the jazz authority; random dubiously zappy rants about 'the musicians music'.: Altissimo... unecessarily high notes

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Altissimo... unecessarily high notes

I've been asked by a few people to post some thoughts regarding the altissimo range. Whether we dream of popping out nasty squealing lines like that cat who plays with the Saturday Night Live band, or we want to tear it up in the upper stratosphere, we have to do the work to get there. Here are some of my suggestions and insights about this coveted ability.

The altissimo is the uppermost reaches of your horn – the upper range that is always moving higher. This is one end of the spectrum, and it only makes sense that in order to do it right, we should have a balance... meaning we should work on our low register too. Overtones, tone matching, scales & patterns, and long tones with dynamics all help to improve the upper resister through embouchure control and flexibility. Overtone/tone matching is a great technique for improving your ability to really use your embouchure for zeroing in on notes, and that's what altissimo is all about.

Always work on your altissimo at the end of your practice. If you do it at the start you'll tire out your embouchure before you have the chance to get in a solid practice. Same goes for long tones and the like. If you're unable to do the work because you're mouth just can't cut it, put your horn away and come back to it later. Never push through a weakened embouchure because you'll develop bad habits like biting your bottom lip. Only go until you feel that inevitable burn in your lips... this shouldn't happen until 2 or 3 hours into practice (if you're burning out in less than an hour, you need to practice more often).

You will probably want to show off your new altissimo abilities when you start to get some things worked out, but I strongly recommend that you use this register discreetly and sparingly. Keep it in context; learn your riffs and patterns up there. It really helps to work out the chromatic scale up there too.

A great lick on this subject involves matching the upper palm key D, Eb, and E notes with the upper register (just below these palm key notes, that is) G, G#, and A, respectively. You do this by blowing a high D, and then without articulating you change your fingering to G (with the octave key) while still playing the D note. You should be able to do the same on Eb and E. Joe Henderson used this technique at times and the effect was great. Trane did something along these lines too.

The 'front F'. Even if your horn has a high F# key you should still learn the front F fingering, and an alternate fingering for F#. There are many fingerings for each altissimo note, and a great chart on this is found in the book 'The Art Of Saxophone Playing' by Larry Teal. I use more than one fingering for some notes because I get a different effect with each one. Some are sharper, pop out more, sit better in fast lines, hold their tone easier, and come out nastier than the others.

I'd say the basic range is up to A, then when you have that down work out the fingerings up to C, then go as high as you can (F above high F is reasonable and should be readily possible). Each of these mini-goals should take you a number of months to get under your fingers. Try working at a note a week, working your way up to get the next one to come out without a struggle. You know – slide into it chromatically. Also try playing the note an octave below to get the sound in your head first.

A great trick is to curve up the middle of you tongue so that you get more of a jet of air. You can also voice a strained 'hum' in the back of your throat and this might help you to get the notes to come out, but I don't recommend this until you first get the notes under your fingers and it then becomes more of a matter of consistency. Play around with this and see what you can get.

Got all that?!? Great. Now it's time to look at your set up.

I play mostly Tenor sax, so keep that in mind while I talk about mouthpieces and reeds. The Alto is a whole other ball game. Over the years I've found that a harder reed ( 3 to 3 ½ strength ) will get the notes out easier, and a mouthpiece with a smaller tip opening ( Otto Link 5*, 6, 6* ) will lend itself more readily to the higher notes. I have a couple of mouthpieces and set-ups, but I really like my Otto Link 7* with a #2 ½ or 3 Rico reed. I can still get those high notes to come out fine, but that's because I've used this set-up for many years and really worked on it. With an open mouthpiece and softer reed it's easy to sound strained and pinched off in the upper register. Those exercises I mentioned earlier were great for helping me to get these notes to ring out and speak almost effortlessly. I once stumbled across a vintage Selmer D long shank hard rubber mouthpiece, and bought it for $30.00. I got it home and found it too closed, so I put it away for a few months. Upon further research I discovered that this could be a great mouthpiece, so I gave it another shot with a very hard reed ( Rico 3 ½ to 4, or Vandoren 3 to 3 1/3 ). The sound was great! See, this mouthpiece has a very long lay – this is the length of the curve on the facing from the tip to roughly the mid-vamp of the reed - which mad it more resistant and 'finicky'. I had a hell of a time trying to control it at first, especially in the low register, but once I got it figured out I had a blast with the thing. Those high register notes just sing with that mouthpiece. Alas, I hardly play often enough these days to be able to control it properly, so I just honk away with my good old Otto Link.

Well, there you go. I hope you find this information useful. It took me years to figure all this stuff out, and I wish I had someone around to tell it to me when I was getting it under my fingers.

If you have any questions or suggestions, post it in the comments area at the bottom of this article and I'll post back. Good luck!

No comments: