I really need to go through my inbox and respond to all the good questions I’ve gotten. This one is from January.
Hello, Dr. Wilken. My name is Kevin and I am a college sophomore who plays the trombone, and I just had a few questions. First, I would like to ask what the relationship is between free buzzing and buzzing on the mouthpiece alone. I can free buzz a little bit, but I do not do it often. And I can buzz on the mouthpiece fine although I wasn’t really able to when I first started playing which was about 3 years ago. Should you be able to free buzz a note and translate that into mouthpiece buzzing? Also, what would be the best thing to do to try and play with great tone? A lot of times when I play, I play with a nasally sound, and I really want to fix that. I realize that I should probably already know the answers to these questions since I have been playing for a couple of years, but my initial training wasn’t too informing because I switched somewhat spontaneously about halfway through high school. Thank you very much for your time.
There are similarities between free buzzing, mouthpiece buzzing, and playing your brass instrument, but there are also some important differences. If you’re clever and understand how your embouchure should function (or have proper guidance from a teacher) you can use buzzing to enhance your playing. If you’re not sure what you’re doing or are working under a false assumption, you can develop habits that potentially work against your playing.
In order to put this into context you need to have a basic understanding of the different brass embouchure types. Of the three basic types, two place the mouthpiece higher on the lips and are considered downstream embouchures. The third is less common, places the mouthpiece low on the lips, and is upstream. You really can’t choose your embouchure type, the one that works best for you is dependent on your anatomy, not your teacher’s embouchure or what player you want to emulate.
One of the reasons why this is important is so that you broaden your understanding of the influence the mouthpiece and instrument have on how your embouchure functions. Consider first that when buzzing, either with the mouthpiece or lips alone, you don’t have the instrument slotting the correct pitch according to the overtone series. This means that you can be a little bit off with your embouchure firmness for any given note and the horn will force your embouchure into the correct pitch, assuming you’re close enough.
Try taking a legato phrase or three from a Rochut etude or something similarly lyrical. Play those phrases on your instrument first and make sure you know what the pitches sound like, then buzz it on your mouthpiece. When you buzz it, I recommend you eliminate tonguing from the equation and only allow yourself to tongue the initial attacks after taking in a breath. Don’t worry too much about glissing between pitches, although if you can accurately mouthpiece buzz without sliding from note to note you should. Immediately after mouthpiece buzzing pop the mouthpiece back into the instrument and play the passages on your instrument.
Usually after this sort of practice players will find that their playing feels easier and the tone sounds more focused and resonant. Mouthpiece buzzing correctly will force you to focus the embouchure vibrations perfectly, rather than relying on the instrument to help slot the embouchure for you. It also requires more air to mouthpiece buzz. When you transfer the feeling of mouthpiece buzzing to playing the instrument it can make the playing more efficient in these ways.
However, often this feeling and improved timbre go away after a minute or so of playing. Furthermore, it’s pretty easy to mouthpiece buzz in a way that isn’t so conducive to good playing, but works great on the mouthpiece alone. Because of this, and also because the improvements you’re working on with mouthpiece buzzing can also be developed in other ways, I hesitate to recommend mouthpiece buzzing unless I am able to show a player how I prefer to approach it and how to avoid problems. In a nutshell, try to mouthpiece buzz with the exact same embouchure formation as you play with. Don’t let your lips get blown more into the cup when buzzing than how you normally play. It may feel to you like this is a good thing when you transfer it to the instrument, but I don’t feel this practice is sustainable in the long term for most players.
Free buzzing is also a different animal from playing and mouthpiece buzzing. As an upstream trombonist, I use free buzzing in my own practice purely as a strength building exercise. I feel that all players can benefit from some simple free buzzing exercises for just 2-5 minutes a day (follow my link above on free buzzing to learn about one exercise). Many downstream players can also benefit from free buzzing into the instrument. For downstream players at an appropriate stage of development free buzzing a pitch and then bringing the mouthpiece and instrument up to the lips can help them find the most efficient mouthpiece placement, horn angle, lip position, and fine tune other embouchure characteristics. For upstream players, and some downstream players, this exercise will work against your playing, so use at your own risk.
Regarding your question about playing with good tone, it’s difficult to offer specific advice since I haven’t been able to watch you play. Mouthpiece and free buzzing can help, if done correctly, but could also potentially mess you up if overdone or practiced wrong. Don’t forget the importance that breathing and tongue position have on your tone quality too. There are times in a player’s stage of development where it might be better to accept a thin sound short term in order to practice playing correctly long enough to develop the knack for opening up the sound.
Guidance from an experienced teacher with regular lessons will go a long way here compared to advice given over the internet. You mentioned you’re a college student, but not if you’re enrolled in trombone lessons at school. Most colleges offer private music lessons for credit, even if you’re not a music major, so check that out in the fall and see if you can get weekly lessons. Even if you already study from your college trombone professor, you might try visiting another teacher for a lesson from time to time and get a different perspective.
Good luck and keep us posted on your progress.