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Tone Production

Patricia George | May 2012

   When professional musicians listen to bands, the first thing they notice is tone, including the attack, duration of the note, and the release or note ending. Most beginning students have little control over tone and have so many other elements to focus on as they learn to play: reading, counting, fingering, breathing, tonguing, and finding the pitch. As a result, teachers tend to cut students some slack. We give encouragement and just tell them to do it again, one more time. Students get tired of hearing it and we get tired of saying it. There are better ways to produce excellence in tone production.

Exercise 1: The Attack
   Students know when they chip the front of a note, but they may not realize how often this occurs. On the other hand, they may never have been told that the goal is always to produce a clean attack. This simple one-minute exercise produces excellent results and is fun for students. Set the metronome on 72. Select an easy note, such as F, for the student or class. Have each student play the F alone, one after another with the metronome tick. The student should concentrate on producing a perfect attack exactly in time with the metronome. After the first round of Fs, review the concepts for producing a clean attack, embouchure, fingering and breathing, and emphasize creating a beautiful tone. In other words, remind students what they should focus on when playing a note.
   Then play another round of quarter note Fs as students strive to make each note sound as good and clean as possible. If the class is large, have two or three students play at a time.
   The constant tick of the metronome also teaches students to play on the beat. Make a competition out of this exercise to see how many times students can pass the note around the room without anyone missing a beat.

Exercise 2: Keep the Air Moving
   Most beginning students do not keep the air moving through the duration of a note. The typical scenario is the student chips the front of the note but eventually gets the pitch. Then he forgets to continue blowing to move the air through the note, so the note is poor in tone quality and ends flat in pitch. A tuner or a tuning app on a cell phone is an excellent aid to teach support or moving the air through the note. Have students play a note (F) and keep the needle still. At this point do not worry if the pitch is flat or sharp. The goal is to keep the needle still. To do this, the air has to be spent evenly through the duration of the note. Have each student play at least one pitch keeping the needle still. It may take several tries for students to have good results. After one class when I was teaching this exercise, almost every student asked me where I downloaded the app. Since it was a free app, most downloaded it immediately, and I am sure many of the students practiced playing with even air that evening.

   A variation to this exercise is to have each student play the note with legs off the floor and positioned straight out in front. When the legs are in this position, the abdomen is as tight as it ever should be when playing. Playing in this position develops tonal production maturity by the minute. Beginning bands do not have to sound like beginning bands.

Editor’s Note: This new feature offers quick ideas for techniques to improve basic aspects of playing. Regular application of these ideas in just a few minutes each rehearsal can yield great benfits. Directors are invited to share their favorite exercises and activities. Email: