Mouthpiece buzzing is one of the most common tools for improving tone, accuracy, musicality, and pitch. There is tremendous long-term benefit from this style of practice for both students and professionals. However, some performers and educators note that buzzing can actually do more harm than good. There is truth to this sentiment; buzzing can harm students if approached incorrectly. If buzzing is going to be taught in the band room or private studio, it is critical to take a healthy approach.
Types of Buzz
There are several common varieties of buzzing. The first method is called free buzzing, which is buzzing notes on the lips alone. Because of the higher tessitura, sometimes hornists and trumpeters will buzz down an octave from pitches that would be played on the instrument. Free buzzing is relatively rare and is used sparingly by professionals and students. Many performers believe free buzzing leads to tightness in the embouchure from the relatively abnormal compression required to produce a note. The best arena for free buzzing is when it is used as a stepping-stone for beginners when they are learning to produce a sound on the instrument.
The next method to explore is buzzing only on a mouthpiece rim, sometimes called a visualizer. This feels more like playing the instrument than free buzzing does. Typically only professional players use this for warming up or pinpointing select concerns about resonance. This method requires increased compression on the middle of the embouchure to buzz a note, because of the absence of the mouthpiece cup. Too much of this, even for advanced players, can be counterproductive.
The most common method is simply to buzz the mouthpiece; this technique has been in use for generations. However, to get the most benefit from it, it is important to factor in a few key elements: the quality of tone on the mouthpiece must be conducive to relaxed and resonant playing, there must be balance between buzzing and playing, and proper musicality and technique should be emphasized. At the root of most stances against mouthpiece practice is a discrepancy with one of these factors. If any of these aspects are overlooked, then side effects, such as decreased resonance and questionable intonation, are possible.
Students should pursue tone quality that helps resonance rather than harming it. There are two primary schools of thought concerning tone while buzzing. The first is that the tone should be thick or meaty. This produces a louder, angrier sounding tone on the mouthpiece. The second is that the tone should be soft, airy, or foggy. If a professional player plays a note on an instrument with the most brilliant possible tone quality and slowly removes the mouthpiece from the instrument while playing, the quality of the buzz would actually be a softer and foggier, not loud or thick. A loud or meaty buzz requires substantially more tension inside the cup of the mouthpiece. If a student practices this way, the results are disastrous. This concept applies to all brass instruments; practicing with a softer, airy tone on the mouthpiece can lead students to exceptional results on the instrument.
Time Spent Buzzing
Avoid buzzing too much in relation to the overall time spent on the instrument. The specific amount of time that would qualify as too much will vary from student to student. For some, this means a just few minutes per day. For others, especially advanced players, much more time can be spent before there is a lack of balance. When buzzing is overdone, the results can be less than desirable and sometimes disastrous: the tone quality becomes actually duller and less resonant, a student’s high range typically will drop, and endurance could decrease. Additional possibilities include less accuracy and a lack of clarity in articulations. It is critical that brass players of all levels find balance between buzzing and playing to reap the benefits of buzzing. If balance is not maintained, the performer has to work harder than usual to play even at a normal level.
Teachers and players should also consider when it is appropriate to practice buzzing. Buzzing the mouthpiece, even when done in a healthy way, is an extreme type of practicing. To perform a note on the mouthpiece alone, the embouchure compression that is necessary inside the cup is greater than when the mouthpiece is attached to an instrument. Although they may be unaware of it, many players struggle playing their instruments to a degree because they rushed into buzzing practice. In school bands, it is quite common for warmup routines to incorporate mouthpiece buzzing in the first several minutes, but buzzing is best avoided until after students have warmed up gradually for at least ten minutes. This is a much better approach.
Another common pitfall is treating buzzing as a separate exercise from performance and approaching it without any form of musicality. This leads to thoughtless playing, which, when done on the mouthpiece, can open the door to bad habits that can haunt even the most advanced players. In addition to solid pitch and rhythm, performers should also buzz with excellent attacks, dynamics, articulation, vibrato, and phrasing. These items are difficult for many players when they buzz, because they lack the instrument’s aid in funneling them into the right pitches.
An effective way to foster a musical approach to mouthpiece practice is to have students buzz simple, familiar melodies, or selections from band or solo repertoire. Buzzing melodies connects what could otherwise be a mindless practice strategy to their musical and artistic efforts. The same strategy can improve flexibility; while practicing a melody or passage from the band repertoire on the mouthpiece, students should try to play intervallic material with a smooth glissando. This will allow healthy habits to develop while practicing. If the glissando is executed well, then the student experiences the interval with balance between lip tension and airflow. A simpler approach to this style of mouthpiece practice, especially for young musicians, would be to buzz sirens or smaller glissandi up and down, then down and up, in a conservative range. Once students are capable of performing sirens, then dynamics can be added to the exercise to maintain interest and provide another step in the development of the student’s flexibility.
Unmusical buzzing tends to be substantially louder than necessary. Although loud buzzing may also be the result of a student simply trying to hear more clearly, buzzing a mouthpiece in the high dynamic ranges often leads to stuffiness, as well as a decrease of both range and endurance. A softer dynamic, from pp to mp, will foster more of a supple aperture and help the student achieve greater resonance.
The ideal way to incorporate buzzing in both band and private practice or lessons is to sing, buzz, and play. This method works well for both solo players, and entire sections of brass musicians. Select a passage where there is a lack of resonance, questionable pitch, or simply a need for general improvement. Have students sing it, then buzz it, then play it. Singing should be as close to accurate as possible, with all musical aspects nearly intact. Breath support and posture should not be sacrificed when singing, and younger instrumentalists will especially need to be watched in this. The same good habits should transfer to buzzing. Remember, the quality of tone on the mouthpiece should be somewhat foggy, and the overall buzz volume should be conservative. The buzzing, like singing, should be as accurate as possible with pitch, rhythm, dynamics, and articulation. Once these two steps have been executed well, the results on actual instruments should be substantially improved.
Singing, buzzing, and playing brings tremendous potential for rapid improvement for both students and professionals. If the buzz has a healthy tone and the volume is not too loud or forced, it is nearly impossible to be led astray. The actual time spent on the mouthpiece alone is only a third of the time spent practicing, so the possibility of excessive buzzing is nearly eliminated. It is a highly effective practice method that allows brass students to foster resonance as well as develop their inner musician.