Aug 8, 2008

Uncle Blabby strikes again

Q: One of the areas I find hardest to improve in is my loud playing. I am constantly working to make my loud playing sound like a larger, more round (or whatever adjective you choose) version of my softer playing. As I approach this task, I have to constantly remind myself that I am a tenor trombonist, not a bass trombonist or tubist, and my sound, no matter how much I try, will always retain an element of the tenor voice in it. What would be your advice to someone trying to work on this concept?
-Bruce Faske

A: I would mildly disagree with you that your loud sound should be larger and more round than your soft sound. I would strive for exactly the same sound no matter what the dynamic is. However to get the same sound very soft and very loud, you must do different things. The air stream in soft playing must be concentrated and move at a fast rate of speed in relation to the dynamic. The air stream in loud playing must be relatively larger in size, and therefore slower moving in relation to the dynamic. When I say in relation to the dynamic, I mean; of course the actual rate of the speed of air will be faster in loud playing than in soft, but, the rate of speed of the air should slow down as the dynamic gets louder, and the rate of speed should increase in relation to the dynamic, as the dynamic gets softer. In other words the rate of air speed does not exactly follow the rate of increase or decrease in the dynamic. This is accomplished partially by the size of the aperture of the embouchure, and a mental awareness of the desired result. As I've said before, when the horn comes from the factory, it wants to be a laser beam loud and a fog horn soft. It is the player's job to REVERSE THIS. Try this; take a middle register note in the staff and play a staccato eight note, forte, then play the same note short and at a piano dynamic with exactly the same sound. It's difficult but possible with practice and experimentation.. When you are able to do this with the same sound on both notes, you will find that you had to produce a larger sized air stream for the forte note, and a smaller more focused, and therefore faster moving air stream for the softer one.


Q: How do you know where to put your tuning slide?

I go through periods, particularly when I am less busy gigging so that I'm doing most of my playing alone, when my pitch center starts to rise. I look at a tuner and see that I'm 20 or 30 cents sharp all over the instrument. As a result, sound, response and flexibility around the horn suffer.

Pulling the tuning slide out doesn't make it any better - in fact, it often makes it worse. So I clearly need to put the tuning slide somewhere and start practicing with good reference pitches, listening for the best sound as I get my own physical pitch center back down where it needs to be.

But where should I put it?

I guess there are at least two or three questions in here...
-Gabe Langfur

One more thing: I used to always have my tuning slide nearly all the way in, but that seems to have changed over the last year or so. More recently I've had the tuning slide at a more normal 5/8" - 3/4" or so out, and I think things line up a bit better.

A: This is what I call a "squirrelly" subject. There are so many factors that go into tuning and intonation, to pin down one thing is like shooting blind. I'll try to give you what I think some reasons are for what you are going through. First, everyone has a different place for their tuning slide, to produce the same pitch. The factors that affect this are mouthpiece setting, tension in the embouchure, angle of the air stream, speed of the air, size of the air stream, placement of the tongue and interior size of the palate. If someone uses a low setting for middle register playing, the pitch will be flatter and must be compensated by sharper positions or a pushed in tuning slide. If the air emerges from the embouchure at a low angle, hitting below the throat of the mouthpiece, the basic pitch will be lower. If the air stream is large in circumference, causing the air stream to move slowly, or if the air moves slowly by itself, this also causes a resulting lower basic pitch. Try to find an average pitch that you can relate to, and don't rely on one reading alone. I would also try to use the tuner to train and confirm what your ears hear, and once you feel confident with that, trust your ears before the tuner, because this will serve you much, much better in an ensemble. Remember that tuning to a tuner only gives you correct tuning for tonic notes in a chord, and not 3rd's, 5th's and 7th's.

I have a question for you; do you look at the tuner when you are testing pitch? I have found if I look at the tuner when playing a note, I get a false reading because I subconsciously adjust before I even play the note to get the desired result. I look away from the tuner and then check it. Even that is not reliable however, because every note you or I play has a different frequency because of all the muscles in the embouchure called into play to produce a certain pitch. The chances of all those muscles lining up exactly the same twice for the same note are very small. This brings me to to an inescapable truth; show me someone who is a slave to their tuner and I'll show you someone who plays out of tune! Why is this? Because in an ensemble, pitch is like the ocean. Try to find the average sea level on a mildly windy day looking out into the ocean, and that will give you an idea what basic pitch is like in an ensemble, any ensemble. I found out after years of experience that if the ensemble tuned to A 442, I had to tune to 439 at home in order not to be sharp. This was also experienced by other brass players as well. Why? Who knows. Draw your own conclusions. BTW, If half of the people you play with think you play sharp, and half think you play flat, you're probably pretty close!


Q: I can buzz the mouthpiece to produce a good sound and cover four octaves but I can not even produce a focus sound when I buzz just with my lips. There are many cacophony and I feel huge resistance in my chops. How can I overcome this?

A: Buzzing your lips without the mouthpiece requires so many different actions than playing the horn or the mouthpiece, that I would be very cautious about perfecting this because of the chance of using some other part of the body to replace the stability of the mouthpiece. This could cause unwanted and possibly resonance killing tension when playing. If you can buzz the mouthpiece efficiently, that is enough.


Q: What do you look for in a mouthpiece?

A: First, a basic and important question must be answered, one which I am still wrestling with myself over many years. Do you want to find a mouthpiece that will make playing what you need to play easiest, or do you want a mouthpiece that will get a result that is the best sounding to the world? If the answer is the latter, you may have to give up some ease of playing to gain some aesthetics. Before I talk about the characteristics I like in a mouthpiece, let's talk about tendencies in sound production today. By far, and I mean in the 90 percentile, the biggest deficiency I find in modern trombone sounds is the lack of core in the sound. I think my ultimate trombone sound would be, and I'm assuming we're talking symphonically, a great commercial, ballad player type sound, like the west coast guys we all loved back when, where the whole sound was pure golden core, with no airiness at all. I think you can imagine the sound I describe. This was more easily accomplished on a small bore horn and mouthpiece. If somehow we could take that basic pure, golden core and expand it into a modern symphonic size sound, keeping the ratio of core of the small bore horn and enlarging it to the symphonic size, that would be my dream sound. What has generally happened however, is the sound has gotten bigger and bigger and the core or fundamental has gotten smaller and smaller, and in many cases disappeared completely. This is the case in both tenor and bass trombone sounds. I believe both tenor and bass trombone sounds should be identical in concept, only the size of the sound is different. In other words, as the size of the sound grows, the core grows too. As I've said before and will continue to say; A hole in the middle of a sound does not make a big sound.

I have certain features I prefer in a mouthpiece, and of course these are only my opinion and what works for me. First, I like a slightly funnel shaped cup as opposed to a bowl shape, because I find very bowl shaped cups have a tendency to splash back at the player. The funnel shape might take more air because of it's more aerodynamic shape, but the lack of turbulence
results in a better sound. I also prefer the combination of a large, deep cup and a medium-sized throat and backbore. Sound familiar? This sounds suspiciously like the old Remington mouthpiece design, that used to come with every Conn 8H in the middle of the last century, and while I never played this mouthpiece, I have gravitated to this concept over many years. The Remington type mouthpieces had small throats and medium-wide rims compared to what we play today, but the concept of sound they were after would serve us well today.

I would offer this advice on trying mouthpieces; if you want to try a new mouthpiece, spend a minimum of a month on it before making a decision. Also I have found that making a decision without trying it in a performance situation is very misleading. Mouthpieces I liked at home didn't work on the job and vice-versa. I have heard this from other players as well.

This article has been translated into Polish by Lukasz Michalski.

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