First Altissimo

Even a few years ago a saxophonist could get by with just the notes in the normal range of the saxophone. But today, most serious works for our instrument reach much higher. Although these notes used to be viewed as difficult to produce, saxophonists have been cooking long enough to have learned a thing or two about them. This recipe is for producing the first note in the extended range, high G, a note that is sure to be light, easy and delicious.


1. Whistle your favorite tune. Feel how your lips, tongue, cheeks, and air work together to change the notes of your tune? Playing high notes on the saxophone is very similar to this feeling (not exactly the same, to be sure). When we manipulate the tone on the saxophone with this synergy, we call it "voicing." “Voicing” is the key to playing high notes on the saxophone.

2. Because it is relatively easy to produce a tone throughout the entire normal range of the saxophone, many young saxophonists fail to make a solid connection between the feeling in one's mouth, and the pitch that is produced. This first exercise is designed to connect ear, embouchure, and air. It creates the "voicing connection."

3. On the mouthpiece alone, play a concert A. Bend the pitch down a half step, and then return to A. When this becomes easy, try bending the pitch down a whole step, always returning to your starting A. As you gain control of this exercise, increase the intervals until you can bend the pitch down a P4 or greater. NOTE* You may be able to bend the pitch a half step by dropping the jaw alone, but still have difficulty bending the pitch further with this method. You need to connect the pitch, lips, tongue, cheeks, and air - in short, you need to learn to "voice" the notes. Don't be afraid to experiment at this stage! When you have mastered this step on the mouthpiece:

4. Re-attach your mouthpiece to the saxophone and play high F with a good, solid tone (is there any other sort of tone?). Bend the pitch down a half-step and return to F. As with the mouthpiece alone, you will be able to increase the interval as you gain control. Experienced saxophonists can bend the pitch as much as an octave! To be sure, you can play some very high notes without being able to bend pitches as indicated above, but if you learn to "voice," the high notes will be very easy.

5. Here is the easiest fingering (among perhaps more than a dozen options!) for producing high G:

Octave key, B key, F key, Side Bb key, High F# key. Saxophonists notate it something like this:

1    Side Bb
O  Side F# 

Finger this note on your saxophone, form your best embouchure (as always!), and try producing high G. If you blow like you do for the rest of the notes, you will more than likely produce a Bb  below the G you want. You haven't made the "voicing connection" yet. There is only one thing you can do:

6. Grab your Scotch. Scotch tape, that is. The reason the G doesn't sound is that this fingering uses an acoustical phenomenon called "venting." In this case, the high F# key/hole acts as a vent. Ideally, the vent hole should be very small, like an octave vent. The high F# tone hole, however, is quite large, creating an unusual amount of resistance. We overcome this resistance by "voicing" a note. When we haven't yet made the voicing-connection, we can “cheat” by making the hole smaller. Much smaller. Take a strip of scotch-tape (say 1.5 inches), open the high F# key, and place the tape over the tone hole (sticky side against the tone hole itself), leaving perhaps a quarter to a third of the top of the hole uncovered. You can let the F# key close on the tape (don't worry, the tape won't hurt your saxophone). In essence, we have created a small vent hole where there was a large one. Try producing the high G again – it should sing!

7. Of course, you will want to wean yourself off of Scotch-tape. Play high G again (and again!). Bend the pitch, experiment with changing the shape of your mouth, vary how you blow into the mouthpiece (hey, now this is voicing!) until the tone is as clear and as beautiful as you could want it to be. Move the tape so that more of the tone hole, or "vent", is exposed, and play the note again, voicing it until it is again as beautiful as possible (did you notice how I slipped the word voicing into that sentence without quotations? You are already used to voicing!). Continue to move the tape so that less and less of the F# tone hole is covered. Over a few days you should be able to play high G with this fingering alone. You will be Scotch-tape-free, and on the road to playing all the high notes with ease.

NOTE: There are a number of excellent books on the market that contain exercises and fingerings for all the high notes on the saxophone. They include High Tones, by Eugene Rousseau, Voicings, by Donald Sinta, and Top-Tones by Sigurd Rascher. And these days one can easily find numerous fingerings on the internet.