The number one goal of all brass players is to produce a beautiful sound. I like to think of the sound as a living thing that resides within my body. Each day, particularly during the warm-up, I search for my sound and try to release it into the horn. The difference between a good day and a bad day is how easy or difficult it is to find and release the sound. Producing sound on a brass instrument is four-stage process.
- Hear the sound in your head.
- Set the air into motion.
- Compress the lips on the airstream, converting air to vibration.
- Transfer the vibrations to the instrument.
Hear The Sound
The most important part of any activity is to picture the end result before you start; you need to hear a sound in your head before you’ll get one to come out of your horn. Before a practice session, listen to a recording of a great player to remind you of what is possible. Currently, my inspiration/despair CD is Sergei Nakariakov’s ‘No Limit’. That is an apt title-there seems to be no limit to Sergei’s ability. It should be impossible, perhaps illegal, to do what he does on the trumpet.
I am fortunate to live just up the street from Andrew McCandless, the principal trumpet with the Toronto Symphony. (It is only a two-block street, so it is rather coincidental that it is home to two professional trumpet players.) In the morning, as I walk the dog, I can often hear Andrew warming up. Listening to the way he centers every note with a beautiful sound always inspires me, and makes me anxious to get home and start practicing.
Well, duh. It is a wind instrument. Much has been written on the importance of air. Some methods maintain that playing is 99% air-simply blow and forget everything else. Arnold Jacobs added the all-important ‘sing the music in your mind.’ In other words, make sure the musical command from the brain is clear and focused, and that the air is flowing, and everything else will happen naturally.
Sometimes, however, the simplicity of this approach can lead to frustration. Some students actually use too much air, because they have been taught that blowing harder is the answer to all problems. (Admittedly, not using enough air is a more common problem.) Efficient playing demands a balance of air and embouchure compression: the setting of the embouchure primarily determines pitch, and the air (plus the tongue, which helps to control the air) largely determines volume and articulation.
If you can picture the fluid motion of a violinist’s bow, that is what you are striving to achieve with your air. It should be smooth and directed, extending from the base of your lungs, flowing past your lips into the horn. Make sure the air passage is not obstructed; poor posture or a constricted throat will rob your sound of power and intensity. Hold your horn up and let the air flow freely through your throat. Control it with the tongue and the aperture between the lips, not by tensing the body or constricting the throat.
Think of your sound and your air as one intertwined entity, emanating from deep within your body. Focus your attention on the air/sound as it travels through your body and flows into the horn. Try swirling your air/sound through the cavities of your head, as a singer might, and listen to the tone changes that result. Let your notes ‘ride’ on the column of air like ping pong balls floating on a swiftly moving stream. Maximize the power and effectiveness of your airstream-the more work your air does, the less the lips have to do.
When the lips are formed into an embouchure and compressed on the airstream, they vibrate (buzz). The purity of the buzz and the efficiency with which air is converted to vibration is a function of the shape of the lips and the amount of tension or compression.
The amount of lip area that vibrates is very small, particularly on the higher brass (smaller) mouthpieces. The adjustments that take place within the cup of the mouthpiece are subtle but critical-small changes in the embouchure can have a dramatic effect on the sound. Watch in a mirror while you buzz on a rim visualizer (a mouthpiece rim mounted on a handle or a shank), and focus your attention on the point of vibration. Become aware of how slightly changing the setting of the lips, or the position of the mouthpiece on the lips, affects the buzz. Each note requires tiny adjustments to produce the purest vibration.
Now watch in the mirror while buzzing the mouthpiece or playing the horn. Focus on the muscles of your face outside the mouthpiece. Try to reduce external facial movement as much as possible; the less movement outside the mouthpiece, the finer your muscle control inside the mouthpiece, where it really counts. Your accuracy will improve as you eliminate a ‘moving target’ at the source of vibration.
Many players rob themselves of tone by using too much embouchure tension, effectively strangling the lip vibrations. You can hear this in beginning brass students-with their lips tightly squeezed together the sound is usually pinched and lacking in resonance. By searching for the minimum embouchure compression for a given pitch and volume, you allow the lips to vibrate to their fullest-more sound for less effort.
Transfer the Vibrations to the Horn
Your horn is a simple length of pipe; the length is changeable by valves or slides. A given length of pipe vibrates at specific frequencies, which have a mathematic relationship to each other (the overtone series). When your lips vibrate precisely at one of the resonant frequencies of the pipe, the tone becomes robust, and the vibrations of the pipe actually feed and sustain the vibrations of the lips. This might be described as playing in the center of the pitch, or finding the ‘sweet spot’. When you hit the sweet spot on a tennis racket or baseball bat or golf club, you efficiently transfer energy to the ball. When you find it while playing a note, you efficiently transfer energy to the horn.
Just as the ball player must ‘follow through’ the stroke, keeping his eyes on where he wants the ball to go, you should focus on where you want your sound to go. If it leaves your bell and immediately hits the music stand-WRONG! Your sound picks up resonance and energy as it bounces off every surface in the room-use this to your advantage, treating the room as an amplifier and a resonating chamber. Point your horn in different directions and listen to the change in your tone. Watch out for a common student error: as you play higher your eyes drift towards the ceiling-WRONG! In driving school, they teach you that during a skid you should look where you want the car to go (on the road). Picture where you want the sound to go, and your body will do what it must to get it there.