Mar 9, 2009

Serpentine Belt

Remember, those of you old enough, when you used to take your old car into the repair shop, they would almost always say, "your serpentine belt is rotted, stiff and cracked and needs to be replaced." It was a rubber belt that took power from the engine and connected to the alternator, or air conditioner motor. It was made of rubber and when new, was elastic, strong and flexible. As it aged and absorbed all that heat from the engine, it would dry out, get stiff, start cracking and eventually break.

Well, you know, I hear a lot of air streams with the same problem. Instead of nice pliable, rubbery air streams, they sound like the old hard, stiff and cracked kind. By this I mean, when playing lip slurs, the player has no control over the speed or smoothness of them. The slurs come out jerky, uncontrolled and quick, in essence, whatever the horn itself wants to do. This applies to all slurs as well. That's why I have people practice lip slurs with as much gliss in them as possible. This means actually bending pitches and prolonging the actual time it takes to go across a partial. This results in a pliable, rubbery air stream that is strong, smooth and flexible. When the old rotted, stiff belt breaks on the car, the car stops. When the old stiff, weak air stream breaks, you get a blank. So the remedy is to put the lip slurs (which are the hardest to control, because only the embouchure is involved) under a microscope, and in slow motion to see if we can completely control the process of going across a partial. I remember Renold Schilke telling me when I was a student, that he thought a trombone player should be able to play a D in the bass clef staff (written E, no valves, for you Bb trumpet players) in 1st position, using embouchure alone. Now that's a strong air stream. Trumpet soloist Hakan Hardenberger did a clinic recently I attended and he does this exercise where he takes one note, such as middle C, and bends the pitch down a step and a half with only his embouchure. He does this to help find and reinforce the center of the middle C by bending the pitch away from it. This requires a strong air stream, and more importantly builds control of the air stream, which is the aim of the exercise mentioned above.

As I've said before, on the mouthpiece alone there is an uninterrupted flow of air and sound possible. When we put the mouthpiece into the horn something strange happens. All of a sudden there are too many breaks, or obstacles occurring in the path of that air and sound. These are partials and slurs made with lips and slides or valves, depending on the brass instrument. It is our job and responsibility to get back some of the free flowing qualities of the mouthpiece alone, and this means learning to control the way we go across partials. Partials always want to come out quick and jerky, because that's what the instrument wants to do. If we take the time and practice to really control the way we go across them, and this means elongating and stretching them beyond what is normal, then we will have an instrument in which the slide or valves are almost completely inaudible to the listener. Sounds like I'm describing the human voice doesn't it?

I have some advice for my trombone playing brethren out there. If you want to keep your slide working well over a long period of time, don't bang the bottom of your inner slide tubes with the outside slide when putting them back together. Nothing messes up a slide more than the bottom stockings being out of round, since the entire slide rides on those stockings. Put it back together like you were handling nitroglycerin.

I have to report on one of the best comeback lines I've ever heard. Bill Maher and Ann Coulter recently had a debate in New York. Skeptical of Ms. Coulter's claim that many scientists do not believe in evolution, Mr. Maher told her, "You're just being a dunk-tank clown, looking to sell more baseballs." I wish I'd thought of that.

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