Every saxophone player has a need for speed. Here’s how to play faster, cleaner and with more solid rhythm. Don’t forget to download the free fingering worksheet that goes along with this lesson.

Click below for the video version of this post.

Where Are Your Fingers Now?

When you play your saxophone, where are your fingers as they move? Are they resting on or very near the keys most of the time? Or are they flailing a few inches away from the keys? If you’re not sure, video yourself playing or just play something in front of the mirror and watch your hands.

Most beginner sax players have a lot of room for improvement when it comes to their hand and finger position, and even advanced players can gain a lot from refining their hand and finger position.

Why Does It Matter?

What difference does it make if your fingers are close to the keys or not? Imagine you’re playing a sport. Whenever you are swinging the golf club, tennis racket or shooting a free throw, you make a lot of unnecessary movement with your body. Any extra movement or unnecessary hitch you add to those mechanics when you play a sport is going to hinder your ability to perform well.

It’s the same thing with playing the saxophone. Don’t make things more difficult for yourself. You’ve got to move your hands in an efficient way and eliminate all excess movement. This starts with keeping your fingers close to the keys at all times.

Finding the Correct Finger Position

Using correct finger position is one of the easiest things we can do that’s going to have a huge impact on our overall playing. You don’t have to be a professional saxophone player to use good finger technique — this is for everyone at every level.

If you’re a beginner, let’s get things started on the right foot by using good habits from the start. If you’ve been playing for a while and you’re not playing with a really solid finger technique, now is a great time to start improving that. You’ll notice a big difference in your overall playing by doing this.

Step 1: What Is the Correct Position?

Your fingertips should be resting comfortably on the key pearls, and your little fingers should be resting on the G-sharp key and the E-flat key. Your left thumb should be on the thumb rest with just the tip positioned over the edge to action the octave key. Your right thumb should be under the thumb hook at a position that allows your fingers to rest rounded and comfortably on the key pearls.

Your fingers should be relaxed and curved, not straight. You want the motion of your finger to push the keys straight down, not at an angle. When you play the palm keys, your fingers should not come off the saxophone.

If the palm keys feel too far away from your hand, try adding palm key risers so they fit closer to your hand. You can even make these at home.

Click below for my video on how to make palm key risers at home.

Remember to keep your hands, wrists, shoulders and neck very relaxed and release any other tension that you might have in your body. Stand up straight with good posture. It’s important to get this position right — without playing a single note — before moving on.

Memorize what it feels like to hold the saxophone with this relaxed, optimal hand position, good posture and while being totally relaxed. Make this your default position.

Now you might say, “That’s all well and good but the problem happens when I start moving my fingers. That’s when they start coming off the keys!”

Step 2: Practice with Long Tones

To get in the habit of playing with good fingering position, play one note at a time while maintaining this perfect default position. By practicing long tones you can work on getting a good sound, embouchure and intonation.

You can brush up on your embouchure with this tutorial video. If you’re just starting out, my other saxophone fundamental videos are also a great resource, which you can find on my YouTube channel.

Add finger position to the list of fundamentals that you focus on while you’re practicing your long tones.

When you play the notes that use a lot of fingers, like D, be careful that you’re not squeezing the keys with a grip of death. This is another common mistake that people make. It’s not as visible, but it has the same result, which makes our technique sloppy, messes up our rhythm and is generally not good.

So if you’re already practicing your long tones over the full range of your instrument as you should be, adding this focus on finger technique is not going to add any time to your practice session. Your goal is to train yourself to always play every note with this ideal relaxed hand position.

If you need a little additional guidance on how to practice, check out my video on optimizing your saxophone practice session here.

Step 3: Expand To Other Notes

Once you’ve gotten the hang of holding that fingering position playing long tones, it’s time to expand. Take whatever you’re working on — scales, arpeggios, it doesn’t matter — and apply this focus on perfect hand position for every note.

The key to this is going slow. We play fast the same way we play slowly, just not nearly as good. So if your hand position and technique is lousy at a slow tempo, when you speed things up, it’s going to be even more lousy.

Before you tell me that you need to get better fast and ask, “Can’t you tell me the quick and easy version of all of this?” Well, this is the quickest and easiest way to develop fast technique, to play cleanly and to get a solid rhythm.

Take it from somebody who has had a lot of trouble with this and only realized very late in the game how important it is to practice with meticulous attention to details. It takes far longer to correct bad habits down the road that have developed over time than to just avoid them in the first place by going slow and practicing with very good technique.

Try to get in the habit of playing things slower, at a tempo where you can play things with no mistakes. It’s slow enough that you have the time to think about other things as well as playing the right notes. Let’s call this the Goldilocks tempo — it’s not too fast or too slow but just right.

By the time you’re ready to play things fast, the notes need to be automatic — you can’t be thinking about what notes to play. Your mind needs to be free to think about other things. If your brain’s processing power is all used up thinking what notes to play, then there’s nothing left over for just making music.

In other words, it’s all the other things that you are doing that allow you to play fast, musically. This includes a strong embouchure, good finger technique, good posture, staying relaxed, good rhythm, and having a solid sense of time.

It’s not just, “I’m able to wiggle my fingers really fast.” We need to have practiced slowly to give our brain the time to process all this information and make it happen automatically.

Try to enforce the 80-20 rule when you’re practicing technically difficult things.

Around 80 percent of the time you want to be practicing stuff at a comfortable tempo where you can get everything right and you can concentrate on all the different aspects of playing. For no more than 20 percent of the time should you practice that same thing up to the goal tempo.

This means that for 80 percent of the time you don’t have to worry so much about the notes that you’re playing. You can really think about all your fundamentals in order to sound good. You can actively be improving all aspects of your playing while enforcing good habits that are going to carry over when you speed things up.

If you’re already able to play something at your goal tempo cleanly and with no mistakes, then you don’t need to spend a lot of time practicing it. It’s satisfying to hear yourself play something that sounds good and you should do that from time to time. But if you spend all of your practice time just sounding good and playing what you already know, you’re not going to progress much.

Some people question the logic in all of this. They say, “How can playing slow help me play faster?”

It does.

Or, “All those musicians who play really fast all the time, they must be practicing really fast all the time.”

They practice slow too.

If you’ve had success with this, please comment below to share how this method improved your saxophone playing.

Time To Practice

Now that we’ve covered the basics for how to play faster, it’s time for you to go off and practice. We’ve created a free fingering worksheet you can download with exercises and instructions to keep your fingers close to the keys and develop your technique.

If you need something to practice, don’t forget to check out all of the BetterSax courses available online. If it’s your first time, you can start with our free Play Sax By Ear Crash Course.

Find your Goldilocks tempo, put on your metronome and practice in front of a mirror so you can see and control what you’re doing with your fingers. And as always, let us know how it goes in the comments!

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