Home Blog Contact Products Free Masterclass

#81 How To Play Saxophone Altissimo - The ULTIMATE Guide

technique Aug 02, 2020

On this week's lesson you'll learn how to play high altissimo notes on saxophone. But this isn't the typical video. I go deep into the reasons why you might not be able to get the high notes out and what to do about it. In the process we'll delve into the very DNA of the instrument and find out how it works!

Be sure to pick up the free PDF here, which has my fingerings for altissimo notes on alto and tenor up to double F. Here are the Q&A topics covered in this lesson, with video time stamps (min:sec). Clicking on the time stamp will take you straight to that portion of the video on YouTube (in a separate tab). Full Time stamps for the video and a complete transcript are at the bottom of the blog.

 

What is altissimo on sax? (0:07)

  • the altissimo is the range of saxophone notes above high F#
  • most conventional saxophone music doesn't go above a high F# because above that a special set of skills and fingerings are needed

 

Why is the vocal tract important to play altissimo on sax? (5:42)

  • the reed's vibration on a sax is controlled by the acoustic standing waves in both the saxophone bore AND the vocal tract, in series
  • in the high range of the instrument the standing waves in the bore become more unstable and weak and the performer has to create a strong standing wave in the vocal tract to get the reed vibrating at the right frequency

 

How do I play altissimo notes on sax? (16:01)

  • keep your tongue down and close to the reed tip, without arching it
  • raise your soft palette up in the roof of your mouth
  • almost close your vocal folds, as in a death rattle noise or stage whisper
  • take a bit more mouthpiece into your mouth
  • roll your tongue in with the reed as the mouthpiece moves in to your mouth
  • if need be use a little more bottom lip pressure on the reed

 

Do I need special equipment to play altissimo notes on sax? (20:28)

  • you don't need specialised gear to play high but a mouthpiece with a larger tip opening and a harder reed might help
  • a mouthpiece with a baffle inside it sometimes helps

 

Who is the best saxophonist for altissimo notes?

  • every proficient saxophonist should have a fluent grasp of the altissimo notes
  • notable performers who are well known for altissimo playing are Lenny Pickett, Jr Walker, Mike Brecker, Joe Lovano and Joshua Redman, amongst many others!

 

I really hope you enjoy this week's lesson. I honestly think it's one of my best ever! Don't forget to pick up your free PDF with all the altissimo fingerings for the lesson and I'll see you next week, where you'll be learning the sax solo from Smooth Operator. See ya!

 

Video Timestamps

0:00 - Intro performance

0:07 - Brief intro and titles

0:46 - Why fingerings are less important than you think

1:39 - how to get your free PDF with altissimo fingerings

1:52 - how to get the free one hour masterclass

2:20 - why fingerings might not work

2:53 - how a saxophone works 

4:05 - two types of air movement in a saxophone

5:27 - saxophone physics recap so far

5:42 - why vocal tract is important for altissimo

7:37 - Myth busting

8:10 - Dr Mark Watkins and Dr Joe Wolfe etc

8:46 - The Myths

10:40 - What’s REALLY going on

11:14 - sax physics conclusions

11:53 - the vocal tract

16:01 - the tongue

16:16 - the soft palette

16:46 - the glottis and standing waves

19:20 - your embouchure

20:02 - vocal tract positions for altissimo recap

20:28 - gear for altissimo

21:15 - Drill #1 High mouthpiece notes

21:40 - Drill #2 Overtones

23:11 - Drill #3 Overblow 6ths

23:36 - Drill #4 Overblow 6ths + 9ths

24:38 - Putting it all together

25:37 - Altissimo scales demo

26:07 - sign off

26:55 - end card and bloopers

 

Video Transcript

Hi! I’m pro saxophonist Jamie Anderson and you’re watching Get Your Sax Together. One question I get asked all the time is “How do I play altissimo notes on saxophone? The fingerings I’ve been given don’t work!” So in this week’s extra special free online saxophone lesson you’ll learn everything you need to know about playing altissimo notes on any sax, but buckle up, cos if you’re expecting the usual short video about using your front F key and using a faster air stream, you’re in for a shock, cos in this lesson we’re taking a real deep dive!

[INTRO MUSIC]

So many of the great solos that you can learn to play on this channel have notes that go above the standard high F# range of the saxophone. If you’re a beginner on saxophone, or even intermediate and above, this can be a real problem. You see the fingering - you use it - but nothing comes out except a weird low note. Sound familiar? If you’ve had this experience, comment below, or even better, if you’ve had success AFTER watching this video comment below as well - I’d love to hear YOUR experiences. The reasons why you’re not getting the high notes you want are not straight forward, but rather ambitiously I’m going to attempt to explain it ALL in this lesson. I’d love to tell you that getting those screamers on sax is easy, but I’m afraid it’s not, and I’m not gonna patronise you guys by saying “just use this or that fingering”, because the secret of altissimo is very little to do with fingerings. We’re gonna get right into the physics and the anatomy, but just before I blow your mind, remember to get your free PDF from the link in the description - that’s got all the exercises, fingerings and information you need for this lesson - plus, if you haven’t already, check out my free Saxophone Success Masterclass. This is my gift to you guys and it’s a one hour video lesson for saxophonists of ANY standard, with loads of in-depth teaching to help you transform your tone, improve your timing, design a structured practice routine and loads of other pro tips and tricks. The link is in the description, or you can visit double-u double-u double-u dot get your sax together dot com, forward slash masterclass. Okay, I’m gonna get my lab coat on and we’re gonna delve into the DNA of the saxophone!

[STING: THE PHYSICS]

If you’re watching this and you just wanted to know the fingerings for altissimo, then go to the description and get your free PDF now. The problem is you might not be able to get those fingerings to work, and to understand WHY you need to understand a bit about the physics of our beloved instrument. Full disclosure guys - I don’t have a physics degree, I’m a musician! I’ve tried to keep this lesson fairly simple, so if you’re a physicist please don’t bust my balls and forgive me for any over simplifications or generalisations. 

A saxophone makes noise due to three interacting factors: the actuator, the vibrator and the resonator. 

To you and me, the actuator is your breath, the vibrator is the reed, and the resonator is a combination of the conical saxophone tube and your vocal tract. These three things interact with each other in real time. When you expel air from your lungs it causes a pressure difference at the tip of your mouthpiece. This causes air to rush through the narrow gap between the mouthpiece and the reed, making the reed vibrate. As the reed rapidly flexes up and down in your mouth it creates pulses of acoustic pressure that travel up and down the instrument bore AND your vocal tract, forming standing waves. These acoustic standing waves in turn influence the vibration of the reed. In fact, they dominate the frequency that the reed vibrates at. These resonances are usually determined by what keys you have pressed down, although it’s actually the combined resonance of the sax AND your vocal tract that determines the standing wave frequencies that control the reed. So, breath causes the reed to vibrate, which causes an acoustic standing wave inside your body and your sax, which in turn controls the vibration of the reed. Key point - your body matters!

[Sting: DC and AC Air Movements]

Now here’s an important distinction to get your head around. The air in a saxophone moves in two very different ways. First of all there is the air that is physically moving out of your lungs, past the reed and into the mouthpiece. This is air molecules being physically moved from one area to another. You can think of this as DC Direct Current, or the water in a large river as it flows from A to B. Most people think this is the only air movement that’s happening, but at the same time, the vibration of the reed creates oscillating acoustic air waves that travel up and down the tube of the instrument and down your vocal tract. In these acoustic waves, each individual air molecule oscillates back and forward but stays in the same average position. You can think of this as AC Alternating Current and this is analogous to the ripples on the surface of the water if you throw a stone into the river as it flows along. Each water particle only moves up and down in sequence, forming a wave, just like a float bobs up and down on the surface of the ocean but stays in the same place. Of course, these two types of air movement happen together. The air moves from your lungs into the horn at the same time as those air particles oscillate to and fro as standing waves. The DC air movement makes the reed move, and the movement of the reed creates the AC air movement that controls the frequency the reed vibrates at. They both work together.

[Sting: the altissimo problem]

Let’s recap - the vibration of the reed is determined by the COMBINED resonances of the saxophone bore and your vocal tract. This is known as the tract-reed-bore system. 

Your vocal tract, the reed, and the bore of the saxophone. Tract-reed-bore. Now here’s the important bit for altissimo. For the notes in the normal range of the instrument, the vibrational frequency of the reed is mostly affected by which keys are open, with the resonance in the vocal tract mainly affecting timbre only. In other words, by and large, the keys you press determine which note comes out. I’m sure you’re familiar with that concept. However, as you get up into the high frequencies of the altissimo register, the air molecules in the sound wave in the saxophone bore can’t easily accelerate through the open tones and the open tone holes become more “invisible” to the acoustic wave, so the standing waves extend beyond open tone holes. In other words, with high frequency notes, the open holes on the instrument don’t make as much difference. This is why you can use altissimo fingerings with gaps in them, or cross fingerings. This effect happens at a point called the cross over frequency, and it occurs approximately at an altissimo A. At this point, the low frequencies get filtered out by the open tone holes, but the high frequencies don’t. At the same time, the resonances within the instrument bore get more erratic and weak on the very high notes, and the resonances in the vocal tract start to become much more important in controlling the reed’s vibration. Now we’re really getting to the heart of the altissimo problem, so let me say this again. As you progress above the palm keys into the altissimo range, the shape of your vocal tract becomes more and more important to what notes come out. You see, changing the shape of your mouth, and altering the position of your larynx etc generates different resonant frequencies which in turn change how the reed vibrates. I’ll put it bluntly now. If your vocal tract isn’t in the right position, you won’t get the altissimo notes out. Don’t worry though, you’re about to learn how to change this. Just before we move on to see how we can alter our vocal tracts, let me just bust a few common myths.

[busting some myths]

Ever heard this, or something like it, in regards to saxophone playing? “Create a faster air speed by arching your tongue into an ee shape”. Or maybe you’ve heard an analogy about water in a hose pipe when you put your thumb on the end? I have. In fact, I bet you’ll even find ME saying it on YouTube if you look hard enough. These instructions are all well intentioned and reflect what we THINK we experience in our mouth, but it turns out that I, and everyone else, has probably got it wrong. For this information, we’re all indebted to the incredible research of Dr Mark Watkins, Dr Joe Wolfe and many others, who have used real time x-ray fluoroscopy, endoscopy, pressure pads and anemometers to get some hard facts about what happens inside the vocal tracts of great saxophonists. With the exception of Dr Watkins’ excellent book “From The Inside Out”, this information has only been found in scientific journals and the like, and I can tell you from personal experience that most of it is seriously impenetrable. However, the good news, is that I’ve done all the heavy lifting for you. You’re welcome. Here’s the highlights then. 

MYTH ONE - tongue position affects air speed at the reed

For a given force of blowing, changes in your tongue position etc do NOT affect air speed at the entrance of the mouthpiece. When I say air speed, I mean how fast, in metres per second, each particle of air is travelling. This is because there is such a big difference between the cross sectional area of the mouth and that of the mouthpiece tip opening that any changes in air speed in the mouth become irrelevant at the reed’s tip. If you want a faster air stream you have to blow harder, simple as that. By the way, the reed itself does vibrate faster for altissimo notes, but not because of a faster air speed. What WILL create a faster air speed for a given blowing force however, is having a narrower tip opening on your mouthpiece, OR, putting more pressure on the reed with your bottom lip, which has the effect of narrowing the tip opening.

MYTH TWO - adjusting the tongue to an ee shape is like squirting water through through the end of a hose pipe with your thumb

The hose pipe analogy is inaccurate because the tip opening at the mouthpiece IS the thumb on the end of the hosepipe already, not your tongue. The equivalent analogy would be squirting the hose with your thumb on the end, then standing on the hose further back. In this analogy your foot would be your tongue.

MYTH THREE - direct the air stream up or down

The air stream from the vocal tract cannot be divided or directed into the mouthpiece tip opening at different angles as it already fills the whole space. Sorry everyone, that’s just not a thing.

MYTH FOUR - use a faster air stream for high notes

Anemometer readings at the mouthpiece tip show that the air speed at the tip opening is actually SLOWER for altissimo notes than that of low notes. I know this feels wrong, but that’s the truth of the matter.

Now - let’s be clear - these mythical instructions DO have an effect, but not because of the reasons we think. Tongue position and vocal tract adjustments change the acoustic impedances within your body, which in turn influences the vibration of the reed. As teachers, we’re attempting to communicate how something intuitively feels, which is valuable, but now we know full picture I think it’s time to update our teaching methods. Anyway, we’ve now got a good grip on the physics, and the main things you need to remember are

  1. the shape of your vocal tract and embouchure matters for playing altissimo notes. A lot.
  2. fingerings become more blurry in the altissimo range than in the normal range, and we can start to use cross fingerings beyond the cross over frequency around altissimo A.
  3. the air speed at the mouthpiece tip is actually slower for altissimo notes, not faster, and different tongue positions don’t make a difference to air speed, although they do have an effect for other reasons.

Okay, so it’s all about the vocal tract then. Cool, but what IS the vocal tract anyway? Let’s switch to anatomy mode now! (I’m keeping the lab coat on)

[Sting: The Vocal Tract]

You need to control the shape of your vocal tract to get high notes, so to cut through the confusion, let’s start with the hard facts about what the vocal tract IS, and what anatomical parts it contains. Once you know THAT, then we can drill down into exactly what each component part can do, and how to master these movements to play altissimo. 

This is a cross section of the head, as if someone has been vertically sawn in half through the middle of their nose. As you can see, the nasal cavity is connected to the vocal tract at the back which is why you can both breathe through your nose and spew up drinks through your nose when you laugh unexpectedly. We don’t need to be concerned with the nasal cavity in terms of saxophone playing, as the flap of skin at the back of our mouthes called the velum closes it off while we’re playing notes, so that the air from our lungs doesn’t flow out of our nose. 

There are two tubes that travel up inside your neck. One is the oesophagus - that carries food down to your digestive system - and the other is your trachea, which travels to your lungs. A little flap called the epiglottis stops food going into your lungs when you swallow. 

The Larynx is located near the top of the trachea. The larynx is a flexible complex of cartilage and bone that can expand up and down, tip forwards and move out and back. The front part of the larynx, the thyroid cartilage, is what’s referred to as the Adam’s apple. Women also have an Adam’s apple, but it doesn’t stick out as they have a smaller larynx. Importantly, as your larynx moves up and down it changes the effective length of your vocal tract, changing the resonant frequencies within. 

The vocal folds are two fleshy flaps that can vibrate together, allowing you to speak or sing, and they sit horizontally within the larynx complex. Technically, the glottis is the area between the vocal folds, so when the vocal folds shut together we can say the glottis is closed and vice versa.

Between the larynx and the mouth is the pharynx. It sounds like an evil character from a Marvel comic, but it’s just the tube behind your mouth and tongue, you might informally call it the back of your throat. Apart from a channel for food and air, the pharynx can be seen as a resonating chamber, and changes to its shape impact our sax sound. 

Moving further up we get into the mouth cavity itself, another variable resonating chamber for our sound. If you put your tongue behind your top teeth and trace it back, the first thing you feel is a hard ridge just behind your teeth. The fancy name for that is the alveolar ridge. Then you’ll feel the hard roof of your mouth, called the hard palate, which becomes soft and smooth towards the back. That’s your soft palate, or your velum. The hard palate can’t be manipulated, but the soft palate can. With experienced players the soft palate rises towards the brain in a dome like shape for the palm keys and altissimo notes. This movement is a significant technique, making palm key notes and the altissimo range much easier for you. 

The mouth cavity space is dominated by the tongue. The tongue is pretty big actually, extending almost the whole length of the vocal tract from the pharynx to the teeth and even beyond if you stick it out. Instead of the fancy anatomical names for the regions of the tongue, for our purposes we can divide the tongue into the tip, the front, the middle and the back. These are the areas that we need to be able to manipulate whilst playing saxophone. As we’ve already discovered, altering the tongue’s shape doesn’t affect air speed at the reed, but it DOES change the resonance characteristics of the vocal tract, and that’s even more important for us. 

Last but not least we’ve got the lips and teeth which are the main components of your embouchure. Now that you’re familiar with your vocal tract and the physics of the saxophone, I’ll get this lab coat off and we can isolate some of the most important techniques for your altissimo playing. 

[sting: vocal tract position for altissimo]

[Tongue]

Okay, this is where the rubber hits the road guys. Let’s start with your tongue. With all these techniques, there’s many different ways to skin a cat, and if something works for you that’s different from what I say, that’s all cool. If it works, it works. Generally speaking though, altissimo note production requires you to keep your tongue very close to the reed, without arching the front and middle, and your tongue will even feel like it’s going  down underneath the reed. So think down and forwards with no arch.

[soft palette]

Your soft palette needs to be raised up. If you run your tongue along the roof of your mouth you’ll feel where it gets shiny and soft, That’s your soft palette. If you shine your phone torch in your mouth and say “hung..ah” you’ll see your soft palette and tongue touch for the “hung” and separate for the “ah”. Imagine there’s a string attached to the back of your soft palette and there’s a tiny person back there, pulling the string, making your soft palette dome inwards. You should be able to control this with practice.

[glottis]

The glottis is the technical name for the area between your vocal folds. Remember, your vocal folds are inside your larynx, here. It’s very important to keep your glottis almost closed to create a strong standing wave in your vocal tract. Let me explain.

Imagine you’re in a very small, closed room without carpet or furnishings. If you used your voice to sweep a loud “ooh” from low to high, there will be one specific pitch that suddenly booms more than all the others, a bit like feedback howling on a PA system. This is the main resonant frequency of the room, and the synchronised acoustic waves at that frequency are multiplying each other, disproportionately amplifying that frequency and creating a strong standing wave. If you moved to a different note, the boom will disappear. This is a very annoying and undesirable effect in a ROOM, but exactly what we want in our vocal tract when it comes to altissimo playing. We want that strong standing wave. If we now removed one whole wall of that room, leaving it open to the outside world and played the same note again, the resonating boomy effect would be either greatly diminished or gone altogether. This is because the acoustic energy that was previously being reflected and multiplying itself is now being dissipated into the outside world and the standing wave would become very weak. In much the same way, if your vocal folds are apart, the acoustic sound waves from the reed dissipate straight down into your lungs through the open door of your glottis and we have a weak standing wave in our vocal tract. Conversely, if you use your vocal folds to almost close your glottis, the acoustic sound waves from the reed will bounce off the closed door and generate a strong standing wave in your vocal tract. To pitch bend notes, play overtones, play altissimo notes and achieve other effects on saxophone we have to create an almost closed glottis so that the acoustic waves bounce off the vocal folds, creating a strong resonant peak. We need that powerful standing wave in our vocal tract to drive the reed’s vibration. As previously mentioned, the glottis shouldn’t be completely closed though as no air would flow from the lungs into your mouth. To practice closing your glottis, make a whispered death rattle sound like this…

ahhhhhhhh

This is your vocal folds closing the glottis and you should keep your glottis in approximately this position to play the altissimo notes. The larynx itself is often in a slightly lower position for altissimo, more so for tenor and bari than alto.

[embouchure]

The final part of the equation is your embouchure. As a general rule you’ll need to take more mouthpiece into your mouth, but as you do this your lip rolls over on the reed from it’s normal position, leaving less lip surface to dampen the reed, and a longer area of reed exposed inside your mouth. Although it shouldn’t be too noticeable in the first altissimo notes, as you get really high you’ll probably need to apply more pressure on the reed as well. The better you are the less you’ll need to do that, and anecdotally I hear of players who can go super high without any extra pressure on the reed, but I can’t play super screamers without some extra upwards pressure from the bottom lip.

[Sting: Vocal Tract - Recap]

To get your altissimo notes out, try to work on these vocal tract shapes.

  1. Keep your tongue down and forwards with no arch.
  2. Raise your soft palette.
  3. Almost close your glottis.
  4. Take in more mouthpiece with your embouchure, letting the bottom lip roll in as you do this. Use a bit bottom lip pressure.

[sting: gear]

If your reed is too soft or your mouthpiece tip opening is too small you might struggle with the altissimo. I’m not saying to get a number four reed and a ten star Ottolink, but you might find it more difficult to get upstairs with a two reed and a Yamaha 4C mouthpiece. Not impossible, just more difficult. The reigning king of altissimo on YouTube, SirValorSax, only uses something like a six Link with two and half reeds, which goes to show, it can be done on a moderate set up, but hey, we don’t all have a lifetime to invest in this stuff, so you might want to consider giving yourself a bit of advantage with your set up, especially to begin with. I’m playing a Jody Jazz  8M on alto with a three or three point five strength Java Red Box reed.

[Sting: Exercises]

Let’s start putting all this stuff together then. 

Drill #1 High mouthpiece notes. Play the highest note you can using only your mouthpiece. The vocal tract shape for the highest note on your mouthpiece is similar to that of the altissimo, so start there.

[demo]

Drill #2 Overtones. Go to the card linked above for my video on overtones, but we are going to focus on the upper overtones for altissimo work. If you can’t play these high overtones you probably ain’t gonna be able to play the altissimo, even though they’re not exactly the same technique. Everyone talks about this book, Top Tones for Saxophone by Rigurd Rascher, and I studied the whole book myself back in the day, but to be honest, I think it’s really heavy going and it doesn’t actually offer anything in terms of technique advice. However, it is kind of the masterwork on overtone exercises, and man, Rascher can really play. What WE’RE going to work on for this overtones drill is playing an ascending seventh arpeggio starting on second octave Bb, but only using a low Bb fingering. So that’s overtones on the notes Bb, D, F, Ab and top Bb. Use all the tips you’ve learned so far and have a go. Remember, this is an ADVANCED exercise, so if you can’t do it don’t stress out too much. Once you’ve done the Bb seven arpeggio, try B7 and C7 as well.

[demo Bb7 arpeggio, B and C]

Drill #3 Overblowing 6ths. You start on a second octave C# and try and over blow it to get the A# above. Again, this can be really tricky, so don’t expect instant success. Once you’ve done C#, try palm D and Eb as well.

[demo]

Drill #4 is the same as drill #3 except now you over blow a sixth AND a ninth. So you’re going from C# to A#, then the D# above that. That’s an octave above palm key D#. Again, try it on palm key D and Eb as well. I’m demonstrating this on alto, which I find much more difficult than tenor, but my tenor is in for a repair so I’ve just gotta man up here! If I can’t do it perfectly it just goes to show you what a challenging exercise it is! lol

[demo]

[Sting: putting it all together]

If you go and get the PDF from the description there’s full altissimo fingerings listed, right up to the F above palm key F. The whole fingerings thing can be very individual though. I use DIFFERENT fingerings to many people, so what I’d advise you to do, is go online or on youtube and get a bunch of different options for each note and find out which one works for you, for each note. I don’t have a high F# key on my mark six, so that makes it different as well. It’s also useful to start getting used to using your front F key instead of palm keys for E, F and F# as it’s awkward to transition from all the palm keys into other altissimo fingerings. I’m sure you’ve seen other videos about that. Once you’ve settled on a basic set of fingerings that work for you, simply do all your usual exercises and patterns, but slowly start extending them up to include the altissimo. For a start, just extend all your scales up to the altissimo. It’ll be hard at first, but soon it’ll get easier.

[demo C major]

[Sting: Before You Go]

So that’s it for this week. It’s been a really epic investigation into the altissimo range. I know it’s a massive video, but I want the best for you guys, and I really want you to understand the whole picture. If you wanna learn more sax stuff go to double-u double-u double-u dot get your sax together dot com, forward slash masterclass and get your free one hour lesson with me, and as always, you can support me by giving this video a thumbs up, subscribe to the channel, click the bell icon to be notified when I upload new content and check out my Insta and Facebook pages. I genuinely appreciate you watching the channel and supporting me, so thank you.

Due to popular demand, next Sunday you’ll be learning the sax solo for Smooth Operator, but until then, practice smart and have an awesome week. See ya later! 

[ROLL END TITLES]

 

Get my FREE one hour Saxophone Success Masterclass and stay connected with news and updates!

Join my mailing list to receive the latest updates and free sax lessons direct to your inbox.
Don't worry, your information will not be shared and you can unsubscribe anytime, no hard feelings :-)

Subscribe & Get The FREE Masterclass
Close

Subscribe to Get Your Sax Together 

I really want you to improve on sax, so when you join you'll get awesome FREE content straight to your inbox.

Unsubscribe anytime, no hard feelings :-)