Monday, July 14, 2014

Saxophone Skills: Three "Crimes of the Saxophone Kind"

by Sarah Anne Wolkowski

Do you take up two seats on the subway or bus? Steal small objects? Siphon millions of dollars into offshore bank accounts to avoid paying tax?

No? I thought so. An upstanding citizen. I salute your law-abiding ways. You know that breaking the rules does not make sense. Illegal activity comes with consequences that set you back. If not into a prison cell, then through irritating moral questions that continually gnaw at your conscience. You don’t break the laws of the land, so why break the laws of good saxophone technique? For your own continued sense of self-esteem, I beg you, do not commit these saxophone CRIMES!

‘Hey!’ you say. ‘Saxophone CRIMES?! They don’t exist. There are no such things!’

Oh yes. There are. And if you commit them, you will have regrets. They may not affect you tomorrow, or even in a month. But eventually, you will pay the price for your illegal activity.

‘You are making this up!’


However, you won’t be sorry. Once I’ve explained these crimes and how to avoid them, there will be no going back. You will be a Belieber, I mean, Believer. I have never met a saxophonist who understands these rules in the fullest sense and rejected them.

The best part about making something illegal is that you can cash in. If you are a teacher, now is the time to boost your bank balance by charging your students for their egregious manoeuvres.

Students! En garde! Fix these issues now, and your instructor won’t stand a chance. Don’t you have better things to do with your allowance? Or student loan?

This situation can be a win-win. No money needs to be exchanged, and no frustration must occur if everyone follows the rules.


Sliding your left hand index finger between the B key and the Plateau (Bis) B Flat key. ILLEGAL. FINE $50

Adolphe Sax was a smart and considerate man. At least with respect to instrument design. He understood that sliding your finger between these two keys is not only awkward, but dangerous. Kindly, generously, he added the Ta (pronounced T, A) key to the body of the saxophone. Ta stands for Trill to A key, and is also known as the Side B Flat key. When holding the saxophone, this key is located on the lower right hand side of the instrument. Monsieur Sax wanted to provide you with a functional fingering option for chromatic movement. You wouldn’t want to callously disrespect this act of generosity by not using the key, would you?

It’s like when a wonderful person passes you a tray of his or her homemade delicacies. Unless you have a life threatening food allergy, good manners require you to accept the offering. It’s almost always a great pleasure!

Playing with the Ta key (the Side B Flat key)
Well, Adolphe is offering the Ta key to you on a silver platter. Try it - you won’t be disappointed.

In absolutely every situation where you need to play a B Flat followed by a B Natural and vice versa, you MUST use the Ta key and MUST NOT use the Plateau key. In rare situations, one of which will be discussed further along, it is possible to use one of the other B Flat fingerings for maximum efficiency.

On occasion, I’ll be working with a student who listens to my fervent explanation of this crime with some doubtfulness. Right away, the student tries sliding his or her index finger between the B key and the Plateau key with relative ease. Their innocent eyes fix upon my own with a ‘Look, I can do this!’ demonstration. Sigh. I know. You can do it. But can you do it quickly? As ascertained in a previous article, saxophone music is fast. Unless all your repertoire moves a quarter note = 60 bpm (beats per minute) you won’t be able to slide the finger without losing your hand position or getting it stuck in between the two keys.

Crime No. 2

Flapping your right hand index and middle fingers between F and F Sharp. ILLEGAL. FINE $50

“Don’t be a finger flapper!” is something I say quite a bit. Just like the useful Ta key, we also have the opportunity to use the Tf key. Sometimes described as the alternative or chromatic F Sharp key, Tf stands for Trill to F key. It is located on the bottom right hand side of the saxophone, underneath the Ta key.

Playing with the Tf key (Alternative F Sharp key)

Picture an angry bird (of the non digital kind) slapping its wings against its body. This is an aggressive movement, used to keep enemies at a distance. If you alternate more than once between F (1 + 2 + 3 + 4) and F Sharp (1 + 2 + 3 + 5) you are finger flapping. Or finger slapping. The movement is clumsy and generates a fair amount of key noise. Adolphe provided the Tf key for smooth F to F Sharp trills, and for any F - F Sharp - G chromatic movement.

Trade in those flustered flapping fingers for elegant and effortless efficiency. And save $50.

Crime No. 3

Flapping your left hand index and middle fingers between B and C. ILLEGAL. FINE $50

B and C are some of the very first notes we learn to play on the saxophone. It’s important that the transition from B to C and from C to B is flawless. The finger movement has to be as precise and as decisive as possible to avoid a tiny sound blip. If your fingers aren’t perfectly co-ordinated, the C Sharp will sound for a microsecond in between each of the desired pitches. One B to C or C to B movement, as in a scale, is fine. As soon as you need to alternate between these notes more than once, it’s time for the Tc key. Located directly above the Ta key, Tc stands for...well...I don’t need to tell you, because I know that you’ve picked up the pattern at this point. It provides the best option for chromatic movement and for any B to C trills you may come across.

Playing with the Tc key (Alternate C key)

Here is the rare exception I agreed to divulge a couple of paragraphs back. It’s a tidy little example of how understanding the options provides the best in efficient fingering. You may be aware that there are actually five ways to finger B Flat. (1 + Plateau key, 1 + 2 + Ta key, 1 + 4, 1 + 5, and 1 + 6) Check out the second system, second phrase of Ryo Noda’s Improvisation I. (Grace note B to a Sixteenth Note A Sharp, Grace note F Sharp to a Sixteenth note F Natural.) This short and quick little combination is best achieved with the following fingerings:

B: 1
A#: 1 + 4
F#: 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + Tf
F: 1 + 2 + 3 + 4

It’s over in less than a second, and this fingering set-up makes it easy and fun to play. The 1 + 4 fingering is actually the most efficient choice here, and overrules Ta supremacy.

Ta, Tf and Tc are some of the most functional keys on the saxophone. They were added to help you become an elegant and refined musician. Using them is critical to accurate and efficient performance practice. Ignore them at your own peril!

These crimes are but three. My students enthusiastically generated an extensive list of other atrocities, including:

-Not washing out your mouthpiece.
-Biting the tip of your reed.
-Breathing in through your nose.
-The DREADED ‘Hopping Thumb’.
-Puffing out your cheeks.
-Rolling out your bottom lip to break the embouchure seal.
-And, in direct relation to Crime No. 1, using your left hand middle finger to push down the Plateau key. (That could be a sub-clause, adding another $20 to the original fine.)

I’m sure there are at least twenty solid examples of CRIMES OF THE SAXOPHONE KIND.

Stay on the right side of the law.

Series presented by

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

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Crime #4 - going up to a really hard reed at the sacrifice of tone and playability. "I've been playing for 4 years, I need to be playing on a 3.5!" Play on a reed that gives you a good tone and playability of the whole instrument. If you can only blast out the low range or your tone sucks, go to a softer reed. The big guys use thick reeds because they put a ton more air through the instrument, not because they have been playing longer.