More Uncle Blabby

Here’s a question from a trumpet player.

Q: Players talk about “fast air” and resonate sound in almost everything brass-playing related. I still have no idea how to change my playing to make my air faster and more resonate. All of my teachers have tried to explain it and I still don’t get it. They tell me when I achieve a more resonate sound and point out when I don’t but I am clueless as to how to change things on command. Maybe I’m just thick-headed and stubborn. Anything you could pass along would be very helpful.

A: Let me give you a concise, off the cuff answer to your question. I have had very few instances of players talking about fast air. Maybe I just haven’t been around those people. You don’t want to have the same speed of air all the time, although generally fast air is better than slow. How about this for an idea? When I play loud I try to use the whole cup of the mouthpiece. When I play soft, I try to aim my air right into the throat and bypass the cup. When I do that my air will speed up because I narrowed the aperture and it sped up on it’s own.

Want fast air? Take the first note of the opening of Mahler 5, C#. Play a bunch of super short, but fat low C#’s until they speak instantly. You will have to cut them off with your tongue to make them really short. When you can do this with a good sound, and they speak instantly, play a long C# with EXACTLY THE SAME START TO THE LONG NOTE AS THE SHORT ONE. Now thats fast air!! You’ll have trouble at first because the long note always starts with a slower air stream than the short one, AND IT SHOULDN’T. Then practice playing four or more short ones, and then a long one with the same start. Maybe start with middle C, because low C# is a hard note to start on. I was just using C# to demonstrate fast air problems. I have my students also practice playing a short low C# forte and then a piano one with the same start and tone quality to the soft one as the loud one. Now thats hard! You’ll find you have to think about fast air more in the piano note than the forte note.

Fast air means a note starts instantly, and at full volume and resonance ON THE DOWNBEAT. Then 80-90% of your work is done. When a note starts with a slow, soggy air stream, you will have to push more air in the middle of the note, AND THIS RUINS THE SOUND AND THE STYLE! When you get to the point that it feels like notes are jumping out of the horn, you will have fast air.

Now trombone queries.

Q: I agree with what you state about there being too much written about moving the slide as quickly as possible. I wonder if this has stemmed from beginning students who tend to have very slow slides. Do you have any thoughts on how to teach an amateur student to move the slide without going too far either direction?

I also have found very little written about two other points I find imperative to the discussion. One is when to tongue on tongued slurs. Do you believe the tongue should bump the air from the beginning of the slide motion or when the next note is played?

The other thing is changing partials when the slide moves in the same direction as the pitches. Do you consider this a natural slur in all cases no matter how far the slide must move from position to position?

A: I have answers for you that nobody ever talks about, and I don’t know why, because it’s obvious with a little thought. The reason why people are taught to move the slide as fast as possible is: when a teacher tells a student they are not using enough air, which is all the time, the student, young or old, jerks the slide fast in order to activate the air. The teacher says “good” and doesn’t notice that the slur got hard and mechanical sounding, only that the student used more air. The answer to your question is: don’t move the slide slower or faster, move it smoothly so that the air and slide arrive at a position at exactly the same time. The whole reason for loss of sound is when the slide gets to the position before the air, there is a blank in the flow of sound. If you have a fast air stream, move the slide with that air stream. If you have a slower air stream, move it with that air stream. The slide must move with the air stream, not by itself. When things are working well it should feel like the air is either blowing the slide from place to place, or the slide is dragging the air from place to place. Both of those images work mentally.

To your next question, the tongue should bump, as you put it, (I prefer “making a dent in the air stream”) right in the middle of the slur, ie: shift of positions, so there is an equal amount of legato on either side of the change of note. This means using the legato tongue a lot earlier than most people do it. This also means moving the slide at different speed’s according to the length of a shift. If a slur requires a shift of 4 or 5 positions, the slide will move faster than a shift of one or two positions, because the object is to make every slur contain the same amount of legato, and to do this you must do different things. The way to accomplish this is to have a mental image of the slur you want and then tell your brain and ear to search through trial and error until you find the perfect slur. My rule is: as much sound between notes as possible without a smear.

To your last question: I consider a long shift of the slide as a chance to produce an even smoother slur than a shift of one position. If a change of partial is needed, then it is a natural slur, even in the same direction as the pitch. The secret is to go across the partial early in the shift. If I am slurring from a middle Bb to an Eb above the staff, I will start going across that partial as soon as I begin to move the slide. It’s as though I am going to play an “E” a half step above the Eb with my embouchure, but because I don’t stop the slide in 2nd position, the E is not heard. What this does is make a smooth, secure natural slur, with the partial change right in the middle of the two positions, and with a continuos flow of sound between notes. If you perfect this, I guarantee you will never get a blank again.

Q: Are there times when you tongue natural slurs or do you always let nature take care of the shift? Do you use more than one syllable for legato tonguing in different musical settings or tessituras?

A: I’ll give you a perfect example of using tongue on a natural slur. In an audition or performance of the solo from Saint-saens 3, when you come to the last note, Ab to Db slur and your dying to hang on, I tell my students to softly tongue that slur to make sure the note speaks. There’s other spots like this in the repertoire, but generally I advocate to TRUST YOUR AIR! (and rely on it to carry you through.)

Q: With regard to trombone embouchure, how can we best describe how ‘firm’ the corners should be?

For example, in describing the embouchure to a beginner, some teachers ask them to “pfluff” their lips like making a horse sound, but this doesn’t produce ‘firm’ corners at all — lips and corners are loose!

I have also read articles in which teachers describe the ‘developed embouchure’ as having “quite firm” and “very firm” corners.

So, should the corners be “very firm” for the beginner or are the corners very loose at the beginning (except for the most mild of muscle use to form the ‘poo’ shape of the lips) and develop more noticeable firmness over time

A: I would rather have firm corners than tension somewhere else. I think beginners probably make this mistake. The corners should be firm enough to direct the air as straight ahead as possible. This depends on mouth structure etc. Having beginners buzz the mouthpiece to get a resonant sound is the best way to start. This should get the right amount of firmness in the corners.

Q: I have to say I appreciate you finding new and different ways to describe immediacy of air and it’s importance to a great sound. The “Torpedoes Away!” article really clicked with me for some reason, even though I’ve heard you talk about the same subject for almost 3 years now. My beginnings of notes are much clearer and start with such a sound that I don’t have to get other parts of my body involved halfway through the note.

I did have a question pertaining to the same type of idea, but in a lip slur. Say if you take a simple three note lip slur starting on low Bb (second line of the bass clef staff), and slur to middle F, followed by middle Bb. The first Bb would start with this surge of air released by the tongue, but since the tongue is not involved in the rest of the figure, would you still recommend to send a little surge of air at the beginnings of the following notes in the slur to achieve the same type of energy? Obviously there are a couple of different sets of muscles you could use to achieve this (rectus abdominus, internal intercostals) but I’m not as concerned about how you would actually do it, but just that you would recommend those surges of air.

The other way I can think of to achieve the lip slur is to engage a fanatically consistent column of air throughout the duration of the slur, as opposed to the aforementioned ‘pulsations.’

What are your thoughts? Thanks so much for taking the time and keep the great columns coming!

A: My answer would be not to use pulsations, but bend those notes upward, if fact try to gliss up to the next note. I practice bending lip slurs to make the actual space between the notes last as long as possible, like those old recordings of the big band trumpet players did. I want a flexible, rubbery air stream that resembles a taffy pull on lip slurs. In other words completely control the space between those notes. If you concentrate on keeping track and controlling and elongating the area between slurred notes, lip slurs or otherwise, the sound on the actual notes will be better and totally reliable. When I say bending, I mean BENDING! Really smearing that interval to where it sounds ridiculous. Many times when trying new things, people don’t take things far enough. If you can put that lip slur under a microscope and in dead slow motion, gliss evenly, you will eventually have real control over the air stream. At first it will seem impossible, but with practice and exaggeration you will be completely confident in your air stream to blow through lip slurs instead of around them. Once a note starts with a clear articulation, the air takes over in a steady manner and flexibility is achieved by the embouchure alone. If you pulse the air on lip slurs, then they would have a wincing quality instead of the smooth, flexible and continuous sound that the embouchure would provide.
I want to leave you with an idea that will serve you well as a wind player; If you will concentrate on the sound in-between notes, you will never have a problem with sound on the notes.