Dec 5, 2011

Early Bird gets the Note

Years ago when I was agile and played tennis I was always told that the key to being a good player was footwork. Running and getting your feet into position so you could make your usual swing was the way to be consistent. The key was to get there early with your feet which gave you plenty of time to make an unhurried smooth stroke. It's amazing how much this relates to playing a brass instrument. One of the most common reasons for missing notes is the habit of being late with the embouchure. Trying to find the correct setting for a certain note at the instant it is played is a huge mistake, and causes many notes to be missed. As I've mentioned before, I like to think of the embouchure as an elevator which needs to be sent up to the desired floor. The floor of the elevator needs to be level with the floor of the building and it needs to be still for an instant before disembarking. You wouldn't jump off an elevator as it was coming up to a floor and you wouldn't try to play a note before the embouchure was level with the partial that note was on. Good players get the embouchure to every note early so it can stabilize and hold the required firmness needed to let the air do it's job. Again, I want to stress the basic principal of producing sound: a critical balance between the 3 components of tone; enough firmness in the corners of the embouchure, enough air flow to vibrate the lips, and enough seal or stability of the mouthpiece against the embouchure, OK, pressure. When these 3 things are in the correct balance no other muscle activity is needed or desired.

I also want to advance the concept of blowing across a level surface to achieve the clearest, purest most resonant sound possible. Even though people have different anatomical features, thinking about blowing across a level surface will help put the embouchure in a position of sufficient strength to produce a lively, clear, focused sound. I cannot stress enough how important this is when playing in the upper register. Under setting and then squeezing out high notes by pushing against the upper rim of the mouthpiece is a haphazard way to approach the upper register. The fear of embouchure collapse is a leading cause of this. As I've said before, and need to say again, there are basically three ways to play in the upper register or any register for that matter. One; sufficient firmness in the corners, enough air flow to buzz the lips, and enough embouchure stability from the mouthpiece to support that firmness to blow across a level surface. Two; under set as mentioned, and push against the upper rim of the mouthpiece to squeeze the note out. Three; use inordinate mouthpiece pressure and abdominal tension to force the lips to produce the note. Which one do you think works consistently? Number one of course!

As important as this is for playing in the upper register it is equally important for middle register playing as well. There is a common practice of not setting the embouchure firmly enough for the notes in the middle register. Since this register is physically easier to produce, there is a temptation to under set because of this ease of production. This results in a dull, dead type sound, especially when coming from a lower tessitura. Thus, it is just as important to set the embouchure correctly (blowing across a level surface) in the middle register, as the upper register.

The concept of blowing across a level surface requires the embouchure to arrive early to the proper setting, even before the note is played. As important as this is when playing articulated notes, it's even more important when playing slurs of a wide distance from each other. Take for instance a slur from middle A to F# above the bass clef staff. To get a clean, smooth slur with no unwanted notes in-between the embouchure must approach the F# from the 7th overtone series, Ab. The slide is in 2nd position for A, then the embouchure swoops up to the 7th partial in the space between 2nd position and sharp 3rd, F#, (actually as soon as the slide starts moving.) Since the slide did not stop between, the flat G is not heard, but the slur was approached from above, and that means the embouchure was already set for F# before the note was played. Since the embouchure was there early it was also possible to blow across a seemingly level surface and a beautiful round, smooth slur emerged with no clicks, bumps or unwanted notes.

Do yourself a favor in the new year. Carefully go through and master the example in the preceding paragraph. It will change your life!

This article has been translated into Italian by Alberto Tortella.

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