May 12, 2006

Opposites attract

I want to say a few words about the difference between playing soft and playing loud. In a certain way, although the basics of producing sound is the same, there are some differences in the approach to each extreme dynamic. First of all is the type of sound you are trying to produce, and the type of sound depends on the dynamic. When playing very softly the focus (good word) should be on clarity of sound. You need almost a laser quality for the sound to project to the back of the hall, which is the most difficult aspect of soft playing. Anyone can play soft, but to project a musical line a good distance away requires a concentrated, focused, clear, and of course, pure sound. On the other hand, when playing a forte or fortissimo dynamic, the opposite is true. A sound with the laser quality removed is the right type of sound for this dynamic. As I've said before, and this bears repeating, when a horn comes from the factory, the natural inclination is for the instrument to be a laser in the louder dynamics, and a fog horn in the softer ones. It is up to the player to reverse these characteristics.

The way you achieve these two extreme types of sound is by the speed of the air stream and the size of the aperture of the embouchure. When playing a pianissimo dynamic I try to think of a small fast moving air stream. When playing a fortissimo dynamic, I try to think of a larger, slower moving air stream. There is also a relaxation factor to take in account. I am much firmer in my embouchure when playing softly and much more relaxed generally when playing loud. Even my chest and lower body is firmer, (never tight) when playing soft. Part of this reason is because you must portion out the air more carefully when playing soft, and this requires some action of the muscles of the torso to let air out in a more controlled manner. Conversely, when I play loud I let the natural elasticity of the lungs allow the air escape in a sort of uncontrolled, natural manner. By uncontrolled, I mean letting air empty from the lungs in a completely free and unrestricted manner. Only the embouchure regulates the flow of the air in loud playing, something somewhat different than in soft playing. If I had to sum up the difference between loud and soft playing in one idea it would be; when playing soft I try to bypass the cup and aim my air right down the throat of the mouthpiece. When playing loud, I try to use as much of the cup as possible.

And now some help for trombone players in that most difficult of

excerpts, the slurred passage near the end of Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra. I have found that playing the middle D to high D from 4th to 1st position helps make this difficult octave slur much easier by making the movement of the slide help activate the air to swoop up (I like that term) and get that note. Think of your inner slide as a tube filled with water and the outer slide as a piston that is actually inside the inner slide and can push every drop of that water right up to 1st position. This is the feeling you want to have when playing the D octaves. Make sure all of the air is in front of the slide, and none is left behind when going from 4th middle D to 1st high D. Also don't forget to shift your embouchure soon enough so that it is waiting for the air to arrive in first position, and not be late to receive the air. Normally I am not in favor of using the slide to help activate the air, but this is an extreme case, so using the slide to COLLECT the air and bring it to first position really helps.

Incidentally, one of my students showed me a neat trick to help that high D in first position which is usually flat and must be played in sharp 3rd. Play it in 2nd position with the F trigger. It works very well and can be adjusted to any variance of pitch desired. I always learn stuff from my students, but according to Arnold Schoenberg, the only teacher that never learns anything from their students is the voice teacher. I don't know why that is, but I think it's pretty funny.


This article has been translated into Italian by Claudio Chiani.

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