Question – Helping Woodwinds Transition to Brass

Kim sent me a good question via email.

When I’m not working as an engineer I assist local marching bands with visual and brass. The program I’m with now has a very good and successful approach to outdoor brass playing that’s almost the same I was taught in drum corps. They do really well in jazz which I wish was in my wheelhouse. I’m a low brass player but have adopted the mellophones, those poor redheaded stepchildren to give extra special attention and help.

My (the band’s problem) is that a sax player, great musician, opted to fill in a mello hole. That has been done in the past with a lot of success. This kid fracks all the attacks, has a gut piercing tone, and when he settles on a pitch can play loud. And his notes get chopped off hard.

What I can see is it looks like he’s reverting subconciously to a sax embouchure. That makes for zero or at best spitting/crackling noises from his horn. From your articles I also think he has developed some type of tongue controlled embouchure.

I’ve only been with this band a few weeks and wasn’t there when this kid switched. He’s working hard and knows/hears what’s happening but has not been able to get the information into his body.

He was pretty much parachuted into this and that’s the real problem. He hasn’t had time to really figure it out how sound production works.

Thank you for any suggestions, pointers, comments,
Kim

As always, I can’t really offer specific advice on your student without being able to watch him play. However, you offered some clues as to what might be happening, so here are some things you can look for.

A saxophone embouchure is different than a brass instrument embouchure. One of the fundamental differences is the position and muscular effort of the mouth corners. With a sax embouchure the mouth corners will come in towards the mouthpiece. With this inward push of the mouth corners a sax embouchure is sometimes describe with the lips gripping the mouthpiece as if they are a rubber band.

With brass embouchures, though, this inward push of the mouth corners towards the mouthpiece rim can cause problems. Instead of puckering his lips in and/or forward to the mouthpiece rim he should practice locking the corners in place, more or less where they are when at rest. One analogy that might be useful here is for him to think of the mouth corners as being theĀ ends of a violin or guitar string. This will take time for him to build the strength and coordination to do so, but some simple free buzzing in the correct way can help here.

The other thing it sounds like your sax-turned-mellophone student is doing is articulating everything with the tongue on the lips, and perhaps also stopping the tone this way. On sax he will tongue on the reed for the attacks, so me may similarly be striking the lips with his tongue for the attacks. In this case he will want to move the tongue tip back and behind the upper teeth to attack the pitch, as if saying “tah.” In fact, it may be valuable practice for him to try to attack pitches with no-tongue breath attacks, as if saying “hoo” first. Once he can get a few good breath attacks happening he can start adding a light tongued attack. Try emphasizing that the tongue is a refining factor of the attack, not the defining factor. The air is what creates the attack, the tongue just shapes it.

He may also be releasing notes by slapping the tongue against his lips or even just using a tongue cutoff (as if saying “taht”). Regardless, the releases of notes are best learned by simply stopping the blowing, not using the tongue. Yes, there may be situations where a very clipped release makes a tongue cutoff work, but it needs to be controlled and is best saved as a special effect.

It will be a challenge for your student to both learn to play the mellophone and learn the drill at the same time. It would be great if he can set up some weekly one-on-one time with a brass teacher for a while until he starts getting more of the feel for what he needs to do to play a brass instrument. You never know, he might end up enjoying it so much he switches instruments.

Good luck and please keep us posted on how things progress.

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