How do I get my students to play with a full, supported tone?
The primary reason that our brass and woodwind students are playing with a weak and lackluster tone is that they are not using their air effectively. Have you ever heard one of your previous band directors say breathe deep? Or, breathe from the diaphragm? That is because you want to fill the lungs to capacity. This means filling all the way down to the bottom of the lungs. A large sum of wind force is needed to create a well-supported column of air. As a result, this provides the musician with the necessary air to manipulate the airspeed and create the essential air needed to form a characteristic sound for a brass or woodwind instrument.
Visualize having three levels of lung air capacity: the top, middle and bottom levels. The top-level of breathing is very shallow and is in use when people are in an inactive state. Our middle level of breathing commonly includes moderate levels of activity. This includes talking, walking, and taking on passive activities. To truly create a beautiful and well supported instrumental sound the bottom level of lung capacity is necessary. This level of breathing is developed through maintaining a healthy exercise, practice and conscious practice routine.
Tension is the Enemy
Please note, creating a powerful and beautiful tone is not completely based on air but rather it is closer to 95%. Other factors to creating a characteristic tone include the quality of an instrument, posture, physical attributes and tension levels. Assuming that student musicians have all the building blocks needed for a great tone, for example, airflow, a quality instrument, great posture, and a driven work ethic, the child may still be hindered by tension in the body.
Tension, nerves, and stress are all contributing factors that can keep us from meeting our full potential. Take a moment to evaluate your student’s breathing tendencies. Assuming you have ensembles of students similar to mine, most of your students probably don’t take private lessons. This means that you may probably have students with less than perfect embouchures and sometimes questionable body placement. If this is not an issue for any students in your band program congrats, please hire me as an assistant.:) However, most of you are in this boat.
Take the time to reinforce, on a regular basis, that bad posture and incorrect embouchures are not ok. Address these concepts in a step by step and specific manner. If you set your sights on these up-coming two little elements you find yourself with immediate results.
Start off by having your student musicians do a simple four-count in, four-count out exercise. You might notice that many students while trying to live up to your expectations, will raise their shoulders and breathe out with a “whiskey” tone. This tone is a direct result of tension and body placement issues as the student breathes in and out.
Improve this scenario by insisting that students sit on the front half of their chairs. This doesn’t completely solve the issue because you are looking for a relaxed posture. Practice the desired posture by having your students go directly from an appropriate standing position to a sitting position with no additional tension.
Secondly, the “airy/whiskey” tone can be influenced by the student-musicians teeth placement. Correct this by instructing the students to point with their hand’s index and middle fingers placed next to each other. Then have them place the two fingers in their mouths to about the first joint of their finger. Next, have the students lightly place their teeth on the fingers. Tell them to memorize the distance of separation of their teeth. Next, repeat the breathing exercise.
Finally, improve this airflow exercise by having the students envision breathing in and thinking of the “O” shape from the back of their throats. The throat form should resemble the “O” shape as in the word “Minnes-OOO-ta.” Now that the students are breathing in with upright posture, teeth separation and the opening up of the oral cavity in the back of their throat, have them play something simple like a scale or a tuning “F” concert. The end result should be a quality tone.
What are some breathing activities I can use to promote strong airflow?
Balloons are the perfect way to visualize and internalize the idea that the human breathing apparatus is an elastic and living tool used for musical performances. First, purchase a large bag of balloons. Be sure to get the large balloons if at all possible. Take the time to explain how the balloon compares to their lungs.
If the students treat their balloon carefully, they may be able to get a week’s worth of activity with it. Use the balloon for only 2-3 minutes a day while doing variable breathing exercises. For example, in and out exercises of 4, 8, and 12 counts. While the ensemble utilizes an upright posture focus student’s attention on dynamic, buzzing, and endurance-oriented practices with the balloon.
#2 Breathing Tubes
Breathing tubes are great because they are inexpensive to make and last a long time if students take care of them. First, take a trip to the local hardware store. Next, purchase an adequate length of ¾ inch PVC pipe, depending on the number of students you have. Most people purchase plastic tubes, however, I prefer the clear plastic tubes. Although the white plastic tubes maintain their shape better, the clear plastic tubes provide a better visual of condensed air flowing through an instrument-like tool and are also easier on people with teeth sensitivities.
Start using the breathing tubes by instructing students to place the tube between their teeth. Lips should be around the tube to create a seal. The students will notice that the pipe requires them to separate their teeth. Next, count the students off to breathe in and then immediately out. It is essential that the airflow transition between in and out continues without interruption. This exercise should not last more than two minutes. Be sure to transfer this concept to students playing on their instruments.
The paper breathing exercise is an age-old activity. In this 2-minute breathing activity, the student takes a piece of paper, while holding the top middle area of the sheet with their thumb and index finger. Consequently, this exercise can be done in a variety of ways and communicates to the musician their breathing/blowing strengths and weaknesses.
As a high school student, I was challenged to take the paper, release it and to keep it from falling off of a wall by blowing on it. I did this to various counts of time (2,4, 6, 8, etc.)
However, since then I have learned that this exercise can be utilized more effectively and in a large class setting. By holding the paper at arm’s length, and not letting it go you can visually see what reaction the paper has when you blow it at various dynamic levels. In addition, by focusing on careful articulation, as it pertains to airspeed, you can also learn what role your tongue has in its performance setting. As you practice this in a large ensemble setting you can see how uniform everyone’s airspeed is. Ultimately, in an ensemble setting getting airflow and breathing responses uniform helps create a more homogenous overall sound.
In conclusion, student musicians’ tone production is a high-level priority musical component to address in any band program. These three easy to follow techniques will help you add wood to the fire of your developing program. As a result, of your continued learning, your efforts will continue to help your students reach new heights quicker and your influence will grow stronger.