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From Wooden Clocks to Wooden Flutes

By Todd Feldman

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David Pope wth Bobby McFerrin

David Pope with Bobby McFerrin

Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley is a scenic mountain region filled with adventure and culture, as well as the picturesque and bustling campus of James Madison University, where you’ll find accomplished saxophonist, composer, author, and professor of saxophone, David Pope. Pope has extensively trained as a classical and a jazz saxophonist and holds degrees from the Eastman School of Music and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, with additional studies at the University of Miami. As a classical and a jazz saxophonist, he has performed at the New England Saxophone Symposium, the International Society for Improvised Music (Switzerland), conferences of the North American Saxophone Alliance, and at the World Saxophone Congress (Scotland).

I’ve had the privilege of working with professor Pope for a number of years and have been an ardent fan of his editorials in both Saxophone Journal and Saxophone Today. I was able to catch up with him this summer for an interview, discussing his music career in great detail – from his musical roots and inspiration to teaching and performing.

From the Start

“I was always musical,” mentions Pope. “My mom always played the radio and classic records by Frank Sinatra (where I learned swing phrasing), Nat Cole, Herbie Mann, and tons of classical music. I also really loved sounds, including the air conditioner, the vacuum cleaner, etc. I think that is what led me to study multiphonics and nontraditional techniques on the saxophone, actually.”

When I asked him about the first instrument he played, I was very surprised at how detailed and specific professor Pope’s response was. After all, I could only remember damaging the valves of a trumpet in fourth grade before what would be my first and last trumpet lesson. “I had an electric organ with color coded keys,” Pope remembers. “One of the books had songs from the ‘Roaring Twenties,’ and I remember learning ‘Bicycle Built for Two’ and ‘The Band Played On.’ The first real jazz tune that I learned was ‘Freddie Freeloader’ when I was in the eighth grade. I had a variety of toy instruments, but I formally started flute in the fourth grade, mainly because I had braces and retainers and I couldn’t play any other instrument. We had group lessons and let’s just say that my creativity was not appreciated by the band director. I quit without telling my parents! I kept bringing the rented flute to school, and I practiced at home every day, but I wasn’t going to band rehearsal.

“I rejoined the band in seventh grade, and switched to saxophone a year later. Once I started playing sax, I never looked back. I knew that I wanted to make my living as a saxophonist when I was 14 years old. I played a Selmer Mark VII through undergrad, and then switched to Keilwerth for a while. I’ve been playing my Virtuosos from RS Berkeley for a decade now. My Virtuoso alto and tenor are among the best horns that I have ever played. No joke, my Mark VI alto is sitting in the closet!”

Approaches to Teaching and Influences

As a music educator, professor Pope has been an influential figure to his students, many of whom are incredibly successful, teaching and performing throughout the world. 

“I am pretty good at identifying problems and helping students to work through the solutions,” he says. “It is very rewarding when you help a student to sound better, or to better understand what they are doing. I also love the mentoring process. Every student is unique and you never know where they will end up. It is about curiosity, exploration, and discovery. I have had students who aren’t even in music anymore, but I am very proud of them and grateful to have had the experience of working with them. You end up being a part of their lives. My former students call me when they get a new job or need advice, visit me with their families… you form really special, lasting relationships with people.”

In addition to 20 years on the faculty at James Madison University, David Pope has given masterclasses across the U.S. and abroad, and is a twice-invited member of the faculty of the Asia Pacific Saxophone Academy, Bangkok, Thailand. In 2012, he was named Distinguished Teacher of the College of Visual & Performing Arts at JMU.

“My first real saxophone teacher was Pete Levesque – a monster player from central Massachusetts,” credits Pope. “He was one of the reasons that I went to UMASS, to follow in his footsteps. From there, it was Lynn Klock on saxophone and Jeff Holmes in jazz studies. I was incredibly lucky. My high school band director was Peter Tileston at King Philip High School in Wrentham, Massachusetts. He taught me that talent is nothing without commitment and hard work. He gave me the drive work harder than I thought was possible.

“One of my most influential teachers was Yusef Lateef. He taught me to be curious, to explore the things that interested me and to strive to find my voice. I also studied with Lynn Klock and Gary Keller, two of the best saxophone pedagogues in the world, in my opinion. They gave me all the tools to succeed. I had great teachers that inspired me to follow in their footsteps. They had a big impact on me and I wanted to give back to future generations of students. It was never about “making a living,” as I think that I could have done pretty well as a freelance performer. I was passionate about teaching pretty early on.”

The passion professor Pope has for music is undeniable and is evident by the diverse and eclectic list of musicians he admires and is influenced by.

“The list is too long, but I always loved virtuoso players” he says. “The first record that blew my mind was Jascha Heifetz playing the Tchaikovsky concerto. I wanted to play violin, but it just wasn’t possible for my family. Later on, I fell in love with Coltrane, Stan Getz, and Michael Brecker. Joe Henderson is an enduring influence for me because of his unique sound and distinctive ideas. Miles Davis is certainly the center of my musical universe. His playing, his albums and his collaborators are very important to me. I love Jimi Hendrix and a lot of the old blues players, especially Little Walter. I have a lot of Shirley Scott records – she played the organ like a horn! Brecker and Henderson loom large for me, but I also love Joni Mitchell. The Bowie records from the ‘70s are frequently playing at my house, especially Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust. I also love baroque music – Bach, Platti, Telemann.

“In the classical saxophone world, I really love Claude Delangle and Arno Bornkamp. Tim McAllister is doing incredible things these days. I can’t really nail down a short-list of favorites! I recently listened to George Garzone, Astor Piazzolla, Annie Lennox, and a Norwegian metal trio called Bushman’s Revenge. I guess that I like a wide variety of stuff. My mom’s Sinatra albums, as I mentioned before, we really big for me, along with the Heifetz album. Later, I got a copy of Bird at Massey Hall (holy smoke!) and Kind of Blue. I practically wore them out. Other essential albums for me include Sonny Rollins’ A Night at the Village Vanguard and Bill Evans’ At the Village Vanguard. I have thousands of vinyl records and a high-end record player, so I continue to be influenced by old records.”

Multi-Instrumentalism, Priorities, and Rehearsal

Bridging the gap between listening and playing, David Pope plays a wide variety of instruments, including Armenian duduk, small hand percussion, and various wood flutes from around the world. “I have a pretty large collection of folk flutes that I enjoy playing,” expresses Pope. “Regarding which instrument to play, I let my instinct guide me. I play in Barry Long’s Freedom Project, and he lets me decide between soprano, tenor, or bass clarinet. I imagine which voice will help me get to the essence of the tune or to reach the energy of the moment. That’s why I practice on a lot of different instruments. Sometimes a bamboo flute will do more than any saxophone, in the right setting. I listen to music all the time and try to develop my imagination.”

As you can imagine, having a big collection of musical instruments requires the constant need to practice and play. Many of us are looking for that “work/life” balance, but who has the time? In discussing this with professor Pope he revealed how he balances music with other obligations, he notes:

“Family always comes first – period. Children grow up once, and if you miss it, you’ve missed it forever. You can always play another gig, give another concert, but family life doesn’t offer a lot of do-overs. I also try to prioritize my commitments to my students. I teach at James Madison University and all the saxophone majors study with me, not a graduate student. That means that I spend a lot of time teaching. With all that said, it is also important to get out of town and perform. I usually do a few regional and national performances every year, and I try to get do something international every couple of years. I’ve been teaching in Bangkok for the Asia Pacific Saxophone Academy, which is very rewarding, but whenever I have to make a tough choice, I remember that my order of priorities goes: family, students, performing.”

As far as music and practicing, he says, “When I am preparing for a performance or a recording, I aim for three-to-four hours per day. I might take one day off per week, or take an ‘easy day.’ I also give myself periods of rest between commitments. I’ve struggled off and on with overuse injuries. Practicing is like any other kind of athletic training. You go through periods of growth, you work on stamina, and sometimes you need to recuperate and heal. When I was younger, I practiced a lot more – sometimes six to eight hours per day. Now that I am older, I work on practicing better and maximizing results with focused periods of detail work and specific goals.

“I have a long tone/tuning exercise routine, a scale routine, and some embouchure and voicing exercises. Every day, I try to play some Bach, or something similar. I try to review tunes that I know well, brush up on tunes that I don’t know as well, and have some harder tunes as long-term goals. As a professional, you have to tunes like ‘Giant Steps,’ ‘Cherokee,’ ‘Body & Soul,’ et cetera ready to go, so I’m frequently checking in on those. I like to drill common progressions with Greg Fishman’s Hip Licks app on the iPad. I also play and teach classical saxophone, so I’m always reviewing standard repertoire and learning new pieces. There is never a shortage of things to practice!”

Speculations

I always like to have a little fun during an interview, asking hypothetical questions and I asked professor Pope what he would be doing now if he wasn’t a musician or educator.

“I was always interested in mechanical things,” he says. “My dad was a machinist, a welder and pipefitter, among other things. I think that I would have been a pretty good engineer. I do a lot of my own instrument repair and I like building things. I build instruments, small electronics and right now, I’m working on a wall clock that is entirely made from wooden gears.”

The next hypothetical question is also a fun one and as the reader, you could probably decide quickly on which musician you would like to collaborate with. Personally, I would like to play a song on rhythm guitar with The Foo Fighters or Zac Brown Band, but professor Pope mentions, “I’ve been really lucky to work with a lot of interesting musicians. I played once with Bobby McFerrin and wished that I could have collaborated with him more deeply. I really enjoy working with drummers and percussionists. Something with Jack DeJohnette or Zakir Hussian would be amazing.”

As a drummer myself and someone who works with numerous jazz musicians, I’ve always admired the work of drummer, Jack DeJohnette (Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins), bringing up the question, “Why Jazz?”

“Jazz is all about individual expression,” Pope says. “We use a shared language and tradition to tell our own stories, in our own voices. Within certain parameters, there isn’t really a wrong way to play jazz. You study the masters and create your own way forward. When I started playing jazz, very few saxophonists were using multiphonics in a sophisticated way. The jazz world really welcomed me, starting with the DownBeat award when I was a student at UMASS. Creativity is almost always embraced by jazz musicians and jazz audiences, and being a good improviser has made me better at every other style of music.”

Coping with Lockdown

As many of us are still stuck at home due to COVID-19 with the new normal yet to be determined, I asked professor Pope about his current projects and what he’s doing during the pandemic: “The pandemic has essentially canceled live performances for the foreseeable future, so I’m doing a lot of work at home. I’m doing a virtual big band recording with some former students and then I have some classical sax solos to track for a composer friend that is making a demo recording. I’m also making videos for my JMU students to help them while we do more online teaching/learning. I’ve also got a book of etudes and exercises that I am editing for self-publication.”

In Conclusion

As every solo and every song and every album comes to end, we wrapped up conversation with one thing Pope would want his students to remember: “What you do is not who you are. It is important to remember that a bad performance doesn’t make you a bad person. This is also related to balancing our personal and professional lives. Work hard, strive for perfection, but at the end of the day, let it go. Tomorrow is a new day to practice, but remember that your value as a human being is much more than the quality of your last gig. Not everyone is going to encourage you to follow your dreams. I had this crazy idea that I could use my mastery of multiphonics to bridge classical and jazz saxophone performance and teaching into a career. Nobody had really ever done that, at least not in the way that I did. Just remember, you have to make sacrifices and you must be willing to work harder than everyone else. If you stay true to yourself, you can accomplish great things over time!”

Learn more about professor David Pope by visiting www.popesax.com.

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