I wanted to share this great saxophone Overtone exercise that Dr. David Demsey wrote out a number of years ago. Dr. Demsey studied with Joe Allard from 1977-1980 and is the Coordinator of Jazz Studies and Professor of Music at William Paterson University. There is a great interview with Dr. Demsey about Joe Allard that any of you interested in the saxophone and Joe Allard’s teachings should read (correction: MUST read!). These overtone exercises are based off of and adapted from the teachings of Joe Allard.
For those of you who don’t know who Joe Allard was or the impact he has had on the saxophone world as a teacher, here are some other Neffmusic articles on Joe Allard.
Back to the saxophone Overtone exercises. I found these particular exercises referred to on the internet somewhere and after searching for them, found them on Dave Liebman’s website. I printed them out, took a cursory look at them and then put them on a big pile of papers on my desk thinking they were the same old Sigurd Rascher type saxophone exercises I had studied while in college.
Months later, I came across them again as I was cleaning my desk and decided to try to play through them. No problem I thought, I tried the first line and immediately hit a roadblock. I couldn’t perform the first two notes! You see, the 3 pages of this exercise all have the student play an overtone and then slur down to an overtone below the first overtone. Although I had spent a ton of time on saxophone overtones with “Top Tones for the saxophone” by Sigurd Rasher in college, I don’t think I had ever tried to slur between overtones. The Rascher book doesn’t have any slurs in it that I remember so I put a tiny space between each note as I prepared to voice the next note. Adjusting my voicing while playing the note was something brand new to me.
As I tried to perform this new exercise, I thought to myself “What the heck? This is hard!”
I found that I could somewhat accomplish the task at hand if I dropped my jaw a ton but then I had this huge drop in pitch before the overtone finally dropped lower. At this point, I decided to get some advice from someone who knew what was up so I emailed Dr. Demsey himself to make sure I was doing this correctly. Was it really supposed to be this hard?
Here is a quote from the email response from Dr. Demsey:
The exercise is:
– With a breath attack (no tonguing), pick off the highest note of that group. This forces you to pre-hear the pitch. The tongue needs to be higher in your oral cavity, saying a “ee” shape. The larynx is an involuntary muscle so it’s not able to be intentionally positioned; it’s more that you are pre-hearing that pitch, causing your larynx/throat to position themselves in the same shape they would be to sing that note.
– Drop down to the lower pitches in the series with little or no embouchure movement. It’s all in the tongue and throat positioning. You can even feel the “click” in your mouth as the overtones descend. Note: in particular, the jaw does not move! No jaw drop; it’s all in the tongue/throat.
– Keep the whole thing at a SLOW tempo, perhaps 5-7 seconds per pitch. Listen carefully to get the most resonant, centered sound on each pitch. When that center is found, one can almost hear a very high ringing sound as the overtones all line up. Some people describe that sound as filling their head, resonating their head, filling the room, etc.
– Repeat the whole sequence several times on each exercise, limiting this work to 10-15 minutes per session so as not to strain or overuse any of the muscles involved.
I hope this is helpful! Let me know if you have questions –
Dr. David Demsey
I added the underline in the above quote. Notice what it says: No Jaw Drop! It does not move! So although I was accomplishing the task, I was doing it wrong. I went back to practicing.
As I kept practicing, I noticed that I was starting to have some success with the exercise without lowering my jaw. Some overtones are easier to drop than others but I started to feel that “click” that Dr. Demsey is talking about above. The frustrating thing for me is that many times it seems like the change happens in it’s own stubborn time. I’ll be playing and thinking “down, down,down,down”. I try to voice the lower overtone and then it finally drops almost of it’s own free will…….
So, as I have been working through these exercises the past month, I have noticed that my facility and focus with the overtones is getting much better. Sigurd Rascher writes about imagining the note before you try to play it in “Top Tones for the saxophone” and that really is the key. When I was a kid, I didn’t really understand that and thought it was just mumbo jumbo but when I started actually being able to get the overtones I realized how right on that was.
I relate it to singing a note. You have to have an idea of the note you are going to sing in order to cleanly sing it. You subconsciously start to voice the note before you produce any sound. Try it right now, sing any high note. You will notice that there is movement with your tongue and throat before you even produce a sound. You are getting ready to produce that high note. It’s the same way with the saxophone, you have to learn to voice each of the notes before you play them to get the note sounding the best and in tune. It’s not just pushing keys and blowing air. There should be an interaction between the body and the instrument when a sax players plays. It’s as if they are one!
The truth is that I am posting this post as much for me as for all of you. My selfish goals are to gather some more information from some of the Joe Allard saxophone family out there. If any of you have any more insight into what Joe Allard taught you on these exercises, overtones and voicings in particular I would love to hear it. Among the questions that have come up for me:
- Why no tongue? Why must the notes be started with a breath attack?
- What is the benefit of slurring down to a lower overtone?
- Do you ever practice slurring up the overtone series?
- Up high when I start to drop to the lower overtone by voicing lower I get a slide in pitch. My jaw and embouchure are not moving. Is this allowed or expected or should I work to get rid of this slide if it’s possible?
- If the larynx is an involuntary muscle, How involved is it in this whole process? When I’m voicing different notes, I feel my Adam’s Apple moving up and down. It feels intentional on my part. Is this the larynx or something else moving?
- What are the long term affects from mastery of this exercise? What benefits do you see in your every day playing?
Enjoy the exercises and thanks again to Dr. David Demsey for writing them out and sharing them and Joe Allard for his incredible contribution to saxophone pedagogy.
Addition: There are some great thoughts below in the comments section as well as a couple responses to my questions above. One of the responses is from Dr. David Demsey who wrote out the exercise so make sure you read that as well. Steve