Near and Far

One of the biggest challenges we brass players have is keeping the sound consistent at different dynamics. I’m specifically speaking about the tendency for our instruments to want to go “dead” at the softer dynamics. As I’ve said before, when a horn comes from the factory it wants to be a laser beam loud, and a fog horn soft; and it’s our job to reverse this. But how? One concept I’ve put forth in the past centers on the way players use the mouthpiece. Generally speaking when playing the louder dynamics I advocate mentally filling the entire inner surface of the cup with the airstream. When playing softly I think of bypassing the sides of the cup and aiming the airstream straight into the throat. Of course when air enters the mouthpiece, it goes everywhere, that’s been scientifically proven, but the mere fact of mentally envisioning using the airstream this way does amazing things to the sound, by the way the aperture of the embouchure reacts. It is also very important to know where the airstream hits in the mouthpiece, a topic I’ve explored in other articles. For most players the higher the airstream hits in the mouthpiece, the better the sound.

I like to think of a soft dynamic as a forte moved 50 yards away. In other words it has all the intensity, clarity and focus of the louder dynamic, except from afar. Anyone can play softly, but to project the sound softly to the farthest reaches is an art form few people possess. Again, but how? The most important factor in projecting a soft dynamic over a distance is the speed of the airstream. The air must travel faster in piano, proportionally to that dynamic than it does in forte. If you visualize a graph of a dynamic going from forte to piano, the lines representing air speed and volume should not be identical. The rate of air speed of the descending volume should move faster than the volume itself. Many players make the mistake of decreasing the rate of air speed at the same rate of volume reduction. In other words the aperture of the embouchure stays in the same shape as the volume reduces causing the airflow to slow at the same rate of the volume. This causes the sound to go “dead.” In order to get the same sound at extremely different dynamics we must do completely different things.” Example: if you wanted to project a spot of light on the moon, how big would the beam have to be leaving the earth? The closer you got to the moon the less compact the beam would have to be to project that spot.

I like to practice taking one middle register whole note and playing it at a forte dynamic, then immediately playing the same note at a piano dynamic, trying to get exactly the same clarity, focus and intensity as the forte dynamic. As if the forte moved 50 yards away. If the brain is told “give me exactly the same sound at the piano dynamic as in the forte dynamic, the embouchure will automatically contract in size causing the airstream to move faster in relation to the volume, thereby keeping the sound relatively the same as in forte. Note to self; take the laser out of the forte and put it in the piano.