By Richard Carpenter
My musical endeavor began in the seventh grade (1947) at my home in East Corinth, VT. Several of my school mate friends were asked if they had interest in learning how to play an instrument. Don’t ask me how I picked the Saxophone, but I did. A gentleman from Barre (Baldi Barberi) came over and gave us music lessons once a week. This went on for three years and at high school we joined the band. To back up a little on my story, at about the third year of lessons from Mr. Barberi he questioned me about my reading music. I had to admit that if it felt right I would not stick to the music. At that time he asked if I would be interested in playing in a 16 piece band at Lake Morey. I was scared to death that night but made it and played once more (4 th sax). I believe he proved a point to me, that playing in a large band requires you to stick to the music unless you are playing a solo.
During high school I was invited to All State and New England Music Festivals. I also joined a local group of students that were forming a band (7 pcs.). We were playing off big band arrangements. We played for the public and on Saturday nights played at the Dreamland Dance Hall outside Bradford. This continued, and we also played at the West Topsham Hall. After I got out of N.H. Tech I went into the Armed Forces and served in Alaska. I had my saxophone with me and played as much as possible.
Upon getting out of the service in two years my playing continued with the George Smith Band out of Orford, N.H. For several years I played at most high schools from Concord, VT to Thetford, VT and the N.H. schools on the other side of the Conn. River. This band played in numerous places and George Smith was a Square Dance Caller so each night would include Line Dancing & Square Dancing.
This included three to four sets a night. I can tell you that was very tiring and repetitious. We also played at Bonnie Oaks, Lake Morey Inn, & Lebanon Elks once a week for two years. In 1958 I got married to Nancy Page, and bless her soul for putting up with all this music, fishing and deer hunting. At 44 bucks I have to keep trying for one more. We moved to Barre that year as my employment was there. I continued playing in the Bradford area as people would book us to play at different places and private homes.
One note of interest-On New Years night that Orville Gibson disappeared I was playing at the Woodsville Community Hall and passed by his barn about 2:30 A.M. and I was very quiet about it for a long time for obvious reasons. My cousin was in his barn the previous night at 4 pm to tend to a cow. He was asked to go to Concord, N.H. to take a lie detector test three times, so you now know why I kept still about where I was that night.
As I started to get asked to play in the Barre area, I joined a couple of bands and met some very fine musicians. As the years went by I played in most every place that has music on a regular basis in the Barre-Montpelier area. I played one summer in Burlington at the Harbor Hideaway Rest. One summer at Sugarbush and several places on the Mountain Road in Stowe. I could keep naming places but it would be boring. I was not a drinker so the late night trips home I would worry about someone drunk and driving.
I played for New Years 25 years straight. I believe I played every Saturday night at the Montpelier Elks for 11 or 12 years.
During the years after 1961 I was playing Alto, Tenor, and Baritone Saxophones. In the Seventies I stopped taking the Alto Saxophone as it was a problem for me to keep the reeds on three instruments. When you break in a new reed on one sax you would cause problems with the other two. Some places are easy to play in as far as playing the sax. For me when you start the evening with few people in a big hall things are great. As the evening goes on and more people fill the hall you just naturally try to get more sound out of your horn and bingo ,you need a new reed. I have a device to amplify my horn if needed today. In my first thirty years of playing most places had a piano. This can be good or awful bad. An out of tune piano is bad news for any instrument, as you tune your instrument to the piano. I have never found an out of tune piano the same from one end of the keyboard to the other and that makes things even worse. If you have a decent ear for proper pitch, and a piano is out of tune it is impossible to perform well and makes for a miserable evening, and I have had many over the years. I have had many people say to me “Oh, just play and it will be okay”. Thanks for electronic pianos that stay in pitch.
After retiring I started playing at Nursing Homes and Assisted Living Homes and other places when asked. In 2010 I decided to create a CD with four musicians. Piano, bass, sax, and drums. Thanks to the other fine musicians and a good studio guy we went thru 500 and had to reorder another 200 and have less than five left. I followed all the copyright rules and it is quite expensive. In 2012 I decided to create another CD. This one was a Christmas CD. The cost was about the same for 500. For me making a CD is many hours of work on the computer. Playing while being recorded, you are trying to not make a mistake. If you do make a mistake the studio guy can erase it and you do it again. For me playing while being recorded is not the same as just playing a job. I can’t relax when being recorded and to ad-lib to a song is out of the question.
I will ad-lib to a song beyond the notes written while playing a solo and the song is very familiar to me. The term ad-lib for me is something I do not do much of, as I feel the audience for the most part wants to hear the melody.
At this point I would like to mention a person that I have enjoyed entertaining people with for the last 40 to 50 years. Her name is Irene Robertson. I think we are the only two people left in the area that play without music and knows over a thousand songs. We went through a couple large”fake”books to count them and that doesn’t include square dance tunes along with religious songs and many polkas. Irene has a much more storied career as a musician than I, having played in the hotels in Burlington on a regular basis with some wonderful musicians. At one time she played classical and taught music. She was called out the audience when she was 12 as the regular piano person never showed up. Her father allowed her to do this after a stern conversation with the band members and they agreed to watch out for her well-being and she started her professional career at that point. Without telling her age she has continued playing for 85 years. Boy am I going to catch it. Don’t let the age fool you as the dexterity in her fingers is fine and her mind sharp as a tack. If someone wants to sing she plays in whatever key they want it in by ear. We play all the armed forces songs, one into the other and during baseball season “take me out to the ball game” as people sing along. I feel so blessed to have had the opportunity to entertain with her all these years. We are still good for a couple hours of steady playing.
I started playing in the last band I will probably play in (Sweet Jam) out of Haverhill, N. H. When I first joined them they might have as many as 13 members, but have now settled on 8 as it is to hard on the leader to make sure everyone gets a chance to play. I play background as it is good for me and when the leader wants me to solo he points his finger at me and I am off and playing all by myself with background. That band Includes piano, drums, bass, trumpet, two saxophones and a singer. As I am attempting to write the article, I just played a three hour job with this band in the Alumni Hall in Haverhill on Oct. 20th . Old music, dancing and a great time. They do this several times a year. It is open to the public by donation.
Tips from an old sax player. I would like to give a person learning to play a saxophone some advice. Think about learning to play the clarinet first rather than a sax. If later on in your musical career you decide to play the sax it will be easier than in reverse. If you don’t want to do that it is fine, stick to the saxophone.
The mouthpiece and reeds to me are a critical part of developing a good tone. Have a technician check your instrument for leaks, as low notes will be impossible to reach with a good tone if your horn leaks. A leak is when air is escaping from a tone hole & pad. A series of these leaks will frustrate you. Take it to a tech guy like Ellis Music in Bethel and they can make your sax much more enjoyable to play. Reeds are tricky, the higher the number the stiffer the reed. If the reed is to stiff for you your tone will not be good. My reeds are 2-½ and have been for years. If you played a lot your lip would get stronger and you would probably have to go up maybe a half or one. Only playing will tell you that. I have tried shaving reeds in the past without much success. If a reed was to stiff I would use a razor blade to weaken it by just scraping. End result would usually be junking the reed. I have abandoned that practice.
When you are done playing, make sure to swab the inside. If you do not have one, go to your local music supply house such as Ellis Music or online.
DO NOT leave your reed on your sax when putting in your case. Again, your music store will have a plastic device to keep your reeds in. Always dry your reed after playing before putting it in the plastic device. I usually break in four reeds at a time and mark them with a pen 1-4. Try to change them each time as they will gradually weaken over time and with four reeds you will prevent that problem when playing a job and for whatever reason your reed fails. That is when the backup reeds will save you a lot of frustration. Quite a number of years ago a friend of mine who is a sax player told me to use a dollar bill to clean residue or gunk from playing that will accumulate on the key pads before playing a job. Place the bill over the opening and use your finger to close the keypad over the hole and pull the dollar bill out. The keys that are always closed I will physically open, insert the bill and hold firmly shut and drag the bill out. I only do this to the keys that are easy to get to. I have done this for some time and it helps. Lastly, DO NOT drink sugared drinks while playing a job as this will make keys that are always closed often stick. On my tenor G sharp will sometimes stick. Stay with water and you will not have that problem. These are some of the things I have learned over the years that may help people get along with that old sax. Read the music even if you have a good ear, not like I did. When the band members exceed six or seven and you are not reading musical arrangements for all instruments it will not be good. You either have a bunch of solos or a lot of noise.