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
Daniel Ian Smith says
Hey Steve! Answering some of your questions on your site: The air attack helps to focus the throat and oral cavity “voicing” as you create the sound. The production and control of these overtones is all about this “voicing” idea in the oral cavity and air stream direction. Getting the tongue out of the picture is important for control and accuracy of placement. Benefits are related to sound production (evenness, openness of timbre), accessibility and flexibility in the altissimo register, accuracy of pitch is also increased with this exercise. There is a matching overtone exercise that Joe had his students do as well to match the sound (and pitch) of the overtone to the actual fingered note. It’s amazing the sound potential that is discovered with these. Can you play a big (or small) beautiful high F (3 lager lines) with an air attack right in the center of the pitch? It’s all about voicing (and of course air!)
Top-Tones really addressed Rascher’s teaching ethos as much as it did the playing of overtones: Never demystify, never explain, and always reinforce the basic value of hard work for its own sake!
Julien Wilson says
Great questions Steve. I’m afraid I don’t have many answers. I’ve practiced various overtone/multiphonic and “tone-matching” exercises for years. I talk about these concepts a LOT with my students. A great exercise I like is to play the low Bb without playing the harmonic series but just listen for the overtones within the sound of that fundamental tone. I used to have a cassette player/radio as a kid that I used to transcribe solos on for about ten years. The rewind function on tapes was far superior for accuracy than any digital medium I have used since. Anyway, I’m getting of point. The machine had 5 sliders that you could adjust the EQ with. I like to get students to visualise being able to adjust these EQ sliders within their own sound while playing the low tones/long notes. In this way you can adjust or “EQ” your tone through throat and tongue position and visualisation of “head voice” or “core-tone”. The idea is to then progress to not boosting any particular frequency but just listening for all of them within the fundamental to create a full resonance. Bergonzi had me do a great exercise when I studied with him of imaging that the low Bb was actually an upper partial of a lower fundamental. ie: stripping away the upper harmonics and focussing on creating as dark a tone as possible. The benefits of all this are an increased presence to your full range at all dynamic levels, and also an increased awareness/understanding of the variety of tonal colours available within your sound. Also, increased ease of altissimo and a fatter sound in the upper range. Projection (not volume) is another concept I like to work on in combination with these exercises.
Kyle Mechmet says
Q. Why no tongue? Why must the notes be started with a breath attack?
I think it is suggest to avoid starting overtones with the tongue because the “high tongue” shape can get interrupted when we articulate. This interruption could cause problems in accuracy because the volume and shape inside of your oral cavity is crucial to having the desired partial to speak
Q.What is the benefit of slurring down to a lower overtone?
For me, there are certain instances where I have had to exaggerate my oral cavity shape down in order to nail the correct pitch. In my case, it is in Larsson’s saxophone concerto where it is necessary to slur from an altissimo F down to an altissimo G# (I use 1 34 6 Eb for F and 1234 Tc Ta for G#). Slurring down overtones is also used to develop an awareness of not just the tightening and narrowing of the oral cavity and vocal tract, but the expansion as well.
Q.Do you ever practice slurring up the overtone series?
I think this is fairly commonly suggested against. I know of some who have developed some success with it, but it is an ability that is very quickly lost.
Q. 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?
From my experience, the slide is perfectly acceptable. In the higher pitches (altissimo or overtone), the total volume/length of the standing wave that creates the pitch is really determined by you and not the saxophone. Since the muscles move quickly but in a smooth and not in a “notched” fashion, that is where we get the slur. As long as you are doing it with the inside of your vocal tract and oral cavity and not with your embouchure and jaw you are on the right track.
Q. 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?
Answering that is very complex. Here is a paper that goes into some detail on that. There is a lot of different types of tissue, muscle, etc that are in that area.
Q. What are the long term affects from mastery of this exercise? What benefits do you see in your every day playing?
I use some of these types of exercises as a warm-up. When I can do these, I feel like I know the horn more inside and out, and feel more connected to my particular instrument’s tendencies in terms of the overtones present within my sound and that are possible. These are great also for being able to play between different partials for certain notes. Sometimes a pitch will be higher, while the voicing will be lower or more open when dealing with altissimo, or perhaps vice versa. It is necessary to study these sorts of things to have the best tone and intonation in the upper ranges of your instrument (when your vocal tract and oral cavity play a larger part). Donald Sinta’s Voicing book is an excellent resource that has some similar exercises.
In my opinion slurring up from the bottom is way more difficult to do, at least for the first few. Being able to do the first few in a relaxed way has been really beneficial to me. Of course after the first few it’s pretty easy but I’d say up to around D is quite an exercise in embouchure and air speed control. For me anyway.
David Demsey says
Great article! Very conversational, almost like a journal entry made while you are practicing, really good.
I’d comment to your thinking “down, down, down” – instead, think about hearing the next pitch, strongly, almost like you are shouting it or singing loudly. That engages your larynx and shapes it the way it would be to sing that note – and it will pop out.
In answer to your questions:
Why no tongue? Why must the notes be started with a breath attack?
The tongue is a crutch that gives the reed a kick and makes it easier to pick pitches off without having the tongue/throat well positioned. The breath attack forces you to pre-hear the pitches. It makes you like a singer: if you can’t hear it, you can’t sing it!
What is the benefit of slurring down to a lower overtone?
When I asked Joe about that, he said that there’s a tendency to push or bite when you’re going up, and he avoids that at all costs. So, he designed the exercise to be downward only.
Joe’s mantra on the subject of embouchure pressure was: “FEEL THE REED WITH YOUR TEETH.” No more pressure than that. Just FEEL the resistance of the flat surface of the reed through the cushion of your lip – but no more pressure than that, ever. (Personal note: I’ve found that once you get up higher in the overtone series, more pressure is required – but certainly not on the first 3-4 overtones.
Do you ever practice slurring up the overtone series?
No, actually I don’t – only downward, to get it relaxed and keep it all about the throat/tongue, not about the embouchure.
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?
That will get more defined as you get more control of it. You’re up higher in the overtone series, so the harmonics are closer together, so your chops slip and slide a little. But that will get more defined and clear as you practice it. Same thing as a French horn player: they tend to crack/split more than a trumpet or trombone, because they’re playing generally in a higher spot in the overtone series.
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?
Yes, you can feel your Adam’s Apple moving as your larynx adjusts, just like you might be aware that your heart rate is speeding up, slowing down. But you can’t voluntarily do that, like moving your arm or hand or leg. The idea is to PRE-HEAR the pitches and let your throat do the rest. Don’t try to feel it, just hear it!
What are the long term affects from mastery of this exercise? What benefits do you see in your every day playing?
In my experience, after teaching this to dozens of students in my roles at William Paterson University for 24 years, and at U. Maine for 12 before that, and working with hundreds of people in clinics – is that although we’re practicing the higher overtones, the long-range benefits are that it adds BOTTOM and a more complete set of overtones to your sound.
What, acoustically, is a good or a bad sound? (My own “rant” on this!)
We may all know a player who, even when they play softly, has a sound that projects, seems to slice right through the ensemble. It’s not loud or piercing, not really bright, but it projects! This is because the overtone series is perfectly in tune on every note; when that player plays an F, all of the overtones of that F are in tune and resonating. On the other hand, we may all know players who may play very loudly or have a bright sound, but they don’t seem to project, their sound more seems to interfere with the rest of the band. This (my own opinion) is because their upper overtones are out of tune. They play an F, but the upper partials are out of tune, and not resonating. So, they’re putting out a lot of volume, but are not projecting.
Let me know what you think on this, particularly my last paragraph!
Dr. David Demsey
Coordinator of Jazz Studies
Professor of Music
Curator, Living Jazz Archives
William Paterson University
Howard Leveque says
1. Anyone care to comment on the beautiful control of altissimo that Dick Stabile had?
2. Is there an effect of reed stiffness and/or placement of reed on mouthpiece as regards altissimo?
rohit aggarwal says
thanks for the information