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."

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