The Altissimo Register
Ah, yes, this page is all about the ever elusive and much sought after high notes. In my years as a player and a teacher, this is one of the most common lines of questioning I get. How do you play those super high notes? What fingerings are you using? Do I have to hold my embouchure in a special way? Do I have to just blow real hard? Why can’t I get these notes to pop out like you do. There is only one answer for all of the questions and that is, practice… practice… practice.
As a young player while attending San Francisco State University in 1974-75, I had the privilege of studying with a great tenor sax player named Danny Patiris. I had been playing about three years at that point. In other words, I still had no clue as to how to play and what was going on with improvisation. For two years all we worked on was long tones and major scales. Pretty dry stuff you’re thinking? Well, as it turns out, we worked on the tools that would lay the foundation for twenty five more years of playing and improvising. These are the tools of your trade. You need a good sound and technique, but a good technique is nothing without a great tone. Danny knew this.
The first, and most important thing you should do is, of course, practice your long tones religiously! You can refer to my page on long tones here. By practicing long tones you will learn how to open up and play through your horn. They will teach you that feeling of marrying the two tubes together, your body and the Saxophone. You will have much better control of your horn and what you can do with it. They will teach you exactly where and with how much force to put that air stream. Have you ever encountered the low Bb in a piece of music with pp under it? Or, vice versa, the f above the staff marked fff ? Long tone study will give you more ability to perform these difficult dynamics. Two of the best references on this subject are Top Tones for the Saxophone by Sigurd Rascher and Studies in High Harmonics by Ted Nash. The fingerings in the Rascher book aren’t much good, but the exercises are the best. Click here for a very interesting photo of Sigurd Rascher.
Basically, overtones or harmonics are what you are dealing with when playing in the altissimo register. While holding the fingering for low Bb, try to adjust your throat, air stream and air speed to play the Bb that is an octave higher. Do this on low B, C and C#. Next try to go up to the fifth after the first octave. On Bb this would be an F. do that on low B, C and C#. After you’re comfortable with that, try to include the second octave as well. When you get good at this you should be able to play the first octave up, then the fifth, then the note that is the second octave up. In Bb that would be Bb > Bb an octave higher > F an octave and a half higher, then the Bb two octaves up. This may take a while so practice this daily and it will start to happen for you.
If you would like to learn more about the harmonic overtone series, go here. Thank you, John.
|One thing I should mention at this point is the use of the front fingerings for the high “f” and high “e” above the staff. Refer to my fingering chart here. You should start practicing your scales and arpeggios using these fingerings as often as possible. You should have equal facility with both fingerings for both of these notes. These notes are not quite the same as the other fingerings. You must have an open throat and good support to have success with these notes. They will “set up” your throat for the altissimo register.|
I have stressed long tone study for a reason. Before you can expect any success with the altissimo register, you must have total control of the air stream and you must have a well developed embouchure. Long tone study is simply the best and fastest way of achieving these goals. Just because you have the fingerings, this does not mean that all you have to do is just blow harder. Among other criteria, you must be able to hear the note you are attempting before you play it. Hear it so well, you can sing it! One of the best ways to do this is to approach the note by using it as the top note in an arpeggio. In other words for altissimo “A”, you might play A – C# – E (front e) – A. “A” is probably the first one that will happen for you, so try it first. “G” and “G#” are two of the more elusive altissimo notes, so you can count on them to be difficult!
I will number the finger as follows: Left hand, starting with the index finger are numbered 1-2-3. Right hand, starting with the index finger are numbered 4-5-6. The palm keys are numbered in relation to how close they are to your body. Hi “d” is number 1, “d#’, number 2. “f” is number 3. Front “f” means just the front “f” button. Some Saxophones have pearls for this key, others have gold contoured buttons. If your Sax doesn’t have any front “f” key, I’m afraid you’re out of luck. Maybe time for that new horn?
These are just a few of the possible fingerings. These are the fingerings that work for me and my horn and my mouthpiece/reed set up. I got most of them from the Ted Nash book “Studies in High Harmonics“. You are encouraged to do a web search for more altissimo fingerings. There are many more you may want to try.
After this, you’re on your own. If you would care to play any higher, you might try putting your lower teeth on the reed and very slowly move them back off the reed. You can get some great “off the top” effects like this. Not for the faint of heart! Or neighbors with similar conditions. Or dog lovers.