All Things Saxophone

Achieving Altissimo — What’s it take?

Last modified 10/18/08


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So many of my students and other aspiring saxophonists ask me about the altissimo notes (sometimes called harmonics or more simply the "high notes").  The questions I receive can be boiled down to one simple one -- "What should I be doing to play altissimo?"  Well, I wish the answer were easy, but it's not. There is no consistent method for learning altissimo because so much of the tone production is unique to the player.  In short, how your body is built defines most of your tone production on saxophone, and that includes altissimo.  This is the main reason I have been avoiding writing an article on this subject.  So many players are searching online for the magic answer to the challenge -- it just isn't out there.  There are some online tools (including my points below) that will help but any player that is trying to break the altissimo barrier without engaging in one-on-one face-to-face sessions between student and teacher is not likely to succeed.

Now having said that, don't get discouraged.  There are many good saxophone teachers out there including some in your area (wherever that is).  If on the remote chance (no pun intended) that you live in the sticks, there is always a way to connect to a teacher across the Internet through a virtual lesson.  I'm talking about a LIVE webcam type lesson, not some generic recorded "lesson" that won't teach you more than any other non-live resource (books, websites, etc.), because there's no way to tailor the approach specifically to you the player, which MUST BE DONE.  If you can't find a good teacher feel free to email me — I do select some dedicated students for remote sessions.

OK, let's get to a list of points to work on for achieving the altissimo register.  If you don't have a teacher, get one.  If your teacher isn't stressing the points below, get another one.

· Posture

I know, you've heard it before.  THEN DO IT!!! Students come to me complaining that they can't play altissimo and their posture looks like #@$%!!  Sit up or stand up straight -- your lungs and windpipe are like a hose -- if there's kinks in the hose then the air won't flow properly.  Don't tuck your neck, shoulders, or anything else even if you saw some saxophoneman on youtube doing it and you thought it looked cool.  Do you want to play the saxophone or just look “cool” holding it?

· Breathing

Breathing must come from the lower part of the lungs -- if you're panting up and down, up and down from the top of your chest then you won't get the breath support you need for those high notes.  You should feel your abdomen expand when you breathe.  BTW, good breathing applies to just about everything in life, not just saxophone.  So does good posture.

· Line F Is Actually An Altissimo Note

Yes, it really is.  Most players can hit this note, so try playing the line F, and then slur to the altissimo note you are trying to play.

· Don’t Blow Harder

The analogy here is golf.  If you hit the ball harder, it will go further, right?  NOT!!  Same point applies to saxophone.  Don't try playing the note louder -- if it doesn't speak, back off on the volume a bit and try again.

· Don’t Mess With The Embouchure

If you're changing your embouchure in any way to play altissimo, you're doing it wrong.  One proper embouchure will work for EVERY note on the horn without making changes anywhere in the range.  If you don't know proper embouchure then consult a teacher.

· Closing The Throat

Now we're getting into items that are more specific to individual players.  This technique may or may not work for you, which is why you need to study with a teacher.  On your first attempts at the altissimo register, it may help you to narrow the airstream a bit.  If this is difficult for you, try articulating the note with the back of your tongue using a "ka" instead of a "ta".  If this doesn't make sense to you then stop reading and get yourself a teacher.

· Alternate Fingerings

There are multiple fingerings for each altissimo note.  Some work better than others depending on the make of saxophone and the player.  If one is not working, try another.  Use my altissimo fingering chart on this website for more reference.  Also, if you’re playing Bari sax, there are special considerations.  Be sure to read my article on Bari Sax Altissimo.

There are other subtle things that I do with my students that are too unique & complex to communicate through this medium, so that's all I've got for you.  What you have read above may help get you started, but it won't get you all the way down the road, and neither will any other resource other than good old fashioned private instruction.  Best of luck to you -- AND WORK WITH A TEACHER!