Getting the Lead Out

Lately my students and I have been addressing the problem of dullness in low brass sound. This is a very common problem in today’s large-bore world. In a quest for a “big sound” a lot of folks wind up with just a dull sound. I’ve referred to this before in such articles as; “Behold the Bright Seraphim.” I want to delve deeper this month into the things that can help replace a dull sound with a sound that is full of life and jumps out of the horn. Contrary to popular opinion, in my experience, lack of focus in the sound is the most common fault today, not only in this country, but as styles become a huge melting pot due to modern technology, many other places as well.

If I’m not mistaken, in the past there were more players who played 2/3rd’s upper and 1/3rd lower lip embouchures than we see today. Most players today either use equal upper and lower lip or 2/3rd’s lower and 1/3rd upper lip mouthpiece placement. There has been in the past much discussion about upstream, downstream etc. players, as well as the Pivot system, first cataloged by Donald Reinhardt. We all use the Pivot system in various ways and in various degrees whether we know it or not. Either the instrument tilts slightly up and down or the embouchure moves up and down in the mouthpiece according to the register trying to be reached. Generally speaking, the middle register is the most middle embouchure placement in the mouthpiece, as the tessitura goes higher the embouchure moves higher in the mouthpiece, or down on the face, possibly reaching a ratio of 1/4 upper and 3/4’s lower lip. Additional mouthpiece pressure is required to stabilize the embouchure for a higher frequency of lip vibration. The pressure against the upper lip causes the airstream to bend downward, so in all likelihood everyone who plays in the upper register becomes a downstream player at that moment. The opposite is true when playing in the lower register. The mouthpiece moves up the embouchure and the bottom rim closer to the lower lip. Mouthpiece pressure is reduced to allow the lips to vibrate much more slowly, and the airstream moves in a more upward direction. Thus; there may be no such thing as upstream or downstream players; it may depend on where someone is in the instrument’s range. Of course this is probably governed by the proverbial “bell-shaped curve.” In other words most of us will fall in the large middle part of the bell shape, and a few will fall at the extreme edges on each end.

How does this equate to making a better sound? I have noticed that when someone has what I call a “dull” sound, their embouchure is set too low in the mouthpiece, with the air hitting below the throat of the mouthpiece. That is why it is much easier to get a clear, focused sound in the upper register, because the embouchure and air stream move up in the mouthpiece, the airstream reduces in size, and increases in speed, making the sound clear and bell-like. The mistake that many players make is; in every other register besides the upper register, the embouchure is set too low in the mouthpiece and the airstream hits too low in the mouthpiece. This is because of the ease of producing notes in the middle and lower middle registers, players under set with an embouchure that is too relaxed and this causes the air to move too slowly. You would think on a Bb instrument, middle Bb would be the best note on the horn; it can be but often isn’t because we take the embouchure setting on that note for granted. Middle Bb has a wide partial space, and if a player hits the lower end of that space the sound will be flat and dull. This is also true in the register from middle F down to low Bb. The embouchure setting for that register is fairly relaxed, and if sufficient firmness and airflow isn’t used, that register will be dull and lifeless, especially in the softer dynamics. This also applies to the register between middle Bb and upper F and G. Without sufficient muscle involvement of the embouchure, the sound can again, be dull with a flat timber.

When someone plays in the upper register and the airstream naturally angles downstream, why is the sound clearer despite the downward angle? Because there is sufficient tension in the corners of the embouchure to narrow the aperture of the embouchure, which makes the airstream move faster. This is what makes the sound focused and clear. We want a focused and clear sound with a strong fundamental, because that type of sound will produce overtones, which will cause the sound to “ring” after it is produced. Overtones can not be manufactured, they are only a result of a strong fundamental. Ring in the sound is the echo produced by a sound that speaks instantly when a column of air is started with energy.

How do you know if you are getting the most “bang for your buck” as far as sound is concerned? Take this little sound test; take a middle Bb and play 4 super short notes followed by a long tone. If you need to cut the short ones off with the tongue to make them speak faster, go ahead. The object is to get all the delay from the point of departure to the full sound speaking. This is much easier done when playing very short notes. Now compare the time it takes for the short ones and the long one to speak. If they start exactly the same, you are in good shape. If the long tone speaks slower than the short ones, you need to work to make them speak exactly the same. This goes for even the softer dynamics as well. If it seems like the long tone always speaks slower than the short notes, or the short notes speak too slowly, try moving the mouthpiece down on the lips a tiny bit, use a little more mouthpiece pressure, and a little more firmness in the corners. This is the embouchure you should be using for this register. Long, short, soft, loud, low, high, the sound should speak instantly, except in rare cases. This will improve the overall quality of a sound more than any other single thing.