Saturday, December 12, 2009
“Playing high is no different than playing low.”
“Think sound, not mechanics.”
The first consideration any brass player should have when they want to expand their range is the quality of their sound in the mid-range. Proper playing technique and a good quality of tone must be established there first. Then, we must transfer the mid-range quality sound to the upper and lower registers of the instrument. The same approach to playing quality mid-range notes will work beautifully in the upper or lower register.
I frequently ask a new horn student a “loaded” question. “Are you a high or low horn player.” That question is meaningless to someone who really has developed their performance skills. If someone really considers themselves to be one or the other, then they are only half of a player.
Although there are physical changes in the embouchure and the use of air as we move from the mid-range, those changes must always be motivated by an awareness of the sound we want to produce. We cannot consciously analyze how to manipulate our lips or air. We don’t have the knowledge, intellect, or physical awareness at the conscious level of thought to make that happen.
The subconscious mind has the ability to create the sound and will learn the mechanics if given enough time. Like the development of any skill, experience is the most important element of the learning curve. We must provide our subconscious mind an opportunity to acquire the knowledge. And we must provide time for the development of muscle tissues through the experience of playing. That experience must be gradual and two directions.
Too many ineffective brass teachers discuss the conscious manipulation of embouchure and air. “Tighten your lips to play high notes. Drop your jaw to play low notes.”
“Curve your upper over the lower lip”
“Play with fat, fast, or slow air.”
Since we cannot detect fat, fast, or slow air, such comments are ineffectual. However, we can have a vivid awareness of a fat sound and loud and soft dynamics.
“Sound motivates function.”
“When the brass player’s awareness of body parts is primary and music is secondary, there will be no mechanics of playing or music.”
HIGH AND LOW FREQUENCIES
It is very important that range expansion take place gradually and in both directions. The characteristics of air pressure and air flow for low frequency notes are beneficial for tone production. Conversely, the characteristics of air pressure and air flow for high frequency notes are detrimental for tone production.
The embouchure is less resistant to air flow at low frequencies so air flow rates are high. As we ascend in frequency, the embouchure becomes more resistant to air flow. Greater air pressure is required to move the air through the embouchure so air flow rates drop.
If we don’t expand our range simultaneously in both directions, the brain will begin to interpret the characteristics of air flow and air pressure in one register or another as the norm for all registers. This is not harmful if the norm becomes the characteristics of low notes. However, if the characteristics of high notes become the norm, the subconscious brain will create those characteristics in the middle and low registers where they are not normal. The only way that can happen is for the subconscious brain to create a resistance to the flow of air somewhere before the embouchure.
Although I never had an opportunity to discuss it with him, I always thought that one important reason Maynard Ferquson played the valve trombone (Superbone) was to balance the negative playing conditions of high notes with the positive playing conditions associated with low notes. Playing the Superbone was therapeutic for his trumpet playing as well as his wonderful musicianship
“I divide the history of range development on brass instruments before and after Maynard Ferguson. He showed the world that we can expand our range by several octaves and still maintain the musical integrity of mid-range playing.”
FOUR POINTS OF RESISTANCE OF BREATH
Jake measured air flow rates and air pressures required to produce specific frequencies on all brass instruments. He discovered that air pressures were about the same for any brass instrument at specific frequencies.
Air flow rates were not the same because the different length of embouchure for various size instruments.
The air pressure required to play middle C (256 c.p.s.) on a trumpet and tuba is about the same for both instruments. The note is relatively low for the trumpet and relatively high for the tuba. The actual pressures Jake measured were quite low even in the extreme upper register of the trumpet. He said they were much less than the air pressure created and released by a cough.
If we compare air flow rates for the two instruments, playing at about the same dynamic level, the air flow rate for the tuba is much higher than the trumpet. Primarily, the reason is difference in length of embouchure associated with mouthpiece size.
Playing at about the same dynamic level, differences in bore size and type, conical vs. cylindrical, would also have some impact on air flow rate.
Because of familiarity, the subconscious brain may want to duplicate the characteristics of high notes (high pressure-low air flow) in the middle and low registers where those characteristics are not normal.
The subconscious brain can accomplish this only by resisting the air somewhere before the embouchure (throat, tongue etc.) Resistance created before the embouchure will cause the embouchure to collapse because of the lack of breath support. The air pressure will increase behind the point of closure, but at the embouchure, it will drop like a rock. These playing conditions are disastrous for any wind player!
THE TONGUE (front and rear)
The tongue can be a major factor resisting the flow of air to the embouchure. It is a very powerful muscle that has the strength to resist the abdominal muscles. The tongue can restrict air flow at the front or rear.
It must be noted that the facial muscles of the embouchure are some of the weakest in the body. They cannot resist the powerful abdominal muscles which are used for breathing, defecation, and giving birth. We cannot resist air flow with our lips! Often, the player senses breath resistance and they consciously think it’s occurring at the lips because their embouchure is collapsing.
They instinctively try to restore air to their embouchure by blowing harder but that only causes the brain to increase resistance at the point of closure. If the cycle of blowing and resisting continues, there will be complete failure of the embouchure.
Since it is necessary to close the passage way to the lungs (trachea) when we swallow, it is also possible close the airway when we are not in the act of swallowing. However, opening and closing the trachea cannot be directed by the conscious brain. Nobody consciously thinks about opening or closing their throat when they breath or swallow. Some misguided vocal and instrumental teachers try to direct their students to obtain conscious control over this function by yawning.
It’s a waste of time and effort. We cannot have conscious control of a subconscious function. It’s like consciously trying to stop your heart from beating. We can temporarily stop breathing at the conscious level, but eventually the powerful subconscious mind will take charge and restore inhalation.
“In order to alter a subconscious function, we must alter the conditions that are creating it.”
Most muscles of the body are paired against each other to create motion in two directions. As a result, there are different muscles for inhalation and exhalation. If both sets of muscles contract simultaneously, there is plenty of tension but no movement of air. The player senses they are blowing hard but there is no movement of air. Usually, the teacher tells the student to “relax”. That’s another ineffective comment because nobody consciously puts themselves in an isometric state. It’s a way of creating paralysis because the player very has little confidence of success.
Occasionally, instrumental teachers have noticed that a young brass player may resist the breath by closing their mouth entirely when they attempt to play. It must be a rare occurrence because I have never encountered it with any of my students.
IT IS IMPORTANT TO NOTE THAT RESISTANCE OF BREATH IS CAUSED BY THE SUBCONSCIOUS MIND. IT IS MOTIVATED BY PLAYING CONDITIONS, NOT THE CONSCIOUS WILL OF THE PLAYER. SINCE IT IS BEING CONTROLLED BY THE SUBCONSCIOUS, WE CANNOT ALLEVIATE THE CONDITION WITH CONSCIOUS MECHANICAL MANIPULATION OF THE TISSUES. INSTRUCTIONS, SUCH AS “OPEN YOUR THROAT”, “RELAX”, “FLOW THE AIR” ARE MEANINGLESS ATTEMPTS TO TREAT THE SYMPTOMS OF OTHER PROBLEMS, WHICH ARE THE CONDITIONS OF PLAYING.
In 1979, my first year teaching at Vandercook, I noticed that I could hear the vocal chords of one of my students when he played the tuba. I didn’t mention it until the end of his first lesson. I asked if he was aware that his vocal chords could be heard. He emphatically replied, “Yes!”.
I also asked if anyone else has mentioned the problem. He replied, “Lots of people have been telling me for many years.” I said, “What do they tell you to do?”
“OPEN YOUR THROAT.” OR “STOP DOING THAT.”
“Did those instructions work for you?” “NO!!!”
Such meaningless comments never work. Students are aware of that fact but they don’t have the courage to tell their teachers. However, they do communicate it with their instrument. But much of the time, the teachers don’t get the message.
My student was at the beginning of his senior year but he could barely play his instrument. He was very concerned about his senior recital.
I never said another word to him about his vocal chords until after he played a very successful recital about six months later. I remember congratulating him for his excellent performance. Then I asked, “Have you noticed that you no longer make sound with your vocal chords when you play?”
He smiled and said, “Yes, thank you Mr. Rocco!”
Before we worked together, the student never learned how to be successful. His history was mostly failure so he had a high expectation of failure. This caused the protective reaction of his subconscious brain from experiencing further emotional and physical discomfort. The brain will most often try to protect the player by restricting air flow or creating paralysis of the embouchure. However, this subconscious reaction causes much greater failure and anxiety.
The solution was to provide a playing method that would allow him to create success. I simply encouraged the Sing, Buzz, Play formula. As he began, to experience success, his expectation of success grew. With a new history of success, came a positive association with playing his instrument.
The instrument began to have a positive influence on his state of mind. There was no longer a need to create paralysis because playing was becoming a pleasurable experience rather than a painful one.
I did nothing more than alter his conditions of playing by providing a methodology that allowed him to create success. There were no comments about air, embouchure, vocal chords or any other mechanics of playing. However, there was much that I did do (Sing, Buzz, Play) to elevate his awareness of what he should sound like.
In time, his subconscious learned the mechanics necessary to realize his heightened awareness of sound. Since restricting air will with vocal chords did not help him to realize the sound, his brain stopped doing anything to prevent it.
If a brass player frequently plays past the last third of their vital capacity, the stress of trying to force the air from their lungs will become a normal condition of playing. In time, the subconscious brain will try to duplicate the conditions of having to force the air from the lungs all the time, including when they attempt to play above the last third of vital capacity.
The only way the brain can accomplish the forcing of air is to restrict air flow. At some point before the embouchure, the brain will trigger one of the four areas of resistance.
The brass player who attempts to play higher notes than their development allows, will attempt to substitute exaggerated air pressures for their weak chops. They cannot sustain the tone with a weak embouchure so they press the mouthpiece into their lips and blow harder.
However, the air pressure required to play notes with strong chops, is the same as with weak chops. They will artificially try to increase the air pressure at their lips. Again, the brain is forced to restrict the air pressure somewhere before the embouchure and one of the four points of resistance will be triggered.
DYNAMICS AND RANGE DEVELOPMENT
Playing in extreme dynamics (loud and soft), or range (high and low) requires embouchure development and breath control. It is very important to understand that all mechanical skills are developed by the motivation of the player’s awareness of sound, not body parts or air.
If the player attempts to perform much beyond their development, the brain will desperately try to artificially alter air flow and air pressure to compensate for their weak embouchure.
In the case of high notes, they will also the increase contact pressure on their lips forcing the mouthpiece into their chops. Too many teachers attempt to treat this symptom of weak chops by utilizing elaborate exercises to minimize contact pressure. Nobody consciously make the decision to force the mouthpiece into their embouchure. It’s a subconscious reaction of the brain to maintain the embouchure when it’s collapsing from fatigue.
“Excessive contact pressure of the mouthpiece rim on the chops is the result of a weak embouchure. The solution is simply to strengthen the embouchure, rather than to treat the symptom with meaningless exercises like playing with the instrument suspended on a string or placed on a piano.”
“The perfect embouchure required to play in any register can only be created at the subconscious level of thought. It can only be motivated by the player’s conscious awareness of sound.”
The subconscious brain will restrict air flow for one or more of the following reasons.
There is a high expectation of failure based on the player’s history of failure. The history of failure is the result of not having a mechanism of success.
The player too often plays past the last third of their vital capacity, so they must force the air out of their lungs. The subconscious brain eventually becomes accustomed to forcing the air all the time. In order to force air, the brain must resist air flow by triggering a point of resistance.
The player attempts to play high notes or extreme dynamics without physical development. They will try to substitute exaggerated air pressures or air flow to compensate. The exaggeration will eventually become a normal playing condition that will trigger a point of resistance.
Breath resistance can also be a subconscious response to the player’s history and expectation of failure. This response is a protective mechanism that seeks to prevent further emotional pain and physical discomfort. However, the paralyzing impact of breath resistance exacerbates the situation, causing even greater malfunction and anxiety.
We must consciously alter playing conditions to alter a subconscious response. There must be a methodology that will allow the player to create a new history of success. Once the history is established, a new expectation will follow. The protective mechanism of the brain will no longer resist breath or cause some other paralysis in anticipation of a negative experience.
THE THREE STEP APPROACH TO RANGE DEVELOPMENT
1. SUSTAINED (LONG) SOUND
Long tones or slow slur studies require continuous function of the embouchure so they provide the greatest opportunity for muscular development. THE FIRST STUDIES in Arbans or the numerous slurred studies in Schlossberg are a good example of recommended exercises.
The starting point should be a mid-range key or note. The player should alternate studies a half step lower with a half step higher from the original starting point. Each subsequent repetition should continue by further alternating a half step lower with a half step higher. The interval between high and low repetitions should be increased gradually from the starting point.
The player should continue the sustained studies to a point of moderate fatigue but not exhaustion. In about six months, the distance between high and low should be 3-4 octaves or more.
“Maynard Ferguson showed us that range development is limited only by the player’s imagination. There are few real physical barriers.”
Because of some limitations of the lower register on trumpet, trumpeters may repeat the lower key as they expand to higher keys. The studies should practiced on a daily basis or at least 4-5 times weekly. With development, the amount of time devoted to these studies should increase. The mid-range starting point can be adjusted higher as the player expands their range. At first, these studies will cause noticeable fatigue, but that will alleviate with further development.
Like a healthy diet, range development should include a variety of studies. In addition to sustained playing, rapid scales and chords should be practiced. At first, I like to use the Clarke, Technical Studies for that purpose. The slurred exercises are written in every key starting in the lower register. I recommend starting in a mid-range key and alternate lower keys with higher keys. The studies should be played slowly at first and in slur to encourage tone production. Later, the tempo should be increased and the articulation should be varied.
As with the long tone studies, the interval between high and low key should be increased. They should be played to a point of moderate, but not excessive fatigue. With development, the player should expand the studies by half step beyond the written keys. Ultimately, the distance between high and low keys should be 3-4 octaves or more.
I also recommend similar chord and scale studies in Arban, Schlossberg, and Ernest Williams.
MELODIC STUDIES and REPERTOIRE
I ask students to transpose (or clef changes) simple melodic studies from Bordogni, Concone, Getchell or solo repertoire and etudes. They should start in a mid-range key and alternate lower and higher, gradually increasing the interval between keys.
“I knew I was prepared to play the “Christmas Oratorio” when I could play it twice through and a whole step higher than written.”
“Studies like Charlier, challenge the trumpet player beyond anything encountered in the orchestra repertoire. Each one should be mastered as if it is a concerto.”
“Playing skills should be developed beyond any challenge that might be encountered on stage. We always want to perform well within the limits of our ability, not at the limits of our ability.”
“Musical and technical development is the result of musical and technical challenge.”
“Only a history of success can create an expectation of success.”
The development of any playing skill requires repetition over time. It’s no different than what is required to develop the ability to walk and talk.
If we try to execute a skill beyond our level of development, the result will be failure. We must always accept a certain amount of failure because it’s an inevitable element of creating success. However, if we experience too much failure over too much time, we will develop a high expectation of failure.
A body builder knows that if they want to lift a 300 lb weight over their head, they must first start with whatever weight they can cope with. Then, they gradually increase the weight to continue strength development.
If a playing skill is developed gradually, we will mostly create satisfying successful experiences. This will continue to motivate the subconscious brain to develop the proper mechanics necessary to realize the player's expectation of success.
“We always realize our expectations of success or failure.”
“If we don’t have the discipline to develop our playing skills over time, we will suffer the consequences of it never happening.”
“The mechanisms of success and failure are the same.”
We must not search for the perfect embouchure, mouthpiece, or instrument as substitute for playing skill that is undeveloped. Once we have developed our skills, we can execute the music regardless of what instrument we are holding or what mouthpiece is placed in the leadpipe.
Decisions regarding the equipment we use should be based primarily on the quality of sound that we want for the music. It is acceptable to use higher pitched instruments to make the music closer to mid-range for easier development. However, the final decision of what instrument to use should always be made for considerations of sound.
If you can’t play a musical passage on a large horn, you won’t be able to play it well on the small horn either.
“Practice difficult music on a variety of instruments and make the music sound the same no matter what instrument you are playing.”
“I sing the notes (regardless of range) in my head as I play them. It doesn’t matter how my lip feels or how I feel.”
"We must liberate ourselves from the shackles imposed by self analysis. Let music be the key to your freedom."
“The function of a teacher is to create opportunities for success.”
SING, BUZZ, PLAY