Efficiency and relaxation in saxophone technique

I used to be a ballroom dance teacher for about a year, during which time I greatly improved my saxophone technique. In dancing, balance is the key to both power and speed. Almost any time you see a professional ballroom star doing something with stunning speed and athleticism, most of his/her energy is not going into brute force, but finesse: the more balanced he/she is, the faster he/she seems to move (interestingly enough, the bigger they look on the floor as well, which explains why many of the world champions—who look huge onstage—are indeed very short persons or couples with a low center of gravity).

So if you balance your saxophone perfectly, you’ll see your abilities on the horn skyrocket for several reasons. I have this half-baked theory that a lot of difficulty in bridging larger intervals, including fast octave-key alternations and slurring in and out of the altissimo, is made much more difficult simply by air turbulence: that the airstream in your oral cavity is disrupted into a kind of chaos by the mouthpiece literally moving around in your mouth, albeit subtly, when your struggling fingers jam the saxophone around.

So, to experience what I’m talking about, practice in front of a full length mirror and check the following:

1.) Excellent full body posture: you should notice the balls of your feet, your knees, your hips, and your shoulders in two near perfect vertical columns, one element on top of the other, your tailbone relaxed and lowered (reduce the Lumbar region curve of your lower back), and your the 8-pound weight of your head floating comfortably above the tailbone. This feeling should feel both relaxed and powerful, you should feel ready for an earthquake. Your weight should be evenly distributed between both feet. For this kind of practicing, eliminate all bodily motion.

2.) Don’t mess with this once you’ve got a saxophone: bring the saxophone to your mouth, not the other way around, and use the neckstrap to do this. Let your elbow drop comfortably and ergonomically at your sides.

3.) This is for practice only: do not rest the horn on your body, hip, thigh, or side at all. Hold the horn out in front of you, stabilized (very precariously, I might add) by your RIGHT thumb (which pushes the instrument away) and your neckstrap (which counteracts that force). Again, find a relaxed balance here.

3a.) When holding the saxophone (for adults), take care to have your elbows near your hip bones. If your elbows go much behind your hip bones, you produce a very unnatural (yet common) shoulder manglement. Use that right elbow on hip as your stability point to hold the saxophone.

4.) Practice scales or other technical passages, and note how tricky it is not to have your horn shake around especially when playing palm and pinky keys. This position is designed to draw attention to that instability, to exacerbate it in order to force you to fix it. Force yourself to work through the physics of the way your hands move, slowly, systematically, and in a very disciplined manner, so that you can play even palm key and pinky key passages without the bell of your horn moving around. You’ll get, perhaps, a brand new feeling on the horn.

5.) Among the things you will start to discover in your search for saxophone balance are: i.) you must relax your grip and make your finger motions hyper-efficient: the harder you grip or depress a key/lever, the more chaotically you will release it and the horn balance will be lost (notice those pinkies, or especially left hand index finger, how often they fly off the key when opening, increasing the distance needed to travel and henceforth slowing your technique). ii.) that you no longer need to make drastic adjustments in your airstream, embouchure, or even voicing when bridging large intervals, you will realize how the small inaccuracies of technique will trick your body into compensating via the air column or otherwise, and your air technique will be more flowing and streamlined. This, by the way, increases the speed of response of notes when coming from far away notes, and allows you to play faster, cleaner, and easier. iii.) upon careful inspection in the mirror, you may notice that certain keys do not always open or close in perfect synch with other keys (most notably the octave vents). When your horn is balanced, you’ll have the opportunity to get intimately acquainted with all the in-betweens of open and closed, the rate at which the different keys open or close, their varied distances, and especially the positive effects in the altissimo when regulating the minute order of these discrepancies in technique. iv.) note how often, to your fingers, that faster gets confused with harder, and that this is not necessary. It doesn’t actually take much force at all to depress a low B or Bb key, nor does it to depress a higher palm key. However, when moving quickly, most of use use a little too much force, which gets dissipated into the body of the horn, moving it around a lot. By training yourself to use the exact quantity of force necessary to open or close keys (no more, no less) when playing very slowly, you will get used to this feeling and avoid the issue (mostly) when playing faster.

So, maybe, the next time you have to suddenly pop up into the altissimo, or slur from the higher octaves down to a low B or Bb, take interest in the physical disturbance of your saxophone’s balance and positioning when your fingers move to such a drastically different position, and be cheered by knowing that none of the keys open more than about half an inch (as opposed to, say, cello, where you must often physically travel the full parallel of that musical distance with your hand)! By coordinating and synchronizing various half-inch distance changes, you can finesse your way around virtually any technical challenge, even the more difficult leaps. As a final note, those of you with wrist pain or other risks for playing-related injury will drastically reduce your dangers by being cognizant of your saxophone’s balance. Good, efficient technique is what makes this possible, but I think that balance and posture are deeply rooted in the development thereof and are also not talked about very much in the area of technique discussion.

One thought on “Efficiency and relaxation in saxophone technique

  1. Le Gatewood MU Ret

    Dr. O’Connor,
    Glad I found you on the web. It is pleasure to hear you and read your words of wisdom drawn from exposure during your marching through the halls of academia, but the life of Navy Band Annapolis helped bring it home. The diversity of music genre played by Navy bands personnel will far exceed that of any school.
    On your treatise on technique you’re absolute correct in your statement of alignment, relaxation, kinetic association in movement pre and post playing of the note. As Master Chief Dale Underwood would say, “it’s all about the air you put behind it,” but you added the ability to position one’s self as “balanced” avails opportunity for swift intervalistic transition, ridding tension. and receiving a positive response in the altissimo range with a resounding clean and clear tone.
    A couple of things I wished you would have touched though. One is the subject of opening the throat, the condition of the instrument (making sure there aren’t any air leaks) and mouthpiece set up (one that works due to physical and oral make up of the person along with mouthpiece, ligature and reed nomenclature facilitating the instrumentalist with great response and not because of popularity). In conjunction to what you have said, a saxophonist without a good mouth piece set up and properly working instrument will always be out of balance. They will compensate balance with undue pressure, tenseness, and lack of focus. The overcompensation, if they don’t have the other two working entities, results in lack of confidence, frustration, and demotion in their drive to become better.
    Le (3801,03,05)

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