Understanding Altissimo for the Saxophone
Woodwind & Brasswind Contributing Writer – Greg Vail
Altissimo is a funny word that is best defined as the high notes on the saxophone that start when the regular fingering scale ends. The saxophone normally goes up to a high F or F# (sometimes even high G) and the fingering chart ends there.
These Altissimo notes are the high notes you hear pro sax players hitting that go way above the normal fingering charts. The goal for jazz and classical range extension is a full octave above high F. Usually up to altissimo D is common, and altissimo F and above is more common on tenor sax. Some pro players have mastered the 4th octave on sax and even ventured off into a 5th octave. The obvious example would be Lenny Pickett from Saturday Night Live; blasting up so high we all want to shout and holler.
The big question is HOW do I play those really high notes. The answer is simple and takes 4 times longer than any student expects. I could say 10 times longer also. The reason so many sax students get so frustrated with the Altissimo range is they are in too big of a hurry and don’t understand what they are doing.
The saxophone is made from a single tube that plays a low Bb (99% of the time) if all the holes are closed. The additional buttons on the saxophone enable a full chromatic scale (all the white and black keys of a piano) to be played, starting on the low Bb (Bb1), to middle Bb (Bb2), to high Bb (Bb3), and up to the high F palm key (F3). This range covers 2 and a half octaves, which is pretty unimpressive when compared to clarinet – 4 ½ octaves, flute – 4 octaves, or violin at 5 octaves. Altissimo extends that range up to another octave higher for the saxophone.
There are a few good books available on the topic but the best is by Sigurd Rascher – Top-Tones for the Saxophone: Four Octave Range. This book starts off with exercises to build your armature and control in preparation of overtone control. The volume exercises on sustained tones, tone character exercises, and wide voiced broken chord exercises are awesome preparation for overtone studies.
Rasher explains the overtone system from the bottom tones of the saxophone – low Bb, B and C. Altissimo control comes from a good understanding of the overtone series inside the saxophone. Too many students are quick to turn the page to the fingerings and sit there struggling with the Altissimo fingering chart with little success. Working to control the overtones is necessary to be able to play the Altissimo range.
What you are doing when you finger an Altissimo note is controlling an overtone, or squeak. The saxophone is full of overtones. You must learn to control these, or the fingerings will never work. All of the rest of the notes on the saxophone are just fingered and you blow the same as you did for any other note on the sax. This doesn’t work for the high tones above the standard range of the sax. It is not just another fingering and poof – out comes the note.
This is why you have to work the exercises on the overtones until you can play them without error. It is important to understand that getting higher overtones is not just biting harder on your lip. You can really get hurt if you just bite harder and harder on your bottom lip.
I have the sensation of whistling when I shift between partials in the overtone series. Try whistling and keep track of what your throat and tongue are doing as you change from low to high notes. Another tip to try is fingering the note you are trying to get by overtone. Then slur to the low Bb while trying to keep the sound of the higher note in your mouthpiece. Example - Bb3 (Bb octave key) slur to Bb1 (low Bb) and keep the octave Bb sound the whole time.