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Blowin' East

Dan Graser is a doctoral student in the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance. Below are his reflections on the upcoming China Tour, and being part of the legacy of the legendary saxophone teacher Donald Sinta. Graser and three other saxophone players make up the Donald Sinta Quartet, which will perform during the tour of China in May.

By Dan Graser

I have always considered University of Michigan’s School of Music and Professor Donald Sinta to have the finest instruction and highest performance level of any saxophone studio in the world. This man is quite simply the best at what he does (a distinction also belonging to Professor Michael Haithcock in my humble opinion) and when it came time to name a group of saxophones touring with the band 50 years after Donald Sinta did the very same thing, the choice of name for the quartet was obvious—the Donald Sinta Saxophone Quartet.

However, it has never been the case that there has been any assumption of superiority or resting on of laurels, this studio remains active and competitive because of the infectious enthusiasm we receive each week in our lessons and studio class. When Professor Haithcock announced the Concerto Grosso by William Bolcom as a featured piece for the 2011 China Tour, the level of competition and enthusiasm in this studio grew exponentially, no small feat.

After auditions were done, by far the most intense and well-prepared auditions I’ve ever heard, the quartet was set as myself (a DMA student) on soprano, Zach Stern (a senior) on alto, Joe Girard (a Masters student) on tenor, and Danny Hawthorne-Foss (a senior) on baritone. The gauntlet was thrown down early on by Professor Sinta that we had to, “knock them on their ***es,” and that performing using sheet music was, “not an option.”

Normally this is the sort of thing that can create voluminous amounts of anxiety in a group, not here. I honestly can say I was never worried from day one that all members of the group would own their parts, own their memory, raise the performance level of their instruments, and inhabit the character and spirit of the work with ease. The commitment shown by each player from day one is a clear representation of the reason I chose to study at U-M in the first place and the musical results speak for themselves.

Since the end of October we have been rehearsing at least three days a week, sometimes four, for at least 2 hours each day and sometimes three. In addition, every week we received an hour’s worth of coaching from Professor Sinta. This was done for three months, focusing solely on Bolcom’s piece. After a month of 8-10 hours a week on a piece, you would think you would be satisfied with the results, and though we were certainly pleased with our progress, complacency was never an option.

Not only did you have to have your part down, but you had to sound completely comfortable with your instrument. When hearing these guys, you naturally assume they are complete virtuosi on their saxophone of choice. Forget about undergrad, master, and doctoral hierarchies, we needed to sound like four professionals. To hear such incredible things coming from much younger players is — for me — a fantastically humbling and inspiring experience. The month of January arrives and it’s time to start rehearsing from memory now that the detail is in place after two months of focused preparation.

Gradually we stop looking at the page for large stretches of music and give each other gestures and cues to keep the group together and unified. These stretches grow to a movement, two movements, each movement individually, and finally a run of the whole piece.  Far from the more solipsistic routine of memorizing a solo piece, group memorization requires an added layer of interaction in that individual practice is at best, half the battle. Now rehearsing completely from memory we start noticing even more details to add or correct, more places where the group sound could be more cohesive, one or two spots where the tempo seems to be in flux… Rather than just mindlessly repeating and repeating, the group’s creativity and depth of interpretation grew along with the strength of our memory.

The process itself could not have been smoother and when it came time to rehearse with the full band our memory was set and we were able to focus on interacting with the band and Professor Haithcock in a much more significant way. From both our parts and from the band parts as well, this music had to sound light, fun, and completely comfortable and all players succeeded on all counts. This being the premiere of the band version of the work there was a statement that had to be made that a great band is the equal of any orchestra, Bill Bolcom seems to agree.

For more information, please visit 2011 CHINA TOUR

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