Mar 10, 2008

Up yours

Lately I've been discovering new ways to improve the sound people produce, and noticing what I and other professionals do to make the kind of sound we all want. One of the things I've noticed in just about everyone I hear play in lessons or master classes is the tendency for the air to emerge from the embouchure at too low an angle. When you combine this with a tendency of not enough support in the corners of the embouchure for a particular note, that's a recipe for a dull, lifeless sound that has a flat timbre even if it is in tune. I used to tell people to aim their air right straight into the throat of the mouthpiece. Now I'm finding that generally, that isn't even enough of a thought process to get enough core in the sound. Now I have started telling my students to aim their air right below the upper rim of the mouthpiece, which requires more support from the corners of the embouchure and results in a much better, livelier sound. Most people aim too low with their embouchure setting, especially on the easier middle register notes. Since they require less support from the embouchure to produce, most people under-set for middle register notes, and they come out sounding as I described. This under-setting becomes a habit and the embouchure then starts to arrive late in the upper register, which is a difficult thing to overcome. Let's face it: if you buzz a middle C on the mouthpiece, and put the slide in 1st position, a D will probably come out. It will have a dull, flat sound, but it will be there. How many times have you heard someone play the opening to the Mozart Requiem solo, and when it came to the D on the 1st beat in the second bar, it sounded dull and flat, because they were still set for the middle F at the end of the 1st bar, and didn't bother to buzz a D on the mouthpiece? The same thing often happens on the last note of the solo, the F on the top space, because people have a tendency to adjust for the sharpness of that note, not buzz an F on the mouthpiece, (maybe around a D) and because they are running out of air, that threesome results in a sagging, flat, dull sound.

As I've said before, I am not against a necessary amount of mouthpiece pressure to stabilize the embouchure, as long as it is balanced by an equally increased air flow. Setting high (aiming your air right below the top rim of the mouthpiece) for pitches mid-range and high, makes sure that the embouchure is not late, which is a major cause of missing high notes. The embouchure almost has to be waiting for the air and tongue to start the note. A suitable amount of mouthpiece pressure (of course not too much!) let's the torso remain relaxed, an absolutely essential action (or non-action) to make a great sound. Think of the embouchure as an elevator; the car has to be sent up to the right floor, and the floors have to line up so the air can be blown across a level opening. This mental process can help in cutting down the frequency of cracked notes all over the horn.

It's a consistent fact that middle Bb on every large bore modern instrument is below pitch, and most of us have a tendency to set too low for this note because of its ease of production. You always hear this when someone plays the Ride of the Valkyries, and when the excerpt descends to the lower octave starting on A#, the A# at the end of that phrase is always too low because of it normally being flat, and coming from a low register setting, we wind up buzzing something like a middle Eb and the A# sounds hollow, dead and flat. I find that many players get in the habit of setting their embouchure too low for everything in order to produce a dark sound. Maybe this is a conscious decision or one that is inadvertent because of a lack of sufficient firmness in the corners of the embouchure. Firmness in the corners as well as a fast energetic air stream is a must to produce a sound that doesn't make the instrument sound too big for the player, a common problem. It is almost impossible to make a small sound on the instruments and mouthpieces in use today, but it is possible to make a DEAD sound if not enough firmness in the corners of the embouchure is present, and the embouchure is set too low for a particular pitch. I like to tell people to "make the sound jump out of the horn."


This article has been translated into Polish by Lukasz Michalski.

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