2 Ways to Fast Fingers

Tone & Technique

There tend to be a couple skills that every beginner would love to improve: their tone and technique (technique-a term we use for finger agility, or ability to play notes quickly). I have written a number of posts on tone, but this time I would like to write about technique. If your fingers are set properly, then you set yourself up with good habits, resulting in the ability to play quickly and accurately in the future. Let’s get started.

Charlie Parker

Check out any video of Charlie Parker and watch his fingers. How would you describe his finger movement? When he plays fast passages, did you notice that his fingers remained close to the keys? They don’t move much, do they? He makes it look so easy, too!

It’s important to understand that a lot of finger movement is not required to play fast. In fact, the more relaxed your fingers are, and the closer they remain to the keys, the better your technique can be. If Charlie Parker moved his fingers up and down in a big motion, he most likely would not have had the amazing technique that he displayed in this performance.

This Plagued Me Too

When I was younger, I had an issue with raising my fingers too high when I played. As soon as I was able to settle the fingers down and keep the fingers close to the keys, my technique became much better. But how do we relax our fingers and get them to stay close to the keys? If I told you, “keep your fingers down”, it may not be enough assistance to help solve the issue. Actually method #2 is kind of like that, but with an explanation to help. Method #1 is more likely to help.

Method #1

With method #1, the goal is to feel more comfortable with the saxophone. One of the best ways to accomplish this is to practice all 12 major scales (I know, not an exciting method, but the results are effective). As you become more capable with all your major scales, and work on them at a slow tempo with a metronome, you will begin to feel more comfortable with the saxophone. As this happens, the fingers automatically begin to relax and stay closer to the keys. In fact, one day you’ll be playing and you’ll be amazed that the saxophonist you’re hearing is you! That is a very exciting moment. So, just to repeat myself- in order to relax and bring the fingers down, get to know your major scales. The fingers will automatically begin to relax and they will minimize their movement naturally.

Method #2

Whenever I help someone fix something in their playing, I usually like to provide exercises that they can take home to fix the issue. However, this next method does not follow my traditional teaching method. Here it is: In order to keep your fingers down and relaxed, just make the choice to do so. This approach won’t work for everyone, but I share it because it has worked in the past. The first time this worked I was teaching a student in my studio. I jokingly told him to stop lifting his fingers so high and relax (I believed that simply suggesting this would never result in improvement). He said, “OK” and soon solved the issue. Why did this work for this student? He didn’t realize that this was something that needed to be changed, so just by bringing it up, he solved the problem.

Results

This last method won’t work for everyone, but it’s at least important to identify this as an option. If method #2 works for you- awesome! If not, you’ll have to follow method #1 along with the rest of us.

Whichever method works for you, our main goal is to have relaxed fingers that stay close to the keys. If you do this, your technique will have the foundation to help you play quickly, effectively, and with consistency. You’ll love the player that you’ll become.

A Question

Do you have the issue of raising your fingers too high while playing? How are you fixing it? Have any of these methods (or others) worked for you? You can share your thoughts in the comment section on this page. We would love to hear from you!

Again, thanks for reading! Feel free to “share” and “like” this post with the social media buttons on this page. Thanks!

Comments 20

  1. Hi, great article. It clarifies a lot of things about finger articulation. And yes… one of my mistakes is “overfingering” in both directions, i.e. pressing too much when closing the keys and raising it too long, which results in much effort and time consumed than needed. I’ll practise method No. 1 for sure.

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      Hi Marc,

      Thanks for your comments! I’m glad that you’re able to identify where you can improve your technique. When we can identify an issue, it becomes much easier to resolve. As you continue to practice your scales I would be interested in hearing updates on your technique. Thanks!

  2. Dear Teacher,

    Thanks for the wonderful tips given by you on developing fast finger techniques. I just wanna let you know the 2 problems i have with my finger placement.

    1) I always have the habit of pressing the keys hard ( though I don’t want to). I want to get rid of this habit and I am worried I will spoil the pads and springs.

    2) I always keep my right hand pinky up (my wife used make fun of it) when I play.
    I think my inner conscious says that if i don’t lift my right hand pinky, i will end up touching D# key( as I always press the keys hard) accidentally while playing.

    Could you pls help me with this?.

    Your student,
    Chris

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      Author

      Hi Chris,

      Lifting the pinky is a common issue, but it can be resolved. First, play your easiest scale (that way you’re not thinking about playing notes and you can focus on the issue). Keep your right pinky on the D# key the whole time, but don’t push it down. Let it rest on the top. Play the scale 10 times a day. After a few weeks, this will become more comfortable, and the pinky will begin to rest easily on the key without pressing it. At the beginning, don’t worry if you accidentally play a D#. After some time this will become less likely and it will begin to drift into your playing (not just the easy scale). As far as pressing hard, follow method #1 and you’ll get there.

  3. Hi Jeff,

    Thanks for this extremely useful article. I tended to lift my fingers a little too high as well when I started playing the saxophone. Like you suggested, I got away from that by playing scales. It really helped because it also made playing a lot easier.

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      Author

      Thanks for sharing your experience Deirdre. It’s great to hear how you worked through the issue, and that you can fix it again. Way to go!

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      Hi Aldre,

      I’m glad to hear that your tone is improving and that you’re happy with what you hear. Keep up the good work!

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  4. Hi Jeff, am in communication with you for the last three years. Two years ago when I was in Lawrence in the state of Kansas I learn that you have moved to Arizona. I missed to meet you then personally. I am an India & keep visiting my son once a year. Now he is at Las Vegas. your tips am following with my utmost concentration. Since I too have the problem of the lifting of both the pinky I will follow your advice. Thank you so so much for your great guidance, Jeff. Take care.

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      Author

      Thanks for writing back in, and yes, I do remember you. There’s another technique you can use to assist with keeping fingers down: tape your pinky fingers to the saxophone; one will be the G# key (left hand) and the other to the Eb key (right hand). Use double sided tape of make a loop with one sided tape and attach to the keys. As you play, you’ll notice that your fingers stay close to the saxophone, but it may be difficult to play at first. Do this everyday for 5-10 minute and you should notice a difference in a week. Give it a try and let me know how it goes!

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      Author

      We’re glad you’re enjoying the posts and that they’re helpful. Yes, consistent practice can be the most difficult, but once you get started the progress that you’ll see will become another motivator. We look forward to seeing you succeed!

  5. This is something i’ve heard recently and Charlie Parker being used as an example so i began to do method #2 as i’m leaning scales. My experience is that it comes from ”stress and fear” (and resulting tension) of hitting the wrong note. If i slow down what im doing, it really helps and ive heard that you should only play as fast as you can play well. Sometime i try to go to fast when i’m not ready with a particular scale and that is when i see my fingers lifting to the other side of the room! one teacher i read actually said, in order to emphasize playing so slow while learning something, that if you actually hear the tune you re playing you are playing too fast!!!

    I have to say Jeff, that i really find your blog informative and helpful, great information in here!!!

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      Author

      It sounds like we’re on the same page here, Pete! I’m glad you figured out #2 on your own and how tension caused an issue. We are consistently working on getting the saxophone to feel natural and not an auxiliary piece of metal. Playing scales slowly is a big part of this. Here are a few additional posts that cover this further, and how to play faster and more consistently:

      Theory
      Application

      Thanks for responding in this post. We’re glad you’re enjoying the information and we’re glad it helps. Let us know if you have questions about the two posts above. We hope you’ll find it interesting and that your technique improves!

  6. Hi Jeff

    I have looked everywhere for advice on finger position, as I cannot control my left hand, meaning the pads do not close correctly all the time, maybe 50% they do. I have been experimenting with resting my fingers flat and then changing to placing the tips of my finger in the Pearl. To be honest I am very confused as each time I practice I keep changing to a different finger placement in the hope I can my find the correct way.

    This problem occurred after I stopped playing for a few years and when I started again my fingers did not connect with the keys, however my right hand is perfect. If you could let me know the best solution I would be most happy. Cheers Andy

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      Author

      Hi Andy. I’m glad to hear that you’re playing the saxophone again and I hope you’re having a good time. After reading your description, it sounds like the issue could be with the saxophone and not your fingers. When the pads warp, they will leak out air when they are pushed down. Of course, leaking should not occur, and a repair technician will easily be able to fix this. Your description, plus your ability to use the right hand properly, supports this case. This is true especially after not having played for a few years. When they sit, the pads can warp, which means they won’t close properly. Let me know how it goes!

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