One of the most important things for any brass player is getting a range of tonal colours and sounds. It is important to have a good quality sound in place before thinking about this and this article is going to deal with these issues.
First of all, it is important to remember that your sound is the first thing that will come across to any potential audience member and it is what you will have to listen to on a regular basis! The quality of sound therefore should be the most important thing that you focus on when practicing or playing. Technique has no value if the sound that is being produced is completely unpalatable.
A good quality sound consists of a good start to the note, a clear round and noise free middle part of the note and a clear ending to the sound being made. The note produced should have a pitch centre to it (even when vibrato is used) at all dynamic levels.
For any brass player, the key is to think a phrase coined by the late Arnold Jacobs:
Wind = Song
Without air, there will obviously be no sound. Thin air or a restricted flow of air will produce a thin or poor quality sound that may suffer with intonation issues and hiss or other noises.
There is often a tendency to feel that in order to play loudly it is necessary to blow hard, and to play quietly you need to use less air. This will generally produce poor results, and these will be especially noticeable in the extremities of dynamic ranges. Loud playing should not be thought of as blowing hard as this will give a rough, raucous and uncontrolled sound.
Playing softly or loudly will require the same amount of air. Think of playing loudly as pushing lots of air through the instrument more quickly. Playing quietly should use the same amount of air that is pushed through the instrument slowly. This will give a warm rich sound across the range of dynamic contrasts as well as a greater degree of control.
Remember that breathing should be thought of in a circular fashion, with no stopping and starting and just a continuous cycle of breathing in and out. Holding the air in before playing can often create an uncontrolled explosion to the beginning of the note, altering pitch and giving a poor quality sound.
It is important to ensure that the air that is used does not face obstruction. Very often a problem could be caused by use of the tongue. Many players will use a mixture of Tuh, Duh, Guh and Kuh. It is important to take notice of where the tongue is at the start of the note and the end of the note. For Tuh, the tongue should touch the top of the back of the teeth and then it should fall down and remain as flat in the mouth as possible. This will allow the air to pass through without obstruction.
When using Duh, the tongue moves toward the top of the mouth a little bit further back than with Tuh and should then remain flat in the mouth to allow air to pass through. This is true of Guh and Kuh (mainly used for multiple tonguing) and the tongue’s movement will be further back in the mouth.
For general playing it is important to remember that the tongue should never be used to start or stop a note. The tongue should only ever be used to provide a clean start to the sound, not like a cork in a champagne bottle. Ending the note is most effectively achieved by stopping the air supply. The air supply should not be stopped with the tongue. This will provide the best possible ending to the note. Please note that there are some cases where this may need to be ignored – particularly for jazz playing.
So far we have looked at the beginning and end of the note and aiming for good quality production at these points. The next part of the note to consider is the middle – this is where the quality of sound is actually noticeable.
Thinking of different syllables will provide very different qualities of sound. For example, using Tah will produce a very different tonal colour to that of Taw. It is worth experimenting with different vowel sounds and tongue placements, as all can be very useful for achieving interesting musical interpretations.
Always aim to achieve the best sound that will show the musical thought that you are trying to portray. Put a story behind the music you are working on and think about how your sound will bring out that thought or intention. It is important to experiment and develop a real sense of the sound that you make through really effective listening.