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?

img_0087
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.

 

Christian Lindberg On Mouthpiece Buzzing

This excerpt from a Christian Lindberg video master class where he discusses why he doesn’t practice mouthpiece buzzing. It’s caused quit a “buzz” online, since he goes against what is traditionally taught.

The gist of Lindberg’s argument is that getting a resonant buzz on the mouthpiece and a resonant tone on the trombone really require different things and when you practice a good mouthpiece buzz you’re actually practicing a poor trombone sound. Now I’m skeptical of Lindberg’s demonstration, since how we think we are playing doesn’t always reflect what we’re actually doing. That said, I think the point he makes is valid.

But this doesn’t necessarily mean that mouthpiece buzzing, done a certain way and with appropriate moderation, doesn’t help. I generally don’t practice mouthpiece buzzing a whole lot anymore myself, but find myself going to it while teaching lessons frequently. I will usually have my student play a passage on the instrument, then take out the mouthpiece and buzz the same passage. When buzzing, I instruct the student to only tongue the initial attacks after a breath and let the air and embouchure change all other pitches. Repeated notes, say four quarter notes of the same pitch, will be buzzed as one long note, one whole note in my example. Following the mouthpiece buzzing I ask the student to immediately put the mouthpiece back into the instrument and play again.

The results are usually instantaneous. It seems to help players move more air and also focus the embouchure more precisely on pitch. It also doesn’t usually last for very long, so I tend to use this more as a quick “pick up” technique to get the student focused on more positive results. There are, in my opinion, other things which are more beneficial in the long term to practice, but are harder to describe because they depend on each individual student’s embouchure and stage of development.

What do you think? Does Lindberg have a point or is he off base? Please leave your thoughts in the comments below.

pBone as a Practice Tool

IMG_5009A couple of weeks ago I finally broke down and picked up a pBone. If you’re not familiar with what a pBone is, it is a plastic trombone available in different colors (I got a red one). They play surprisingly well, noticeably better if you put a metal mouthpiece in rather than the plastic one that comes with the instrument.

I picked up a pBone because I wanted a super-cheap instrument I could carry around very easily and not worry too much about it getting knocked around. Since I picked it up, I’ve noticed a couple of unexpected benefits from practicing on it that I hadn’t anticipated.

First, while the instrument does play pretty well it is stuffy in the low and upper register for me. This has been forcing me to really focus my chops and air on playing the correct pitch, rather than on allowing the instrument to slot the pitches for me. In some ways this is similar to mouthpiece buzzing practice in that if I play something low or high on the pBone and then immediately switch over to my real instrument it feels easier than usual and sounds better.

The other benefit I’ve noticed is when I practice Donald Reinhardt’s “Endurance Routine.” If you’re not familiar with this routine, you will play for an entire hour without taking the instrument off the lips for the entire time. While this is certainly tiring on the chops, I find that my left arm gets very tired from holding my trombone up the whole time. I generally won’t play this routine with my symphonic horn, which weighs more than my jazz instrument, specifically because my left arm gets so tired after about 20 minutes or so into the routine. Since the pBone is very light, I find that my arm deals with holding up the instrument for so long much easier and I can concentrate on keeping my chops set for the whole time without having to hold the instrument with my right had between exercises just to let my left arm down for a moment. It makes it much easier to get through the whole routine for me.

There are a lot of plastic instruments becoming available these days. I’ve seen plastic trumpets, flutes, and clarinets and I think there are others available too. While these instruments aren’t great, they are good enough to suit many purposes, including making instruments available for students who might not otherwise be able to afford to purchase an instrument to learn to play. At MusicWorks! Asheville, an elementary music program I teach at, we have some plastic flutes and clarinets that our woodwind students are learning. Eventually they will need to move on to real instruments, but the plastic instruments fit our needs perfectly at this stage.

Weekend Picks

Happy Friday. I hope that some of you might come catch me at one of my gigs tonight or Sunday. If you prefer to spend your weekend home surfing the net, here are some random music-related links from around the web.

I feel all music teachers should practice the craft of teaching, as well as the craft of making music. Dr. Brad Hanson discusses some Strategies for Teaching Aural Recognition.

The way we conceptualize knowledge in the general sense informs our understanding of musical knowledge and how it comes into play during listening and performance. If musical knowledge goes beyond the ability to recite facts and extends into the ability to operate on musical information through performance, the charge to music educators is to teach students to think critically in addition to developing basic musical skills. It is possible to structure learning experiences in lessons and rehearsals through which students identify problems, critically evaluate them, and work together to solve them. If ensemble players are expected to blindly follow the conductor, there is no room for decision-making or independent thought. In skill-based music curricula students memorize information, but are not challenged to use that information to solve or pose problems. Any curriculum that focuses on performance without the integration of history and theory, or without providing opportunities for students to pose or to solve problems is limited in its effectiveness.

Using electronic musician Scott Hansen (AKA Tycho) as an example, David Holmes writes up on How To Make It In the New Music Industry. Even though I’m not a huge fan of the genre of music Hansen mainly covers in his article, I think there’s some good food for thought for musicians of every kind in there.

…Hansen regularly plays to sold out crowds around the world and sells or streams enough of his music to make a decent living. This runs counter to the narrative that unless you’re one of the hallowed few who write disposable pop hits that play well to Middle American Clear Channel listeners, music is no way to pay the bills. His career arc is not the story of a man who profited by sacrificing his art to the trends of the day. It’s the story of how an artist, with enough time, pressure, patience, and business acumen, can build a sustainable career while staying true to a vision. It’s still almost impossibly difficult to accomplish and requires a massive amount of serendipity. Then again, you could say the same thing about building a successful startup.

In Bb is an interesting idea reminiscent of John Cage’s music.

In Bb 2.0 is a collaborative music and spoken word project conceived by Darren Solomon and developed with contributions from users.

And lastly, trombonist David Finlayson gives us a slide’s eye view of a Rochut Melodious Etude.