Saturday, June 25, 2011

Altissimo Crash Course: Beginner through Advanced

Update 4/1/2014: New post on altissimo with additional insight, Easier Altissimo & the G-sharp Key.

Altissimo can be a fickle friend. I remember a few years ago at a Chris Potter masterclass someone asked something about how he had mastered his altissimo register. He replied that he just goes for it, that he wasn't even always confident it would come out, but he keeps going for it and working on it. Sometimes altissimo can be like that, a leap of faith, so today's post is designed to take some of the mystery out of it and give your confidence a boost as you explore the upper reaches of the saxophone. The article will explore low note overtones as an introduction to voicing (focusing your vocal tract), more advanced techniques and detail oriented work to help intermediate and advanced players improve their voicing control, and altissimo fingerings and exercise ideas.

First Steps

A great (challenging) altissimo method
The first step to unlocking the altissimo register, as most altissimo players will tell you, is learning to focus your airstream. Overtones are a fairly simple way of learning to focus your airstream using your vocal tract, back of your tongue, and air support. For those of you who aren't familiar with overtones, they are a series of higher pitches which can be coaxed out of a lower fundamental fingering. If you haven't tried this before you'll want to start by fingering a low note, low Bb for example (one of the easiest notes to produce overtones on), and making it sound an octave higher without pressing the octave key. It's very simple to do and you've probably already done it by accident. Try to do this by raising the back of your tongue, supporting your air using your stomach muscles, and narrowing the back of your throat. Try to avoid tightening your lips too much. You'll probably get a higher note on your first try.

Practicing overtones allows you to practice focusing the muscles in the back of your mouth that will eventually allow you to extend the range of the saxophone beyond high f or f#. They will also allow you to play your normal range with a fuller and more vibrant tone.

One of the first overtone exercises I give young students and one that I still do each day is as follows (as prescribed by Walt Weiskopf). You can apply this to any scale, but basically you play the overtone version and the normal version of each scale note. The basic idea is to be able to one, produce the overtone, and two, match the fullness of the overtone with your normal pitch. Here is what it looks like written out:

The circle whole note heads represent the fingering used and the diamond note head represents the desired pitch.  You'll notice that there are two different overtones that produce the higher Bb and we'll want to practice both of them.  Each note can last as long as you'd like, and I often play these notes very long and multiple times as I'm doing this exercise for a warm up.  Here is what it sounds like in a basic format without repeating any of the notes exactly as written above: Bb Overtone Scale.mp3

Intermediate and advanced players will want to tackle the above exercise with a couple other concepts in mind. You should be able to apply vibrato to each of the overtone without losing the overtone even slightly. The easier and clearer the vibrato sounds the better. You should also try to achieve perfectly clean entrances.  The clean entrances aren't always easy, and your ability to nail the overtone from its entrance might vary from day to day. With a little extra focus on your embouchure you should be able to clean the entrances up which results in more dependable control over overtones and altissimo.

All players should take the time time to extend the range of their overtones.  Play each one long and add some vibrato.  The easier and clearer the vibrato sounds the better. Here is the overtone series on low Bb written out through high F.  Many players run into difficulty after the 2nd octave Bb, and at this point it would be good to work hard at refining the overtones you are able to produce as well as experiment with overtones off of different fingerings. Again, all of these can be produced while holding a low Bb.

You'll soon find out that even though you can play up to high F or F# on your saxophone it might not be easy as pie to play that high F as an overtone using low Bb. Practice makes perfect. Some techniques that might help include playing and holding the regular fingering first and then switching to the regular fingering, or singing the desired note just before you attempt the overtone.  There are various tricks for getting the overtones to come out, which can be helpful. Many players feel satisfied by just being able to hit the overtone briefly, but they don't progress beyond that. Playing the overtones long is important as it refines your voicing ability through endurance and mental focus. Working towards consistently being able to hold out overtones will improve your overall control, and it will bring you closer to achieving other more difficult overtones.

Flexing Your Overtone Muscles

As your overtone range extends, and really even before that, its important to do flexibility exercises. The point of flexibility exercises is to increase your ability to jump between overtones in the series as well as clean up those jumps. As you learn to jump cleanly between the overtones your ability in your normal playing to jump cleanly from low notes to high notes will improve also.

There are many overtone flexibility exercises out there, and you should feel free to make them up or adapt others to your ability. Here is one based on a bugle call that I run through each day. Its all based on the low Bb fingering and requires you to be able to play Bb's overtones up through high F.

I used regular notation to clearly show the rhythm.  Each of these pitches are overtones produced while holding low Bb. You should practice starting each of these overtones with your airstream only and slurring as you descend from higher to lower, and you should practice tonguing each overtone as well. Either way the entrances should be clean. You could also play this exercise in the key of B, C, or C# by simply playing the same series of overtones off of those respective low notes.  I normally play this exercise slowly, so I can concentrate on the clarity of each overtone as I go.

Extending Into the Altissimo Register

If you've been able to get through a lot of the material up to this point you should start experimenting with the altissimo register. At this point we are ready for some altissimo fingerings. Why not skip the lower note overtones and start with the altissimo fingerings? Overtone practices ensures that you are developing good focus in your vocal tract while the altissimo fingerings are easier to cheat on and play with a tight embouchure and less vocal tract focus. The skills you learn working on overtones will allow you to go higher and get around easier than a too tight embouchure would ever facilitate or allow.

There are many altissimo fingering charts out on the web. Following are the fingerings I use on my Selmer Super Balanced Action tenor.  They've worked on most vintage tenors I've tried and many modern tenors. Every horn can be a little different, and you'll want to explore some of the various options out on the web.
Diagrams courtesy of the 'Fingering Diagram Builder' on Bret Pimental's woodwind blog.

I recycle the fingerings from Bb through D to continue upwards onto Eb through G.  Also, the first fingering in the chart, E, I use as a substitute for the regular palm key E fingering when I'm launching into the altissimo.  The normal palm key E most often has a fuller sound.

If one particular note is difficult feel free to skip it and find the next note up that is possible for you.  Don't get hung up on progressing chromatically.  Find the fingerings and pitches that work for you, and then work on refining those by playing them long, adding vibrato, doing bends, experimenting with articulation, etc. As you challenge yourself and gain more control on the notes you can get out the other more challenging notes will soon become possible.

One of the obvious things to do as you work on mastering these fingerings is to play your scales into the altissimo register. Make sure you start below the altissimo register so you also work on the transition between the normal fingerings to the altissimo fingerings. Advanced players will want to work on articulating scales and other exercises, patterns, and melodies in the altissimo register.

Eventually you'll be able to continue the overtone series into the altissimo register as well. Here is a more complete overtone series on Bb written up through 4th octave Bb.

The 8va indicates sounding an octave higher and the 15ma indicates sounding 2 octaves higher. Play each of these long. Be able to play them softly and clearly. Add a clear vibrato or even try some deep bends. Do your best to keep the sound clear and distortion free as you try out different things. Practice the entrances and get them clean as well. These overtones can be more difficult than the altissimo fingerings, but once achieved will help players continue to refine voicing control.

Putting it to Practice

Finally, for those of you looking for a way to continue developing your skills beyond this. Simply put, improvise up there. Set a lower limit, a lowest note, let's say 2nd ledger line C or palm key D, and don't go below that limit. Practice improvising lines that go over the transition and go as high as you'd like. Pick something easy at first like a blues or rhythm changes, and progress onward from there. I saw Chris Potter demonstrate this exercise on Giant Steps at the same masterclass I mentioned earlier. The sky is the limit. Here are a couple of my practice sessions. The first is a slightly simpler approach and the second is a somewhat more chromatic versions.

Ben Plays Altissimo Blues.mp3      Ben Plays More Altissimo Blues.mp3

Today I've also released my new recording, "Children at Play". If you've enjoyed the blog or my playing please take a moment to check it out here. The post has previews of the tracks, studio footage, and reviews from great sax players like Matt Marantz and Adam Larson. Thanks!


  1. Thanks for a great post. Been searching for a good practicemethod to develop overtones, and this seems perfect for the purpose. Can't wait to get started!

  2. Thanks a lot! Maybe working on your exercises will help me hit my first altissimo note :)

    1. No problem. These concepts have been what I have used to gain some mastery up there. Did you make it yet?

  3. I got your book yesterday and have been absorbing it in. Many of your exercises I already have been practicing. I can usually go up 3 steps from low B flat to, middle B flat, to F and sometimes the octive B Flat but not that one consistently. I can get all the way until about E-flat and I just loose the tone. I can hit altissimo A, A-flat, B all up to C# and sometimes D but for the life of me I can not hit G below the A!! Any advise for that one?

    1. Mike, it sounds like there could be a number of problems, and I'd have to hear you to really know. Before you can play altissimo easily, you'll need to develop your ability to voice higher overtones than what you are able to consistently get right now. Ideally, you should be able to play the counterpart overtone for whichever altissimo note you are attempting play. (I actually have an overtone book coming down the pike in just a little bit here).

      It sounds like you're probably using a lot of embouchure pressure to get out your altissimo notes rather than focusing your air and shaping your vocal tract. I actually started out the same way. Sometimes that can lead to gaps, where you can play higher notes but you can't play ones in the gap between those and your normal register.

      However, I do have some suggestions for working on that G. First, when you approach it slur up from forked F or F#. That will help prepare your voicing and make for a smooth transition. Also, try to use the G# key in conjuncture with altissimo G. That can make it a bit easier to hit. Good luck and let me know how it goes.