One of the hallmarks of any professional musician is the clarity and evenness of the individual notes they play as part of a note-packed passage of music, such as a 16th or 32nd note run.
I recently came across a helpful discovery in this area while practicing my chromatic scale.
Cleanliness is Next to Godliness
Achieving that level of cleanliness is something that comes with years of practice, but I’ve found one concept that had an immediate result for the better in my technique.
I started listening for the “click” of each individual key or key combination as a gentle percussion hit as played by my fingers. The click-click of the keys coming down during, let’s say, a chromatic scale, can be perceived as though it were a perfectly even 16th or 32nd-note snare drum roll.
I describe the percussive effect here as gentle because if I were to think of the individual notes as being overly percussive in nature, then that would mean I’m using too much energy to achieve the nimbleness necessary to get all of those notes out with solid and deliberate-sounding precision.
Ultimately, whenever I’m playing anything, my goal is to embody the complete musical picture (melody, harmony, rhythm, tone quality, feeling, etc), but this is just another way to shake up my perception and get those fingers following the ears.
Attain Virtuosity While Enjoying the Jersey Shore
Some say real virtuosi are too busy practicing to watch TV (crazy talk, I tell ya). Practicing the fingering of scales, arpeggios, etc with perfect timing is indeed something you could, hypothetically, do while watching TV. As long as you hear those keys clicking down in clean and solid 8th or 16th-note rhythms with each note coming out as a singular click (as opposed to a sloppy flam of multiple keys coming down a few milliseconds apart from eachother), then this pastime, sub-optimal as it is, would probably help more than it would hurt.
Only Try This at Home
While practicing a percussive approach to saxophone technique may work for exercises at home, I’ve found that focusing on the rhythmic accuracy of the key-clicks while improvising is a massive distraction. The point here is to develop some solid muscle memory so that we can let loose while we’re being creative.
My former piano teacher once showed me an exercise that really applies to any instrument, and it involves modifying the rhythm of scales and other note-filled passages. I could try and explain it, but suffice to say that practicing this with one’s ear focused on the rhythmic clicking of the keys could be very helpful.
In Action: Johnny Griffin, Champion of Clean Playing (Johnny’s solo at 3:48).