How to Play Your First Saxophone Altissimo Note: Part One

by Jack Thorpe

Date Posted: December 11, 2023

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What is Altissimo?

Altissimo refers to the highest register of the saxophone which includes anything above the saxophone’s highest F♯ (the F♯ above the treble clef staff). In the last one hundred years, altissimo has become a staple in saxophone repertoire, and while this high register may seem daunting at first, with proper exercises and practice techniques, saxophonists can quickly tackle their first altissimo note

What Should I Know Before I Play Altissimo?

Before attempting to play in the altissimo register, it is important for a saxophonist to be able to play with the proper embouchure, oral cavity, and tongue position.


When forming an embouchure, saxophonists want to create equal pressure from all sides of the mouthpiece. Many beginning saxophonists will only focus on the pressure from their top and bottom teeth, which will affect their ability to produce altissimo notes. For a proper embouchure, saxophonists should allow their top teeth to rest on the top of the mouthpiece, let their bottom lip act as a cushion between their bottom teeth and the reed, and use the strength of their cheek muscles (think about the muscles you use when you make a big smile) to bring the “corners” of their mouth in. To activate these muscles, you can try forming a big smile and then immediately making an “oo” syllable with your lips stuck out repeatedly. This exercise will activate the proper embouchure muscles in your face so that you can feel how to use them when forming an embouchure.

There is also a great video of bass clarinetist Michael Lowenstern describing a similar exercise in this video. Once you know how to activate these larger face muscles, you can finesse the rest of your embouchure with the smaller muscles around your lips until you have a proper seal around the mouthpiece with equal pressure on all sides.


Oral Cavity and Tongue Position

What is your oral cavity? Essentially, when talking about saxophone playing, your oral cavity refers to everything inside of your mouth including your tongue, teeth, and the opening of your throat. Debra Richtmeyer’s The Richtmeyer Method for Saxophone Mastery (an invaluable pedagogical resource for all saxophonists and music educators) describes the “Ideal Oral Cavity” which consists of:

  • A downward slope of the tongue with the back of the tongue higher and middle part of the tongue sloping down slightly until the tip of tongue is just behind (but not touching) the bottom teeth.

  • The sides of the back of your tongue, which should be spread out towards your top molars. Everyone’s mouth is different, so your tongue may spread out enough to touch your molars slightly, or it may not, but it is important to experiment and find what position is most comfortable and effective for you.

  • The opening of the throat, which should be relaxed and open as if you were about to yawn.

To form this “Ideal Oral Cavity” away from your saxophone, you can say the syllable “yaw” while keeping the back part of your tongue in the position needed to say they “y” part of “yaw.”

To test that your embouchure, oral cavity, and tongue position are all working together effectively, you should play a concert A* on just your mouthpiece.

*The concert A should be produced on alto saxophone mouthpieces only. For soprano saxophone mouthpiece pitches you want to produce a concert C, and for tenor and baritone mouthpieces you want to produce a concert G and D respectively. All other aspects of the oral cavity and tongue position should be the same.

Mouthpiece Exercise

Mouthpiece exercises are one of the most beneficial things you can do to self-diagnose any issues with your embouchure, oral cavity, tongue position, sound production, and air control. To play an A on the mouthpiece you will need to form your embouchure as you normally would around the mouthpiece when it is on the body of the instrument. Once you have your embouchure and oral cavity set, you will need to blow a cold, fast air stream and aim for an fff dynamic. The airstream needed to get the mouthpiece pitch to respond at the correct dynamic will be much faster than the airstream needed to play on the saxophone when it is put together.

If you are blowing air through your mouthpiece and no sound is coming out, go back and check your embouchure, oral cavity, and tongue position. Here are some tips for troubleshooting issues with your mouthpiece pitch:

  • If you bite into the reed, your embouchure will choke off the reed, and the mouthpiece pitch will not respond. Remember to focus strength from your larger embouchure muscles on the side!

  • If your tongue position is too low in your mouth, you may only hear air sound and some squeaks come from the mouthpiece. Remember to keep your tongue in a forward, downward slope!

  • If your throat is tight, you may get a very thin sound that does not reach fff. Remember to relax your throat opening and release any tension that might be held in your throat and neck!

  • If you are producing a sound that is at a fff dynamic, but you are getting a different pitch other than concert A, keep experimenting with your embouchure pressure and tongue position. Practice your mouthpiece pitch a little bit every day until you are able to consistently produce a fff concert A.

As you improve your concert A on the mouthpiece, you should notice that you are able to produce a fuller sound with more consistency throughout the entire range of the saxophone.

Click here to learn more exercises to prepare you for your first altissimo note!

[1] Debra Richtmeyer with Connie Frigo, The Richtmeyer Method for Saxophone Mastery Volume 1: Unlocking Artistry Through Fundamentals & Pedagogy, (Malvern, PA: Theodore Presser Company, 2021), 43.

Jack thorpe bio

About Jack Thorpe

Atlanta based saxophonist Jack Thorpe currently serves as an Artist Affiliate of saxophone at Georgia State University and the adjunct instructor of saxophone at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. As a concerto soloist, he has performed with the Georgia State University Symphonic Wind Ensemble, the Stephen F. Austin State University Symphonic Orchestra, and the University of Illinois Symphony Orchestra. Through his work as the alto player in the Versa Quartet, Thorpe won first place in the 2020 North American Saxophone Alliance’s Quartet Competition and performed William Bolcom's Concerto Grosso for saxophone quartet and wind band with the University of Illinois Wind Symphony. In 2017, he co-founded the Snow Pond Saxophone Quartet, a chamber ensemble formed to represent the Frederick L. Hemke Saxophone Institute at the Snow Pond Center for the Arts to international audiences. The quartet performed throughout Japan in 2017 alongside soloist Masato Kumoi and toured the southeastern United States in 2019.

In March of 2022, he was named the winner of the University of Illinois's Presser Graduate Award. With funding from this award, he is currently commissioning six composers who belong to traditionally under-represented communities in classical music to write solo and electroacoustic works for saxophone. Thorpe’s interests in collaborating with composers to create new works has also influenced his work as a chamber musician. Recently, Thorpe's saxophone duo, Vex, has premiered new works by Emily Koh, Yaz Lancaster, and Anthony R. Green.

Thorpe holds a D.M.A in saxophone performance and literature form the University of Illinois, an M.M. in saxophone performance from Stephen F. Austin State University, and a B.M. in saxophone performance from Georgia State University where he was the recipient of the Presser Undergraduate Scholar Award. His teachers include Debra Richtmeyer, Jan Berry Baker, and Nathan Nabb with additional study under Frederick L. Hemke.

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