Sound is so important for all instruments. Players of all different standards should think about their sound and how to develop or maintain it. Working on sound is a great way to automatically fix many other playing problems that you think you have.
It is important to have an open mind whenever you attend a masterclass, have a lesson or read information like this blog. What works for one person will not always work for another. You must become your own best teacher as a musician. It takes time, but eventually you can figure out how to do anything, don't let anyone tell you otherwise!
I started learning the euphonium when I was 10 years old and it wasn't for years that I ever started to think about the sound I made, or anyone else made for that matter. The first time anyone mentioned my sound was when I was about 14 and I went to a local brass band. The band played through lots of music and at one point the conductor asked me to play a note to check my tuning and after doing this he said, "you have a great sound kid, but it's useless unless people can hear it". I clearly had not been playing loud enough.
Following this, I started to notice or hear brass players talking about sound. The bass sound was fat, the cornets sounded electric, is what people would say and they would always expect the euphoniums to have a warm, lyrical quality, so I started thinking about how to make a better sound.
The first bit of advice I can give you about sound is an easy one. It requires no practice at all. You must have a concept of what a good sound is and you must believe in yourself. You must be inspired by good players and listen to lots of different musicians (not just brass players). Don't just listen on YouTube through your iPad speakers. Buy some music, listen using good equipment and use headphones. Listen to it loud! The best players have all been inspired by someone else's sound and tried to make their sound similar, but don't just copy. Allow yourself to be unique, make sure there is part of you and your personality in your sound, work with what you have got. Believe that you have the best sound in the world and do not let anyone tell you otherwise.
A huge amount of how you play is affected by how you think so become more aware of this. Think only positive thoughts about your playing and it will improve even without practice. But do not let this lead to over confidence or arrogance, be critical of yourself, humble and helpful to others and always strive for perfection, there is always a way.
You can even go deeper into this thought process. Imagine a colour for your sound. What would your sound feel like if you could touch it? All these thoughts can have an effect on how you sound and you do not even need to remove the instrument from the case! Obviously practice is essential but your sound is already different now because you are thinking about it.
It is essential we practice basic fundamentals every day, or every time we practice. It is important to form a good daily routine because your sound will only improve if you are regularly playing your instrument. In order to play with a good sound, you must be a master of the basics of brass playing.
When practicing anything, effort is important. To throw a ball a long way it takes effort. Then to beat your previous distance it takes even more effort. This is true of brass playing. Unfortunately many players have suffered already at the hands of lazy teaching. We should practice only good habits and put in maximum effort, so before thinking about improving your sound you should think about how to commit more effort to your playing because without this your progress will be slower.
Efficient and relaxed deep breathing is essential, and although some amazing players do breath in different ways, they still make a huge use of the air both when breathing in and out. I have some simple ideas when it comes to breathing. I try to make a low sounding breath. So we think about the sound of our breath just as we do our actual sound. I then feel the cold air on the back of my throat, this ensures I am breathing in fast and deep. I then try and imagine my lungs are much lower down and avoid any tension. It must be relaxed!
The best thing I find which helps develop a great sound is long notes. Lots of long notes, always with a relaxed breath and no tongue, just air to start the note because air is sound. Long notes help every aspect of your playing and although it can be seen as boring it is essential that long notes are done, probably at the start of your daily routine. It might be that you will naturally find a time when you do not need to do them so much or you can link it to other playing aspects but if you have never tried it then give it a go. Just use a scale or any pattern of notes that you want and experiment until you feel like you have something that is working. Start with just a few notes each day and build up to longer exercises.
Holding the note long gives you lots of time to listen to your sound. Aim for 20 seconds at least and play softly. This is your opportunity to develop your sound. Don't practice in front of the TV, while on the phone or while stroking your dog. Really get involved in your sound, how does it sound, how does it feel. Make the room come alive, make things vibrate in the room. Imagine your sound is a huge mountain and you are pushing it along. Experiment with the shapes the embouchure can create and learn how that impacts your sound, find your biggest sound, make it open out more and more. Use vibrato, don't use vibrato, experiment with it but use a tuner to make sure every note is in tune. Remember that vibrato is an effect which is added to a perfect sound, try and make a great sound without vibrato.
There are some short term ways to create a good sound like playing with a practice mute at very loud dynamics but we want to be able to develop our sound using a natural and unforced way and to play without a mute as we would for most of our performances. So for this blog post I am going to leave out the idea of using a mute, although it can have big benefits.
Once you start to achieve a better sound this must be applied to every note you play, no matter the speed or range or volume. When playing long notes, the whole of each note needs to have quality. From start to finish. How we produce the note must also be perfect. Remember, it is the air that creates the sound, not the tongue, so practice long notes that start with air only but then introduce the tongue back in when you are ready. The tongue releases the air and creates a tidy, clean start to the note without any force or accent or explosion! The tongue must work independently to the air, embouchure muscles, jaw and stomach muscles. The act of tonguing is not like a jab or punch, it is a release, where the tongue pulls back from between the lips, from the teeth or from the gums (depending on the pitch of the note you are playing).
During the long note you want to think 'open' while listening to the sound. Fill the instrument with a greater volume of air. Imagine the air is filling the tubes not just going round like the water on a water slide. To increase the amount of air, you can try note bends or false notes. This will involve opening the embouchure to lower the note. Always be strong with the air when doing this as it will feel unnatural to start. Everything should feel open and relaxed. Rest for as long as you are holding the notes so every new note is a fresh start.
The only area which I believe can be strong and firm are the stomach muscles. If you practice long notes with an overly firm embouchure you may notice the muscles get tired or ache quickly, I always avoid this happening. Check out my stamina exercise for more help in this area.
Lastly, I want to talk a bit about projection of sound and loud dynamics. Practicing extremely loud, although it can sound not very good to start, can help your sound. It helps you find your limits and also the limits of your instrument. I have played some brands of euphonium which shake when played loud or feel like the sound is going to rip apart, so having a decent instrument is important for your sound to thrive. Increasing how loud you can play with a great sound allows you to project your sound so much further. Always rest for longer periods when doing this sort of work and as always, aim to keep relaxed, especially when breathing.
I always imagine that the air is going on a journey. It is not just hovering around close to the bell but is being pushed a great distance. When you breath the journey starts over. Many players play in a way that restricts the ability to play full length articulated notes. As previously mentioned the tongue must work independently to the air, embouchure muscles, jaw and stomach muscles or diaphragm. If you play notes at their fullest length (within the style of the music), then you will sound better because there will be no gaps in the sound. With good effort, the stomach muscles/diaphragm will automatically support the air and help push it further and faster. Remember, your body naturally wants to push the air out after you breathe deeply, so just add that extra support and it will really help.
To sum up, the most important points I would like to emphasize are:
Get a concept of what a good sound is.
Take relaxed, deep sounding breaths.
Put in more effort with the air.
Practice long notes.
Have a good basic practice routine.
Practice extremes of dynamics.
Play notes to their fullest length (within the style of music).
Project your sound.
Relaxation and belief are the keys to success.
Practice makes perfect IF you put in 100% effort, 100% of the time.
If you ever wanted a one off lesson or band masterclass, an online discussion or regular brass lessons please contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.