I started learning the euphonium in 1990 with a group of other students. I remember the very first thing the teacher said was to try and make a buzzing noise with my lips. No mention of air, breathing or sound quality. No doubt about it, my home practice during the first few years must have been torture for my parents and neighbours because I had that tight, strained, horrible sound which is typical of a beginner.
I think through most of my life as a brass player I have spent a lot of time buzzing my lips or buzzing through the mouthpiece but in more recent years I have learnt that there is no need for this.
I have written before in this past blog post that musicians should always experiment in their practice to find what works for them. Sometimes we are overly focussed on what others do and just presume that those techniques will work for us as well. Whatever you practice, you will get good at, so you need to be careful in your practice not to work on the wrong things and waste time. This blog post shares my own experiences and I hope it is useful, but I am not saying it will work for you, only you can find that out by putting the theory to the test.
In the past, I have regularly used buzzing (with or without the mouthpiece) for a variety of purposes and at specific times, I will list some here:-
Taking only my mouthpiece on holiday
Buzzing with no mouthpiece while driving
As part of my warm up
To help with stamina, range or sound quality
To help with pitching
Most brass players probably have their favourite buzzing exercise, but are you certain that it is actually beneficial?
I decided to try an experiment some years ago and completely removed any form of buzzing from my practice routine. I was keen to save time and make my routine more efficient. I wanted to make sure that every single thing I did during my practice time had a purpose which either helped me maintain an aspect of my playing which I believed couldn't improve any more, or help me develop an area of my playing which needed improvement.
I figured out, that for me at least, buzzing had no positive impact on my playing. In fact, I found that many areas of my playing became better as a result of not buzzing. I was more relaxed, my sound was better, I had better stamina and better range of pitch and dynamics.
This was a revelation for me.
Presuming that you have a regular practice routine, then just try leaving any buzzing out for a few weeks, use the time gained for something else.
If after a few weeks you notice your playing gets worse in any way then go back to buzzing, maybe you need it.
If you notice no difference at all, stop buzzing.
If you notice an improvement, stop buzzing.
Not only did I stop buzzing myself, I also stopped teaching my students to buzz and the most remarkable thing was that beginners first notes sounded amazing. I would teach beginners about breathing and airflow. Have them sing the pitch first, keep completely relaxed and as if by magic it was goodbye to that horrible tight, typical beginner brass player sound. The important thing though while teaching is to have a flexible approach. You can always ask a student to try buzzing and if it seems to help them then use it, but notice if you just play any note on your instrument, make it full and rich and remove your instrument away while continuing to keep your lips and air the same, there is no buzzing sound to be heard.
A wonderful brass player once told me to 'think about air and not lips' and this pretty much sums up how you could become an even better, unimaginably good brass player but it requires the right thinking. How many times do we hear brass players or even worse, brass teachers, say 'tighten your lips to play higher' or 'my lips have gone'. Your lips cannot go anywhere! How many other thoughts or beliefs do you have which might be severely hindering your brass playing potential?
I believe that buzzing caused a lot of the bad playing habits I had as a youngster. We never ever use the buzzing sound in a performance, unless maybe it is a modern contemporary piece of music which asks for it, so why spend the time off the instrument at all. I found that the time I gained on the instrument was more valuable and then this lead me to question a few other aspects of my brass playing, which in some ways had been hindered in the past by this fascination brass players have with buzzing their lips.
If you wish to improve your stamina for example then you have to learn how to play in a more relaxed way with less tension in the face and neck muscles. You cannot force your face muscles to strengthen by doing weight training style buzzing exercises where you regularly push yourself to a point where you cannot play another note. You have to use what you have, and the more times you burn out the muscles of the embouchure, the further you get from achieving the ability to play forever without getting tired. It is almost more of a mindset, where if you believe that you have unlimited stamina then you are going in the right direction to getting it. There are a variety of exercises, such as those taught by Carmine Caruso which are designed to help improve stamina but often brass players approach them wrongly because they are generating too much stress and tension rather than letting relaxation be the overriding thought.
Something else I found useful was to stop worrying if I couldn't practice, and just believe that if relaxation is very important, and buzzing makes me worse, then during periods where I cannot practice at all, I am better off just doing nothing. Maybe it is better to study the score, sing the music or visualise the performance rather than doing any buzzing on the mouthpiece. If we know we cannot practice properly for some reason, we might be tempted to spend more time buzzing the lips or buzzing on the mouthpiece. If I was going on a long flight to a destination where I was performing and couldn't practice for a few days or just going on holiday without my instrument, I would tell myself that my playing ability was just frozen. When I pick up my instrument the next time everything will be exactly how I left it. This cannot be said if you replace proper practice with buzzing because you are using the lips in a different way. If you presume that you will sound shocking when you pick up the instrument, then you will be, it just requires a shift in thinking. It is not going to work for months and months with no playing but for smaller breaks, give it a try.
There may be brass players out there who disagree with all of this because they are very set in their ways or have found ways to make things work for them which they are happy about, that is perfect, but if nothing else, I hope this blog post will encourage and help you experiment with your practice routine to find the best methods for you and that those methods help you reach your potential.
Anyone is capable of achieving that which others have achieved and better!
Thank you for reading.