Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Brassaphone

ROCCOISMS

“I gave up tuba playing a long time ago. Now, I’m a mouthpiece player!”

“Play the mouthpiece, not the instrument.”

“It’s just a long mouthpiece with valves or a slide.”

“Play the mouthpiece in the same manner no matter where it is, in your hand or the leadpipe.”

I recall Jake commenting to me, “You have two different mouthpiece playing techniques. One technique when it’s inside the horn and a different one when the mouthpiece is in your hand. You must transfer the same successful mouthpiece playing technique you use when it’s outside the instrument to the instrument.”

At the time, I didn’t fully understand his comment. However, I knew that when I played the mouthpiece outside the instrument, my playing was always easy and I sounded good. However, I didn’t always have the same experience when I placed it in the horn.

Later, I realized that I was forced to mentally sing the notes when I played the mouthpiece alone. There was no other way to realize different pitches. However, when I placed it in the horn, my forced singing was replaced with forced feeling because the singing stopped. Failure was the predictable result.

ROCCOISMS


“Feel and Fail are four letter words to a brass player.”

“Playing by feel is like trying to drain a swimming pool with a straw.”

“The instrument is just a length of brass tubing. It already has plenty of air but it has no intelligence or sound of its own. That can only come from the mind of the player.”

ADOLPH HERSETH

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

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

As a young tuba player, I developed a virtuoso mouthpiece technique. On several occasions, people hearing me play in a hallway or a closed room mistook me for Jake. Wow! What a compliment! I routinely played the mouthpiece for 45-60 minutes a day.

I enjoyed playing along with my favorite Reiner-CSO recordings. Actually, there were no favorites. They are all wonderful examples of the finest art of orchestral performance!

While I was a music student at Roosevelt University in downtown Chicago, I frequently took long walks along the lakefront with my mouthpiece in hand.

THE KEY IN THE LOCK

THE MOUTHPIECE-INSTRUMENT DILEMMA


I’m always amazed that very few brass players or wind players understand the acoustics of their instrument. In my lectures, I frequently ask, “What is the resonating element of a brass instrument?”

The surprising responses usually range from blank stares to lips or lungs. I usually reply, “Do your vibrating lips sound like a brass instrument?” “Does an oboe reed sound like an oboe?”

The obvious answer is no because vibrating lips or a reed are only the catalyst that initiates the vibration of the air column within a length of tubing. Since the air is already present within the tubing, it is not necessary to “fill the instrument with air.”

ROCCOISM

“The instrument already has plenty of air but it has no sound. Fill it with sound.”

THE RESONATING AIR COLUMN OF ALL WIND INSTRUMENTS

Once I establish that the resonating element of a brass instrument is the vibrating air column, I ask students, “What method is used to vibrate the air column?”

Again, the responses range from blank stares, to “pushing air through the instrument”. Someone usually mentions first vibrating the lips but they are unable to explain how that initiates the resonance of the air column.

I explain that the process is not like using friction to create resonance with a string instrument or concussion on a percussion instrument.

ARNOLD JACOBS

“There are acoustical laws that must be obeyed.”

SYMPATHETIC RESONANCE


We must send a resonance through the mouthpiece to the air column that it can respond too, the partials of the overtone series. If the source frequency we are creating in the mouthpiece is identical (sympathetic) to a frequency of the overtone series, the air column will begin to vibrate at that frequency. If the two pitches are not sympathetic, the air column will reject the catalytic frequency, causing embouchure malfunction and resistance of breath. Unfortunately, traditional brass pedagogy is more focused on treating these symptoms of failure rather than the cause.

THE CUTAWAY MOUTHPIECE

I remember a cutaway mouthpiece Jake used with his students to encourage them to play the mouthpiece rather than the instrument. Most of the bowl material was removed leaving only the stem, which was inserted into the leadpipe, and the rim. We would buzz the rim while fingering the instrument. This worked well if the brass player could transcend the unusual feel of playing on the rim alone.

ARNOLD JACOBS


“We must transcend physical strangeness while playing by giving dominance to music.”

Later, Mario Guarneri and others developed a device (Berp) that allowed the brass player to use their normal mouthpiece in the same manner as the cutaway mouthpiece. The advantage of these devices was that playing "feel" became less of a distraction.

THE TUBAPHONE

A few years ago, I decided to create a simple instrument, without valves, by placing my mouthpiece in a small acoustic megaphone. I called it a “Tubaphone”. The effect was wonderful because the cone amplified my mouthpiece playing, making it easier to buzz with a resonant tone. I now refer to the tuba as a, “Megaphone.”

The Tubaphone sounds like an amplified mouthpiece rather than a tuba. However, it is the same shape as the bell of the tuba and more importantly, it dramatically illustrates the connection between playing the mouthpiece in the same manner inside or outside the instrument.

THE BRASSAPHONE (HORNAPHONE, BONEAPHONE, TRUMPAPHONE, EUPHAPHONE)


With the smaller mouthpieces, I suggest that my students go to a hardware store and find a funnel with an appropriate size opening. Some of my horn students, who use instruments with detachable bells, place the bell over the funnel for even greater amplification.

THE TRANSFER


TRANSCEND FEEL


Some brass teachers discourage external mouthpiece playing because of the strange difference in feel between playing inside or outside the instrument. Also, some trumpet teachers encourage their students to buzz their mouthpiece with a leadpipe in order to duplicate the “feel” of playing in the instrument.

ROCCOISMS

"When I use a megaphone to amplify the sound my lips, it's exactly the same process I use to amplify my vocal chords. I don't have any conscious knowledge of my vocal chords when I talk or sing and it's not necessary to have such knowledge when I create musical sounds with my lips. However, the powerful knowledge for singing and buzzing originates in the same area of the brain, but at the subconscious level of thought."

“We must not concern ourselves with how playing feels. We must transcend feel by having a powerful awareness of sound.”

“Feeling good is a by-product of playing correctly. We cannot motivate correct playing by trying to feel good first.”

ARNOLD JACOBS

"The key to creating success can be found in speech."

“It doesn’t matter what playing feels like. What’s important is what it sounds like.”

SHINICHI SUZUKI

"We can learn to play an instrument the same way we learned to speak language."

I like to illustrate the used of the Tubaphone by playing the same music, without the use of valves, on both instruments. Sometimes, I’ll even finger the Tubaphone as if it has valves. I refer to valveless tuba playing as a “Megaphone Concerto”

Another interesting technique is to personally finger the instrument for the player as they buzz their mouthpiece inside the instrument. Once they get past the strangeness of having me finger their instrument, they can focus only on their musical mouthpiece playing.

THE IMPORTANT ELEMENT I COMMUNICATE TO MY STUDENTS IS PLAYING EITHER THE CONE OR INSTRUMENT MUST BE THE SAME EXPERIENCE. I DO THIS BY HAVING THEM PLAY THE SAME MUSIC BACK AND FORTH BETWEEN THE TWO. THEIR PERSONAL EXPERIENCE IS MUCH MORE POWERFUL THAN MY WORDS.


ARNOLD JACOBS

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

ROCCOISMS

“A brass instrument is nothing more than an extended cone with valves or a slide. The valves or slide have no function in producing sound and little function regulating pitch. They only allow the regulated sounds created in the mouthpiece to be realized outside the bell in a more technically efficient manner.”

“In some ways, the invention of valves was not such a good occurrence. Too often, brass players think that valves are an important element of tone production. Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven wrote technically challenging music that was performed beautifully on brass instruments long before the valve came along.”

“It’s just the singing.”

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