Woodwinds and “altissimo” registers

I recently had a saxophone student perform a repertoire piece with some altissimo technique in it, and a non-woodwind-playing musician asked me afterward about the instrument’s extended range. This led to further questions about “altissimo” on other instruments. The answers are a little complicated, but here is some information:

The term “altissimo” suggests an extreme high register. The term is widely used by clarinetists and saxophonists, with essentially the same definition: pitches in the instrument’s third register or higher. Basically, this is notes above (written) F-sharp-6 for saxophones or (written) C6 for clarinets. (It’s not really that simple if you factor in alternate fingerings: a clarinetist, for example, might use a trill fingering to produce a D6 in the second register, or a saxophonist might use a “front” fingering to produce E6 or F6 in the third register.) For clarinetists, using some of the altissimo register is a pretty basic technique, part of the instrument’s “standard” range (which extends maybe to G6, depending on who you ask), and accessible to, say, an intermediate-level high school student. For saxophonists, altissimo is viewed as a more advanced technique, outside the “standard” range, perhaps accessible to college-level musicians or motivated high schoolers.

The word “altissimo” isn’t used much in the flute and double reed worlds, though those instruments’ third registers are widely used even by intermediate-level players. (Christopher Redgate does use the term in his writings about oboe extended techniques, but arbitrarily defines it as beginning at G6, well into the instrument’s third register.) The flute’s third register begins (basically) at D6, the oboe’s at C-sharp-6, and the bassoon’s at E-flat-4.

the lowest pitch (written) of each woodwind's third register
the lowest pitch (written) of each woodwind’s third register

In short, all of the woodwinds do have an “altissimo” range in the sense that they have a third register and higher. But not all of them use that terminology, and those that do differ on whether the altissimo range is “standard” or an extended technique.

Saxophone altissimo books: Raschèr vs. Rousseau

My university saxophone students are anxious to tackle the altissimo register, and it’s not at all uncommon for them to show up to their first lessons clutching the Sigurd Raschèr Top-Tones for the Saxophone book and wearing a hopeful expression. I also see the Raschèr book frequently and glibly recommended on online forums. With the greatest respect for Raschèr, I think this is a mistake.

Don’t get me wrong: the Raschèr book is a classic and contains a great deal of wisdom. It is a must-have for the well-read saxophonist. But I think most saxophonists would do better to start with Eugene Rousseau’s Saxophone High Tones, and have the Raschèr on hand for supplementary exercises and instruction.

Get this one first
Get this one first
Use this one as a supplement
Use this one as a supplement

I’m going to make the following point first, not because I think it’s necessarily the most important, but because it’s the one that will click with those of you who are hoping to “learn altissimo” in an afternoon by looking at a fingering chart: Rousseau’s fingering charts are much better. They are better suited to “modern” (Mark VI and beyond) instruments and more complete (in the sense of providing many more options for each note, though Raschèr’s chart does go a little higher). Rousseau also provides separate fingering charts for soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone, while Raschèr provides only one chart, which he indicates in the first-edition foreword is intended for “E-flat saxophones”—altos, that is. (I do have a few issues with the visual layout of Rousseau’s charts, and Raschèr’s too, but that’s another rant.)

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