Trombone Playing In fMRI Scanner

There have been a few videos lately of brass players who have gone into an fMRI scanner to observe what the soft tissue is doing while playing. Recently bass trombonist Doug Yeo was a test subject and he wrote about his experience.

Yet while trombonist and Boston-based brass pedagogue John Coffey (1907-1981)  summarized his teaching with the pithy phrase, “Tongue and blow, kid,” successful brass instrument articulation and tone production actually requires a bit more understanding. Teachers and performers have written legions of books and articles about what players should do with their tongue and other members of the body’s oral cavity, but such descriptions have been hampered by an obvious problem: we cannot see inside the mouth or touch the tongue, glottis or soft palate while playing. One’s tongue cannot touch one’s tongue in order to feel one’s tongue when it is in use. It is clear that much of what has been said about the workings of the tongue during playing has been nothing more than well-meaning conjecture.

It’s really very cool that Yeo, Dr. Peter Iltis, and the other folks at the Max Planck Institute are conducting research like this. Too much of brass pedagogy is based on guess work and conjecture. Brass instructors tend to teach how they think they play, but often when we look closer at what actually happens when we play we end up surprised.

Yeo wrote that while playing in the fMRI scanner he was very conscious of trying to “keep the tongue down and the throat open at all times, in all registers and in all dynamics,” as he was instructed by Edward Kleinhammer. Watching the video created by the fMRI, however, Yeo notes:

As I begin playing, you will observe that as I slur higher, my tongue moves both up and back in my oral cavity. There is also movement below the base of my tongue, with my larynx and glottis – the opening between the vocal cords – moving slightly upward. When I was playing, I felt no sensation of this upward movement in my neck; I always felt that my throat was very relaxed and my tongue was “down.”

We still have a lot to learn about how the tongue, throughout, soft pallet, lips, etc. work together with the breathing to play brass instruments successfully, but it seems that the evidence is mounting that at least most, if not all, players will raise the level of the tongue arch as they ascend. Why exactly this happens and what it’s doing for the player is mainly conjecture at this point, but we see this happen in virtually all players who have done this sort of study using fluoroscopy, fMRI, or even motion detectors attached to spots on the tongue.

I’d like to see this research replicated with performers who do (or at least claim to do) something different with their tongue position. For example, I have consciously worked on slurring and sustaining notes by snapping the tip of my tongue down to the gully below my lower teeth and gums, which helps me keep my tongue position lower in the mouth (I think) and seems to open up my sound. When I slur up I will think of pushing my tongue forward to raise the level of tongue arch. I would think that this instead brings the tongue position forward, rather than back in my oral cavity. Then again, this might look closer to how Yeo’s tongue arch is working than I realize. There are also some folks who articulate by keeping their tongue tip “anchored” down on the lower teeth or gums and attacking the note with more of the middle part of the tongue (some folks call this “anchored” tonguing or “dorsal” tonguing).

There is some footage of Yeo double tonguing. I would like to see someone doodle tonguing in an fMRI scanner too.

It is worth going to Yeo’s writeup of his experience and both reading the historical background as well as watching more of the videos that have been posted there. Thanks to Doug Yeo for making his thoughts and those videos accessible!

Donald Reinhardt on the Nerve Racking Ab Rattle

I was going through some materials I have accumulated put together by Donald Reinhardt for different students and came across his text on the trombone Ab rattle. Difficulty on the Ab above the treble clef for trombonists is very common. It’s a conundrum because in the classic cases the A and G just around it are usually easier, so there’s something about that particular pitch. Here’s what Donald Reinhardt had to say about it.

Muscular strain of any kind “chop-wise” can cause unwanted “rattles and overtones” – this occurs, generally speaking on the high “Ab”…When Frank Holton marketed the Holton Revelation Trombone, the ad stated: “POSITIVELY NO WOLF TONES ON “Ab”… So you see that this is not new by any means.

I recall hearing Christian Lindberg discuss it at a master class in the context of pointing out an particular instrument design that moves a brace somewhere different to counter the Ab rattle. It does seem possible that the high numbers of complaints about the high Ab could be due in part to traditional instrument construction.

Most rattles can be corrected by first making certain that all inner embouchure legs are offering complete support – . . .

For those of you who haven’t studied from Reinhardt, the “inner embouchure legs” is referring to the foundation of the mouthpiece rim and lips together against the teeth and gums. Reinhardt often used the analogy of the four legs of a table (or three legs of a stool, for certain upstream embouchure students). You want a solid support with all the legs, so nothing wobbles while you’re playing.

. . . second, that more pressure is used on the lower lip (rather than the upper that you are now using, unfortunately) – . . .

This particular handout I’m quoting was labeled for a particular student, but this is another common issue. The lower lip is thicker than the upper lip (I’m talking about bulk of the entire lip, not just how much vermillion can be seen) and is better able to take mouthpiece pressure. Unfortunately, when we get tired or play in the upper register it helps, to a degree, to increase pressure on the upper lip. This ultimately makes you tired quicker and if you really dig into the upper lip, you can cause damage. Most muscle injuries (at least, anecdotally from what I’ve seen) seem to happen to the upper lip. Keep maybe 60% on the lower lip as much as possible.

. . . that the playing angle of your instrument is too high, making essential jaw support impossible – . . .

This one goes along with keeping more mouthpiece pressure on the lower lip. If you are one of the players with a horn angle that is close to straight out or even higher, you’ll need to make sure that your jaw is positioned far enough forward to provide the support of the “embouchure legs” on the lower teeth and gums. If that doesn’t work, maybe your overall horn angle should be lowered to work better for you. Keep in mind that this is a feature that is different for different players.

. . . that the position of your head is too far forward – and lastly, that the throat on your particular mouthpiece is too large.

Trying a smaller mouthpiece throat may be helpful for trombonists to check if they’re getting a lot of high Ab rattles or even rattles in other ranges.

Press too much for pianissimo!

This sentence I think belongs with the previous one. My guess is that Reinhardt was pointing out to his student that he was pressing too much for pianissimo.

You must understand that lip strain (or, worse, ruptured chops) must heal slowly; therefore, it is obvious that you must kill the feel that goes along with the rattle. . . Mental damage is far worse than muscular damage. THINK THIS OVER.

The “mental damage” he refers to can happen to players in other contexts of embouchure dysfunction too. It’s very easy for the brass player to start “flinching” every time they get to that high Ab (or whatever issue they’re having). Perhaps a more accurate analogy are the golfer “yips.”

From the first note of the practice-day exaggerate the diaphragmatic lift and make certain that you are not over breathing. This though alone will heal up the ruptured rattle chops. AVOID PLAYING TOO LOUD IN THE MIDDLE AND LOWER REGISTERS…

There’s a lot to unpack in that paragraph. If you alter some of the language slightly and didn’t know it was a quote from Reinhardt, you might mistake it for advice by someone from the “song & wind” approach. Reinhardt gets remembered today for his discovery and classification of brass embouchure types, but he did work with students’ breathing as well.

That said, I’m not a fan of the way he instructs a “diaphragmatic lift.” It’s been pointed out that students can imitate this lift to match what they think they should be doing with their breathing, but without actually supporting the air correctly. I also note that the diaphragm is used during inhalation only, so while blowing you shouldn’t really have it engaged. Lastly, this lift of the abdominal regions while blowing is a result of correct breath support, not the process itself.

All that criticism aside, playing loudly in the middle and low registers does seem to hurt your upper register security. I notice this first hand a lot lately, since a fair amount of my gigging these days is playing early jazz styles where I play loudly in the middle and low register all night.

SUMMARY

  1. From the moment of placement do I find and retain my “legs” throughout the inhalation and the playing…
  2. Do I retain more pressure on my lower lip and lower jaw. . . even when fatigued!
  3. To keep my playing angle from getting up too high too soon in the range!
  4. That my head position does not get too far forward – ears line up with the shoulders!
  5. Kill the feel of the rattle – this is vital, do not take it lightly!
  6. From the first note of the day exaggerate the diaphragmatic lift – and make certain that you do exaggerate it for the first few notes of the day…
  7. REDUCE THE VOLUME DURING PRACTICE FOR ALL MIDDLE AND LOWER REGISTER WORK FOR THE TIME BEING.

Again, keep in mind that Reinhardt’s instructions above are for a particular student. While your milage may vary from the above suggestions, if you’re a trombonist with difficulties on the high Ab Reinhardt’s advice is worth looking over.

No Pressure Brass Embouchure – Fact or Urban Legend?

I’ve blogged about this topic before. The specific story is that a famous brass player or teacher is giving a clinic or lesson and he or she hangs the instrument from the ceiling and with no pressure plays a high, loud note with beautiful tone. I mentioned in that earlier post that if this demonstration actually happens I would expect someone somewhere would have it up on YouTube or somewhere else on the internet. All I could find were stories where someone claimed to have seen it.

Until now. Sort of. Here is my attempt to duplicate this experiment.

If you make it through the entire video you won’t see and hear good results.

The point of the stories I hear tend towards the idea that mouthpiece pressure is bad and that minimal mouthpiece pressure is optimal. Personally, I feel that excessive mouthpiece pressure is a symptom of something else that’s not working correctly and if you correct that issue the mouthpiece pressure will balance itself on its own, no need to consciously attempt to reduce mouthpiece pressure.

Beyond that, it’s obvious that some mouthpiece pressure is necessary, and it may be more than some folks realize. I’ve blogged about this topic before as well. Some amateur trumpet players who happened to be engineers designed an experiment where they showed experienced trumpet teachers photographs of different players (ranging from professionals to amateurs) playing different pitches they were unable to accurately judge how much mouthpiece pressure was actually measured.

So for now, at least, I consider these stories an urban legend. If you disagree, post your own video or help me find one and I’ll plug it here.

The Influence of Tongue Position On Brass Playing

Back in 2003 some physicists from Australia (Wolfe, Tarnopolsky, Fletcher, Hollenberg, and Smith) presented at the Stockholm Music Acoustics Conference on research they conducted on the role of the tongue position on didjeridu and the trombone.

Many players of wind instruments talk of the perceived importance of the shape of the mouth on the sound. In the case of the didjeridu, the effect on the timbre is so clear as to be incontestable. Among scientists, however, there is considerable variation in opinion about the effect on pitch [1- 4]. In this paper we report experiments on well-characterised model systems: artificial wind instrument players. Using plausible values of the relevant parameters, these show that vocal tract shapes can have important effects on both pitch and timbre.

Many brass performers and teachers, including myself, have cited Bernoulli’s principle as assisting the air speed as it strikes the vibrating lips for the importance of tongue position while playing. I’ve asked some physics teachers and engineers about this and almost all of them, with some exceptions, have suggested that this might be true. That said, this presentation was focused on the vocal tract impedance (if I understand this correctly, that is how the shape of the vocal tract influence pitch and timbre of a particular pitch).

On the didjeridu the influence was quite strong, perhaps in part due to the larger bore size of the instrument and the much larger vibrating area (there are a lot more of the lips inside the “mouthpiece” of the didjeridu than inside a trombone mouthpiece). They did note that it was an influence on the trombone, however.

The shift in pitch, over the range studied, is typically 20cents: a musically important effect for intonation. Preliminary measurements on experienced brass players showed a comparable shift in pitch when they were asked to lower the tongue, keeping all else constant.

They also noted that a change in tongue position can “cause a transition between different playing register.” In other words, you can shift tongue position and change partials on a brass instrument.

This has some interesting implications for brass performers and teachers. Some folks swear that they keep their tongue position consistent, regardless of what register they play in. This view is in the minority and I suspect that players who claim this aren’t even aware of their shifting tongue position. That said, different people are going to have variations in the size and shape of their mouth and tongue and it would be interesting to compare those players. I’m also curious about the difference between different traditional brass instruments. Do trumpet players change the position of their tongue more or less than tuba players?

Regardless, I think that research like this suggests that tongue position is an important part of playing in tune and with a focused tone on a brass instrument. Players and teachers dealing with intonation issues or poor tone may want to investigate what is happening with the tongue position and work out practice approaches that can help a player learn how to achieve an optimal tongue position according to the register being played.

Nils Wogram – Guess the Embouchure Type

Nils Wogram is a jazz trombonist from Germany. He’s really a terrific player, he’s got that great combination of excellent technique paired with a lot of creativity. I was surfing YouTube and came across this fantastic solo using multiphonics.

There’s not really a good look at his chops in this video to really guess his embouchure type. It *seems* like his mouthpiece is fairly high and close to the nose, but the camera never focuses closely enough and at a good enough angle to say more than his embouchure is one of the downstream types. I did want to post that video, though, because it’s a really neat example of what someone can do with multiphonics.

This video has a much clearer shot of his chops.

Wogram’s solo starts about 2:25 into the above video. Watch it and guess his embouchure type. My guess below the break. Continue reading Nils Wogram – Guess the Embouchure Type

Are Big Band Brass Players Losing the Concept of Being Team Players?

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Playing trombone is NOT like punching people!

I remember reading this essay by Doug Yeo years ago, Me, Myself and I: Are Orchestral Brass Players Losing the Concept of Being Team Players?. Back in 1997 Yeo expressed his concerns that trends in orchestral brass playing had not necessarily been for the best.

Go into the parking lot of any brass conference, convention or workshop, and you’re bound to find more than a few cars with the bumper sticker that reads, “Question authority.” Some would argue that this mindset is the province of trumpet players alone but that surely is not the case. Over the past twenty years, American orchestral playing has been undergoing a significant change, as brass players have (with some notable exceptions) asserted themselves beyond their traditional role in the orchestra.

Most students go through their “loud” phase, of getting together with other players and just knocking the living daylights out of orchestral excerpts. This can be great fun to do, good for the face and boosting to the ego. But excerpt sessions don’t always relate to the real world, and as many brass players have developed a more “muscular” concept of playing, the American orchestra has, in my mind, begun to suffer.

Yeo’s essay is specific to orchestral brass playing, but much of it seems to relate to big band brass playing as well, at least among the big bands I get to hear and play in. The details are different, as are some of the influences, but a lot is similar.

The job of balancing an orchestra lies with the conductor alone. But there is no denying that a 15 member brass section can ruin any orchestral concert (despite what the conductor wants) very easily as the combined volume of the strings and winds can never compete with that of even a single trombonist. Arnold Jacobs once told me that in his view, the bass trombone was the instrument of the orchestra that had by far the greatest “high volume potential” owing in part to the fact that after the flute, the bass trombone utilized the highest flow rate of any wind instrument, including the tuba.

John Berry, in his excellent jazz pedagogy text The Jazz Ensemble Director’s Handbook, wrote about the “Monster Bass Trombonist.” He’s describing a common trend in student musicians, not professionals, but occasionally I run into this player in the professional world (not recently, and not anyone I work with regularly now!).

About once a decade the music world renders up a bona fide (pardon the pun) “Monster Bass Trombonist” – you know, the guy who can play louder than any human on earth…

…A good MBT (or even a bad one who thinks he’s good) can “cop an attitude.” He becomes a star. He basks in compliments. He becomes a junkie for oohs and ahas. He craves ever more. He plays LOOUUDD!!! . . . All the time!

Well, it’s not just bass trombonists. You find them in the whole brass section.

In his essay, Yeo brings up equipment trends in orchestral brass playing.

Part of the problem is simple ignorance; the idea that Bruckner symphonies are to be played at maximum volume would horrify Bruckner, the reserved, insecure, Catholic composer of music for and about the church and the inexpressible “beyond.” Let us not forget that his symphonies also require us to play as soft as possible. Unfortunately, many players look at passages marked fff and simply blow until the seams pop. Unsatisfied with the way their instruments respond to this treatment, they continually hunt for something that will allow them to play even louder with a reasonably good sound. Hence, we now have tenor players in many major orchestras using bass trombone slides and 3 or 4G mouthpieces, and bass trombonists without leadpipes, playing mouthpieces that resemble tuba mouthpieces, and gigantic dual bore slides. All of these changes do indeed allow players to play louder.

This mirrors equipment choices of big band brass players, although the influences are different. Many big bands pride themselves on the “faster, louder, higher” school. Certainly big bands like Stan Kenton and Maynard Ferguson have greatly influenced big band style and the demands of those styles strongly influence big band brass players to make certain equipment choices that favor louder and higher.

About 15 years ago I went to a clinic the great big band composer/arranger Bob Florence was giving. One thing that really stuck with me is that he said, if the details I remember are correct, that he never uses mp dynamics any longer because bands never play soft enough. If he wants mp, he writes p. For p he writes pp.

I’ve been playing and directing the Asheville Jazz Orchestra for a while now. We’ve played a lot of gigs together, but some of the ones that stand out in my mind as being particularly good were those times we played without a sound system. Everyone listened closely, especially during solos, and dynamics were played consistently correctly. Knowing that there wasn’t a sound technician “fixing the mix” for us forced everyone to become team players. It was just a mental switch, but it made a huge difference in the overall quality of our music.

What about your experience? Are the big bands you play with a “blast fest” all the time? What gigs have you played were the musical quality was excellent specifically because everyone was a great team player?

Female Trombonists Needed To Take Survey For Research

If you’re a woman or girl who plays trombone, please take a moment and consider taking Holly’s survey.

Hello!

I’m currently a Music Education major at Nazareth College and I am writing a paper on gender bias in instruments for my educational psychology class.

I’m looking for female trombone players to take a survey on their experience in a primarily male community.

If you could send this link to any female trombone players you know or tag them below in the comments, that would be greatly appreciated!

https://docs.google.com/…/1-GkS3pZi0Oa6OyljSgK1sq5…/viewform

Thank you!

Holly

NCMEA 2015

This Sunday and Monday (November 8-9, 2015) I will be performing and presenting at the North Carolina Music Educators Conference at the Benton Convention Center in Winston-Salem, NC. While the conference does have a fee to enter, if you’re a member of MENC you get a discount. If you are a member, there’s a chance you’re already planning on attending. If so, please come to one of the events I’m presenting at.

On Sunday, November 8, 2015 at 3:30 PM the Asheville Jazz Orchestra will be performing one set for the music students and educators present. We’ll do a mix of my original compositions and some others by bands like Count Basie, Buddy Rich, or others. I haven’t finalized the set list quite yet. We will be in the South Main Hall 3 at the convention center.

The next day at 3:30 PM, Monday November 9, 2015, I’m joining Chris Nigrelli, Matt Buckmaster, and Wes Parker in a big band trombone section workshop. We will be performing some trombone solis from standard big band rep and talking a bit about how to get the best sound and style from younger trombone students.

I will also have a wee bit of downtime on Sunday evening and Monday morning. While I plan to spend it at the convention checking out other performances and clinics, I can also break away for a bit in case anyone is looking for a lesson or cup of coffee. Please feel free to contact me.

Guess the Embouchure Type – Brad Edwards

Brad Edwards, who teaches trombone at the University of South Carolina, has started up at the Trombone Embouchure Video Project where he is challenging many trombonists to video record their embouchures and post them so that others may make use of them. Here is Brad’s chops. Take a look and see if you can guess his embouchure type. I’ll hide my guess after the break.

Continue reading Guess the Embouchure Type – Brad Edwards

Weekend Picks

Here are a handful of random music-related links for your browsing this weekend.

Can you shatter a wine glass with your voice?

A human voice can shatter a glass. Every object has a resonant frequency – the natural frequency at which something vibrates. Wine glasses, because of their hollow shape, are particularly resonant. If you run a damp finger along the rim of a glass, you might hear a faint, ghostly hum – the resonant frequency of the glass. Or you can simply tap the glass and hear the same frequency. To shatter the glass, a singer’s voice has to match that frequency, or pitch, and the glass must have microscopic defects.

Mirror DuetThe Mirror Duet is usually attributed to Mozart, although there is some question about that. If you’re not familiar, it’s a duet where the two players stand facing each other, reading the same page of sheet music. And it works.

 

CsárdásI have no idea who Helen Amvroseva and George Shakhnin are/were, and no way to embed this video of them performing Csárdás on trumpet, trombone, and piano. It’s both impressive and funny.