Deconstructing and Getting the Woof Out

I used this word the other day in an interview on David Cooper’s Instagram page. David is the Chicago Symphony’s new principal horn. I been thinking about it since then. In cooking it means to take a concept of a dish and using the same components, making a completely different result. Since most of us are stuck inside during this virus crisis, I suggested that we deconstruct our playing and reassemble it in a new and better way.

A thought occurred to me concerning this; do you decide what kind of sound you make on your instrument, or does the instrument? When I say the instrument, specifically brass/trombone, I mean do you blow some air into the horn and then see/hear what comes out? Or; do you blow air into the horn and know what type of sound will come out? This might be a good time to investigate this aspect of playing since we are possibly not busy with work, music making, etc.

There used to be a public service announcement that went like; “it’s 10pm, do you know where your children are?” I’d like to revise that to; “you are playing a middle Bb, do you know where your air is?” It’s not how much air we use, It’s how we use it. If you hear the phrase; “more air, more air,” that’s like saying to your dog; “Spot, stop going in the garbage and spreading it all over the kitchen floor, or I’ll lock you in your kennel and you won’t come out until tomorrow?” Remember the “Far Side” comic?” What we say and what the dog hears; “Spot, Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah,” etc. Not exactly apropos but funny!

What type of sound are we looking for? I believe the best sound is one that has as much center or core as possible. A sound that is as centered as possible is what I call a pure sound. Pure means there is as little as possible of anything other than core. A sound with maximum core will travel over a large distance and grow as it moves, like a beam of light, but it must start in a very concentrated form, the secret to projection.

How do we get such a sound? By charting the mouthpiece and finding out where our air should be directed to achieve the most resonant and therefore purest sound. To illustrate this idea lets do something very simple. Play an F above the bass clef staff mezzo-forte with a very clear, centered sound. Now on that same exact setting play a middle Bb. I’ll bet a dollar to donuts that’s not where you normally play a middle Bb. You are probably in the upper 3rd of the slot for Bb, Bb being one of the largest slots on the horn. Since we are almost all downstream players, your air will be flowing much more directly into the throat of the mouthpiece, producing a focused, clear sound. If your air was hitting in the middle or below the center point in the mouthpiece the air would not be as directly flowing into the throat and this would take the focus out of the sound, with air taking it’s place resulting in what is commonly referred to as a “dark” sound. Why don’t we want a dark sound? When you think about it where is the trombone family’s sound in a band or orchestra? Near the bottom! Therefore we don’t need a dark sound. Being at the bottom of the spectrum of a musical ensemble we need the opposite of a dark sound. We need a bright, clear, pure sound to be heard at all without the necessity to play louder than the dynamic marked. What you ask; “if I want a bigger sound?” Answer; get bigger equipment and play it the same way; clear, vibrant and pure, not dull!

If we play the dynamics forte and fortissimo the opposite tendency will happen. There will be too much center in the sound and the sound will have too much “edge.” To correct this we must move our air down toward the bottom of the mouthpiece so that the air will not go directly into the throat but fill the entire cup first. This will take the “laser” out of the sound in the loudest dynamics.
Incidentally this is not the natural tendency of the horn. As I’ve said innumerable times; “when the horn comes from the factory it wants to be a laser-beam loud and a foghorn soft, and we have to reverse that!”

Every register and dynamic has its own “secret recipe” for getting the purest sound. Chief among this is where and how the air enters the mouthpiece. Most of us in an effort to stay relaxed, (a laudable idea) tend to underset our embouchure knowingly or unknowingly to get a “bigger, darker” sound, or, maybe we are just not pro-active enough with the embouchure to get the pure sound of our dreams, or what should be our dreams. Relaxation is a great thing at the right time and place but not at every crucial time and place. The middle Bb on an upper F embouchure should give us a good template for what other registers should sound like. Besides where the air enters the mouthpiece, contact with the mouthpiece and how firm the corners are are crucial elements in producing a pure sound. I will expound on this in future articles.