11 Tips for Improving Your Altissimo

Today’s post comes in response to a question by reader Chad Lamkin. Chad asks:

I play Alto and I really just want to improve and just learn it all at the moment.  I’m trying to get these altissimo notes down but the highest I can get F# and I can’t get it any higher…Would you happen to have any tips?

Well Chad My Lad, it’s good that you asked, because there are some great things we can do to add an octave or two or three to our horns – not to mention play the sort of sax solos that get people on their feet.

What is the Altissimo Register?

The altissimo register on the saxophone is comprised of the notes above F3 (the palm key F). There is no real limit to how high the altissimo range goes, although D8 is the highest I’ve seen any fingering chart go up to.

Here’s what I suggest we all do to improve our control of this challenging aspect of saxophone sovereignty.

1. Make sure you develop your tone in the range below altissimo first.

Altissimo requires a great deal of control over the instrument . While mastering the instrument is a never-ending process, simply arriving at the point of being able to eek out an altissimo note is quite a bit more difficult than playing a single note within the saxophone’s normal range. If you haven’t got a sold grasp on the basic skills necessary to get a good tone on the notes below altissimo, forget about it, it ain’t gonna happen.

2. Make sure that you’re using the optimal mouthpiece and reed combination.

Unfortunately there is no one-size-fits-all setup that guarantees the best results for hittin’ those high, high notes, so this is one of those things you might need to experiment with, especially if you find yourself struggling to make even the smallest amount of progress. You really want to make sure that your setup can handle a powerful airstream without the reed closing down. An overly soft reed, or a mouthpiece with an overly small chamber can constrict the airflow in a way that can seriously hamper your efforts.

3. Make sure that your saxophone is not leaking.

When it comes to the subtle art of  playing in the altissimo register, every little bit of air makes a difference. So if air is escaping via leaky pads, it could cause you added frustration as the notes aren’t coming out. Or worse yet, you could end up establishing bad playing habits to compensate for that leaky horn.

4. Practice your overtones.

You will not find a single book or tutorial resource of any kind on the subject of altissimo that doesn’t cover the practice of overtones. In fact, I would venture to say that the practice of overtones and altissimo are one and the same. Almost every single tip in this article applies to the practice of harmonics (aka overtones) as well. In truth, the altissimo register is nothing more than upper partials (also, aka overtones) of lower notes, so there really is no distinction.  Altissimo simply refers to the very top overtones on the saxophone.

For more information on overtones as well as some handy exercises, check out my 3-part series on the subject here.

5. Make sure you hear your altissimo notes before you play them.

Just like with overtones, the altissimo notes require non-standard fingerings. Case in point: let’s say you hand a saxophone to someone who’s never played the instrument, have them finger a middle F, and just blow. There’s a pretty good chance that, horrible as it may sound, they’ll squak out the correct pitch.

Not so when it comes to those altissimo notes.

Altissimo requires very subtle control of the embouchure, shape of the inner mouth, tongue, and throat. Add to that the fact that each altissimo note has several different fingerings and you’ll see that there is no set-it-and-forget-it fingering that’ll get you to those high notes. The correct manipulation of those hard-to-control muscles must be guided by your ear, so blindly fingering and blowing is not an option here.

6. Experiment with different fingerings to discover what works best for you.

As I’ve already mentioned, there are indeed quite a few possible fingerings for each altissimo note. This is probably one of the most challenging aspects of playing way way up high. Boy, wouldn’t it be easy if all we had to do was memorize the fingering for each note and away we go? No such luck here, since what we’re really playing consists of overtones of notes in the normal range of the instrument. For this reason, variables such as your equipment setup and your own physical makeup make it so that we have to get creative.

Below are a couple of free online altissimo fingering charts that you can refer to. Go through each fingering, preferably with a tuner, and see which one plays the most naturally and precisely for you.

7. Avoid biting down excessively.

Although the natural tendency when playing in the upper register of the saxophone is to bite down and squeeze the notes out, this is really the opposite of what you should be doing. Just like with your overtones, getting the altissimo notes requires that the “heavy lifting” is not done by your bottom jaw, but rather, by the tongue, throat, and inner mouth. Again, the practicing of overtones will get these muscles working for you in the right away.

8. Support those altissimo notes with a solid stream of air.

Really, this tip applies to any note on the saxophone, but in the case of altissimo it really isn’t optional. Make sure that you’re supporting your sound with the muscles in your diaphragm, which is located right below your ribcage.

Increasing the speed of the air in important as well. Speeding up the air is similar to speeding up the stream of water out of a hose. Ever step on a hose without completely blocking the water from coming out? If so, you noticed that the water that does come out travels a lot further and faster.

On the sax, if you “squeeze” the air with your tongue high into your soft palette, the air will move faster and cause the reed to pop into altssimo mode.

9. Experiment with making different vocal sounds while practicing altissimo notes.

One intuitive way to guide the the inner mouth, tongue, and throat into the correct position is by simply attempting to sing certain vowel and consonant sounds while simultaneously playing the horn. For example, many sax players have reported success from the “EEEEEWWWW” vowel sound, while others have benefitted from imagining making the sound of a cat hissing.  Try a few of these and see what works best.

10. Include the altissimo range in your practice of long tones, arpeggios, scales and improvisation.

This may seem a bit obvious, but I just thought I’d mention it as a reminder that the goal here is really to extend the natural range of the instrument. Ideally, we should be able to play anything we would normally play in the normal saxophone range up an octave, or two, or even three. This will also help us hear the altissimo notes as mentioned in tip #5.

11. Grab one of the great books on the topic of altissimo.

Excellent practice books always make for a great shortcut in musical improvement as we’re pushed into playing things completely out of our self-defined comfort zones. Here are 3 classics you may want to check  out for yourself:

Altissimo in Action

So now that we’ve taken in some altissimo wisdom, let’s get out there in break some glass!

In the meantime, check  out the world’s master in altissimo playing, the man himself, Lenny Picket: