Favorite blog posts, September 2014

Saxophone hand position

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.

Internet forum field guide: the all-too-frequently asked questions

Welcome to the third installment of the Internet Forum Field Guide, a look at the wildlife that inhabits woodwind-related online message boards and forums. (Be sure to check out the first and second episodes as well.)

Today we look at common questions that are asked on the message boards. The diverse and varied answers as they appear in the wild are a discussion for another day; for brevity’s sake I will just provide the simplest, most accurate answer for each question.

Q. Hi you guys, rather than getting lessons with a teacher in my area, I figured I would become an amazing player by asking vaguely-worded questions here and getting a bunch of conflicting and possibly poorly-informed replies. Is this going to go well?

A. No.

Q. Hi you guys, I have ill-advisedly acquired an instrument of some make or model with which I am not suitably familiar. Can you please tell me that it was a really great find and is rare and desirable and “worth” some fantastic and precise amount of money?

A. No.

Q. Hi you guys, I do not by any stretch have sufficient disposable funds to obtain an instrument of playable quality. Can you recommend a model that is of the highest professional caliber but can be purchased for an unrealistically low cost?

A. No.

Q. Hi you guys, I am a student at one of the finest music schools, and I have weekly if not daily access to a very distinguished and successful teacher of my instrument. Since you all are perfect strangers and have undetermined credentials, would it be a good idea for me to ask you for suggestions on repertoire, equipment, and technique?

A. No.

Q. Hi you guys, if we each made a detailed list of all the instruments and accessories that we individually use, and posted them publicly here for some reason, would that be in any way interesting or useful?

A. No.

This concludes another episode of the Internet Forum Field Guide. Be careful out there.

Basic tuplet math

A young music student with some basic competencies might be comfortable with these kinds of rhythms:
tuplet-mathBut these are a little trickier to pull off well:

tuplet-math-1 tuplet-math-2

Divisions of the pulse into twos and threes is simple enough conceptually, but in most cases we really learn those kinds of rhythms better by ear—we just learn what eighth notes or triplet eighths sound like against a quarter note pulse. A division of the pulse into fourths, like sixteenth notes against a quarter note pulse, is something that could ostensibly be derived: you could start from a duple subdivision, then make the mental shift to hearing the subdivided pulse as the new pulse, then subdivide that. But the quadruple subdivision is common enough that I think most of us ultimately learn to play it by ear, too.

The quarter- and half-note triplets in the first two bars of the example above are a little harder to place accurately, I think, because the “extra” pulses are hard to ignore. If I can somehow mentally block out the pulses (audible or implied) on beats two and four in the first measure, then I’m playing three notes per pulse again, and that’s really no different than, say, eighth-note triplets in 4/4. Same thing for the second bar: if I can tune out the pulses on beats two, three, and four, then I’m just playing that same triple subdivision.

One approach to this problem is to simply learn the less-familiar subdivision by ear. Music notation software is the perfect tool for this; with a little skill you can usually enter rhythms as complex as you like, and hear them played back with the utmost precision against a pulse of your choice. But here are a couple of other useful tricks.

Trick #1: Subdivide long-duration triplets

To play triplets against a duple or quadruple pulse, you can derive them from triplets played against a single pulse. For example, this rhythm…


…can be derived in this way:


Trick #2: Approximate complex tuplets with duple/triple subdivisions

“Tuplets” that are prime numbers greater than three can be difficult to audiate on the fly. But in many cases (not all cases) there is some room for complex tuplets to be somewhat less than perfectly even. For example, a composer might write a scalar “run” that contains a certain collection of pitches that doesn’t divide neatly into the number of beats allotted, and use a tuplet to make them fit into the score in a legible way. In such a case, it might be appropriate for the run to accelerate or decelerate a bit. If so, the tuplet can be reimagined as a series of duple, triple, or quadruple subdivisions.

This, for instance…

tuplet-math-2…could be approached like this (with a slight acceleration effect on each tuplet)…

tuplet-math-4…or like this (with a slight deceleration effect on each triplet:

tuplet-math-5Rewriting the rhythms into duple/triple/quadruple subdivisions of the pulse makes it easier to practice these rhythms methodically and consistently with a metronome, and allows for some anchoring which ran really solidify longer runs. Even if the intention is eventually to play the tuplet with more exact evenness, practicing them this way can help to shore up technique in the early stages.