Monday, September 17, 2012

Hitting the High Notes

I was born to play the sax.

No question about it.

Well, maybe one.

It's one that's baffled me for years, one that I've tried to ignore, one to which I've applied my not insignificant powers of denial.

At ten, just weeks after coming home from school with my new Conn student model tenor sax, I was flying up and down the chromatic scale and playing by ear the melodies for all the top-ten songs being played on WLS in Chicago. By twelve, I was the first chair in the junior high band and playing college level classical repertoire.

By freshman year of high school, I'd campaigned to get the band director to start an after school big band. My parents had traded in my Conn for a Selmer Mark VI and I'd developed "a sound", the mark of sax-maturity. The band director took full advantage of this and started featuring me in most of the songs we played.

One day, he showed up with a new arrangement of Jimmy Webb's MacArthur Park, one that was basically a tenor sax solo with big band accompaniment. He called the band to order and dropped the needle on the record that came with the arrangement. As we listened, I thought, "Hmm... I can do this. Shoot, I think I might have an even better sound than the guy on the record."

Then came the big build up to the high point in the song. I listed off the notes in my head as the melody line rose.

A high D# (No problem).

A high E (Just remember the alternate fingering to keep it in tune).

A high F# (Not a standard note, but I've been doing that since I was twelve).

A high G (Uh-oh, I can only get them sometimes).

And then the big finish: a high A (Oh no, I've never been able to play one of those.)

My face must have shown my consternation because the band director said, "What's wrong Tumo, I thought you'd love this."

"I do."

"Then why you looking like that."

"Uh, well, it's got a high A in it."

"Sure, that should be easy for you."

"Uh huh."

"Don't worry about it. You'll get it."

"Uh huh."

Well, long-story short, try as I did, I couldn't hit the high A. I went to the library to find books on alternate fingerings. I ordered a lesson book on hitting high notes on saxophone. I asked my teacher and other sax players who seemed to have no problem with it. Yet for the entire year, ever time we played that section of MacArthur park with the big build, I had to drop it down an octave so that I could hit the last note.

It kind of sucked.

Forty years later, I still can never get above the G, at least not consistently. I've googled and read. I tried numerous approaches. I changed reeds. I changed mouth pieces. I've changed saxophones. Nothing worked, at least, nothing until last night.

Last night I tried something different. Rather than trying things I'd read or been taught, I simply thought about it. I've been playing around with trumpet lately. The trumpet only has seven finger combinations. So, you have to use the same fingerings to play multiple notes. The notes are defined by the harmonic series based on the fundamental note for the given finger position.

It occurred to me that the sax's high notes (or false notes, as they're sometimes called), must be hidden somewhere in the harmonic series of the fundamental notes.

Since the first octave of the sax includes all the fundamentals and the second octave includes all the first harmonics, it would make sense that the third non-existent octave would be based on the second harmonic of the overtone series.

The harmonic series starts with a fundamental note and then a set of overtones. The first overtone or harmonic is an octave above the fundamental; the second is an octave plus a perfect fifth above the fundamental. So for a D, the first harmonic is the D an octave up and the second is the A an octave above that.

Hmm... it seems all wrong to close most of the keys to get a high note, but nothing else has worked. I might as well give it a shot.

Guess what. Not only did it work. It was easy, like really, really easy.

Forty years of trying to do it hadn't worked, not matter how hard or long I practiced. You think I might have clued into the fact that maybe it was how I was doing it, not how hard I worked it. Thing is that I was doing it the way I'd been taught to do it and I assumed that it was right.

Now I've got not only my high A, but I can go all the way to the A above that. Who knew?

Maybe there's something you've been trying to do and you've been working really hard at it, but it's just not coming. Maybe it's something you've been doing just as you were taught. Maybe it's something you gave up on. Maybe it's time to think about it differently.

Happy Monday,

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