These Fun Technical Exercises Will Prepare You For Just About Anything

saxophone-techniqueTechnical Exercises in all Keys

All players should organize their practice, but that structure should also leave a lot of room for variety and creativity. For most of my students, I recommend they practice in one key every week with a combination of scales and arpeggios, plus some kind of technical exercise that resembles the ups, downs, twists, and turns of music to gain practical familiarity in all keys. Even beginners should try to hit all three areas.

These “Loopers” are a sample of a group of exercises I designed for my students that work the keys in a variety of ways, and are simple enough that intermediate and advanced players can adapt them to create even more variety.  There are dozens more, but these three exercises are where I have every student begin – no matter how beginning or how advanced.

When starting out, the time is spent figuring things out and thinking through the notes and accidentals (and alternate fingerings) in each new key. This mental work is essential. However, in time, the thinking part is done, and the feeling part will take over. That’s when technique practice truly pays off and becomes fun. If you don’t have to think about the notes, (if you can simply feel your way though), that means you can pay attention to other things – like rhythm, intonation, balance, groove, or, in the case of improvisers, learning to listen to your creative, inner ear.

All three of the 1-line exercises on this page, (and the ‘high’/’low’ note pages that follow), can be played in all 12 keys. (Actually, 13 if you count G-flat and F-sharp. 15 if you toss C-sharp and C-flat into the mix)

(see link at the bottom of the article to download a much more readable PDF version of this exercise)

To make the exercises work, all you have to do is this:

  1. Pick a key to work on, and get the key signature into your head.
  2. Find the correct starting measure for your key, (directly under the arrows).
  3. Play to the end of the line, repeat back to the beginning, and continue until you’re back at the starting note. In other words, your first and last notes will be under the arrow.

Reminder: to make this work, you need to keep your key signature in mind the whole way through. This little piece of mental work is part of the process of really learning each key.

Beginners and other players that are playing in new keys for the first time should walk through the exercises very slowly at first. For many, it may help to say all the names of the notes before trying to play the exercise. (You can make it a game by timing yourself!)

Sound is a very important part of any kind of performance, so make sure you’re practicing with a full tone as well. Just because you’re learning (and thinking) doesn’t mean you should ‘whisper’ your way through the exercises. Let even the wrong notes sound beautiful.

Numbers 1 and 3 are the easier exercises, so start there. Number 2 is a real test of fingerings, and usually takes at least TWICE as much work (and time) to get under control, but don’t be intimidated – just be patient and persistent!

Intermediate players can get deeper into these exercises by trying these two simple suggestions:

  1. Go faster: Increase the velocity, but keep it steady and avoid ‘faking’ through tough measures. It is better to go slow and clean it up, than to go too fast and fumble your way through over and over. As you advance, see how many times you can play through the loop on one breath!
  2. Re-invent the rhythm: The easiest re-invention is to play the exercises with ‘dotted’ rhythm. In your mind, turn beats 1 and 3 into dotted quarter notes, while turning beats 2 and 4 into eighth notes. There are endless possibilities. (There will soon be a follow-up article to this one outlining a small sampling of possible alterations!)
  3. Vary the articulation: Sometimes play all slurred, sometimes all tongued. Try tongue-two-slur-two, and other combinations as well. Sometimes pick one beat in each measure to accent. (And accenting beats 2 and 4 can give simple quarter-notes a feel of swing!)

Advanced players should try all of the above suggestions, but also LEARN TO BURN on every line in every key. Keep fingers light, keep the tongue quick (unless slurred), and keep the tone full. In addition to playing fast, continue manipulating the rhythm and articulation to suit your needs. You may also want to experiment with embellishments in a classical style. (This works best at a slower tempo)

Jazzers: More advanced jazz musicians that are accustomed to changing keys on a dime, may want to invent an exercise where they play 3 or 4 measures at a time in one key signature, then continue on in a new key, and another and another.

Also, don’t forget to play through each exercise with a swing feel or by improvising rhythms throughout – just don’t lose your place! No matter what rhythms you play, each measure gets exactly 4 beats: no more, no less! 

High and Low Loopers are also provided for practice at the extremes of the register. Read the boxes on each page for suggestions and reminders for alternate fingerings AND sound production. Remember, it’s not just about fast fingers, it’s about good sound, too!

(see links at the bottom of the article to download much more readable PDF versions of the exercises)