As some of you might have noticed, I have had a difficult time maintaining my desired weekly writing and posting schedule for this entire fall semester. This is primarily due to my energies being directed, besides the usual teaching and performing, to completing my book project which occupied the entire summer. I am happy to report that we are on schedule for a January release of The Low Brass Player’s Guide to Doubling (Mountain Peak Music), and I hope to soon be able to get back to blogging more regularly.
In order to catch up to my planned schedule of articles for this fall, I am going to post the three parts of this piece on “Low Brass Basics” over a three-day period. This material was in the initial draft of my book, but as the book grew in size and content it quickly became apparent that this chapter covering general fundamental issues was superfluous, at least with regard to the primary thrust of the book. Still, I think it is good material, and will be useful to readers of the blog.
So, here is the first part; more later in the week.
Low brass instruments are among those classified by organologists as aerophones, meaning that they produce sound by means of a column of vibrating air generated by the player. We will discuss the creation of vibration shortly, but in order to have vibrating air we must first have air, and given the size of our instruments the volume of air that must be moved is tremendous indeed, well beyond the requirements of normal breathing. In order to play a low brass instrument well, you must learn to move large quantities of air in a relaxed manner, a task which can lead to two opposite but equally detrimental errors.
The first is the movement of too little air. Small breaths can be taken comfortably without excessive tension, but using an insufficient quantity of air prevents the production of a characteristic sound, particularly on lower notes where the air requirements are greatest. While this error is common among younger players, advanced players can be subject to its opposite, in which great quantities of air are used, but the body is used incorrectly during inhalation or exhalation (or both). This introduces tension which can lead to pain, dysfunction, and ultimately the inability to play at all in some cases. Players who experience these problems have a commendable desire to use a great deal of air when playing, but the failure to use the body well when breathing negates any positive effects from this desire.
So, how does one move lots of air correctly? A short answer is to keep the body as relaxed as possible during inhalation and exhalation. The absence of tension or pain is an indicator that you are at least on the right track. Secondly, make sure that you are not preventing the lungs from expanding due to a faulty “body map” or idea of how the body works. Many players and teachers promote pushing the abdomen out when breathing, while others advise expansion primarily in the upper chest. Both of these approaches stem from a failure to recognize that all of the parts of the lungs fill simultaneously, and thus a good breath will lead to free expansion of the entire torso, with practically all of its muscle groups being involved either actively or passively in both inhalation and exhalation. Simply take a big breath and allow the body to expand as it wishes; the result will be both physically pleasurable and conducive to great playing.
While correct breathing should be relatively simple, all low brass players can benefit from a better understanding of the physiology and mechanics of breathing, both to promote right usage as well as to correct past misunderstandings. Two resources by David Vining are helpful in this regard, What Every Trombonist Needs to Know About the Body (2010) and The Breathing Book (2009, with editions targeted toward different instruments). The teachings of Arnold Jacobs (1915-1998) are also pertinent. Brian Fredericksen’s book Arnold Jacobs: Song and Wind (WindSong Press, 1996) and Bruce Nelson’s Also Sprach Arnold Jacobs (Polymnia Press, 2006) provide good introductions to his work.
While full, correct, and efficient breathing is remarkably simple and natural, exercises such as those in The Breathing Book (mentioned above) and The Breathing Gym by Sam Pilafian and Pat Sheridan (Focus on Excellence, 2002) can improve your breathing. While such exercises are recommended, any breathing methodologies which seem contrived or which introduce tension or pain should be avoided. Most importantly, remember that moving air is but a means to an end in low brass playing, and that end is producing vibration and hence, sound.
Low brass players rightly talk a great deal about air usage, but we often err by thinking of the air as that which produces pitches on our instruments. The air does not produce the pitch; the lips do that. We hear pitches as the result of vibrating air; no vibrations, no pitch. It does not matter how much air you are capable of moving if the lips do not vibrate freely and efficiently in response to the air passing through them. The low brass player must learn to move great quantities of air not as an end in itself, but as a means of creating great quantities of vibration, and therefore a great sound.
The question is, “What constitutes a good buzz?” Is it even possible to answer this question in a way that accurately applies to all of the low brasses? I think so, and the answer is this: A good buzz is one in which the greatest possible amount of lip is engaged in vibrating on a given pitch, dynamic level, and instrument. To state this more crudely, “the more meat there is flapping in the mouthpiece, the better the sound will be.” If you want to have a great sound, you need not only to move a great deal of air, but that air in turn must cause lots of vibration in the embouchure.
Of course, there are variables here. Different instruments require different timbres, but much of this is accomplished by using an appropriate mouthpiece and having a proper mental concept of the desired sound. The amount of vibration will differ at different dynamic levels, the best sound is that in which the greatest amount of vibration possible at a given dynamic level takes place. Likewise with differences in tonal range; the vibrations are bigger and slower in the low register and narrower and faster in the high register, but you should still seek to realize the maximum amount of vibration possible for a given pitch, dynamic level, and instrument.
How is such a good buzz achieved? First of all, you must be able to move large quantities of air. Next, make sure that you are making full use of the space available in your mouthpiece. If you have ever heard a trumpeter attempt to play the trombone or tuba, you know the thin sound that results from a player essentially vibrating a trumpet embouchure inside the larger mouthpiece. Fill as much of the mouthpiece as possible with vibrating lip. Third, resist the urge to “flatten out” the embouchure. Most of us have a tendency to “roll in” the lips and perhaps even “smile” in the upper register. While this might help with tone production in a superficial way, the sound produced is always thin and unsatisfactory. Occasionally a related fault can occur in the lower register, where the lips are “stretched thin” as a result of the lowered jaw. In both cases, the player should think of “puckering” just a bit so that there is more lip in the mouthpiece and hence more vibration. (Do be careful with this in the low register; there is a more common fault which results from too much puckering in the low range.) Finally, make sure that your air and buzz are “centered” horizontally, vertically, and in depth (i.e. not playing too much on the inside or outside of the lips). Disruptions in any of these dimensions can result in an aperture that is too large, too small, or in the wrong place. The resulting sound will be unpleasing, with either too little sound “getting through” or sometimes too much air passing through the lips and instrument without contributing to the vibration of the embouchure.
If this information seems overwhelming, please do not let it be so. While it is helpful to think through these things in the way that I have done here, your approach to actual playing must be much simpler. Take a big breath of air, and blow it through the lips and instrument in a way that causes the lips to vibrate freely and vigorously. If that is done well, all of the considerations discussed above will have been addressed, if unconsciously. If there is a problem, the above information will help with diagnosis and correction.