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Concentrate on the Sound With Beginning Students

Roger Rocco | February 2019

    This gem from our archives first appeared in March 1993.

    Directors often accept the fact that more beginning players fail on brass instruments than with other instruments, but few directors determine the underlying cause of the problem. The simple fact is that students progress poorly on brass instruments because their teachers do not understand how to teach these instruments and cannot solve problems that arise.
    The brass sound is created by air resonating within the instrument, much as a string resonates on a violin. The brass sound is not produced by the embouchure or the instrument itself but is the result of moving air vibrating the embouchure to resonate the air column in the instrument to produce a specific pitch. If the embouchure does not vibrate at the correct frequency, a poor or missed note will result. Players should think of the air column as a lock, the key to which is a conscious awareness of pitch.
    Most brass teaching focuses on overcoming missed notes, incorrect em­bouchures, and a lack of breath control; the concentration should be on teaching students to play correctly. Brass students would do better using Arnold Jacobs’s concepts of song, wind, and diction. Even professional musicians have improved noticeably by using Jacobs’s approach, and beginning students will benefit even more from these concepts.
    Because air column resonance begins in the mouthpiece, students should begin by playing on the mouthpiece alone. Without any valves, slides, or other distractions, this simple approach allows students to focus on the pitch produced. So long as students buzz, the embouchure and air will produce some sound on the mouthpiece even though it may not be the intended pitch. Students will hear any pitch difference and adjust accordingly. Working with just the mouthpiece eliminates the distractions of reading music and translating this into fingerings, and students will have only the sound to concentrate on. This is the concept of song.
    Beginning brass students should play on only the mouthpiece, using ample quantities of air, for at least a week. Without sufficient air they will not develop a good sound or enunciate syllables precisely. Students should not concentrate on breathing, tonguing, or forming the embouchure, only on the sound produced.
    Students should respond to the sound without any awareness of which muscles caused the result. When speaking, walking, or writing, people do not consciously control specific muscles. In fact it is impossible to direct the hand muscles to pick up a pencil; this function is too complex for the rational mind. Only the subconscious mind can complete the task designated by the conscious mind, and any interference from the conscious mind will hinder the effort. With a mouthpiece attached to a brass instrument, any changes the player makes to the air flow are almost undetectable, yet changes to the sound produced will be readily apparent. Students should focus on the sound, not on the exceedingly subtle muscle changes that produce or alter the sound.
    Begin by asking students to move large amounts of air in and out. They will readily understand the analogy of imitating a vacuum cleaner. While holding a finger near their mouths, students should suck air in as rapidly and loudly as possible. Although some teachers advocate quiet breathing, for beginners the resultant sound of loud breathing will motivate them to move large amounts of air. After inhaling, students should blow air at their fingers without pausing. Students should repeat this procedure three times in succession, making a louder sound each time. Do not overdo this procedure because it will sometimes produce dizziness from hyperventilation. The exercise should be practiced each day until deep breathing becomes a habit.
    The importance of playing a brass instrument with full breaths results from the fact that the greatest amount of air flow is produced when exhaling with full lungs. As air is expelled the maximum air flow that can be produced gradually diminishes. The last third of air in the lungs is so difficult to expel that this air is basically not usable in playing an instrument. If a player begins with lungs only 2/3 full, he has only half of the effective air to use and cannot generate the same air flow. Students should learn to fill their lungs to capacity, gradually coordinating breathing with the teacher’s downbeat. This acclimates students to the elements of starting sound on cue and avoids the bad habit of holding back.
    Teach students to fill their lungs completely by holding a pencil in front of a class, saying it is a candle, and asking the students to blow it out. The teacher decides when the students have blown enough air to extinguish the candle and should repeat the exercise several times, requesting increased amounts of air each time. Most students will take larger breaths, but some will use short bursts of wind. Demonstrate how to take in a large breath and rapidly exhale the air in a sustained manner, and have those students imitate the demonstration. Teachers can demonstrate the amount and force of air needed to play an instrument by blowing on students’ hands and having them imitate. By blowing on their hands, students become aware of the quantity and force of their air. Focusing on blowing with moderate force usually eliminates puffed cheeks because they are a breath rather than embouchure problem. The next step is blowing air through a mouthpiece onto the hand. The goal is to blow a large, sustained stream of air on the hand, not to buzz.
    Once students are using enough wind, begin teaching them how to buzz the lips. Imitation works best: draw students’ attention to your lips, make the buzzing sound, and ask them to imitate. Then move on to buzzing with a mouthpiece, and finally transfer the mouthpiece and buzz to an instrument. Large tuba mouthpieces usually prove advantageous, the large size giving plenty of room for the lips and fostering large quantities of air. Give students having trouble buzzing smaller mouthpieces, such as trumpet or horn, trombone or euphonium mouthpieces. After buzzing on a larger mouthpiece, players can usually transfer to smaller ones. Players should not buzz without the mouthpiece after the initial external buzz because it causes them to play with a shorter length of embouchure, resulting in a less resonant tone. Students then can begin playing simple familiar melodies such as Mary Had a Little Lamb or America the Beautiful in the middle register with clear articulations and a resonant buzz.
    Introduce precise diction at this time. Use words, not complicated explanations of how to use the air and tongue, to teach the proper execution of articulation. Vocalization is the first step in learning articulations; speech has already established the function of breath and tongue. The basic marcato attack should include the T consonant and an open vowel sound such as ou, oh, or ah; tah is most common because it is the most open, but tu or tah are not incorrect. The tongue does not produce sound; it only interferes with the wind. Minimize this interference with the precise pronunciation of open vowels. Do not use a variety of syllables in different registers or the closed vowel ee. Multiple vowels produce inconsistent tone in various registers and complicate playing. Follow H.A. Vandercook’s mandate: keep it simple. The use of multiple syllables is not necessary to resonate the air column.
    Some teachers recommend a closed vowel syllable to help upper-register notes. Their theory is that the smaller mouth cavity produced by a closed vowel causes a faster air stream, making the notes easier to execute, but the closed vowel results in changes of tone color especially noticeable in lower brass instruments. With proper development brass players have greater potential for volume and resonance with using an open vowel because they will use more air, producing consistent tone in all registers.
    Begin teaching the precise pronunciation of syllables by asking students to carry on one-word conversations. Ask them to say the word tah vocally, without playing, and then to speak while playing the instrument. Never say tongue or tonguing with students, because these words make players think of their own tongue and not about pronouncing the syllable. The syllable illustrates the correct use of the tongue and breath in articulation so always talk about pronouncing words. Reinforce the syllable by singing along with students while they are playing. In a classroom environment have other players sing the syllable for an individual. This approach benefits both the group and individual who all become more aware of the syllable. Repeat the precise diction on a single pitch first and then transfer it to simple melodies.
    In the beginning, students do not have to play melodies in specific keys on the mouthpiece, but it is necessary when they transfer the sound to the instrument. Encourage students to play at loud dynamic levels in the middle and lower registers where they use more air; high notes and soft dynamics discourage air. Frequently it helps students to relate the sound to a familiar object, like the purr of a kitten or roar of a lion. Playing familiar songs teaches pitch awareness because students always play best on a familiar melody.
    H.A. Vandercook’s quote, “If you can sing it, you can play it,” is true. We use the same area of the brain to sing and play. If a student is unable to match a pitch, have him hum it, transfer it to singing, and then play it on the mouthpiece. The same techniques that voice teachers use to help students match pitch also help brass players. Determine what pitch the student is playing, then have him move scalewise to the correct pitch.
    A few players will just buzz a single pitch because they are consciously trying to analyze what to do with their lips. Teachers have to distract them from themselves by using various techniques. One technique is making the sound of an ambulance siren by starting high and making a quick glissando to a lower note; demonstrate the sound. In a classroom or ensemble environment all the brass should play along with the student having trouble to reinforce the sound and cause further distraction. Another technique is starting a note at a soft dynamic and then quickly alternating between loud and soft without articulating the note. This causes the pitch to rise and fall, allowing students to experience producing different pitches. They can then transfer this pitch movement to melodies. It is similar to learning to whistle. A whistle often first occurs by accident, but the experience provides an understanding of how to achieve one.
    The most crucial point for beginning brass players is transferring the buzz from the mouthpiece to the air column in the instrument. Teach how to hold, finger, assemble, and care for the instrument separately from playing to minimize the distraction and allow students to concentrate on the sound.
    For a successful transfer players should match the correct pitch or understand why they failed. To produce the correct pitch on an instrument players have to buzz the specific pitch. Most students will buzz a C or G on a trumpet mouthpiece, but some will still have difficulty finding the specific pitch. Give those players special attention so the class as a whole can progress. Find out what pitch they are buzzing, make that pitch their first note, and then have them play to the class’s starting note in a stepwise manner. Most method books choose an open tone or first position note for the first pitch, but there is no reason why written F or E can’t be the first note on the trumpet.
    Have students hold their instruments about an inch from the leadpipe and begin to buzz the specified note. Some players will have difficulty holding the instrument and mouthpiece at the same time, so students can work in pairs with one player holding while the other buzzes the mouthpiece. Make sure the pitch is accurate and the buzz at a loud dynamic so there will be enough energy to resonate the air column. Students should sing the note three times before buzzing it, and the students who are not playing should sing for the others as they transfer the buzz (key) into the instrument (lock). Repeat the exercise several times for each note.
    The key-in-the-lock approach to brass playing works when students learn to play correctly from the beginning. It is possible to overcome bad habits, but the process is much more difficult. Excessive failure creates an expectation of failure, while successful experiences create an expectation of continued success. The key to success is pitch awareness in the brain. A quote of Arnold Jacobs provides an appropriate explanation. “There are two kinds of instruments, one in the hands and one in the head. The one in the hands is a mirror of the one in the head. It is best to be somewhat unconscious of your physical maneuvers and highly conscious of your musical goals.”