From a quick viewing of YouTube video footage, it appears that Coltrane’s fingers may move further from the keys than do Bird’s.  Do you agree?

 This is hard to understand, since Trane may actually play faster than Bird(?)

Regardless, my own playing has always suffered from “flappy fingers,” which both slow us down and destroy the smooth, swinging flow.  In the early days, I actually believed that more finger movement made for a more impressive show!   Later on, the habit reared its head under the pressure of obscure or fast passages or when the improvisatory options were unclear.

Correcting this deleterious habit requires constant use of our two best practice tactics:

  • Slow down the tempo
  • Loop the passage

Initially, the loop will consist of only 2 notes, the “trill” which is giving rise to the jumpy finger motion.  In order to smooth out the trill, we must focus our awareness on the motion of the moving finger.

  •  What is the least possible amount of movement which will accomplish the needed trill?
  •  Are there alternate fingerings which are smoother?

Once we can execute the trill gracefully at several tempos, we add the note preceding the trill to our loop.  Then add the note which follows the trill.  Then gradually add more notes before and after the trouble spot until the entire passage can be played smoothly.  Only when smoothness of finger movement is achieved can we safely increase the tempo.

Right at this moment, I am working on the trill from low F natural to low F# (tenor sax), using the third finger on the side F# key. Obviously, the first finger must stay still.  It is the second and fourth fingers which are tempted to “flap.”  I have slowed the trill way down and am attempting to keep the 2 fingers on their respective keys (E and Eb).

Overcoming flappy fingers is a slow, arduous process, but being able to play smoothly is a huge reward.  In addition, one begins to discover a new level of calm, focused awareness in the practice room which is addictive and causes one to anticipate the next practice session with the wonderful “I can’t wait to practice!” feeling.  Eventually, this same calm, focused awareness appears in our performance, and it inspires the audience to be less distracted and more in tune with our music.


  1. Very well stated! Once the new level of calm is discovered most folks will find it carries over into their lives as well. Relax, it’s only life.


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