Lighten Up

The other day, I pulled up a video of Melissa Aldana, who in 2013 became the first female saxophonist to win the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition. I was playing the video for a 13-year-old female saxophonist who had just won the lead tenor chair in her jazz band.

We noticed Aldana’s fingers on the horn barely moved off the keys, and we could tell she plays with a very light touch by the fluidity in her technique and her lines. Her fingers were almost “mechanical” in their movements.

The lightness of the fingers on the keys is paramount to getting around the horn. Little pressure is actually needed to press down the key of a saxophone.

The Challenges

I see students sometimes who are pushing down so hard that the blood is actually pushed from their fingertips, and I see white around their fingernails! To show them this problem, I tell them not to move a muscle when I say “stop,” and then I try to pry their fingers from the keys. It’s nearly impossible. They have a vise-grip on their instrument.

Playing this way will NEVER allow you to have a fluid technique. Many people may think that in order to get a big, bold, even forceful sound, you have to squeeze the horn like you squeeze a lemon to get the juice out. In case you hadn’t noticed, the saxophone is not a lemon, and it has no juice—no matter how hard you squeeze.

The Recommendations

So, how can you “lighten up” your technique? One of the things I recommend is to practice in front of a mirror and watch your fingers.

Another way is to practice slowly and really feel your fingertips on the keys. What kind of pressure are you using? Are you squeezing hard or does it feel relaxed and light?

As with everything, awareness is the key. You might have to write yourself a reminder note or write it into your practice sessions for it to become habit.

Having a light grip is a great way to gain technical fluidity and something that will serve your playing on every level.

So, will you please lighten up?

About author

Jeff Coffin

Jeff Coffin is a three-time Grammy Award winning saxophonist, composer, educator, and author. He has been a band member of Dave Matthews Band since 2008.  Jeff also teaches at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Jeff has published “The Saxophone Book,” co-wrote “The Articulate Jazz Musician” with Caleb Chapman, and released “The Road Book” in late 2019. Jeff is a Yamaha and D’Addario Performing Artist and Clinician.  Visit and for more information.