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From Denis Wick - "A Practical Aid to a Beautiful Sound"

A Practical Aid to a Beautiful Sound

by Denis Wick

As every teacher knows, a good tone on any brass instrument needs a properly set-up embouchure; a good teacher will spare no effort to ensure that the student's embouchure is as efficient as possible. These days one may assume that the young player will have a reasonable instrument and a sensible mouthpiece. To this one must add what many teachers would regard as the most important of all - good breath control.

One aspect of the brass-blowing body machine which is hardly ever emphasized enough is the throat. By opening the throat area - or closing it - the tone-quality can be varied enormously. Although the differences are not quite as much as in singing, they can easily be heard, on any brass instrument. It remains a problem, however, to put across to the young player the concept of "open your throat". Many ideas like "swallowing a football" - "yawning outwards" or "cooling a hot potato" work to a greater or lesser degree, as I found in my own teaching, but needed to be said so many times!

Picture of Denis Wick Practice Mute
Denis Wick Practice Mute

Then, I made my discovery, more or less by accident. It happened when I had designed a practice mute. This was intended just to make near-silent practice possible, but also to maintain good intonation and a "feel" not too different from normal playing. Absolutely essential for an orchestra on tour! I discovered that by using my practice mute for loud practice, this tight throat problem could be eliminated in minutes. There was an additional bonus in that breathing became much more efficient when the throat was automatically opened by the resistance of the mute. The total result exceeded my wildest dreams!

Here was a way of speeding up the teaching process, especially with young players. Even the smallest and weakest could sound almost professional in volume within a matter of weeks rather than years. I well remember a very little girl who suddenly produced an amazingly loud fortissimo. I began to realize that I had stumbled upon a teaching technique that could help young brass students in a very positive way. Worldwide sales of my practice mutes seem to show that other people think so too! They are now made for all brass instruments, including tuba, euphonium, baritone, piccolo trumpet and flugel horn.

Often, the difficulty that youngsters have with breathing well stems from the fact that they are hardly ever allowed to play a maximum ff - and for good reason - nobody practises loudly! Trying to breathe well through a tight throat is fairly impossible anyway, so what one often hears is poor breath support and a rather choked sound.

Try the following:

  1. THE "BEFORE" TEST (Remember exactly how this sounds)
    Play mp the first 5 notes of the scale of C major starting below the treble clef. (Bb for concert-pitched instruments).
  2. Play a loud low C (Bb) with the practice mute. Take a deep breath, holding shoulders down, play louder. The note becomes less controlled with increasing volume. Try again, much louder. You will notice, as the volume increases, a "buzz" or rattle from the end of the mute.

    This "buzz" wobbles and fluctuates. Keep trying to play even louder; make sure that the "wobbles" become more level. Breathe as deeply as possible. Push the air through in a controlled, natural way. Keep increasing the volume. If you begin to feel slightly dizzy - that is quite normal and only temporary. Now, with the same or more volume, play a semitone lower, gradually progressively descending a semitone at a time, until you are playing the loudest low F sharp (E natural) you have ever heard, continuing to breath as deeply as possible.
  3. Take out the practice mute, take a really deep breath and play the "before" test again,(only mp, remember!)
  4. Listen to the difference in sound - it should now be much more open and rich in tone, as the throat is automatically held open, thus creating a larger resonance chamber.

    Each day try this exercise for 15 minutes. After a few weeks, it should be possible to remember the "open throat" feeling when inhaling, so that it can easily be reproduced for loud playing, especially in the lower register; it can and should also be used for soft playing in middle and upper registers. Soft chorales and espressivo solos can have a whole new dimension. Awareness of closing as well as opening the throat also makes a near-inaudible pianissimo very easy.

    Of course, a metal practice mute is needed to make this happen. There are on the market fibre or cardboard mutes which function well in reducing volume. The electronic versions of practice mutes are fantastic (and expensive!) technology, but do not function like my simple metal practice mutes. Only metal practice mutes offer the "buzz" effect which is essential for real control of the throat spaces to be learned.

    As a bonus, brass players who also sing will notice an increase in their lower range. Trombonists with a well-developed practice-mute technique can often sing down to a low C.

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