Jan 8, 2006

And another thing

This month I want to talk about one of the challenging things we do as brass players, and that is, holding long tones steady. This can be a difficult task, especially in a performance situation where nerves come into play in varying degrees, according to the perceived importance of that performance. Now you can take one of those beta blockers, which I think may have more psychological effect than physical, or you can use a method that has served me well for most of my career. It seems to me that most people who play wind instruments and especially brass, try to hold notes steady with their embouchures. This would seem a logical way to control the steadiness of a tone. As with so many other things however, what appears to be logical is often wishful thinking. I have had some impressive results in my teaching with, instead of concentrating on the embouchure to hold notes steady, MONITORING THE AIR STREAM. Since the upper jaw is immovable, that leaves the lower jaw the ability to move in all directions, and that can cause a note to be very unsteady unless the player is in a very comfortable, stress free, relaxed environment. Good luck in finding such a performance atmosphere. A much better way is to immobilize the embouchure and concentrate on monitoring the air stream in an absolutely steady forward movement. This may seem like a simple solution, but believe me, it is usually overlooked by most brass players.

To illustrate this idea, hold your arm out to the side and concentrate hard on keeping it very still. Difficult isn't it? Now in the same position, lean against a wall. See how much easier it is to keep it absolutely still. That is an analogy of the theory behind keeping long notes steady. In essence, keeping the embouchure still, in effect leaning on it, and completely focusing on the steady flow of the air stream. This is a much more reliable method under pressure than trying to keep the hundreds of muscles in the facial area quiet.

For example, take the opening of the Mozart Requiem trombone solo. Most people have trouble with keeping the low Bb steady in the 3rd bar, especially after playing the 1st two bars. This is difficult because of the change of embouchure needed to make a good sound on the low Bb. The jaw drops for that change and the player tries to steady the note with the embouchure, which as I said, is difficult. Now I want you to think about those moving vans that have a ramp that slides off the back, so that items can be rolled smoothly off the truck. That is how I want you to think about your lower jaw, a ramp on which the note can smoothly roll off from. Once the ramp is set, and motionless, you can completely focus on monitoring the speed and steadiness of the air stream, which will have a secure and stable platform to travel on. Since this is a relatively low note in this passage, care must be taken to not drop the jaw too much which would cause the air stream to emerge at too steep an angle and result in an off center note and a substandard sound. I like to mentally (and not necessarily physically) visualize an air stream that flows from the embouchure on a fairly level, or slightly below level plane, but definitely rolling across the lower jaw, (again the ramp idea.) Once the embouchure is set in this position, all that is needed is a complete focus on the continuity of the air stream. Of course the player must have a pre-determined idea of where the embouchure setting for that note is, but once that is established, only attention to the air stream is needed.

The long middle Bb later on in that movement is another example of where (dare I say it?) freezing the embouchure and concentrating on the physical act of keeping the flow of breath steady, will result in an absolutely constant tone quality. The end of the 1st movement of Tchaikovsky 6th is an example of where this concept would be of benefit, as well as the solo chorale in the last movement, as well as any passage that required a single note to be sustained without expression, as is the case with most orchestral excerpts of this type.

I know I've talked a lot about legato in past articles, but I keep noticing things in my teaching and my own playing that I think help get my point across about this topic and here's one of them. When someone is playing an etude such as a Rochut, and the legato sounds too smeary, the logical solution would seem to be to move the slide faster wouldn't it? Once again the seemingly logical solution doesn't hold up to actual scrutiny. If the legato was smeary that means the air wasn't keeping up with the movement of the slide, so wouldn't moving the slide faster make the legato even smearier, leaving an even wider gap between the air and the slide, if the air remained at the same rate of flow? I think it would. Smeariness in legato results from the air stream not keeping up with the slide movement, so no matter how fast you move the slide, the air stream must move with it. To put it another way, the air must have enough rate of flow to keep a certain psi. in the entire length of tubing, and the faster the slide moves, the more the rate of flow must increase, to keep that psi. at a level that fills every slur with enough resonance to produce a great sound. In other words, no matter how fast or slow you move the slide, don't let the slide get ahead of the air stream. Get used to pulling the air stream along with the slide, or alternatively, blow the slide from position to position, which will keep the air and the slide crazy glued together, whichever mental concept works for you. If you can grasp one of these concepts, you won't "lurch" from note to note because the sound will flow smoothly from note to note and you'll be producing a line of (great) sound instead of accenting each note with the slide.

On another note, I've been noticing lately that when someone plays an excerpt such as William Tell, which is a rising scale wise type of excerpt, it sounds best when played in a tenuto, even run together, type style. This also applies to Hungarian March, and also Till Eulenspeigel, which are basically rising types of passages, and again sound best when executed in a tenuto style. Conversely, when playing an excerpt such as La Gazza Ladra, which is a descending scale wise excerpt, it seems to sound best when played in a crisp, separated style. I'm not sure why this is, but there seems to be a pattern here.

I also want to report on the latest news about the new model Bach 42 that I have been involved with developing. I have just received 8 new thin model bells with different valves, such as Hagaman, Lindberg, openrap, and straight. We have sent two of these bells to Gary Greenhoe, for him to put his valve on, to see what they add to the horn. I am happy to report that Gary will be involved with the production of these instruments. The quality of these bells is excellent, some of the best I have ever played and I am optimistic that these horns will recapture the sound of the older Bach instruments, which most people seem to prefer. I will report on further developments next month. Also, exciting news; Gary and I will design a new alto trombone for Bach which should be available this year.

Coming next month---Chris Martin, newly appointed principal trumpet of the Chicago Symphony will write a guest column for this website. Don't miss it!

Happy New Year 2006!

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