Recently, I was teaching my rules for Bb fingerings to a high school student. On this occasion I was correcting her habit of sliding between A# and B on her major scales. I stopped myself before I gave my advice and thought, “Is it really forbidden to slide from Bis A-sharp to B-natural?”
Sliding from Bis to B-natural may not be news to some of you, but it was completely foreign to me. I was raised in the Larry Teal tradition. He taught to primarily use Side Bb, and to only sprinkle in Bis, 1+4, or 1+5 in certain scenarios. Here’s an excerpt from his book The Art of Saxophone Playing:
1. The Side. This position should be considered the basic fingering for beginners…Adeptness in the use of this key is a fundamental requirement of adequate technique. It is a must in the chromatic scale, and the best available in the Bb-C shift.
2. The “bis.”…It is advantageous when the G-Bb or A-Bb interval is used, provided Bb is not followed or preceded by a C or B-natural. Avoid sliding from Bb to B-natural (or vice versa) with this fingering.
The first seeds of Side Bb doubt were planted when I arrived at university. My college teacher, Frederick Hemke, used Bis primarily. Nathan Nabb, my lesson partner in college, used Bis for just about everything, even his chromatic scale. My world of clean shifts from Side A# to B was crumbling beneath me. Why would someone willingly choose to slip and slide around their saxophone keys?
The French Connection
Hemke studied with Marcel Mule from 1955 to 1956. Hemke relayed to me only recently that he picked up his preference for Bis from Mule. He told me that Mule used Bis, and slid between Bis and B-natural. He added that he preferred Bis because it kept all of the technique in one hand instead of having to coordinate two hands for Side.
All this information started marinating in my mind. Why would the father of French saxophone use Bis so often? Wait, what does Bis mean anyway? Could the etymology of Bis explain French players’ preference? After some deep research, I discovered that “Bis” is used in France to describe two adjacent apartments that share the same address number (i.e. apartment 29 and 29A). To the French, Bis is simply the key adjacent to the B and A keys.
In French nomenclature Side Bb is “TA,” literally “trill A.” This contrasts with the American “Side Bb” or “RSK” (shoutouts to Rousseau), which simply describes the key’s location. There is no allusion to its function as a trill key. Therefore, Side Bb seems like a reasonable option to any teacher or student unfamiliar with its connotations to trilling in French nomenclature. Furthermore, Side Bb probably sounds better to freedom-loving, American ears when compared to the pretentious, exotic-sounding Bis (“how do you pronounce that anyway?“).
Side note for American saxophonists: the “P” above the B-flats and A-sharps found in Londeix’s “Les Gammes” means plateau (think tray, plate, or flat in English), and is the shorthand for Bis in France. (Thanks, Valentine Michaud, for teaching me that!)
Otis Murphy Saves the Day
Last year I was fortunate enough to see Otis Murphy, another saxophonist with French lineage, perform recitals and give masterclasses in Ohio. Not only did Otis sound great, but his masterclasses were compelling and informative, too. In one masterclass he unveiled his Theory of Quadrants (Quadrantic Theory?). He told us to imagine a large square divided into quadrants, and then to number each quadrant one through four. He then asked someone to randomly assign each quadrant with either Bis Bb or Side Bb. For example: 1) Bis Bb, 2) Bis Bb, 3) Side Bb, 4) Side Bb. Murphy then played a full-range F Major scale and played these fingerings in order (Bis Bb on the way up, and Side Bb on the way down).
At this point everyone caught on to the concept, so when Murphy asked someone else to randomly assign the quadrants they threw him a curveball: 1) Bis, 2) Side, 3) Bis, 4) Side. Murphy nodded, and proceeded to rip through these quadrants not in F Major, but in F# Major! After that display we were all convinced. Murphy made the point that everyone should have the flexibility to use either Bis or Side, and that today’s repertoire demands it.
From the article “Otis Murphy’s Theory of Quadrants: A Guide to Bis and Side B-flat Saxophone Fingerings”: “He told us to imagine a large square divided into quadrants, and then to number each quadrant one through four. He then asked someone to randomly assign each quadrant with either Bis Bb or Side Bb. For example: 1) Bis, 2) Bis 3) Side, 4) Side. Murphy then played a full-range F major scale and played these fingerlings in order (Bis on the way up and side on the way down). At this point everyone caught on to the concept, so when Murphy asked someone else to assign the quadrants they threw him a curveball: Bis, Side, Bis, Side. Murphy nodded and proceeded to rip through these quadrants not in F Major, but F# major! After that display we were all convinced.” So here’s my (much slower) recreation of that demonstration from Otis Murphy. Link will soon be in my bio @daddariowoodwinds @vandorenusa @yamahamusicusa @yamaha.bandandorchestra #scales #bis #sax #saxophone #saxophoneplayer#musiceducation #musiceducation #transcribeeverything #nowmyeducationbegins #saxophone #selmerparis #yamahasaxophone #woodwinds #jazz #jazzlite #jazzscrub
He also shared a drill to develop dexterity between Bis A# and B. He trilled in quarter notes between A# and B, then in eighth notes, and finally in sixteenth notes.
Another trick I picked up from sliders is to bend the bis key or shave off some of the pearl to make it easier to roll your finger between Bis and B. And it should really be called a “roll” rather than a “slide”.
If you’re still not convinced, remember that sliding is pretty common in the woodwind world. Oboists slide their first finger to activate the upper octave. Clarinetists slide their first finger to navigate the break between the chalumeau and clarion register. This is unrelated but flutists have to press the Eb key with their pinky all the time, which is super hard. And don’t even get me started on bassoonists…Suffice it to say that sliding between A# and B on the saxophone is not that difficult in comparison.
What should you do with all this information? I suggest shoring up your weaknesses whether they be Bis or Side Bb. I’ve tried to implement the following guidelines:
- Use Bis 90% of the time, learn to “roll” the first finger from Bis to B
- Use Side Bb on the chromatic scale, trills, and passages where it sounds better
- 1+4 and 1+5 is for degenerates, and should only be used for tuning major thirds in quartet…err and maybe the last note in the second movement of the Creston Sonata.
Having experimented with this for a while now I don’t believe “sliding” to be such a saxo-faux pas (nailed it). However, I’m not ready to give up Side Bb/TA/RSK altogether. At very least I hope Marcel Mule, Frederick Hemke, and Otis Murphy have convinced you to incorporate both fingerings into your technique.
What are your thoughts? Are you a slider? Please leave a comment below!
And be sure to Like Saxophone Performance on Facebook!