Warming Up

Warming Up

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Reflections On Studying With Dennis Sandole

This is a long post and one that I’ve been writing little by little for a while now. Hope you enjoy…

I consider myself to be pretty lucky – I took weekly lessons from Dennis Sandole for almost three years (until he passed in September of 2000). I started studying music with the Maestro, as his students often called him (to his face I called him Mr. Sandole) in December of 1997. I had very good reason for doing so. My buddy, saxophonist Jon Cole and I had been in a band together at the University of Pennsylvania, and then we joined another band together called Fathead right after school. By the end of 1997 Fathead had been doing plenty of touring and my trumpet chops were getting worse and worse (I was never that serious about pursuing music and though I played throughout college, I rarely ever practiced – I was an English major). In between tours Jon had started taking lessons with Sandole and after only a month and a half he was already sounding better and playing some more interesting things in his solos. Meanwhile I was getting worse. My ego couldn’t handle that so I asked Jon for Mr. Sandole’s number; I called him and set up an audition. It was a good move for me and the next few years of study really impacted my life in a positive way.

I remember being nervous walking to the Maestro’s 1622 Spruce Street studio that first time. This was the guy that taught Coltrane after all! – and a bunch of other jazz giants (many of whom I didn’t know about at the time). When I went inside I realized that the studio was really just a big downstairs living room in an old (but really nice) Philly row home. Tall ceilings, wood doors and wood molding around the windows and walls. The carpet was a brownish color. Everything was kinda brown in there including the grand piano and the Maestro’s chair. In fact, Mr. Sandole was wearing a tan sports coat over a brown sweater and khaki pants. Even his hair, which I’m sure would have been white, had been dyed brown (!). I introduced myself, sat down, and was asked a bit about myself and what I wanted to learn. I don’t remember how I replied but I do remember that I was then asked to play something. I think I just made something up on the spot. It probably wasn’t very good. Mr. Sandole asked me a few more questions, “Who was your trumpet teacher?” “Frank Eisenreich in Pittsburgh.” “Well, Frank Eisenreich gave you a very nice tone on the trumpet. Did he teach you any piano or theory?” “No, not really.” “Well he should have. We will work on that.” I guess I had been accepted. Then Mr. Sandole told me about how his lessons were going to be structured, how I would need several music manuscript books (one for him and the others for me), and he also told me about payment for the lessons. It was $50 a lesson. You had to take a lesson every week – no skipping or taking once a month – consistency was the only way toward improvement. And the money was never to be discussed again. When my lesson was through I was to place the money (or check) on the right side of the piano keyboard. It was my responsibility to make sure that I placed the money there. If I was short one week I would make it up the next. “Do you understand?” “Yes.” “Then we don’t need to discuss this again.” Then he wrote my first lesson for me.

A cool thing about studying with Dennis Sandole - the lessons he wrote for me were just for me. They had never been written before and they were written specifically for me – geared toward my needs and weaknesses. I can’t speak about other students’ lesson material because everyone received personalized material that was created specifically for them and their needs.  That said, from what I can gather from other students, there were some structural things that most students’ lessons shared. Lessons were built on a four week cycle and the breakdown was often similar. Here’s how mine were built – and again, the elements of the Maestro’s literature (that’s what he called it, so that’s what I call it) I received were different than what other students received. Many (probably most) other students were more advanced than me so what they studied was probably heavier than what I had. “Stick with me, Bart, and I will take you to the heights of virtuosity.”
Week One – Chord Progression, Arpeggio, and Piano Voicings
The chord progression (called A1) was always written in 3/4 time - at least for me it was (I still don’t really know why – if any former students have an explanation for this I’d sure love to hear it) - and my progression was usually four or five bars long with one chord per beat. The Maestro would write a line that went with the chord progression. And a lot of the time there would be a weird scale at the end of this progression, maybe some strange altered scale that, honestly to my ears, usually sounded like an extension of the weird melody line that went with the four or five bar chord progression. My job was to memorize this four or five bar melody and transpose it into the other eleven keys. I’ve never been very good at memorizing and I think I got freaked out at the idea of having to memorize all of this music every week so I wrote out my exercises in all twelve keys. To get the most out of the material I should have memorized it. Sandole told me that Coltrane memorized his lessons in all twelve keys (he often took two lessons a week – eight years worth of literature in four years, Mr. Sandole told me). Bobby Zankel told me that he memorized his. Anyway, just playing through those melodies in all keys was a real workout – on the chops, but more importantly on the ear. I had never heard anything like those melodies before. They were so strange and weird to me, and thus, challenging to play.

Next up (A2) was an arpeggio that the Maestro gave me.  Memorize it and play it in all keys. This I could do. I didn’t play them fast, but I could play them without mistakes. Subsequent Week Ones would have me playing an inversion of the original arpeggio – again in all keys. This cycle continued every Week One until I exhausted the notes and started a new arpeggio.

Week One for me also included some work on the piano. “Don’t neglect the piano!” the Maestro told me. Sorry Maestro, I still neglect the piano (and it shows!). My piano material was originally just basic voicings – either for specific chords or for the A1 progression itself - but as time went on the voicings got more and more advanced. I should go back to that stuff now. I’m sure it would be really helpful.

So that was Week One.

Week Two - Substitute Chords, Ear Training, and Rhythm Studies
Week Two’s lesson began with Substitute Chords (B1) but after a while that morphed into Turnbacks. The same idea from A1 applies – a four or five bar melody line, but this time the chords in the second, third, fourth, fifth bar were all substitute chords for the first bar’s chord (Ex. Dmi7b5 and Fmi7b5 were subs for G7). The whole line and progression had to be played in all twelve keys. When I practiced B1 I would just look at the melody line as one big long line and I would look at the chords subs as something else entirely. Maybe that wasn’t the correct way to approach it, but that’s what I did.

Next came Ear Training (B2) and for me that usually involved singing scales (and their inversions in subsequent B2s) using solfege (do, re, mi, etc.).

Then came Rhythm Studies (B3) which I really enjoyed. I worked out of the Maestro’s list of Latin rhythms. The assignment was to compose a four or five bar theme using his rhythms and combining eight consecutive notes (moving forward or backward) from any of the melody lines in A1, B1, or C1. Ultimately, the longer I studied, the more literature I accrued, and this exercise almost gave me the freedom to write whatever I wanted – still within the construct of the rhythm studies. I also used to apply this exercise to the chord progressions from A1. Over the years some of these little B3 melodies have turned into full length tunes.

Week Three – Tritone Principles, Sight Singing, Compose Paraphrase on C1
Week Three started with C1 which for me, initially was based on Sandole’s Tritone Principle. C1, again, was similar to A1 and B1 in that I was given a melody line that went along with a chord progression. The difference here was there was one chord per beat (again in 3/4 time). In bar 1 the first chord (beat one) could be a G7 and the third chord (beat three) would be Db7 (tritone sub). The second chord (beat two) would be a passing chord to get to the tritone, in this case it might be an Abmi7. Again, the whole line and progression had to be played in all twelve keys. And like B1, when I practiced C1 I would just look at the melody line as one big long line and I would look at the chords as something else entirely.

C2 was Sight Singing for me. Usually out of the Melodia book (I never made it to Modus Novus like some students). I would have specific pages assigned to me and I had to sing the lines with “movable do,” “fixed do,” and with just a sound, no solfege syllable, like “dee, dee, dee.”

C3 was a fun assignment. Take the melody line from that week’s C1, write out the notes (not the rhythms) in order (the theme), write it out in retrograde (backwards), and superimpose one on top of the other (diametrically opposed). When I did this I wrote the theme in blue ink and the retrograde in red. Together they looked pretty cool. I sometimes used the whole entire four or five bar line and sometimes I split it up into one bar at a time segments. Then the idea was to compose melodies based on these blue/red diametrically opposed notes. Again using 8 notes in a row, going left or right, either blues or reds, or a combination of blue and red. And if I wanted I could use the rhythms from his list of rhythms or I could use whatever rhythms I wanted. I usually tried to get these melodies to go along with some kind of chord progression. This was a fun exercise.

I should also mention at this point that anywhere during weeks One, Two, or Three I could be given some of the Maestro’s scales. Some were what he called exotic scales, and as time went on I started getting some of his own synthetic scales which I assume were built on his combining two existing scales to create a new scale. These scales were supplements to my regular workload. He encouraged me to play them in all keys. I could also use them for the assignment in Week Four.

Week Four – Composition
Week Four, D1, D2, and D3, was my favorite week in the four week cycle. I really looked forward to it. The D1 assignment was to pick a song, a standard – once the Maestro found out that I listened to a lot of blues he would encourage me to pick Mingus or Monk tunes. I was to take the chords from just the first eight bars of the tune (“don’t go past the eight bars or that will diminish the quality of your work”) and if I felt like it, I could reharmonize the progression using his chord substitutions from B1. This would often create a totally different sounding progression. Then I had to compose a theme to go with this new progression. I had to use eight consecutive notes from his literature (A1, B1, C1, scales, etc.). I could use the notes going forward or backward. And here’s the kicker – I could use his notes or if I felt like it (and I often did), I could sharp or flat any of his notes. I could also give each note whatever duration I wanted and I could use whatever time signature I wanted. Essentially I could write whatever the hell I wanted but I still had to work within his constructs. Often times the lines would sound like me but sometimes the shapes of the lines were his. I also had to write lyrics or poetry to go along with my theme and progression. I used to think that I was writing some good poetry for these D1s but the Maestro never seemed too impressed! :)

I usually got lazy with D2. Shame one me. I missed out. The D2 assignment was to take my new 8 bar chord progression from D1 and write chord voicings for it. Mine were usually pretty lame – and it showed when I had to hop on the piano and play them at my lessons.

D3 was kind of like D1 – compose an “improvisation” that accompanies the theme/melody and progression I had just written, and I had to use the same rules from D1.

Week Four was a lot of fun and I really put in a lot of time writing these exercises. And a lot of these melodies ended up becoming full-length tunes or the basis of tunes. Whenever I am writing and I hit a wall, I can always use the Maestro’s literature and mix it up in this way to create something totally new and totally mine (at least that’s the goal).

As time went on, my As, Bs, and Cs changed a bit. I received gradually more and more complex literature. The weird lines would start to get groupings of fives and sevens (because Sandole sensed that I needed that). The chord progressions would start to sound stranger and stranger. And my ears opened up wider and wider. To be honest, a lot of this material was (and probably still is) over my head theoretically. But I knew that there was something there for me and I knew that Mr. Sandole would not be around forever. I had to get some of that literature before the opportunity was gone.

I should also say that I really liked Mr. Sandole. He made me feel special, like I had something to offer. But he wouldn’t really compliment me or blow smoke up my ass. Sometimes he didn’t really mention anything about what I had just played for him at all. He would maybe just smile and nod or say “good” and write out the next week’s lesson. And if I was ill-prepared he might barely say anything to me, leaving me feeling really low and determined to not repeat that performance the next week. We would also have some great conversations – about music and musicians (he told me he was fan of Jimi Hendrix!) and also personal things. He had a warm smile and a subtle sense of humor. He met my girlfriend who is now my wife and I swear he flirted with her! When I told him a couple years later that my wife and I were going to have a baby, he was so excited. With the biggest smile I ever saw on his face he told me how happy he was for me.

I remember feeling like one of the special students when he asked me a few times to go around the corner to the deli on 17th Street to get him a sandwich and some juice. Not everybody got that job! I can still hear his voice in my head. I asked him once if he ever smoked – I was sure that he had. He told me that when he was young he had smoked for about ten days but quit. “You see, Bart, when I was a young man I was very vain, and I didn’t like the way the cigarettes stained my fingers. When I saw that I quit smoking.” The last few lessons I took were at Mr. Sandole’s apartment in Roxborough. His health was declining and getting to town and back was getting to be too much. The last lesson I received was twice as long as anything I had ever been given before. It was the hardest A1 I had ever played. I think I had one of his final lessons. I believe that Dennis Sandole was a genius. That’s not something you find every day.

In the future I’ll be posting some of my Sandole literature. Hopefully it will be of some interest for people.


  1. Hello Bart,

    really nice to have written this reflections, it must have been a very interesting experience to study with such a master (maestro !). I guess I'm not the only one who will be delighted to have access to some of Mr. Sandole's litterature, so yes please feel free to post some ! :)

    His practice organization is interesting too, this must feel "securizing" (sorry if the work doesn't exist, I'm French and not sure about it) somewhere.

    All the best

  2. Hi Guelda,

    Thanks so much for reading my post on Dennis Sandole! Starting tomorrow I'm planning on posting some of the literature that the Maestro gave me. I hope you find it interesting.

    Do you live in France? If so, what part? Are you a musician?

    Thanks again,


  3. Hi Bart,

    yes I live in Paris suburbs, I play guitar. I began with gypsy jazz and those days I (try to) play mostly bop. If you come here, I'd be glad to have some gigs with you.

    Regarding D. Sandole, I ordered the CD "Sandole trilogy : Out of the past, a cry of anguish, suppressed ?", because I found a few mp3 on the web where he plays, and I've been astonished by his playing and ideas.

    For sure I'd love to see how his lessons look like, thanks again for this.

    have swing

  4. Bart,

    Thanks for sharing your experience and relationship with Dennis.

    I was the lucky one as well. Dennis would ask every week to go to the deli and get him a cup of Sanka and a Tuna Sandwich. Moreover Dennis would as me to deliver his monthly rent payment to the Realtor he was renting his studio from. At that time his studio was on N. Broad St.

    Dennis was like a father to me and I loved him dearly. He was by far the most important male figure in my life and I cherished every second with him.

    I studied with him from 1978 to 1988. He always provided me with 2 to 3 times more lesson quantity/quality that the typical student, so I understand your special feeling.

    Due to strenuously trying to make a living in Philly and trying to break into the NYC Studio scene, I got burnt out and didn't hear the music anymore.

    My weekly lesson with Dennis turned into a bi-weekly lesson, a monthly lesson and then I sadly departed from Dennis to pursue other callings in life.

    I will never forget Dennis playing for me during my lessons with him. Just about ever lesson he would get his guitar that rested on a guitar stand to the right of his comfortable chair.

    Hey Russ watch this! Dennis would throw down arpeggios up and down the fret board. Russ did you see what I just played? It was a super imposed triple double sharp hyphenated, etc., etc,.........

    Bart, please let me know how I can assist you in keeping the Maestro's legacy alive.

    Russell Smith