Seasoned Saxman and Social Media Maven, Dave Pollack on Practicing, Career Choices, More

Introduction

While attending TCNJ (The College of New Jersey), a music major named John Ketts told me that if I wanted to really get my jazz chops together, then I should study with one of his friends who just graduated from William Paterson University named Dave Pollack.

I had never heard of Dave before, but once I took my first lesson with him I quickly understood my buddy’s recommendation.

Besides being a great player, Dave was also someone who could teach and enjoyed doing so (especially putting up with me and my lack of musical “language”). As Dave has continued to teach and also grow his YouTube and Instagram channels with helpful tips and funny videos, I thought it would be great to reconnect and see what was going on with him.

Dave was nice enough to meet with me and share his story, as well as what he is planning next. For those of you who are not familiar with Dave Pollack, take a look below at a short bio to get you up to speed.

Short Bio

  • A native of Hamilton, New Jersey, saxophonist Dave Pollack started his musical career playing the piano at 5 years old and saxophone at 9. In high school he won many soloists awards in jazz competitions around the state and had the chance to perform with the Count Basie Orchestra, Richie Cole, Bob Mintzer, and the Philly Pops Brass Quintet.
  • After graduating high school, he continued his education at William Paterson University where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Jazz Studies/Music Education. While there he studied under Mulgrew Miller, Vincent Herring, Gary Smulyan, Dr. Dave Demsey, Armen Donelian, and James Weidman.
  • Dave has since been performing in the New York City area as well as around the world, and has had the pleasure of sharing the stage with many great artists including Richie Cole and his Alto Madness Orchestra, the Mingus Big Band and Dynasty, Phil Woods, Randy Brecker, and Jon Faddis. Dave has most recently been on tour in Australia with the Hanlon Brothers, a group based out of the Gold Coast.
  • Along with being a performer, Dave is also a passionate educator. He’s been teaching saxophone, flute, clarinet, and piano privately since he was 17 years old, and is the owner of Princeton Home Music Lessons.
  • From 2010-2011 Dave was the Director of Jazz at The Lawrenceville School in Lawrenceville, NJ, and from 2011-2022 he was the Instrumental Woodwind Specialist at the Cranbury School in Cranbury, NJ.
  • He is currently a band director at Princeton High School. His students have achieved great musical recognition, including being selected to perform in Region and All-State Jazz Ensembles.
  • Dave is a Key Leaves,10mfan, and Boston Sax Shop endorsed artist.

Interview

ZS: How did you become interested in playing music? And how did you decide on the saxophone of all instruments?

DP: I started on piano when I was four or five years old. I am not sure if I was interested in music or if my parents just wanted me to play music. I played piano and did the whole classical lessons and recitals thing but when I was in 4th grade, our school let us pick out a band instrument. Actually, before we got to pick an instrument, I had the opportunity to play my neighbor’s trumpet and I tried making a sound and I couldn’t so I decided, “I don’t want this instrument, I am going to pick saxophone”. This is not the right way for choosing an instrument because when you first start out you’re probably not going to make a sound right away on any instrument.

I started playing the alto saxophone in 4th grade and music and baseball was always my thing. My first alto saxophone was an Alpine student model saxophone which I believe was a rent-to-own and I had this saxophone from 4th through 8th grade. When I was in band, I really enjoyed music and felt I was pretty good at the saxophone from my training in piano, but I didn’t actually get any lessons until I was in 8th grade in the jazz band.

I remember I was given a solo on “Harlem Nocturne” and I remember my teacher told me since I was going to be soloing that I should get some lessons. My band director referred me to a local teacher named Frank Miller, rest in peace, who taught a lot of local Hamilton students, and I took lessons with Frank from 8th grade until junior year of high school.

I remember for Christmas my 9th grade year, through the recommendation of Frank Miller and Lenny Ennerato, my parents bought me a late Mark VI alto which had the varitone pick-up on top (which I kept losing the button) so I had that pick-up milled off and patched.

At first, playing music and taking lessons, I enjoyed it but I was not sure I wanted to pursue music as a career. I find students now planning their future in elementary school which is a lot of pressure and I was like ,“I don’t know, I’ll figure it out” but I was doing all the regional band auditions and ensembles at school. When I knew I wanted to pursue music was in between my junior and senior year of high school.

In New Jersey they had something called the Governor School of the Arts, where you apply and if you make it, you get to live at Trenton State College (now TCNJ) for a month as if you were a music student. I actually got in for the classical saxophone and not the jazz saxophone spot which is weird because I was not good at classical saxophone.

When I was at the Governor School of the Arts I got to work with Kathy Mitchell and had classes on music history, theory, and quarter everyday for 3 hours. We got to live on the campus and this is where I met Richie Cole (RIP) for the first time. I got to hang with Richie Cole and learn from him even though I was in the classical group when jazz was my thing.

Being around so many like-minded kids my age who were also super into music was something I hadn’t experienced before because, not to date myself, but at this time in 2004, YouTube didn’t exist yet. I couldn’t go online and check out killer saxophone players my age, so my exposure to more serious players was local jazz festivals, even then most kids still weren’t really into it.

Being around kids my age with the same interest in music really motivated me to practice and pursue music. Throughout high school I was participating in regional jazz band and then made all-state once my junior year which introduced me to more players who were as serious as me with pursuing music.

While deciding on where to go to college, I knew I never wanted to teach and just wanted to play (which is funny how everything turned out). When I speak to students now, I share the reality of what the life is pursuing music as a career. For example, when you are in high school, if you are good and audition for a band and get into all-state, then you assume that validates you as being a great player. In the real world, if you can play your scales fast enough and you can play this etude well that doesn’t mean you get to tour with the Mingus Big Band. It doesn’t work like that. The reason being there are many other phenomenal saxophone players and secondly it’s not just open auditions. So since I just wanted to play only at that time, I went and I applied for jazz performance at many different colleges.

I ended up getting in here or there and decided to go to William Paterson on an academic scholarship based on the stars program which would cover most to all of my tuition. I remember visiting William Paterson (WP) and WP at that time was not known for much but most of the faculty that made up the music program was from the Vanguard band since Thad Jones started the program there.

When I started studying at William Paterson, the saxophone teachers were Don Braden & Gary Smulyan. WP was near NYC so you could still have that experience but would not have to pay to live in NYC. When I was accepted to WP I didn’t make it into the Jazz Studies program. I came in as a Music Studies major which is a general education degree with a music focus.

How I ended up getting into the jazz program was I was paying Gary Smulyan on the side to take lessons. I was taking lessons every week and he was having me memorize 5 tunes a week which was killing me. At one point during a lesson, I told him I was going to reapply at the end of my freshmen year for the jazz program. It was in November of my first semester Gary asked “why would I wait till next year to apply?” I remember I was working on learning “Giant Steps”, and mid-way through the lesson, Gary leaves the lesson and grabs Dr. Dave Demsey who runs the jazz program, and he brings Dave Demsey into my lesson and then says, “Ok, Dave let’s play ‘Giant Steps’”. As I play “Giant Steps” and at the end Gary says “Dave should be in the jazz program” so second semester I was in the jazz program under Gary’s recommendation.

WP’s program is heavily focused on small group versus having many big bands. I was in the WP big band my sophomore and junior year, but it wasn’t a big focus and we maybe played outside of the school one time. I remember playing in two small groups, one was an original ensemble where we played group originals and one year I did a Cannonball + Coltrane ensemble with me on alto and Roxy Coss on tenor and Mulgrew Miller running this ensemble. I also did a Brecker Brothers Ensemble and I guess I played the David Sanborn part.

At WP my junior year I switched to my education degree. As I was going through my freshman and sophomore year I thought I was just going to play jazz because in my head I made lead alto in all-state in high school, so that means I must be the best alto player in New Jersey. That is not the case at all. It means you are the best alto player in that age that happened to apply for this specific group.

During my sophomore year, Don Braden and Gary Smulyan left and Vincent Herring and Rich Perry came in and that is how I became good friends with Vincent Herring. During this time I really started to think about after school and started to realize what it really meant. I talked to a couple players in New York City and they told me, “yeah I live in this apartment with a few other people and playing these gigs to get by”, and that is not what I thought the life would be.

At this time, I started to move away from the thought that I did not want to teach and I started to talk to people that I really loved going to jazz festivals and what would happen if I was on the other side as a teacher. My junior year they had a new program which was jazz performance and music education so I could study music education but all my performance classes were jazz performance, and typically it would be classical performance.

Once I graduated from William Paterson, I applied for a few jobs and one came up at the Lawrenceville school which was 10 minutes where I grew up. They had a jazz director and saxophone and clarinet private teacher. It was an adjunct position and I ended up getting that job and it was a great job out of college.

All the things I learned from student teaching went out the window, since I had no experience with a private school but it was the best gig you could get as a jazz musician who was also looking to gig regularly. So, I was at Lawrenceville teaching and wasn’t looking to leave, but in 2011 my buddy Joe Bongiovi who taught at Princeton High School said one of the middle schools that feed into Princeton High School named Cranbury was looking for a woodwind specialist and brasswind specialist teacher. So, I thought I would apply and if I didn’t get the job then I would just stay teaching at Lawrenceville. I ended up getting the job at Cranbury Middle School which was a full-time gig, so benefits, pension, etcetera. I started at Cranbury in the fall of 2011 and just left recently in January of 2022 to teach at Princeton High School, where I am now.

ZS: Was there an event or player that made you decide to pursue music as a full-time career?

DP: Honestly, Frank Miller was great and helped me musically but the Governor School Of The Arts and my band director Bob Gravener really set me up to want to pursue music full time.

ZS: Who are some of your favorite saxophonists and why? What have you learned by listening to these players?

DP: When I first started playing it was Charlie Parker. I was really into the bebop and the [Charlie Parker] Omnibook was my bible. Meeting Richie Cole and seeing someone who was as famous as him and talking to him in person really got me into his playing. I was really into straight bebop players.

Once I went to WP, I got really into Kenny Garrett and Coltrane but what really helped shape my playing was Dick Oatts, even though I only took one lesson from him a few years back. When I hear alto in my head, I hear Dick Oatts’ sound.

ZS: What are some key lessons you’ve learned growing up playing the saxophone that you have passed on to your students? What do you find yourself practicing these days?

DP: One lesson I have passed on to my students is efficiency of practice. I learned music by ear a lot but when I learned theory, I used it as a tool to get to the sound I wanted or analyzing a tune faster.

One example is instead of hearing a line and playing it by ear and hoping that chord would come up again, I would use theory to quickly realize, “oh, he is just playing the #9”. For me I try not to have superfluous practice and I am more focused on what I practice related to a performance. I tell my students that it’s not about the hours you play but the quality of those hours.

I went through a time freshman year of college that hours was all it meant so I would practice four hours a day and started to realize I was not getting much out of practicing more and more hours. The only time I really practice now is when I practice for something.

Because of my life and where I am at, I don’t just practice lines and scales but I’ll play during my lessons and if I have recordings or gigs I’ll practice. There will be times where I don’t practice my saxophone for a week and this is not necessarily good for everyone but that is just how I operate. Sometimes I feel when I practice too much, I sound like I am practicing during a performance versus taking some time off where I feel more fresh.

ZS: When/Why did you decide to focus on social media? How do you brainstorm ideas for your videos?

DP: I didn’t get really into the social media things for music until 6 years ago around 2015 or 2016. During this time I started to think about doing something musically for social media.

The first video I made for social media was either the smooth jazz lessons or it was my fake Grammy band audition video. My videos always came from a comedic point of view. When I started doing videos online, I always told myself I didn’t want to put educational lessons online and just wanted to do comedy or playing videos.

Fast forward to now I am working on releasing an online course since I realized a lot of players have reached out and said I wish I could study with you. With all of my own videos I try to put my personality and comedic outlook on each one. When it comes to brainstorming ideas for videos it goes in waves. Sometimes I’ll brainstorm 10 ideas and film 5 weeks worth of videos and other times I rack my brain to think of one idea.

When it comes to building social media I don’t follow a direct path, I post what I want to post whether that be a legitimate lesson, or the next week, a troll video, and then the week after a product review. This hurts my consistency and focus but that is just how I am and I post what I want to do.

​ZS: What are the best and worst parts of creating saxophone content?

DP: I love the editing part of the process but the hardest part of creating content is anybody can post anything online. So coming into it if you don’t know anything about me, then you are judging me on the one thing that you saw for better or worse.

Another thing I don’t love about it is so many people are posting so viewers get burnt out. This means I am competing in the same space with someone who is a big touring musician as well as someone who can’t really play but is good with editing and making flashy videos. There are times where I put a lot of hours into a video and it gets a quarter the amount of views versus some other videos. You can post a great video and why one video gets a ton of views vs the other based on the algorithm, it’s hard to say but that doesn’t diminish the quality and content of that video.

ZS: For aspiring players looking to partner or be endorsed by various brands, any advice for what to do and not to do?

DP: For people looking to get endorsed there are a few ways. You can reach out to the artist representative because remember, the artist reps are still people and you should go into an endorsement conversation with what value can I provide them as much as you are asking value from them. You need to remember it’s a partnership, what can I help them out with. I am currently a Key Leaves, 10mFan, and Boston Sax Shop artist, and what I think about is how I can promote these brands I enjoy whether that would be via social media or educating my private students and allowing them to check out the gear, and when I teach at a Master-Class.

It’s not only a sales pitch but a relationship. I endorse products that I actually use and a partnership should be the focus of the conversation. If a brand has not reached out to you, then find out other artists that are endorsed by them and reach out to further connect about the brand and their experience being an endorser.

ZS: How have you seen the music business change since you started playing the saxophone and where do you see the music business moving in the near future?

DP: The social media thing is the big change. Why the social media thing is cooI is when I was coming up and why I had a warped sense of being a professional musician is that the only people I heard and knew about were the top level professionals. I didn’t listen to people like me.

I am not a top level professional saxophone player out there putting out tons of records, touring, playing at Smalls or at the Village Vanguard every week, but thousands of people every month watch my channel and that didn’t exist when I was in high school.

I think with the advent of YouTube and Facebook in 2005 and now Instagram and TikTok with short form consumable videos, people latch onto personalities. People subscribe to people over content and they like the way I present myself in the video and how the video looks. Anybody can make a partial living through social media because people use social media as a tool for their business. We use an album now as more of a promotional tool to build that fan base to gain students and promote our music.

Where do I see the music business moving in the future? I have no idea. The short form thing is becoming really big. Being able to collaborate with people around the world and being able to collaborate without the heavy delay, so close to realtime will change things for live rehearsals, performances, etcetera.

ZS: What projects are you currently working on?

DP: My course is in its beginning stages but hope to have it out by June or July of this year. I just put out a free masterclass on melodic soloing and voice leading. The course is really focused on improvisation essentials and here are the steps to take to be able to improvise effectively and not be bogged down by too much theory.

ZS: What are your thoughts on the importance of the equipment? Do you find yourself changing much or sticking with the same gear?

DP: Comfortability is the big thing. Gear is the medium between you and the sound so what can help you get the sound you want. Gear does matter a bit and I like a middle of the road setup. The Mark VI I play is out of tune but I am used to it and I don’t want to play another alto. I don’t change gear much.

Current Equipment

Saxophones:

    • Soprano: It’s a prototype I got through Vincent Herring. No name/no serial #
    • Alto: Mark VI Alto
    • Tenor: Conn 10m

Mouthpieces:

Reeds:

Ligatures:

Social Media