Jun 8, 2005

Battle of the Bulge

Hamlet: Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue: but if you mouth it, as many of your players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently; for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say, the whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness. O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who for the most part are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumbshows and noise: I would have such a fellow whipped for o'erdoing Termagant: it out-herods Herod: pray you, avoid it.

-- Act 3, Scene 2 of Hamlet

And thus Shakespeare pens the most famous acting course of all time, and does it so concisely that all other instruction since then is simply elaboration on his words. What does this have to do with us brass players? When you think of it, we're actors trying to tell a story in music instead of words, and the way music emerges from our embouchures will determine if the story is delivered "trippingly on the tongue" or do we "mouth it as many of your players do."

It is impossible to achieve the best sound your capable of when you bulge into articulated notes. The best sound possible on a wind instrument is produced by the sound speaking at full resonance instantly, and this means emerging "trippingly from the tongue." This means the tongue starts the air, and the air starts the note. The tongue performs a backward movement (see Arban) and allows the air to take it's place instantly, but only if the air is right behind the tongue and at full volume to the dynamic your playing. If the air doesn't immediately replace the tongue, then you get a bulge. The bulge ruins the sound because now you have to push in the middle of the note to get to the desired volume, and pushing once the note has started requires flexing muscles, which again ruins the sound. There needs to be an instant where pressure is built up in the mouth and this is what propels the air forward, and not the diaphragm. The best sound is produced by using as little diaphragm muscle as possible and as much reliance on the embouchure (inside and out) as possible. It should feel like most of the work producing a sound is concentrated in the area from the chin up.

Imagine you have a blow-gun, and you're trying to send a dart as far as possible. The way you get the most distance is by loading all the energy in your air at the moment of departure and not after the dart is on its way. Suppose you wanted to send that dart half that distance. You would still load up all the energy at the beginning, but use less force, meaning less pressure in the mouth.

I like to have people play the quarter note studies at the beginning of the Arban book and have them play each note very short while still getting a very resonant echo, much like a pizzicato. When playing full length, I make sure the sound starts exactly the way it did in the short version. A common problem is when a player plays a long note and thinks; "I've got plenty of time to start this note, so what's the hurry? That's like the parachute jumper who waited until he was 5 feet from the ground to pull the rip cord and then thought, "why bother, I can jump from here." The answer is: the best sound is achieved by an energetic air stream (fast moving) at the start of the note, so the lungs can empty by their own elasticity, and without the need for muscular involvement, thereby using the body as a resonating chamber, which is the secret to getting a great sound.

In my opinion there is only one kind of attack, and that is one where the sound speaks at 100% resonance instantly, even at very soft dynamics, in fact especially at very soft dynamics. The audience never hears the attack on a note but they hear the sound, and that needs to start from a pure, relaxed, resonant source.

Let me emphasize one important point. It is not unmusical to get a clear start to a note. Furthermore, it is not unmusical to get a clear start on the 2nd, 3rd, or 4th note in a phrase such as a Bach chorale. How many times have you heard a Bach chorale or something like it played: Ta,Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah, etc. There's a mistaken belief that a clear attack on notes will result in spaces between those notes. Wrong! It is perfectly possible to articulate notes with pristine clarity and have no space whatsoever in between. However, it takes desire, practice and a realization that it is possible to play with clear attacks and sustain the sound completely to the next attack.

As I've said before, the best attacks I've heard come from people who tongue straight ahead and not behind the upper teeth. That way the air doesn't have to go up and around the tongue. I think it also allows for a more pinpoint focal point for the tongue and the air stream, allowing more relaxation during the length of the note, and therefore a better sound. Remember, you can only fit 2 or 3 people in the back of your mouth, most of the audience is out in front, so lets move our diction from the back of our mouth to a few inches in front of our faces, so that the listeners, even the ones in the back row, get the gist of the story.

A word of advice to my up and coming horn players; your bell faces backward, your hand covers the sound and attack, your tubing is longer, your mouthpiece is funneled. No more playing the Mozart concerto's in a Boo,Boo,Boo, etc. style. Listen to those Dennis Brain recordings (again) and observe the buoyancy in the articulation and the liveliness in the style, phrasing and sound. Lighten up, people!


Now my own paraphrase of the Bard;

O'yee t'bonist's, avoid like the plague the sawing and swooping that so many of your countrymen indulge in, for if the listener doth close his eyes, not a farthings worth of tempest or passion emits from that hallowed golden oval. And when 3 of yee in the large company of players doth set to swooping and swaying, even the unwashed rabble in yee upper decks will, find it a thing of comedy, and begin to chortle with amusement. Alas, my countenance to you is; keep still, and let thy sound be carried on a river of gold, with no accoutrements to nudge the craft off it's intended course, which with purity and purpose, will aim it's bow straight toward the listeners heart.

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