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Saxophonist combines innovative performance and teaching to sustain personal and professional life

When Christopher Braig isn’t playing a saxophone, the computer often becomes his instrument.
Nassim Benchaabane | St. Louis Public Radio
When Christopher Braig isn’t playing a saxophone, the computer often becomes his instrument.";

At St. Louis Community College’s Meramec campus one Friday, Christopher Braig types chords and scales into a computer for students in his jazz improvisation class. They discuss the function of each note in the blues scale before Braig hits a key: The pitch sounds through the auditorium’s speakers and the note appears on a large projector screen at the front of the room. The group reads and hears the music in real time. Then they play. By the time class ends, the written music, a blues accompaniment track and audio examples are waiting for the students on their home computers.

“This is not your standard class," said Bridgette Imperial, a saxophonist in the class. "He uses a lot of different mediums and a lot hands-on demonstrations. It’s a nice contrast to other kinds of classes I’ve had before where it’s just a sit-in-your-chair-and-take-notes kind of thing. It’s very interactive.”

Braig uses technology to teach jazz improvisation or audio production at a few different schools in the St. Louis region including each of St. Louis Community College’s three campuses at Meramec, Forest Park and Wildwood, Webster University, and Saint Louis University High School. When he’s not teaching in a classroom, he’s at his apartment giving private lessons or recording musicians in the home-studio he built himself. Or he's programming his next "SaxFest," a day of performances and master classes by the region's top saxophonists, all offered for free. Or he’s performing around town. He does all this while still making time for his two daughters, 8-year-old Ella and 6-year-old Beatrice.

Braig’s lifestyle is common to local musicians who wear a variety of hats as performers, educators and entrepreneurs. More of them are using audio production programs like Pro Tools and play-along apps like iRealPro to enhance learning opportunities. But Braig found cloud storage technology helped tailor practice material for each student’s needs and make it accessible and affordable for students anytime, anywhere.

“If you take a music lesson, you get home and you say 'What was my teacher trying to tell me?' In my world, those questions have been answered." Braig said. "I can update material from my phone, on the fly, and I can create content that my students need while I’m teaching them, that will be ready for them when they get home in the form of video, audio, music notation - frequently all three of those things intertwined. 

I’m able to actually produce the music on the cloud, edit the audio, add effects, do all the notation where someone with very meager computer equipment can access that in real time – it’s fantastic.”

Cloud technology - along with a sense of humor, Braig said – helps him roll teaching, performing, practicing and recording into one package, giving him more time to spend with Ella (named after renown jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald) and Beatrice.

"Keeping a calendar is one thing, but being able to edit audio for an audio production or a commercial on my $169 Chromebook while the girls are taking a ballet lesson is fantastic,” Braig said. “So I can schedule things to a great extent around their activities. Their time is first, and I’m able to put everything for the most part around that. That’s a big part of being self-employed and having the luxury of being able to occasionally say 'No' to opportunities that conflict with that."

Braig’s use of technology is creative and effective, but he also draws from a deep appreciation for the jazz tradition, said Paul DeMarinis, director of jazz studies at Webster University.

"He can get music out of anybody," DeMarinis said. "Braig is particularly good at dealing with students who are interested in music but have very little experience. He's enormously patient, very creative and his approach is collaborative. He's about getting them to build a creative space and take responsibility for the music coming out of their horn."

Braig uses thought experiments and tricks like Velcroing a student’s fingers to his saxophone keys or bouncing tennis balls on-beat to internalize rhythms to get students to “think about thinking.”

“I will have students think of smells and associate fast playing [he scats fast and loud] with a stinky smell, or [he sings a slow melody] with perfume, or a pleasant smell. Or if a student needs to slow down and be mindful of what they’re doing with their body I’ll say “Imagine you’re swimming through Jello. . . A lot of times images in our head affect what happens with our body.

I tell my students my saxophone is in its case over there. There is no more music in my saxophone right now than when I am playing. The music is in my head. What I am striving for is that nothing gets in the way of the music in my head that gets out of the instrument.

That appreciation and passion makes Braig one of the best saxophonists in St. Louis, singer Joe Mancuso said.

Mancuso is partnering with Braig to build a website featuring Braig's teaching, “Thinking in Jazz.” The website, which will launch in April, will offer serialized video lessons, both live and pre-recorded by Braig that students can access with a monthly subscription. He's also offering the series free to grade school students who can't afford to take private lessons.

In the end, Braig wants to use technology to strengthen personal relationships between musicians, like the one he shares with bassist Willhelm von Humbracht and guitarist Dave Black, (the three will release an album in February) the kind of relationships that make St. Louis a "hometown" and give its music scene a strong sense of community, he said.

“I would say that the St. Louis culture is the dominant influence on music here,” Braig said. “I can hear it in players who are older than me, the way they play with conversational quality. The way they articulate notes - sometimes the cadence of it. Charlie Parker said, ‘You learn everything you can, and then you live, and it comes out your horn.’ I think that in a hometown you can’t get away from that, and I think that’s a good thing.”