Altissimo the Easy Way

David SanbornEver notice that there’s something missing from your favorite Benny Carter, Bird, or Coleman Hawkins recordings? Well, yes, they are conspicuously missing a good melodica solo, but that’s not what I’m talking about.

Things Ain’t What they Used to Be

Though it’s not completely absent from their playing, these jazz pioneers used the altissimo register far less than what we hear in the saxophone heros of today.  Where the practical range of of the horn used to extend up to F above the staff, nowadays we’re hearing players go miles above that high F into notes that we don’t even have official fingerings for.

While classical saxophone repertoire has employed the altissimo register for decades, there are many of us for whom the buck stops at palm key F. However, when we listen to altissimo masters such as Michael Brecker, Chris Potter, and the unparalleled altissimo god, Lenny Picket, it can be a bit overwhelming to imagine ourselves moving around an area of the horn that is not only foreign territory for our fingers, but a virtual otherworld when it comes to tone production.

So what’s the best way to get started on this journey towards the saxophone stratosphere?

The Easy Way

One note, one week at a time.

If you start out trying to rip through your major and minor scales above that palm key F, you’re probably going to find your entire body twisting in knots of frustration and despair. The cliche, “Rome wasn’t built in a day” isn’t a cliche for nothing. To start building your own upper register “Rome,” one of the best strategies is to extend the range of your instrument very slowly and gradually.

Height at the End of the Tunnel

So let’s say that palm key F is the top of your range. No problem – all we need to do is take the F# above that note, and incorporate that F# into all of our long tones, scales, arpeggios, and even our improvised solos. For example, when you practice your chromatic scale, go all the way up to the F#. When you practice your F# major scale, you can now go up two octaves. When you play your F# minor arpeggios, there’s no longer any need to stop at C# – keep going all the way up to that F# ceiling. I think you get the picture.

We do this for a week, maybe even two until it becomes comfortable for us. Just like anything else in music, the point isn’t to learn it quickly, but to do learn it so that it becomes natural and intuitive for us to use what we’re learning in as musical a manner as possible.

The next week is “G week.” Incorporate the altissimo G into your practice routine the same way you did with the F#. And up we go week after week. Before you know it, you’ll be breaking glass with the best of ’em.

Now, the art of playing in the altissimo register is a whole other topic in and of itself, so here are some resources on the site to help you get started:

So go forth my brave saxofriends and conquer the ever-elusive altissimo register – one note, one week at a time.