How to Play Your First Saxophone Altissimo Note: Part Two

by Jack Thorpe

Date Posted: December 14, 2023

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What are some things I should know before I start playing altissimo?

Before you try playing altissimo notes, make sure that you are comfortable playing in the palm keys of your instrument and that your tone production and intonation in the palm keys is stable and consistent. If your palm keys are very sharp, you may be tightening your throat opening, biting into the reed, or raising your tongue position too high in your mouth. There is a tendency for students to try to “tighten up” as they play in the higher ranges of the instrument, but this approach will make it more difficult to play in the altissimo.

If you’re able to consistently produce a fff concert A on your mouthpiece and you have achieved quality sound production with consistent response, good intonation, clear articulation, and the ability to add vibrato to your palm keys, then you are ready to take the next step toward playing altissimo.

Before you try looking at an altissimo fingering chart and seeing which notes you can play, it is helpful to do some exercises with your mouthpiece and overtones on the instrument.

More Mouthpiece Exercises

Play your mouthpiece A the way you normally would, and once your A is stable, try to manipulate the tip of your tongue downward slightly. Take note of how this changes the pitch. You want to aim for one half step lower than your concert A. If you are producing a pitch lower than a concert A♭*, you are probably moving your tongue too much, and you may be moving the middle or back part of your tongue. Go back to the concert A and try to manipulate the pitch to be one half step lower again. Make sure that for this exercise you are only manipulating your tongue position and not changing your embouchure pressure or dropping your jaw.

Once you are comfortable going between A and A♭, try doing the same exercise but going up one half step to a B♭. Again, you will want to manipulate only the front part of your tongue. Do not bite into the reed to make this pitch higher!

*Again, for this exercise, you should work to lower and raise your mouthpiece pitch to pitches according to your specific instrument’s mouthpiece. For example, a tenor saxophonist would want to lower their mouthpiece pitch to a G♭ and up to a G♯. The tongue movement should be similar for all four mouthpiece pitches, but you will need to move your tongue less on smaller mouthpieces and more on larger mouthpieces to accommodate for their size.

Overtone Exercises

Overtone exercises can also be very helpful in learning how to play altissimo. Overtones are essentially notes that can be produced from a low fundamental note without changing your fingering. For saxophonists, this can be a confusing idea at first. Think about a brass instrument that can play different notes in different registers all with one fingering. Brass players are able to do that because they manipulate the overtone series to pick out which note to play. On the saxophone, we have tone holes and octave keys to be able to manipulate the overtone series on the instrument much more easily, but in the altissimo, just pressing the right tone holes based off of a fingering chart will not necessarily produce the correct pitch.

There are many articles and books published about playing overtones on the saxophone, most notably Donald Sinta’s Voicing – An Approach to the Saxophone’s Third Register. One of the most common overtone exercises is to play a low B♭ and play the overtone series off of this fundamental note. If you have ever tried to play a low B♭ and noticed that the note spoke up the octave at first, you have already played an overtone!

To produce overtones off of the low B♭ you should manipulate your tongue position and slightly manipulate the opening of your throat. When you are first starting out, aim for the fundamental low B♭ followed be the same note one octave higher. See if you can switch between these two octaves so that you can master the feeling of the fundamental vs. the first overtone. Once this is comfortable, try aiming for the overtone above the first, which would be an F at the top of the staff. Gradually practice extending the range of your overtone series until you are able to produce an A♭ and B♭ above the normal range of the saxophone. Always remember to practice going up and down the overtone series until that is effortless before adding the next note.

Click here and learn to play your first altissimo note, Crunch G!

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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