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Playing the Sax

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6 Things You Can Do to Improve Your Technique Today

Johnny Griffin

The Late Saxophone Legend, Johnny Griffin – Fastest Tenor in the West

The ability to shred – for some it’s the holy grail of musicianship (just ask any guitarist at a music store). OK, OK, guitar cracks aside…while having Brecker-a-delic powers to burst past the speed of sound is a dream that we all share, there’s obviously a whole lot more that goes into mastering the horn than that. There’s tone quality, articulation, phrasing, breathing, posture – all of which technically fall under the category of “technique.”

But right now, we’re going to forget about all of that fluffy nonsense about tone quality and phrasing and playing with originality and soul. From this point forward, the only thing we’re going to concern ourselves with is how to get those notes moving out of the horn as fast, clean, and evenly as humanly possible!

1. Relax, relax, relax

As per the methods taught to me by Alexander Technique master, Bill Plake, make sure that your head is balanced evenly on your spine – not tilted to far back or too far forward. Let your neck be free so that your head can release upward.

From there, make sure that the shoulders are relaxed so that the arms can be relaxed, so that the hands can be relaxed, so that finally the fingers can be relaxed. The stiffness that starts with the head and the neck can easily end up slowing down your fingers. The Alexander Technique is a whole other topic that we could spend truckloads of articles discussing, but if you’d like to learn more, then check out Bill’s site to read up on this amazing approach to creative expression.

2. Ignore Your Fingers

Wanna slop-ify your playing? Then simply do this: keep your mind focused on your fingers. No, really, it’s true. Music flies by too fast to think of every single movement of the digits. If you try to think about each finger movement, the music leave you stranded three miles behind. It’s kind of like focusing on each individual word coming out of your mouth while you’re explaining something to someone. Before you know it, you’ll completely lose your train of thought.

Of course, when the horn is in your hands, you probably don’t want to be thinking about what you’re going to have for dinner. You’re probably going to do best by focusing your mind things like tone quality, expression, physical comfort, or what the other musicians around you are doing (if you’re playing in an ensemble, of course). To read more on the the concept of taking the focus off of your fingers, give this article a read.

3. Get As Much Classical Repertoire Under Your Belt as Possible.

Although there are exceptions to just about every rule, the odds of you coming across a great saxophonist who hasn’t spent a considerable amount of time studying classical music are slim to none. Classical repertoire forces you to move your fingers in ways that you would have never come across were you simply sticking to scales, arpeggios, and most jazz vocabulary.

Here is a small sampling of classical material that will truly take your technique to the next level.

For a more extensive list of great saxophone books, take a cyber-stoll over here.

4. Practice Music Created for Other Instruments

In the spirit of classical music’s challenge to play combinations of notes that you never would have come across otherwise, playing music written for other instrumentals takes this challenge to an altogether different level. Obviously, you are not going to be able to play a piano concerto. But how about trying out any violin concerto written by Brahms, Sebelius or Tchaikovsky? I can guarantee you that those were not written keeping in mind the difficulties inherent in the saxophone’s register break or the awkward interval of low F# to middle D.

Or how about transcribing and playing a Pat Metheny or Freddie Hubbard solo? You can bet that those guys are going to get your technique working in directions completely new to you.

5. Incorporate Articulation into Your Practice

Sure, it might be easy to cleanly get through a C major scale in sixteenth notes, but how about getting through that scale tonguing every other note? Or how about tonguing every single note? Or what about tonguing the first two notes of each beat and slurring the next two notes?

I know, a lot tougher, huh? In fact, incorporating articulation into your practice is going to make things a lot more “real world-practical.” I mean, how often are you going to read a piece of music that’s to be played completely slurred? And if you’re playing jazz without articulation, then good luck getting people’s toes tapping. From note to note, we need that contrast of varying attacks in order to feel the syncopated rhythm that draws us in the way jazz, r&b, funk, blues, or rock and roll does.

6. Play Along with Recordings of Fast Saxophone Playing

Guess what happens when you spend a nice chunk of time playing along with a recording of a blazing-fast two-measure Cannonball Adderley lick? Well. if you strive to do your absolute best Cannonball impression of those two bars, matching his articulation, phrasing, and even tone quality, chances are that your fingers are going to get super-charged in the process.

This will also help you to hear faster – and the more clearly you can hear what your playing, the more clearly you can play what you’re hearing.

Putting it all Together

Obviously, this is just a tiny sampling of things that we can do kick our technique up a few notches. But I think it’s enough to help move all of us forward on a path of musical freedom that comes with developing an extreme facility for moving around the horn with more speed than we might have thought possible.

And yes, of course I was being silly at the beginning of this article. If you don’t know it yet, you need to know that the ability fling out fast notes is important, but it’s generally not what touches people’s hearts and makes your playing truly magnetic. Killer technique is just an aspect of musical mastery, and like any other skill, it comes only with with time, focus, and patience.

So I’m curious to know, what have you guys been doing to improve your technical skills?

Photo by tom.beetz

6 Things You Can Do to Improve Your Technique Today


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