evaluate everything that you ever knew about yourself and your playing and what you want to do with your life.

Sue McKenzie: I remember having one of those moments the first time Kyle came into college and he played, I don’t know, two or three notes. And it was like, whoa. Okay. And I think I hadn’t really … I didn’t really know much about the classical world. I didn’t know much about the repertoire; I knew a little bit. But at that point it became clear, wow, okay this is really a thing. There’s a whole world and history and tradition here, and I want in on it. It was just that sound … it was, yeah.

Sue McKenzie: Sound’s always been a really big thing. Sound hooks me in to things. That’s where my passion has always been. That’s what keeps me going when the practise gets tough. It’s like, but I want to sound like that, you know, whoever it is at that particular moment in time. And certainly with Kyle it was like, whoa. Okay. And when I hear him now it still has that effect. It’s very cool. Very cool.

Barry Cockcroft: You took part in some perhaps master classes or summer schools or something like that where you got to see other teachers as well.

Sue McKenzie: Yeah.

Barry Cockcroft: Although they were shorter experiences, did they play an important part on your direction?

Sue McKenzie: Yeah. I mean again, yeah, good and bad. I think I found some of it quite intimidating. I remember doing a master class with Daniel Deffayet. I think I was first year to college … and I’m quite glad now in hindsight that I don’t know that I really comprehended his importance. Because I think I would have been much more scared than I was.

Sue McKenzie: And it was just that very serious French style of teaching. Understandably unforgiving. I think I started the third movement of the Creston and I don’t think I got beyond the third bar.

Barry Cockcroft: Well done.

Sue McKenzie: Thanks. So yeah. I think it’s just always been really cool to see how people approach teaching and how they approach the music. And how they then communicate that to a student. I think it’s probably informed my own teaching more than my playing, to be honest, really. I’ve always been very clear about the kind of teacher that I wanted to be, what I personally felt worked and what didn’t work, and what I wanted to bring into my own lessons and what I definitely did not want to bring in to my own lessons.

Barry Cockcroft: So in a sense you take the good and the bad.

Sue McKenzie: Yeah.

Barry Cockcroft: And then move on from there.

Sue McKenzie: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely.

Barry Cockcroft: So would you say your teaching has evolved away from the way that you learned yourself?

Sue McKenzie: Yeah. I’d like to think so. Yeah, I’d like to think so. I’d like to think that it’s a kind of ongoing creative process. I feel a little bit embarrassed when I think back to my very first, you know, just straight out of college and how I was teaching. I don’t know that it was creative enough, really. I think it was probably a little bit, oh, I have to get this right, and I think it was maybe a little bit dry and academic.

Sue McKenzie: I think as you grow older you learn to connect to people more. And I certainly think there’s been a lot of development; the more I have crossed into different musical worlds, the more I have brought them into my own teaching. So, for example, if I have a classical student, I will use elements of things that I’ve learned from my work in the free improvisation world. And I’m quite keen to do those crossovers. I think that’s really useful.

Barry Cockcroft: I’ve been trying to work out where your interest in improvisation … and you used the word creativity. They’re not words I’ve actually heard before when people are talking about teaching.

Sue McKenzie: Okay. Yeah.

Barry Cockcroft: They’re often neglected.

Sue McKenzie: Yeah.

Barry Cockcroft: And I was just thinking back to when you first got started, and you were describing it as some freedom in your lessons.

Sue McKenzie: Yeah.

Barry Cockcroft: I wonder how much impact that had.

Sue McKenzie: Yeah. I think there was a big change. I think it started in one way and then it got very serious and possibly a bit dry. And I guess I’m trying to always mix the two, really. And I also guess I think of each lesson … every student that comes in the door is going to be different. And obviously there are things that you have to get through. There’s a programme of work that you need to get through for whatever reason; it may be exams, it may be auditions, whatever. I guess each lesson is like an improvisation from minute to minute.

Sue McKenzie: You don’t know … your student may not be in the mood that they were in last week. They could have all sorts of things going on, they may be struggling with something musically or personally or something at school. You may not be in the same head space; you may not be in the ideal head space that you would prefer to be in. And you have to kind of go with the flow of that and find the way through. And some lessons are really easy and they just work. But we all know that there are some that don’t. So it’s just, yeah, I guess finding ways to try and make each lesson a really valuable experience.

Barry Cockcroft: I start every practise session with improvising, because I find it to be … I mean, I spend most of my time improvising. And particularly practising . And I find it to be quite liberating. It very much focuses me, because I’m not reading; I’m not playing from memory. I’m actually entirely focused on whatever comes out of the end of my saxophone.

Sue McKenzie: Yeah, yeah.

Barry Cockcroft: And I find that a great grounding. And I think it’s a process, an invaluable process. And I’ve always done that. And I wish I guess that kids when they’re learning had a bit more of that, because if there’s too much of the rigorous training and not enough of the creative training, it starts to fade away.

Sue McKenzie: Yeah, absolutely.

Barry Cockcroft: And the potential to release it may be gone; it doesn’t come back. And a lot of people I talk to of course said no, they don’t really improvise.

Sue McKenzie: I find that quite depressing that that is still quite a thing, isn’t it really? And actually especially in kids. I think it’s really interesting. I always do one-to-one saxophone teaching, and I do ensemble coaching. And I teach the classical repertoire and I teach improvisation. But I also go out into rural schools in Scotland and I teach jazz improvisation and composition. And I can sometimes be teaching a primary 1 class, which is five years old. And there’s a really sort of golden age … nursery, kindergarten to I would say even up to primary 6, primary 7, sort of nine, 10, 11. And they are just natural improvisors. It’s incredible.

Sue McKenzie: I’ve heard kids who can’t play an instrument necessarily but we use tuned and untuned percussion. And they come up with this incredible, incredible stuff. It’s just amazing. There’s something especially I think happens when people get into their teens that a lot of kids get much more reluctant to take risks and stand out from the crowd and do something that might be a little bit uncomfortable. Which is a great shame.

Sue McKenzie: So it’s just finding ways for them to get a foot in that’s going to be easy. And make it non-threatening and not scary, and fun. And it’s possible to do that, and it’s really cool when there’s that turnaround where you get to the end of a lesson … where at the beginning of the lesson the kid was saying, I don’t want to improvise. No, no, no. I don’t want to improvise. And by the end it’s like, we just spent half an hour improvising. And they’re like, oh, yeah. Wow. Okay. That’s very cool.

Barry Cockcroft: Now how would you describe your own practise now that you’re busy? How do you describe that, especially in relationship to how you used to practise as a student when there’s a lot more time that we put in, perhaps more hours. So what do you do?

Sue McKenzie: It is chaos. And I think back to my student self and I feel … yeah, it’s quite hard thinking back, because it was so structured and there was so much time. And I look at my own students and I feel quite jealous. Yeah, at the moment it’s too chaotic. And I find that it tends to be project-to-project based. I don’t know if you find this. So I could have something coming up and it’s like, okay, there’s a kind of big push on this project. And as soon as that project is done it’s like, what’s the next project. Right. Okay. Now we do a big push for the next project.

Sue McKenzie: And I guess it was a little bit like that as a student, but it just felt like there was much more time. There was much more consistency. And I really miss that. I’m someone that likes consistency. So much so that actually it’s an interesting question, because at the end of the summer I’m going to give up a couple of teaching jobs. Because I really just want a little bit more consistency in life. I like challenges and I like to have lots of different things on the go all at once. But there becomes a very kind of fine line as to when that becomes a little bit silly and it’s not manageable anymore.

Barry Cockcroft: Sure.

Sue McKenzie: So I just want a little bit more time. I’ve started writing music as well, so I want a bit more time to explore that. I also became a mum about a year and a half ago. I inherited the most incredible five-year-old daughter. So that has put a really different perspective on things. It’s like, ah, okay. There’s certain things in life now that I maybe wasn’t enjoying so much but I was doing anyway, because it seemed like the right thing to do at the time. And now I guess my priorities are different.

Barry Cockcroft: Sure.

Sue McKenzie: And it’s like, ah, okay. Yeah. I’m now this age. Now there’s Emily. Life is much more complicated. I think I’m just feeling I’m at a time where I have to kind of pare down in a way and really focus on what’s important. And also life is too short.

Barry Cockcroft: Sure. I mean, one of the advantages of busyness and family life and all of those things is it forces your music-making and practise to be efficient.

Sue McKenzie: Yes. Absolutely.

Barry Cockcroft: And you have to find the best possible way to achieve whatever you’re trying to work on.

Sue McKenzie: Absolutely. Yeah.

Barry Cockcroft: Whether that’s finding the time or that the time is then used to the absolute maximum efficiency.

Sue McKenzie: Absolutely. Yes.

Barry Cockcroft: Which is a good challenge.

Sue McKenzie: Absolutely. Yeah. It’s not a bad thing.

Barry Cockcroft: I can’t help thinking sometimes that students … I don’t want to say that it’s wasted, but in my view I often call practise a waste of time. Because actually people are wasting their time-

Sue McKenzie: Yes. Completely.

Barry Cockcroft: … because they’re not being efficient. Instead of throwing thought and thoughtfulness at a problem, they throw time at a problem. And they solve it in the end, but at great expense, which is a lot of time.

Sue McKenzie: Absolutely. Yeah. Completely.

Barry Cockcroft: And we don’t have the luxury of those sorts of hours, so we have to focus. And I think it would be wonderful if we could somehow pass that to the students before they start wasting time. And imagine if they were really efficient and they practised a lot; I mean, they would accelerate their learning.

Sue McKenzie: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. Efficient practise … I’ve often thought that actually a lot of teaching is teaching people how to practise. How do you actually practise well? And I don’t know that I really started to learn that until I left Royal College of Music. I think it’s quite a luxury to have a weekly lesson with someone guiding you in a way. And then when I finished college, I remember quite distinctly having a moment where I was like, oh, okay. What do I do now? How do I structure my practise? What are my goals? What am I working towards next? And I remember thinking, oh, I actually have to think about this now. Not that I didn’t before, but it just felt very different to being at college. Yeah, very different.

Barry Cockcroft: Would you describe your career as something that was very planned … I know your answer already … or was it something organic that developed from moment to moment?

Sue McKenzie: Yeah, completely organic. Which probably fits me quite well, really. Yeah. I wish I was someone that had had a plan. I look at other people and I’m full of admiration for them. But, yeah, I did not have a plan. When I started at Royal College, I loved the instrument and I loved the repertoire. Funnily enough I started at college and the only definite idea that I had when I started at Royal College of Music was that I didn’t want to play any of that modern nonsense. And then I got to the end of college and I thought, oh, actually this is not so bad.

Sue McKenzie: And certainly from a business point of view, I suddenly realised, oh, people are willing to pay me money to play this stuff. Okay. Maybe I need to have a rethink. And, yeah, I guess I developed a love for more contemporary repertoire. So that kind of led me in one direction. There’s not a huge classical saxophone scene in Scotland, so I also had to think on my feet and go, oh, okay, I can’t actually just do this. It’s not going to pay the bills; it’s not going to get me week-to-week or month-to-month work in Scotland.

Sue McKenzie: And I had always had a bit of an interest in improvisation and jazz. And some of my first jobs were more … I guess I got quite into world music. Had done a lot of work with my great Scottish-based band called Salsa Celtica, which is kind of 13-piece, musicians from Scotland, Ireland, Cuba, Venezuela, Argentina. And they did a lot of international touring. And that has been really great. And certainly I’m happy in that world. Anything sort of salsa-based, Afrobeat … that’s always really … I’ve been really happy there.

Sue McKenzie: And then I started to get into free improvisation. There’s a great band in Glasgow called the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra, who work with some incredible people. And I’ve had the chance to work with just fantastic musicians. Incredible. And they’re very active. They meet once a month and there’s a big festival every year. It’s always been this balancing act of quite vastly differing musical hats, I suppose. Yeah.

Barry Cockcroft: Do you think each one of those hats enhances the other one?

Sue McKenzie: I originally did not, but yeah. Absolutely. Absolutely now. I met one of my saxophone heroes, David Murray, from the World Saxophone Quartet. He did a gig at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival years and years ago. And I had never seen them live. And I had my tickets. And the night before their concert I was sitting in a bar and someone came and sat down next to me. And I sneaked a look out of the corner of my eye. I thought, that looks like David Murray. Then we got chatting, and it was David Murray. And he was really lovely. At that point I’d done quite a lot of big band playing but not necessarily improvising.

Sue McKenzie: And I remember quite distinctly saying to him, “Oh no, no, no. I’m a classical player. I don’t improvise.” And he said, “Oh, yeah man. That’s great. Yeah, I love the Glazunov. Yeah, and I practise the Ibert sometimes as well.” I was like, whoa, that’s very cool. And that started quite a kind of interesting relationship. We had quite a lot of really great musical chats. And you know that way when all you have to do is talk to someone and it can change things in your head.

Sue McKenzie: I would say the jazz scene in Scotland is quite a closed scene. It’s quite mainstream jazz. A lot of the guys in Scotland have all been to Berklee; this is a very particular style of playing and if you don’t play in that style, which I didn’t, I always felt a little bit kind of like, where do I fit in all of this? And I remember David Murray saying to me, “You don’t have to fit, Sue. Why do you want to fit? Why would you want to sound like all of them?” I was like, oh yeah. He said, “You want to sound like you.”

Sue McKenzie: And we started doing quite a lot of playing. And I think actually just someone else saying, you’ve got your own voice. And I remember letting him hear some of the stuff that I was working on. I’d been working on actually some of the Ryo Noda improvisations. And I guess I had taken bits of those and I was sort of developing those ideas. He said, yeah, I can hear some of those and I can hear some Bach. But I can hear bits of … he said, this is all making up your own voice. He said, you need to focus on this.

Sue McKenzie: And he used a great phrase, particularly because I think I’m very conceptually sound-based. And classically I want to make the most beautiful, purest sound that I can. And I spent years and years trying to perfect that. And I think I just got to the stage where I was like, I want to find the cracks now. How much can I mess up this sound? How disgusting can I make it? How much can I manipulate it? And I guess those are the things … the little earworms in my head that just wouldn’t go away. The little obsessions. And I remember David Murray saying, “You’ve got to let the animals out of the horn.” I thought that was such a great … that’s a great saying.

Sue McKenzie: Yeah, so I went to Portugal and studied … I spent a week with him playing. And that was a real turning point, when I realised actually it’s not one or the other. It’s just playing. And all of these things that have influenced me, I just play and that’s it. Yeah. From that moment on, it was like, actually all of this can feed into … the classical can feed into the improvisation, the improvisation can feed into my straight classical playing, all of that can feed into my teaching. Yeah. That was quite a cool moment.

Barry Cockcroft: Is the Scottish Saxophone Ensemble something that you created to further classical saxophone in Scotland?

Sue McKenzie: Yeah, I guess. I don’t know that my thoughts were as grand as that. I just really wanted to do some quartet playing.

Barry Cockcroft: Okay.

Sue McKenzie: And yeah, I guess I wanted to be out doing gigs and I wanted to get that repertoire across to people. And I wanted to create new repertoire and I wanted to do interesting projects. And I wanted that to be quartet-based. I also wanted to do quartet-based things but also bring in other players, percussion or bass, and just do interesting one-off projects. And transcriptions of things. And yeah, I really wanted to get that out in Scotland. Yeah. But also it’s just a joy to play in a quartet.

Barry Cockcroft: Scotland’s interesting because although seemingly it’s a small country when you look on a map, the inhabitants are spread very widely.

Sue McKenzie: Absolutely.

Barry Cockcroft: And there’s some very remote places. Is it possible to get music out to the islands and in the north?

Sue McKenzie: Absolutely. Yeah.

Barry Cockcroft: And do you find that the audience is therefore very appreciative?

Sue McKenzie: Yeah. And we have played … I’ve been to the islands, you know, various islands quite a lot. And with lots of different groups. And groups and styles of music that you would think would not work in those particular communities. You tend to find that they tend to be a bit more adventurous in their listening, to be honest. They tend to be a bit more open. When I was in cities … because just so much goes on, people get a little bit blasé. Whereas, you know, if you’re going to an island where they haven’t had anyone visiting for the last three months, then even if it’s something that they might not be into, they’ll turn up. Because it’s an event. Which is really lovely.

Sue McKenzie: And actually some of the nicest gigs I have ever done have been on some of the … although it’s not particularly small island, but Mull, the Isle of Mull, is fantastic. It’s a joy to play. There’s a really nice little art centre. They have a musical director who’s so passionate. And in terms of what he books, he’s really adventurous. So yeah, I’ve done some great … you know, I’ve been there with Salsa Celtica, which is a very, you know, that band will always pull a crowd. But I’ve also been there with my own duo with Ingrid Sawers on piano. I’ve also been there with the Scottish Sax Ensemble, and I’ve also been there with the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra. So there’s a real mix of stuff going on, yeah.

Barry Cockcroft: I imagine they’re like, I’m sure you sounded different last time you came here. But you’ve got a diverse range of groups, and so they’re going to hear that.

Sue McKenzie: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Barry Cockcroft: That must be satisfying to be able to present the different aspects that you’re interested in yourself and to have essentially the same audience being exposed to those different aspects.

Sue McKenzie: Yeah, yeah.

Barry Cockcroft: I do have a question about your composing, because not that many people compose who play. And it sounds like something that you’ve come to later.

Sue McKenzie: Definitely. Yeah.

Barry Cockcroft: So do you know what sparked that?

Sue McKenzie: Lots of people telling me that I should be doing it. And for years I resisted. No, no, no, no, no. That’s for other people. That’s for people who are composers and people who know about all of those things. I guess it also largely came about, particularly improvisation-wise … I hesitate to say jazz, because I don’t think of myself as a jazz musician … but finding music that I wanted to play that seemed to fit me was becoming more and more difficult. It’s like, well I don’t want to do that, I don’t want to do this. This is not right for me. So what is?

Sue McKenzie: And I guess it goes hand-in-hand with finding your own voice. And for me that has also become very much about, okay, if I’m going to put a band together which is going to be more jazz-based possibly if we want to use that word, what am I going to play? And what are those tunes going to sound like? And actually for me to do this, I want it to be really authentic to me.

Sue McKenzie: And I think actually that is a bit of a recurring theme, certainly in choosing repertoire for the quartet and for the duo with piano. There’s always been repertoire, and I’ve thought, oh, that’s a great piece. And I want to play it. But it’s not really right for us as a group or … there’s something about identity. And I can’t quite put my finger on what that is. But I’ve always been quite particular about, is this really me or not? So I guess it goes hand-in-hand with that, really.

Sue McKenzie: But yes, I have come very late to it.

Barry Cockcroft: I guess composition is forever. Improvisation is for the now.

Sue McKenzie: Yeah, yeah.

Barry Cockcroft: And to freeze yourself in time like that actually can be challenging. And I see plenty of composers wanting to change their past compositions, because their aesthetic has changed. And I always say to them, no, no, no. That composition represents you at that period of time.

Sue McKenzie: Absolutely. Yeah.

Barry Cockcroft: So it’s fine. Don’t fiddle.

Sue McKenzie: No.

Barry Cockcroft: It’s finished. That’s fine.

Sue McKenzie: It’s done. Leave it alone.

Barry Cockcroft: Write something else. And yeah. Not everyone of course does that. But I love signing off on a piece. Like, done. And sometimes play a piece years later and I’m like, hmm, probably wouldn’t do it that way now. But that’s me. It’s kind of like looking back at old photos where you’re, oh, I was so young. And you look at music in the same way. Oh, I used to write like that.

Sue McKenzie: I’ve still to get to that point, in terms of writing. Yeah. It’s very early days. But it’s exciting. It’s really exciting.

Barry Cockcroft: I actually started composing almost at the same time as playing.

Sue McKenzie: Really?

Barry Cockcroft: Very early.

Sue McKenzie: Wow.

Barry Cockcroft: And I improvised. It’s always in my practise. Really starting young with that, just in a classical sense more than anything.

Sue McKenzie: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.

Barry Cockcroft: I’d played in big bands and things and took solos, but it was more about in the practise room, improvising the style of pieces I was studying-

Sue McKenzie: Nice.

Barry Cockcroft: … in order to understand that particular style or aesthetic of the piece. And so I’d introduce around a piece, particularly if there was bars I couldn’t play. I would just make up something else. It’s got me through a lot of scrapes. But quite soon then I just thought, well, I’ll write down this melody or whatever it is, rhythm, that I came up with. And it really started a long time ago. And I’m glad … I mean, I’ve got a piece that I wrote when I was probably 18. And no one really plays it. A few people play it, but no one really plays it.

Sue McKenzie: Which one?

Barry Cockcroft: I don’t know if I want anyone to play it.

Sue McKenzie: Oh.

Barry Cockcroft: No. It’s called Reflections, and it’s a melodic piece with piano. Every composer writes a piece called Reflections. And this piece has no connection, as far as I can see, with any of the music that I’ve written since. So it stands on its own. It doesn’t really represent … if someone heard that they wouldn’t probably pick it as one of my pieces. And I’ve always been a bit … maybe it should disappear.

Sue McKenzie: Right.

Barry Cockcroft: But then I’m like, we’ll just leave it there. And if people don’t want to play it, that’s fine. But just leave it. They don’t have to. So, yeah, I guess I made the decision to whatever gets created, it stays there. And there’s some good stories of composers withdrawing works and destroying their manuscripts. Fortunately in the digital world, or unfortunately, everything lasts forever now.

Sue McKenzie: Yeah.

Barry Cockcroft: Now are you ready for a few rapid fire questions?

Sue McKenzie: Oh. Okay, right. Perhaps a quick drink.

Barry Cockcroft: Is there something that you believe that few people agree with?

Sue McKenzie: I don’t know that it’s … I wouldn’t say that people disagree with. I think it’s more I have a bit of a thing … there are so many great players out there. So many great players. And you hear people in practise rooms and they’re working away on technique, working away on tone. Which, you know, we should all be doing. What I don’t hear so much is people finding their own voice and their personality.

Sue McKenzie: So I don’t think it’s so much that people would disagree with that. I think it’s just a bit overlooked. Especially in the classical world. You could go to a congress and hear 10 players and not remember any of them. You’ll remember that they were all fantastic and that the technique was incredible. But I don’t come away with a sense of … Who was that person? What did they give to that performance? What was their personality? Who were they? And it’s not that there’s been anything wrong with the playing; it’s incredible. But it’s just missing that something, you know.

Sue McKenzie: And I don’t know if that’s an age-related thing. If that we genuinely tend to find that as we get older, or if it’s … I don’t know if it’s maybe something that doesn’t come up in discussions a lot and lessons. I don’t know. But that’s one thing that sometimes is missing for me. Yeah.

Barry Cockcroft: I have noticed that … I think what you’re describing … that from my point of view the people who have found a voice for themselves, I think they have an approach to music that is, they’re very determined to do whatever they want; it’s their choice. And they’re not trying to play in the same way as other people. It’s like, this is how I play, this is how I sound, this is the music I play, this is how I do it.

Sue McKenzie: Yeah.

Barry Cockcroft: And not everyone gets to that decision. Like you said it’s overlooked. And my favourite players are the people who have found an interesting voice. And it may be not the way that I would like to play, it may be not the music I would like to play, but I appreciate it anyway.

Sue McKenzie: Absolutely.

Barry Cockcroft: Because it really suits the way that they operate.

Sue McKenzie: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. Sorry that wasn’t really rapid fire, was it? Sorry.

Barry Cockcroft: If you just had one piece of music that you could play forever, what piece would that be?

Sue McKenzie: Oh, that’s a cruel question. Oh. Oh, this is like asking someone to choose their children. Which is your favourite child? Oh. Oh. Yeah, I can’t answer. I just can’t. Because if I’m doing contemporary repertoire, then in that moment of time, I’m like, oh, this is it. This is it. And then if I’m on a salsa gig, I’m like, this is it. And then if I’m doing some free improvisation, again, this is it. So, yeah, I can’t answer. I’m sorry. Fail.

Barry Cockcroft: But you do have an advantage. If you were stuck on a desert island, you could make your own piece.

Sue McKenzie: Yeah, that’s true. Yeah.

Barry Cockcroft: Maybe you would choose to improvise.

Sue McKenzie: See?

Barry Cockcroft: If you just had one hour to practise-

Sue McKenzie: Yeah, okay.

Barry Cockcroft: … how would you spend that hour?

Sue McKenzie: I’d split it up into two. And the first half hour would be something tone-based. There are things that I do, that I experiment with, finding a certain tone colour. And I could be manipulating the sound in a particular way. And it becomes quite a kind of meditative sort of thing. And just exploring your way … it’s like, oh, okay. I’ve got this and there’s something just over the horizon of the sound that I want to get to. And then you kind of get there, and as soon as you think that you’ve got there, it’s like, oh, there’s something just slightly over here that I want to get to. And it’s … yeah, I can get quite caught up in that.

Sue McKenzie: And I guess the second half hour would be a similar idea but more technically based. It’s a kind of free improv thing where I kind of minimise what my choices are. And within this ratio of small notes, how much can I do with that. And again it’s kind of like finding the cracks in between the cracks in between the cracks in between the cracks. What can I do with this? Yeah, that’s what I would do. Although to be fair, if I’m allowed five minutes to stretch in the first place.

Barry Cockcroft: Well, actually, that’s also an important question. How do you look after yourself as a player? And do you have any things that you have discovered that may help for you to be able to play throughout your life?

Sue McKenzie: Well. Yeah, that’s a good question. I have a range of challenges there. I had an accident about 10, 12 years ago. A ridiculously small accident. I was walking back to my car one night and I felt myself trip. And the voice in my head, as I was tripping … and it was a minor trip … the voice in my head said, oh my god, you have to save your hands! You have to save your hands! And I did save my hands, and I landed on concrete right on my face.

Sue McKenzie: And just that one tiny thing has … so, you know, we’re a few years on now … that’s made life quite tricky for a lot of … I have to be really careful.

Barry Cockcroft: With your embouchure?

Sue McKenzie: Yeah. There was various bits of damage done round about here and there was kind of emergency hospital visits. I was very, very lucky that a friend of mine, a saxophone-playing friend of mine, who is also a dentist, happened to be on the next street. I managed to scrape myself off the concrete and I thought, oh, this is not good. And I phoned her and she said, “I’m going to be there in two seconds.” She got me to the emergency department. And I eventually ended up seeing an incredible specialist who deals with kind of just the jaw area. There was quite a lot of damage.

Sue McKenzie: And it was all fixed, you know. It was fixable. But I think it left me with quite a lot of … I don’t know if it was maybe some whiplash damage done. It basically left me with a lot of jaw problems, neck pain, upper roof of the mouth, a lot of pain, kind of nerve damage. A lot of balance issues, migraine. And there was a point for about two and a half years that event … I remember quite distinctly I was in Germany doing a gig. And playing had gotten more and more painful. And I remember coming off in the interval and just being in so much pain and thinking, I don’t know if I can do this anymore. And I think I probably didn’t play for another two and a half, three years.

Sue McKenzie: So now, I kind of got back into it. And again, my playing, my sound was not what it was. It’s different. I don’t necessarily have the stamina that I had. And I think that’s possibly why I’ve … again, that has slightly pushed me more towards improvisation. It’s just a little bit easier physically to do. And I do have to be really careful. So stretching, physio … I have to be really careful that I don’t get migraines. Yeah. It’s a bit of a challenge.

Barry Cockcroft: The steps that you’re describing to help … do you think that people should be, for example, looking after themselves with physio and things anyway, even if they perhaps don’t have an acute problem?

Sue McKenzie: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Yes, absolutely. Because we’re just not designed to … you know, whatever instrument you’re playing, whether it’s saxophone, drums, piano, whatever … violin. The amount of hours that we spend in very unnatural positions. And it doesn’t … you know, my posture’s pretty good – occasionally. But our bodies are not really designed to do that. And I think to think that you can keep on doing that for hours and hours every day for decades and not have any problems is slightly foolish.

Sue McKenzie: I now think of it as … you know, I don’t have the body of an athlete … but I think of playing now as, it’s a little bit like being an athlete. And an athlete wouldn’t go and run a race without warming up. There’s no way. I mean, I can do it obviously. But I know full well if I don’t stretch, if I don’t warm up, then I’m going to feel it the next day.

Barry Cockcroft: Who do you consider to be one of the most successful contributors to the saxophone?

Sue McKenzie: Oh, that’s a really difficult one. I’ve been thinking about that one all morning. That’s a horrible question. There’s just … how can you … yeah, I can’t pinpoint one person.

Barry Cockcroft: What about in a personal way, for you?

Sue McKenzie: For me, David Murray was a really big … just because it was so different and so wacky and so, okay, so what genre do we put that in? I have no idea.

Barry Cockcroft: It sounds like the meeting was very pivotal.

Sue McKenzie: Yeah, absolutely.

Barry Cockcroft: And perhaps that’s the … if something’s powerful enough to change the course of your life, no matter how short or long it is-

Sue McKenzie: Yeah. Absolutely.

Barry Cockcroft: … it must be significant.

Sue McKenzie: Yeah, completely. Yeah. Before that I’d say Cannonball Adderley. That sound just was everything. Kyle was a really big … yeah. And then I remember quite distinctly hearing Claude for the first time. I was like, oh, okay. Wow. This … yeah, yeah. Now John Surman … really, yeah, massive John Surman fan. There’s a beautiful sound, but there’s also the shape of the lines and the way that he approaches his improvisations. There’s something that just really … you know when you hear something in your head and it’s like, that’s what I hear in my head. That’s that thing. Yeah.

Barry Cockcroft: If we learn from our mistakes, is it okay to make them?

Sue McKenzie: Yeah, I think so. I think you have to.

Barry Cockcroft: And are you good with therefore coping with those mistakes in performance?

Sue McKenzie: I guess if you do a lot of improvisation, that becomes quite a different thing really, doesn’t it?

Barry Cockcroft: I’m surprised more people don’t improvise!`

Sue McKenzie: Yeah.

Barry Cockcroft: Sign up here if you don’t want to make any mistakes.

Sue McKenzie: Yeah, there you go.

Barry Cockcroft: I saw someone play today very seemingly confidently. And I went and said hello afterwards. And she said she was suffering enormously from anxiety. And I was quite surprised. And sometimes those sorts of thoughts don’t manifest externally; they’re controlled or managed in some way. Do you think the sort of ongoing mental health of playing and being able to cope with one, perhaps if you aren’t playing the way that you would really like to, or that if you get an adverse reaction to what you played? Do you think there’s strategies that can help us stay healthy in terms of thinking about those things?

Sue McKenzie: Yeah. I’m still trying to find them I think, to be honest, really. Yeah. I think certainly … I wouldn’t have described myself as massively confident. I think when I started off playing, I remember being really young and just enjoying the musical moment. And then I think there was something that happened, probably around about college, where it became, oh this is really serious now. And it matters. It matters to me. It matters to me what my teacher thinks. It matters in terms of getting my degree. It matters that I pass these exams. And I think it took on a very different … my perception of it changed a lot. And not necessarily for the better.

Sue McKenzie: But it was manageable. I think when I had that accident, I think that’s been a real challenge to get back into things. So there are oftentimes now where I physically don’t feel fantastic, and that certainly puts a different spin on it. And that can be quite a kind of big mental challenge to get through.

Barry Cockcroft: But you do.

Sue McKenzie: No. I think it’s an ongoing battle, to be honest. And what I have found is there are times where performing feels beautiful and easy and there’s a flow. And it’s a wonderful thing. And there are other times when it just doesn’t feel like that. And you think, oh, it’ll settle down and by the end of the gig it’ll feel different. And it maybe doesn’t. It maybe does, but it maybe doesn’t.

Sue McKenzie: The interesting thing that I’ve also found is when I listen back to recordings, one might think, well the gig that felt great and was really natural, that’ll probably be the one that sounds good. And the one that felt really horrible and difficult probably isn’t going to sound as good. And I have not found that. I’ve very often found the two to be completely opposite. The gig that felt difficult and awkward and that never really felt as though it settled inside physically or mentally, when you listen back will quite often be the ones that oh, wow. Okay. That’s actually okay. There was some really interesting stuff there.

Barry Cockcroft: Wow. That’s very interesting.

Sue McKenzie: Yeah. It’s very interesting, isn’t it? So I think there’s also … I guess what I’m trying to work on just now is accepting when it doesn’t feel good and when it doesn’t feel comfortable.

Barry Cockcroft: Is there something that you do right before a performance to help you to play at your best?

Sue McKenzie: I wish I had a really great answer. Lucky pants. I don’t know.

Barry Cockcroft: Lucky pants.

Sue McKenzie: I guess stretching. Yeah. And trying to just centre. Yeah. Just trying to calm everything. I think when you’re kind of battling with pain a lot of the time, there’s that pain and tension go hand in hand, and you have to be really careful. So centering as much as you possibly can, if that’s possible. And sometimes it’s not possible. And yeah just stretching and making sure that you physically feel up to it. And if that doesn’t work, then a double espresso, I’m sorry to say.

Barry Cockcroft: Now looking back, could you give yourself a piece of advice that you would have liked to have heard when you were starting out?

Sue McKenzie: Yeah. Absolutely, yeah. Just don’t be so worried about what people think. All the things that you wanted to do but hesitated to do, you should have just done them.

Barry Cockcroft: What are some of the changes you’ve seen in the saxophone world? And what are some of the things that haven’t changed?

Sue McKenzie: I think in terms of being here-

Barry Cockcroft: At the World Saxophone Congress.

Sue McKenzie: Yeah, the World Saxophone Congress. I think there’s a beautiful thing happening. I think there’s a real maintaining the tradition, which is great. And that should absolutely be there always. Because I think we have to look after it. It really is a precious thing that we have to look after.

Sue McKenzie: But there’s also a beautiful thing happening now where … it feels to me, certainly, from my experience … that over the last few years the whole seen here in sax congress has become much more open. There’s much more space for somebody that maybe plays a slightly different style of music or plays with a slightly different voice or has maybe put together a slightly quirky project. And I love that. I think that’s great.

Barry Cockcroft: I have a sneaking suspicion that that started to develop at St Andrews.

Sue McKenzie: Yeah.

Barry Cockcroft: Partly because of the way that you structured it in that it was very open to having tradition and the new things alongside each other, all mixed together.

Sue McKenzie: Yeah.

Barry Cockcroft: How did you actually become involved? Because you were assistant artistic director?

Sue McKenzie: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Barry Cockcroft: How did you get roped in, let’s say?

Sue McKenzie: Well, at that time Richard [Ingham] was in the Scottish Saxophone Ensemble, so we were all playing in Bangkok. And he had this crazy idea. And I was like, really? St Andrews? Would people come to St Andrews? I mean, I know it’s beautiful. It’s really pretty. But, you know, it’s a long way to come. And then I thought, you know, why not? And he had already had quite a lot of ground work ideas. And I think in Bangkok all the ideas became much more solidified. And I’m sorry to say, but there was a swimming pool and there was cocktails. And there was mention of, you know, Sue, you should be an assistant director. And I went, “Yeah! Yeah! Oh, another cocktail? Don’t mind if do.”

Sue McKenzie: Because I had no idea if we would win the vote or not. And it was a very bizarre situation. It was incredible that all these people wanted to come to Scotland. And I found myself on the plane home going, okay. We need to organise a World Saxophone Congress now. Right. Okay. Steep learning curve. Yeah. Yeah. Incredible.

Barry Cockcroft: Do you look back at it fondly? The years of organising?

Sue McKenzie: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. I wouldn’t do it again. Or would I? I don’t know.

Barry Cockcroft: I’m very fond of the once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Sue McKenzie: Yeah. No, I … absolutely. Yeah. It was an incredible experience. Incredible. To have all of these people in the one place at the one time. And, you know, I think if you’re organising any event, there are little bits that don’t work the way that you wanted them to work. But I think by and large it was a special week. And we did make a definite decision to … we have to protect the tradition, but we really want … I remember, oh lordy, days and days and days of listening to everybody’s applications. Days. How long did it take? Two weeks to get through it all. And having meeting after meeting after meeting and trying to present a programme that was as varied as possible. And to include as many different things as we possibly could.

Sue McKenzie: And that was a definite artistic decision to do that. And that was really cool. That was really cool to have that opportunity to be able to do that. So yeah. Huge fond memories. Yeah.

Barry Cockcroft: Now have you got a recent project that you would like to tell us about?

Sue McKenzie: Yes. Which one do I pick? I just had a new album that came out in February. Is that still new enough? Newish? It was released in February. It’s the McKenzie Sawers Duo with Ingrid Sawers on piano. And it’s on a really lovely record label, Delphian Records, who are based in Scotland. But are, yeah, pretty up there now in terms of classical labels. I think it was last year they won Gramophone Record Label of the Year. And they put out some great stuff. And it’s just a really lovely experience to be with that record label.

Sue McKenzie: Paul Baxter, the producer, used to be a sax player. So he’s massively supportive in terms of wanting to get repertoire out there. So it’s mainly British and Scottish contemporary works. Sally Beamish, James MacMillan, Judith Weir. I think there’s some Michael Nyman. Yeah. There’s some really nice music on there.

Barry Cockcroft: I was going to say … because you’re mentioning Scottish composers. How important has it been to you to work with Scottish composers?

Sue McKenzie: Yeah. Hugely. Hugely important. Yeah. I’m having a really interesting … and actually, yeah, probably another one of these life-changing moments. Working with a composer, John Harris, who runs a great ensemble in Scotland. They work internationally though. The Red Note Ensemble. And he’s a composer. And I commissioned him to write a piece for me. But I wanted it to be … I just wanted to have a different approach. And we had a lot of meetings and discussions about what would this piece be, how would it sound, how are we going to approach it.

Sue McKenzie: And essentially for the last year, I have been writing down everything, every thought that comes into my head, in a notebook. Completely uncensored. So I have to trust this guy completely. And we’ve come to call this notebook the book of weather. The book of weather. And John will phone every now and again and go, how’s the book going? What’s the weather like, Sue? Oh, it’s great. Really sunny, lovely. Or a bit stormy in the last week. Stormy.

Sue McKenzie: And from this book we’ve started to create a piece. And it will be for alto and soprano effects. He’s creating a kind of backing track, which is using snippets of the book. And it may be using them in musical form or it may be recordings of me saying bits of the book and manipulating them. So there’s a beautiful kind of layering of it all being very, very particular to me. And him recording bits of me improvising and using them and the backing tracks. So I’m improvising with me improvising. So there’s just all these kind of various layers going on.

Sue McKenzie: And that’s been I would say the piece that I’ve been most involved with in terms of the devising of the piece, I guess. And that’s felt really special. Really special. Rather than this, can you write me a piece? Yeah, here we go. Three months later, there you go. Off you go and play the piece that I’ve written for you. This feels very … I don’t know … more authentic, I suppose. Yeah. Yeah.

Sue McKenzie: I guess as I get older and time gets shorter and life gets busier, things need to matter now more. There may be gigs that five years ago I would have taken on. Yeah, okay, I’ll do that gig. And now it’s like, do I really want to do that gig? No. I don’t. If I’m going to do this, it has to really mean something. And I have to be really into it now. Which is a little bit selfish, but there we go.

Barry Cockcroft: Where can we find more about your activities? Do you keep your website going? Do you prefer social media? What’s your thing?

Sue McKenzie: A bit of both, really. A bit of both. The usual. Facebook, Twitter, website. That’s what it says on the tin.

Barry Cockcroft: I’ll put all these links in the show notes so people can find you.

Sue McKenzie: Yeah, yeah.

Barry Cockcroft: Is your album available via there as well?

Sue McKenzie: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. Yeah. It’s called After the Tryst, or the Tryst, depending on where you’re from. Yeah. You’ll get it from all the usual places … iTunes, the Delphian Records website, my website. All the usual places.

Barry Cockcroft: So finally, you’re making a really significant contribution, not just to music in Scotland but you’ve really impacted all of the people who’ve come to Scotland as well through your efforts in organising things.

Sue McKenzie: Oh. Thank you.

Barry Cockcroft: What do you see for yourself in the next 10 to 20 years?

Sue McKenzie: Wow. I don’t think of it in that way at all. I don’t know, I just do my thing. I guess what we were talking about, being less busy, but it being more worthwhile. And it having more value. And trying to get back to those student days of just more time. Yeah.

Barry Cockcroft: Sue, thank you very much for your time today.

Sue McKenzie: Thank you. This has been really great. Thank you so much.

Barry Cockcroft: My pleasure and let’s go and hear some music.

Sue McKenzie: Yay.

Share This