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Stepping Towards the Stratosphere

Andrew J. Allen | June July 2021

   The altissimo register was once the domain of the greatest saxophone virtuosos. In the mid-20th Century, there was even a debate about the utility of the pitches above the standard, keyed range. However, much like the clarinet and flute, the saxophone is a flexible woodwind capable of comfortably playing three-and-a-half octaves with the proper technique and preparation. Once the domain of a few masters, every college saxophone major is expected to have knowledge and ability in altissimo. Interest in the skill is spreading to high-school and middle-school saxophonists as they hear videos of great performers. Even though only the most advanced contemporary wind ensemble pieces call for the saxophone’s highest octave, pieces requiring altissimo have appeared on solo and ensemble lists throughout the country. So, what should the non-saxophonist director know about this technique?

Preliminary Considerations
   First, a word of warning: There are many ways to achieve the highest notes on saxophone, but some will produce poor, shrill sounds. In addition, without the proper care, the young saxophonist can distort their embouchures to squeeze out these pitches, yielding negative consequences for the rest of their playing. As I told one eager young player last year, the desire to extend the range is to be commended. However, a solid foundation of good practices must be laid down first.
   Tone comes first on the saxophone. No matter the level of range or technique, no one wants to hear a shrill saxophone sound. From the outset, any student should be listening to the highest-quality classical and jazz saxophonists possible. (I have offered many suggestions in previous articles.) Emulating these great performers will lead to positive results in both the normal range and the altissimo.
   Perhaps the two most important physical attributes for good tone in any register are airflow and embouchure. Airflow will be dealt with at greater length below, but the embouchure deserves attention now. The embouchure and its tension on reed and mouthpiece remain fairly consistent, no matter what note is played. There should be no appreciable difference in pressure on the reed when playing in the altissimo register.
   The ideal embouchure begins with the neckstrap pulled up high enough that the mouthpiece will enter the mouth without any lifting in the hands while the performer is sitting or standing up straight, looking straight ahead. The student will then place their top teeth on top of the mouthpiece, anchoring saxophone by relaxing and letting the weight of the head rest on the top of the mouthpiece. This should be felt through the neckstrap on the back of the neck. Double-lip embouchures will always be detrimental to tone, intonation, and evenness. Students with sensitive teeth may find this uncomfortable, and plastic and rubber self-adhesive mouthpiece patches are encouraged to improve comfort.
   Once the head is anchored through the top teeth, the lower lip rests on the bottom teeth. The puffiest part of the lower lip should be a cushion for the reed. Before sealing, the embouchure corners are drawn in towards the center, further puffing up the lip. Finally, the embouchure is sealed to keep air from escaping. The teeth should be separated, with the lower jaw exerting no upward pressure into the delicate reed. The chin should not be flat as in a clarinet embouchure, but it certainly shouldn’t be dimpled or bunched up into the reed. Instead, the student’s chin should look the same when playing as when they are making a neutral expression without the mouthpiece in the mouth.
   An easy way to test for proper embouchure tension is by playing the mouthpiece by itself, seeking a specific pitch. For soprano, that is a concert C#, for alto a concert A, for tenor a concert G#, and for baritone a concert D. Students should make a habit of playing these mouthpiece pitches daily. They should then continually check to ensure that their embouchures should feel similar to when they are playing the whole saxophone.
   The embouchure should not move while the saxophonist is playing (except for the slight motion required for vibrato). The adages of dropping the jaw while going lower or tightening up to go higher, or to lip down for intonation are outdated and harmful to saxophone tone. For intonation, use the process of voicing or air direction. From the top to the bottom of the tessitura, the embouchure should remain still and unchanged. Otherwise, the tone is built on shifting sands that will lead to uneven timbre and intonation.

First Steps
   Once the student has achieved a well-supported, consistent tone throughout the saxophone’s keyed range, it may be appropriate to introduce the altissimo register. The first step is to think about airflow. Airflow and changes in airflow conception are essential at every stage of saxophone tone and intonation. A consistent, well-supported stream of air is vital in any style, register, or dynamic. Further, a regular visualization of an entire phrase exiting the saxophone’s bell will aid significantly in tone and phrase-shaping. In addition, the idea of voicing can improve intonation adjustment, timbre adjustment, and the altissimo register. While a detailed description of voicing is out of the purview of this article, you can learn more about this vital technique, including through the text by Donald Sinta, listed below.

   One of the best exercises for any saxophonist is playing overtones. Like the flutist’s whistle-tones, these can greatly help develop the tone and resonance of any saxophone sound. In addition, they have enormous benefits for intonation and the development of the mechanisms necessary to access the altissimo register consistently. First, have the student perform a beautiful, well-supported written low B-flat on their instrument. Afterward, have them play the same fingering, but sound for them the note the octave above, then request that they try to perform the "middle B-flat" with the low B-flat fingering.

   The student should achieve this through experimenting with air direction (visualizing blowing a stream of air at different points on the wall) or through experimenting with the feeling of different vowel sounds (ah, ee, ii, oo, etc.). There should be no "squeezing" of the jaw or embouchure.
   Once this has been achieved, the student can finger the low B-flat while playing the B-flat an octave higher. Then, through voicing or air direction, they can transition as smoothly as possible down to the low B-flat. Again, the jaw and embouchure should remain still.

   Once mastering this technique, it should be repeated on the written low B, low C, and low C#. After this has all been achieved at a consistently high level, the student can begin experimenting with the second overtone, an octave and a perfect fifth above the fundamental. For example, have the student finger a low B-flat, while seeking to play the written F5 pitch, then gently fall back to the fundamental.

   Again, replicate the same exercise on the low B, low C, and low C#. After this, it may be helpful to start working from Sigurd Rascher’s long-lauded Top Tones for Saxophone. A large amount of the book covers overtone exercises for tone and intonation development and mastery of the mechanisms leading to fluency in the altissimo register.

The First Altissimo Pitches
   After laying the appropriate groundwork, the student can then begin worrying about specialty fingerings. While the theory behind the altissimo rests on overblowing overtones, the fingerings used in performance differ significantly from standard low note fingerings. Instead, they are mostly cross-vented formulations that optimize tone, intonation, and resonance.
   The first altissimo pitches are rarely viewed as part of the altissimo register, as they are fingerings using the same voicings and techniques as the altissimo but otherwise achievable through standard fingerings. These are written E6 and F6. Two fingerings exist for each of these pitches: the standard palm key fingerings, and the front fingerings (named for the front key, which is immediately above the B key), the latter of which are a perfect place to gain comfort with rudimental altissimo approaches.
   First, the student should be comfortable playing the standard palm-key fingerings for E6 and F6 with a beautiful, clear, in-tune sound. Only then will experimenting with the front fingerings be beneficial. Before attempting the new fingering, the student should play one of the notes in the palms, perhaps the F6, with a drone, firmly getting the pitch in their mind’s ear.
   After accomplishing this, the student should hum the note while fingering the following:

   Then, with the pitch firmly in mind, the student should attempt to play the F6 on the front fingering (the first finger in the left hand depresses the front key with the part of the finger between the knuckle and middle joint). The feel will be considerably different than the palm-key version, and the student may want to visualize blowing down through the bottom of the saxophone’s bow. Again, it may take time to perform this note consistently, but students should keep the same embouchure used for any other pitch.
   After a student can attack the front F consistently with a beautiful sound, have the student slur into the front E by laying down the third finger in the left hand:


  From there, the student should work to attack the front E, as well.

The Next Pitches
   Nearly all professional and intermediate-level saxophones today have an additional key for performing the written F#6 for use with both side-keys and the front keys:


   However, in the days before these keys were standard on most saxophones, the written F#6 was largely only achievable by the following fingering, using the side B-flat key:


   This fingering is still used often to bridge into the altissimo register and is a logical next pitch to learn after the front E and F. Once this is consistently clean, clear, and in-tune, keep going higher.
   Next is a true altissimo pitch, the G6. The student should keep a smooth, steady airstream when transitioning to this pitch, with no letting up. They can think of aiming their air progressively farther down as they transition from the E, to the F, to the F#, to the G. All the while, tone and clarity should be foremost.
   Each member of the saxophone family has a different set of altissimo fingerings. These fingerings even vary from professional to professional or source to source. Many are similar, but the largest difference occurs for this G6, between alto and tenor.
   The appropriate alto fingering for the G6 is:

   For tenor, one should play:

   For those tenors not equipped with high F# keys, this fingering will work, although it is less stable:


   One of the biggest challenges in bridging the front fingerings to this altissimo G is the fingerings themselves. The student is releasing keys in one hand while depressing them in another. Add that these fingerings are new and unfamiliar, and the technical aspects alone can throw barriers in the student’s way. To ease the path, break this transition into a few steps.
   First, without playing, have the student slowly and smoothly switch between the fingerings for F# and altissimo G. Once this is smooth, have the student blow steady air into the mouthpiece while executing the fingerings, all without making a sound. Once this is comfortable, have the student attempt to play the two pitches, reminding them to blow downward from the F# to the G.

Further Exploration
   Once a student consistently achieves all of the above, they should consult a competent private saxophone instructor. A specialist should be involved in developing this skill, as much mischief can result from improper technique. In addition, the student should consider consulting the following standard texts on saxophone altissimo.

Beginning Studies in the Altissimo Register for Saxophone (Ensemble), Rosemary Lang/Revised Gail Levinsky  
   This classic work has recently been updated and expanded by Susquehanna University saxophone professor Gail Levinsky. It is a wonderful resource for any saxophonist looking to expand their facility in the altissimo and seeking to integrate the register into the rest of their range. The book consists mainly of beautiful melodies that slowly expand into the altissimo, making the student think lyrically and musically, no matter the range considerations.

Top Tones for the Saxophone, Third Edition (Carl Fischer), Sigurd Rascher
This work was the first modern primer for the altissimo register and remains a standard reference for modern saxophonists. It is to be praised for its preparatory overtone exercises, which build the necessary skills for altissimo performance, while also developing tone and resonance. I  still use this work every day in my warm-up routine, in addition to using it with collegiate saxophonists. However, many fingerings work better on the vintage American saxophones Rascher preferred, rather than modern French and Japanese instruments.

Voicing: An Approach to the Saxophone’s Third Register, Revised Edition (Blaris), Donald Sinta
   Sinta, professor emeritus of saxophone at the University of Michigan, offers a logical approach to the concept of voicing, its use in altissimo production, and benefits for all other aspects of saxophone performance. The exercises are perfect for the advancing saxophonist, but a competent private instructor should lead the student, as these studies can produce negative results without the proper supervision. A wealth of useful and usable altissimo fingerings is included.

   The advanced saxophonist is called upon today to have a complete mastery of the altissimo register. What was once optional is vital. With a bit of help, however, even young saxophonists can experiment with the top tones. Whether for a particular piece or just out of curiosity, this new skill can open up new possibilities for the saxophonist. The sky is the limit.