Saxophone Solutions

Sean Murphy | April 2010

    With the multitude of keys on the saxophone, the possibilities for playing alternate notes are endless. The problem is finding the best possible combination of fingerings that produce the most efficient, fluid result for difficult passages while helping to correct problems with pitch and technique. The following examples will improve the intonation and technique of even the best saxophone students.

Good Tuning
     Many directors begin each rehearsal with the ensemble playing a concert F as a tuning exercise because it is right in the middle of most instruments’ ranges. On alto and baritone saxophones, however, a concert F (D on the staff for an E flat saxophone) is inherently sharp and far from ideal as a tuning note. Students who do not know this will play extremely sharp and hinder pro­spects for improved intonation in the band.
     An effective remedy for this problem is using the low B key on the left-hand spatula combined with traditional D fingering. With this combination saxophonists can play a concert F in tune or within a few cents of easy adjustment, if not in tune. Further­more, they can add the low B key to the notes one-half step and one-whole step above concert F, which will lower these three infamously sharp pitches.

Disastrous C Sharp

     Another disastrous note on all saxophones is open C#5 because it is inherently flat. Two simple alternate fingerings drastically improve this pitch across the entire saxophone section. First, add the side C key to the traditional open fingering. Some players find this fingering either does not move the pitch enough or it brings the C# above the desired pitch.
     The second choice is playing the C# with the third finger of the left hand and the octave key. Experimenting with these two alterations will help each player decide which fingering will produce the note with the most accurate intonation.
     High C# has just the opposite problem because it is fingered with only the octave key, so there is little resistance when playing the pitch. Manipulating the note using only the embouchure is difficult, so I suggest players add the  middle finger of the right hand for high C#, which will significantly bring the pitch down. This fingering is great, especially when a composer scores this tone in unison across the saxophone section.
     As a saxophone ascends above the staff, keeping correct pitch becomes more difficult. This is especially true of the palm keys, the range from written high D above the staff to high F#.  High E flat is an especially sharp note in this range. When a saxophone section plays this pitch with numerous students on alto, the intonation can be downright offensive. After hearing the degree of sharpness, it is best to use an alternate fingering. Instead of the traditional use of palm keys one and two, play with only palm key two, which is the key in the middle of the three available palm keys of the left hand. It is not a quick fix that will work for everyone, but it will significantly help those who are playing 15 to 20 cents above the pitch.

A Fluid Technique
     When it comes to saxophone technique, knowing alternate fingerings can help student musicians execute difficult passages with greater ease. I suggest band directors and private teachers show students how to review music before they play, looking for areas that would benefit from alternate fingerings. This will help them develop an ability to select these fingerings in the future.
     Bis B flat is the most commonly used alternate fingering for a fluid technique, played by depressing the first-finger key and the small-pearl key below the first and second key with the left hand index finger. The technical improvement is great, considering this fingering uses only one hand when moving to and away from the Bb. With traditional fingering, one and two in the left hand plus the lowest side key, both the right and left hands play the note. It’s simply much easier to use only one hand.
     These simple rules will help you decide when to use the bis key: side Bb is the correct choice when moving stepwise, such as on the chromatic scale; the bis key is correct for playing skips or leaps, such as a B flat major arpeggio. Be cautious of students who use the bis finger in stepwise patterns. Sliding from bis B flat to B natural  is incorrect and one of the great taboos of saxophone technique.

Side C Key
      High school students rarely use the side C key, even though it gives players another simple solution for playing with a fluid technique. Playing a passage with the repeated notes B and C is nearly impossible to execute in correct time with traditional fingering. Alternating between the first and second finger uses contrary motion, often with little physical control on the player’s part. Instead, a simple way to play these two notes in succession is to use the side C key. It is in the middle of the three side keys operated by the right hand, just above the B flat side key.
     Hold down first finger B and push the side C key to raise the pitch one half step from B to sound a C. This fingering is especially helpful for trilling  from B to C. When combined with thoughtful practice to train muscle memory, this technique can be used for a large portion of the repertoire. Students eventually realize this fingering is helpful for trills as well as 16th-, eighth-, and quarter-note passages because of the limited muscle movement between notes.

Forked F Sharp
      Another fingering in the saxophonist’s technical arsenal is the forked F  sharp, formed by playing the note F and then adding the tear-drop shaped key above the low E flat/C key with the third finger. The most difficult part of this fingering is getting students to use it. The third finger leaves the pearl of the third key of the right hand to operate the forked F# key, and then it smoothly returns to the original key and continues playing. Most young saxophonists are unaccustomed to the move because their fingertips rarely leave the pearls. Finding and practicing passages that include the forked F#  will help students develop the technical skill to make the move smoothly and comfortably.
     Passages that use the forked F# are similar to those using the side B key.  Playing from an F to F# requires the same contrary motion of fingers one and two of the right hand as playing from B to C with the left hand. At first it is likely that most students will be able to execute only quarter notes in time with the traditional fingering.
     The forked F# is great for trilling from F to F# by fingering F and rapidly opening and closing the forked key. Also, chromatic passages with alternating F naturals and F#s at any speed are easily improved by this fingering. This passage from Eugène Bozza’s Improv­isation and Caprice is a great example of using of the forked F# fingering when playing the G flat.

Once students realize how easily this fingering lets them move around the instrument, they are more likely to assimilate it quickly into their playing.

Coordinating The Hands
     The highest notes of the saxophone, played with the palm keys, are sometimes the hardest to master technically because of the difficulty coordinating the left-hand palm keys and right-hand side keys. One way to improve the technique to is use front key fingerings, a technique whereby students play the palm key register pitches without actually operating the palm keys.
     The first of these is the front F fingering, achieved by pressing the tear-dropped shaped front key located above the first pearl of the left hand in combination with the middle finger on the second key of the left hand. This combination produces high F above the staff, giving students the advantage of playing from high C to high F when technical exercises do not move by step, such as an F major arpeggio; they add just the front key rather than opening all the palm keys and using the right-hand side keys. Although it should be used only for skips and leaps, the front F fingering can immensely improve efficient technique in the high register.
      The front keys can also be expanded to include high E and F#. While playing front F, add the right hand B flat side key to raise the pitch a half step to F#. Fingering a G, or G# on some saxophone models, plus the front key will produce high E. These are valuable to implement triadic exercises, and they are a great springboard for students to expand their range into the altissimo register of the instrument.
These front fingers are useful to  ascend chromatically to high G and beyond because the fingerings for the altissimo register are more similar to front keys than the traditional palm key fingerings.

Left-Hand Spatula

      An equally important area of saxophone technique is the left-hand spatula, a device that operates the fingerings of low C#, B, and B flat as well as G#. Moving around the spatula requires care to place the fingertip for playing a full range F# major scale, including C#-B-A#-B-C# at the bottom of the scale as it turns around to ascend upward.
      Place the hand as close to the center of the C# key as possible so the fingertip can negotiate all three keys of the low register; slide it over the rollers to depress the correct key of the spatula. The C# key acts as an anchor while the fingertip negotiates the pitches.
     The spatula has immense possibilities for technique, especially the fingerings for G# that can be manipulated in this area of the saxophone. Finger­ing the note G plus any of the four spatula keys will still produce the pitch G#, which is helpful for passages with A flats and D flats. The A flat can be fingered as G plus the C# spatula key, keeping it depressed throughout the exercise. The following example from the third movement of the Ibert Concertino for Alto Saxophone is a perfect example of this concept.

     Depress the fingering 1, 2, 3 plus the C# spatula key in the left hand for the entire passage while the right-hand fingers change pitches in the excerpt.
      Many fingerings are possible when trying to improve the tuning and technique of the saxophone section. The spatula keys are a prominent aspect of both these pedagogical concepts be­cause they are useful for improving the pitch of middle D and increasing the ease of technique in specific passages. Several alternate fingerings are also possible for improving the intonation of middle C#. Bis B flat, side C, and forked F# also help players execute chromatic technique on the saxophone with greater ease. Explaining these concepts to the saxophone section will help each player to make intelligent decisions that produce fluid technical playing on the instrument.