Key Saturation: Mastering the Hard Keys on Your Sax

Tonight I practiced my saxophone for the first time since I pulled my back muscles this past Monday. It feels great to be able to walk freely again, and this evening it felt doubly great to hop into my car, head out to my beloved railroad tracks, and woodshed my horn for several solid hours. Much of my time was spent working on the key of F#. That's one of my favorite, time-tested approaches in practicing: to periodically pick a single key or tone center and saturate myself in it. By "saturate," I mean hitting the key from every possible angle: running patterns on the scale. Drilling myself on the key's dominant chord, including alterations and substitutes. Working chromaticism into the diatonic framework. Transposing and memorizing great jazz players' solos. So on and so forth. All of us practice key saturation to some extent simply by default. We don't think of what we're doing in those terms, but it's the reason why we commonly become proficient in keys such as concert Bb, F, Eb, and C. We naturally spend lots of time working on those keys because they're the ones that a great deal of jazz is written in. We think of them as the easy keys--easy because, we tell ourselves, they have fewer sharps or flats. But the real reason they're easy is because we've practiced them enough to become conversant in them. By that same reasoning, the "hard" keys--keys such as concert E, A, D, and F#--are hard not because they have lots of sharps or flats, but because we haven't spent any real time getting intimately familiar with them. The truth is, "hard" is just a mindset. There are no hard keys; there are only unpracticed keys. There are no difficult scales, only unpracticed ones. That's why it pays to pick a key or tone center you're unfamiliar with every now and then, and spend several practice sessions saturating yourself in it. If you've never done so, give it a try. If you're an alto player, for instance, how well do you get around in the alto key of Ab? Not too hot? Then why not devote part of your next session to bombarding that key. Pick a solo transcription you know well and start learning it in Ab. Ditto a few tunes. Hash out diads and arpeggios, starting with the basics and working in bracketing and chromaticism. Wrap your fingers around a few ii-V7-I's. And don't forget your bebop scales. Mastering a key takes time and consistency, but the saturation approach will get you there if you stick with it. And you just may find, as I've found, that key saturation can become addictive as those hard keys become less difficult and a lot more enjoyable.
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  1. There is nothing like getting lost in the instrument you love to play.


  1. […] inspirational practice session, I found myself thinking about what it was I was accomplishing. Saturating myself in the rarely used key of concert A, as I’ve been doing lately, and also taking new material through all twelve keys, has not […]

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