Extended Techniques: To explore or to ignore?

September 25, 2018

     Today I grappled with altissimo notes on saxophone, since I have several of them to play in our quartet repertoire this semester. It got me thinking about how much effort I'm putting in to make these notes speak for this one piece (at least for now). How many other saxophonists would see altissimo and immediately skip this piece? Well if they're looking at this piece in the first place, I would say not many, since the rest of the music is significantly challenging enough to expect serious players to play every note.


     But then there's me, a composer first, pianist second, foodie third (really tough in grad school), and saxophonist fourth. If it weren't for these altissimo notes, I could reasonably spend a few hours on this piece and get it pretty much performance-ready. However, the extra high notes (embarrassingly labelled as "lower" altissimo) have forced me to spend extra time just learning the technique to sound the notes at all, let alone musically, in time, and in a performance setting. Is it really worth my time? Maybe, but I likely won't have a plethora of performance opportunities in my career if my primary focus is composing, and especially not on saxophone. In addition, it's a quartet piece, and chamber music is almost always more exciting than a single solo piece on a recital, and I have some killer colleagues to work with in this quartet. 


     So that's great for me, I've decided to take on the extra time to master...well, perform this technique. However, I have to remember I'm straddling the divide between amateur players who might learn maybe one altissimo note and performance majors who will spend dozens of hours working on getting that "lower altissimo" A# just a little more consistently. As a composer, the pieces I write have intended audiences, ranging from your average concertgoer to composition faculty at big name schools, and the difficulty of those pieces have to reflect that. A relatively simple piece compositionally can't involve extended techniques if I'm trying to write for middle school band, unless that technique is incredibly easy to learn and idiomatic (key clicks, anyone?). On the other hand, a piece that's designed for professionals can run the gamut of extended techniques or omit them entirely. If the professional doesn't already know the technique, they're likely able to learn it very quickly for that piece and add it to their toolbox of skills. And if they don't want to, there's always another player who will.


     It should be noted that there are plenty of extended techniques that don't require mastery of the instrument, since extended techniques at the broadest level refer to anything that is outside the techniques required to play the standard repertoire of an instrument. I also like to call these nontraditional techniques, since many of them really aren't extensions of existing techniques; rather they require a fundamentally different method of execution. I already mentioned key clicks for any woodwind, but those I would consider to be extensions of fingering technique. What I refer to as nontraditional would be something like closing the fallboard (keyboard lid) of a piano—something you would never find in a guide to learning piano. Since that's so broad, there have been multiple attempts to catalog nontraditional and extended techniques for a variety of instruments. Whatever the techniques, composers have to remember their intended audiences to ensure their success. Not all techniques are created equal!



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