My excellent student Brian Johnston suggested I write an article on a term I used at a lesson a couple of weeks ago. I told him that a famous pop singer went to my high school years before me. His name was Mel Torme. He had a strange throat condition that muffled his voice, and gave him a unique sound when singing. They used to call him “the Velvet Fog.” I told Brian, as well as that worked for Mel Torme, DON’T BE A VELVET FOG! Yet I find many trombone players, bass included, not only sound like that by default, but actually cultivate this type of sound. They mistakenly confuse diffuse with big. How does this happen? Most likely it is an airstream that is too large for the dynamic, and hits too low in the mouthpiece. Of course there times when you want exactly that type of sound; for instance the first notes of the solo from Mahler’s 3rd Symphony, a middle A in the bass clef staff, fortissimo. There I would want my airstream to hit low in the mouthpiece, and be of a large circumference, which would in effect slow the speed of the airstream and take the laser quality out of the sound. The efficiency of modern instruments makes it very easy to produce a laser beam at the louder dynamics, and a fog horn at the softer volumes, and it is our job to reverse this. If I were to play this same note at a pianissimo dynamic, I would be at a completely different place in the mouthpiece. My airstream would hit much higher in the mouthpiece, even or above the throat. This would mean more firmness in the corners, thereby reducing the size of the airstream, making it move faster. If you move your embouchure down in the mouthpiece when playing in the upper register, reverse my instructions to get the same effect.
How do we get the “velvet fog” effect out of our sound? By setting our embouchures in a more proactive manner. There is a tendency, especially in the middle register, to be too relaxed in the corners of the embouchure due to the ease of playing in that register. Believe it or not, middle Bb is one of the worst notes on the horn because of the size of the slot for that note. There is a tendency to have too big an airstream, that hits too low (or high) in the mouthpiece, thereby slowing the airflow, and bouncing off the bottom of the cup, further slowing it. This is what causes a fog-like sound. Most people produce a pure, focused sound in the upper register, providing they are relaxed in the non-embouchure parts of the body. The challenge is to get that sound in the other registers, especially middle low, ie. low Bb to middle F, bass clef staff. When someone has what is described as a dark sound, I suspect there is air in the sound instead of a pure, centered core. Overtones can not be created, they are only a result of a strong fundamental. This will give someone a “pretty” sound rather than a dark one.