Jan 2, 2011

No Guts? Good!

The other day I was thinking about acoustics and trombone/brass playing and some way to put an idea across in a clear and concise way. All of a sudden it stuck me that the acoustics of a concert hall and those of the human body have a lot in common. That got me to thinking about practice rooms. Perhaps some of you have had the opportunity to try out horns in one of those acoustic cubicles made by the Wenger company. They cost a fortune and usually are at musical instrument shows or large music instrument dealers and manufacturers. Most have a feature that can change the acoustics of the room to mimic some well known concert venues around the world, from very dry to very reverberant. When not dialed into a resonant concert hall type acoustic it is completely dead acoustically or what is called an anechoic chamber. When I was a young student, I used to practice in this type of room because that was all that was available at my school. I spent so much time in those types of rooms that I got to prefer them because of the absolute deadly honest feedback you got back. In fact later as a professional player I covered the walls and ceiling of my practice room with cardboard egg cartons to get an almost completely anechoic chamber.

Which brings me to my point; your body function's in a somewhat similar fashion when playing an instrument. If most of your muscles are flexed while playing, you are replicating an anechoic chamber. As more muscles are put into a relaxed mode you are dialing up more reverberation. When all muscles are relaxed except those of the embouchure, you are producing an acoustic which is the equivalent of halls such as the Musikverein in Vienna, or the Concertgebow in Amsterdam, two of the most reverberant concert halls in the world. This acoustic produces what is known as a "ringing" sound and that is the secret to a great sound, strong in fundamental, and as a result, producing many overtones. Picture this; an olympic athlete is getting ready to perform in their event. Do they stand there and try to get their muscles as tight as possible? No, they shake out their arms and legs and try to get all the tension they can out of them, because relaxed muscles mean flexibility and speed, something which is needed to play an instrument. Many years ago they tested a brass player playing a fortissimo passage, and found it to be one of the most energy consuming tasks of all.

We must start to consign the "firm foundation in the lower torso" idea to the dust bin of history with other widely accepted, and later discredited theories. While I developed a fondness for practicing in an anechoic chamber, that doesn't mean I want to perform in one. So, dial down the tension in your torso, and dial up the reverberation time in your body's concert hall. If you can get some reverb time in your practice room, imagine what you can do in a reasonably resonant acoustic. As I said many times before, all the work should be done from the chin up, and at the beginning of the note. Another thing to remember is why we take a full breath for every passage whether that passage requires it or not. When almost all air is expelled when playing, the only way to empty the lungs completely is to engage some muscles in the torso. While we try to avoid this as much as possible, there are many times when there is no alternative. When possible it is far better to take in more air than needed, to avoid using the last liter of air, and avoid the need to push out the last of that air with the muscles of the torso. Believe it or not, the muscles of the rib cage are much more efficient in expelling air when needed than the diaphragm, and does much less damage to the sound. It is possible to learn to use more of the chest muscles and less of the diaphragm to sustain the end of a long tone, something again which has been widely misunderstood.

I want to wish my readers a healthy, happy new year and please let me know any topics you would like covered in the coming year.


This article has been translated into Italian by Alberto Tortella.

This article has been translated into Polish by Lukasz Michalski.

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