This article is the second in a three-part series. If you haven’t done so already, I suggest you check out part 1.
So now, thanks to part one of this series, we know what overtones on the saxophone are. At this point, overtones/harmonics/partials may be an interesting concept, but how exactly do they impact us as a saxophone players looking to improve on our instruments?
As we develop the ability to hear more of the individual overtones, those overtones will begin to become more prevalent in our sound. The presence of an increasing number of audible overtones adds a richness of “color” to your sound which effectively makes your tone “bigger”, since you are actually taking up a greater portion of the frequency spectrum than you would occupy were those overtones not present.
One way to think about it is to visualize a sound with very few overtones as being like a pencil making its way through a pile of snow. However, a sound with lots of overtones is more like a snow-plow moving through the pile. Obviously, the snow plow will move a much larger portion of the snow making for an exponentially larger impact.
Of course, this is a truly extreme example, but hopefully it illustrates the point.
Once you’ve learned to make these overtones a part of your saxophone sound, then you can always use your ears and your embouchure to create your desired balance of upper and lower overtones, thereby giving you a brighter or darker tone quality depending on your taste.
Practicing overtones is going to build muscles in your embouchure that would probably not have been built otherwise. The more powerful those muscles are, the more control you’ll have over your tonal characteristics, pitch, and volume.
To elaborate a bit, adding and also subtracting harmonics from your sound is much like tonal microsurgery. This new sensitivity to subtle differences in your embouchure is going to give you a lot more control…control to shape your saxophone sound to be what you want it to be. Otherwise, you are basically stuck with whatever sound comes out by default when you put the horn to your lips. Better to have options if you ask me!
Also, you may also find yourself needing to move up a bit in reed strength, since you’re going to be causing the reed to vibrate a bit more than it normally would. However, all of the facial muscle-building involved in practicing harmonics means that you’ll be able to play longer without fatigue.
When most of us learned the sax, we were taught that the range of the horn runs from the honkin’ low Bb all the way up to that triple-palm key high F. However, one listen to Lenny Pickett or David Sanborn will make it clear that the saxophone is by no means limited in range to that palm key F.
When you hear a sax player playing way up in the stratosphere, they are not actually playing notes that are actually part of the saxophone’s normal operating range, but actually overtones of lower notes. It’s almost like the horn is being “hacked” by your fingers and embouchure to behave differently than it would if you were playing within the normal range of the horn.
For example, if you fingered a high G above the palm key F, but supported the note with the same throat and inner-mouth position used to play a G at the top of the treble clef, then you would probably end up instead sounding that same G above the treble clef (we’ll get more into the art of changing the throat and inner-mouth in the next part of the series). For this reason it’s important to practice playing as well as hearing those upper partials so that you can naturally slide into the correct fingering and inner-embouchure for the altissimo note you’re going for.
Another thing to note is that due to the differences in the overall makeup of each saxophone and mouthpiece, hitting the notes above the high F will often require fingerings that are specific to your particular setup, and will require some experimentation to find the fingerings that work best for you.
As mentioned in the previous section, hitting the altissimo notes is not simply a matter of putting your fingers in place and blowing through your sax. With the altissimo register, you’ll find that without hearing the note in your head before playing it, you will find it almost impossible to make the correct note pop out.
Since overtone fingering represents a series of notes, practicing overtones will force you to pick out with your ear the one pitch out of the series that you wish to play. And this conditioning of the ear is guaranteed to improve your ear as it relates to every interval on your horn.
By now you should be convinced that there is a whole world of saxophone mastery to be gained by practicing overtones. In part 3 of the series, we’ll get into precisely what it is that you can do to practice this important facet of your playing, and reap the abundant rewards.
Until part three…