The Importance of Singing in Relation to Brass Playing

by Michael Becker

Throughout the course of my studies as a trombonist I’ve always tried to find new ways to play and grow as a musician. Many of my teachers have told me that it was important to be able to “sing” what you want to play. However, it wasn’t until I started studying voice and actively participating in vocal music that I realized just how important and beneficial singing can be. In this essay I intend to show how the physical and conceptual characteristics of singing can be carried over for the brass wind player, thus confirming the concept that the instrument is an extension of the voice.

There are many physical characteristics that are similar between brass playing and singing. The first, and perhaps most obvious, is that both use air. Air is drawn in and expelled. In singing, the vocal cords vibrate a column of air to produce pitch and timbre. The instrument “happens” to be the human body. In brass playing the lips act as the vocal cords which vibrate the column of air to produce the sound. The instrument, of course, is a coiled piece of metal.

In singing, the vocal cords know what position to assume to produce the pitch because this message is being sent there directly by the brain. If the person singing doesn’t hear a specific “song” in the brain then the vocal production is impossible. A vocal “image” is necessary. Most singers can identify problems that occur because of the internal connection between the brain and the vocal chords: their body is the instrument. A brass player can get away with not hearing the “song” because buttons can be pressed or slides moved to the correct pitches. The value of singing for a brass player is that one can eliminate, as much as possible, the instrument from coming between the “song” image in the mind and what comes out the bell.

When an instrumentalist can forget that an instrument is being played during performance, then the ultimate goal has been achieved. That goal is that the “song” in one’s head is the most important awareness; one shouldn’t be aware of the instrument. The instrument is an extension of one’s thoughts. Finally the instrument becomes more an extension of the body, closer to that of the singer.
Singers must also use the body to support each note that is sung. This technique is valuable for a brass player because then the tones are supported from a large foundation, namely the diaphragm and its associated parts. Though this is mentioned in brass technique, it isn’t stressed to the degree that it is in vocal technique. Again, this is because the brass player has an instrument to amplify the sound and the singer must concentrate on efficient use of the body for the same results.

If the connection between the major breath support is overlooked, the brass player has the tendency to support mainly from the lips, which produces a thinner tone, loss of control and less endurance. When the brass player uses more of the body to support the tone, the result is a larger, richer sound. But remember using support does not mean using strength and muscle to support your sound. Too much of that will create tension. It’s all about balancing the required level of support for the register and volume you are using.

Another benefit that a brass player may acquire from vocal studies is the understanding of the relationship between volume and projection. We can assume that a singer can’t sing louder (in terms of decibels) than a brass player. They can, however, give that illusion because they understand the “color” component based on the high overtones. Singers are taught to be conscious of tone, production and quality. When extremes of volume are needed, they still strive to keep the balance of low, middle and high in the sound. The balance of these three components provides resonance in the sound. In the extreme soft volume, if the balance is incomplete, the tone may become thin or airy. In the extreme loud volume, the tone may become shrill due to too much high overtone in the sound. The brass player can use this idea of projection in conjunction with volume. This will allow the sound to stay consistent and beautiful even in loud passages because the sound won’t be forced and thus distorted. Since it’s easier for the brain to think of one sound concept at a given point, then one must practice combining these three elements into one sound. The vocal practice teaches one to hear, choose and finally produce the composite sound that also includes the high overtones.

Another valuable tool in vocal studies for the brass player is the application of words. A singer has the guide line of a story to tell in portraying the emotional content of the music. Furthermore, the singer must think about each note and each phrase as an expression of the story. Why should a phrase be sung a certain way? Why emphasize certain notes? There are always reasons which are suggested by the text. For an instrumentalist, the specific idea of text isn’t given; the meaning isn’t so specific as with singing. It is left to the imagination of the instrumentalist to describe the emotional content of the music. Since using words is not generally the practice for the instrumentalist, it may be difficult to tell a “story” just using sound. Because it is the practice for a singer, it becomes second nature. When a brass player practices this technique it can open up the imagination in different ways. Instrumentalists can practice playing songs as a way to explore different aspects of expression: the use of a text can help one make musical decisions based on the way one sings the words. Using these concepts, brass players can apply this to the music without text. This is especially directed to non-orchestral playing. For example, when playing an etude, that has become dull or “notey”, if one finds similar phrases that can be recalled from a song, this can be imitated on the instrument. It is even possible that a line may remind the instrumentalist of a particular story that had been sung and thus receive a similar treatment. The singer can color different vowels which is difficult for a brass player to do. But if the brass player aims to achieve that variety as a concept through the instrument, one may realize some color changes. This can be a fine, subtle technique for the brass player who already is able to employ a wide variety of articulation and dynamics. Color changes are a much more elusive element, and one isn’t just doing it arbitrarily, but rather attaching it to an idea based on textual/musical thoughts. Words are tied into the music when telling a story and this leads the singer to emphasize a particular word in a phrase and in a poetically logical meter. It follows the natural speaking patterns. When an instrumentalist uses the singing technique of using words, the practice of applying natural lines or speech patterns to the music follows. This could be carried over to orchestral music, even if not consciously.

In other words, always tell a story!

The instrumental musician benefits in expanding the performance repertoire by practicing songs, which are short compositions compared with solo concertos or etudes. With a song, not only does the musician find reasons for playing certain notes and phrases in a particular manner, as stated earlier, but can also seek ways of making the whole structure of the song fit together. By this I mean the musician must provide a sense of continuity to the listener. Again, this demands the presentation of the story behind the song. A concerto may have many such structures within itself and the practice of short pieces such as songs is a good tool for learning these constructions.

Earlier I mentioned vowels and how they are used by singers to create different colors. Striving for different colors on the brass instrument will provide interesting options. But it should also be remembered that singers use consonants which contribute as much interest to the listener as vowels. While it is impossible to create the same consonant sounds on a brass instrument that a human voice can produce,if we have some idea of the kind of consonant sound we want as if singing, then, based on that idea, we can strive for different levels of articulation. The decision will be based on the content of the music and can be stored in the memory as part of our musical vocabulary.

Being a student of Arnold Jacobs and the the Chicago Symphony Low Brass, it has been instilled in me to always play in a”singing” style. We can certainly try our best to emulate a singing style when we play, but it would be even better to have a direct experience by actually studying voice to instill that sense of color, phrasing and expression that can carry over to our trombone playing. Take Jake’s application of “song and wind” literally and make the trombone or whatever instrument you are using that much more direct extension of your voice.