Apr 13, 2006

50 - 50 = 100

No, this is not an example of the new math, but a formula for success in the production of sound on a brass instrument. When I was learning the art of training horses, which took me something like 20 years to get good at, I remember something my teacher said while we were standing watching a great horse trainer working a horse. He said, "Don't look at what he does, look at what he doesn't do." That's some of the best advice I've ever gotten and applies to anything that you must develop a skill for. What he meant was, don't add anything that is unnecessary, and keep things pure and simple. Anything that is unnecessary will subtract from the goal you are trying to achieve. I'm trying, so far unsuccessfully, to apply this concept successfully to my golf game. Every time I try to "help" it, my swing goes haywire. But I digress. By "unnecessary" I mean using any muscles that aren't necessary in producing a sound, which means just about every muscle in the body other than embouchure and those involved with taking air in and out in the most relaxed manner possible. Any time you throw things in to help get the sound out they have the opposite effect, because the best and most efficient sound on a brass instrument is a column of air that moves relatively fast through a relaxed body. The embouchure is the only part of the body that regulates the flow of the air. Sounds simple doesn't it? That's the concept of the figure 100, meaning 100% efficiency. Any additional action by the body will start subtracting from that number.

What would 100% efficiency feel and sound like? Try this: Take in the biggest amount of air you can in one breath and play a middle register note that starts with a good burst of air and LET ONLY THE NATURAL ELASTICITY OF YOUR LUNGS PROVIDE THE IMPULSION, which will result in a long even diminuendo. Don't try to conserve air, but let the lungs empty as though air was escaping from a balloon, and the rate of flow would depend on the amount of air filling the balloon. If your body is completely relaxed during this event, you should experience something close to 100% efficiency and a very good version of your sound. If you do this in front of a mirror, you should see your chest slowly collapse, which is a good sign your upper body is relaxed. Of course this exercise is isolating the basic method of producing sound, and needs to be firmly established before actually applying it in a musical context. I wish we had all started with this concept in mind, it would have saved a lot of time and energy: needless energy, which only subtracts from that theoretical 100% figure.

I believe many people are concerned about running out of air and try to conserve it by using muscles that have an adverse effect on the sound. By knowing the formula for the 100% efficiency concept, we can work on eliminating the unnecessary actions in our playing and get to that point where someone observing can't really see anything we're doing because of the fact that all extraneous effort has eliminated. When a balloon is filled with a lot of air, as a player's lungs should be, there is a natural tendency for the balloon and lungs to return to a neutral position. The more air is taken in, the more the lungs want to contract. This is what propels the air stream forward, AND THAT IS ALL THAT IS REQUIRED. That's why it is imperative that every note starts with the air from a full tank, which will naturally escape faster than from a half tank and the body can be completely relaxed, which is the secret to a great sound. The result is a sound which resembles the ringing of a bell, and like a bell, once the vibration is set in motion by the clapper, it is left alone. Imagine your horn as a bell, like that in a church. Instead of striking it with an object, you start it vibrating with a good rush of air. Since a brass instrument doesn't ring as long as a bell we have to imitate that resonance by sustaining the air stream in a manner of a bell in various sizes. The more we want to sustain a sound the bigger the bell we must emulate. The size of the bell determines the amount of sustained sound produced. A large bell will sustain it's ring longer than a small bell, so the size of the bell you are creating will determine the amount of sustaining in that note. This is not a matter of dynamics, because a very large bell can be rung softly to produce a sound that decays slowly, possibly after the duration of the note, which would give the note a tenuto style. Conversely a small bell can be rung strongly to produce a quickly diminishing sound. The point here is that the 100% efficiency model cited above can be a basic method for all types of playing styles. This will avoid the biggest mistake brass players make and the single biggest cause of an inferior sound: pushing with the body after the start of a note to make up for the fact that not enough air was used, or just as importantly, not starting with enough energy to sustain that vibration throughout the duration of a note without assistance from the muscles of the torso. If the air starts with enough velocity, then the body can act as, believe it or not, a concert hall, but only if it is as relaxed as possible. I have achieved amazing results with people who couldn't get a decent sound using this concept. The old saying; "you can't unring a bell," may be true but I'd also like to add that "you can't help it ring better after you've rung it." Keep that in mind next time you try to make that "sound heard 'round the world." And by that I mean quality, not quantity!

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