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Altissimo and Productivity

In middle school, and early on in high school, I remember loving Saturday Night Live… which, for me, means “classic” SNL which, because I was born in 1974, means John Lovitz, Phil Hartman, Dennis Miller, Victoria Jackson (sigh) Jan Hooks, and Dana Carvey, mainly. But a highlight of the show–and what I always wished they’d include more of–was seeing (or at least hearing) Lenny Pickett wail on the tenor saxophone, as he did on the closing tune, week after week:

I’d wait through the R.E.M. and Randy Travis and Linda Ronstadt for those little clips of the house band… they were almost always the best band on the show. And every night, during their closing song, I remember hearing that screaming altissimo of Pickett’s and wondering, “How does he do that?” and wishing I could, too.

I wished that in middle school, in high school, and when I was in college. I even caught an episode of SNL shortly after I came to Korea, and joined a rock band (i.e. I’d started playing again) and though the comedy kind of bored me, Pickett’s upper register was still as solid as ever, a thing of beauty to be envied and adored… and wondered at.

Well, I still think it’s phenomenal how he uses it–and that’s the bottom line–but I ain’t wondering quite so hard anymore about the mechanics of hitting those notes, at least.

Today was a real breakthrough. I was talking to a friend the other day about hitting altissimo notes, and how happy I was to finally be doing that. He commented on how he’d always found that the harder part of altissimo wasn’t just hitting the notes, but using them productively in playing.

Which is a fair observation, and fit in line with what I had planned next, and what I started with today. Here’s the thing: I’ve been hitting G3 for a month or more now, and started to be able to use it in improvisations about as easily as any of the other notes on the horn… which I figure is likely because I decided to treat it like any other note, and integrate it into my scales and arpeggios. I’ve been expecting to do the same with all the other altissimo tones I master, a few at a time.

So today? For the first time in my life I managed to play all my scales-of-the-week (I’m doing Mixolydian modes and dominant 7th arpeggios) from Bb1 to Eb4. Every scale went up into that altissimo register, and in fact all my scales from Eb to Bb were three octaves or more. It wasn’t all perfectly smooth, of course–but then, a couple of weeks ago, neither was my G3, and these days I hit it very reliably. Every note did get played, though!

On top of that, I also managed to get my overtones working a little higher — holding the 1st and 2nd overtone above low-D, sustaining it all the way up to the palm keys. It seemed a week ago like an impossible task, but it’s starting to happen, as I develop an increasingly finer sense of how my mouth and throat need to be voicing those overtones. Again, it probably didn’t sound like much to anyone else, but to me, it was a breakthrough!

I should probably post soon about the one big change in my setup to which I believe some of the credit for my sudden breakthroughs go: while it wouldn’t have happened without daily practice, I believe my new mouthpiece is helping me immensely… or, rather, that the mouthpiece I played on until recently was holding me back, and changing it is the best thing I could have done to continue my progress.

More on that next time.

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