Saxophone hand position

September 25, 2014

I often see poor hand position among developing saxophonists. It’s not as much of a problem for oboists, clarinetists, or bassoonists, since those instruments’ finger holes demand a higher degree of finger-placement precision in order to close them properly; an open-holed flute also requires a little more care. But the saxophone’s toneholes are all covered by pads affixed to relatively large keys, so even with a casual approach to hand position getting the holes covered isn’t a serious problem.

But there are a number of advantages to more careful hand positioning, and on a well-designed instrument it’s also really easy: just put the tips of the three middle fingers of each hand on the corresponding key touchpieces. (Not the tippy-tips, like a violinist, with the fingers perpendicular to the key surface, but the fleshy pad or “pulp” of the finger, just to the palm side of the tippy-tip.)

Let’s look at the left hand first. I have superimposed (poorly) the key touches over my fingers to show their locations.

Good hand position
Good hand position
Poor hand position
Poor hand position

Here are the problems that the poor hand position causes:

  • In order to fully depress the keys, the fingers may lock straight or even collapse backwards a bit. This makes the fingers’ motion more complicated and tense, and less efficient.
  • The fingers may contact the keys farther down the finger pad, perhaps even at or below the first knuckle crease. This decreases control over the keys. And/or…
  • The pads of the fingers contact the keys somewhere beyond the key touchpieces, giving the fingers less leverage and requiring more effort to depress the keys.
  • The pinky finger is shifted to a position where it is more difficult to reach the low C-sharp key, and where more effort is required to fully depress it.
  • Although not pictured here, the thumb should also be situated to that its pad contacts the octave key in a strong position with good leverage.

Now the right hand.

Good hand position
Good hand position
Poor hand position
Poor hand position

If poor right hand position is used:

  • As with the left hand, the fingers lose their neutral curve and become unnecessarily straightened.
  • As with the left hand, the contact points between the fingers and keys are less than optimal.
  • The pinky finger is shifted into a position where either the finger must be contorted to contact the E-flat key properly, or a less-optimal part of the finger contacts the key.
  • The ring finger must bend uncomfortably to reach the side F-sharp key, or that key must be pressed by stiffening the finger and contacting the key near the base of the finger, which is imprecise and awkward.
  • Sometimes poor right-hand position results from allowing the crook of the thumb and index finger to sit in the thumb hook. In these cases, good hand position will require repositioning the thumb so that the thumb’s distal joint is in the thumb hook.

Some of my students, when asked to shift their hand position, have initially objected, insisting that their poor hand position is required due to their individual anatomy or the configuration of their individual saxophones. I have yet to see this prove true. I suppose I can’t eliminate the possibility that very rare situations exist that might call for a slight adjustment to the finger-pads-on-the-touchpieces positioning, but I haven’t encountered a significant case of this yet. Even with my larger-than-average hands (you may be able to spot my custom extra-high green palm key touchpieces in the photos), putting my fingertips on the touchpieces immediately creates an open, relaxed, and efficient hand position, with fast finger movement and a light touch on the keys. If your saxophone has badly-positioned touchpieces, you might consider visiting a good repair technician to have them relocated (or consider it a warning sign of a poorly-made instrument that should be replaced).

Good hand position is a prerequisite to smooth, effortless saxophone technique. Check yours carefully, and set yourself up for success.