Getting the Feel of a Key

Before I launch into the topic of this post--a quick tip of the hat to Big Band Nouveau for Thursday night's outstanding performance at The B.O.B. in downtown Grand Rapids. I think this was our best show yet. The guys were simply scorching those charts, and the crowd was hugely responsive. A standing ovation is a pretty good indication that we're doing something right. Mike Doyle deserves major props for having the vision to pull together some outstanding musicians in a creative effort of such high caliber. Thanks to Mike, and thanks to all the cats. You guys rock to the third order! With that said, I turn my attention to tonight's feature: Bb7. Yes, Bb7--or really, the key of Eb major. I just happened to be hashing it out via its dominant chord during my practice session earlier this evening. I've been hammering on that key lately because two of my solo numbers in Big Band Nouveau modulate briefly to Eb major, and I want to do more than just get by in those sections. I want to play the crap out of them. And the way to do that is to saturate myself in the key of Eb. I've written previously about key saturation. The idea is to steep yourself in a key in as many ways as you can think of until you know it inside and out. Until you own it. And you own it when you hear it in your head and feel it in your fingers. Every key has its own feel on the saxophone. Most of us get the feel of certain keys early on. As an alto player, I'm quite comfortable in the keys of D and G, and, to a slightly lesser extent, E and A. I'm also comfortable in C and F, and of course, a number of minor keys. And I can get by decently in all the remaining keys, both major and minor, some moreso than others. But my fingers know the feel of just a select few keys in a way that I would describe as intimate. Why is that? After all, there are only twelve tones that a musician has to deal with. True. But those twelve tones relate to each other in entirely different ways from one key to the next. F# is not just F#.
  • In the key of D, it is the third of the tonic chord.
  • In the key of G, it is the seventh.
  • In B, it is the fifth.
  • In C, it is the augmented fourth; in Eb, it is the sharp two; and in both of these keys, it is a non-diatonic tone.
  • And let's not forget the obvious: in F#, it is the root.
And that is just how F# relates to the tonic chord. There are six other chords besides in every major scale, not to mention various harmonic formulae, many of which include altered and borrowed chords. And F# has a unique relationship with all of them. Your fingers feel each of those functions of F# differently, and some functions may be more familiar to your muscle memory than others. Your fingers may, through constant use, know exactly what to do with F# in the key of G, know how to get onto it and off of it from and in every direction and use it in all sorts of creative ways. But move the key center a tritone to C# and now how familiar are you with that same F#? It has become a completely different animal, and your fingers may not know its feel. The note that you felt utterly at home with in one key can seem like a complete stranger in another. And while it's true that certain keys get used far more than others, ultimately you want both your fingers and your mind to instinctively know how to treat every one of the twelve notes in the chromatic scale in all twelve major and all twelve minor keys. The way to achieve that goal is key saturation. I've already offered some good suggestions on how to approach the saturation technique in another post, so there's no need for me to repeat myself here. My point is simply to mention that every key has a feel that is all its own, and it behooves you and me to master all twenty-four of those "feels." Yes, it's a big task. But it's also a fun one. Just pick a key and work at it. Mine right now is Eb. I find myself focusing especially on the third and seventh of the major chord and the seventh of the dominant chord--G, D, and Ab, respectively. Once I become conversant with those notes in any key, the other notes--both diatonic and non-diatonic--all seem to fall into place. Okay, enough for tonight. It's after one o'clock in the morning, and I'm getting sleepy. The rest is up to you.

Building a Baseline of Ability: Revisiting an Oldie-But-Goodie Music Post

The problem with blogging is that old material tends to get buried beneath new posts. Jewels are lurking down there in the sedimentary layers, and they deserve to be brought back to the surface from time to time. Some of them surprise me. I think, Did I write that? It seems like someone else sharing wisdom and encouragement with me that I can benefit from today. Such is a post from back in May 2010, two-and-a-half years ago, which I titled "Mastering the Sax: Building a Baseline of Ability." I hope you will find it helpful and encouraging, as did I in rereading it.

How to Flutter Tongue on the Saxophone

Most days back when I was in elementary school, my friend Pete Rogers brought his submachine gun to school. It was a formidable weapon that Pete employed with withering effectiveness during the war games we boys played at recess, and it possessed the added advantage of instant disassembly into just two components which bore a striking resemblance to Pete's right and left hands.

As the enemy approached us on the battlefield, Pete would make pistols out of both hands, jam the barrel of one pistol into the other hand behind the base of the thumb, and presto! Instant Tommy gun. "D-D-D-D-D-D-D-DOOOWWWWWW!" Pete would yell, doing a convincing imitation of a kid simulating automatic weapon fire. "D-D-D-D-D-D-D-D-DOOOOOWWWWWWWW!!!" And into the fray he'd charge, he and his handufactured submachine gun. Pete was impressive.

I envied him. Like the rest of the boys, I had to consign myself to plain old bolt-action--until one day, I figured out Pete's secret for making his machine gun sound. The sound, after all, was the thing. There's no point in having a machine gun if you can't fire it. I discovered how.

By placing the tip of my tongue lightly but firmly against the roof of my mouth--not directly behind my teeth, but more toward the center of my palate--and then directing a steady stream of air against it, I could get my tongue to flutter, generating a rattling t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t sound. Mimicking Pete's machine gun was then just a matter of adding my vocal chords to the mix.

Now that I was onto Pete's secret, naturally I customized it to fit my taste. Pete's sound was loud. I opted for a subtler approach--a Tommy gun with a silencer, if you will. A stealth machine gun. By fluttering my tongue right up against the top of my clenched teeth, and by not using my voice, I managed to produce the coolest, most convincingest machine gun fire you ever heard. It outclassed Pete's prototype hands down. From then on, my lunch hours were littered with the bodies of scores of enemy soldiers who fell under the subtle but deadly chatter of my .50 caliber finger.

Years later in high school, long after my boyhood war games had ended, I discovered another use for my machine gun sound. By employing it while playing my saxophone, I was able to produce a wild, burry kind of effect. I didn't realize that what I was doing had an actual name--flutter tonguing--or that R&B saxophonists such as Junior Walker incorporated it as part of their trademark sound. I thought of it as simply an interesting but useless curiosity.

Of course I was wrong. Flutter tonguing can be eminently useful depending on the kind of sound you're after. I don't use the technique often, but I can and do pull it out of my pocket occasionally, and so can you whenever you wish. Flutter tonguing is not hard to learn.

Here's How to Flutter Tongue on the Saxophone

Actually, if you were paying attention, you already know how to flutter tongue. Re-read the fourth paragraph. It describes the basics. Give it a try. No saxophone--just make the machine gun sound (leaving out the vocal part). You want to use my buddy Pete's approach, not my refinements. Your tongue needs to touch closer to the center of your palate rather than directly behind your teeth.

Once you're able to produce the rolling, machine-gun-like effect I'm talking about, try it with your horn. Bear two things in in mind:

• You'll probably need to take in less mouthpiece than you normally would.

• You should not let your tongue touch the reed. Flutter-tonguing isn't really tonguing in the usual sense; it is not a form of articulation such as single-tonguing or double-tonguing. Rather, your tongue flutters rapidly against the roof of your mouth as you blow into the mouthpiece. If your tongue actually touches the reed, it will choke off the sound.

Flutter tonguing is easiest to use in the middle register of your horn. With practice, you can work your way higher. And with practice, you can also play reasonably in tune. I say this because flutter tonguing can flatten your pitch if you're not careful. So while the basic effect isn't particularly difficult to produce, getting it to a point of usefulness may take a bit of work. Overall, though, flutter tonguing is in my experience one of the more easily acquired effects. Compared to mastering double-tonguing or the altissimo register, it's a cinch.

I may create a video clip of my own to demonstrate the flutter tonguing technique. Meanwhile, this one by Phil Baldino does a great job of letting you see and hear how it's done.

How to Practice the Saxophone: Four Key Principles That Can Help You Advance

What does it take to develop as a jazz saxophonist--or, for that matter, as any kind of instrumentalist? Practice. Right, I guess we all know that. But there is practice, and then there is effective practice. Practice that makes the best use of the time you're investing. Practice which a year from now will have produced a year's worth of results rather than a month's worth of plodding the treadmill twelve times over. Two things are paramount for effective saxophone woodshedding: what you practice and how you practice. In previous posts and on my jazz page, I've provided plenty of material that addresses the "what" part of that equation. In this article, I'm going to talk a bit about the "how" as it pertains to technical development. Having spent time contemplating the things that have contributed to my own growth as a sax player, I've identified four key principles that I believe are important for developing technical proficiency. They are:





These four principles work together to help you transition from the initial, heavily intellectual process that comes as you tackle new musical material, to a more intuitive approach that develops as you spend time mastering that material and making it your own.

Each of the principles could easily be an article in itself, so I'm not going to tackle them in depth. Right now, I just want to introduce you to the concepts.


Whether you're learning a new scale, practicing patterns, hashing out a lick, moving around the circle of fifths, or memorizing a Charlie Parker solo, the way to approach musical material is in increments.

Think of how you eat your food. You'd never stick an entire steak in your mouth and try to swallow it whole. (You wouldn't, would you?) No, you cut off manageable, bite-size pieces which you take your time to chew. The same idea applies to working on music: bite-size is best.

Pick groups of notes and repeat them till they lay well under your fingers. In particular, isolate problem areas and focus on them, oiling them with repetition until they're working smoothly. Work out which alternate fingerings work best in a given situation. If you're playing in the key of F#, for example, you may find yourself using the bis, one-four, and side fingerings for A# almost consecutively as the context for your approach to the note A# changes.

START SLOW. Concentrate on how evenly you connect the notes, not how fast you can play them. Once you're playing a note group accurately, comfortably, and consistently, then speed up a notch or two, and continue to increase your speed till you're playing at high velocity. If you find yourself hitting a speed where you start fumbling and misfiring, then slow down. The point isn't to play fast, but to play masterfully. Fast will follow.


Repetition is woven into the first principle of isolation. You isolate a group of notes or even just two notes in order to repeat, repeat, repeat them, often enough to drill them into your muscle memory. Since I've already written a post on repetition, there's no need for me to--ahem--repeat what I've already said. Go read the article.


Once you're playing a group of notes fluently, add a note or two in front of it or behind it. Or work on the next group of notes until you're playing it as fluently as you were playing the first, then connect the two groups.

In the process of focusing on the second group, you may find that you've lost a bit of ground with the first group. That's okay. Go back to the first group and smooth it out. The point is, you work on small units of material, then you work on connecting them to create something larger--to which you will, in turn, connect still more material.

Often you'll encounter a sticking point between the last note or two in one note group and the first couple of notes in the group that follows. That juncture should become a new area to isolate and work out.

If this sounds like a tedious process, it can be, but it's also a very profitable one. And not all groups of notes carry equal weight. Some come more easily; others are more challenging. Run toward the challenges, not from them.


As long as you're depending on the paper to tell you what to play, the music you're working on isn't really yours. I'm not referring to extended pieces of music where a chart is mandatory, but to scales, licks, the building blocks of technique and the language of jazz improvisation. Memorization is an indispensable part of the jazz saxophonist's toolkit.

The whole point of all this isolating, repeating, and connecting is to move the music off the printed page and into your head and your fingers. So at the very beginning of the process, make a point of looking away from the sheet music. Consult it as freely as you need to, but remember that your goal is to wean yourself from it. When you're in mid-flight on the bridge to "Cherokee" on your alto sax, you had better be thoroughly acquainted with the keys of Ab, F#, E, and D, because the rhythm section is not going to pause while you look them up in your Larry Teal workbook.

Memorize everything. Tunes. Chord changes. Scales, arpeggios, circular root movements...everything you can possibly cram into your gray matter and drill by repetition into your muscle memory.

One last thing...

Think about what you're doing. Engage your mind in the process. If you're working on a digital pattern, consider not just what you're playing, but also how you can use it with various chords or chord progressions. Think about how you might switch up the rhythm of a lick to create a different effect. You can build all the saxophone technique you want to, but ultimately it's your brain, not your horn, that converts the raw material into actual music.

That's it for today. If you enjoyed this post and would like to read more helpful articles on playing the sax, or perhaps find a jazz sax solo transcription to hash out, see my jazz page.

Practice hard--and have fun!