He Who Hesitates

This month’s topics will be short and sweet, but very important none the less. Many people have a problem starting notes, and this can progress into a major problem, in fact this problem has ended playing careers as well. I have a thought process that I use to help people alleviate this problem. Starting notes has usually been thought of as a two step process; 1-air intake, and 2-exhaling. What sometimes happens is, a note will not speak immediately and this causes concern in the players mind, and over a period of time can build into a major fear of starting notes, when the problem is that very fear itself.

For people that have this problem, I have them rethink the process of starting a note, and change the sequence from a two step process, into a one step process. Instead of taking in air, stopping and then releasing the air, I have them visualize a one step process where the air is taken in, makes a tight U-turn in the mouth, and goes out in an uninterrupted flow. The tongue still seals the aperture for a millisecond to start the note cleanly, and crisply, however the air flows in one continuous motion, and that little U-turn makes sure there is no hesitation.

I also follow this up with a technique where I have someone change the anticipated point of departure. If someone counts a moderate 4/4 bar to prepare for an entrance, and breathes on count 4, which is a good way to physically and mentally start a phrase, and they still have a problem starting the first note, I will change the point of departure from the downbeat of the bar to the and of 4 of the preparatory bar. Instead of inhaling on beat 4 of the silent bar, I will have them breath on the and of 3, take a whole beat to inhale, and start the note on the and of 4. This completely changes the fear factor point and therefore provides a new sensation, which is usually free of hesitancy. Then it is just a matter of building that confidence into a kind of show-off mentality, where the person gets so proud of there ability to articulate, they want to show it off to other people.

Now lets talk about those problem notes on the trombone, G and Ab above the bass clef staff. When playing forte and fortissimo, it is a big problem to make a nice warm sound on those notes. I have a suggestion that may help players achieve a round sound on those notes when playing loud and avoiding a laser beam quality. First of all it is important to use more mouthpiece pressure to stabilize the embouchure in that register. This idea that you use the same amount of pressure all over the various registers sounds very nice, but has no validity in actual practice. Even on a simple octave change between Eb in the staff and an octave higher, requires an added amount of mouthpiece pressure, and of course an equal amount of air flow to balance that pressure. Besides more seal, (as I refer to it) I like to add another technique to produce a round, edgeless sound in that register. I actually set my embouchure a little more firmly for those notes, and then try to aim for the low side of that pitch. I do this by having my air stream hit the mouthpiece at little lower angle than normal, which produces a warmer sound. Since I set my corners more firmly for those notes, I don’t slide off them. This can be accomplished by moving the mouthpiece slightly higher on the lips, or by just aiming the air at a lower angle. Contrast that with playing a middle Bb, where you need to aim for the very upper part of the pitch, to avoid a dead, lifeless sound, which I hear so many people producing these days.

Almost all of you will be in a teaching situation at some point in your careers, and I want to talk about a problem that sometimes crops up. Usually when I work with someone on an extended basis, at the beginning, they aren’t critical enough of their mistakes or faulty notes. This could be cracked notes or just inferior sound quality. They tend to want to play through stuff rather than really concentrate on their weaknesses. (Don’t we all.) I mean just going back and making sure every note they play produces their best possible sound, etc. In other words being really picky. However, after working with some people over a period of time, certain players have the opposite problem. They get so picky about everything that they can’t play three notes without stopping and obsessing over things that may or may not be there. For every student there must be a perfect balance between the two extremes, and it probably varies from player to player. This is probably an art that requires the greatest intuition and observation. I raise this question to bring it into the light of day, and maybe spark some discussion and research on the subject.