Saxophone - Lesson 6

  1. What is a Register ?
  2. Registers of the Voice
  3. Oral tract Registers for the Saxophone
  4. Breaking into the Head Register
  5. Important Muscles of the Oral tract
  6. More Overtone Exercises
  7. Practice Material

    Break through - Clarinet Overtones
    Overtones Table

    Practice Studio

Lesson : Intro | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | ??

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SAX 6.1 - What is a Register ?

After the first few practice sessions on overtones you have probably discovered that it is fairly easy to produce Overtones numbers 2 and 3 (and perhaps even Overtone 4 for the Bb and B). But for Overtones 4 and 5 you hit a brick wall.

You have arrived in front of a hurdle : a change of Register is required.

What is a register ?
A register can be defined as : "a series of tones, produced in the same way and having the same quality." (
Leyerle , 1977)

Although at first glance this appears to be a very neat definition, there can be some controversy as to what "in the same way" means.

Take the saxophone mechanism for example.

One could say that :
the saxophone has only one register, because all tones are produced in the same way (namely on the saxophone), and have the same quality (that of the saxophone sound).

At the other extreme one may take the view that :
each saxophone tone is a register in its own right, for each is produced differently (different fingering) and sounds different (in pitch) from the rest.

The more common view recognises three saxophone registers :
the low register, produced without an octave key,
the middle register, produced with an octave key, and
the upper register, produced by overblowing the middle register by means of special keys.

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SAX 6.2 - Registers of the Voice

Let us first have a look at the Vocal Registers of well trained (classical) singers.
Singing is very similar to playing saxophone. The essential difference is that in sax playing you use a reed and mouthpiece and in singing your vocal cords.

In singing technique one usually distinguishes three or four Vocal Registers (Leyerle , Miller).
sax0607.gifThey are the :
  1. Chest Register - This is the Register range of the normal speaking voice. The centre of resonance is felt in the chest.

  2. Mixed Register - This is really an overlap area between Chest Register and the Head Register. Notes in this area can be produced by either Register. In vocal technique this is generally considered the most difficult area to develop (Leyerle).

  3. Head Register - The centre of resonance is felt in the head. This Register is developed by all classical singers and extends their vocal pitch range to about three and a half octave. (It is similar in character as the falsetto voice.)

  4. Bell Register - This is a rare and extremely high Register developed (I believe) by outstanding sopranos. It is also called the 'Flute Register' or 'Pfeiffe Stimme' (Miller).
In professional singing technique these Registers must first be mastered by the student, and then smoothed out across their transitions to become one continuous uniform vocal range (Leyerle).

Ultimately the voice becomes so skilled that it can combine different elements (Overtones in fact) from both Head and Chest Registers to colour (darken, brighten, etc.) each and every tone produced.

Here they are listed in their proper order from the lowest pitch upwards.

Vocal Registers

Bell Register

in some Soprano voices

Head Register

extends pitch range to three and a halve octaves

Mixed Register

overlap between Chest and Head Register

Chest Register

normal speaking voice range

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SAX 6.3 - Oral tract Registers for the Saxophone

sxmf.jpgI developed the Oral tract Registers concept for saxophone during the period that I was learning the saxophone and practised Overtone exercises for a number of years.
As a mature student and a trained scientist I was continuously aware of the hurdles I had to overcome and the progress I made from week to week.

This led to the discovery of this unique tone production concept, which to the best of my knowledge is only recorded in my book 'Overtone Practice on the Saxophone' (Michael Furstner, 1986) and in this Jazclass Course on CD-ROM.

Later experiences with a number of male and female students have confirmed to me the validity of the concept.

After practising Overtones on baritone, tenor and alto saxophone for a period of time I became aware that there are two distinct physical hurdles cutting across the overtone range.

These hurdles ('transitions') occur at constant concert pitch levels regardless of the type of saxophone, and subdivide the entire Overtone range into three oral tract "Registers", similar to the vocal Registers of singers.

(Throughout this Course I use 'Register' with a capital R whenever it represents the 'oral tract' or 'body' or vocal Register. I use the lower case 'r' for the instrument registers.)

The following Diagram shows the three oral tract Registers and their transitions in relation to the normal pitch ranges of the different saxophones.

(Do not confuse the oral tract Registers with the saxophone instrument registers, they are two different things. On the Diagram below the instrument registers for each sax are indicated by the vertical shapes, widest for the Low register, thinner for the Middle register, and a thin line for the High instrument register.)


What are these Registers exactly ?
They feel different. Some changes in the size and shape of mouth and throat opening have to be made to produce the notes in the Head Register.

Throughout our daily life we are used to the mouth and throat (Chest Register -) settings required for normal speech.
The Head Register configuration is totally foreign to us. It involves actions of muscles in the throat unfamiliar to us because we don't use them in that way, except when trying to sing with a high falsetto voice. (It is in a way like wiggling your ears. When you first try to do it you move all sorts of face muscles except the right ones.)

Peter Clinch took x-ray photographs of the oral tract of a soprano sax player for different notes throughout the instrument range. From these photos he measured the mouth and throat opening of the player for each note produced. Here a Diagram of his findings. I have superimposed my Oral tract Registers (in colour) over the Clinch Diagram.


The superimposed Oral tract Registers on the diagram show that the two Register transitions coincide with points of greatest changes in volume.
With some reservation (because the data cover only six notes) one might say that :

  • the Chest Register combines a large mouth- and small throat- opening

  • the Head Register reverses to a small mouth- and large throat- opening

  • the Bell Register has again a large mouth- and decreasing throat- opening

Let us look once more at the first diagram.


Notice that the normal playing range of all saxophones are partly in the Chest- and partly in the Head- Register. (The approximate sax notes are indicated along the transition.)
This is of fundamental significance for tone production, for it divides (I believe) the whole pitch range of each saxophone into two different sound fields, with different sound quality characteristics : the Chest Register field, and the Head Register field.

For an optimum tone you must therefore learn to voice Head Register shapes (with mouth and throat).
Initially you voice the higher notes reaching up from the Chest Register. The same thing happens when producing the first Overtones (No.2, 3 and 4). You are in the 'mixed Register area' where Chest and Head Registers overlap.

The Bell Register and upper transition are only of practical importance for altissimo playing of soprano sax players.
This upper transition is to some extent at least (or perhaps entirely) a mechanical transition determined by the type of mouthpiece. A metal mouthpiece, or a hard rubber mouthpiece with very large facing (9* or 10*) will shift the upper transition upwards significantly. (Soprano players should use this when playing in this range.)

Once you are in the Head Register it is quite easy to go up into the Bell Register, but the tones have a thin, buzzing, inferior quality.

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SAX 6.4 - Breaking into the Head Register

The first major objective of Overtone practice is breaking into the Head Register.

Here is the Battle Plan.

  1. Start serious regular Overtone practice of at least 20 minutes per day, preferably longer. (Professional players and students should aim for 30 - 60 minutes.)

  2. Work on trying to get the Overtones you can not play, such as Overtones 4 and 5 for the Fundamentals Bb to Db.


  3. You may get a few No.4 and perhaps No.5 Overtones but not all. Instead suddenly you will start to produce high squeaks.

    This is a significant break through, for these squeaks are higher Overtones, usually around No.8 (7 - 8 on the alto, or 9 - 10 on the tenor).
    Focus on these squeaks. Try to get them at will, and blow them up as full tones.

  4. Once you have control of the high squeaks you are actually in the Head Register. Start pushing (with your throat) the pitch up and down from this point.

    While doing this you will feel other Overtones as distinct notches carved in an upright pole. Identify each Overtone you reach this way, and mark them on your Progress Chart.

  5. Gradually work your way down from the first 'entry squeak' (through No. 6, 5 and 4) until you connect with the Overtones you can master from the Chest Register ( No.2 and 3).

  6. Keep sliding down and back up until you have complete control and can move smoothly up and down across the lower transition (between Head- and Chest-Register) without missing a tone.

  7. Explore the Overtones above the first 'entry squeak'. This is now quite easy to do. You will recognise the upper transition with the Bell Register. Identify at what Overtone No. it occurs on your saxophone. It is not difficult to get across this point.

  8. You now have considerable control over your Oral track Registers.
    Keep playing the Overtone Exercises from this Course every practice session. Also consider the Overtone Exercises in the book Top Tones for the Saxophone by
    Sigurd Rascher.
    As long as you keep doing these exercises your tone will continue to develop and improve.

Using this method you will develop in a relatively short period ( say one to three or four years) a tone quality and tone projection that is equal to or better than many professional saxophonists who have been playing all their life.

sax004.gif But there are no short cuts to hard and sustained practice. Hit it with all your energy and keep up regular practice no matter what.
If you practice one hour or less per day : use 75% of your daily practice time on Overtone practice and nothing else, until you break into the Head Register. (Play enjoyable relaxing things like ballads for the remaining 25%).

As I mentioned in the previous lesson : even if you are for a while not successful in breaking into new Overtones your throat will have a tremendous work out each session. This will pay off immediately into a better, more sparkling tone quality.

I have prepared for you a Progress Chart on which you can record the progress of your oral tract development.

You probably wonder : "How long is this going to take me to break into that Head Register ?"
Based on my own experience and observations on my students here is my best answer.

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SAX 6.5 - Important Muscles of the Oral tract

The illustration below (after Norman Punt) shows the upper portion of the oral tract (in green), and the main muscular areas that influence its size and shape (in purple).


Besides the lips, which form a permanent embouchure around the mouthpiece, there are four important muscular areas (Leyerle).

  1. The tongue, as we have seen in the X-ray diagrams of the previous lesson, moves significantly from tone to tone.
    Keep the back portion of the tongue forward so that it does not close the throat opening behind it.

  2. The soft palate is also an important area. Keep it lifted and stretched. (The stretched soft palate is considered to improve the resonance within the mouth).
    The Uvula at the rear end of the soft palate normally hangs downwards in the mouth. But it points horizontally backwards when producing Head Register tones. The vocal folds are also stretched.

  3. The muscular wall along the back of the pharynx also contributes to the oral tract shape. Think of moving it backwards to increase the pharynx opening.

  4. The position of the Adams Apple is very important.
    Try to keep it down (by yawning) at all times. This stretches and lowers the larynx and makes this part of the Oral tract bigger.
    The Adams apple moves up when over-reaching from the Chest Register towards the higher Overtones. Once you master the Head Register you will find you can keep the Adams apple down without much trouble.
    When approaching the upper transition (from the Head Register to the Bell Register) again the Adams apple wants to shift upwards. As soon as you are in the Bell Register it is easy to keep it down again.
    (I used to clip a shaving mirror to the music stand. This way I could keep check of the Larynx movements.)


Eventually the upper Oral tract feels like one wide open stretched cavern in which, through subtle movements of the various muscle areas, tones are created and coloured with various mixes of selective overtones to give each tone warmth or brightness, etc. as required. (You are in effect using the Chest- and the Head- Register simultaneously, just like classical singers do.)

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SAX 6.6 - More Overtone Exercises

This has been a long and technical discussion. If you are perhaps a bit confused right now, don't worry. As you progress with your practice you will recognise the various signposts I have described above, and things will start to make sense. If you have any question please : ask me.

Below are two Exercises from Overtone Exercises page 4.
Try not to tongue, and start each note with a "Hooooo" (but once you can do all exercises this way, tonguing each note will be an additional way of doing the Overtone exercises). Maintain the low Bb fingering throughout both these exercises.

Audio 6.1 : Alto - Tenor


In the following exercise (also from Overtone Exercises page 4) change your fingering for each fundamental as indicated by the quare note heads along the bottom of the staff, but produce the sound for the notes written obave them.

Audio 6.2 : Alto - Tenor


Once again, do not tongue the notes.


  1. Keep playing the Overtone Exercises No.1 - 4, and start working your way up through the new ones (Overtone Exercises No.5 - 8) included in this lesson. Some you can do, others you can not at present, but in time you will.

  2. Also work your way up and down all Overtones for each Fundamental (Bb, B, C, Db). Keep trying until that heavenly squeak suddenly appears.

  3. Use the Progress Chart to keep track of the Overtone range you can master.

The transition from Chest Register to Head Register occurs approximately at these instrument pitches :

(You can obviously play the notes above these points right now, but your tone quality for these, and all other notes, will improve significantly once you develop your Head Register.)

Here is a Table with Overtones for all saxophones and the Oral tract Registers they cover.

The acoustics of the clarinet are different from those of the saxophone. I have therefore included some comments on
Overtones on the Clarinet.
I encourage you to read these, even if you do not play the clarinet at present.

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SAX 6.7 - Practice Material

File Name



Overtone Exercise 5 - Overtones 1 - 5


Overtone Exercise 6 - Overtones 1 - 6


Overtone Exercise 7 - Overtones 1 - 8


Overtone Exercise 8 - Mixed fundamentals, all Overtones


Progress Chart - Overtone Exercises

Quiz 6

Test your Knowledge

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Copyright © 2002 Michael Furstner (Jazclass). All rights reserved.