A man and his music
Oshawa practitioner plays sax with style
It's a familiar story by now: the young musician living in a city far from home, looking for a place to play. There's no action to be had. He has school expenses to pay. Times are tight. Finally, in a heart-wrenching scene, he goes downtown and, with sorrow in his heart, sells his horn.
Sounds like an episode from one of those 1940's "musician" movies, but in this case it's not. The young man with a horn was Dr. Ted Brankston, of Oshawa, Ont., who did, indeed, sell his saxophone years ago on entering medical school at Queen's University. But the story has a happy ending. Dr. Brankston picked up his horn once again, after a hiatus of 13 years and this spring was back playing in front of the public.
Some things have changed, however. Instead of playing big-band jazz in a stage band the way he used to, Dr. Brankston, now 38, kicked off this phase of his musical career with a recital of classical music at Oshawa's McLaughlin Library Auditorium. And this time there were no other 10 or 15 musicians to make him feel lost in the crowd; he worked through the demanding two-hour program with only a piano accompanist and another saxophonist for support.
"I couldn't believe how nervous I was," Dr. Brankston confides. "Although I'd played lots in public before, I'd never played a two-hour concert by myself and that's quite a different matter. Everybody hears every note you play and somebody with a good ear can pick out every flaw."
The spring concert, which included works by Ravel, Glazounov, Poulenc and Ibert, was an ambitious undertaking in more than a musical sense. Besides acting as the star performer, Dr. Brankston was his own impresario, hiring the hall, printing flyers, advertisting in the local papers and paying all the bills. One of his patients, who owns a recording studio, brought his equipment along, to tape the recital and a colleague even captured it on videotape.
The hall wasn't ideal, the doctor admits, and like every musician, he thought he could have played better. But a crowd of 100 showed up and enjoyed themselves, and the recital even rated a critique in the local paper. Overall, he deems it a success.
And with that under his belt, he's planning an ambitious round of performances, studies and other activities in the next couple of years that will see him perform with the Oshawa Symphony Orchestra, attend master classes in France and travel to Japan for the next World Saxophone Congress.
All of which is remarkable when you consider that Dr. Brankston has been playing classical music for only three years; more remarkable when you remember that before his 13-year hiatus, he spent his time playing what most people consider the "proper" kind of music for his instrument -- jazz.
The doctor was a musical success story during his school days in Toronto. Like a lot of kids, he was a member of his school band, where he started playing saxophone. But after switching highschools, he decided to form his own stage band, which played local dates and appeared on the CFTO-TV shows "Canadian Talent Showcase" and "A Brand New Scene." At York University, he joined another band, which played regularly throughout his four years there.
Then came Queen's and the young-man-with-a-horn incident, which Dr. Brankston recalls with a slight wince: "There wasn't much going on musically in that town. I knew I was going to be there for at least four years and I needed the money, so I sold my horn." Just like that.
Meanwhile, Dr. Brankston earned his medical degree and moved into a postion at the Oshawa Clinic, where he practises emergency medicine as well as being a family psysician. But oddly enough, it was another trip to Ottawa that served to touch off his interest in music once more.
"After five years (in practice), I decided to go back to school and embark on a residency program in Ottawa. That didn't work out and thereupon returned to Oshawa; my wife Linda transferred from the University of Ottawa to Osgoode Hall to finish her law degree and I decided that rather than being totally engrossed in medicine, I wanted to develop an interest that was non-medical."
The doctor had bought a new saxophone to replace the original one he sold years before, but he played very little. What he needed was some guidance and instruction, so he turned to Paul Brodie, a master of the classical saxophone who has studied with the legendary Marcel Mule in Paris, and a man Dr. Brankston calls the top classical player in Canada.
"I originally had the intention of studying bassoon or oboe and joining the woodwind section of a community symphony orchestra," says the doctor, "and Oshawa was ideal, because we have a good community symphony. But he convinced me to at least begin back on the saxophone and see how far I got."
The answer was pretty far. Dr. Brankston started on his Grade 8 level studies, which he figured would take him 1 1/2 years. He finished them in three months. Grade 10 was done in another year. That left him with a decision to make.
"The plan this year was to either do the ARTC exam (for the Ontario Conservatory of Music's highest diploma) or to do a concert, and I chose the concert."
Once that was accomplished, he was off to the University of Indiana in June for a week-long master class with the noted saxophone teacher Eugene Rousseau, picking up some of the finer points of technique and interpretation. And that encouraged him to make tentative plans for a similar experience next year with the master Jean-Marie Londeix in France.
He's also making ready for his November date with the Oshawa symphony, to play the Glazounov Concerto, and holds out the possibility of more solo recitals in the future. Meanwhile, Dr. Brankston is spending his spare time (what little he has) teaching the art of the saxophone to three students, two teenagers and a 46-year-old man who sought him out for some instruction.
And, always, there are his weekly lessons with Brodie, an active player as well as a teacher, who just did a concert tour of Britain and Israel.
"He's one of Canada's best world-wide ambassadors," says Dr. Brankston, who misses no chance to credit Brodie for his own progress: "He's been tremendous with me -- very encouraging, really a nurturing teacher."
Having studied with Brodie, Rousseau, and (hopefully) Londeix, Dr. Brankston will have had direct exposure to perhaps half of the world's true masters of the classical saxophone. And that's not too surprising, considering the saxophone's "minority" status among classical instruments.
Invented in 1842, it missed some of the most productive periods for classical composition and while there are pieces written for it (Berlioz and Bizet were the first to include it in their instrumentation), many of the most popular symphony pieces don't include saxophone parts.
The result is that orchestras generally don't carry a saxophonist and many of the pieces Dr. Brankston and other sax players include in their repertoires are transcribed from the flute, piano or some other instrument. When a symphony does require a saxophonist, the orchestra usually brings one in for the occassion.
That doesn't mean the saxophone is limited in scope, however. We're all accustomed to wailing, twisting blues notes used by jazz saxophone players, but Dr. Brankston points out that the instrument can produce anything asked of it, from the staccato notes of a Bach fugue to the sweeping sounds of a major symphony. People who hear him play are constantly saying, "I never knew a saxophone could sound like that."
Dr. Brankston's main instrument is the alto saxophone, although he also plays the soprano sax, a smaller instrument that's more difficult to control.
Even with his performing, his weekly lessons and teaching sessions, the doctor also practises an hour to 90 minutes a day, five or six days a week to keep his skills progressing. With a full-time medical practice, and three to keep at home, that can be a challenge. "I really have to stretch things to fit it in," he says. "Sometimes I practice at 6:30 in the morning, down in the basement where nobody can hear me."
With this much serious study and dedication, you'd expect a person to have some final goal in mind and that's the case with Dr. Brankston. "The best ambition I could have with this thing would be to be able to play one day with the Toronto symphony," he says, "which is a pretty tall order, probably unrealizable."
Still, he has serious intentions of someday becoming a professional musician and even altering his medical career to do it. "I can conceive of eventually doing medicine on a part-time basis and playing a lot," he says. "I'm not sure how serious I am about that right now."
In fact, Dr. Brankston is heavily involved with the medical side of his life, as well, serving as the secretary of the medical staff at Oshawa General and actively supporting the paramedic system in the city, but with the enthusiasm he puts into his musical career, it seems unlikely he'll lay down his horn again without hitting at least a few high notes.
To purchase Ted's debut CD
Want To Live" click HERE
"...one of the best classical saxophone
recordings I've ever heard!"
David Gibson, Editor
Saxophone Journal 2004