Lusting for new tips that make playing the saxophone easier?
I always am!
Whose teaching day isn’t improved with a couple of new tricks to test out on your students?
Basic Concepts and Strategies for the Developing Saxophonist by Frank Bongiorno, published in 2022, is available in both paperback (in the $30 USD range) and e-book (in the $10 USD range).
Playing the saxophone is one thing.
Playing the saxophone well is quite another.
And explaining how to play it is another yet!
Frank Bongiorno is here to help you on all three fronts.
Many saxophonists, and especially those of us who teach, are curious people. We are actively engaged in an ongoing and never-ending quest: The Clarification of Technique for a Deeper Understanding.
Reading this book is an effective way to review your skills. Even if you approach topics differently, as I do, you’ll quickly find out where you stand. This textbook is particularly effective for teachers who play well but may not have the language or background to explain key concepts. Imagine being able to solve most of the problems your students are having. Pretty great, right? Or having the confidence that you are offering solutions that other professionals employ. How reassuring! Remember, teaching is a solo act. There are often no colleagues to consult. Having some professional backup is helpful.
Simple, direct statements that apply to every student make teaching easy for the instructor and memorable for the student. Bongiorno shares many widely used and established concepts for basic technique. These bon mots are utterly repeatable, and can effectively lodge in the mind as lifelong guideposts.
For the hands, try saying:
“…place the fingerprints of the fingers onto the pearls of the keys…” (page 8)
“Keep your left-hand wrist in towards your chest…” (page 11)
Fingers should be, “…perpendicular to the saxophone and parallel to the ground.” (page 13)
I can actually hear myself saying these things out loud during lessons or clinics. How practical. I’m already imagining how I’ll incorporate these mantras into my routine.
This Is How We Do It
Once the fingers are in place, there are useful explanations born of practical, hands-on (!) experience:
“…it is sometimes better to move from a curved pinkie position to a straight pinkie position when moving over the rollers from E-flat to the low C key.” (page 13) So true—this small detail is essential for a smooth switch.
“…when playing the high E key, the right-hand should move up at an angle to keep the fingers pointed and near their respective right-hand keys.” (page 14) Absolutely—how many of us are really aware of what our fingers are doing at this point? That’s good, solid advice that’s often said but rarely written down.
Finger precision is required to avoid, “ghost notes or unintended grace notes between intervals…” (page 46)
And because, “…the ring fingers…often react slower and are less coordinated…” (page 46)
Interior Graphic Art
A big shout-out to McKenzie Bongiorno who provided the illustrations of the hand positions. These drawings (Figures 1-8) are realistic and easy to study. Much better than actual photographs, these images are some of the best I’ve seen! These integrated illustrations really enhance the text.
Show It In Notes
Which leads me to another strength of this book: The incorporation of musical examples (in notation) beneath the relevant text. Frank wants you to understand each concept. Although written in academic parlance, which can be a bit dry, every effort is made to bring clarity to the concepts being presented. This let-me-show-you-in-two-different-ways approach facilitates comprehension.
On page 34 Bongiorno includes an exercise based on the tenor saxophone solo from the Lieutenant Kijé Suite Symphonique by Sergei Prokofiev. This is the very beautiful line from the third movement, Kijé’s Wedding. I couldn’t stop myself from singing the notes out loud as I was studying the example. I would love to see more of this across all method books—a focus on using and celebrating our best licks. Une idée géniale!
Sifting through some papers in preparation for this review, I found an article I had tucked away many moons ago. It was titled, “Developing the Altissimo Register” by—you guessed it—Frank J. Bongiorno. It was published in the Fall 1984 Saxophone Symposium, which is the scholastic journal of the North American Saxophone Alliance.
With thirty-one pages on the altissimo register in this book, and with what must be over forty years of interest in this subject, it is clear Bongiorno prioritizes this aspect of saxophone technique. These chapters are comprehensive and practical. And yet…I wanted more. No, not more, that’s not it. I wanted…something different.
I agree with Frank that, “…developing the altissimo is somewhat like learning a new instrument.” (page 76) It takes time and effort. Frankly, it can be arduous.
So why bother?
In other words, I’m looking for the WHY. I would have appreciated some philosophical insight or artistic justification for the study of the altissimo register. Am I even allowed to say this? The thrill of hitting the odd high note tends to wear off. It would have been great if Bongiorno, someone who obviously loves playing in the altissimo register, could have offered new ways of thinking about this extended technique.
I’m ready for altissimo 2.0—Reader, are you?
There were some surprising omissions from a tome of this size:
A spiralized coil binding: (I paid $9.70 CDN or $7.10 USD to have this added.)
A fingering chart: Wouldn’t it be great if we, as a saxophone community, could agree on one standardized, international fingering system?
A description and discussion of the other extended techniques: (Microtones, timbre trills, multiphonics, and all the various tonguing techniques: slap, tongue ram and fluttertongue.)
Expand Your Horizons
Becoming a virtuoso player comes with rewards. And the personal journey to mastery is important. But eventually you realize that skills are for passing on. Teaching isn’t always easy. People learn differently. Effective instructors realize that using science over intuition improves outcomes. It makes sense to equip yourself with tried-and-true strategies. Frank Bongiorno offers us the benefit of his extensive professional experience in Basic Concepts and Strategies for the Developing Saxophonist. This valuable legacy project is an information-rich tool for saxophone teachers. It will help you upgrade your skills, clarify your approach and trouble-shoot issues that arise. Available here.