Sigurd Rascher: Top-Tones and the Keyless Saxophone

  I remember the first time that I ran across Sigurd Rascher's Top-Tones book. I was in seventh grade and there was an older saxophonist that lived right across the street from me that used to turn me on to different books. He also got me started working out of Coker's Patterns for Jazz. This guy showed me how overtones worked and, after much squawking, I was eventually able to get the first couple of overtones. 

 Rascher's Top-Tones is a book that many saxophonists own. I would guess that most of these players even believe that practicing overtones is quite important to gaining control of sound, pitch and the altissimo range. I would also venture to guess that only a small percentage of these players can play any more than just the first page (see below) of overtone exercises from Top-Tones.
(click above for larger version)

 The way to play the overtones is to make changes in the shape of the mouth cavity, tongue position, lower jaw placement, and airstream direction. I was watching a YouTube video on overtone production and it was talking about how overtones are produced with the voice box mechanism, total bullshit. In fact, there is a lot of B.S. online being passed off as expert saxophone instruction. Before you listen to someone teach you about overtones listen to see if they can actually play overtones up past the second octave.

 For years I used to think that in order to play the higher overtones well you had to develop a titanium embouchure, which only came from practicing overtones for insane amounts of time. I think that many saxophonists have this same misconception, but this is not the truth. It does take a little time, but only until you figure out exactly what you need to change in order to play higher overtones, not to build chops like a grizzly bear trap. Once you realize how easy it is to change your airstream, mostly by changing the shape of your tongue, then you will be able to hit even the highest overtones with minimal effort.

 Joe Viola used to have me to pitch and timbre match exercises with overtones. For example, he would have me play a middle Bb or F and then without stopping the note change to a low Bb fingering. The goal of the exercise was to have the normal fingered note and the overtone finger sound the same in timbre and pitch. You do need to move your fingers pretty quickly and evenly in order to do the exercise well. You can also use this same technique to get beginning students to play the overtones if they are having difficulties with the overtone fingerings. When they play the normal fingering notes their oral tract will already be in the correct position to get the overtone. If they move their fingers to the low overtone fingering fast and even enough then there is more of a chance that the higher overtone will pop out. This just jump starts the process and is very helpful if a student is really struggling to get the overtone to pop out .

 There are often problems when trying to teach this important exercise to younger beginning students. The first is that many rental saxophones have a lot of leaks, especially on the bell keys. Since leaks are cumulative down the horn, by the time you get to low B or Bb there is a lot of resistance, making overtones problematic. The second problem is that some elementary school kids have very short fingers and it is hard for them to play low Bs or Bbs for any length of time, these kids I will start on overtone exercises from low C.

  Often the main motivation for students to work on overtones is just to get better at altissimo, which is something that overtone work will definitely improve. I personally feel that a more important reason to practice overtones is that you will get more control of subtle timbre shading. All of the overtones are present in each and every note you play on the saxophone. When we master overtones we will be able to change the overtone spectrum in any given note, thus effectively controlling the timbre. We will be able to easily make any note warm and dark or bright and buzzy.
(The graphic above shows a spectrum analysis a low A on an alto saxophone, note the overtone peaks).

   Last January I went down to the NAMM show and saw a lot of interesting new products, but by far the coolest thing I saw there was the Hollywood Winds' Keyless saxophone. I had seen the pictures of Rascher with the keyless sax that Buscher had made for him, but I had never played one. Hollywood Winds had both a keyless alto and a keyless alto at their booth and I was able to play tested the alto. The first thing you notice is how light they are. A saxophone without any keys weighs about half as much as a normal saxophone with keys. The second thing you notice is just how easily they blow. The low Bb is obviously the lowest note that the horn plays and it comes out effortlessly. You can really feel the whole tube vibrate under your fingers in a way that doesn't happen with a normal saxophone. If you run your fingers carefully down the body of the horn while blowing a loud low Bb you can actually feel the vibrating nodes at certain points on the tube.

   I was shocked at how easily the overtones popped out on the keyless sax, which is of course exactly what Rascher had in mind when he designed it. There are several reasons that make it much easier to play overtones on the keyless sax.

1. Because there are absolutely no leaks.

2. There are no tone holes to cause turbulence.

3. There are no posts or key guards attached to the body of the horn to dampen the vibrational nodes.

4.  Since you don't need to press down on any keys your hands can remain totally relaxed. When playing overtones on a normal sax you can tend to press pretty hard on the keys, especially the left pinky, just to seal all of the leaks.

5. The keyless horn is so light, so it takes very little effort to hold it. I even found myself using the computer while practicing.

6. There is really nothing else you can practice on the keyless sax, other than long tones on a low Bb, so you end up practicing overtones much longer than you normally would on a normal saxophone.

I played the keyless sax for a few weeks after I got it and had several major breakthroughs with my overtone practice. Suddenly I was able to play all the overtones up to about the 12th overtone. In a short amount of time I was able to flit between all of the overtones quickly and cleanly with very little effort. Before the keyless sax I could probably only play up third above the double octave with any amount of control. Some of the higher overtones would pop out sometimes, but I certainly didn't have much control. I think that my breakthroughs were not all due to reasons #1-3 that I listed above, because after working with the keyless sax I could go back to my Selmer VI and my new range was still there, though a little less easy to get.

 Over the first few weeks that I had the keyless alto I wrote some exercises for it and had all of my alto students play it in their lessons. A few of the students were able to hit overtones that they had never been able to play before. As I said before, it can be quite difficult for young students with leaky horns  and small fingers to play overtones at all, and the keyless sax was a big help for these kids.

 After about a month of working with the keyless alto I went to a jam session (after a keyless practice session) and noticed a huge difference in my playing. It seemed like I had much more control of my airstream and like I could put much more air into my horn without the tone breaking up. Everything about my control was better. I noticed more control of my pitch and I could also shade each note the way I wanted to. It was a pretty drastic difference and that night I finally understood the true value of overtone practice. Of course I had always believed before then that overtones were the most important thing a student can practice to gain more control of the saxophone, but I never realized just how big the payoff was for a small amount of practicing was. I always felt a bit bad for torturing my students (and their parents) when I would ask them to practice overtones, but now I could really see the value in it.

 After coming home from NAMM I contacted Hollywood Winds and started bugging them about giving me a keyless alto. I had decided that I had to have one and if they wouldn't give one to me in exchange for banner advertising I would have to pay out of pocket and buy one. Luckily Hollywood Winds went for my offer to put a permanent banner ad on this blog in exchange for a keyless alto. The altos run at $450 and the tenors are around $600. The real question is really going to be if it's worth that kind of bread for something you can't even play on a gig. I would say that for someone like me who is a full-time player and teacher it is definitely worth the money to have such a strong practice and teaching tool like the keyless sax in your arsenal. It might not be worth it for a weekend warrior or a young music student, when they could always just practice overtones the same way saxophonists have done for decades. On the other hand, if you a serious saxophone student that plans on making a career out of music then you would probably get enough benefit from working with a keyless horn to make it worth purchasing one.

I will be posting my original overtone exercises for keyless or keyed saxophones soon!

Sigurd Rascher in Buescher Promotional Ad (1/3)   

Sigurd Rascher in Buescher Promotional Ad (2/3) 

Sigurd Rascher in Buescher Promotional Ad (3/3)


Hollywood Winds Keyless Saxophone








jamesmitges said...

Rascher's Top-Tones is an excellent learning book ... very innovative, I enjoyed it a lot ... thanks inspirational music

Stanley Jason Zappa said...

Very fascinating post!

Did you find any benefit to your tenor playing (you do play tenor, don't you?) using the alto shaped/sized keyless saxophone?

Thanks for this fantastic blog!

David Carlos Valdez said...

well, I did get rid of my tenor. They do make a keyless tenor as well, which I think would be better for tenor players. There is another guy who is making Almost Keyless saxophones, which have bell keys so you can play low Bb, B and C. Those are about the same price.