Growing up, it seemed wherever I looked and whatever I listened to… everyone, jazz and classical saxophonists alike, was playing altissimo. Everyone except me that is. I remember the first time I ran into it, sometime in Jr. High school when I was transcribing something and it went off the horn, higher than I could play. At the time I was taking classical lessons from my band director, a clarinet person, and didn’t get any real answers. I tried for a while to figure it out on my own, but sadly, gave up. (This was pre-internet) In late high school / early college, I was thrown the Top Tones for Saxophone book and told to work on it, but I never even made it past the introduction. I didn’t understand what it was getting me to do and I just couldn’t play it no matter how hard I tried. By late college, not knowing how to play altissimo became an embarrassment – something I tried to hide. It became the elephant in the room of my playing (well, one of a couple of elephants, but let’s focus on one at a time.) and I felt inadequate and inferior. Sure, I knew a few guys that didn’t play much altissimo, but every time I heard one of my friends squeal into the high register in a classical piece or during a burning jazz solo, I felt like I was a failure. In addition, the frustration of getting part way through some of my favorite solos (Dexter Gordon’s solo on Cheesecake for example) only to never be able to play it exactly like the record was too much to handle at time. Not to mention, I was limited in my own ideas – if I heard a line that went up that high, there was no way I was going to be able to play it.
Learning to play flute filled that void for a while, but soon that wasn’t enough either. I would rationalize – “well, I can’t play altissimo, but I can play the flute.” But as I became a better musician and teacher and my sax students started wanting to learn how to play altissimo, I decided that it was time to learn how to do it myself. However, this isn’t a post about how to play altissimo – there’s plenty of that out there and you can check out one of them here if you’d like – my post is about being inspired and motivated to work on something that I couldn’t do and being ok with it. Hopefully, it will help someone else who’s in a similar place. Here’s what I did to learn to love the altissimo register.
Admit You Can’t
Admitting you can’t do something can be really scary, especially if it’s something you feel like you should be able to do. But admitting your weaknesses and accepting where you are can be extremely liberating. When I started opening up to my friends and colleagues about not being able to play altissimo, a surprising thing happened – most of them offered to help. And they have been continuously encouraging along the way. That’s really cool. (And if you tell someone you can’t do something and they make fun of you or belittle you, well, then tell them to go to hell. Seriously. We don’t need people like that in ours lives, musical or otherwise.)
It’s About the Trying, Not the Doing
A friend told me about his saxophone professor in college telling him this. I love it. The most frustrating thing about learning altissimo for me was not getting it right away, because most things in life I’ve been able to get right away. I eventually realized was that it’s not about doing altissimo, it’s about trying to do altissimo. There’s a lot of prep work that goes into playing altissimo and if you keep trying and trying, eventually it’ll start happening.
As saxophone players we are taught that if we press down the right buttons then the correct note will come out. But that’s not the case with learning altissimo. (It’s not really the case at all, but that’s for another post.) Overtones and altissimo studies can be very frustrating. But honestly, if you’re aiming for one note and another one, much higher comes out, you were still successful. I always focus on trying to repeat whatever it was I just did, whether I meant to do it or not. If I can repeat it with some regularity over time, then I am being successful. Just the fact that I am trying everyday and improving little by little (a new altissimo note came out, I have more control, I have more flexibility, the notes sound better, etc) means I’m successful.
Everyone will give you advice on altissimo – how they learned, what fingerings they use, how easy/hard it is…but none of it really matters. This is a personal individual path and you have to go at it on your own. Take what’s helpful and useful to you right now and set the rest aside. (But know you may need it later). It’s all about trial and error, time and effort. No one showed me how to do it, I had to figure it out on my own. Trust me, if I can learn altissimo, then anyone can.
Be OK With Sounding Bad
One of the unfortunate disadvantages of learning altissimo while being a professional musician is that you have a certain expectation of how things should sound. I had to let that go. I had to channel the curiosity and taste of my inner 5th grade self and be ok with sounding awful. At least for a while. Yes, my cats still hide at the other end of the house when I start practicing, but they eventually come back.
Celebrate the wins.
I’m still working on gaining more flexibility and more control with altissimo, but I’m ok with that. It’s a journey and I’m happy that I’m on it. Recently, I played bari sax in a big band with Donny MsCaslin as the guest artist. There was a altissimo G in my part, unison with the lead trombone. And you know what? I nailed it. That made all the frustration and hard work more than worth it.
PS: Two resources really helped me when it came to starting to work on altissimo. I wanted to make sure to share them with you as a place to start. If you have any questions let me know, I’d be happy to help in any way I can. Good luck!
- The first, Voicing: An Approach To the Saxophonist’s Third Register by Donald Sinta, is my favorite book regarding the altissimo register. It offers considerable information along with the exercises. I generally make up my own exercises, but I recently discovered that many of the ones I “made up” were included in this book. Funny how that works. I sincerely wish someone had handed me this book when I was in high school.
- The second, Beginning Studies in the Altissimo Register by Rosemary Lang, offers some nice exericses, but not much explanation. It’s a nice supplement to the Sinta book.