Making Better Bands
Why do band directors say better bands with mouthpiece buzzing perform at higher levels? We will examine this habit-based wisdom. One expert, Mr. Michael Grose of the University of Oregon, presented on this subject at the 2017 Midwest Clinic in Chicago, Illinois. In Mr. Grose’s presentation, he explains the importance of mouthpiece buzzing in the music education environment. By the end of this post, we should have a better understanding of why this practice should be incorporated into every band director’s warmup rehearsal time.
I love the advice that Michael Grose gives because he stresses that brass musician mouthpiece playing (buzzing) should not be seen as a daily drill. The concept of a daily drill references warmup exercises that don’t change much and involves minimal if any, expressive skills. Instead, students should treat these melody exercises as a practice with a musical mindset. This reinforces a mentally engaged and purposeful artistic rehearsal for our brass students.
Old Habits VS. New Habits
Michael Grose continues to establish that buzzing exercises are helpful for a variety of reasons. Primarily, when you are buzzing on a brass instrument’s mouthpiece, you are creating a sense of change or strangeness for the player. The musician is used to the feeling and physical characteristics associated with playing on the instrument. When you buzz, this change in your associated sensory perceptions creates an interruption in the existing neural pathways. As a result, tremendous developmental progress is possible.
This change in interrupted neural pathways enables students to form and create new habits. Grose stresses that what may not be possible on the instrument could be possible on a mouthpiece. Establishing and transferring success from the mouthpiece to the instrument is a smart way to reinforce this scaffolded practice. In contrast, practicing on the instrument may require a student to fight “old poor habits” that will take up valuable time and possibly fail to eliminate.
According to Grose, the overarching idea is that you cannot change existing habits; however, you can replace them with new ones. Based on this central idea, you can modify the performance ability of virtually any ensemble. This idea is not just suited toward “buzzing.”
Mouthpiece Buzzing Exercises
Buzzing is a simple concept that if you approach it with the idea of creating new habits, you always grow as a musician. I would recommend that when you buzz, set a single goal associated with the activity. This could be articulation, dynamic, or expressive interpretation. Regardless, buzzing on the mouthpiece is a wonderful way to create a better tone on the instrument. Also, it improves general musicianship, pitch recognition, and motor skill consistency.
One of the significant differences between playing on a brass instrument and the rim of the mouthpiece is resistance. When you play on an instrument, there is always some level of resistance. When faced with playing on an instrument, musicians sometimes use extra pressure and force when in the extreme ranges. As a result, of using this additional force, a player’s quality of tone often suffers.
In contrast, because there is no resistance when you buzz on the rim of the mouthpiece, it is a smart way to develop a quality embouchure. Grose, recommends not to buzz in the extreme ranges of an instrument’s register and only buzz for a few minutes daily. The focus should always be to improve the quality of tone.
As a band director, I highly recommend incorporating buzzing as a means for improving the tone of your brass students. You won’t observe significant tone improvement from your brass students if this practice is inconsistent. Be sure to schedule buzzing into your daily warmup routine for at least a few minutes a day. Gauge your student’s growth by recording them during different parts of the year. Let them hear themselves and recognize the difference in their sound. This could serve as motivation in their future practicing efforts.
Call to Action
Be a strong advocate of great buzzing tone. Set aside regularly scheduled time within your rehearsal warmup to reinforce positive habit building through mouthpiece buzzing. Create a goal, approach it through buzzings, and transfer it to the instrument. Reflect, then repeat as needed. Our goals as educators are to help our students grow in many different ways. Use this as a single tool to help meet your big-picture goals as an educator.