This month’s topic will be on one of the most important aspects of brass/trombone playing: the approach and theory of sound production. I have found very little pedagogy on the subject, and when I ask players if their instruction ever focused on this, the answer is usually no, or “use more air.” “Use more air” is a common and useful bit of advice, but only covers the broadest explanation of producing sound. How you use more air is as important as actually using more air. Simply using more air in less than the most efficient manner will give you a louder version of an inefficient sound.
All right, “lets get physical,” as the song says. What are we looking for in an efficient sound? What is an efficient sound anyway? No matter how many ways I try to describe an optimum sound I always return to one adjective: pure. A pure sound is a sound that has very little “air” in it. It is mostly core or focus. A good analogy is in the making of gold jewelry. There are various grades of gold such as 10 Karat, 12, 14, 18, 22, and 24 Karat, which is the purest. Pure in gold and brass/trombone playing means as little as possible of things that aren’t gold or core. Core means getting as much air out of the sound as possible. Air in the sound is the filler that is not fundamental or core. Air in the sound can also make a sound that is described as “dark.” The air in the sound causes the fundamental to be diffuse and spreads it over a bigger surface thereby reducing carrying distance, projection and purity.
The obvious question is; then how do you make a bigger sound? The answer is: get bigger equipment, then play it as clearly and as focused as possible, or pure. There are several things that go into making a pure sound;
- sufficient firmness in the corners of the embouchure.
- size of the aperture of the embouchure.
- speed of the air.
- where the air hits in the mouthpiece.
- amount of mouthpiece connection to the embouchure.
- embouchure position in mouthpiece. (see no. 4)
- As much work as possible from the chin up, and as little as possible in the rest of the body including the slide arm!
If these things are treated as a recipe with precise measurements of each, a pure sound is possible to attain. I have noticed some general habits that make it more difficult to purify a sound;
The 7 deadly sins:
- not enough firmness in the corners.
- too big an aperture at the point of departure.
- air moving too slowly at soft and middle dynamics.
- air stream hitting too low in the mouthpiece.
- not enough stability of mouthpiece to face.
- embouchure set too low in mouthpiece.
- Not enough work load from the embouchure and too much from the body.
Generally speaking, we want a sound that literally “jumps out of the horn.” Can you think of a great artist on any instrument or voice who had a “dead sound?” I don’t think so. A crucial aspect to getting a pure sound is eliminating the time between trying to start a sound and the sound actually speaking. Nothing is as detrimental to the quality of a sound as “morphing into it.”
Many players mistakenly think that starting a note with it speaking at full volume instantly is somehow unmusical. The answer is; clarity with a beautiful sound is never unmusical.
Every partial has a certain size slot. The higher the register, the narrower the slot. Middle and low registers have wider slots for the embouchure to aim for. I have found that the best sound is obtained by being in the upper third of each slot. This helps ensure that the air doesn’t hit too low in the mouthpiece which causes the sound to be uncentered and “airy.” Since most players have airstreams that emerge at various downward angles, being in the middle of the mouthpiece will cause the airstream to hit too low in the mouthpiece, dispersing the airstream and resulting in an airy, dead sound, sometimes referred to erroneously as “dark.” When I hear someone with that type of sound I advise them to get the airstream up in the mouthpiece, either straight into the throat or in extreme cases, right under the upper rim. This immediately speeds up and directs the air straight to the target, which is the center of the mouthpiece, lead pipe and tubing. Let’s eliminate the middle man!