Sound is so important in all styles of music and for all instruments and I think many players of all different standards should think about their sound and how to develop it or maintain it. Working on sound is a great way to fix many basic playing problems as well as give you the strength to attempt much more difficult elements of brass playing.
I have never or would never admit to having the best sound in the world or to being any where close to a master of the euphonium. I work very hard on my playing and every time I feel improvement the target moves slightly further. I work a lot on my sound and merely want to give you some suggestions that I believe have helped my sound and the sound of my students.
It is important that whenever you attend a masterclass or have a lesson you listen carefully and have an open mind. What works for one person will not always work for another. You must become your own best teacher as a musician. Out of all the teachers I have ever studied with, some excellent and some not so good for me, I am by far the best teacher I have ever had because I know myself and are always there. 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 ever 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 concert Bb 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, etc etc is what people would say and they would always expect the euphonium section to have a warm, lyrical quality so I started thinking about how to make a better sound.
Even today (although it's a long way away!) the best practice room for me is the living room in my parents house in England, I will discuss acoustics a little again later, but this is the only thing I can owe my early sound development too. It was the perfect practice room, carpet, curtains, sofas to soak up the sound and make me work harder but lots of things around the room that would vibrate on certain notes if I played louder, such as light fittings and display cabinets so I knew when I was making the correct sounds.
Playing hymn tunes, slow melodies and long notes clearly helps develop sound, but it takes much more than this. From my first ever day as a brass player everything was against me. I first wanted to play the trombone but was told that my arms were too short (I now have perfect trombone playing arms, long and thin!), my parents were not happy that I chose to learn the euphonium because it was so big, expensive and they had to help me carry it up a hill to school, they would say that it sounded terrible (and it probably did in the first few months).
Also my teacher was very bad, he smelt of smoke and alcohol and I never even saw him play a brass instrument ever and he never mentioned sound or tone or anything important, he would just say, make your lips tighter or blow a raspberry!... but lessons were free and I liked a challenge. Making lips tighter together can have immediate effects for beginners struggling to play higher or make a sound but it will only cause the sound to be thin so I avoid saying this and focus solely on the use of the air.
This lack of good quality teaching at an early age has inspired me to become a better teacher. It has definitely caused me to struggle and have difficulties that I have needed to solve but has now inspired me to push my students forwards correctly and open their mind to as much as possible musically. All my students will tell you how to achieve a good sound and that it is the most important thing to them.
Out of 10 people who signed up for lessons when I first started, at the end of the first year there was only me left and the others had quit. Trying to improve your sound is just one element of brass playing and at some point we are all faced with difficulties and may even want to quit. But I urge you all to try and find the motivation to practice more, be more confident, help yourselves improve and find a way to enjoy your brass playing.
The most important 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 euphonium 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 (it is hard to copy someone's sound), allow yourself to be unique, make sure there is part of yourself 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 and be confident in everything you do. Understanding yourself and how you think as a person is very important as a musician.
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 your self 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.
So, what to practice? How to practice? When to practice? Where to practice? How long to practice? What to practice first? How to warm up and down? How long to rest? Etc etc The more practice you do the better you get......is this correct? NOT EXACTLY. If you study for years in how to build an amazing, award winning hotel and then build it on weak foundations what will happen? A disaster probably.
This is why it is essential we practice basic fundamentals every day, or every time you practice but appreciate that this can be separate from warming up. It is important to form a good daily routine. One which involves breathing, mouthpiece alone, long tones, tonguing, slurring, high range, low range, intervals, dynamics, resting, scales etc etc etc! So many things to fit into our very busy lives. Despite this, it is still important not to be a slave to your routine. One day you might not have chance to do it but still have to go and perform so the daily routine and/or warm up must be flexible in a way which can be adapted to suit your every need. Find a way to practice exercises which cover a lot of things in one go. A good example of this is learning scales. Use specific scales in your daily routine and use them as a structure, base each weeks routine on a different scale and you are then multitasking! We could discuss this for hours, and could spend a whole day going through how to practice. Even today I keep changing my practice and feel that it will always keep evolving. In order to play with a good sound, at all times you must be a master of the basics of brass playing. So we will explore basics of practice routines, breathing, sound and note production. No matter how many masterclasses I have been too, on all sorts of different themes they always end up being about basic fundamentals. I have been to a lot of masterclasses where the participant has not played more than one or two notes for the whole masterclass! If professionals are telling you this start listening. Many times you hear someone ask how do I play high and the person giving the class talks about basics, so spend more time on this in your practice.
When practicing anything the most important thing is EFFORT. In order to win a gold medal at the Olympics one must put in a huge amount of effort. Not just in the final race but in all prior training. To throw a tennis 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. Not one brass student that I have picked up from another teacher puts in enough effort because they have not been taught to do this. By effort, I do not mean time spent. I mean the equivalent of the effort required to kick a football further than anyone else, a physical effort with the air, the muscles, the brain! At the same time however this extra effort must be done with minimal stress. Any tension and tiredness will just manifest in our sound so it comes down to practising 'good habits' rather than practising bad ones!
Raise your hand if you do breathing exercises before your practice? How many times a day do I hear a student say, "sorry, I forgot to breath"!!! What a crazy comment to make! But it happens all the time, hopefully never a compete lack of breath but most commonly too small a breath, especially when under pressure or an unconscious breath through the nose. Correct breathing is essential, and although some amazing players do breath in different ways without 100% text book technique they still make a huge use of the air both when breathing in and out but make it look like there is no effort involved. Watch the Robert Childs performance of the Carnival of Venice for a million dollar masterclass in how to breath and how the embouchure works. 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 air cold 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 tension in the shoulders or neck. It must be relaxed!
Mouthpiece buzzing is the starting point (after breathing) where the sound can be observed and improved. Practice mouthpiece buzzing as part of your routine or at key times in your practice session and make the buzzing sound good. The word 'buzzing' is not the best word however as it can cause a tight sound. I use the word 'buzzing' because this is the sound it makes but the thing which creates the sound is AIR. I use 2 basic ideas. I first try and hold some long low notes as still as possible with good tone and constant pitch. I find it best to start low and try and go lower. I want to be in control of my facial muscles and not allow the muscles to be in control of my sound. Next I allow the buzz to drift high and low like a wave. But don't just buzz, move the air fast, in large amounts, put in a huge amount of effort, buzz loudly. Use the stomach muscles to support and blow the air really fast, but with no tension or stress! By all means start easy, in the middle of your range and at a softer dynamic but work on making the air stream faster and stronger once you feel more comfortable, open out the sound as much as possible. The better the sound of the buzz the better it will sound on the instrument. Avoid a tight buzz sound and an airy buzz sound, try and find the right open shape that creates the best sounding buzz. After all, to quote a great tuba player, Sergio Carolino.... "the instrument has no brain". So we must find the way to make the instrument sound good. Many players go out and buy this instrument or that mouthpiece without trying it, just because a certain player who they like uses it. This may have some positive effects and some top players have put in a lot of time developing excellent instruments and accessories, but do be careful and always try before you buy. If something is cheap then its probably not work wasting your money on! Ask your teacher or friend to go with you when you try something new, does it really improve the sound or does it just look nice and new? A slightly larger size mouthpiece is important if you really want to make a wider sound so this could be something to think about also.
Once you think you are making a good buzzing sound the best thing I find which helps develop a great sound is long notes. Lots of long notes, always with a huge breath and no tongue, just air start to the note. Starting low of course. Long notes helps 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. 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 today I am going to leave out the idea of using a mute all together although it can have benefits. There are many long note exercises. Scales, arpeggios etc etc I find it best to set a metronome at 60 BPM and play whole note slurs within an octave, getting lower, going as far as I can with one breath, perhaps with note bends, circular breathing and multiphonics. This allows me to develop my breathing, sound, tongue-level and legato playing all in one go and I find it to be the best first exercise of the day.
But no matter which way you practice long notes it is important that you employ some rules. Breath in a relaxed manner, making a low sounding breath sound so your diaphram helps you support your sound. Try slow breaths and fast breaths. Practice in a way that covers various aspects at once. Always support your sound from the stomach muscles. It is essential that you hold each note for as long as possible, but with a good sound at a medium volume (you can of course vary the dynamics if you like). Holding the note long gives you lots of time to listen to your sound. This is your opportunity right there to develop your sound. Don't practice in front of the TV or while playing on your iPad or 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, find your sound, make it open out. Use vibrato, don't use vibrato, experiment with it but use a tuner to make sure every note is in tune. Some days however, do not use one so you really concentrate on your sound and listen/feel the tuning. Remember that vibrato is an effect which is added to a perfect sound, try and make a great sound without vibrato, but this is your best chance to practice vibrato so work on it. Do long notes in pairs with a friend for an added tuning experience and also be careful where you practice. Try and practice in different acoustics so you do not get used to one but generally spend some time in a small sound proofed room where your sound sounds small and you must work hard to open it up. Likewise try and find the opportunity to practice in a larger room or hall, especially nearer to performances.
Once you start to achieve a better sound this must be applied to every note you play. Fast notes, slow notes, high, low, soft, loud etc etc. When doing long notes the whole of each note needs to have quality. From start to finish. It is all about air and how you are using it, think about projecting your air further. How we produce the note must be perfect. Remember it is the air that creates the sound, not the tongue, so practice long notes that start with air only. This helps you be better in control of the air and it's speed. Use cresendos and diminuendos to help further.Then use the tongue to release the air and create 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.
During the long note you want to think 'open' while listening to the sound. Fill the instrument with a greater volume of air. Use warm 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 be open. The chest, the throat, the cavity inside the mouth etc etc try and rest for as long as you are holding the notes to allow your lips to stay strong especially when playing higher notes. Do lots of lip flapping.
The only areas which I believe can be strong and firm are the stomach muscles and the corners of the embouchure. If you practice long notes with a slightly over firm embouchure you may notice the muscles get tired or ache quickly. Over time this might go and the muscles of the embouchure will be better developed but this sort of practice must be done very carefully, not at a time when performances are approaching and ideally with the guidance of an experienced teacher. Practicing long notes with a weak embouchure will not show lots of benefits at all and will lead to poor stamina and inconsistency. But far too tight an embouchure especially when there is no flexibility in the center of the lips will result in a tight restricted sound and should be avoided. Always seek advice from a qualified and experienced teacher or professional player should you think you have an issue which you need help with that you cannot solve yourself.
The embouchure muscles should stop any air getting trapped between lips and gums or in the cheeks. Over time this will allow for a better high register and better sound across the range. When practicing long notes in the extremes of our range we can use vowel sounds to ensure correct tongue position. Eeeee for high and ahhhh for low.
Transfer your new findings from long notes into tongue exercises, slurs and more advanced techniques. You should make a great sound no matter how many notes you are trying to play, high, low, loud, soft, fast, slow etc. Remember that warming up is important and don't attempt anything hard until you are feeling like the basics are working well and always make sure you can play something perfectly slowly before speeding up! Try simple slurs within an octave slowly as well as slow tonguing. If there is a harder way to work on something always do that version, never the easier method. If I find something difficult in a piece I am playing, I instantly see if I can make it harder and work on that. For example, transpose high passages up a tone to practice a difficult interval by making the interval wider. You would be surprised at how simple the original tasks now feels.
Lastly I want to talk a bit about projection of sound and loud dynamics. From my experience I am at my best when I have been working with a brass band for a contest. The top British brass bands have such a wide dynamic range and in rehearsals all players are, when it is written on the music, trying to play as loud as they can (with a good sound). Practicing extremely loud, although it can sound not very good to start , can help your sound. It helps you find the limits of your strength 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 tear apart so having a decent instrument is important. 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.
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 of course) then you will sound better because there will be no gaps in the sound and there will be greater projection. The stomach muscles/diaphragm 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 good concept of what a good sound is and believe that you can achieve an even better tone. Learn to make good relaxed deep sounding breaths and strong controlled buzzing sounds on the mouthpiece. Practice long notes. Project your sound. Practice makes perfect IF you put in 100% effort 100% of the time in a relaxed way. Good luck!