Timothy McAllister - American Saxophone Soloist - 17
About Timothy McAllister
Soprano chair of the renowned PRISM Quartet and internationally-acclaimed soloist, Timothy McAllister has been hailed as a “virtuoso…one of the foremost saxophonists of his generation” (The New York Times). Since his solo debut at age sixteen with the Houston Civic Symphony, his career has taken him throughout the world, with solo performances in such venues as Prince Royal Albert Hall in London, the Sydney Opera House, Carnegie Hall and the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam.
McAllister has premiered over 200 new works by today’s most eminent and emerging composers ranging from solo compositions to saxophone quartets and chamber works. In 2009, he appeared as saxophonist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic for the Gala concert performing the world premiere of Pulitzer Prize and multiple Grammy-winning composer John Adams’ major work, City Noir. In 2017 he performed the work with the famed Berlin Philharmonic, which appeared on the Digital Concert Hall and he recorded for the Berlin Philharmonic’s “John Adams Edition” anthology.
In August 2013, McAllister gave the World Premiere of John Adams’ Saxophone Concerto with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra under the baton of the composer in the Sydney Opera House. This work was recorded for Nonesuch Records and the St. Louis Symphony, which won the 2015 GRAMMY Award for Best Orchestral Performance.
A dedicated teacher, McAllister spends his summers as a distinguished Valade Fellow/Instructor of Saxophone for the Interlochen Center for the Arts and has served as a Guest Professor at the famed Paris Conservatoire. In 2014 he was appointed Associate Professor of Saxophone at The University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Dance, following the legacies of Larry Teal and Donald Sinta, after holding the same post at Northwestern University, succeeding the legendary Frederick Hemke.
- Visiting Australia
- Getting started in a school band.
- The wanted to give me a tuba but the saxophone was the most interesting and coolest instrument.
- I grew up in a very competitive environment.
- The level of playing in Texas schools was very high.
- BMX biking was more important to me than saxophone.
- Learning with my first specialist, Chester Rowell.
- Hearing recordings of classical saxophone for the first time got me hooked.
- Hearing John Adam’s music for the first time.
- Planning five years ahead, at least.
- Learning with Donald Sinta.
- Learning and now teaching at Interlochen summer camp.
- Hearing Denisov for the first time.
- The importance of listening to interments besides saxophone.
- Recording my first album while still a student.
- The decreasing worth of recording albums.
- Completing two masters degrees at the same time.
- Practising can become stressful.
- If you can play from memory you really know a piece.
- Improvisation is pivotal to music making.
- Working with jazz artists.
- Prism Quartet
- Admiration for Claude Delangle.
- Teaching at the Paris Conservatoire for the first time.
- Being happy to play John Adam’s forever.
- We have to make everyone love the saxophone.
- We are a wonderful saxophone community.
- A lot of the most widely played orchestral pieces have saxophone now.
- More bananas, less coffee.
- When I play, I am thinking about just the spirit of the music and the person who wrote it.
- Thoughts on recording.
- I don’t want us to miss out on the greatest composers of today writing for the saxophone.
- Tim McAllister Website | Tim on Twitter | Tim on Facebook
- Donald Sinta
- Fred Hemke
- Branford Marsalis
- Sigurd Raschèr
- Prism Quartet
- Daniel Deffayet
- Marcel Mule
- Andy Scott
- John Adam’s Concerto
- The University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Dance
Transcript of Podcast Interview with Timothy McAllister
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: Thanks for coming this afternoon to talk with me.
Timothy McAllister: Thank you so much.
Barry Cockcroft: It’s great to see you again.
Timothy McAllister: Yeah, it’s great to see you again.
Barry Cockcroft: You know, I was just looking back to look at how we first met, and you performed the John Adams Concerto in Sydney, in the premiere. We had a beer afterwards. I was looking back at the photo, and I didn’t realise this, but above our heads in the photo, it says “Pickup here.”
Timothy McAllister: Pickup here?
Barry Cockcroft: That’s a good place to meet someone.
Timothy McAllister: That is. I think you’re right. I remember that café. It was great. Yeah, it’s come a long way since then. And then, I went to Melbourne right after that. After that performance, and you were starting your camp, I think-
Barry Cockcroft: That’s right.
Timothy McAllister: -at that time, so … that was a wonderful stay in Australia. What a great country, and what’s happening with saxophone and what you’re doing is, the work you’re doing, and the composition output, and then the educational initiatives of what you’re doing is fantastic. So, thank you.
Barry Cockcroft: Thank you. Great. I would love to know how you got started with the saxophone.
Timothy McAllister: How I got started. Well … As people might or might not know, educational band movement in the United States has been going strong for a long time. That can start as early as fifth grade or sixth grade, where we’re essentially recruited to play in the school band. I’m not sure if there’s a similar system like that in the school systems in Australia, but for us, the concert band is just a part of educational culture. The students are either playing on the sports teams, or you’re playing in the band.
Timothy McAllister: So, I think, in fifth grade, the junior high teachers were coming to the elementary school to recruit students to play in the band. I had taken piano lessons with my mother, but that didn’t work out very well over the long run. For your mother to be your teacher, somehow there’s some kind of resistance to practising and all kinds of things. I didn’t want to practise in the house in front of her. But, we were children of the ’80s, you and I, and to see the rise of things like MTV or music videos, and of course, popular music and saxophone are just, they were deeply intertwined in the ’80s. But, when the teachers came to school, they were asking us what instruments we’d want to play, and for me, the saxophone was really, for me, the most interesting instrument because it seemed the coolest, obviously. I don’t think I’d really had a sense much yet of the significance of jazz, for instance, but I’d certainly seen saxophone in music videos and television. Just knowing about it, that got me interested, and I chose the saxophone.
Timothy McAllister: I was quite large for a fifth grader. I was not much shorter. I think I was the tallest student in my elementary school, but I was even skinnier, or much, much … I was very skinny. But, I was tall, and I was recruited by the basketball coach of the junior high, as well, to play on the basketball team. But, the band director told me, “No, we have plenty of saxophones. We have plenty of kids interested in saxophone. You should play tuba. Tuba, we need a lot of tuba players. You’re a big guy. You would carry it really well, and you would be able to handle it, and we really think that would be great. How about we sign you up for tuba?”
Timothy McAllister: Of course, I was a little nervous anyway, just talking to the band teacher, and I was like, “Oh, okay. I’ll play tuba.” And then, he signed me up.
Timothy McAllister: Then I went home, and I complained to my mother. I said, “I really wanted to play saxophone, but he signed me up for tuba.”
Timothy McAllister: And so, my mother called the school and said, “My son wants to play saxophone. He will play saxophone.”
Timothy McAllister: It was really funny. So, I guess I owe that to my mother. But, this was in Houston, Texas. Texas, as a state in the United States, is a huge band state. There’s just a level of the concert bands in the high schools, and junior high systems are incredible. They rival any university and band level around the world. So, I was in a system where the training was very high. We were expected to play. We were expected to take private lessons if we wanted to be in the top group in the school. We were expected to take private lessons. There was quite an interesting system. Still to this day, throughout Texas, there’s an entire sanctioned system of auditions to go through these various levels, regional and all-state competitions, to set you up for honour bands.
Timothy McAllister: So, from a very young age, we were all really set up to be involved in a competitive environment, much like athletics. They were treating, in some ways, music and athletics the same. And, I found that that was maybe the easiest way to distinguish myself, was to just compete in these competitions, to try to make the honour bands and the all-state bands. But, my first private lesson teacher … Well, I guess I should back up.
Timothy McAllister: When I was in junior high band, I did fairly well, but I didn’t practise … much. My band director started to notice that my saxophone was always left in the band room. It wasn’t going home at night, and I was very much into BMX biking, racing. I was into BMX racing, and then, into the freestyle trick bike. The acrobatic stuff, you know. Half pipes and quarter pipes, and then ground trick routines, and in seventh grade, I was part of Team GT BMX. We would travel and do shows.
Timothy McAllister: We would just play shows in parking lots and shopping malls, and it was scripted, and we had … music that we would choreograph, too. So, I was really doing that. I was really into that. But, when I was in eighth grade, my bike, my prized possession was my bicycle. And, it was very expensive, and it was all custom, and every component was individually expensive. But, it got stolen, and it was uninsured. The bike was uninsured. It got stolen outside. It wasn’t even on our property of our house, but it was interesting ’cause that was probably a turning point.
Timothy McAllister: I also realised that this wasn’t really something I could do for a livelihood or a profession. However, there was a lot of momentum going towards it. It’s kind of like skateboarding, or even like surfing. There was more and more media attention coming to BMX, and now, you see it on television, like the Winter X Game, or the X Games. You know, when they do the trick biking for scoring. Anyway, so I don’t know, somewhere around eighth grade, I started to get more serious, started to apply myself more with saxophone, and my band director noticed. At the time, I was not taking private lessons, and she took me aside, and she said, “You will take private lessons.” She ordered me. She was angry at me ’cause she saw that when I applied myself and I practised, I was excelling quite a bit in a band.
Timothy McAllister: And so, she ordered me to take private lessons. My first private teacher was a gentleman in Houston who was the main woodwind instrumentalist in Houston. He was the top call for Houston Ballet, and Houston Grand Opera. Saxophone, clarinet, oboe, flute, anything. And, he taught private lessons on all those instruments. His name was Chester Rowell. He’s still active in Houston area, but I’d go to my lessons, and he’d have every instrument out. And, he’d be in the middle of practising something. He had some gig coming up, and I’d walk in, and he would sometimes have to remember what instrument he was teaching now. It’s like, “What do you? Oh, you’re a saxophonist, right.”
Timothy McAllister: I was just enamoured. He had a beautiful Mark VI, and I was just … wow, really impressed by that. I knew about the Mark VI, and he set me up with Voxman etudes, and all the standard things. But, he also gave me my first tape recording of classical players because so much of what the band was doing was classical. All these auditions we had to do, we had to play Ferling etudes, and all of the typical stuff. But, I hadn’t heard really repertoire yet. I didn’t know anything about solo music, concert music. But, he gave me a tape, and on one side of the tape was Donald Sinta’s recording, American Music. And so, it had Creston and Haydn Sonata and Benson and all.
Timothy McAllister: The other side was Fred Hemke’s recording of the Dahl Concerto and the Husa Concerto with piano. So, that was my first recording. And, at this time … I guess, if there was a saxophonist I was listening to, it was probably Grover Washington. Maybe next was David Sanborn. I started to discover names like Charlie Parker and … you know, the classics. When I first heard John Coltrane, I was pretty young, and I just didn’t know what to make of it. It was confusing to me. I didn’t understand what this was. Is this jazz? But, it was so spiritual and so rich. But, I understood when I heard early bebop. I understood that that was jazz. And then, of course, swing players, but then, I was really into the ’80s fusion players. But, when I heard classical players, suddenly, it aligned with all of the things I was doing in band. Concert band music, I was trying to get my head around what all this was, but it was okay, this is what we call classical music. It’s just a training system. You know, wind concert band for junior high.
Timothy McAllister: So, when I heard classical saxophone, not only did I love it, but it made sense with what I was doing, somehow. I saw that there was an actual path. Somehow, there was a reason for this. It wasn’t so much that, ’cause I didn’t identify with band and what, say, David Sanborn was doing, so I didn’t understand the saxophone between those two worlds. I didn’t realise that they were, that it was supposed to be different. Maybe I thought that somehow, you graduated, and eventually, got to the things that Sanborn was doing, after working your way through school band. I didn’t understand that there was a path for classical players.
Timothy McAllister: So then, I was really hooked. I was very hooked on the Paul Creston Sonata, and the Dahl Concerto. I was just so hooked on that music, so it did resonate with me. But, I think, when I really started to see what the prospects were somehow, as limited as they are, I still saw the path. It happened with my next teacher, after my first teacher told me, “I’ve done everything I can with you. I’m more of a multi-woodwind instrumentalist. I see where you’re going with this repertoire. I don’t have that training. Let me send you to another guy.”
Timothy McAllister: So, he sent me to a gentleman named Ralph Burton, who is still a dear friend today, who’s retired now. Lives in the American northwest. Ralph Burton was a graduate assistant of Eugene Rousseau, so he studied at Indiana University. He had lessons with John Sampen. He had lessons with Larry Teal when he was very young. And, he lived in Houston. Upon graduation for Indiana University, he just decided, “I’m just going to drive. I’m going to take my pickup truck, and I’m going to drive to Texas, and I’m going to choose a town to drop anchor in, and I’m just going to advertise for private teaching.”
Timothy McAllister: And, he, in fact, did that. When he arrived, he chose the south part of Houston, where I was from. And, he went and met the band directors in the school district, and within one day, he had over 40 private lessons students set up. That was just the reality of saxophone teaching in that area. Still is. You can basically just choose any town in Texas, and you’ll have private students within an hour of arriving. It’s pretty incredible. But, the system is just so set up that way. Well, Ralph Burton quickly became the big saxophone player in Houston, and in 1987, he was the principle chair of the Houston Grand Opera’s premiere of Nixon in China, of John Adams. ‘Cause that’s where the opera had its start.
Timothy McAllister: And, I just remember coming in for lessons, and I don’t know if you’ve played that book before-
Barry Cockcroft: Yes, I have played it.
Timothy McAllister: Right. So, the part looks like an encyclopaedia.
Barry Cockcroft: Isn’t it 70 pages or something?
Timothy McAllister: Yeah, right. It’s incredible.
Barry Cockcroft: Of black.
Timothy McAllister: Yeah, of just nonstop playing. So, I would come into my lessons, and he would just be sitting there practising and cursing. And, he would say, “Look at this part.”
Timothy McAllister: There’s some guy named John Adams, the name of a president. And, he’s a minimalist composer, but that seems pretty challenging. And, he was just showing me all the arpeggios, and he was just providing to me proof of … why we practise scales and arpeggios. Here was an example of a composer who was just using this the fullest extent, really.
Timothy McAllister: And, he said, “I’ll get you a ticket. You want to come hear this.” I was … I think I was a sophomore. I think I was a second year in high school, so sophomore in high school. I was … ’87, I was 15, 16 years old? And so, I went to hear the opera. I had gone to some classical symphony concerts. I still didn’t make the connection with what I was listening to. If I had listened to Tchaikovsky, or Berlioz, or Bruckner, I somehow didn’t see the relevance to what I do, or what I was interested in.
Timothy McAllister: But, suddenly I saw this production, as incredible as it was, and the music. And then, seeing that this was a living composer, walking onstage to acknowledge and take a bow. And, hearing this music, and hearing the saxophones roll in this music. I think that was the moment I established in my mind, that that’s what I want. This. I want this. I want this experience. I want this kind of lifestyle. I don’t care what I have to do. I’ll be happy playing any part in that.
Timothy McAllister: But, I was still a kid. I was naïve to what really, you know, there are challenges, obviously, in our field with providing opportunities, not only for ourselves, but for creating a reality for our students about what’s there. But, at that moment, the grandeur of that moment. The just seemingly expansiveness of importance of this moment. I felt like, well, there is a place for saxophone with something like this. Look at the scale of this production, and there’s saxophones in this orchestra.
Timothy McAllister: So, I got hooked, frankly. I was hooked on that. And, it just, for me, it was like a dream come true, years later, to have that relationship blossom with someone like John Adams that results in this concerto. And, in some ways, I think that experience set me up to just put that on my wishlist for the rest of my life. I often talk about this with students. If you just decide that this is something you want, and you understand that there’s a pretty common blueprint about how to get there, if you point in that direction, anything you strive for to reach that goal is going to be significant.
Timothy McAllister: Even if you never reach that goal, if you decide, “I want to be the greatest saxophonist in the world.” Okay. Well, that’s kind of ridiculous to say ’cause it’s hard to really identify what that means. But, if you even just set your mind to that, any success that comes along the way is going to be valid or legitimate. So, I think, I went through my whole life imagining that all of this had a purpose, and that was eventually to get to those people. A person like John Adams. Or, any opportunities.
Barry Cockcroft: It sounds like you like to plan. Is that right?
Timothy McAllister: I do. I think so. I set up longterm plans.
Barry Cockcroft: How far ahead are you thinking?
Timothy McAllister: At least five years. I think, because, we know, you know. As you know, we live in that kind of cycle where, let’s say you’re commissioning, or you’re planning an album. You can’t just wish an album into experience. You make a record. There’s so much planning that goes into that. You have to actually lay it all down. Then, there’s the editing, and then, post production. And then, even if you want a label, you’re talking about from start time to release time … I don’t know, minimum two years, three years?
Timothy McAllister: So, you’re listening to recording projects, and you’re hearing this time capsule of your playing in the past. Sometimes you’re disgusted by it. It’s like, you’re so much better. Oh, man, I have a new horn now. And, listen to this old recording. So, we change. But, I do like to set up projects that way.
Timothy McAllister: I think, when I saw this path emerging, then I realised, here’s the steps. The steps are, you audition for this thing. You get this, you get this, and you get this, and hopefully, this gets you set up or attractive to potential college professors. You get recruited. You, hopefully, get some opportunities, scholarship opportunities. You apply to these schools. Here are the teachers. Here are the big names. And, you just work your way up that way.
Timothy McAllister: So, I think even when I got into college, so I went to Michigan, studied with Donald Sinta. I had an opportunity to study with Eugene Rousseau at Indiana. My teacher, Ralph Burton, was very disappointed that I did not go to Indiana. To this day, he always jokes about it. But, those were always the big three: Michigan, Indiana, and Northwestern. Hemke, Sinta, Rousseau. And, all of their students that created this large beautiful tree, you could point to that. At least, those of us that are, we’re talking about the French-American school, or the French transplanted tradition, right?
Timothy McAllister: Of course, we still have people promoting maybe a Raschèr style in the United States, and there’s universities associated with that style. You have some people that are maybe more crossover players. You have some people that are really, really very deeply entrenched in the Mule and Hemke style. And then, there’s this tradition that emerged from Larry Teal, with Donald Sinta being his greatest protégé, but Teal was really part of this New York school, this American school out of New York. People like Merle Johnston, who was credited with being the first teacher of jaw vibrato in the United States.
Timothy McAllister: And, these figures like Al Gallodoro, and these players that intersected with Rust Wiedoeft lineage, this legacy, this intersection of that. I think that had more impact on what we call the American school than the French training that was finding its way into our university system. So, I think Sinta and Teal were more in line with that. And then, you have the Joe Allard school. You know about that? And, you had Vincent Abato, who premiered the Creston Concerto with the New York Philharmonic. There were these iconic figures that we’ve forgotten about. But, it still really came down to, either people wanted you to study with one of the big three or their big students. And, now that list has gotten just huge.
Timothy McAllister: But, I went to Michigan. I studied at Interlochen, which is the oldest summer music camp for high school students in the United States. I teach there now. I’ve been teaching there for many years now, and Sigurd Raschèr was the first teacher at that camp. Cecil Leeson taught at that camp. Larry Teal, Hemke, Sampen, Lulloff … Sinta, the list goes on. The saxophone tradition of this high school camp is so deeply entrenched that I’m honoured to be a part of that.
Timothy McAllister: It was there that I heard Donald Sinta play live. I heard him play the Denisov Sonata. I had the music, but it didn’t look like it was possible. When I saw the music, I’m like what is this? I don’t understand 18/32 time, so I don’t really know what that truly means, and I saw all the black, you know? I thought it was just a mythical piece somehow. I didn’t know how it could be played. But, I heard Sinta play it live in summer of 1990 on a faculty recital at this summer camp. Standing room only, and people were sitting on the stage ’cause they didn’t want people standing in the aisles. He played it, and it changed my life. I mean, I had already had a sense of what this was going to be about, or what the big repertoire was, but to hear that piece live? As a 17-year-old, 16-year-old? That was when I knew I had to study with him.
Timothy McAllister: But then, getting to that, he recruited me heavily. Went to Michigan, and then, when I was a freshman, he just, when you mentioned plan, he established that. He said, “Here’s what you’re going to do. Here’s what you do. You’re going to play a recital every year. You’re not going to repeat any music. You’re not allowed to ever play the same piece twice. This is your plan for four years. Here’s the progress of the literature. And then, I want a plan every week of what you’re coming in to do. I want to see written down, etudes prepared. Etudes ready. Etudes in progress. Repertoire that you’re ready to play for me. Repertoire in progress.” So, those four columns represented our lesson material for the week.
Timothy McAllister: As strict as he was about that, he did give us a long leash in other ways. He just assumed we would be hungry enough to know what was going on with recordings. The very first recording he would give us wasn’t of him, or any saxophone players at all. He wanted us to study all the great cellists. He wanted us to know all the cello repertoire and violin repertoire. He wanted us to know the Brahms Violin Sonata. He wanted us to know the Kol Nidrei of Max Bruch. His favourite recording was Lynn Harrell. The Decca Label. It was an introduction to the greater world of art music, and just falling in love with music that wasn’t saxophone music.
Barry Cockcroft: Do you think there’s a danger now, that people listen to too much saxophone music, and not enough of the other repertoire?
Timothy McAllister: I think that’s always been a danger. We have to ask ourselves, the people who we’re most inspired by … what were they listening to? Marcel Mule was certainly not listening to saxophone. He was probably listening to Kreisler, and Heifetz, and Pablo Casals. We know that maybe he emulated that vibrato to some degree. Or, he was listening to his contemporaries on other instruments, like Marcel Moyse. Or, George [inaudible 00:24:11]. It’s kind of amazing that we’ve created such an incredible field, that’s so rich that you could choose to only listen to saxophone music if you wish. But, they couldn’t do that, right? They didn’t have that access.
Timothy McAllister: I think Sinta’s approach was just the larger umbrella had to be more important to you. You needed to be able to converse with a string player about all of the Beethoven string quartets. It’s irrelevant if they could converse with you or not about the Ibert Concertino. That’s irrelevant. Your place in this society will be dictated by how well you navigate just common musical thought, or the cannon of classical Western music. You want to belong in this thing, but you don’t know anything about music? How would you navigate that?
Timothy McAllister: That would trickle down into just the awareness and knowledge of composers. He would set that process up so that you were eventually getting to the point where you understood a trajectory that starts with Bach, or early music, and works its way all the way to the most recent prize winners, or the composers who are being commissioned all over the world. Or, played all over the world. And, you start to find these intersections, so you start to notice, okay, who are the composers that start writing for saxophone? And, using that as a jumping off point to understand that there’s categories.
Timothy McAllister: There’s different types of music. There’s different types of composers. You start to understand modernism out of that, or post modernism. And, neo-romanticism, and neoclassicism. I think that was a way for the studio training to reflect the kinds of study in your music history classes, for instance. Trying to align the studio curriculum with what you’re seeing in your theory and your history class. But, I think it was that planning. It was that kind of system that set me up.
Timothy McAllister: And then, I saw graduate school immediately. For all of us that have some aspirations to be college professors or eventually, on their way towards a doctorate, it’s just assumed that you would get a master’s degree. So, I knew there would be a six-year plan. And, along the way, I was just saying, “Oh, here’s what I want to be playing by the end of that.” When I finished my junior year of … That’s third year. Junior year, third year of college, I had done a recital with a pianist who I ended up becoming a duo with briefly, named Kevin Class. And, we put out a recital live performance of a recital that we decided to use as a demo, to send around to record labels.
Timothy McAllister: We said, “What the heck? Let’s see if someone would be interested in this.” And, we ended up realising we should be a little bit better than that, so we went into a recording studio. So, I was essentially making my first recording in a professional environment when I was 20, 21? And, we fished it around to some record labels. That’s just what you did back then. You just send it out, and seeing if people were interested, and Centaur Records was interested. They said, “We’d like to put this out. We’d like you to add maybe some more music to it.” So, we added William Bolcom’s Lilith, I think, and we added maybe one other transcription or something.
Timothy McAllister: But, that ended up being my first CD. And, I put that out, the CD, as a result, was released in the September of my master’s degree, so I was entering into the first semester of my graduate degree, and I had a professional CD out. That, I felt, was such an important thing ’cause there were no websites. We didn’t have any way to get our name out. This was the only way to have some kind of branding associated with your name, was to get a recording out as soon as possible.
Timothy McAllister: Maybe it was presumptuous, or too overly ambitious of me, but I think my peers in school thought, well gosh, who thinks so highly of themselves at this age that they’re going to put out an album? But, it didn’t matter to me if it wasn’t as great as I wanted it to be. Now, I listen back to that album, and I’m both horrified and impressed. ‘Cause when I think about my own students of that age, I’d like them to be as ambitious. And, I’d also like them to be more cautious. Don’t put stuff out now without feeling like you’re going to be proud of it, and it’s going to withstand the test of time.
Timothy McAllister: But, no one was going to tell me that I had to wait in line. You’re not supposed to make a CD until you’re much older. I kind of wanted to buck that trend. I was looking at all these violinists that were making CDs at 10 and 11 years old. Like Midori. Why can’t we try this? What’s stopping us?
Barry Cockcroft: Do you think the role of an album now is as essential as a promotional tool, or all of the other avenues that we have, as you mentioned, with the internet, is that something more to focus on than just recording an album?
Timothy McAllister: I think that is really what’s amazing, has changed in an incredible fashion, is that we are able to use free media, free social media to become our own PR campaigns. It’s pretty incredible. And, YouTube has changed all of it. Now, there’s students that go to YouTube as a primary resource before they’ll ever buy an album because they’re going to get a free recording. They’re going to hear something for free. Even, sometimes, if it’s just another amateur putting out a live performance, it’s something they can still at least study. And, in many cases, they prefer to hear that because it’s a direct comparison to where they are. Maybe, if they’re listening to another amateur putting out a recording. So, maybe the idea of an album and all of that investment, maybe it is disappearing, the importance of that.
Timothy McAllister: But, we’re moving now to a whole digital platform, that things will only be streamed going forward. We’re talking about albums in physical products going away completely. iTunes won’t even allow us soon to download anything directly into our computers. We’re just going to have to pay to stream it, and that would be ownership. That would be the equivalent of ownership.
Timothy McAllister: So, maybe it’s not the same. You know, I’m very old fashioned, and I still love the CD. And, I still love having the programme notes and the sense of it being a monograph. Those of us in academia, we have to have these kind of products, like a book or another type of monograph. But, the younger students, younger players, are able to take full advantage of the internet now on an unprecedented scale.
Timothy McAllister: But, after putting out that album, I saw the benefits of that because it turned into some, it got some reviews, got some critical acclaim. I was able to really use that, and little by little, it started to result in more and more projects. So, I just kept seeing, in addition to my training and my schooling, I saw that so much of the blueprint to at least have some opportunities meant that you seek out composers, you try to come up with very humble relationships with young composers, in which a commission might be an exchange.
Timothy McAllister: You write the piece. I promise to play the piece. I promise to play the piece three times. Or, I promise to record the piece. I saw that okay, there, there’s something right there. The composer will work for you as much as you will work for them. You’re promoting the material together, and that starts to build your network. I think we all found those relationships beneficial to us when we were younger, and that’s where we saw them, and you saw certainly the ability to compose on top of playing, provided another avenue for you. So, I think, for me, it was promoting composers and commissioning music. And, also I was promoting … Well, I also believed that I could be, or I was training to be either a player or a school band teacher.
Timothy McAllister: So, I have a music education training for my undergrad. My bachelor was in music education. So, I wanted to play as well as I could. I wanted to put out recordings. I wanted to commission composers. But, I really was deeply grounded in school music trainings, so that I would have something, maybe that would be my first job. I didn’t necessarily think or know what the job prospects were going to be after graduate school. I did have dreams of being a professor of saxophone somewhere. But, I did do two master’s degrees. One master’s degree in conducting, and I was recruited aggressively for that. And then, also, a second master’s degree in saxophone. And, upon finishing those two degrees in the same year, I had positioned myself to be attractive for some jobs that came open.
Timothy McAllister: I was offered a couple of college teaching jobs for saxophone, and I was offered a high school … assistant band director job, locally, nearby. So, that was where my life had a … I had a choice to make. Fork in the road, they say. So, I was either … I was prepared for both sides, but I had to make a choice. And, I chose saxophone because that presented itself to me. And, once I had that first college job, that’s when I started to understand a lot more of what it means to become your own person, your own artist. I often would hear that from my teachers that say, once you stop taking lessons, that’s when you have to really start to figure things out on your own. That’s when you start to truly become an artist. And, I understood that.
Barry Cockcroft: Do you think people do find their identity? Or, is it a difficult thing, a nebulous thing that’s difficult to find?
Timothy McAllister: I think it’s hard to find. I think we’re always trying to … align ourselves with players who inspire us, and that gives us at least some kind of model to follow. But, I do think we all become quite independent from each other. And yet, we’re all still within the same orbit of one another. No one is doing something that is completely alien to the ideas of what started us. Of what saxophone, or concert saxophone, if we’re talking about that specifically. Its pretty hard to completely reinvent the genre. There are people, certainly, doing a good job with that in many ways, but it’s pretty hard for there not to be some ability to trace it back to a certain inspiration.
Timothy McAllister: People who are part of a French school, or part of a … whatever you want to say. I mean, any of these traditions. But, I think along the way, just the fact that we’re different human beings, and we just hear music differently, or we process information differently, or we have a different anatomy in the way it sets up our sound. Or, how we hear things. Just the idea of processing information. Maybe it’s just different from person to person. What if you’re losing your hearing? Would you hear your sound differently?
Timothy McAllister: I think you would probably choose your setup differently because you can’t really tell what’s different about … And then, someone else’s hearing your sound differently because you’re hearing your sound differently. So, I don’t know. I think it does happen naturally, over time. But, for younger players, I think it is important to just imitate your models for a while. It’s important to just point to them and say, here is my favourite sound. Here is my favourite playing. I would love to be able to scratch the surface on what that means to produce that sound. And, if I can at least point myself in that direction, it starts to manifest itself organically, naturally, with the way you play.
Barry Cockcroft: Tim, it sounds like you’re very busy. Teaching, playing everywhere, the quartet … How does your practise work? Now, you’re very active, compared to, say, when you were a student.
Timothy McAllister: Yeah, I’m sure you can attest to as well, practising just diminishes greatly. You know, it becomes a challenge, and also a chore. I mean, I have to practise. I’ve got this thing coming up. And, we have so much of a reputation to try to uphold at this point, too, the older we get. So, practising becomes a bit stressful. I think when I was a student, practising was inspiring. It was something that I knew had a payoff. There was going to be some growth, even if it was very minuscule. Just making sure I put the time in meant that I would be able to see or chart my progress.
Timothy McAllister: Now, practising has to be efficient. It has to be … carefully scheduled. So, in the case of something like my quartet, Prism. For me, practising is more about score study, making sure that I’m at least aware of what I’m up against, in terms of the whole group. And, when we rehearse, making sure I know their parts very well. Making sure I know my part, but if I’m not physically ready to play the music, in some ways, the rehearsal takes care of some of that. Just to get me physically in a good place to play that music.
Timothy McAllister: But, I might not be able to develop the part itself until we start to actually rehearse. So, it’s a terrible thing to say, and you would never want your students to learn their parts in rehearsal. But, that does happen. That’s the reality of our lives. We have to just really kind of get things together when we actually are playing. For solo stuff, I’m just going to be really be careful about how I programme. I need to make sure that I’m not overwhelming myself with all new things. There’s always got to be some repertoire that I’m rehashing so that I have some anchors in my programming.
Barry Cockcroft: A piece like the John Adams concerto, for example. Once you’ve learned it, does it sit okay, or is it really a piece that you have to really maintain?
Timothy McAllister: That piece, I do have to maintain it. I go through patches where I just know, okay, maybe I don’t have a performance of it for a little while, and I just don’t come back to it. And, some of it comes back quickly. You know how it is with repertoire pieces. You can pick it up, and maybe 30 or 40% of it are still there. It’s still there in your hands. You put all that time into it, and there’s a great residue for it, but the danger of taking too much time off between a piece is that it dissipates in your memory.
Timothy McAllister: Then, you have to maybe relearn things. Or, you realise that you’re being better with your … Maybe something in your technique has evolved, and maybe you’re coming at the instrument a little bit differently every single time you repeat a piece. So, I find that Adams is not easy to maintain. I would have to keep practising it just to stay in shape with it. There’s certain pieces on our repertoire, like the Albright Sonata, or, I don’t know, Berio VIIb or something, where, if you let it go, you’re going to suffer the consequences, you know?
Barry Cockcroft: So, as a soloist, what are your thoughts on memorization?
Timothy McAllister: Well, I think it’s great. You certainly really learn a piece if you can play it from memory, you really know something. You really truly know it if it’s internalised the right way. Otherwise, you’re just … mimicking something. And, you’re just trying to play it back, but if you can really intellectualise it, and hear it on a very deep level, then you truly know it. There’s a certain point with memory work where you either know it, and you know that you’re going to nail it, or you know it, and it’s still uneasy. And, if you’re uneasy because you’re worried about playing it perfectly and you still feel like you need your music, then you should use the music.
Timothy McAllister: For me, I should be able to play the John Adams from memory, and there’s whole chunks of the piece I can play from memory. But, there’s an uneasiness with every single conductor, every single orchestra. Where they put the time, where they feel the time. Half the time, they’re always behind. The conductor, as meticulous as they can be, and as well rehearsed as it might be, once they start engaging with the soloist in that piece, it’s not simply just accompaniment anymore. It’s a completely integrated piece.
Timothy McAllister: So, I have found that every conductor I’ve ever worked with on that piece has a different idea of how they want to do things. I want to beam it this way. I want to bar it this way. I don’t think the last one, we should be in two. I think the last one, we should be in four. I don’t want to do this in cut time, you know. And, suddenly, you’re negotiating with a conductor about things that, for me, memory is a problem when all of that starts to get disrupted. When I have to actually follow and pay attention, that’s when I struggle with memory.
Timothy McAllister: If it’s something like the Ibert? The Ibert, you know, you just set it and forget it. Once that piece starts, it’s autopilot. I can play the Ibert and Glazunov tomorrow from memory. In the Adams, there’s too much stuff going on sometimes. And, of course, structure and the form of things. If it’s not really, really clear, I struggle with memory. But, there’s so many great players, amazing players, that just they’re uncomfortable if they’re trying to play from memory. So, I started to just want to be comfortable, more than anything else.
Timothy McAllister: I don’t remember who I was talking to, but in the string world or the piano world, the tradition of memorization is so prevalent. You’re defined by just the common core repertoire being something you can play from memory, and with saxophone, I think we have maybe five or six pieces like that. But, it’s not really part of the wind tradition at all, to play from memory. Great clarinettists play the Copland Clarinet Concerto with the music. So, I don’t know. I’ve never felt any shame about using the music. But, I also think you truly, you truly don’t know something until you’ve memorised it.
Barry Cockcroft: I like this idea … that memorization gives you understanding of knowledge. That, the memorization, if you’re reading, for example, you have the knowledge. But, you don’t necessarily have the understanding. That’s not compulsory. It doesn’t have to have understanding. It can just be memorised. Like you said, it’s more of a photograph. But, once there’s understanding, then that can develop even when you’re not at your instrument. You’ve got the chance for your mind to be processing and learning it, and if you’ve got an idle moment, you can be thinking about the music. But, if it’s not there, if it’s vacant in your head, and you need to look at the score, then you don’t think about it. You think about something else. The match.
Timothy McAllister: Yeah. Absolutely. And, you certainly don’t want students, for instance, memorising something just to be able to play the part back from memory. You want them knowing the score more intimately than playing the part back from memory. If the score study is not completely organic, they don’t realise that, not only am I playing from memory, but the way I’m playing is being informed by a colour in the orchestra. Or, the way I’m playing this is being informed by how it was laid down the first time by the first clarinet, and you’re imitating that. If you don’t have any sense of that, then what’s the point of memory at all? So, that’s maybe what happens with students and memory work. Sometimes, it’s impressive, but maybe, it’s only on the surface.
Barry Cockcroft: What elements of improvisation have you used in your playing over the years? Is it something that you do, even if at home? Or, is it something you leave aside?
Timothy McAllister: Like, just any kind of improvisation?
Barry Cockcroft: Yeah, I’m not talking about doing some changes or something, but yeah, any kind.
Timothy McAllister: Well, I think it’s pivotal to general music making. Just the ability to get away from the printed page, or just being able to think in those terms. If we think about just the grand tradition of … music education, instrumental learning, for so long, was about playing back patterns and tunes and melodies without reading it. It was just a way of setting up the mechanics of the instrument. You know, learn “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Learn that. Three notes, right? But, maybe you read the music after that, after you learned the tune, and somehow, we lose that track after we start that track.
Timothy McAllister: The band music is just always right there in front of you, and you’re already locked into reading music, maybe at the expense of your ears, or your oral awareness. Maybe you’re reading music well, and you learn how to count well, and you learn to identify the notes, but maybe you’re not hearing it. Maybe you’re playing out of tune. So, I think, for me, improvisation, as far as, in one level as a teacher, I’m using it to develop their ear-to-hand technique. I want them to be able to create and know what they’re playing, as opposed to just putting fingers down and guessing what they’re playing. I want them to be able to create and know what they’re playing.
Timothy McAllister: As far as using it in my own playing, most of anything I’ve done recently comes from crossover projects and collaborations with a lot of jazz artists that Prism has been undertaking recently, with our Heritage Evolution series. We just put out, and we’re working on our second CD of that, where we have targeted some of the world’s premiere jazz saxophone players, who also consider themselves composers to some degree. I mean, art music composers, where they play with us. Where they write a piece for us that features them, and we’re the backup band, so to speak. And, we did a little bit of that yesterday in the Selmer concert, where we had Branford Marsalis join us.
Timothy McAllister: That was a piece of Matt Levy’s, which featured Branford, and he’s improvising largely through that. There’s elements of improvisation in that music, but there have been other pieces we’ve done where there’s more improvisation. We did a project with Joe Lovano, and he was pushing us to really get out of our comfort zone, really, as classical players.
Timothy McAllister: So, I think, when I was growing up and I did more jazz, I felt more diverse, really, as a player, through my years of training. I was playing jazz, I was playing flute and clarinet in school. Just because I knew that some opportunities would come that way, if I wanted to go that direction, like Broadway musical type stuff. All the classic musicals.
Timothy McAllister: But, I always felt that having even some rudimentary jazz skill always made my classical playing better. And, there’s a lot of, I guess, there’s different points of view on that. But, they shouldn’t be separated. It doesn’t even matter what you love the most. They just shouldn’t be separated. I mean, it’s the culture of our instrument. If we choose to ignore it, I think we do it at our own peril. If you choose to say, “Well, I don’t play jazz” … I just think that’s a risk. Because now, there’s just a lot of composers that maybe themselves have some jazz background or jazz training. Or, maybe sometimes less successfully, there are composers that will use the saxophone as, I don’t know … the test on whether or not they can write something in a jazzy style for the first time.
Timothy McAllister: We don’t want the saxophone to be experimental to them, in their latent or their suppressed jazz skills. There’s nothing worse than a really bad jazzy saxophone piece, sometimes, for a composer that doesn’t know what they’re doing. But, it’s asked of us. It’s asked of us so much, to even have the spirit of improvisation, or the spirit of spontaneous creativity. And, often times, the standard training of a student doesn’t involve that. Or, we’re scared to bring it up, or we’re scared to talk about it too much.
Timothy McAllister: Maybe we’re not comfortable yet, but … I’m not one who can play Giant Steps in 12 keys. I certainly can’t do that. I think my first great sense of achievement in jazz was the first time I was able to really get my head around transcribing some difficult tunes. So, I transcribed Giant Steps when I was a senior in college. And, that process, even if it didn’t mean I could play it, really. Didn’t mean that I would be able to really replicate it on a really high level. But, the process of deconstructing Coltrane’s language and how he chooses what choices he made when he saw this change, that is composition. That process, I think, helped me deconstruct contemporary classical music faster and better. So, I certainly push that process on students.
Barry Cockcroft: You describe your learning, I guess, as the American school-
Timothy McAllister: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Barry Cockcroft: -the teachers you’ve described. Do you consider yourself now to continue that? Or, have you branched out in another direction?
Timothy McAllister: I have actively sought a middle ground. If there’s something that I’m actively embarking upon right now in my playing, and maybe, for me, it represents this sort of next stage, or something I have been taking on the last 10 years, is to create some kind of common dialogue between what we hear with the greatest players of every tradition, and trying to figure out a single vocabulary, a single stream. I’d like to believe that we all are on the same team about what saxophone can be.
Timothy McAllister: I think we should all be focusing our efforts to making sure that that’s what we’re doing, as opposed to continuing to try to identify these nationalistic trends. If we’re all these tributaries feeding into one stream of saxophone, then the instrument itself will benefit from that. But, somewhere along the line, in defining who I wanted to be, I think it was somewhere between a fusion of, say, Donald Sinta and Claude Delangle. And, I found that if i could fuse those two worlds into one, then I knew somewhere in there, I’d find me.
Timothy McAllister: And, I love Claude’s playing. And, it’s somewhere around, I think, 17 years ago, I think I shut myself off from all of my previous experiences, and I just decided to only listen to French players, for instance. Because I had no teachers promoting that. I didn’t study directly with anyone from the emerging modern French school. I just had the recordings. I remember there was a period of time where, much like I did with some jazz that I did, where I just closed myself off and only listened to, say, Claude Delangle records. I’ve told him that story many times. He’s always so humbled and flattered. He’s a dear man. But, you know, it was true. It was important for me to just only listen to one aesthetic for a little while, to figure out how I could navigate that.
Timothy McAllister: I didn’t want to be seen, I mean, I had this moniker put upon me when I was young, that I was just a Sinta clone. That I was just trying to sound like Donald Sinta all the time. And, of course, you could do a lot worse, in trying to sound like Donald Sinta. But, we all, as students, made the mistake of just only wanting to sound like our teacher. That’s dangerous, but to the point that when I would hear something that was foreign to that, I dismissed it. If I heard someone not using his vibrato, or I heard someone that didn’t have the same sense of colour and timbre, I would just think, oh, well, that’s not good.
Timothy McAllister: So, I was confronted by that when I started hearing the modern French players. Not like, I mean, when I heard Mule or Londeix, I could understand that. I could, or Deffayet, I still love Daniel Deffayet’s playing. The playing, recordings are still amazing. But, I also think Donald Sinta, his playing style and his teaching reflected more of that French style. But, once I started hearing a lot of modern French players, I found myself thinking, “Well, why don’t they want to sound like Deffayet anymore?” Or, “Why don’t they want to sound like Marcel Mule?”
Timothy McAllister: So, I didn’t really know how that was evolving on their end. And, they’ve dealt with that. They have dealt with evolution in a way that … Those are hard lessons they’ve had to endure. What is considered old fashioned? I think Americans hold on to the old-fashioned sound more so. I think it’s part of us. I think we’re a little bit more romantic, generally. We think more that way. It’s maybe more like a Russian romanticism, or something more so, than like a French neoclassicism or something.
Timothy McAllister: But, I started to get the difference, and I started to figure how to integrate it into my playing. In 2003, Claude brought me over to teach at the Paris Conservatory, and he went out of town. So, he had me in as a guest, but he had a gig, so he was in Singapore or something. He’s like, “It’ll be fine. Just teach the class.” And, I had never, I mean, I had been to some competitions, and I had travelled to Europe already. But, I certainly hadn’t walked into the belly of the beast.
Timothy McAllister: I’m walking into the Paris Conservatory. They don’t really know who I am. They know I’m just this American guy. And, I’m suddenly teaching master classes with the youngest hot shots in the world, and teaching Tomasi concerto, which I didn’t even learn in college because Sinta didn’t teach the Tomasi concerto. He just pushed us away from a lot of the French repertoire. He wanted us to know the big standards, obviously, but for him, Tomasi was off that list. It’s like, if you’re going to put the time in Desenclos, you don’t need to work on Tomasi. He eventually wanted us to get to Berio and that kind of rep.
Timothy McAllister: But, anyway, here I am teaching students Tomasi, and I can’t even speak this language with them. The choices they’re making are foreign to me. So, that was a wake-up call. And, I started to really try to understand more of a French school, a modern French school. And, it’s found its way into my pedagogy. Trying to neutralise, a little bit, some of my American tendencies, trying to at least speak to something that would maybe, hopefully, appeal to both sides a little bit.
Timothy McAllister: And, I hope that’s helped me just, I don’t know, work in different environments when I teach. I teach in the Arosa Music Academy in the summer in Switzerland, and that’s a very international class. I do that with Lars Mlekusch and Christian Wirth. We’re the three teachers, and the students are coming from all over the world. I’ve served on these juries, for some of these international competitions. I’m now interacting with so many of these players who are truly looking to the French school as a pantheon, and I want to be able to navigate that with them, and show them how I use it.
Timothy McAllister: And then, there’s certain pieces I do pride myself on. When I’m playing a French piece, I do want to turn off some of those American tendencies. When I play some of those pieces, I want to create some kind of authenticity. It’s still going to be more in a vintage style, really. But, it’s still, I hope to think the pedagogy’s rooted in more of the nationalism. But, somewhere along the way, I want to be in the middle.
Barry Cockcroft: Now, are you ready for some rapid fire questions?
Timothy McAllister: Yeah, let’s do it.
Barry Cockcroft: Here we go. Is there something that you believe that few other people agree with?
Timothy McAllister: Is there something I believe that few other people agree with?
Timothy McAllister: I don’t know about few other people, but I think vibrato should always be with a jaw. So, that’s something. You know, there are people using vibrato now on more of the air. I don’t believe in that.
Barry Cockcroft: If you just had one piece of music that you could play now forever, what would that be?
Timothy McAllister: Well, I’m fortunate to have these experiences with the John Adams Concerto, and … time and history will tell whether or not it’s one of our greatest masterpieces, but I’m happy to play that forever. Yeah.
Barry Cockcroft: And, actually, I’m very interested in this … The idea behind what makes a piece endure, and is there something inside of the music that allows that to happen? The thing I keep coming back to is, is possibly that collaboration between performer and composer ’cause that adds something else to the music. I think when you look back through the pieces that have stuck around, often, there is some collaboration connected with the piece.
Timothy McAllister: I think so.
Barry Cockcroft: So, I would be curious, too, if this piece you’ve been playing so much, especially when you have to let it go and everyone’s playing it, to see if it sticks. We don’t know.
Timothy McAllister: Yeah, we don’t know.
Barry Cockcroft: If you just had one hour to practise, what would you do?
Timothy McAllister: My thirds. Scales in thirds.
Barry Cockcroft: Who would you consider to be one of the most successful contributors to the saxophone?
Timothy McAllister: Throughout history?
Barry Cockcroft: Yeah, if you like.
Timothy McAllister: I mean, historically, we … We could say Mule or Raschèr. But, I think we have to default and go back. I think we have to say Sigurd Raschèr.
Barry Cockcroft: Why is that?
Timothy McAllister: Because without him, we just really wouldn’t be where we are. Marcel Mule, of course, made such a huge impact, but Raschèr was the visionary. Even if he was using, or he was rooted in more of a vintage equipment … and a vintage set up … that’s just because it was aligned more with the sound of the times, anyway. So, he was coming up in the ’20s. He doesn’t have the benefit to look ahead and see where the saxophone’s going to go, so he’s going to stick with the saxophone as it’s more aligned with Adolphe Sax’s vision.
Timothy McAllister: But, in the end, his pedagogy has endured the longest. And, if we’re going to talk about a pedagogical Cold War, it may be controversial to say, but if there’s a pedagogical Cold War between Raschèr and Mule, Raschèr wins. He was the one who said the altissimo was necessary. He was the one that said that the building blocks to get us there had to be ingrained at the very early ages of the instrument. So, overtone work and flexibility exercises, and just looking at the saxophone as an extended instrument. In the end, we’ve all come to that same conclusion now.
Timothy McAllister: But, it was just so controversial for so long that it was completely avoided. So, we’re very lucky. And, of course, we wouldn’t have the Glazunov, and Ibert, and the Dahl, and the Husa, and Benson. I think the contributions of his commissioning efforts, or at least his collaborations with composers, I think they’ve endured in the greatest way. Across the globe.
Barry Cockcroft: And, there, when you talk about that collaboration again, between player and composer, it is interesting, and we’ve got the benefit, now, of hindsight, looking back almost a hundred years. It’s interesting, and when I see new pieces flying along, and no one has ever looked at them. The composer didn’t ask an instrumentalist at all. And, I see these pieces just swing by and go out the other way because they’re missing something. And, it’s not that the performer has to help write the piece. Just, it’s just subtle things, maybe facility, that it flows, and things, and the other way around as well.
Timothy McAllister: Right. I think composers will either champion us, but we are, ultimately, we’re the champions of their music. And, when you think about what the people who have been champions of a piece. They’ve allowed that music to have a great legacy. Yeah.
Barry Cockcroft: If we learn from our mistakes, is it okay to make mistakes?
Timothy McAllister: Oh, absolutely. I think we’re in the process of that now. You know, we are going through that. We’re still going through growing pains as a profession. I think it is important to learn from failure. I think we have to embrace failure on every level as a human being. The way we interact, our relationships, I think we can only learn from pain. I think as players, there’s nothing we can provide a student that their first experience playing in an orchestra will provide. We can’t teach that. There’s no lab experience for them. They have to go into that environment and probably fail, to some degree, to learn. To realise that they don’t play in tune well enough. To realise that their sense of time is different than the orchestra’s because they don’t play with them every day.
Timothy McAllister: Or, to understand the way a conductor cues something, or the way a conductor decides to interpret something. We can’t provide that. All we can do is provide them the warnings about it, and then, they have to go into that environment and fail. And, failure meaning the littlest things, like your note came out slightly late. Your first note of Pictures at an Exhibition wasn’t perfectly in time, and then, the conductor gives you the evil eye.
Timothy McAllister: So, those are the hardest lessons for us. And, it also is the only way for us to grow. Because we are behind. I think we’re still behind. I still think the saxophone is taught better than ever. The playing is better than ever. These World Congresses are stunning. They’re stunning displays of where our instrument is, and yet, all we have to do is play bolero and realise that, as good as we think we are, that’s where you have to understand time. To lay that solo down with the snare drum giving the ostinato, and you have just heard, for seven minutes, everyone else play the solos, and you’ve got to come in and play of the same level or better.
Timothy McAllister: You have to change the room. You have to make everyone love the saxophone. It’s such a burden we bear. We need to fight to make everyone leave the concert believing the favourite thing was when the saxophone player came out. Rachmaninoff, Bizet, Mussorgsky, Ravel … We have opportunities to change people’s minds. And, some of us, frankly, fail at that. Others of us achieve that. So, since it’s not uniform across the profession, if it’s not uniform across the profession, then we still have growing pains that we’re enduring. So, learning from mistakes comes in the very smallest forms, but I’m talking on a much more, on a kind of genre level. A genre level concern that we have to continue to ask more of ourselves.
Barry Cockcroft: Is this a danger of playing in front of other saxophone players because we don’t have that level of genre critique? We may have a technical critique coming from all of the players. We know exactly what we’re doing. But, we don’t have that coming from other instruments.
Timothy McAllister: Yeah, it’s a danger.
Barry Cockcroft: Is it danger? We have not too many of these events, but it becomes a focus of their performing.
Timothy McAllister: Yeah, I think so. And, we certainly … We flock to one another, and we are a wonderful community. It’s a great community, and I think it’s more unified than ever, and the sense of purpose is … shared. But, I think, and I’m sure you’ve felt this way, and many of our wonderful colleagues, but it takes reaching a certain level of skill to finally begin to interact with elite circles of non-saxophonists. You start to spend time with violinists and cellists and clarinet players, flute players or whatever, and if you have done the right things, and you have pursued the right kind of standards, and you begin to enter into that arena of, say, chamber music. Or, playing with some of the greatest wind players in the world. It’s when you’ve reached status that they’ll finally share with you what they really think of the saxophone. And, we hear it all the time: “Normally I hate saxophone, but I love the way you sound.”
Timothy McAllister: Before you ever play for them, they hated saxophone. Someone failed in their duty to our instrument when someone has said that. “Normally, I hate saxophone. But, you sound great.” Okay, well, maybe that was a victory, in that moment, for our instrument, because you maybe changed someone’s mind, but that just means that along the way, someone else didn’t do their job.
Timothy McAllister: I think that’s something that we don’t learn until we’ve gained their trust. Once we’ve entered into that circle, then they finally tell you what they really think about our instrument. So, that’s where we have a ways to go, if you know what I mean. You know, that’s something that we have to fight for. I try to push that every day with my students. I’m like, you know, you don’t realise that secretly everyone is, secretly, and it’s a terrible thing to say, and I certainly am not. I don’t have a negative outlook on humanity this way.
Timothy McAllister: I do believe in the good of people. But, I do believe people are sceptical of our instrument. The minute we walk onstage, we’ve got a lot to prove. We have to prove to these people that we can achieve everything they do. Colour, control … intonation. Every day, I’m fighting for that. Every day, I’m unhappy when I play because I’m just, it’s not in tune enough, I’ve got to find a better fingering, I’ve got to find a better reed.
Timothy McAllister: And, it drives me. It drives me because I just, I have this thing in the back of my head that I believe that people are … it sounds terrible, but rooting against the instrument. And, if I can just use that as my bulletin board material, you know? Like in sports, you know? If I can just keep that in the back of my mind, then it will continue to ground me every time I practise, or every time I teach something.
Timothy McAllister: Assume that people will assume that you don’t know what you’re doing. And then, change their minds. And, the only places, I think, our most important avenues that we can do that is in the orchestral realm. ‘Cause if you look at the top 40, the classical quote-unquote top 40? Most of that music has saxophone in it now, you know? Bolero is played all the time. Pictures at an Exhibition is played all the time.
Timothy McAllister: Romeo and Juliet. You get one chance to impress everyone on that opening low C sharp. You get one chance, and you will either miss it and crack it, or honk it out. Or, lose the intonation on it. You will either do it, or it’ll be perfect. Everything in between is irrelevant. It’s either going to be perfect or it’s going to be messy. That’s your one shot.
Timothy McAllister: So, I think the training in the studio, I think the training in the one-on-one has to be of this fervour that you have that, that’s going to be your first chance to make a huge impression on people. And then, if you bring those standards to your solo work, well, it’s a given that you’ll have a safe haven to play your solo music within ’cause you’re going to be doing that in academia, or you’re going to be doing that in a community of people that love what we do, like a World Congress. We’re all supporting each other.
Timothy McAllister: We can all miss altissimo, and maybe there’s some empathy, you know. But, if you miss altissimo in front of a clarinet player, I think they don’t really understand what’s so hard about that, you know?
Timothy McAllister: I don’t know. Sorry, that’s a big answer for a rapid fire. Sorry.
Barry Cockcroft: I heard you play the John Adams concerto the other night. Is there something that you did before you walk onstage to help you really play in the best frame of mind?
Timothy McAllister: I have to rest the right way before performance. I have to eat the right things. I always say more bananas, less coffee. I have to figure out how to slow the nervous system down ’cause there’s always apprehension and anxiety. I must say, performing here, before I went onstage, I had some anxiety about playing for a hall full of saxophone players. I just do. I know that, again, people are … Most people are rooting for you. There might be some that root against you. You know, you have to put that out of your mind. Or, there’s people that love what you do, and people that hate what you do. That’s just life. We have to just perform, to some degree, for ourselves, but I think that creates anxiety when you play for other saxophone players. There are no greater critics than your peer group.
Timothy McAllister: So, we all know that. But, I think part of that is calming the head down. Figuring out how to really calm the mind as you’re about to walk onstage. And, part of that is just really getting for me, well, it sounds really cliché and really cheesy to say, but I come back to the music itself. I come back to the love of the music, and I think about the composer, and the faith that composer might have in me. And, I think about honouring them, and when I think about. And, that puts me in a head space that makes me realise that this is for them.
Timothy McAllister: There’s pressure to play well for them. It’s not about trying to play well for the audience. It’s about trying to play well for them. Like, I want Barry to be happy with my Ku Ku. I want Barry to be happy. I don’t care if someone else has played Ku Ku and is going to criticise my slap tonguing. I want Barry to be happy. That, to me, actually, that’s a really positive feeling for me. That doesn’t breed anxiety. That breeds communion with the experience. So, I think when I walk onstage, right before John Adams, I’m not thinking about the saxophone players in the room anymore. I’m thinking about just the spirit of the music and the person who wrote it.
Timothy McAllister: That helps me. It helps calm the mind somehow. I’m not so nervous about missing something. Or, I’m not nervous anymore about missing a note. And then, I channel the music differently. If I’m worried that I’m missing stuff, I’m going to miss stuff. So, I will channel the music by thinking about only the sound of the music. But, as far as the warmup routine or something, I just have to play slowly. I play through everything really slowly. I don’t want to play anything at tempo. One or two hours before the performance, I don’t want to to play anything at tempo. Because if I make a mistake, it’s going to get in my head. So, I just want to calm the mind, and I want the experience of the day to be nothing but total success.
Timothy McAllister: I want to feel like every note was played. I want to feel like every note was internalised right before I went onstage. That’s why we have to arrive early. That’s why we can’t be throwing the instrument together. That’s why we can’t be playing through the music too quickly. Because then, we get all nervous. I think pianists will talk about that. The day of a concert, don’t play anything at tempo. At best, play everything at half tempo the day of the concert. And so, I’ve learned that, those kind of lessons.
Barry Cockcroft: Looking back, is there a bit of advice you could give to yourself that you would’ve liked to have heard when you were starting out?
Timothy McAllister: You know, we have to balance things. We have to make sure our relationships are balanced. I think when I was younger, I might’ve closed myself off, just to practise. I think I did the right things as far as networking, or having friendships and collaborators, but I do think I tell my students what I probably should’ve heard myself, and that is, just get out of the practise room and enjoy life a little bit more. Because those experiences make you a better musician.
Timothy McAllister: And, travelling more. I did travel fairly early, but I could’ve started travelling a lot earlier. I know I just talked about this, but we do have to let go and stop worrying about what people think. So, we have to set ourselves up for those expectations about what the standard is. The standard is, of our profession, or what we imagined is some mythical standard. But then, when it’s all said and done, we have to let go. And, we have to stop caring what people think. I’ve had to learn those lessons the hard way. Because they eat at you, and if we could free ourselves up from that, we’ll be happier all around.
Barry Cockcroft: Now, is there a recent project you’ve been working on that you’d like to tell us about?
Timothy McAllister: Oh, well. Back in March, I recorded an entire album of all of the music of Andy Scott, our friend. Love his music, and he brought me and my pianist, Liz Ames. We’re a duo. Brought us to the countryside outside of England, and we recorded in Potton Hall. And, it was three days, wonderful producer, an engineer. It was a very deeply memorable experience, but I had a great time with it. So, that will be coming out within this year.
Timothy McAllister: Just finished another solo piano project with Liz Ames as well. Another album of a mix of newer things and older things. I rerecorded the Albright Sonata because I feel like, for me, it’s number one on my list of important pieces. And I recorded it in 2004 on an album, and I recorded it again because I’m older and wiser. And, love the piece that much. So, we did an album of Albright, and Steven Stucky, who passed away relatively recently, we did his saxophone piano piece. And, Mantovani, Augusta Read Thomas, a wonderful young composer, David Biedenbender. He wrote a great saxophone and piano piece. And, the Denisov Sonata, the piece that prompted my desire to study with Donald Sinta and go to Michigan. To hear, it’s like my life came back to-
Barry Cockcroft: Full circle.
Timothy McAllister: this. And, played the Denisov Sonata in college, but you know. You get older, and you teach it. And, yeah. I wanted to finally record it. So, that’s a project with her.
Timothy McAllister: August 10th sees the release of my recording of Kenneth Fuchs, his concerto, for saxophone called “Rush.” Coming out on the Naxos label, with the London Symphony Orchestra, and JoAnn Falletta conducting. Very excited about that project. It was an incredible experience. We recorded in Abbey Road, in London. So, those are some projects this year that’ll be released. And, just taking some commissions, and very excited about a future concerto coming from John Corigliano. So, that will be, that’s about two years away.
Barry Cockcroft: So, where can we find more information about all of these activities?
Timothy McAllister: I try to keep my website as current as I can. I probably need some help with that. I need an assistant for those kind of things. But, my website is TimothyMcAllister.com. You can find me on Facebook and Twitter. I usually use Twitter, maybe as more for professional … just like a bulletin board, so to speak. I usually put links there to various projects, and some people get tired of my political posts on Facebook.
Barry Cockcroft: Actually, I did notice they’re getting stronger and stronger, I think.
Timothy McAllister: They get stronger, yeah.
Barry Cockcroft: I think you’re moving to Canada soon.
Timothy McAllister: I think I might have to, yeah. Well, you know, we all have our own little part to play, and if there’s any way I can express myself, I guess that’s one of the best ways to do it. But, we are in a really difficult climate right now in America. But, yeah. I still probably primarily use Facebook for announcing projects and concert touring and what not.
Barry Cockcroft: Now, the final question is …
Timothy McAllister: Sure.
Barry Cockcroft: You’ve made such an incredible contribution to the saxophone for a long time.
Timothy McAllister: You’re very kind.
Barry Cockcroft: What do you see for yourself, talking of planning, for the next 10, 20 years?
Timothy McAllister: Well, I mean, I don’t know. I would like to believe that the climate of music and culture, as it exists now … Even if it stalemated, even if it was exactly the same now … If it’s exactly the same 20 years as it is now, that would still be pretty healthy of a climate for us to operate within. We’ve been talking about the downfall of classical music for over a hundred years, right? We’re still here. We’re still doing it. We have proof right here, with all these saxophone players, that what we do matters. And, that we’re here to stay. We’re not going anywhere.
Timothy McAllister: And, the rest of the classical music world, in this case, they have to recognise that. I want the history books to show, I want musicologists to document this period and say that the saxophone rose to a prominence that we hadn’t seen since the 1920s. With the interesting composers, and the amount of performances, and the premieres, and the pedagogy, and the curricula. And, I’d like to say that in 20 years, I’d like to be able to look back and say that I influenced that, maybe at the highest echelons.
Timothy McAllister: I don’t want a composer, like a Johannes Brahms figure, I don’t want someone like that passing from this earth without having considered writing for the saxophone. We missed out on Brahms, we missed out on Copland. We missed out on Bernstein, for various reasons. Berg, he passed away, but I think that the word is, he would’ve written a saxophone concerto for Sigurd Raschèr. So, you know, we missed out on these people. We can’t miss out on any more. And, if I can use any of this ability I have, that I’ve been able to enjoy, if I can use that and channel that into at least getting more and more attention to the saxophone, then I will be happy.
Timothy McAllister: I don’t necessarily need to perform much more. I don’t need that, but I feel like I have an opportunity. If I say so, myself … I do believe I have an opportunity to help make the saxophone even better for future generations. I think we’re all doing that together. We’re part of a team. You and I, all of our great colleagues and every country on the planet, it seems. We’re paving this road together. And, if I have some influence, on par with composers like John Adams, then I would like to make that my mission.
Barry Cockcroft: Great. Tim, thank you for taking this time out of your busy schedule this week, and I wish you the best for the rest of the week.
Timothy McAllister: Thank you so much, Barry, for having me. It’s a great podcast, and thanks to everyone listening.