Feb 16, 2013

Fire up your engines!, by Kirk Lundbeck

Oxygen; without it life would cease to exist. The air we breathe gives life to everything around us and without it our trombones would be silent. This air is a gas that fires our engines and allows us to make music with our beloved instrument. Sadly, so many of us as brass musicians use our air inefficiently causing us to work too hard and cause a devastating result to the quality of the sound produced. The purpose of this article is to help all of us to improve our ability by becoming more efficient in the use of our air to fire up our engines.

First, we must look at our intake. We are taught to drop our diaphragm to fill the bottom of our lungs first and fill our lungs from the bottom up. Not to take short, shallow breaths but long, deep ones. This certainly is true; however in many students I have worked with I find that this is misinterpreted. Many players take deep breaths and then keep their stomach muscles tight as they begin to play. Think of your lungs as a glass. When you pour your favorite beverage into the glass it fills from the bottom up. But, unless you’re using a straw when you drink the beverage it comes from the top of the glass. You can’t send your air into your horn from the bottom of your lungs. Send the air from much higher. I tell my students to try to send their air into their horn from their sternum or breast bone. This will relax the stomach muscles and focus the air from higher in your lungs faster with less tension. Expending energy and oxygen by tighten those muscles take air away from your instrument. Your muscles need oxygen to expand and retract. By tightening any muscle which is not directly related to the playing of your instrument is detrimental to the quality of sound produced. This not only effects the stomach muscles but your left arm which holds the instrument, your right arm that moves the slide and the muscles groups that support you head, neck and shoulders. I’ve seen students with the left arm and hand so tight holding their instrument their knuckles turn white. This is way too much work. In all my experience as a trombonist I have never seen an instrument fly off a players shoulder and fall to the ground. Relax! Take a deep preparation breath, relax all the tension in the muscles not used in playing your instrument and use the air that hasn’t been wasted on those areas to produce a better sound.

Once you’ve learned to relax to play then you must send your “gas” into your instrument. We are taught to focus the air through the hole in the mouthpiece, bypassing the cup and into the receiver of your horn. That is correct. Supported, focused and consistent airflow will create cleaner attacks, smoother slurs and a more clear sound. However, many of the players I’ve listened to and worked with forget that the focus doesn’t stop once it enters the instrument. Take moment and really think about that. Do you pay attention to your air once it enters the instrument? Many players who forget that the air keeps going with have a nasal sounding quality at the beginning of the note and have many broken legato slurs. The body starts tight and the air gets caught. As the body becomes more relaxed after the initial attack the sound gets better. Don’t wait for the better sound as the note is played start with it! Here is a technique I use with many of my students which has proved to be very successful in their overall sound quality, technique and attacks. Learn to get the air completely through the instrument. Most of us have a designated place where we practice. Find something to place in your area that is approximately 6 to 10 feet away and point your instrument at it. Make is something unfamiliar to the room, something that isn’t usually there. It could be a dog’s toy, your daughter’s doll or your spouse’s hair brush; something different that you’re not used to seeing will make it easier to focus on it. If it’s familiar you’ll forget about it too quickly. Once you’ve found your new focus point, take a slow, deep breath, relax your muscle groups not being used to play your instrument and begin to play your normal warm up routine sending your air through your instrument to that unfamiliar point. Do this for your entire practice session. You’ll notice almost immediately a change. You’re playing will become easier, the notes will be clearer and your sound will be fuller in all registers. You’re now learning where your “gas” needs to go.

Finally, many of our instructors tell us to listen to the great players of our instrument. Absolutely you should. Let’s take it one step farther. Start watching their playing too. The great players make it not only sound easy, but look easy too. If you pay close attention you’ll notice they aren’t wasting energy and are very efficient engines. Use your “gas” correctly and listen to your engine purr!

Remember, there is a finite number of times you will be able to play your instrument. Make the most of every opportunity.

This article has been translated into Italian by Alberto Tortella.

This article has been translated into Polish by Lukasz Michalski.

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