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April 1988 Problem Solving For Low Brass Students By Skip Gray

Young students learning a low brass instrument should be taught proper playing concepts from the first day of study, but even the most talented student can stray from good habits and will need guidance. The following problems and suggested solutions will help students get back on the right track.

   A shallow sound is one of the most common problems among low brass players. These students need a concept of good sound. Exposing beginners to performance demonstrations by mature, accomplished players is one way to begin. If this is not practical, listening to recordings of fine players on their instruments is a good alternative.

   Once a young player becomes aware of good sound, regularly encourage proper breathing habits. Good playing posture, relaxation during inhalation and exhalation, and deep, full breaths are essential to good sound production and should be stressed often. Some young players develop uncharacteristically small sounds because they consistently play too softly, neither filling the instrument with air nor the room they are in with sound.

   A fuzzy, unfocused sound is closely related to a shallow tone. When you hear this type of playing, remind the student to keep the throat open and relaxed during both inhalation and exhalation. To demonstrate this openness, use a breathing tube, which can be made from a piece of plastic tubing or rolled-up half sheet of paper with a diameter of about one inch and a length of three to four inches. Have the student put the tube into his mouth and take several breaths in and out. He will feel a remarkable openness in the throat and a cool feeling of the air rushing in and out. Encourage him to duplicate this sensation on the instrument.

   Another way to develop a more focused sound is to have students play louder, with control. Player will need to use more air, which in most cases will bring into more efficient action the various parts of the body required in low brass playing. A hidden cause of a fuzzy sound is sometimes found in students who play with clenched teeth. If this is the case, have the student drop the bottom jaw and form an O syllable at the front of the mouth while playing. This should spread the teeth apart and allow a more open, relaxed flow of air.

   Unclear or imprecise articulation is another common problem that can often be remedied by reviewing articulation syllables. The most common syllables for low brass playing are toh and doh, both with a long O as in the word open. Musicians generally use the toh syllable for hard attacks and the doh syllable for legato passages and rapid articulation. I advocate the O vowel for several reasons. First, it tends to allow a greater volume of air to pass through with little impedance. The O vowel is also a relaxing vowel for the throat muscles and ultimately keeps muscular tension in the throat to a minimum. Tongue placement greatly affects clarity in low brass articulation.

   A natural, correct result occurs by using the toh and doh syllables with the tip of the tongue touching the middle of the plateau at the front of the roof of the mouth. The area is marked with an X in the following diagram:

roof of mouth, upward view
mouth, side view

Obviously, when the tongue comes out between the teeth, an undesirable sound results. Remind players that the tongue moves only up and down, not back and forth, and to keep it down in the bottom of the mouth, out of the way of the air stream after initiating an attack.

   Incorrect use of air and improper breathing habits are often found to be the root of brass players’ troubles. Remember that it is the air stream that actually produces the attack; the tongue merely releases and shapes the supported air stream through the use of the toh and doh syllables.

   Poor note releases or notes cut off with the tongue are symptoms of articulation problems. When a young brass student gets into this habit, it becomes nearly impossible to play with a musical line and fullness of sound in technically difficult passages. The commonly accepted way to end notes is to stop the air, that is, to stop blowing. One way to communicate this concept to students is to ask them to put an H ending on notes. The H ending not only stops the air, it also adds resonance and focus to even the most secco of musical passages. The air stream, and thus the notes, should not be stopped with the tongue.

   A weak upper register is one difficulty most low brass players want to correct. The old adage “you need to be able to play low in order to play high” is a valuable guide. Do not let young students become involved solely with their high range; the upper performing register, as well as the low register, should develop fairly naturally as an extension of a properly established middle register.

   A shallow tone is the most obvious problem in many young low brass players’ upper range; these students simply do not use enough breath support to sustain a good tone. They tend to squeak out high notes rather than use an intense, well-supported air stream. Successful low register playing requires a large yet gentle air flow, much like a large, wide river flowing swiftly after a spring thaw. Achieving a good tone in the upper register requires a much more intensive air flow, still based on solid air support, much like a narrow but powerful waterfall at the end of a large lake.

   Another contributor to a weak upper register is a smiling embouchure or excessive embouchure shift. By smiling, less lip thickness is available for vibration and the tone itself becomes thin. Problems with endurance and note accuracy often result from using the smile embouchure in the upper register. Excessive embouchure shift (the use of a separate upper-range embouchure) destabilizes the facial muscles responsible for tone production; many times it contributes to accuracy and endurance problems. A shift of the embouchure between registers makes rapid, technical passages even more difficult, if not impossible. There are specific exercises to assist advanced players who have difficulty in the upper register. Young players, however, should gradually extend both their upper and lower ranges by practicing increasingly expansive etude and solo material, as well as by learning and studying scales in as many octaves as possible with the goal of always producing a good sound. Focusing on adjusting the direction of air flow into the mouthpiece without altering the position of the embouchure also helps students improve. Generally, the lower the range, the more upward the direction of the air flow in the mouthpiece; the higher the range, the more downward the air flow in the mouthpiece.

   Passages requiring rapid articulation also pose problems to young low brass players. Though there are several easy solutions to this problem, the most important is to keep the air flow steady, that is, to blow through the passage. Have the player slur the particular passage, using no tongue at all. If he gets all of the correct valves down, he will find that all of the notes come out quite easily. Make sure the player is not trying to articulate the rapid passage too heavily. Generally, the quicker the notes, the more the articulation “doh” should be used. The beginning of Second Suite in F for Military Band by Gustav Holst is an excellent example of a troublesome passage for low brass players: (+8va)

   If players are having problems effectively executing this passage or one similar to it, first have them slur the passage slightly under tempo. This will strengthen the concept of blowing through the notes. Then have them pronounce the rhythm in tempo using the doh syllable:

   Next, they should play the passage just as they did when slurring it (blowing through the notes), only this time use the gentle doh syllable. The students should now be able to play the passage successfully. Consistently stress this concept of uninterrupted air flow in scales and all rapidly articulated musical figures.

   Excessive tension or distortion in the face, throat, and shoulders usually leads to the lack of full, relaxed inhalation and exhalation. This tension ultimately has an adverse effect on tone quality, not to mention its aesthetic unsightliness. Distorting the face also destabilizes the embouchure, which can lead to other problems with note accuracy, weakness in extreme registers (both low and high), and unevenness of tone. Tension and excessive motion in the throat, neck, and shoulders severely inhibit relaxed inhalation and exhalation and result in a less than desirable tone. It is possible to solve these problems by having students relax and think of playing with complete physical ease, without extraneous motion.

   An uncentered mouthpiece or use of too much upper or lower lip can bring about problems with tone production and register extension. Although the structure and shape of some players’ teeth make playing with the mouthpiece off center more comfortable, it is better to center it. This way the symmetrical facial muscles are used efficiently, strengthening the embouchure and increasing note accuracy. Using too much lower lip often hinders technical development, because of the resulting lack of ability to perform in the upper-middle register and the imposition on note flexibility. As low brass players mature, they generally use a greater percent of upper lip. Technical development and strength in the upper register often occurs; but without care, tone quality sometimes suffers. A good rule of thumb, especially with younger players, is to encourage both a centered mouthpiece placement and the use of half upper lip and half lower lip.

   Difficulty with slurred passages often occurs when players try to play too softly or without sufficient breath support. Individual notes may drop out or wide skips may not be negotiated. For this type of problem, full inhalation and exhalation is often a key factor. Some players make slurred passages more technically difficult than they are by physically jerking between pitches. If this is the case, remind students that embouchure adjustments in slurred passages, even the wide leaps, are miniscule. It is easy to demonstrate this idea by having players slowly buzz the passage or skip on the mouthpiece, glissing between the notes; the embouchure hardly makes any noticeable change. Gradually direct the player to increase the speed of buzzing through the slurred passage until he reaches the desired tempo. When he can buzz the line on the mouthpiece, have him play it on his instrument, reminding him to use lots of air.

   Finger-tongue coordination problems sometimes arise when players try to take a passage faster than they have worked on it. Urge young players to keep their fingers on the proper valves at all times. This prevents lurching or groping for the correct valve. Playing diatonic exercises at a steady tempo with a metronome also helps build finger-tongue coordination.

   Unartistic or uncontrolled vibrato can be demonstrated by recording a student’s playing. Some young students do not realize they are playing with an undesirable vibrato. Besides not being aware of his sound, a player can produce a vibrato as a result of nerves. If this is the case, advocate using full, deep breathing and relaxation. Of the three types of vibrato used in wind playing – jaw, diaphragm, and the shake – jaw vibrato is usually considered the only acceptable type on low brass instruments. To teach jaw vibrato, use a yaw syllable and have the student perform varying numbers of vibrato pulses per steady beat. Start with eighth notes, then go on to triplets and sixteenths. Listening to recordings or live performances of fine players who effectively use vibrato, then having the student emulate those sounds, is a good means for young players to learn how to incorporate vibrato into their musical performances.

   Embouchure shift and excessive pivot are used by some players who believe that to play successfully in the various registers, they need a separate embouchure setting for each range. This shifting often results in problems with note accuracy when jumping between registers, lack of fluidity, uneasiness in playing between registers, and an inconsistent tone. The use of one basic embouchure is important.

   Cheek puffing is not only unsightly, but it also destabilizes the embouchure, producing poor note accuracy and undesirable tone quality. A lack of tension to the side of the lips can allow air to escape through the corners of the mouth. To end cheek puffing and its subsequent problems, a student should keep the corners of the mouth firm.

   Excessive mouthpiece pressure and a lack of endurance are closely related. Excessive lip pressure on the mouthpiece decreases the flow of blood to the lips, which in turn decreases muscle control and causes problems with note accuracy and tone production.

   Other embouchure endurance problems can arise from using an inner rim that is too narrow. While trumpet players often can solve their endurance problems by switching to a wider-rimmed mouthpiece, embouchure endurance difficulties on low brass instruments are rarely caused by a thin-rimmed mouthpiece. Consistent, sensible practice with exercises to build and strengthen the embouchure are usually the most successful route towards improving embouchure endurance for low brass players.

   By identifying and correcting problems through the refinement of playing fundamentals, students will find that musical performance becomes easier. When an instrument develops into an extension of the player’s inner expressive self, music making becomes truly enjoyable. This should be a basic goal of teaching, as well as a direction for our students’ many hours of practice.      

   Skip Gray is professor of music at the University of Kentucky, where he has been a faculty member since 1980. He is principal tubist of the Lexington (Kentucky) Philharmonic. Gray earned music degrees from Baldwin Wallace College and the University of Illinois.