5 Tone Production Fundamentals on Brass Instruments
While further instrument specific techniques will be discussed in later chapters, many of the critical types of exercises for tone production are transferable across all brass instruments. It is important that students remain attentive to their progress throughout these exercises, so that they serve the function of developing technical competency. They should know both how to properly execute the exercise and what they are listening for as they complete them.
Mouthpiece exercises are the starting point for tone consistency, as the mouthpiece provides a great diagnostic tool for small changes in consistency. In addition to continuing to work on mouthpiece exercises, brass players of all levels regularly use the following sorts of exercises.
When playing lip slur exercises, trumpet and horn can use “short instruments” by removing the tuning slide. By playing just on the lead pipe, tension is reduced and the clarity of the buzz can be more clearly heard.
Long Tones-Similar to long tone studies on the mouthpiece, long tone studies on the instrument are highly effective for developing consistency and embouchure muscle tone. When on the instrument, students should start on an open fingering of a lower partial that is comfortable. Long tones should be played for a pre-decided number of counts (start at 8 counts, and gradually add 4 counts based on proficiency), and make sure to play at a soft dynamic with a consistent tone without interruption. After each long tone, take the instrument away from the embouchure, allowing for as much time off the face as on the face. Play one chromatic step lower using the same number of counts and technique.
Broken Remington/Reverse Broken Remington–The Remington study is a variation on the long tone study. For beginner students, it is suggested to focus on one pitch change at a time, inserting a rest between changes. This exercise can be played starting on any partial, though the ones on which it is written are suggested for beginners. When playing the Broken Remington, students should focus on tone consistency and pitch centering. This exercise can also be used as an intonation study once students’ embouchures are thoroughly developed. For students who have not yet developed the embouchure strength for playing in multiple partials, the Reverse Remington is a good starting point. Students should only ascend as far as they can with an open relaxed sound. It is fine if beginner students only play the first few measures of this exercise.
Remington/Reverse Remington-Once embouchure strength has developed, the rests can be removed from the two Remington exercises. Again, the focus should be on two factors: tone consistency and pitch centering. If the pitch or tone become unstable, the student should stop, pause, and restart from the beginning as pitches become more difficult to center as the pitch interval becomes larger.
Lip slurs are unarticulated movements between partials without altering fingerings. To move between partials, brass musicians use more focused air, resulting in a faster buzz of the lips. There are many ways to visualize this change.
- Vowel change—Lower notes use a more relaxed, open vowel, such as “Ohhh”. To move up a partial, this vowel changes to “Ahhhh” or “Eeeeee.” The result is a smaller oral cavity with an embouchure that pulls more from the corners of the mouth.
- Air direction—Thinking about air direction is another way to make the change that results in partial change. Higher partials need more forward moving air. This results in a more directed air stream and a smaller aperture.
- Air speed—Faster air produces a faster buzz, resulting in a higher partial. Focusing on air stream narrows the air passages from lungs through the embouchure, allowing the same amount of air to move more quickly.
Regardless of the visualization, it is important that a few fundamentals remain in place:
- The cushion for the mouthpiece in the center of the embouchure remains soft and fleshy
- The body remains relaxed throughout the torso, arms, neck, and embouchure
- Pressure from the mouthpiece on the embouchure is limited
- Air is allowed to dictate the change in partial, not tension
An important note is that brass embouchure development is gradual, and unlike other band and orchestra instruments, initial progress is very slow. While woodwind and string players are typically able to play an octave of pitches in their first few days, many brass students will take a month or more to competently move between shelves. This is normal, and students should be encouraged to work on other concepts of articulation and creativity while developing strength in their embouchure to allow for an expanded register.
Mouthpiece Sirens (from chapter 3) are a great way to develop the flexibility for pitch change between partials as they rely on more focused air and provide immediate feedback to the effectiveness of the change. Each of the exercises below can also be performed on the mouthpiece to facilitate greater flexibility and allow for diagnosis of problems such as tension or thin tone.
Lip Slur 1 2 3-These three lip slur exercises become gradually more advanced, but are built on the same basic concept. Students move between adjacent partials by altering the focus of their air. When ascending, students should focus on using air and monitoring their embouchure and posture to ensure that they are not introducing additional pressure or tension. On descending intervals, students should focus on maintaining a consistent tone as tone will frequently become less full as the embouchure becomes less focused. Lip Slur Exercise #1 should be able to be played without any issues of tension or tone before moving on to Lip Slur Exercise #2. The same is true when moving from Exercise #2 to #3. Students should be encouraged to make up their own exercise patterns as a way to maintain variety.
Chromatic exercises-Many beginning players will find difficulty in ascending between partials. Chromatic practice can help, as it harnesses the chromatic characteristics of the mouthpiece allowing for more gradual adjustment. Starting on the open lower partial, students should ascend chromatically using proper fingerings using long tones. Advancement from one chromatic pitch to the next should not happen unless the student can play the chromatic pitch with good tone without tension.
Excessive pressure-Beginning brass players quickly discover that they can alter partials by applying pressure to the mouthpiece. For trumpet players especially, the pinky ring is used as “the octave key” by pushing into the face. Tell tale signs of excessive pressure are lingering pressure rings on the embouchure and thin tone. Students should be encouraged to set, not force, the mouthpiece into the embouchure. Returning to mouthpiece exercises can also help make excessive pressure more apparent. Make sure the student is lightly holding the mouthpiece between the first finger and thumb to avoid applying pressure.
Changing tone quality-As shelves change, beginning students often fail to adjust their air support to accommodate the changing oral cavity, resulting in fluctuations of tone quality. Importantly, students should not advance on to higher partials until they have been able to alternate between lower partials with good tone. Rushing to play high notes is common, and can result in the development of bad habits involving excessive pressure, lip pinching, and poor air support. If students are struggling to ascend between two specific partials, they should do long tones starting on the highest well played partial advancing chromatically higher. Students should not pass a chromatic tone until they can play it with good tone and technique. Always emphasize tone controlled by less tension and more air.
If students are struggling with good tone quality when descending through lower partials, they are probably losing embouchure focus. While it is important to encourage students not to pinch their embouchure, they do need to maintain firmness, particularly in the corners of the mouth, as they descend. Frequently, students will over-relax their embouchure as the oral cavity becomes larger, particularly on low brass instrument, resulting in an unfocused tone. Air support can also become an issue in lower registers, so breathing exercises to increase capacity can help. Similar to upper register development, lower register should be developed through chromatic descending long tones, stopping on notes that lack good tone focus.
Finger dexterity is not a major concern with beginning players, as they are working on developing embouchure strength and control. With that said, dexterity exercises, coupled with melodic pieces with limited range, can give beginning players a sense of mastery that can often times be limited. As students become more advanced, dexterity becomes a greater concern, particularly related to full exchanges of valves where all fingers switch position (e.g. 1 to 2-3 or 2 to 1-3).
When practicing dexterity exercises, students should pay close attention to precision and play no faster than they can accurately. Additionally, students should be reminded that finger (or slide) movement is always quick, regardless of the tempo of the music. Brass players have a tendency to slow down their fingers as the music becomes slower, which results in smears or muted tones. Care should also be taken to pay attention to and adjust for intonation inconsistencies that occur when using fingerings that are more characteristically out of tune, specifically 2-3, 1-3, 1-2-3. Great examples of dexterity exercises can be found in several books, notably the Arban and Clarke studies.
Dexterity Exercise #1 –This is an adaptation from Clarke’s Second Study to make it more accessible for beginners. As with all dexterity exercises, this should be played no faster than the student can play with accuracy at its most difficult part. Each key should be played separately, allowing for a break between keys. Common keys are shown here, but once students are familiar with these keys, they can move on to less common keys. In particular, pay attention to intonation tendencies.
Dexterity Exercise #2-This exercise challenges the students based on chromatic tendencies within a narrow register. Each key should be played as a separate exercise, allowing for space between notes. Students should start this exercise in the key which most closely matches their best register with an emphasis on maintaining a relaxed embouchure on ascending lines and good tone on descending lines. This is a particularly effective exercise for students who are having issues with partial shifting. The third and fourth measures in each key can be played in isolation to help students build embouchure strength and control for partial movement.
Stiff/Angular Hands/Wrists-Beginning players will often flatten their fingers or collapse their wrists as they play, creating stiff, inflexible joints that hinder good performance. Students should be reminded to play with the tips of their fingers on the valves or slide with a continuous curve extending from the lower arm through the wrist and into the fingers. While sharp angles will not inhibit dexterity at beginning levels, it will become an increasing problem as students progress forward.
Complete Exchanges-Complete exchanges are fingerings that involve movement from all the fingers, for example 1 to 2-3 or 2 to 1-3. Beginning brass players often struggle with these complete exchanged by either having the fingers not move in time simultaneously or creating excessive movement when doing these exchanges. They should be practiced in isolation, with an emphasis on continuous tone without lack of clarity.
Slow fingers-Younger brass players will often have their fingers match the tempo of the music. When music is fast, their fingers exchange quickly. When it is slow, they slow down the speed of their fingers. This slow movement creates smears between notes as the valves are only partly depressed. When doing dexterity exercises, students should remain focused on quick finger exchanges, regardless of tempo.
Creative activities are important for all beginning musicians. Students who are early adolescents arrive in our classrooms seeing themselves as creative beings. If beginning instruction on instruments focuses on playing the right notes the right way, they can quickly stop seeing themselves as creatively competent, which becomes an issue when we ask them to interpret, improvise, or compose music.
Particularly for beginning brass musicians, students can quickly become frustrated in their slow growth, especially if there are a small number of students who develop mastery of partial movement quickly. Creative activities that involve short improvisation and aural imitation can keep students engaged and allow them to see that they are creative beings.
Three note jam-Ask students to identify three notes that they feel confident playing. Have each student play a short melody on those three notes. You can also assign additional criteria (e.g. specific length, specific rhythm, etc) as students become familiar with this exercise.
Call-and-response-As the teacher, play a four count “call.” Have each student respond back to the call with an imitative response utilizing similar notes, rhythms, structure, etc. This can also be done with students creating the calls for one another. As the students become comfortable with this activity, you can extend the duration of each part or apply additional criteria. For the reluctant student, keep the call simple, such as a quarter note scale or rhythmic pattern on a single note. For the more adventurous student, challenge them with longer or more complex patterns to imitate.
Show-and-Tell-Have students compose a short melody with specific criteria (e.g. utilizing newly learned notes, applying a specific rhythmic pattern). At the beginning of class, have each student show-and-tell their composition for one another. This can be extended by having students teach one another their melodies.
Drone-Drone activities can be a great way to allow for low risk creativity as all other students are actively playing while individuals create their new parts. Establish a drone within the ensemble by splitting the group into two parts. Perfect intervals work well, but you can certainly use more dissonant intervals for variety. Each individual student is then responsible for playing over the drone. Instructions should be given to ensure that the drone is kept quiet enough for the soloist to be heard. The drone can serve as a low tone study for those on in the ensemble and a projection study for the soloist as they learn to play fully over the rest of the group.
While important for all musicians, warm ups are critical for brass players. Without a quality warm up, students will experience fatigue at best and physical injury at worst. While the specific activities in a quality warm up can vary, the following elements should be included in each warm up session. Activities that have been listed so far in this text are good warm up exercises for beginning brass players.
- Mouthpiece buzzing
- Long tones
- Chromatic long tones
- Lip slurs
- Chromatic and diatonic dexterity exercises