Aug 31, 2008

SHHHHHHHHHHHH, by Kirk Lundbeck

The finger to the mouth, that shhh sound, the hand pushing down, saying softer, softer and the violas and woodwinds cringing - now that’s the making of a great trombonist. Louder, faster, higher - it’s the rule if you play low brass. Not! So many players think that those string things in front of us are just a bunch of wooden mutes in the way of our “great” sound. It’s time to put the egos in our pockets, better yet throw them in the garbage, and let’s start making music instead of noise.

Our instruments have become so specialized. Recent trends have been for larger equipment and bigger mouthpieces. Well isn’t bigger better? You have to be a wimp if you play anything smaller than a .547 bore trombone. Right? Without a doubt trombonists have become too muscular in their sound quality. We all practice the “Ride” and try to make the paint crack on the walls. Bruckner and Mahler would roll over in the graves if they heard the way their triple fortes were played and the soft stuff? When do we bother practicing the soft stuff? Now there’s the problem, we’ve turned our instruments into subwoofers and air raid sirens.

Playing in an orchestral trombone section is a balancing act. Learning to play together with each other and fit into the environment of the orchestra. That’s right, the orchestral environment. As trombonists we need to be a part of the whole and not the whole part. If that were the case we would be in the front of the orchestra don’t you think? Hey, at least we’d have more room for our slides! The time has come for all of us to step back and take a good look at who we are and what our role is and start playing that role at the very best level we can.

Some of the greatest orchestral trombone playing I’ve ever heard was soft! The Brahms Chorale, for example. The greatest trombone sections can ruin this section if it’s played over the orchestra not within the texture of the orchestra or within the context of the piece itself. Dynamics must be kept within the context of the piece you are performing. Dynamics and tempo markings are therefore relative. Forte isn’t loud for loud's sake and allegro isn’t fast for fast's sake. It’s all relative and you as a player must understand the environment, the texture, style the composer wanted and play within the role the conductor wants your role to be. Period.

It’s time to start practicing soft; still with the same support, articulation and sound quality as you would a loud, boisterous section. Try playing the “Ride” at piano or softer and listen to your articulation and sound quality. 10 to 1 odds tell me it will be awful. Your articulation and clarity of sound will be diminished considerably. Play any Rochut at a very soft volume and see if you can connect all the slurs. Again, the odds are you won’t be able to control those smooth slurs. Practice like this until you can create the same articulations, quality of sound and control as you can when you play at an increased volume. It’s at that point you’ll become a member of the environment of the orchestra. Sure there are times the trombone section is showcased for its volume, but it can also be showcased for the soft and beautiful textures it can produce.

Uncle Blabby answers questions

Q: I have a two questions about buzzing. Do you find it useful to articulate when you buzz, or should buzzing be limited to glissing? What do you think of using a B.E.R.P.? Any insights on buzzing would be appreciated.

A: I always articulate the first note and then I generally slur, OK, gliss, because I want my air to be continuos with no breaks in between. The horn puts all the breaks (and then some) I need, so when I buzz I want uninterrupted air flow. I do this at a mezzo-piano dynamic to achieve maximum result for minimum energy expended. By the way, I love the BERP concept as long as you don't change the buzzing method because you're moving the slide.

Q: This has been a problem since I have started playing tuba five years ago. I am a young player going into college. I have a good aural concept and goal of what sound I want out of my horn. For the most part, I achieve this aural concept of mine. But I still have this problem budding its ugly head out at me sometimes. After I play something beautifully, or after concerts, and after practice sessions, I sometimes encounter a mirror. What do I see? I see what looks like a red lipstick job above the middle of my upper lip, where the tuba mouthpiece was. Unless my mouthpiece has secretly built-in lipstick applier which I am unaware of, I have a problem. I am applying too much pressure and I am not too sure what to do about it. For me it's not as easy as "don't press so hard" because I already have a nasty habit of doing it. Whenever I try to press lightly, I slip right back into the unnoticeable habit. It is strange because it does not feel like I am pressing too hard. My teeth don't hurt. My lips aren't bad. However, I do feel a little ache only on my upper lip sometimes after extensive play. My bottom lip is never a problem.

I personally feel that I need to press a little harder to get an "unchoppy" or "smooth" sound and hit high notes correctly. When I experiment, I crack and chop up some high notes when I press softer. I read a recent answer to another question about lip corner firmness, and how un-firm corners results in another body parts compensating, like unnecessary lip pressure. I somewhat feel that my corners aren't tight as they should be.

My question: Can you help me fix this problem, and maybe speculate as to why I am pressing too hard? Could it be my angle? Improper air usage? Un-firm corners? Improper embouchure?

A: Just because you have a red mark after playing what you describe as "beautifully," doesn't mean you are pressing too hard. I would stay away from mirrors. People have different thicknesses of skin and different textures around the embouchure. You may be pressing the same as someone else but showing it more. You say your lips don't hurt after playing and that's a good sign.

Insufficient firmness in the corners could cause someone to press too hard, because something has to stabilize the embouchure, especially in the upper register. Try to find the balance between mouthpiece pressure and firm corners that gives you the best sound, and that's what you go with. By firm corners I mean setting the embouchure high enough so the air doesn't emerge at too low of an angle. You'll know your corners are set right if the sound is alive, clear and jumps out of the horn. .....and don't forget to use enough air!

Q: Last month you responded to my embouchure tightness question and thought the culprit may be the air exiting the embouchure at too high of an angle. I don't know if this would be related or not, but how do you feel about the oft given advice that a player's top and bottom teeth must be in line when forming the embouchure, a la Farkas in The Art of Brass Playing. This would also seem to have an effect on the angle of the air stream. Could there be any relation, or would you be willing to state what you think about the teeth, and thus the lips, having to be in line for the air to exit at a straight angle? Thank you for your time.

A: I doubt if many great players had perfectly aligned teeth. I have an overbite and I can get my air angle pretty high when needed because I have worked on it using embouchure setting and firm corners. Everyone is different and must find the right balance for them. Your setting for a certain note will be different from my setting for the same note because your face is different than mine. Everyone can adjust the angle of the air by setting higher or lower for a note. If your teeth are not in line naturally, making more adjustment will be just as good as a perfect alignment.

Q: I can get a really nice fat sound on lower notes but once I start getting up to about "C" and going up my notes tend to get thin and kind of scratching sound. Is this lack of air support? Is it too much tension? How do you fix this? If I can play nice sounding notes starting at B flat(third space, tenor clef) I am wondering why I can't continue the nice sound-open sound going higher. I am betting this is a common issue. I will be looking forward to what you have to say.

A: I have a hunch from what you describe, that you are setting for the higher notes with your embouchure but not increasing the air flow enough to buzz those frequencies. If you think of a rubber band that is barely stretched across two points, it is easy to pluck it with your finger. When it is stretched tightly , it takes much more effort to pluck it and make it vibrate. That's your embouchure. To produce higher frequencies the embouchure must be stretched across the mouthpiece, which creates more resistance, and therefore requires more increase in air speed and if you'll excuse the term; (air) force.

Q: I have a question about playing in the high register. In your past articles you talk about aiming the airstream to the center of the mouthpiece, or rather, just below the upper rim. Does this mean the the airstream should literally hit the upper part of the mouthpiece before it hits the bottom? How should the top lip lie in relation to the bottom lip?

A: I was referring to getting more core in the sound rather than high register. The air stream actually exits at a lower angle the higher we go, because, as the lips are stretched across the mouthpiece, the upper lip tends to fold over the lower lip. This is natural and correct.

Q: If one note in a partial series has to be sharpened or flattened, do all the notes in that series (meaning all seven slide positions, except the first for sharpening) have be adjusted in the same manner?

A: Yes, but the distance between positions will not be the same. As the slide gets longer, more space is required between each note, however each note must be sharpened or flattened if the first note of the series requires it.

Q: In a two hour practice session on the trombone, and mainly considering embouchure and lip benefits; what part of that session should the lip be rested? What should the intervals of play/rest be? How would the time and intervals be affected by upper register practice, that is, practice where a lot of the notes are between high F and high C or higher?

A: It really depends on the amount of endurance required for that session. If I was working out of the Arban book, I might not take a break at all except for pausing between exercises.

If I was working on high register exclusively, I would rest every ten or so minutes. Interestingly, the best shape I was ever in, was when I worked solely in the middle and lower middle register, such as the tessitura encountered in much of the Arban book and another one of my favorites, the O. Blume studies.

Q: I am a bass trombone player and from about one year ago I began to suffer from a difficulty in the attacks in the medium high register (from D above the staff to G in the second position). It seems that this is the Valsalva Maneuver, although sometimes it seems to me that my embouchure gets lost in this tessitura. Could you give me any help?

A: I had to look on the internet for the meaning of the term, "Valsalva Manuever," which I was not familiar with. Apparently it is a way of closing the airway and forcing air into the mouth until enough pressure is produced to raise blood pressure, force open sinuses, and raise heart rate. I hope you're not doing this when you play! Even in the highest registers the embouchure is sealed for a fraction of a second, so that the sound can speak in a clean, clear manner. This sealing allows the air to be expelled with enough propulsion to vibrate the embouchure, even for high notes. However it is important to understand that no matter what register you are in, this articulation method never varies as far as time is concerned. That fraction of a second seal in the embouchure is the same whether in the low, medium, or high register. Of course, enough air needs to propel forward, and take the place of the tongue sealing, so there is no dead time. The air takes the place of the tongue instantly, and at full speed.

This article has been translated into Polish by Lukasz Michalski.

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