Nov 2, 2011


Today is the first day of the rest of your life

We've all heard this saying at one time or another, and it has a good message in it. I think it could also have a beneficial message for us as far as playing an instrument is concerned. One of the most important aspects in playing an instrument well is the constant refreshing of the embouchure that is necessary to keep the sound consistent in quality. This is one of the things that is most overlooked in my experience playing and teaching. When someone plays an etude or solo of any length that contains both slurred and articulated passages, the act of slurring will tend to have an adverse effect of the corners of the embouchure, causing the sound to lose focus and spread. This could be the simple effect of gravity letting the corners of the embouchure fall behind (under) the tessitura being played. For trombone players, playing a Rochut etude entails mostly slurred passages separated into phrases of a few bars each. The tendency for many players is to start the next phrase with the same embouchure setting and sound they finished the previous phrase with. As the etude progresses the sound gets duller and duller until finally the mouthpiece feels like it is 6 inches across. I refer to this as "wallowing in your own sound."

Vote early and often

This is an old fun phrase referring to politics in Chicago, but could be applied to playing a brass instrument too. Theoretically someone should finish a piece of music with the same sound they started with. To achieve this a player must be mindful of the necessity at the end of every phrase and start of the next, to reset the embouchure as if it was the first note of the piece. I cannot stress this concept enough. One of the most common faults I hear when people play is not "refreshing the computer" (embouchure) when taking a breath and starting a new phrase. This habit causes the embouchure to buzz pitches below the intended note and results in a loss of resonance and clarity. As each new phrase starts with the same sound and setting of the previous phrase the sound deteriorates exponentially (builds on itself) until it bears no relation to the quality of sound the player started with.

One of the most obvious examples of this is when playing the solo from Saint-Saens 3rd symphony, which is required repertoire on many auditions today. Once again a common habit is once the excerpt has started, starting each new phrase with the same embouchure setting and sound that the previous phrase finished with. Since the tessitura of this excerpt is in the lower middle range, it adds another challenge to keep the sound consistent from beginning to end, and this means every time a breath is taken and a new phrase is started the embouchure must be reset, corners refreshed and set to produce the clearest, purest sound possible, as if it were the first note of the excerpt. This must be done on every new phrase, not just occasionally and an articulated start to a new phrase allows us to do this.

One of the most fundamental concepts in brass playing is the necessity of buzzing the actual pitch on the mouthpiece that we expect to come out of the horn. Many people that have trouble producing a consistent sound quality have what I call "lazy embouchure syndrome." This means they are always buzzing pitches under the actual note required. If we buzz a middle A in the bass clef staff and put the slide in first position a Bb will emerge, but it will be flat and of dull quality. If we buzz a C# above the staff and put the slide in first position, a D will emerge, but once again the sound will be dull and flat in pitch. It is not only necessary to buzz the actual pitch we desire, but try to produce a clear, bright, focused sound that will project to the far reaches of the space we are playing in. It is not enough simply to use more air, as everyone has heard infinitum, but to set the embouchure correctly and actively for each pitch early and often, which is just as important as using enough air.

This article has been translated into Italian by Alberto Tortella.

This article has been translated into Polish by Lukasz Michalski.

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