One cannot truly master the alto saxophone unless he or she can play it in all four octaves. That means that one must master approximately 79 different fingerings: https://saxtalk.com/saxophone_fingering_chart.html
To solve really hard problems, one must break the problem down into small palatable chunks. Playing any piece of music is like solving a puzzle: once you learn how to solve the puzzle slowly, you gradually increase the speed to teach your brain to solve the puzzle faster.
A series of notes (i.e. an etude) is just a puzzle where you have to find the optimal values of several different parameters: rhythm-related parameters, harmony-related parameters, and melody-related parameters. The only way to really learn to solve a puzzle is to focus, and to learn to solve it over and over again at ever increasing speed.
This is the approach that we are going to take to mastering the altissimo register of the alto saxophone. We are going to focus on mastering one altissimo note at a time. We are going to start with the note G-3 which resonates at 932.33 Hertz. Why did we pick this note as the first one we will attack? There is no particular reason. We want to avoid being paralyzed by indecisiveness. Sometimes, to achieve a goal, you have to trust your gut, make a decision, and roll with it.
So how are we going to break down this challenge?
- How many ways are there of fingering G-3? We are going limit the choices to two:
- In this particular etude, we will only use the first fingering for G-3: G-3a. In the next etude, we will exclusively use the G-3b fingering.
- Limiting the number of available choices allows you to focus 100% of your mental energy on mastering those limited number of choices.
- We are going to write a relatively simple etude that will introduce us to the G-3 note. Instead of making the etude extremely difficult, we are going create a simple etude, and we are going to learn the etude at ever increasing speed until we hit a break point where we simply can't play it any faster.
- Quantum leaps: quantum leaps take more power than gradually increases in difficulty. For example, let us imagine that you run every day at an average speed of 10 miles per hour. A gradual increase would be from 10 miles per hour to 10.1 miles per hour. A quantum leap would be jumping from an average speed of 10 miles per hour to an average speed of 15 miles per hour. If you take a quantum leap, your body will ask you "what the heck are you trying to do? I'm not ready for this." Quantum leaps force you to grow faster. So we are going to have a very simple practice concept: we are going to take quantum leaps. For example, we will practice our new etude at 60 beats per minute, and then we will increase the speed by 25% to 90 beats per minute. Then we will increase another 25% to 120 beats per minute. Then 150 bpm. Then 180 bpm. We will continue the quantum leaps until we hit a quantum level where we simply can't play the piece, no matter how hard we try.
- The Quantum Breakthrough: Let's say that our breaking point is 210 bpm. We were able to play the piece at 180 bpm, but we can't play it at 210 bpm. At that point, we will practice the piece over and over again at 180 bpm. After several attempts, we will try 210 bpm again. We may fail: over and over again. But at some point, you will achieve a Quantum Breakthrough where you shock yourself by being able to do what you thought was impossible for you to do. Most of our growth will come through Quantum Breakthoughs.
- We must be 100% honest with ourselves. You will do this exercise with me. I am going to play our new etude starting slowly, and then ramp up the speed in 25% quantum increments. I will record here the exact speed in bpm at which I break down and can't play the piece anymore. Then, when I achieve the Quantum Breakthough, I will record it, and post the recording here.
- Here is our Altissimo Focus Etude 1: focusing on G-3 at 932.33 Hertz:
Download altissimo_focus_etude001_01_G-3.mscz (sha-256 hash = 9f70f1ca8418c99da7eacd9e64bdf9fecd4e866df382235340fadf9461d218e6): https://gateway.pinata.cloud/ipfs/QmcodZjtvTRyZGuznckNdpQrS31MQtN5Vf1qUvUcqubRPx
Altissimo Focus Etude 1 focusing on G-3 (932.33 Hertz) at 50% speed (60 beats per minute):
- Quantum Level 0: 60 BPM Backing Track:
- Quantum Level 0: Me playing the etude at 60 beats per minute:
After each quantum level, I have to listen to what I played carefully, and I have to evaluate myself. My intonation is horrible. I think that I tend to be flat in octave 1. I also know that I have a tendency to play sharp in octaves 2, 3, and 4. I know that my intonation is a problem, and I am going to work on that problem separately from this etude. My focused solution to my intonation problem will be to spend several hours working on each of the approximately 46 notes in the alto saxophone's 4-octave range using a digital tuner app. The app will tell me the exact frequency that I am playing, and precisely how many cents sharp or flat I am playing each note. This is a technique that I learned from a 2008 video where elite saxophonist David Sanborn visited Selmer's offices in Paris, France. Sanborn said that fellow master saxophonist Lenny Pickett, during his formative years, used a tuner to practice his altissimo intonation for hours at a time, and that is part of the secret of how Lenny Pickett learned how to articulate altissimo notes so well. I know that I have an intonation problem, but more importantly, I know how to solve the problem: I just have to get busy with the tuner exercises, and put in the hundreds or thousands of hours of hard work.
I won't allow my intonation weakness to prevent me from progressing through the quantum levels of this particular altissimo etude challenge. In the next couple of days, I will record Quantum Level 1. My primary goal will be to, given the weaknesses that I recognized in my playing at Quantum level 0, improve on my playing. I want to be able to honestly say "I played better in Quantum Level (QL) 1 than I did in QL0". I will repeat this improvement goal as I move from QL1 => Ql2, QL2 => QL 3, so on and so forth.
Before attempting QL1, I will using a digital tuner app to record my intonation in the first octave (I chose to do only one octave today due to limited practice time). Here are the results:
|Note||Correct frequency (A) in Hertz||My Frequency (B) in Hertz||Delta Frequency (A-B) in Hertz||% flat (-) or sharp (+)|
|Average flatness across Octave 1:||-2.55||-1.25%|
As I expected, I was consistently flat across Octave 1. After I got the results, I spent a few minutes going through all the notes again to try to focus on memorizing what playing in tune feels like. My mouthpiece is already pushed as far onto the neck as I like it, so I know that the work required involves building and strengthening my embouchure via muscle memory so that I can consistently play in tune in the first octave.
I found that tightening my embouchure, and consciously thinking about shaping my embouchure as a perfectly round letter "O", resulted in better intonation throughout Octave 1. As I record QL1, I will think about maintaining a strong "O" embouchure as I play.
Here is Quantum Level 1 (QL1):
QL1 - 75% Speed - 90 beats per minute - Backing Track:
QL1 - 75% Speed - 90 beats per minute - Final Tracks (Me playing):
- my low B (B-1; 146.83) tends to "crack" when I try go down from low C (C-1; 155.56 Hz) to B-1. I'm not sure if this is due to something that I am doing wrong technically, or due to a physical problem with my horn.
- My high G (G-3; 932.33 Hertz) "broke up" a little bit (David Sanborn-style) but it was completely unintentional, and I have no control over it (I believe that a saxophonist has to have control over his or her playing, and put enough reps in to have positive control over such effects).
- I think that my Octave 1 notes are still a little bit flat, but much better than Quantum Level 0.
2020, October 16:
Quantum Level 2 (QL2 - 100% speed/120 bpm) was another improvement over QL1 (90 bpm), but my intonation, tone, and timing have a long way to go before I am a consistently professional-level saxophonist. Professionalism as a saxophonist comes down to CONSISTENT excellence. If you look at a top level professional jazz saxophonist like Vincent Herring, Antonio Hart, Sharel Cassity, Branford Marsalis, Chris Potter, or Joe Lovano, what sets them apart is their consistency. A top-flight professional's worst day/worst performance is still going to be better than the best day/best performance that an amateur saxophonist can muster.
Here are the QL2 tracks:
QL2: 120 bpm G-3 altissimo focus etude - Backing Track:
QL2: 120 bpm G-3 altissimo focus etude - Final Tracks (Me playing):
Thursday, 2020, October 22:
Today, I recorded Altissimo Focus Etudes - Part 1: G-3 (932.33 Hertz) Quantum Level 3 (QL3) at 150 beats per minute. It came our very well, in my opinion. My intonation is improving, but I know that I have to stay vigilant. It may take me 6 months to master my intonation, or it might take me 6 years. No matter how much my intonation improves, if I don't stay on top of it, I will likely regress. So I have to make a commitment: I have to focus on maintaining good intonation for the rest of my life.
QL3: 150 bpm G-3 altissimo focus etude - Backing Track:
QL3: 150 bpm G-3 altissimo focus etude - Final Tracks (Me playing):
Saturday, 2020, October 24:
Welcome back! Today I attempted and successfully performed the G-3 Altissimo Etude at 180 beats per minute (QL4). It felt good, and I feel that my intonation continues to improve. I look forward to attempting QL5.
QL4: 180 bpm G-3 altissimo focus etude - Backing Track:
QL4: 180 bpm G-3 altissimo focus etude - Final Tracks (Me playing):