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.

10 Proven Ways to Improve Your Breathing Collected By Will Kimball

I’ve posted before about Will Kimball’s excellent blog. Kimball teaches trombone at Brigham Young University and usually posts on historical topics. Here is a great essay he wrote concerning breathing for brass players. He searched through scientific literature to get at the truth behind breathing and came up with 10 Ways To Improve your breathing based on what we know scientifically.

  1. Practice taking deep breaths
  2. Eat fruit and vegetables
  3. Don’t smoke
  4. Stay physically fit
  5. Allow full expansion
  6. Don’t wear tight clothes
  7. Avoid eating a lot before performing
  8. Relax
  9. Maintain good posture
  10. Take big breaths, even when you don’t think you need them

Much of the above list he compiled is common sense, but some of it goes against the grain of our brass playing urban legends. For example, Kimball mentions the belief (among some brass players) that carrying some extra weight improves lung function or lung capacity, scientific studies actually show the reverse to be true. Time to hit the gym a little more.

The last point, taking big breaths even when it doesn’t seem necessary for the phrase, has at least one caveat. Citing Arend Bouhuys, a specialist in respiration who has studied musicians, Kimball points out that with a larger breath less effort is required to exhale air, helping the musician to maintain relaxed effort in playing. Essentially the internal pressure of having a full breath means the musician simply relaxes to begin exhalation, rather than having to engage the muscles of expiration. However, Kimball also notes that in soft playing that this practice could potentially work against the player as he or she will need to work against the natural tendency for exhalation with the full breath or risk moving too much air.

Although Kimball doesn’t refer to it, I think that the same can apply to extreme upper register playing as well. Playing in the upper register requires a much smaller aperture and moves less air, much like playing soft. Often times I find that taking a very large breath to attack a pitch in the upper register results in too much air pressure and taking in a bit less air makes it easier to get a clean attack.

At any rate, the whole article is worth a read and Kimball supplies links to all the scientific studies he cites there. Go check it out here.

Learning Jazz Language

I came across a very interesting article by Bill Plake on his website called “The Problem With Studying the “Jazz Language.”

The other morning I was giving a first lesson to a jazz guitarist ( a university student) and was struck by something I notice quite often: Young jazz students spending a seemingly disproportionate amount of practice time learning and memorizing jazz lines and improvised solos.

When I asked this musician what he practices, he said that most of his practice time is spent learning new tunes, heads (like Donna Lee, Milestones, etc) and transcribing and playing improvised jazz solos by the “masters”.

Plake’s observations were that this student, and many others, spend so much time trying to absorb the jazz language that they end up playing in an unoriginal style, the student’s improvisations sound stilted and disconnected from an emotional standpoint.

If you examine the work of the great innovators in jazz they all had one thing in common: They redefined, edified and expanded the so called jazz language. Sure they might have spent quite a bit of time copying other players and learning tunes and heads and so forth.

But they also did one other very important thing. They spent the vast majority of their time improvising (truly improvising) to find what they had to say as artists. In fact, many had to actually ignore the jazz language of their time. They needed to free themselves from it in order to find a more personal expression.

From a pedagogical perspective, I have some quibbles from it. First, not everyone’s goals are going to be a major innovator. For many jazz musicians it’s more important to them to be able to play convincingly in a style or directly imitate players they admire. This might be particularly important to musicians who want to specialize in a particular style period of jazz. For example, I play a lot of early jazz styles these days and with one group in particular we often perform music as an almost exact recreation of certain recordings, even to the point of playing the same solos note for note. I’ll come back to this point and my thoughts on avoiding sounding stilted when you do this, but Plake’s advice is worth more detailed consideration.

It’s important to keep in mind that, if you’re an improviser, your also a composer. You compose spontaneously, but you compose nevertheless. So follow the path of great composers. Study the tradition. Absorb and understand what has been created before you. But get down to the business of finding out who you are.

In my experience both as teacher and performer,  I’d say you’re best off giving this top priority, even when you’re at the stage of development where you’re mimicking and studying others. Don’t wait for some magic moment of creative maturity. You’re ready right now. Cultivate those moments every single day, no matter what level of proficiency you’re at. Make the music yours.

My preference here is to follow Hal Crook’s advice on practicing improvisation. In a nutshell, you select one or two topics at most and focus your practice only on those topics during that session. However, at the end of that session you must forget everything that you just worked on and improvise, letting the spirit and mood of the music move you.

I emphasized the later part of that sentence myself. When you practice this, and you should do this every time you practice your improvisation, you need to take some time practicing as you want to perform. Ideally in a performance you want to be focusing on expression and musicality, not technique or licks. If you don’t spend time practicing like you perform, you’re not going to effectively be able to pull that off in a performance.

That’s not to say that this should be, in my opinion, the major focus of all your practice. I would argue that since you don’t want to multitask when you practice (or perform) you should always evaluate what you are trying to improve and not worry about playing with expression or musicality if you’re trying to strengthen a different aspect of your playing. Every individual is going to have different strengths and weaknesses, different priorities, and require different amounts of time splitting practice time between technique, facility with scales and chord changes, stylistic vocabulary, etc., but everyone needs to spend some time stretching out and “going for it” while improvising.

Poke around on Bill Plake’s web site. There are many other articles he’s put up there that are worth reading and I’m sure I’ll post more links and my thoughts here later.

The Orchestral Dream (has been) Dead

The Phantom Brass blog recently posted an article by Matthew Waters where he declares, quite accurately, The Orchestral Dream Is Dead.

If we’re looking at the numbers alone, the odds of winning a position is astronomical. According to data collected by Datausa.io, 8,133 Music Performance Degrees were awarded in the United States in 2015. As of May of 2017, there are 8 members of the Regional Orchestra Players Association that pay over $25,000 base salary a year, with an additional 49 under other collective bargaining agreements with the AFM. That means there are 57 orchestras that one could theoretically find full-time employment with. Fifty-seven. That doesn’t mean there are 57 positions open a year. That means there are 57 full-time jobs in that industry, that have maybe a few vacancies total per year. Needless to say, the odds aren’t good with 8000+ bachelor’s degrees in music being awarded every year, and that number continuing to grow.

If I understand correctly, I think that Waters means there are 57 full-time orchestral “employers,” not jobs, since many musicians are employed by each of those 57 orchestras. His point, however, is quite valid. If you’re looking for a full-time orchestral job your chances of finding one are quite small. Waters also comments on how the music scene in southern California, where he is based, is difficult for even very fine musicians to earn a living.

This solution is simple, but certainly not easy. It requires the individual and institutional realization that there is a huge amount of space in the music industry for more than just tenured orchestra performers. We have the opportunity to be live-streaming artists and YouTube clinicians. Private instructors and ensemble founders. Arts administrators, music directors, arrangers, composers, and copyists. The problem in most of the training grounds today is that players are funneled into preparing for a job that they have little to no chance of winning, while totally neglecting all of the other possible jobs that are likely be a part of a successful music career. In performance degrees especially, we’re trained to do only that- perform.

Personally, I find it odd that music students in performance degrees are trained only to perform in orchestral styles, but that’s perhaps biased by my own education, teaching experience, and personal interests. I went to a liberal arts college for my undergraduate studies, majored in jazz studies for my masters, and my doctorate is in trombone performance, but I maintained my interests in a wide variety of different musical styles and topics and my degree track emphasized pedagogy. So when Waters comments, “If we’re not going to summer festivals, winning mock auditions, and outplaying everyone else in our studios, we feel like failures,” I find it an unfamiliar feeling.

But what is one to do if your dream is an orchestral job? Give up before you even try? Get a fall back degree? Go for it and risk failure?

I’ve never been particular interested in a full-time job in an orchestra, but I have been able to get paid to perform with regional orchestras regularly in the past (for disclosure, I don’t do a lot of orchestral playing these days, but that’s largely due to being busy doing other performing and not making an effort to do more than the occasional subbing). I don’t see orchestral playing as being any different than being a successful freelance musician in the first place. We all have our wheelhouse, and if yours is orchestral playing than you can focus on that side of your playing and make that your primary performing goals. Don’t neglect your skills in other types of playing too, however, and be ready to do a lot of different types of performing if your goal is to be a successful music professional.

And as Waters suggests, be ready to do some things that are peripherally related to your musical performing and get some background and education in those things. Teaching is the obvious one, but I generally don’t recommend you go into music education full-time unless that is your goal. Too many music students get a music education degree as a “fall back” and then end up miserable because they don’t enjoy it enough to justify all the non-musical stuff that goes along with it.

Keep in mind that overall, Americans change jobs between the ages of 18 and 48 an average of 11.7 times. That can be in the same career, but in non-musical fields people change careers all the time and still are happy and successful. The bottom line is that you, as an individual and as a musician, cannot be defined by your job, but by who you are and your attitude towards what you do.

This is the new reality for anyone pursuing a music career, and it’s time that we faced that. The skills that are needed to win an orchestra position are developed at the cost of excluding almost of all these other skills. It is a single-minded pursuit, and it is destructive for the vast majority of music students. We need to broaden our training and bring musical education into the 21st century.