Approaching the Altissimo with Lenny Pickett

Interview conducted by Ben Woodard

What are some first steps for approaching altissimo?

Lenny Pickett: The altissimo register for the saxophone is very similar to the third and fourth registers of the other members of the woodwind family and it can be approached in the same way that those registers are approached on those instruments. Normally with beginners on all woodwind instruments, the lowest two registers are studied first, and when the student has developed their embouchure and breath control somewhat, the third and fourth registers are then introduced. The Sigurd Rascher dynamics and overtone exercises in his "Top Tones For The Saxophone" are a good place to start. Students should pay special attention to Rascher's "Terraced Dynamics" exercise. Breath control is the most important component to being able to produce the high notes.

When you say breath control, is this different than voicing?

LP: Yes. Breath control is strengthening the diaphragm muscles (through long, loud sustained tones) and developing the subtle control of those muscles (through long tones played with a variety of dynamic variations).

"Voicing", if it exists at all, is a combination of variations of subtle embouchure pressure with variations of wind speed. It's not something that you do with your throat.

The sound of the saxophone is created by the vibrating air column (the air inside the neck and body of the saxophone) that is set into motion by oscillations of the reed against the lay of the mouthpiece. The reed is always oscillating at the frequency of the pitch that is being produced. 

In order for the reed to vibrate at a higher frequency, there has to either be an increase airstream speed (diaphragm control), or a narrowing of the aperture between the reed and the lay of the mouthpiece (embouchure adjustment). 

Throat position has no bearing on either of these actions (or at least it shouldn't). There is very little that we can physically do to "open" or "close" our throats. The sensation of "fullness" in the throat that occurs when we play altissimo tones is probably caused by the back pressure from the increase in air velocity created using the diaphragm muscles. The throat changes shape because of the air flow. The air flow creates the increase in reed oscillation frequency. The change in throat shape is ancillary, not causal. It is not the reason for the frequency change, but instead a byproduct of the increase in air pressure.

The talk of "voicing" while well intended is somewhat misleading. Teachers use it to try to get students to find the related sensation that comes with learning altissimo. It's a a fake out.

There is a corollary in singing instruction where vocal coaches ask singers to "place" the sound of their voices in their sinus area in order to improve the "resonance" of the sound. What is actually happening is that the singers are singing louder (with better diaphragm support) and are better able to hear themselves sing. This improved vocal production enhances the quality (and volume) of the singer's voice.  No measurable sound can be found emitting from their sinus area.

I think it's better to say the hard truth. Ultimately, if you want to play the high notes you have to learn to increase and control the speed of the air stream. That is what I mean by breath control. That means: many, many hours of practicing long tones. Sorry!

What resources do you recommend for fingerings? 

LP: Altissimo fingerings vary greatly for the different sizes of saxophones and for different makes of saxophones. Some trial and error is inevitable. I use the natural overtones of many of the normal fingerings in the lower registers of the instrument as part of my collection of altissimo fingerings. Sometimes the natural fingerings for the harmonics need slight alterations to adjust for pitch. Again, Sigurd Raschèr's "Top Tones For The Saxophone" provides a useful starting point for altissimo fingerings. With good breath control you can play more than an octave above high F using fingerings from the first and second registers. I do.

Does the embouchure change? If so, how?

LP: Good saxophone players constantly adjust their embouchures throughout all the registers of the instrument to control pitch and tone. Some players find it useful to decrease the amount of their lower lip covering their lower teeth while playing in the upper registers. You don't need an excessively tight embouchure for playing altissimo. Breath control is more critical to producing the overtones than any other aspect of saxophone playing.

What techniques do you recommend to help a student stay in tune in the higher register?

LP: It is easier to tune perfect fourths, fifths and octaves with your ear than it is to tune thirds, sixths and sevenths, so incorporating those intervals into a practice routine while studying the upper registers can help. I find that playing along to music (the radio, play-a-long recordings, your i-pod) can help provide a pitch reference. Again, breath control is critical to good intonation in the altissimo register.

When should you start incorporating altissimo on the gig (when are you ready)? 

LP: The upper registers of the saxophone are no different from those of the clarinet, flute or other woodwind instrument and they should always be part of a competent player’s technique. One would expect a flute player to be able to play high D's, E's and F's and the other third and fourth overtone pitches. There's no reason that saxophone players shouldn't typically play an octave above the traditional range. Altissimo is not that difficult, and the technique has been utilized in the classical saxophone repertoire for more than eighty years. It's mostly a matter of good breath control.

How do you know if you have a desired tone in an extreme register? Is there something to listen for?

LP: The perception of "tone" is a complex one. There are many ingredients. Timbre, dynamics, pitch variation and articulation all contribute to our experience of "tone". As is the case with all wind instruments, there are fewer harmonics in the timbre of pitches in the upper registers than there are in the lower register, and so timbrel adjustment plays a smaller role in the perception of "tone" in the upper registers. A theremin produces something close to a sine wave, a sound without overtones, yet when played by an expert like Clara Rockmore, most listeners would describe the "tone" as beautiful. Careful artistic control of dynamics and pitch variation in the upper registers makes for a more positive aesthetic experience for the listener. All of that is impossible without accomplished breath control.

Do you have any tips to help a student struggling to get a grasp on the technique?

LP: The study of altissimo is mainly the accomplishment of the ability to play the third, fourth and fifth (etc.) overtones on all fingerings of the saxophone. Playing a brass instrument can provide some insight, as it is impossible to play those instruments without being able to play those overtones on all fingerings. There is no substitute for practice. Long tones and scales should be part of every student's practice regime. This practice should include all registers of the instrument. One gets better over time. I've been playing in the upper registers for almost 50 years. 

Was there something that made it "click" for you?

LP: I was a clarinet player before I was a saxophonist. I used what I had learned about playing the upper registers of the clarinet to play "above the horn" when I first picked up a saxophone. I didn't know any better, and I had no instruction on the instrument when I began playing it. Altissimo came completely naturally for me. I didn't know that it was controversial.

Did you find it necessary to change your set-up when tackling the altissimo for the first time?

LP: No, I just played the school horn that my junior high school band teacher loaned me, and the mouthpiece that came with the horn. It was a Conn 10M tenor from the 1940's and a hard rubber Gregory mouthpiece with about a #4 opening. I used a #2 Vandoren reed (I'd been using Vandoren reeds on the clarinet at the time.) This was in 1967, so it was a fairly typical set up for an 8th grade student. I practiced long tones several hours a day to develop my breath control. That is the single most important exercise one needs to practice to develop their tone and to be able to play the high notes.

Join the conversation