Discover &  Learn

Building technique through key clicks.

by Paul Haar

There is an old saying that goes, "Out of every bad moment something good must come." For me, that bad moment came, a number of years ago, when I contracted the flu during Christmas vacation. What was supposed to be three weeks of relaxation and productive practicing turned into three weeks of confinement to a Lazy Boy recliner. The only thing I could do was finger the keys of my saxophone. That's when it hit me, my moment of confinement could be used as a time of discovery. And it was that discovery that is the focus of this article.  


One of the problems facing each of us is the pursuit of solid technique while trying to address the other areas of playing we need to work on. Too often, our available practice comes at the worst time of the day. The kids are in bed, it’s too early in the morning or you're in a hotel room or apartment.   For many of us, we seem to have free time when its not ideal to practice. If only there was some way to capitalize on moments like these.


Well… back to my story...while I was sitting there feeling sorry for myself, I just held the horn and tried to finger scales, licks and patterns. I was dying to play but my physical condition was not allowing me to blow into the horn. As I grew more and more restless, I continued to think of those scales. As I kept going, I began to notice that the constant "click click click" of the keys produced rhythmic patterns. As I continued those patterns grew to be more and more unique.  With each scale came a different rhythmic pattern.


I started to realized I could use this in my practice routine.  Half of practicing is technical. We are always trying to sure up material from solos, learn scales or practice patterns. So, I continued to practice those key clicks, each day, with the hope that I what I was doing would slow down the technical decline from being ill. Each day I would start out with major scales (from root to the ninth), later moving on to digital patterns and then to solo passages. Once I was well and able to blow into the saxophone, I found a strange sense of familiarity.  It was as if I had never been sick. To my surprise, my technique didn't decline, it improved!  I was more efficient in my finger movement and my rhythmic evenness was noticeable.  


Key clicks have long been used as a extra-musical affect in new music. The conical nature the saxophone, along with the covered key system (as opposed to the open-hole construction of the clarinet or flute), allows for the creation of wonderful, percussive “pop”. If we can learn to identify the rhythmic patterns of a passage by using key clicks, then we could practice these patterns, without tone, and still build our technique.   As you will discover, if you play evenly, you will find a unique rhythmic pattern that will emerge.  To demonstrate this idea, I am going to use something familiar to all of us, major scales. For each major scale, there is a rhythmic pattern that can be associated with it. For a complete list of rhythmic patterns please see TABLE 1.


















Before you begin experimenting with this idea, there are a few things to keep in mind. The only percussive sound we want to hear, in this exercise, is the key click made by the pad striking the tone hole. You will want to make sure your instrument is in good working order and not missing any corks, felts, or pads.  Likewise old, torn or dried out pads may produce unusual effects.


The exercises, included in this article, are a wonderful way to check for good hand position and establish evenness. Make sure your fingers are relaxed, curved and remain close to the keys when fingering the notes in this exercise. Use a decisive, but not overly firm, amount of pressure when depressing the keys. You should be able to hear a good key click with normal pressure.  If you want an example of a good finger motion, simply place your hand on a desk and drum/tap your fingers as if you were bored.  


NOTE: These exercise have been tested on a variety of brands and sizes of saxophone, from sopranos to baritone.  There should not be much, if any, difference from brand to brand. There may be some slight variations for those players who use straight altos or tenors. 





This technique can be used with any scale, pattern, solo, étude, etc. For the purpose of this article, I'm going to use a one octave scale that extends to the ninth and returns back to the root (example 1a). First play the scale, as you normally would and take notice of how even it is. People usually focus their attention on tone quality rather than how uniform the finger motion is.


Next, remove the neck and mouthpiece so you  have a second opening to hear the key clicks. This opening is closer to your ears and will help you focus on the rhythms that will be produced. Taking the same scale, you will now finger the scale with two clicks. Begin by fingering a low D. The scale exercise begins when you depress the Low C key and produce a key click. Continue fingering the scale numerous times. You should begin hearing a rhythmic pattern that sounds something like example 1B.  If you were playing the scale evenly, this rhythm will emerge. If you are uneven, another rhythmic pattern will be produced. If we were to write out the rhythm focusing strictly on the accents, it would look like example 1c.


Continue on to other scales such as C-sharp major, D major, etc. until you have played all 12 major scales. You can check your patterns against the rhythmic patterns found in table 1. If your technique is even, you should find the same patterns as those in the table. Remember that each scale is play to the ninth. Once you have gone through all 12 rhythmic scales, replace the neck on your saxophone and play to the scales as you would normally.Again, this concept is not limited to just major scales. Any technical passage can be used. Simply start slow and increase the tempo, slowly and you should be able to recognize a pattern.


I have used this technique a great deal since the birth of my children. Once they're asleep, I get up my music and start "clicking." The next day, when I arrive at my office, I focus on applying other musical concepts such as articulation, tone and vibrato. I have been able to maximize my time and I learn music in a much faster and efficient manner.  I hope this concept will help you achieve your goals. I'm interested in hearing how this exercise works for you, so I welcome your emails and feedback. Until then, happy practicing!