The number one most important musical element in performing is quality tone production. In this post, we will discuss issues and tips for brass instrument tone production. Each instrumental family produces sound in different ways. It is helpful to review what is necessary to create a fantastic tone, whether it is to create the perfect buzz, manipulate how to breathe, or change the mouthpiece pressure. A characteristic sound instantly sets apart the impact a brass musician has on his or her audience and the overall musical experience.
Several factors contribute to creating a quality tone. It is conceivable that two players on the same type of instrument, with the same model of the mouthpiece, can create two very different tone qualities. Sound production differences include the size and shape of the oral cavity, the breath supply, how well it is supported, the openness of the throat, and the lip aperture.
“To Buzz or Not to Buzz”
To create a sound on a brass instrument, you must create vibrations that cause a buzz. This concept directly relates to the lip aperture, which is present when a brass player first attempts to produce a tone on the instrument. Some teachers follow the idea that beginning brass musicians should buzz their lips for a week without the instrument. By the third week, students should be able to create a quality buzz on the instrument. Achieving this goal is accomplished with the mouthpiece or a visualizer.
For a moment, consider that the lips do buzz and vibrate. However, try to introduce a more free and open tone by keeping the aperture large and not forcing the lips to strike each other. As opposed to the lips hitting each other as they do when free buzzing. Now consider experimenting and following these steps to create this more open sound.
Start by making a buzz on the tuning concert Bb. While sustaining the pitch, bring the instrument toward the mouthpiece. Slowly insert the mouthpiece into the receiver. This action should naturally allow the instrument to produce the sound of the Bb concert.
Next, enlarge the lip aperture within the mouthpiece. This time make sure there is no buzz but use the same airspeed and embouchure muscle support. Now follow the same process as in step one, and a Bb concert should sound once the mouthpiece is about half-way into the receiver.
Next, reverse the procedure. Do this by removing the mouthpiece from the instrument while playing the Bb concert. The opposite of steps 1 and 2 will take place. When you remove the mouthpiece from the instrument, you will find that the buzz will re-engage due to the tight aperture. In contrast, when you remove the mouthpiece from the instrument, as in step 2 with a large aperture, there will be no buzz, and only air will sound.
Now hold the mouthpiece with your right hand (thumb, index and middle fingers). Using the same open aperture, airspeed, and embouchure muscle support slowly cover the mouthpiece with the tip of your left-hand index finger. Once you have covered one-half to two-thirds of the mouthpiece hole, the tuning Bb concert should begin to buzz audibly.
Finally, roll the left-hand index finger down, and the buzz will stop. Only the sound of air passing through the mouthpiece will result.
Both forms of oscillation produce a sound. With the open aperture, the tone begins when the resistance contributes to the airflow. This resistance causes a reflection of sound waves within the instrument and causes the lips to close as a result of oscillation.
The general idea of this exercise is that greater tone resonance can result in a more open aperture. To clarify, this is not to say that this technique will work on all players and mouth shapes. However, this is an excellent teaching approach for struggling and beginning brass students to create a more open sound.
Brass players can improve their tonal resonance by enlarging their oral cavities as much as possible. To achieve this feat, you must separate the teeth, and the lower jaw must be pulled down. The tongue should be at the bottom of the mouth and resemble the vocal shape as if to sing aah. However, this technique will not work in the upper ranges since the tongue must be arched to increase the airspeed for the high range.
To produce a characteristic sound, he or she must play in the center of the tonal interior. That is the focal point in which the player has the most brilliant quality, firm, and resonant sound. Students should always strive to find this sweet spot in their sound. Generally, with a quality instrument, that sweet spot is where intonation is correct. If this is not the case, then adjustments and alternate fingerings may need to find that perfect spot where quality tone and intonation meet.
To create a quality brass tone, playing with a combination of support and relaxation is required. It is essential to understand that support does not mean tension. The idea of support centers around the idea that the abdominal wall muscles push the internal organs below the diaphragm. As a result, this lifts the diaphragm and supports the air column. The air column is then manipulated by the support of the embouchure muscle to create the “supported” air stream.
For the body to work effectively, the body needs the most natural means for supporting the air to create a beautiful tone. Therefore, it is essential to relax the diaphragm muscles, intercostal muscles surrounding the chest, the muscles of the neck, shoulders, throat, and tongue.
If you have tension in the throat, it will be impossible for you to create a free, open tone on any brass instrument. Think of maintaining an open, unobstructed air pathway comparable to singing. Similarly, it is essential to remember that the neck and shoulders need to remain relaxed because the tension in these areas will distort tone production.
The tonal concept is the understanding that a brass player knows what the ideal sound should be for their instrument. The development of this skill can be improved by listening to recordings of great examples of musicians on their instruments. Also, going to and participating in respected ensembles that demonstrate high-quality musicianship reinforces the musician’s ear and tonal concept.
Refining Your Tone
For brass players, improving your tone production can be done through regular long tone and lip slur practices. Don’t allow students to play long tones mindlessly. Instead, remind students that the tone must stay consistent throughout the dynamic range of the instrument. Students tend to be more successful with the softer dynamics; however, when they get louder, the tone tends to get harsher. As a result, muscles, which should be in a state of relaxation, are tensing up when the airflow is increased. As a result, students overblow. This act occurs because students are pushing the pitch beyond its tonal center.
Mouthpiece pressure has a direct correlation to tone quality. As a result, problems and issues manifest for brass players. Many times music educators stress not to use mouthpiece pressure when performing. However, this is not a realistic expectation. Yes, mouthpiece pressure should be minimal. However, some mouthpiece pressure is required to create a seal when lips touch the mouthpiece. As the brass player plays higher, the more airspeed is needed. As a result, slightly more mouthpiece pressure is required to keep the seal.
If too much mouthpiece pressure is used, the musician’s tone will have a forced, tense, and pinched quality to it. In turn, it may damage the embouchure. With too little pressure, the tone will sound weak and thin. Also, excessive stress can result in incorrect hand positions. Improper hand position can also lead to excessive pressure. Start by having the student relax the left-hand grip. Then carefully observe the right hand position. If any aspect of the right hand is tense, encourage the student to relax. Work on this by having the student practice in the mid-range of the instrument with a relaxed grip. As this becomes more natural, the student should gradually increase his or her range while focusing on relaxed muscles.
The Double Buzz
The double buzz, or double oscillation, is created due to a unique circumstance dealing with mouthpiece pressure. As a result, this occurs when a student plays a note and has an audible distorted buzz of another pitch that occurs while creating the initial tone. Essentially a double buzz. Consequently, this is somewhat comparable to when a string instrument is performing a double stop.
The double buzz occurs when the lips are fatigued, and a second oscillation occurs in the lips. Unequal distribution of the mouthpiece weight on both the top and bottom lips is often the cause of the double buzz.
The problem can be resolved by moving the lower jaw forward slightly. As a result, this tends to equalize the pressure or slightly altering the angle of the instrument. On other occasions, it is needed to increase the support of the corners of the embouchure.
In conclusion, it is essential to stress the importance of quality tone production for all brass students. Brass instrument sound production relies on a series of strategies to foster a quality resonant and open tone. Through rigorous exercises relating to buzzing, breathing, and mouthpiece pressure usage, every student musician has an opportunity to be successful as a performer. Please take the opportunity to work with your brass students and challenge yourself, as the educator, to improve their tone quality. You might find that by doing so, you have increased the performance potential of your entire ensemble.