Fast air, slow fingers

While practicing the opening of Luciano Berio’s Sequenza IXb today, I relearned for the hundredth time a concept I should have shared on here long ago: fast air, slow fingers.


Berio’s opening passage is made difficult by the need to slur large intervals into awkward registers at delicate dynamics—all with a spooky ease and panache. In particular, one must connect to a low B at a piano or pianissimo dynamic, both slurred and articulated.

Intervals are disturbed and made unstable by turbulence, especially the kind that involves even fractional movement of the saxophone mouthpiece in the oral cavity. It is extremely easy to slam down those pesky pinky keys, especially when bridging large intervals, causing that turbulence. The fix: start depressing the low-note pinky keys right away after the prior note. If the slur is F down to B, then the instant I arrive at the F I start moving my fingers to close the other keys, even though there is a duration to the F which is relatively long. The fingers have to move slowly, sneakily, and then there is this amazing sensation of the low B popping right out with ease, with the proper affekt even of the delicate dynamic. Although this particular passage is a good place to learn this technique, it is an effective approach to almost all areas of saxophone playing, especially the altissimo register.

To get an initial sense of this feeling, do a portamento slur from F# up to G using the key only. When that is smooth, try F up to G, doubling the interval. Soon, you will approach saxophone technique with a sensitive awareness of how far you let the keys open, and in what subtle timing multiple keys have to close in order to make one interval sound smooth and clean.