This article originally appeared in Saxophone Journal, March/April 2007. Volume 31, No. 4
[An interesting aside to this article is that my right hand is now completely recovered from the old injuries. I credit this mainly to reinventing my physical approach to the instrument, but also to learning to write in cursive with my right hand as a kind of physical therapy to develop the intrinsic muscles of my "opposite" hand]
It is a well-known fact that speed can only be developed by slow repetition. As with so many aspects of craft, the solution to a problem seems counter-intuitive. Any level of musical maturity allows us to see that the house is only as good as the foundation; effortless dexterity is the inevitable result of attention paid to the slow-motion details of technique. Obviously, it is important to practice playing rapidly, but there must be a balance that is weighted more towards perfection of the technique through slow-motion practice and analysis. The following is an exercise that I have been doing for the past several months. While the specifics of the routine may need to be altered to match the level of individual development, the core ideas of this exercise should be useful to any saxophonist.
When I was in my early twenties, I suffered tendonitis-related injuries in my right hand. I went from experiencing occasional pain while playing to being in constant pain, even when I was not on the horn. I had no choice but to take some time off and heal. My teacher at the time, Lynn Klock, had recently recovered from a broken hand. With his guidance, I assessed my technique and unlearned the bad habits that led to my injury. My main problem was that I held the horn up with my thumb in the hook, pulling my hand out of its natural position. This forced me to grip the horn, and to hyper-extend the first joint of my right ring finger. As a temporary measure, I removed the thumb hook from my horn completely. I learned to let the weight of the instrument hang from the neck strap, so I could float my right hand on the saxophone without trying to hold the horn up. In time, I was able to put the hook back, but only as a means of balancing the instrument. In other words, I unlearned my habit of applying upward pressure in the thumb rest.
While my hand eventually came back, the injuries were serious enough that the recovery has never really been 100%. If you play in pain, and most of us do, STOP and figure out what is causing the pain. I often wish that I had solved my issues sooner. I can only be grateful that my experience helps me to teach others, so that they might stave off injury. Do not play in pain! If you cannot solve your problems on your own, seek the advice of a great teacher. I have students who have had great success studying Alexander Technique with a qualified teacher. We must never forget that musicians are elite athletes, using the tiny muscles that no one ever really sees. We must warm up, refine our technique, and protect ourselves just as a professional athlete does. While it may be impossible to avoid every injury, it should be possible to play without pain.
I am left-handed, and my right hand is weakened from injury, so I always start by warming up my left hand. For the following, refer to Basic Dexterity Builder- Left Hand Emphasis. These passages should be executed at sixty beats per minute. Each measure should be repeated as many times as necessary, until it can be performed with comfortable ease. It is extremely important to keep every part of the body relaxed. Focus your strength on diaphragmatic air support. Keep the shoulders low, the elbows loose, and the wrists fluid. Do not think about pushing the keys down, but rather think of getting the fingers out of the way of the keys. Let the springs do most of the work. The fingers should be low to the keys, and the hands should keep a relatively rounded position. Reach out as if you are going to shake hands with someone. This is the natural hand position that must be maintained: wrists straight, fingers curved, and thumbs approximating a 90° angle to the rest of the fingers. DO NOT move on to the next measure until you are satisfied that you can perform the current group of notes in a relaxed fashion. If tension is introduced into the process, the entire point of these exercises is lost.
As the notes come at a faster rate, concentrate on lifting the fingers. Again, keep them low to the keys, but emphasize the negative action (releasing the keys), instead of the positive pushing down on the pearls. At a certain point, it will become impossible to evenly divide the beat by thinking of the numbers. I have had success using the Indian syllable to divide fives and sevens (for more on this, check out Ronan Guilfoyle’s excellent book Creative Rhythmic Concepts for Jazz Improvisation), but anything from elevens on is more of a feel. If you can stay relaxed, just work on hitting the target notes on the downbeats and making the notes between as even as possible. When you really get down to it, the notes should feel like water flowing between the beats. This takes time and patience, and one must never attempt to play at a speed that requires pounding on the keys. The body, the hands, and notes should all be fluid, like liquid.
As I said, I am left-handed, so I begin with the left hand emphasized. On any given day, I will only work as far as I can without becoming tense. Once I reach the point of tension, I slow back down and begin the right hand emphasis exercises. The tempo should remain at sixty beats per minute throughout. Take great care in maintaining good posture, active air support, and gentle fingers. Repeat each measure at least ten times, increasing repetitions with the increased subdivisions of the beat. I will often play the faster measures for several minutes at a time. When a true feeling of effortlessness is achieved, and only then, it is time to move on.
The astute student will notice that these exercises only address the key of C. I alternate between two methods of taking these patterns through the keys. The first way is to go all the way through, and then begin again with an added flat. Subsequent repetitions will continue to add a flat until it makes sense to switch to sharps, again letting the sharps accumulate one at a time. If a particular cell of notes does not include the newly altered note, ignore the fact and play on until the changed note appears. A second approach is to stay on one measure, adding flats and then sharps, until all variations have been performed. Then move forward to the next measure, again working through all the variations. Clearly, some versions of each measure will be more difficult. When you have reached an alteration that you cannot perform with ease, slow it down, or move on to the next measure. In certain extremely challenging note configurations, I will perform the measure at half-speed.
This strategy for building dexterity is only the beginning of what is possible. These patterns could begin on different notes, or extend into the altissimo register. In certain keys, I will extend the upper register to altissimo D, E, or even F. Another great variation is to invert the intervals and play from the top down. Do not limit yourself to scalar motion, but try playing in thirds to make extended arpeggios. I can only imagine that the great John Coltrane practiced in this manner, developing a technique that freely fit as many notes between the beat as he desired. If you cannot perform at your speed goals, spend more time with the slower measures. Build a solid foundation for the house! Be creative with the concept behind this exercise and try to create your own variations.
Speed is the illusive goal of many musicians. Never lose sight of the importance of proper technique as the vehicle towards speed. Tension, heavy handedness, and lifting the fingers up straight are all enemies in the process. The most benefit will be derived from the time spent working slowly for consistency. Over the course of several months, you should notice an increase in precision, speed, and relaxation. I hope this is helpful, and I welcome your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org. Practice well! §
#superfly #dexterity #warmup #oppositehand #tendonitis