(This article originally appeared in Saxophone Today, November/December 2014.)
The saxophone has numerous trouble zones, but the open C# on alto and tenor is one of the very worst. This note is the shortest length of tube in the bottom register, resulting in a note that speaks quickly and easily. In fact, the note speaks so easily that it is difficult to control and it often sounds overly bright with a somewhat nasal quality. Additionally, the note tends to be flat, a tendency that is worsened by the inclination of younger players to compensate for the sharper notes by pulling out the mouthpiece too far. Changing the mouthpiece position has a much more dramatic effect on short fingerings; even a millimeter represents a significant percentage of the total length of a C#, especially when compared to the relatively long fingerings of the second register. In other words, pulling the mouthpiece out to fix a sharp middle D has the undesirable side-effect of making the adjacent middle C# even flatter. Not good. For this reason, mouthpiece placement must be within certain parameters for the entire instrument to play in tune with itself. In this article, we look at some creative ways of solving the open C# problem with alternate fingerings.
The Vented C#
Before we continue, it is important to note that we are talking about alto and tenor saxophones. Sopranos and baritones behave differently, and many sopranos have a “doughnut key,” that engages with the octave key to bring down the pitch of the highest register. The doughnut key’s pitch-flattening effect negates the use of the octave key to bring the pitch up. Also, the Selmer Series III alto has a special venting mechanism on the open C# that also contradicts the use of these alternate fingerings (the Series III tenor does not have the venting mechanism, so these fingerings will work perfectly on the tenor).
Opening the octave vent on the body of the saxophone slightly raises the pitch. The body vent is too far down the tube to make the note jump up the octave, so it instead introduces some useful resistance, taming the harsh tone of the normal fingering. As luck would have it, it is possible to exploit the automatic octave key by depressing the ring finger of the left hand with the thumb key. This fingering is known as vented C#. This trick essentially moves middle C# into the second register of the saxophone (because the octave key is now in the open position), making it more closely match the timbre of the upwardly adjacent notes, such as middle D.
Variations on the Vented C#
With the basic fingering in place (octave key + left hand ring finger), it is possible to add any combination of keys in the right hand stack. Adding the F, E, or D key will produce slight variations in pitch and color, but the basic qualities are the same as the core fingering. These keys can also be used in combination. The advantages to this approach become obvious when one considers the possibility of playing a middle D and simply lifting the top two fingers of the left hand (keeping the octave key depressed) to play a middle C#. When approaching the vented C# from above, it is possible to play D, Eb, E, F, F#, or the alternate side F#, and then simply release the keys for the top two fingers of the left hand. This allows for smooth transitions in slow figures, but also for quick passages, and even tremolos.
Yet another variation on middle C# becomes available when we finger a low C# and add the octave key. It is also possible to play this fingering as an overtone, without the use of the octave key. The octave key raises the pitch, but improves stability. I don’t usually use these fingerings, as I don’t care for the timbre. With that said, I have heard very fine players use these fingerings with great success. The tone is very similar to a middle D, especially if one covers the D with the low B key.
I have prepared a short video to demonstrate these various fingerings. If possible, listen with some high quality headphones or speakers. These fingerings offer fine variations in pitch and color, not necessarily audible through cheap earbuds or laptop speakers. Most importantly, try these fingerings out on your own, listen for the colors, and play with a tuner. Write down some observations in your practice journal on each fingering (you do have a practice journal, don’t you?), and try them out in different musical settings. There is not always one “right” fingering, but there is usually a wrong one. Trial and error will be the best teacher. Peace.