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Building a Better Sound by Steven Mead

Article by Steven Mead (as printed in February/March editions of Brass Band World Magazine)

Picture of Building a Better Sound with Steven Mead
Building a Better Sound

When you answer the telephone often the first thing the other person says is , 'Hi, its me', the voice will be instantly recognizable. When you play one note on your instrument, its 'you'. Your musical 'DNA' is recognizable by you, fellow band members, and people who hear you practice (usually family or neighbors).Maybe people pay you the compliment that they like your sound, they exercise their subjective opinion that what u do is pleasing on the ear and feel it is a true enough feeling to tell you. You may modestly and hopefully discreetly agree with them or you may not. Some people will go through their musical lives permanently unfilled by the sound they make on their brass instrument, and that's a pity.

I know 99% of readers will probably be amateurs and as such can always say they don't have enough spare time to work on their playing to get it to a 'professional' level, but getting a high quality sound may not need as much time as you think.

With low brass playing the essential requirement is quality air, taken in a deep relaxed way. In all the classes and workshops I give, the basics always come first for after the mastery of these all is possible. Try slow inhalations like a yawn with the back of the throat open , mentally counting 4 seconds, and then 'blow' out for 4 seconds, now with the lips closer together, producing a 'whooshing' sound. Repeat then with different combinations of 2:4,2:6, 2:8, 4:2, 4:4, 4:6, 4:8

There are many breathing exercises to help you get the air moving, but this will get you started. You might consider a breath training device like the popular 'Ultrabreathe' too, to really work the lungs.

Now consider the space inside your mouth, the essential resonator for your tone. This is the 2nd essential element of good tone. If you enjoying singing and if singing was an important part of your musical training you will create a round and high vocal cavity quite naturally. I was taught to imagine an egg standing vertically inside your mouth. The air from your lungs passes around this space to achieve a rich tone quality. If you can also maintain this feeling when inhaling you can keep tension out of the sound too and are less likely to squeeze the sound. Using a lot of 'high quality' air also necessitates support from the moving abdominal muscles and I like to imagine this as the moving of a cello bow, and its varying speeds of movement change the sound accordingly.

Many low brass players are never instructed to think of changing vowel sounds when playing different tessitura. For me this was only an extension of vocal techniques I learned as a young lad, but found it reinforced later in life in the great teachings of Arnold Jacobs and others. In the mid-range imagine the sound 'AH', with a normal tongue position (sing it to find this !).In the low range 'AW' and in the upper range 'OO' and in the super high range with the air traveling very fast, 'EE'. Practice with 'D' articulations (Daw-Dah-Doo) very slow 2 octave arpeggios using the right sounds for the right pitches, keeping every note the same dynamic, around 'mf' to start, and producing the best quality sound possible. The essential element in all this is that you are listening to yourself, having first imagined the best sound you possibly can. If you have something tonally to aim at before you play the art of imitating that sound can be quite easy. When I was growing up in Bournemouth that was how I learned, by training the voice and by listening and trying to imitate great euphonium artists on recordings. Another really useful technique is to spend more of your practice time playing low notes, for low brass players (if you have a 4th valve) from low C to pedal C. It is not important that you don't use these notes too often in the band room. My favorite warm up is to start on pedal C, then slowly ascend in this pattern: C,Db, C,D, C,Eb, C,E,etc playing a sustained 'forte' dynamic, without vibrato or inflection of any kind, holding each note for 4 slow counts. When you arrive at the octave, go back the other way, C,B,C,Bb,C,A,C,Ab, etc. Repeat daily ! If you have a practice mute use this too as the resistance you have to blow against will open the back of the throat. I guarantee you will make a bigger more open tone afterwards. By practicing below the stave you will be simultaneously be helping yourself to play better high notes too. And finally try to keep the aperture (the space between your lips) constant. It may seem an easy thing to say but over time if facilitates so many other features of successful brass playing. Good luck, it is possible to change your musical DNA!

One of the hardest things for a brass player is to sense that your playing is developing, getting better, particularly after the age of say 25, when the first push for 'stardom' is over and you are left to contemplate the balance between your work, family commitments, band and all that goes with that. Where is your motivation to practice to take you to the next level? Some people are naturally ambitious and to ascertain quite where this comes from might necessitate some expensive minutes on a psychiatrists couch. Some people want a bigger and better house, others are happy with what they have, and so it is with brass playing. So, this advice is for all whether you seem happy with your lot or you continually aspire to do better. The low brass fraternity are a gregarious warm-hearted breed of musicians who share the same brand of basic humour, who appreciate each others work and are happy to provide rich tones in a band and orchestra that give pleasure and simultaneously make the others musicians sound better! That said, there are many who lack anything like a daily routine and herein lies the potential for a lack of sustainable improvement. In the last article I mentioned the importance of quality air, relaxing, utilising the open resonant space within the mouth, vowel sounds and low tone practice. These key points underlie all we do, it's if you like in computer speak, the default way of playing. These are there from the first to last notes every day.

The playing position is vital too; the distance from the small of the back to the top of the head has to be maximized, almost a military style straightness maximizes the potential of the lung capacity. Try this for yourself: stand with your back against a wall with your feet about 30 cms away, slouch a little and take a big breath. You can sense the air intake is 'in the chest', so if you were to exhale strongly your lower muscles simply wont need to function. In playing terms, you will be working the facial muscles too much as the 'support' muscles (with their cello-bowmotion, as per the last article) are not being used. Repeat this a few times. Then stand completely straight with the back of your feet touching the wall, as well as the backside, shoulders and head. Now exhale and feel the air automatically entering lower, filling up like one fills a glass with liquid..(ah ha now you understand!). As you exhale strongly the full use of the muscles can be felt and you have more air. As if to reinforce this critical point, try this: stand up straight, put your arms up (a la cop movie!) above your head, take a deep breath then exhale. Repeat 3 times each time with your arms stretching a little more than before. Then return to a normal position and take a powerful breath and feel the difference that internal stretching has made. If we can trace 90% of brass players problems to poor air use then surely the question of posture and good air intake is something immediately fixable.

Start your daily routine with this awareness and your lips, tongue, fingers and ears will thank you. I always begin by 'waking up' the low notes and then progress into a technical warm up of Clarke studies, scales and arpeggios. These may seem terribly old-fashioned to many 'progressive' thinkers but believe you me all the students I know who have practiced and mastered their scales are brilliant sight readers and can learn music very quickly. It may shock you learn than many players who audition at the RNCM can barely play a scale to save their lives! Shocking indeed but am I more sad for them or frustrated with their teachers? In this 'push-button' age the timeless discipline of regular disciplined study is not very trendy but I for one will not accept the watering down of our music education. The long lasting benefits of scales and arpeggios can steer you through a career in music or give you the edge in reading and maintaining an even sound with whatever ensemble you play in. On a similar topic, and I hate to sound like a dreary school master, the long note routine I adopted as a teenager is still as useful in sound development as it ever was. Using 20 seconds as the unit of length, start on a middle F#, then proceed alternately higher and lower, G, F, G#, E, A, Eb etc arriving after some minutes at octave Cs. Rest for a minute then continue, C#, low B, D, Bb, D#, A etc. Rest after the two octave F#s, then fourth valve permitting, continuing on to high C and pedal C. Then take a few minutes off and contemplate the sounds you've been listening to. Try to play with a beautiful soft sound ('mp' maximum) and a little vibrato. Breath deeply and effortlessly on the 20 second mark ( I hang a watch on the music stand). A metronome is ok but can disturb the beauty with its ruthless clicking or beeping. This simple exercise has kept me is reasonable shape for over 20 years. One final point for now is the subject of vibrato, a much maligned feature of the brass players expressive vocabulary. Often overdone, often predictable and distracting, when used sensitively it puts the human element of warmth, beauty as well as the creation and resolution of tension into our music. We should cultivate this as we do pure tone, but the two are not to be confused. If you are unsure of the mechanics of vibrato 'creation' here is a quick five-step guide:

  1. Repeat over the word 'Yah' (like in a German women's institute meeting),yah yah yah yah.
  2. Repeat again but silence the voice so only the jaw action continues.
  3. Repeat again but try to keep the lips as fixed as possible so the movement is seemingly at the back of the jaw.
  4. Repeat step three but simultaneously exhale strongly a strong stream on air with the lips in the 'playing' position with the jaw creating the messaging effect which is the basis of a rich and controlled vibrato.
  5. Take up instrument and play some mid range long tones using the experience of step 4 to guide you. Then listen and keep listening and refine your sound in the way an artist or sculptor will perfect a work of art.

So that's it for this little piece: posture, scales, long notes and vibrato all of which can help the building progress whatever your age or aspirations. Enjoy your practice and make beautiful sounds.

Steven Mead


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