Keep your face in shape During a Holiday!
During the summer holiday season, most brass bands have quite a busy time and are often out on Saturdays and Sundays playing in local fetes, parties and other outdoor events. It is often a good idea to have a bit of a break during August to give the players a rest and a chance to recharge. Amateur orchestras end up with a slightly break from rehearsals as they tend to fit in with the school holiday patterns.
Although, the break has lots of advantages and positive points it can also lead to a rather ropey 1st rehearsal back and a feeling of concern all round!
Quick Daily Routine to keep things Moving
Taking your instrument away on holiday with you is not always practical as it could take up a lot of packing room – and may certainly not get much approval from those around you…
However, it is usually possible to take a mouthpiece with you as long as you are upfront and careful when travelling via plane or on a boat and declare what it is you have and what it is for!
If carrying a mouthpiece is simply not possible there is always free buzzing. Although this is quite tiring for the embouchure and is not always as beneficial.
As well as buzzing and mouthpiece practice there is plenty that can be done in terms of working on breathing as well as tonguing.
Putting this into a simple plan that will take only a few minutes and has a clear focus toward what you would like to achieve can help things continue to move forward. It will also help to ensure that you stay a little more in the zone that you have achieved after a fairly hefty summer programme.
Routine Examples that work on Holiday
There are so many ways to structure a practice session that is only 5-10 minutes that will provide a sense of flexibility and control.
Example 10 Minute Routine:
0:00 – 5:00 Breathing exercises
5:00 – 7:00 Free lip buzzing and mouthpiece exercises
7:00 – 8:30 Tonguing exercises
8:30 – 10:00 Visualisation or music reading exercises
These are of course just simple examples and you may decide to adjust, amend or add to the ideas above to better suit your individual technique and sound.
Do be careful not to spend too long continuously free buzzing. The embouchure consists of a number of delicate muscles and it can be easy to do a lot more harm than good by overdoing things. A maximum of two minutes or so is more than enough of free buzzing work.
We can do some much to develop and improve our playing without even having the instrument there. This includes technique, developing sound and even improving mindset and approach to playing.
Some good breathing exercises that are always good to work on, could include:
- Breathe in slowly and fully over 4 beats. Breathe out slowly and fully over 8 beats. Then breathe in over 3 beats and out of 16. Now for the fun bit! Breathe in slowly and fully over 2 beats and out over 32. Finally (or continue if you want more of a challenge) breathe in over 1 beat and out over 64 beats.
- Hold up an A5 piece of paper against a wall, door or a smooth vertical surface. Take a deep breath in and breathe out rapidly with a fast flow of air to make the paper stay still when you let go of it with your hand.
- Breathe in slowly and fully over 8 beats, hold the air for 8 beats and then breathe out slowly and fully for 8 beats. Then try and mix up the order of the pattern. You could try breathing in, breathing out and then holding the air for 8 beats, for example.
- Light a candle (be careful if you are in a hotel that you don’t set off the fire alarm or set fire to the room – please be safe!) and take a slow natural deep breathe in. Form an ‘oooooh’ mouth shape and try to get the flame to bend over consistently in one direction. Make sure that you don’t blow the flame out and that the flame is not flickering all over the place.
- Take a piece of paper and hold this with a finger and thumb in front of your face. Take a gentle, deep and slow breath in. Try to make the bottom of the paper move away from your face with a steady stream of air. You can alternate this with a fortissimo breath and other dynamic contrasts. Always focus on speed and flow of air – never force.
Always aim to have a comfortable and relaxed posture whether you are standing or sitting. Aim to keep the shoulders down at all times when practicing the breathing exercises and allow your arms to drop loosely down by your side. This will give your lungs room to expand fully and will ensure that you diaphragm can extend fully and naturally.
Lip buzzing and mouthpiece buzzing
The key to this is to keep things gentle. Force, pressing or pushing is not useful in a general sense and will do nothing but harm when completing these exercises.
The pencil Trick (proceed with caution!)
To complete this exercise all you need to do is form an embouchure shape that is ready to buzz. Then place a pencil in between you lips. It’s best if it is not sharpened and has an eraser on the end you put in between your lips. The eraser makes it less slippy when your embouchure is wet.
Then push the pencil up with your bottom lip until it is at about a 45 degree angle from the ground and hold it. At first, aim for a short amount of time – 20 to 30 seconds initially would be a really good starting point. Over time, and with practice, you will find that you can do this for a lot longer.
This exercise will make your embouchure tired and really works on the muscles that help with range. Remember to not overdo this exercise and avoid pain as far as possible.
Buzz a note on the mouthpiece in a comfortable register and then bend the pitch down smoothly and gradually down an octave. Do the same exercise starting on a lower note (sound) each time.
Free buzz a note and work on patterns of 5 notes (ascending or descending), thirds or an octave. A really good aim is to try and extend your range – remember to look after your embouchure and be guided by how your own body feels. Pain is usually a good warning sign that something is wrong or you need to stop.
It is always possible to practice double and triple tonguing away from the instrument. The important thing with this is to really focus on getting accuracy, a rhythmic and even response.
- Set a metronome to 60 bpm (or simply use a watch or clock with a second hand). On each second (or beat) and use tuh, tuh, kuh on each of the seconds, or beats. Spend some time over a few days doing this and make sure that the production is clear and consistent for each of the syllables.
- Over the net few days, aim to fit the three syllables evenly and equally distributed into one second or one beat at 60 bpm. Resist the temptation to speed up. Accuracy, clarity and consistency is so much more important than speed at the outset.
- You can complete the same exercise with double tonguing (using tuh, kuh).
- It is usually best, in my opinion, to start with triple tonguing and then learn double tonguing when triple tonguing is mastered. Taking something away is usually easier than trying to add something extra!
- Single tonguing practice is useful and I recommend the sound ‘tuh’, where the tip of the tongue touches the back of the top teeth and then falls flat in the mouth to allow air to pass. (Although this is not strictly true physically, it is useful to think it in this way).
- Using this ‘tuh’ sound with a clock or a watch with a second hand gives the opportunity to practice the technique slowly and to work on dividing the beat in different ways.
- So, if you wanted to subdivide the beat into two you can think the word ‘apple’ in your head and aim for really evenly spaced notes. To subdivide the beat in 3, think the word ‘pineapple’. You can subdivide into 4 by thinking the word ‘toffee apple’ and then into 5 by thinking the word ‘hippopotamus’.
- Thinking of alternative words is fine and keeps things interesting!
This involves getting some quiet time and space in which you can imagine, think and create images, sounds or pictures in your mind.
You may think that this seems a little unnecessary and a bit ‘airy fairy’ but this can have a really positive impact on how you play and how you feel when you play – especially for the first time after a break.
The idea will be to focus on an area of your playing that you would really like to improve and begin to visualise what that would feel like, what it would sound and look like and so on.
I have covered this visualisation process in another blog post called Performance Psychology – in Just 5 Minutes and you can learn more about the psychological approach to playing by clicking here. If you want to delve into this more a great book that is worth exploring is ‘The Inner Game of Music’ by Tim Galwey.
Music Reading Exercises
To be able to do this you will need to have some music available. If you were not able to fit in any pieces or simply forgot there is a way around this. Most places in the UK and abroad afford internet access and this means you can access sheet music at any time!
The way to approach this is very simple indeed.
- All you need to do is look at the music and as you read each note, say its name and then how long it lasts for. For example, you would say something like ‘A flat – 1 beat’, ‘G – 2 beats’. and so on for the piece of music.
- Extend this by going through the process again but transpose the music up by tone, or down by a tone.
- It is also useful to look at a piece of music and focus on the bigger picture of what you see. Take in the shapes of the phrases, the use of dynamics, patterns, repetition and any other musical features that are appropriate. This is often such a useful step that is missed out or overlooked when learning a new piece of music.
- You could follow the music whilst listening to a recording of the piece. As you listen you can mark interesting features, breathing, dynamic changes or phrasing. This gives the chance to develop your own interpretation and musical ideas.
What is the real value of this work?
This can help to keep things moving in the right direction, but remember that practice without thought and attention to musical outcomes is never worthwhile.
The value of an exercise depends on your state of mind. If you don’t find it interesting, then it is not useful. — Madeline Bruser, Bruser, Madeline., The Art of Practicing (Bell Tower, 1997), p.17
Keep the musicality at the front of your mind and allow the technique to develop so that you can speak musically in the way that you have always wanted.