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Saturday, March 15, 2014

Saxophone Skills: The Secret to Fast Fingers Part II

The Secret to Fast Fingers, Part 2: Location, Location, Location for Maximum Finger Efficiency

by Sarah Anne Wolkowski, Saxophone by the Lake

Saxophone music is fast!

Klonos for Alto Saxophone and Piano, by Piet Swerts, was composed for the adrenaline-loving speed demons of the saxophone world.

Klonos is a Greek word for muscle spasm. Swerts made some interesting observations about the physical movements of some saxophonists. During challenging technical passages, they tended to jerk around, as if affected by uncontrollable muscles spasms. This type of motion provided the inspiration for his frenetic composition.
Klonos is a Greek word for muscle spasm.

Technical competence, muscle spasms....hmm....do the two go together like Jake and Elwood?

From the performer’s perspective, Klonos, like so many modern compositions, can be an exercise in humility. Can we really get our fingers to produce the torrential cascade of notes required?

WE CAN play lots of notes quickly, and Klonos is a great example of an idiomatic composition for the saxophone. The demands of the piece match the capabilities of the instrument.

However, it’s clear that Swerts is no saxophonist. As an audience member, or detached observer, it may appear that herky-jerky movements are required to spit out all those fast phrases. The reality lies 180 degrees in the opposite direction.

Stillness and economy of movement must prevail.

Letting your fingers flail around results in clanky key noise, uneven note values, and welcomes the probability of more errors.

To play fast, with a clean and efficient technique, we must follow the rules. Why? Because fast is only interesting to the listener if it is also CONTROLLED. Control is achieved through exact finger positioning, which allows for the most efficient movement from A to B. Literally!

As a sophisticated and thoughtful reader, you have already assimilated “The Secret to Fast Fingers Part I” and the Five Stability Points are in place. En avant!

Let your arms drop to your sides. Observe your fingers. They will be naturally curled. The fingers curl around the saxophone.

As in piano playing, all keys should be depressed at the tips of our fingers. It’s at the tips where we have the most dexterity. Avoid overhang. Tip of the finger to the centre of the pearl.

Once in position, there is no need to let your fingers spring away from the pearls. No finger flapping! Keep the tips of your fingers on the pearls at all times. Use just enough force to push the key down, and just enough to release it back up. The motion is decisive, but delicate.

There are three keys on the upper left hand side of the saxophone. (When you are holding the instrument.) Erroneously, they are typically referred to as the palm keys. They are NOT played on the palm of your hand! In the French system, these keys are named by function - C1, C2 and C4. The C stands for chromatic.


Each of these keys is played on the inside of your fingers, at specific bone joints. The C1 key is depressed on the knuckle joint of the left hand index finger. The C2 key gets pushed down on the middle bone joint of the same finger, and the C4 key is activated by the middle bone joint of the middle finger. This stable bone-to-key placement is the most efficient way to use these keys. Another design feat for Adolphe!

With these contact-points in place, the top half of the fingers can curl around the body, with the tips meeting the pearls. Once the hand is appropriately molded to the instrument, the fingers hardly need to move. It’s the wrist that does most of the work.

It’s easy to let finger 4 (the index finger of the right hand) depress the key on the side of the finger rather than the tip. Use a mirror and rotate the wrist to force the soft, fleshy tip of your finger squarely onto the pearl. This may feel awkward at first. You will observe and feel that your right arm now sits very close to your body, often with the inside of your wrist and forearm contacting your waist.


It’s called the Home Position: when your fingers are all in place, just ready and waiting for take-off. In this position, the right hand pinky finger should be resting on the low C key. Keeping the pinky curled is essential to pulling and pushing this finger over the Eb/C rollers. When going from C to Eb and vice versa, don’t lift, roll. ‘You just roll with it, baby, come on, and just roll with it baby...’ Or, on a more poetic note, allow the pinky finger to skate, or glide betwixt the two keys.


When in the proper position, the fingers are relaxed. There is no need for awkward movements. Your well trained digits move with the dexterity and efficiency of pistons.

On stage, performing Klonos, the music sounds frantic and blisteringly fast. You, however, are the picture of serenity. Like a statue, you stand poised. The economy of finger movement prevails, and you realize: less is more.



Series presented by

Sarah Anne Wolkowski, B.Mus (McGill) M.Mus (U. of Alberta)
Saxophone Performance and Instruction

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