Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Tone Production



"Music is the interpretation of sound. Without the creation of sound, there can be no music."

There are many factors that encourage tone production on a brass instrument. From my own experience of imitating the sound of Mr. Jacobs playing in the CSO, I learned that concept of sound is the most important factor. Adolph Herseth and Arnold Jacobs were such powerful figures on the stage of the Chicago Symphony that they influenced the sound of the entire orchestra. The sound of the orchestra changed when they were not present. The intensity of their sound influenced everyone, including the conductors. That sound cannot be described with words alone. It had to be experienced!

Jake and Bud were the most important influences that created the unique “Chicago Symphony” sound first developed under conductor, Fritz Reiner and later nurtured by maestro Georg Solti. I first experienced the CSO on the great Reiner recordings for RCA. later, I was fortunate enough to live it in Orchestra Hall sitting in the gallery and on stage.

It’s the brass player’s concept of sound that ultimately has the most powerful influence on other factors, such as breath, embouchure, articulation, and fingering.


“The player’s volitional (conscious) concept of sound is the primary motivator of other elements of tone production, such as embouchure and air. Contrary to popular belief, embouchure and air are not the primary motivators of the brass player’s sound.”

“It is the sound of words that motivates a child to speak, not the study of vocal chords, anatomy, or breath. If we go to a child’s crib with pictures of vocal chords and anatomical charts of lungs and the diaphragm, there will be no spoken words coming from their mouth.”

“Only the conscious mind can be the master of the music. Only the subconscious mind can be the master of realizing it.”


“The key to playing a brass instrument is found in speech.”

“It’s not what you sound like that is important. What is important is what you want to sound like.”

RICHARD OLDBERG (former 3rd horn - CSO)

“You know you have a great sound if you can be identified by it”

That statement was certainly true of Dennis Brain, Arnold Jacobs, and Adolph Herseth. The same can be said of Luciano Pavarotti, Itzak Perlman, or Yo Yo Ma. In my career, I was fortunate enough to have a few people, including Ed Kleinhammer and Jake’s wife Gizzi, comment that they thought Jake was playing in a closed room, but it was me. Yes, imitation is the greatest form of flattery.

There are many factors that encourage tone production but the most important one is conceptual. Jake told me to, “Imagine what the music would sound like if Bud Herseth played it on his trumpet.” Or he frequently would say, “You’re Italian. Make the music sound like Renata Tibaldi is singing it.” I always sounded different immediately after those comments.

Interestingly, Bud Herseth does not credit great brass players for having the most important musical influence on him. Since his parents loved opera, they would frequently play recordings of great opera singers.

In 1992, I interviewed Brian Bowman for The Instrumentalist magazine. I asked him how he started on the euphonium and who were his most important influences. There was an interesting response.

Brian had few brass teachers influencing his euphonium playing. His father was violinist and directed a church choir. He sang in the choir and occasionally accompanied them with his euphonium. Brian traveled to Chicago from his home town of Rock Island, Illinois to take an occasional lesson with Forest Buchtel at Vandercook College. He had his first lesson with Jake day after our interview.

Jake frequently said, “I was a pretty good brass player until my first teacher came along.” When he was a child, he volunteered to play the bugle for his Boy Scout troop. His mother was an accomplished pianist but she knew nothing about brass instruments. She simply played the notes on the piano and Jake imitated them with the bugle. He eventually became an excellent trumpet player without having a teacher.


Working with inexperienced brass players, I to use very simple familiar descriptive words, such as loud or big, to motivate them to produce a more resonant sound on their mouthpiece. I also associate the sound with a familiar large object such as an elephant or a bus. I’ll ask them to imagine that their mouthpiece is twice as large.

I may give a beginning trumpet or cornet player the mouthpiece of the next larger brass instrument, such as a trombone mouthpiece. It’s easier to produce a large sound on a larger mouthpiece.

One of my former graduate students at Vandercook College, a fine professional trumpet player and middle school band director, starts his beginners on a Bach 1C trumpet mouthpiece. It is the largest diameter trumpet mouthpiece in the Bach catalogue. For many years, he has been successfully developing excellent young brass players for his band program.

Most of my professional colleagues and I play large diameter mouthpieces and use large bore instruments to encourage resonant tone production. Jake preferred used a large tuba (York) to help him compensate for his reduced vital capacity.

I remember seeing a trumpet mouthpiece designed and used by Maynard Ferguson. It was not a typical cup shaped design. It was essentially a deep horn mouthpiece (funnel ) with a wide trumpet rim. Mouthpiece design and playing characteristics will be discussed further in a future post.



“A large breath can be used to produce a large sound.”

“Make the sound of a vacuum cleaner when you inhale a deep breath.”

“Inhale very large breaths and renew them often.”

“There are ideal parameters of breathing in order to encourage maximum tone production. Start playing from maximum capacity and renew the breath at about 50% capacity. Avoid the danger zone at less than 33% VC.”

I only make one reference to air when I’m working with wind players. I'll encourage them to take in maximum inhalations and to renew them often. I immediately associate a large inhalation with a resonant sound. Ultimately, it’s the player’s desire to produce a resonant sound that will motive them to take in large breaths. However, this association must be conditioned over time.

It is important to understand that no one needs to be taught how to quickly suck in a large quantity of into their lungs. References to anatomy, such as chest, stomach, or diaphragm are not only unnecessary, they are detrimental.


“At birth, we already have the ability to inhale air into the lungs and to expel it quickly without having someone teach us how to do it.”

“Nobody has to teach us how to breathe in order to play a wind instrument. If you are living, you are an expert breather!”

Since no one is born with an instrument in their hands, an infant does not take their first breath in order to play a trumpet. They breathe to establish their own life support. How do they motivate their first breath? They scream and cry as loud as they can! It’s sound that motivates their first breath!


“Sound motivates function.”

A wind player must condition the need for the large inhalations associated with playing an instrument. It is not necessary to relearn how to breathe. They only have to transfer the use of the skill they already have to use for another purpose. That is playing a wind instrument.

It is also important to understand that the knowledge of breathing is at the subconscious level of thought. No one is consciously thinking about every breath they take in order to sustain their lives. When we try to give a student lessons in anatomy in order to breathe, we are attempting to bring a subconscious function to the conscious level of awareness. At the conscious level, we don’t have the intellect, knowledge, or skill necessary to make that happen. A beautiful function is destroyed.


“Deep breathing must be associated with producing sound on a wind instrument. Without a strong association between the deep breath and resonant tone production, deep breathing becomes a meaningless exercise.”

“Playing an instrument must always be a musical experience that requires a certain amount of mechanics. Playing can never be thought of as mechanical experience first. Otherwise there will be no music.”

Once the brain has been conditioned to associate a large inhalation with quality sound, the large breath will become motivated by the player’s concept of sound. It is important to understand that any conditioning requires numerous repetitions over time.


Frequently, I’ll ask a new brass pedagogy class, “What do you know about Arnold Jacobs.” Someone always says, “He only had one lung”. Not true!

Jake was a severe asthmatic with a greatly reduced vital capacity. At the end of his career, his vital capacity was less than two liters. It should have been at least double that for his age. When I occasionally saw him walking down Michigan Avenue from Orchestra Hall, I would always ask him how he was feeling. He invariably replied, “I’m still fooling them.” He was “fooling” them for fifty years!

Early in our relationship he would say to me, “I wish I could put my brain inside your body. What a combination that would be!” At one time, he measured my vital capacity at almost seven liters of air.

Jake was a master musician who knew how to phrase music in order to disguise his frequent breaths. He also knew how to draw on the strength of the other brass players around him for support. That’s why Jake and Ed Kleinhammer were such a great team.

Because there are only a few compositions that require two tubas, I spent much more time in the CSO sitting next to Mr. Kleinhammer than I did with Jake. Ed was a very supportive partner! I owe him a great debt of gratitude for everything he taught me about ensemble playing. More importantly, he taught me the meaning of musical integrity.

Kleinhammer and I worked out where we would breathe in the music as if we were string players marking bowing. He always wanted to know where I was going to take a breath in an extended passage. He would accommodate my needs first by breathing after me and did the same for Jake.

Even though Jake had a reduced vital capacity, for short durations, he could dominate the entire orchestra with his powerful tone. He would allow the other brass players in the orchestra to do much of the work in extended loud passages. Then, he would bring all his sound to the fore at the end of a climatic passage. It was his sound that the audience remembered most, as if he was carrying the entire brass section all along. He compensated by taking in maximum breaths very quickly and renewing them often. I never knew any wind player who could inhale air into his lungs faster than Jake!


VC is the maximum amount of air that anyone is capable of physically inhaling into their lungs. For life support, there is a tremendous amount reserve capacity built into the respiratory system of the body. While resting, we only utilize 10-15% of our vital capacity to sustain life. We could survive on less than 10% VC but we would be weak and probably bedridden. The extra 85% of reserve capacity allows us to do other physically demanding things like running away from an animal looking for lunch. It is in the best interest of any wind player to utilize 100% of their VC.

Physically, the ability to expel air from our lungs is greatest when we are at 100% VC. This ability diminishes slightly as the air begins to leave the lungs. It looks like a gently sloping curve on a graph. However, when the last third of VC is reached, the curve takes a dramatic nosedive. It looks like the first drop on a roller coaster.

This means that the last third of our VC is mostly unavailable to a wind player. If a wind player typically finds themselves trying to play in the last third of their VC, they will have to uncomfortably force the air out of their lungs. It can be done, but why? It’s very uncomfortable, especially at loud dynamics. If they are playing below 33% VC for an extended amount of time, they will certainly become distracted by the discomfort. In time, the brain may try to duplicate the flow rates associated with the last 33% VC, in the first 67% of VC. The way to make that happen is to resist the flow of air in another manner. This will be discussed in a future post. THE FOUR POINTS OF RESISTANCE OF BREATH

To illustrate this condition, I ask students to take in a very large breath and to slowly expel the air until they can longer squeeze any out. I always find out who the smokers are because they begin to cough and choke as they reach 33% and approach zero VC.

Starting from a very shallow breath, I ask them blow the air on their hand. They repeat the process several times but each time they start with a larger breath. They continue until they are blowing on their hand from a maximum breath. Then I ask, “When did you feel the most air on your hand?” The answer always is when they blew from the maximum (100% VC) inhalation.


“Take in maximum breaths (100% VC) and renew them often (50% VC)”

"Shallow breathers handicap themselves in three ways. They reduce their ability to play extended phrases, louder dynamics, and they begin their exhalation at a point of reduced ability and they quickly move into the 33% VC danger zone.”

I encourage the renewal breath at about 50% to provide the greatest potential for tone production. However, if the wind player doesn’t start playing at 100% VC they will severely reduce their ability to play anything but shorter phrases. What’s even more problematic is if the player starts their exhalation at less than 100% VC, they are already at a point of reduced ability to expel air. They quickly enter the danger zone, the final 33% VC.

Should the player take a maximum breath for every passage? No, I don’t know anyone who does that. The amount of inhalation for a given passage will be motivated by the challenges of the music. Extended loud phrases will require larger breaths than shorter softer passages. Nobody consciously regulates their inhalation when performing. However, a maximum breath must be conditioned.


“The wind player must condition a maximum capacity breath at the subconscious level by repetition over time. Otherwise, when the musical need arises, the brain will never go to that level of breath but of the lack of experience.”


The body forces air into the lungs by creating an internal low pressure or partial vacuum. It does this by expanding the area of the lungs. Conscious knowledge of the precise physiology is not necessary. We live our entire lives as ignorant breathers. However, there is a vast amount of knowledge of breathing at the subconscious level of thought. We must stay out of the way!

Just as fingering, deep breathing, associated with playing, must be gradually conditioned by repetition over a period of several weeks. I encourage my students to consciously focus on taking in maximum breaths with loud mouthpiece playing, for no more than 5-10 minutes a day. I don’t encourage extensive breathing exercises away from playing. It’s very important to establish a strong connection between taking in maximum breaths and playing (mouthpiece and instrument) with a full resonant tone.

Jake once showed me a very simple exercise to motivate a large inhalation without using a breathing device. He said, “Put your first finger vertically over your open mouth and try to suck it in.” The finger doesn’t get sucked into your mouth but a rush of air certainly does. I tell the students to exaggerate the sucking sound to produce a dramatic effect. It’s the sucking sound, like the end of a vacuum cleaner hose, that will motivate a massive inhalation. I call it “vacuum breath”. My younger students don’t like the term because it sounds gross to them. I have asked them to come up with another term but nobody has done so. I’m still open for suggestions.

I’ll ask a student to do an inhalation-exhalation exercise loudly in sets of three. Their first finger placed vertically across their open mouth. They are encouraged to make sucking and blowing sounds as the air quickly moves in and out of the lungs. The use of the HO syllable encourages a fairly quiet inhalation. I’m much more concerned about the quantity and speed of the inhalation than I am about it being quiet. Some teachers encourage silent inhalations because they are concerned about excessive noise or breath resistance. There is no breath resistance unless the player closes their mouth.

Very few brass players have had the opportunity that I experienced sitting in the brass section of the CSO. There is a lot of inhalation noise coming from the players. I have never heard a complaint from anyone in the audience!

I once invited Charlie Vernon, the great bass trombonist of the CSO, to give a master class at Vandercook. He brought a stack if music a foot high and practiced his trombone on the stage for six hours! The sound of the air rushing into his lungs was frightening but the sound coming from his bell was glorious! Once in a while, he played a note he didn’t like. He said, “When that happens, I take the mouthpiece off the horn and buzz. That’s how I fix it!”

I also encourage a long duration of sound (inhalation and exhalation), otherwise students may perform the exercises using a shallow breath with little benefit. The exercises may also be done at varying speeds to simulate real playing conditions. It is most important that the inhalation be taken to maximum capacity and that the exhalation should be to about 33% VC. The discomfort and stress associated with breathing below 33% VC must be avoided.

After the student has executed the breathing exercise well with their finger, I have them substitute their mouthpiece for the finger. They are asked to cover the end of the mouthpiece stem with their free hand on the inhalation and to release open the stem on the exhalation. The purpose of sealing the stem on the inhalation is to prevent the player from inhaling air through the mouthpiece. I want the player to inhale air from outside the mouthpiece and to blow air through it. If the player gets in the habit sucking the air from inside their instrument, the instrument will excessively amplify the sound of the inhalation.

I don’t discuss how the player should form their mouth when sucking the air in while the mouthpiece is on their lips. I prefer not have them consciously thinking about what to do with their mouth. The subconscious brain will respond to the players need to suck in air by creating a sufficient opening. The use of the HO syllable for inhalation is very effective.

I have the do inhale-play exercise by buzzing loudly on the exhalation. At first they may buzz a single note, but I prefer that they play a familiar melody. It could be as simple as, “Mary Had A Little Lamb.” A high level of awareness of the melody is an important factor encouraging tone production.

The next step is to do the inhale-play exercise transferring the mouthpiece playing to the instrument. Again, I recommend simple melodic playing. With advanced players, I’ll have them play mid-range slurred phrases from Bordogni or Concone. Slurs are an important factor encouraging tone production.

Frequently, I notice that succeeding breaths after the initial breath become shallower. When this occurs, I ask the player to take the time necessary to renew a maximum breath by pausing between phrases. This eventually conditions the player to continue to take in large inhalations after the initial breath.


“Don’t expand to breathe. Breathe to expand.”

Jake tells us that you cannot motivate a deep breath by merely creating an expansion of the chest or abdomen. It is possible to create body motion without creating motion of air. It is deep breathing that will motivate expansion. However, expansion alone will not motivate a deep breath.

It should also be noted that a maximum inhalation requires full expansion of the lungs, both upper and lower areas. As a result, there will be simultaneous motion of the upper chest and abdominal areas. There should be no awareness of specific breathing from the “stomach” or “chest”.



“Sit as though you are standing from the waist.”

Many wind players prefer to stand when they play because it is easier to inhale a maximum breath. I knew of a very fine tubist, playing in a major American orchestra, who insisted that he be allowed to stand on the stage as if he was playing in a marching band.

It is not necessary to stand if as Jake says, “you stand from the waist while seated.” When I first started teaching at Vandercook College of Music in 1979, the only chairs available for the musicians were slanted toward the front. They were called “H.E Chairs” because they were the idea of one of the school’s founders and a highly respected faculty member, H.E Nutt. The chairs forced the player to sit on the end rather than with their lumbar pressing on the rear of the chair. He wanted their lumbar to remain the same as if they were standing.

I first ask new students to stand in front of their chair and bring their instrument to playing position. They sit on the edge of the chair so their playing position and torso are the same as if they were standing.

Proper posture and playing position will not make anyone a great player. However, poor posture and playing position will make tone production a little more difficult.


Large bore instruments and large diameter mouthpieces encourage a more resonant tone.


“We can make a large bore instrument or a large diameter mouthpiece sound like a smaller one. But, we can’t make small bore instruments and small diameter mouthpieces sound like large ones.”


Another important factor encouraging tone production is articulation. This brief discussion will be followed by a more detailed post later.


“The tongue serves no purpose in tone production. It can only interfere with tone production.”

“I never use the word “tongue” in my teaching. I substitute the word, “articulation” instead. The instant you say tongue, the player has a mental image of their tongue. They start to consciously think about their tongue instead of the music.”

“In everyday life, the tongue has been conditioned, at the subconscious level of thought, to respond to the sound of words and to function as an aid in chewing . It works beautifully without conscious interference. When we play a wind instrument, we want to subconsciously condition the tongue to respond to the sound of music."

Consciously, thinking about how our tongue feels or what it should be doing, will cause it to malfunction,”

I have noticed that when I'm lecturing about not consciously thinking about the tongue, I begin to stutter because I start thinking about my own tongue!


Wind players have learned that they can use words to direct the motion of the tongue and air in articulation. The syllables consist of a consonant (t,d,l,r,n, etc.) and an open vowel sound (ah, oh ou). I never encourage the use of a closed vowel such as ee. Some trumpet teachers encourage their students to use the ee vowel in the upper register to help play high notes. I strongly disagree with this antiquated practice. I will discuss this subject further in a future post, DEVELOPING RANGE.

Syllables are only used initially with beginners to condition the brain to use the tongue and air to create the sound of precise articulation. I never think syllables when I play. I’m always thinking sound! That’s always the ultimate goal.


Sound is created in the mouthpiece only by vibrating the lips with the use of air. Since the tongue can only interfere with the flow of air to the embouchure, it is important to minimize that interference.

The pure slur (lip slur) minimizes the use of the tongue. I always begin my initial performance (after melodic mouthpiece playing) by slurring scales and chords. They may be long tone type studies or velocity exercises from Arban, Schlossberg, Kopprasch, or Clarke. I first establish my quality tone in the mid-range and gradually expand lower as well as higher.


Sustained notes also minimize the interference of the tongue in the inter oral airway and they maximize the production of sound.



“Loud dynamics encourage tone production. Softer dynamics discourage tone production.”

“Think (sing) pitches, play loud”

“Loud dynamics encourage air flow through the embouchure.”

“Dynamic studies are tone controls for tone production.”

“When a player is challenged by practicing varied dynamics, they learn how to use air (subconsciously) to created better tone.”

“Musical and technical development is motivated by musical and technical challenge.”

As a young high school tuba player, I thought the job of the other members of the band was to accompany me when I played. I was proud of my tone so I thought it was the most important sound on the stage. It should be heard the most! Unfortunately, that’s what happened most of the time.

However, that mindset served me well later when I found myself on the stage with the CSO. I remember Ed Kleinhammer once remarking, “Don’t hide in the weeds kid!”

I recall a rehearsal of the Tchaikovsky 4th Symphony conducted by Georg Solti. I was stunned by the enormous sound of the opening brass fanfare. Eventually a descending scale is passed around the brass section and finally comes to the tuba. By the time, it was like the giant ball in the opening of the first “Indiana Jones” movie. I’ll never forget the sound that came out my bell. It was so loud that I turned to Ed Kleinhammer and apologized. I told him that I didn’t mean to play so loud. He said, “Don’t apologize, it sounded great!”

It is important that loud dynamic should be encouraged but it’s also important to understand that soft dynamic playing should not be neglected. Again, this subject will be discussed further in a future post.


“Low register notes encourage a resonant sound. High notes discourage resonant tone production.”

“Low notes are the foundation for your sound”

Jake once invited the principal players from each of the four brass sections of the CSO to his studio. He wanted to measure inter oral air pressure by inserting a small tube attached to an air pressure gauge through the corner of each brass player’s mouth. Inter oral pressure is the amount of force of air necessary to have the embouchure vibrate specific frequencies.

He asked each player to play the same frequency (middle C- 256 cps) at about the same dynamic level. Middle C is a lower register note on a trumpet, a mid-range note on the horn and trombone, and a relatively high note on the tuba.

He learned that the inter oral air pressure was about the same for each instrument and that the pressure doubled with the interval of an octave. There is a distinct correlation between frequency and the embouchure’s resistance to the flow of air. He also learned that the pressures were not very great even in the extreme upper register of the trumpet. He noted that even in the extreme upper register of the trumpet, the inter oral air pressure required was much less than that of a cough.

It is not possible to measure this air pressure when we play because we don’t have the sensory awareness at the conscious level to detect it. That’s not a problem, because we can consciously detect frequency very vividly.


“Strength is your enemy, weakness is your friend”

Jake is telling us that since the embouchure provides very little resistance to the flow of air, it doesn’t take much physical strength to play a brass instrument, even in the upper register of a trumpet.


“The facial muscles of the embouchure are some of the weakest in the body. The abdominal muscles used for breathing, defecation, and child birth are some of the strongest in the body. It is not possible to resist the flow of air with lips."

"Facial muscles vs. abdominal muscles is no contest.”

In his master classes, Jake frequently demonstrated the power of the abdominal muscles by having a female student stand on the stomach of a male while he was lying on the floor. He could easily resist the weight of the person standing on him.

Serious problems can develop if a brass player thinks that the strength necessary to play is greater than it actually is. The flow air can’t be resisted by the lips but it can by the tongue, throat, or an “isometric contraction” state of the muscles of inhalation working against those of exhalation.

With almost no exceptions, the muscles in the body are paired against each other. The biceps bends the arm at the elbow. The triceps can straighten it out again. There are separate muscle for inhalation and exhalation. When they simultaneously work against each other, an isometric state occurs and there is great effort but no motion. This subject will be discussed further in a future post. THE FOUR POINTS OF RESISTANCE.


When air flow and air pressure lines are graphed relative to frequency, the lines move in opposite directions.

At low frequencies, the embouchure offers little resistance to the flow of air so flow rates are high. At high frequencies, the embouchure becomes more resistant to the flow of air so air flow rates are lower. The bottom line is if we want to encourage high flow rates of air through the embouchure to encourage tone production, we must play with the air pressure-flow characteristic of low notes. To do this, we must practice a lot of low register notes.

JOESPH MOUREK (former 4th horn - CSO)

“Practicing low notes is more beneficial than high notes.”


“You can never damage your tone by playing too many low notes. However, playing too many high notes without compensating for their detrimental impact, can damage your sound.”

“If a brass player confines their playing to the upper register of their instrument, without balancing by playing in the mid and lower registers, their subconscious brain will begin to interpret the air flow-air pressure characteristics of high notes to be normal. Unfortunately, those characteristics are not normal for playing in the middle or low register and failure will result.”

“Always play with the characteristic sound of low register notes in your mid and upper registers.”

I frequently have my advanced level students play their etudes one octave lower than written. They may play by phrase, lines, or entire sections. Students may repeat a passage two or three times before playing in the written octave (loco). Their improvement in tone is always dramatic even if their low register sound is still somewhat undeveloped.



“You can make a large bore instrument and mouthpiece sound like smaller equipment, but you can’t make small equipment sound like large.”

“Small equipment can have limiting factors in your tone. Most brass players use large equipment because they don’t want any boundaries.”

Early in my career, I had the great fortune to spend many hours in Chicago recording studios, working with some of the finest musicians in the world. None of the brass players used large bore instruments, including myself. The reason is we were playing into a microphone and our sound was being controlled by engineers.

Most of the professional brass players who I work with outside the recording studios, tend to use larger equipment because of its greater amplification of sound and darker timber. The exception is jazz players who want a brighter timber and also to play with greater flexibility in their solos.

Many teachers, who start beginning brass players, give their students smaller mouthpieces, such as a Bach 7c trumpet mouthpiece. The theory is that because they have weak and undeveloped embouchures so they are not capable of playing on larger mouthpieces. However, many teachers have told me that they prefer to start beginners on medium sizes mouthpieces because they encourage more resonant tone production.

One of my former graduate students at Vandercook, a very fine professional trumpet player, starts his beginning trumpet players on the largest mouthpiece in the Bach catalogue (1C). He has been a very effective brass teacher for many years.
Motivated students should never be allowed to remain on small mouthpieces for an extended length of time because they will never develop a mature brass sound.


Since “embouchure” is such an overused word in the brass player’s vocabulary, I prefer to refer to call it the “E” word. Actually, the term I use most is “mouthpiece placement”.

It is very unfortunate that many brass players and teachers misdiagnose their failure as the result of problems with embouchure. They usually don’t correct problems by ordering embouchure changes. They cause more severe problems!


“There’s nothing wrong with your chops. Your mind is messing them up.”

We have all heard horror stories about students who were forced to alter their mouthpiece placement by some well intentioned teacher. In the worst situations, the players were destroyed by the experience and never played their instrument effectively again.

Some teachers have the misguided notion that the mouthpiece placement should look the same for all their students. Usually, they want their student’s mouthpiece placement to be the same as their own or some picture in a book.

However, that’s not what is taking place in the world of high level brass performance. You can observe the brass sections of any major orchestra, and see that there is no uniform mouthpiece placement. Yet all the players perform very well on their instrument. Phil Farkas photographed the unorthodox mouthpiece placement of several professional horn players. He noted, “They all were very successful players.”

There are some elements of mouthpiece placement that may be a source of failure for some players. Those elements will be discussed in a future post, MOUTHPIECE PLACEMENT.


1. Sing and buzz the notes you want to play.
2. Inhale maximum breaths when the musical challenges require it.
3. Consciously think about the sound you want to play.
4. Sing each note in your head as you play it.
5. Develop a beautiful sound in your middle register first.
6. Use open vowel syllables to develop the sound of precise articulation.
7. Practice a wide range of dynamic levels, but develop forte + dynamics first.
8. Expand your range gradually form the mid-range simultaneously in two directions.


1. Pay any attention to your lips, tongue or any body parts.
2. Be concerned about blowing air when you play.
3. Consciously think about the mechanics of playing.
4. Think about air except to condition a deep breath over time.
5. Play too many high notes without balancing with middle and low register notes.
6. Play in extreme registers until you have developed a good sound in your middle register.
7. Pay much attention to the instrument you are holding.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Ladder of Awareness

At the end of a lesson one of my students commented, “Mr. Rocco, my trumpet is lie detector!” Wow! I almost fell off my chair! Yes, the instrument is a lie detector!


“You must be an honest musician because you have a lie detector in your hands!

“The instrument has no intelligence or music of its own. The music can only come from you.”

“The music does not come from your lungs, or lips. It can only come from your brain.”

The subconscious mind is not intellectual. It is reactive. Removing your hand from a hot stove is not an intellectual decision. The subconscious mind immediately responds to remove your hand. It is very difficult to consciously override this reaction.

Most of the time, the subconscious mind responds to the will of the conscious level of thought. Based on conditioning, it may react on its own when the conscious will is too vague to illicit a response. When this occurs, the brass player can get into big trouble! There will be much more discussion about this topic in future posts.

When someone has an instrument in their hands, their primary focus must be on creating sound, not their instrument or how they feel.

(founder, Vandercook College of Music)

“The first teaching point is tone (sound)”

The sound coming from the bell of the instrument is completely honest. It precisely reflects the level of musical awareness that the player is thinking.


“The Think System”
from “The Music Man”
Marion the librarian – “Harold, is it true that you have developed a revolutionary new system of teaching music called, THE THINK SYSTEM?
Harold Hill – “Yes, it’s very simple. Nobody has to teach you how to whistle. You only have to think the tune to have it come out perfectly clear.”

H.A. Vandercook

“Keep it simple.”

“If you can sing it, you can play it.”

Several years ago, I was able to trace Meredith Willson’s, “Think System” to H.A. Vandercook. In 1941, his cousin, Stanley Willson from Mason City, Iowa, was a horn student at Vandercook College of Music. “The Think System” is a paraphrase of his well known mantras.


“The key to playing a brass can be found in speech.”

(Nurtured by Love, Warner Bros.)

“We can teach a child to play an instrument the same way they learned how to speak.”

We label some sounds speech and some music. The mind doesn’t process spoken language and making music differently. They both originate in the same area of the brain. The musical message can be sent to almost any part of the body, such as vocal chords, lips, or hands. Jake talked about the transmission of the musical message from the brain to the lips, “through the seventh cranial nerve.”

I once observed a program on PBS where a violinist’s brain was scanned (MRI) while they were playing. The area that was active while playing was the same area that is active when speaking.


“If we want to produce vivid sounds on our instrument, we must have a vivid awareness of the sounds.”

The Two Vs, Vague or Vivid

“A vague awareness of sound will elicit a vague sound from the instrument.”

“A vivid awareness of sound will elicit a vivid sound from the instrument.”



“When encountering problems technically or musically, first sing (vocally), then buzz (mouthpiece). Transfer the singing and buzzing to the instrument.”


To help illustrate a vivid awareness of the music for my students, I asked them to imagine a tall ladder. I tell them that the top of the ladder is “Emerald City” from “The Wizard of Oz”. Their musical awareness must be at the highest step to reach “Emerald City”, the point when they can execute their notes successfully. Later one of my students, made two “Ladders of Awareness” for me. One was a miniature size so that it could fit it into a briefcase when I travel. When I give a master class outside Chicago, I request the tallest ladder available for my presentation. Over the years, there have been several 25-30 ft. ladders.

The steps of the ladder are painted with a “Yellow Brick Road”, the path to “Emerald City”. Along the sides of the ladder the words “Sing” and “Buzz” are painted. At the top In “Emerald City”, it says “Play”

Sing, Buzz, Play (SBP) is a powerful formula for brass players to elevate their musical awareness. I ask my students to sing and buzz in sets of three repetitions. They can sing and buzz in any combination, such as sing once, buzz twice or sing twice, buzz once. They can also sing three times or buzz three times.

Some teachers have told me that their students don’t like to sing. That’s acceptable since singing and buzzing originates in the same area of the brain. If the brass player has weak chops and fatigue has become a distraction, I have them sing only. I also ask woodwind players to sing and finger their instrument. String and percussion players can sing while they play. Elevating awareness of sound achieves the same positive results no matter what instrument.

I recall a time when I was teaching at horn class for non-brass players at Vandercook. A bassoon player excitedly asked me, “How can I apply these concepts to my bassoon playing?” I replied, “Where is your bassoon?”

I first asked him to play something on his bassoon. He struggled with the notes, sounding almost like a beginner. Then I told him to remove the reed from the bocal and buzz the notes just on the reed. He was perplexed. He replied, “Can I do that?” I said, “Just do it”

He found that he could play the notes on the reed, although the sound was somewhat crude at first. His reed playing improved after several repetitions. Then I asked him to place the reed on the bocal but to continue playing the reed as he fingered the bassoon. The results were so dramatic that he almost fell of his chair.

The sets of three may be repeated until there is a significant elevation of musical awareness. If they have moved up the ladder but have not quite reached the top, only a single repetition of singing or buzzing may be necessary.

I question the student by asking, “Where are you on the ladder of awareness?” They are always very honest because they have a “lie detector” in their hands. They also know I am going to ask them to prove their awareness level by playing. Frequently, they will tell me they need one more repetition.

When I ask a student where they are on the ladder, frequently they reply, “in the middle or near the bottom”. I follow up by asking, “What is your confidence level right now?” If they didn’t tell me they were in “Emerald City” when I first asked them, I know their confidence level is low. Occasionally, they will tell me they don’t have a chance to execute the notes because their confidence level is zero.

I never allow them play when their confidence level is low or zero because they will fail. This will only reinforce the negative conditioning associated with failure and playing their instrument.

I’ll ask them if their confidence level would be different if they are allowed play the passage on their mouthpiece. They almost always affirmatively say yes!
When I am working with a student who is preparing for an audition, I’ll ask them what their confidence level would be if it was just a “mouthpiece audition?” They always affirmative reply, “great” or “fine”.

I reply, “Guess what? It is a mouthpiece audition!”

Very few students develop negative conditioning associated with mouthpiece playing. The reason is the mouthpiece does not require very specific pitches in order to produce a resonant sound. Because it will accept any frequency, unlike the air column of the instrument, it is very forgiving of inaccuracies.

There isn’t a single air column that must be vibrated by a specific catalysis frequency in order to resonate. I describe playing on the mouthpiece alone as having an infinite number of air columns. Since it is very forgiving, accepting all frequencies, the player is mostly successful at producing a good resonant sound. They don’t develop a history of failure and have a high expectation of success. Their expectations eventually become reality.

When a student’s expectation of success is low or zero, I apply the Sing, Buzz, Play (SBP) formula in repetitions of three. After they execute a set or two, I ask if they are ready to play their instrument. Again, the students are always very honest. Sometimes they will tell me that they need to buzz the passage one or two more times.

If I hear a positive affirmation that they are ready, I allow them to play the passage with their instrument. Ninety percent of the time, they are successful on the first attempt. The ten percent who fail were not quite ready. I usually ask them to do an additional single repetition or a complete set of singing and buzzing.

I always bring them to “Emerald City”. I have never failed to bring a student or myself to success applying the SBP formula no matter the age or developmental level of the student. The number of repetitions of the SBP formula will vary. Eventually, a successful outcome is the end result.

It is very important for the student to develop confidence in the formula. Confidence can only come from creating a history of personal success.


“There are three truths in life; death, taxes, and SING, BUZZ, PLAY!”

“The student may fail the SBP formula, but the formula will never fail the student.”


Since there is no amplification of the mouthpiece buzz, I recommend that all external playing should be at a fairly loud dynamic level to encourage tone production. Playing softly on the mouthpiece will discourage tone production by causing the player to subconsciously reduced air flow. It doesn’t matter that they may ultimately want to play a passage softly with their instrument.


“Always play loudly on the mouthpiece.”

“Practice entire sessions just on the mouthpiece to avoid having problems creep into your playing.”

As a young player, I did an extensive amount of mouthpiece playing away from my instrument. I remember frequently taking long walks in Grant Park or along Chicago’s lake front. I played the mouthpiece as I strolled along. Another technique was to play along with my favorite orchestral recordings. I would buzz everything I heard coming from the speakers. I typically played the mouthpiece for 45-60 minutes before placing it inside the instrument.

For amplification, I recently began buzzing my mouthpiece into a small megaphone. I refer to this instrument as a “tubaphone”. I also refer to my tuba, “a megaphone”. The opening of the megaphone is the same diameter as my tuba mouthpiece so I sometimes buzz into it without using a mouthpiece. The amplification helps produce a more resonant buzz which makes it easier to play. And it is closer to playing the mouthpiece inside the instrument which is an important goal. My suggestion to the other brasses is to find a funnel that will accept their mouthpiece.


“Play the mouthpiece, not the instrument.”

“The instrument is just an extended mouthpiece with valves or a slide.”

“I gave up tuba playing years ago. Now, I’m an 18 ft. mouthpiece player!”

“Since I’m no longer a tuba player, the mindless collection of brass tubing has no negative influence on me. I’m free of the shackles that enslaved me for so long.”

Jake once told me that I had two different mouthpiece playing techniques. At the time I didn’t understand what he meant. It was only after I got in trouble that I understood his comment.

When I played the mouthpiece outside the instrument, I was singing the notes in my head as I played them. There was no other way to play the mouthpiece, so mentally singing became a forced issue. However, when I placed the mouthpiece inside the instrument, I stopped singing. I was “feeling” for the notes. Singing was sending music to the instrument. Feeling was trying to detect music within the instrument.

It’s a mindless collection of brass tubing. It has no music!


Since the nervous system is a “one way street”, the brain can only function to send or receive information at a given time. It is not possible to send messages with sensory systems, and it is not possible to receive message with motor systems. It is very important to keep the brain in the sending mode in order to create motor function.


“Tell a (musical) story. Don’t ask questions of your tissues.”

“The same area of the brain that imparts information through motor systems also receives information from the sensors.”

It is important to understand that the subconscious brain will be in the “sending mode” only if there is a musical message to send. When the musical message is vague or absent, the brain has no choice but to react by going into a “receiving mode”. It desperately tries to detect an awareness sound by feel. Since the mouthpiece is on the lips, the brain will attempt to convert the lips into ears.

Of course, that can never occur so there will be no musical message to respond to. When the brain goes into the receiving mode, all mechanics of playing shut down! The player usually reacts to their paralyzed body parts by consciously trying to restore function.

Focusing on lips or invisible air is not a “Yellow Brick Road” leading to “Emerald City”. It’s a path going directly to the “Witch’s Castle”!

Self analysis always leads to failure. When awareness of body parts becomes dominant over music, the player becomes increasingly paralyzed. Eventually, their ability to function may be completely lost. That is a horrible situation that very few players recover from. However, recovery is possible. I will discuss the recovery process in a future post.

When applying the SBP formula, it is not always necessary to sing or buzz in the same octave as the passage to be played with the instrument. Often, the notes are too high or low to be buzzed or sung vocally. Transposing octaves will still produce a desired elevation of musical awareness.

The brass player should elevate their musical awareness by applying repetitions of SBP. Once they can perform at a high level on the mouthpiece externally, they must transfer their mouthpiece playing to the instrument.

They must not stop playing the mouthpiece just because it is in the leadpipe.


“Transcend your instrument.”

“Transcend how it feels to play your instrument.”

I strongly encourage students to acquire buzzing devices such as a “Berp”. They allow the player to buzz and finger their instrument at the same time by holding the mouthpiece near the leadpipe. The instrument is less of a distraction when they place the mouthpiece inside the leadpipe.

Some teachers dismiss external mouthpiece playing because of the difference in feel when it’s inserted into the instrument. Brass players need to transcend the difference and focus only on the music.

Here are three brief stories about great players who transcended feel no matter the circumstance.

The first story is about Adolph Herseth early in his career with the CSO. Bud held the position of principal trumpet in the Chicago Symphony for 53 years! That achievement will probably never occur again. He is widely regarded as one of the finest brass players who ever lived. Jake always said he was the finest brass player he ever heard. He certainly was the best I ever heard. His greatness cannot be described. It had to be experienced! We only have a hint of that greatness on the Reiner-CSO recordings. I was very fortunate to have an opportunity to share a stage with him.

The CSO used to play a concert in Milwaukee once a month. We could take a train to Milwaukee but many orchestra members commuted by car. I don’t remember the specific circumstances, but I once had an opportunity to ride to Milwaukee with “Bud”.
It is not possible to buy five hours of his time for any purpose. What an opportunity! Naturally, we discussed brass playing. One of the stories he told me changed my life as a brass player and as a teacher.

Bud was injured in an auto accident early in his second year with the CSO. His mouth and teeth were badly damaged. He was told to, “leave the orchestra for a year to play golf.” Walking away from a challenge is not in the character of this great man from Minnesota! He chose to continue playing in spite of the severe pain he experienced when he brought the trumpet to his lips.

When warming-up in his studio before concerts, he was unable to produce good sounds. But somehow, he found the courage and determination to go the stage of Orchestra Hall to perform with the orchestra. Interestingly, while on the stage for performances, he could play well enough. Good notes came out the bell of his trumpet. His lips had not changed from the studio to the stage. He also played the same trumpet with the same mouthpiece.

What changed was his “state of mind”.

He transcended pain by making the music dominate his awareness. Everyone who was around Bud then, tells me that his playing became even greater after recovering from the accident.

I was once told a story by someone who attended a Maynard Ferguson concert where he split his lip during a performance. He injured himself so badly that blood stained the entire front of his shirt. He excused himself for only a few minutes to change his shirt. He returned to the stage to continue his performance as though nothing had happened to his lip.

I recall the time in 1973 when the CSO was on an East coast tour. Georg Solti was conducting Symphonie Fantastique at the Kennedy Center in DC. He basically wanted us to play as loud as possible most of the time.

Jake was very sick. He had a high fever and was coughing and wheezing from severe asthma. I had to carry his instrument (York) to the stage. While we were listening to the first three movements, I thought to myself, “You better be ready to play his part.” When the fourth movement started, he picked up his instrument to play. As they normally would, the notes exploded out the bell for the “March to the Scaffold”. Nothing was going to stop him from performing. His powerful mind transcended everything he was feeling. Only the music ever mattered to him!

I was stunned! I remember thinking to myself, “another great lesson from Mr. Jacobs.”

Thanks again Jake!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Resonating Air Column

ARNOLD JACOBS (quotations from Song and Wind, Windsong Press)

“There are acoustical laws that must be obeyed.”

All wind instruments, including brass, are nothing more than a length of tubing that defines a column of air within. The tubing shapes the column of air, giving it length and width. The brass tubing and mouthpiece design have some influence on the timbre of the vibrating air column. However, the player has the most influence on the quality of tone.

A professional musician will have the sound of an advanced player even if they are playing a beginner’s instrument. Conversely, an elementary musician will sound like a beginner even if they are playing a professional quality instrument. Dennis Brain maintained his characteristic horn sound when he played a garden hose with a funnel on the end.

Length is the primary factor influencing pitch on the air column. The length of the air column is changed by adding or subtracting varying numbers of half steps associated with valves or a with a slide.

What method must be used to vibrate the air column of a brass instrument?


The process of creating sound with string or percussion instruments is obvious and well understood. Strings are vibrated with friction by plucking, (pizzicato) or with the bow (arco). Occasionally, the strings are struck with the wood of the bow (col legno battuto). Sound is produced with percussion instruments by striking, rubbing, or shaking. We do not strike, rub, or pluck the air column of a brass instrument to create vibration.

Since the air column is invisible, there can only be a vague awareness of its existence. Many brass players and their teachers go through great effort trying to create an awareness of air. They discuss velocity, (“fast air”) or thickness (“fat air”). It is possible to have some detection of air’s velocity or pressure if we blow on our hands. However, at the conscious level of awareness, we are unable detect quantity, velocity, or pressure of air while playing. However, there is total awareness and mastery of these elements at the subconscious level.

In order to consciously detect the air, we would have to use the sense of touch or feel which is somewhat weak externally and very weak internally. We cannot detect air like a violinist is aware of their bow. The use of a bow, mallet, or air is primarily directed by the player’s awareness of music.


“The instrument does not direct the music. The music directs the instrument.”

“Ears are powerful detectors of sound but they can’t be used to produce it. Lips can produce sound but they can’t detect it."

"Lips cannot become ears just as ears cannot become lips."


The Rejecting Air Column

To create vibration, we must create a source sound (catalyst) that the air column can respond to. The catalyst resonance is produced by the embouchure. It is sent to the air column through the mouthpiece.

It is very important to understand that the air column will not respond to any source frequency. It will only respond to the very specific frequencies of the natural overtone (harmonic) series. The air column will reject source frequencies that are not specific to the overtones of any given length.

Rejection will produce a non-resonant sound, sometimes described as a “crack”. Rejection will also cause embouchure malfunction and breath resistance. These are symptoms that traditional brass pedagogy tries to alleviate. Creating awareness of air and embouchure are common mantras of many brass players and their teachers. It is much more important to create a powerful awareness of the sound.


“We must not waste our time treating symptoms of failure. We must treat the cause.”

“Far too many brass teachers assume that poor performance of their students is the result of problems with embouchure or air. There seems to be plenty of air to produce the discordant sounds coming from the bell of the horn.”

“Embouchure is what the subconscious mind creates in order to realize the awareness of the sound present in the conscious mind. It’s conscious awareness of sound that motivates the embouchure, not the other way around.”

“The sound of words motivate the vocal chords create speech. Nobody gives a child lessons about their vocal chords in order to teach them to talk. They only give them the sound of the words by speaking to them.”

“Fill the instrument with sound. It already has plenty of air but it has no sound of its own.”

(quotes from Herseth Lesson Notes by Tim Kent)

“There’s nothing wrong with your chops. Your mind is messing them up.”

“Think sound, not mechanics.”

The Accepting Air Column

In order to have the air column accept the source sound (buzz) that we are sending to the mouthpiece, the frequency must be precisely tuned to one of the partials of the harmonic series associated with its length. If this occurs, the air column freely accepts the buzz and begins to vibrate the same frequency.

Sympathetic Resonance

If two or more physical objects are tuned to the same frequency, one will cause the other to begin vibrating if the source is resonating with enough energy.
This process can be demonstrated by playing a note on an instrument into the free strings of an open piano. The strings that are tuned to the overtone series of the source sound, will begin to vibrate. The non-sympathetic strings reject the source without vibrating.

Timpanists tune the drum by singing a note into its head while adjusting the tension. When the pitch of the drum head matches the player’s vocal chords, it “sings back” the note.


“Play by sound, not by feel”

“I sing the notes in my head as I play them. It doesn’t matter how my lips feels or how I feel.”

“We cannot create sound using sensors. Sound can only be created by utilizing motor systems.”

“The nervous system is a one way street.”

"We receive information through sensory systems. We impart information through motor systems."


“Feel and fail or four letter words to a brass player”

The Priority of the Senses

The human brain gives priority to the senses in the following order. This order is based on the brain’s ability to receive information about the external world.

1. Sight
2. Sound
3. Touch (feel)
4. Smell
5. Taste

Some animals, especially nocturnal ones such as a ground hog, give a higher priority to smell or feel rather than sight. A bat, whale, or dolphin gives the highest priority to sound. A snake will give priority to the sense of taste as it “tastes” the air with its tongue.

We don’t play brass instruments by sight. As stated, we must play a brass instrument (or any instrument!) with a precise and vivid conscious awareness of sound. If this awareness is present, the subconscious mind will be free to create the mechanics of playing required to realize the sound.

Nobody is born with an instrument in their hands like they are with vocal chords. The mechanical skills required to play an instrument are acquired by repetition over time. However, these skills must be motivated by music, not by body parts or the instrument.

We run into severe problems when the awareness of sound is vague or absent in the consciousness. Instead of responding to create a sound with the instrument, the subconscious brain is forced to respond by searching for the missing sound else ware. The brain will not move up to sight in the priority of senses. It moves down to the lower sense of feel.


“Playing by feel is like trying to suck all the water out of an Olympic size swimming with a straw.”

“We must prevent our brains from trying to convert our lips into ears.”

“Nobody tries to listen to music with their lips.”

When the brain is forced into the “feel mode”, it tries to convert the lips into ears. The lips can detect vibration but not specific frequencies. As a result, the brain does not receive the information that it’s trying to detect. When that happens, there are no mechanics necessary to create sound. The player notices that their embouchure collapses and air flow stops. They usually try to correct their chops and create air flow by consciously trying to manipulate their lips and apparatus of breathing. It doesn’t work because the highly complex mechanics required to play can only be directed by subconscious mind.


“At the conscious level of thought, we don’t have the intellect or awareness of internal mechanisms necessary to create the complex motor function required to execute sound on a brass instrument.”

“Playing an instrument requires very complex motor functions. However, we must have a simplistic approach.”


“I want you to have the mind of a child.”

(The Inner Game of Music, Doubleday)

“Wouldn’t you like to perform with the carefree ease of a child?”


We are aware of the external world around us through information transmitted to the brain by the five senses. However, there is another universe within our bodies. We have very little conscious awareness of the internal world unless something goes wrong and we experience discomfort or pain.

The subconscious mind has complete awareness and mastery of the complex functions necessary for life support and other motor skills. Our subconscious mind takes great care of this inner world so our conscious mind can focus on other things, such as finding food or all the other things we experience in life like making music with an instrument.

When we attempt to bring a subconscious function to the conscious mind, we will the cause failure of that function. We don’t have the necessary intellect or awareness of the internal mechanisms to get the job done. It’s like trying to drive a car or play pool blindfolded.

We function beautifully in life because there is a symbiotic relationship between our conscious and subconscious mind. We can have creative thoughts or the desire to create an accomplishment, such as walking or talking. The subconscious mind responds faithfully to the conscious thoughts “on the screen” of the mind.

Jake described this as, “ordering products”. The product could be as simple as lifting a cup or as complex as creating sound with an instrument. In either case, simple or complex, the approach to create accomplishment is the same.

MAXWELL MALTZ (Psycho Cybernetics, Pocket Books)

“The mechanisms of success and failure are the same.”

(The Secret of the Ages, Classic Books America)

“The conscious mind is a gateway to the subconscious.”

Collier tells us that the “Secret” is the immense power of the subconscious mind. This power is little understood even though we experience it every conscious moment of our lives.


“It’s amazing what we can accomplish if we don’t (consciously) get in the way.”


“It’s only in music that I find the extreme self analysis that leads to failure.”

“Analyze the music, not how to produce it.”

“We must be somewhat unconscious of our physical maneuvers but highly conscious of our musical goals.” (Advanced Band Method, Hal Leonard)

It must be understood that a precisely tuned source resonance (buzz) must be created in the mouthpiece. There are two approaches we can take. Unfortunately, only one will consistently create success.

The “feel” approach will result in failure, causing the brass player to become anxious and insecure with the instrument in their hands. Their expectation of success will be low and they will have a high expectation of failure. Because of “conditioned reflex” (Pavlov), the negative emotions and expectations of failure will become powerfully associated with their instrument. In time, just holding the instrument will reinforce the player’s expectation of failure and associated negative emotions. Eventually, they may become paralyzed because the experience of playing their instrument will be like touching a hot stove.

Focal dystonia is paralysis resulting from experiencing excessive negative conditioning over a significant of time. Contrary to popular belief, focal dystonia is not a condition that is untreatable. I have helped numerous musicians, including myself, overcome this condition. There will be much more discussion of this subject in a future post.

I have worked with brass players who could not take their instrument out of the case without trembling at the thought. A friend, a very fine trumpeter who played in a major American orchestra, once told me he would choke at the thought of playing the mouthpiece when he woke up in the morning.

The sound (singing) approach will allow the player to create success. This will lead to a high expectation of success. The player will experience positive emotions, and confidence.

H.A Vandercook

"If you can sing it, you can play it."


“A history of success is a powerful motivator for future success. A history of failure creates a powerful expectation of future failure.”


“The experience of playing a brass instrument can be a joy if we understand how to do it.”

Once a brass player understands how to perform successfully on a consistent basis, they can be liberated from searching for the “brass grail”. All their attention can be focused on making music rather than playing the instrument. When a player is truly liberated, the instrument becomes meaningless. This can only occur when there is a total commitment to only the music.

Unless there was a technical malfunction such as a sticking valve, Mr. Jacobs was not influenced by his instrument. He was also never influenced by how he was feeling physically, which was fair to poor most of the time. I remember many occasions sitting next to him in the CSO when he was very ill. Never once did I hear him fail to perform at his normal level. He might admit that playing was more difficult because he was tired or sick. However, he never allowed anything prevent him from being totally committed to the sound coming from his bell.

Musical commitment is the secret of the “brass grail”. It is an experience that is the ultimate goal for any musician. I describe it as the, “clouds in the sky clearing to allow the sun to shine”. When one of my students first experiences this level of freedom from the shackles of the instrument, their first words are usually something like, “Wow!”, or “Oh my god!”.

There is always a beautiful smile on their face, confirming their liberation.

My number one goal is to create an opportunity for my students to smile because of their success.


"The job of a teacher is to create opportunities for success."

Thursday, November 5, 2009

A Brass Player's Story


(This term was first used by my high school students when they presented me with books of “Roccoisms” on several occasions.)

“There is no reason for your success or failure other than your,
‘State of Mind’.”

“Sound Motivates Function.”


1. First Failure!

In 1959, at the age of ten, I came home from school one day carrying a trombone. I was instructed by the band director to learn how to play by finding find a private trombone teacher. Of course I wasn’t going to wait until then to produce my first sounds. On my own, I figured out how to assemble the bell and slide and to place the mouthpiece in the leadpipe. However, that was as far as I could go without someone’s help.

After mindlessly blowing air into the mouthpiece with no resulting trombone sound, I decided that I needed to blow air and simultaneously move the slide. Nothing! My first disappointment as a brass player! Yes, I needed to find a trombone teacher.

2. The Trombone Teacher - My first and only lesson! The second disappointment!

I remember that the half hour lesson cost $1.50. I was a poor kid with no parents so $1.50 was a lot of money. The lesson was a waste of time and money. I would have been better off figuring it out by myself. I remember Jake once saying, “I was a pretty good brass player until I found my first teacher.”

After showing me how to assemble and hold the instrument, he proceeded to talk about blowing air and to create various levels of tension and relaxation in my lips. He wanted me to play fourth line F. Disaster! Where was the sound of F? Nowhere!

I must have spent ten very frustrating minutes trying to figure out what he wanted me to do. I only thought about my lips and blowing. He didn't provide me with any awareness of the sound he wanted me to produce. I don’t remember if I cried but I do remember my severe anxiety and disappointment I felt disappointment with myself because I could not play the F. I also noticed the teacher’s frustration which made me feel even worse.

Eventually, the air column of the instrument did resonate an F but it was only by chance. I had no idea why it happened. The lesson was such an emotionally painful experience that I never had another one. Unfortunately, I blamed myself for the failure, not the teacher.

My experience would have been different if he had sung the note or better, if he played it on his trombone. He should have said little or nothing about air and lips.


"Paralysis by Analysis"

I spent the next four years of my life trying to figure out what he wanted me to do with my lip tension and air flow. My elementary school band director soon moved me to the baritone horn, and eventually the tuba. He hoped to find some instrument that would bring me success. The next stop would have been the bass drum but I gave up playing in the band before that happened.

I went on to high school without continuing in music. Four years of disappointment and low self esteem were enough! I loved music but playing a brass instrument wasn't an enjoyable experience.


"A history of success creates an expectation of success. A history of failure creates an expectation of failure. Expectations always become reality."


"I expect the notes to be there."

3. The High School Band

One day at the start of my freshman year in high school, a friend excitedly proclaimed that he had joined the beginning band and was learning to play the French horn. I replied, “I used to play the tuba”.

It wasn’t long before he told the band director about me and I was back in music. He needed another tuba player in the band. Much to the chagrin of the other tuba players, he presented me with a brand new instrument that was kept hidden in a storage cabinet. I still couldn’t play very well but I was thrilled to have a shiny new instrument.

Interestingly, my band director was Rudy Macciocchi, a very fine professional hornist, who was on first call as an extra player with the Chicago Symphony. A daughter of the great Frank Brouk, hornist of the CSO, was a member of the band. Frank was the former principal horn of the Cleveland Orchestra and at one time or another, played every chair in the CSO.

His daughter and I became friends. She frequently invited me to attend CSO concerts when she could get free tickets in the gallery of Orchestra Hall. This was the early 1960’s before several later renovations tarnished the wonderful acoustics as heard on the Fritz Reiner-CSO recordings.

The glorious sound of the brass projected powerfully to the gallery. Jake’s bell pointed directly to where I sat. The sound was incredible! It seemed like he could lift the orchestra off the stage with the power of his tone. The impression he and the orchestra made changed my life. In my personal practice, I tried to imitate his sound with my tuba. Gradually, I sounded more and more like him. I soon discovered that I actually could play a brass instrument.

4. The First Lesson with Jake.

(Everyone called him Jake but I later learned from Brian Fredrickson that he preferred to be called Arnold.)

During the next three years of high school, I gradually achieved success as a tuba player, playing in the ALL-City High School Band in Chicago, and eventually in the Youth Orchestra of Greater Chicago. I had a few lessons with John Taylor before he left Chicago to eventually become a tubist with the Army Band in DC. However, my progress was mainly the result of imitating Jake’s sound on a daily basis.

At the end of my junior year, Frank Brouk asked me what I wanted to do as a career. I didn’t know if I wanted a career in music. However, I did know that I wanted a lesson with Mr. Jacobs. Frank and his wife relentlessly bugged Jake about me until I finally received word to call him. I’m sure he only agreed to see me because he wanted them to stop bugging him.

I had to call him several times over the summer of 1966. Each time I called he would say, “Rocco who?” I had to remind him about me several times before I finally had an appointment in September 1966. I was a 17 year old high school student at the start of my senior year.

At the conclusion of the lesson, he made an extraordinary commitment to me. He said, “I’m going to put you in the Civic Orchestra, training orchestra of the CSO, and give you a full scholarship to study with me.” He said, “Here is the reason why.”


At the time, I didn’t understand the importance of that statement. Yes, I had already been studying with him for three years. There was a fantastic lesson every time I sat in the gallery of Orchestra Hall!

5. The Career

Jake opened all the doors of opportunity for me. I first played with the CSO at the age of 18 while I was still in high school. He gave me all his recording studio work. I was his assistant in the CSO for six years and was on first call with the Grant Park Symphony. I regularly played with several brass quintets and assorted ensembles. He once told me, “You are starting out at the top of the profession.”
I consider my membership in the Chicago Symphony Alumni Association to be one of my most cherished achievements.

In 1973, Jake said he wanted to give someone else the opportunity that I had for so many years. I knew it was time to find a gig outside Chicago. In 1973, there were several openings for tuba around the country. I won a job with the Honolulu Symphony. Two years later, I won a one year position with the Seattle Symphony.

Coming from Chicago and the CSO, I wasn’t pleased with the performance standards of the HSO. Seattle was a much different musical environment. I loved playing there but I knew the job was only temporary. I was determined to work very hard to win another orchestra job after Seattle.

6. The Crash!

Early in my first HSO season, I noticed that I was beginning to lose my “Chicago” sound. I sounded less and less like a player who sat in the CSO brass section and more and more like some of the very insecure brass players I heard around me. I also began to notice the physical symptoms of failure. My “chops” didn’t feel right. I was no longer taking in large breaths and my tongue wasn’t functioning. I started missing easy notes and became increasingly paralyzed. This was especially true of starting notes. I complained about my symptoms to the other brass players but they didn’t know what I was experiencing physically. I could still play well enough to function professionally but I was becoming less and less secure.

As time went on, I tried to correct my symptoms of failure. I did breathing and tonguing exercises, and studied my embouchure in a mirror. My playing didn’t improve, it got worse. By the time I left Seattle in 1976, I was almost completely paralyzed with a horn in my hands. The darkest day of my career was the day before the first rehearsal of “The Ring”. I was forced to call the conductor to tell him that I couldn’t play the "Cycle". I was sending a substitute, friend Ron Munson.

My playing career was over at age 27! The only thing I could do was to come back home to Chicago. I was totally devastated! However, it wasn’t long before the dark clouds opened up and the beautiful sun came shinning through.

7. The Epiphany

My wife flew back to Chicago while I drove our car with my instruments and other belongings. It’s a three and a half day drive. There was a tuba mouthpiece on the passenger’s seat of the car. Curiously, I noticed that there were no problems with my chops, tongue, or air when I buzzed on the mouthpiece alone. I could play anything I wanted with a full resonant sound. There was absolutely no paralysis!

I was deeply perplexed by the apparent difference in my ability to play the mouthpiece inside vs. outside the horn. I decided that when I arrived in Chicago I would pretend that the tuba didn’t exist.

I inserted the mouthpiece into the leadpipe and played it the same way I did when it was in my hand. Bingo! For the first time in several months, I could produce a reasonably good sound with a tuba in my hands. The experience gave me the possibility for recovery. It was the opportunity that I was searching for. The implications of that moment greatly influenced my understanding of how to create success and what caused failure within myself and ultimately, my students.

I was young and determined enough to find the answers to why and how this level of failure could occur. I wasn’t out of the woods yet but I could see the sun shining though the leaves. That day was my personal liberation from searching for the “holy brass grail”. I knew the path that I needed to follow.

I have since referred to it as, “The Yellow Brick Road”.

8. The Teacher

My epiphany was only the beginning of the recovery process that has been ongoing for 35 years. Actually, once this level of paralysis (dystonia) has been experienced, a player (on any instrument) can never be truly “out of the woods” again.

All life experiences, positive or negative, are stored in the memory of the brain forever. While a person is alive and functioning normally, stored information cannot not be deleted like a computer file.


“We cannot erase bad habits. They must be replaced with good ones.”

In 1976, my professional playing career was temporarily over. I had to make a living so I decided to start a teaching career in order to continue in music. I’ll always be thankful to my wife, Karen and friends who helped me professionally and financially. Without their support, I would not have been able to continue my personal recovery and I would not have had the opportunity to help others.

I pursued a true understanding of Jake’s teaching. Although, I had studied with him for over seven years. Only his personal lawyer, a horn player, had spent more time in his studio. However, I didn’t fully comprehend his teaching.

Yes, he worked his magic, inspiring me to play very well in his basement studio on South Normal Avenue in Chicago. I never really understood the how and why of my success or failure.

I have always contended that if you didn’t have your lessons at his home, you were deprived of the complete Jacobs experience. The downtown studio was not the same environment. Most people who did go to his home for lessons agree with my observation. The basement studio was an incredible place! There was a steady stream of the finest brass players in the world who would come to his South side home. He frequently sent me upstairs to let them in. I was thrilled!

I began listening to recordings of his lectures and attended many of his masterclasses. We have Brian Fredrickson, his assistant for twenty years, to thank for recording these events. Brian and I were very close to Jake personally. He was our father figure so it’s only natural that today, I consider Brian to be my brother. Many of Jake’s recorded lectures are accessible at Brian’s website,

As I revisited his words, my understanding of his teaching grew to new levels. First, I applied this new understanding to myself. I began to comprehend the how and why of my personal success and failure as brass player. My recovery process accelerated. Within two years, I was performing professionally again.

I have been on the faculty of fifteen colleges and universities, both adjunct and full time positions, teaching applied low brass, brass pedagogy, and instrumental performance. I have also published numerous articles on brass pedagogy and instrumental performance for The Instrumentalist magazine. Since 1992, I have taught instrumental music at Mother McAuley Liberal Arts High School in Chicago.

As I began to apply Jake’s concepts to my students, I saw the same positive results in them that I was experiencing. I have never seen failure in any student that I had not experienced myself. This has given me a distinct advantage when diagnosing a student's playing problems. I know what's going on in them within seconds of their first notes. It's like looking in a mirror and seeing myself.

Interestingly, the success that I saw in my brass students was achieved equally on all instruments, not just the brass. There is an extensive article, published in The Instrumentalist magazine (November, 2005) about how I successfully apply these concepts to string and woodwind players as well.


“Failure is an opportunity to learn how to succeed.”

“I have always learned much more from my failures than my successes.”

“We can convert poor sounds into good sounds. We cannot convert silence into good sound.”

“If you want to truly understand what I’m teaching you, teach it to someone else.”


“To teach is to learn twice.”

In 1979, I began teaching at Vandercook College of Music in Chicago. VCM is one of the finest schools of music education in the country. I viewed teaching there as a powerful opportunity to influence brass pedagogy within the educational system.

Since I was a product of that system, I understood its shortcomings. I also had the unique opportunity of experiencing the highest levels of brass performance in the world, playing in the brass section of the CSO.

I knew that the educational system did not comprehend what the players in the CSO were doing to achieve that level of performance. Neither Arnold Jacobs or any of his colleagues were teaching brass pedagogical methods to music education students at VCM or anywhere else. I saw a unique opportunity to bring the two worlds together. The environments of the stage of Orchestra Hall and the elementary or high school classroom have more in common than they are different.

The information presented here is the result of forty years of teaching my most important student (myself) and the countless others who have shared the joy of this knowledge and experience. I won't allow this knowledge to become a lost art.

It is offered freely for all who have interest. I sincerely thank all my students for the opportunity to learn from them!

It is not necessary for anyone to go through life as a “suffering” brass player.