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Saxophone Technique

This section deals with fingering technique and some of the more common causes of technical difficulties.

The main emphasis is on finger control and alternative fingerings, although it is not intended to be a comprehensive list of all alternatives. The aim is to highlight some of the most common faults and misconceptions. Topics are as follows....


Finger lift - excessive

Finger pressure - excessive

Octave key operation - excessive movement

Bb alternatives - what and when to use

C alternative fingering - when to use

F# fingering - when to use

G# considerations

E-mail if you have any comments, questions or points to raise.


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Finger Lift

Probably the most common factor that inhibits smoother and faster fingering is lifting the fingers too far off the keys. Obviously, the further that you have to move you fingers, the slower you will be to reach the next note.

The difference in time may seem very small but if you are trying to assemble a good jazz technique and like to play fast runs and arpeggios then excessive finger lift can be critical. A good way to check on this is to look at yourself playing in a mirror, play a scale or anything familiar so that you can watch you fingers carefully.

The ideal is for all fingers to be lightly touching the key that they are assigned to, but any reduction in lift will produce immediate benefits in speed and smoothness. This is particularly important for clarinet players playing saxophone - because of the open tone hole nature of the clarinet, the fingers have to move away from the keys, but with the saxophone, the note response time is doubled! e.g. finger to key, plus key to tone hole.

Particular care should be taken with the high note keys which are situated under the left hand. Less experienced players often have a tendency to fling the left-hand fingers out straight when playing these keys, making navigation back to the main keyboard a comparatively lengthy and ungainly process.

Some musicians go as far as to lower the action on their instrument. This involves reducing the distance that the key actually opens. For the same reasons as above, this will assist with technique speed but can have the considerable disadvantage of reducing the fullness of tone and will probably cause intonation problems. Not to be recommended unless you really know what you are doing!








Finger Pressure

Another common problem is that of excessive pressure when closing a key.
The dreaded 'white knuckle' syndrome.

If your instrument is in good condition with no leaks or bad pads then very little pressure is needed to close the pad effectively. By exerting too much pressure you are creating extra muscular tension in your fingers. This means that the muscle has to be relaxed fully before you can lift your finger for the next note. Again, in relation to the time scale in which we are working this tension and relaxation time can be a considerable impediment to technical fluency..

The problem often gets worse if you are in a stressful .your big solo.... or if you're not too comfortable playing in front of a lot of people. This can also cause excessive embouchre pressure, which again is unhelpful.

A reduction in finger pressure will not only improve fluency and finger speed, it will also make your pads last longer!










Octave Key Operation

For the most efficient operation of the octave key it is imperative that the octave key mechanism is properly set up on your instrument.

If the octave key travel is excessive before the mechanism operates fully, then your thumb movement will be undesirably excessive also. This problem often goes unnoticed by even experienced musicians when they have been playing the same instrument for a long time......until they play a properly set up saxophone! Even some good quality brand new instruments can suffer from this problem so it's well worth checking it out. A good repair man will be able to make the necessary adjustments.

Also, it goes without saying that there should be no lifting or sliding of the thumb on the thumb rest.








Bb Alternative Fingerings

This is probably the most abused of all facets of saxophone fingering. Many players seem to have a favourite Bb alternative which is blithely used to the virtual exclusion of all of the others.

This shortcoming generally applies to those who have begun by teaching themselves or clarinet/flute players who regard the saxophone as an 'easy' doubling instrument.

Unfortunately there are many teachers who fall into this second category - so beware!

Let's consider the purposes of alternative fingering........

1 To reduce the amount of hand or finger movement involved in getting from one key press to another. This obviously will improve finger speed and smoothness of playing.

2 To avoid crossovers. (that is pressing a key down whilst simultaneously releasing another one). Short unwanted transitory notes can occur if simultaneous press and release are not executed perfectly.

3 To assist with shakes and trills..

In the case of the Bb alternatives, what is available?


The Side Bb

Play the note 'A' but add the lowest of the three right-hand side keys........ (the clarinettist's favourite)

Probably the most popular, but best not used if possible, immediately following or preceding a note involving the fingers of the right-hand. (Excessive wrist movement).


The Front Bb

Play the note 'B' but with the index finger on the lower half of the key so that the smaller 'Bb button' (known as the bis key) is pressed at the same time, with the same finger. (Unloved by clarinettists as they do not have an equivalent fingering)

This is the most efficient and neatest, but best not used immediately following or preceding a 'B natural'. ( Involves rolling or sliding of the index finger giving poor control). e.g. when playing a chromatic scale.


The Long Bb

Play the note 'B' and also press the 'F' key ( first finger right-hand)...........(the flautist's favourite and generally the most mis-used).

or play 'B' and press the 'F#' key ( second finger right-hand).

With correct fingering this is the least common and is best not used immediately following or preceding the notes G, G# or A, which use only the left hand. (Involves a 'crossover', fingers down and other fingers up simultaneously).










C Alternative Fingering

Play the note B and add the middle right-hand side key.

This alternative avoids the B to C crossover and is very effective when playing a chromatic scale or in some slower passages.

Not best used when C is preceded or followed by a note which uses the right-hand fingers

Essential as a B to C trill key .












F# Alternative Fingering

This is the extra key that is set behind the right-hand E and D keys. Not to be confused with the high F# key which is included on some models.

Play the normal fingering for 'F' and press this key with the fourth finger (D key finger).

This is very useful in a chromatic scale to avoid the F to F# crossover, also particularly helpful in certain slower passages and as a trill key. Its main disadvantage when playing at speed is that it displaces the right-hand fourth finger from where it is most wanted!











G# Considerations

Except for the problem of the G# pad occasionally sticking, this key does not cause too much trouble.

Early saxes were not so friendly however. Playing low Bb, B or C#, followed or preceded by G# must have been a nightmare before the mechanism was introduced to get around this problem. All instruments nowadays of course simply allow the player to obtain G# by pressing any key on the left-hand spatula - but unless somebody had told you then you might not necessarily know that!


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