Jason Byrnes, Associate Editor
I am sure we all have techniques about playing our instruments that we have been working on for years and have been trying to teach our students for years. There are some techniques that we probably feel like we do pretty well. Sometimes it may feel (for those of us who have been playing a long time) there may not be too much left to discover about correcting a technique to make it suddenly more beautiful and musically satisfying. And then, every now and again, a correction to a technique comes seemingly out of nowhere (for us religious folks, we have ideas about that too). Such was the case recently for me, and the stark realization about what to do for more beautiful long low notes has opened up a whole new area in being able to play better and help my students. What I learned especially helps my youngest students to make a better sound when they are first starting. It has also helped me to improve a lifelong problem of not being able to play low notes to my satisfaction. Musical improvement is a lifelong process, and it is nice to have another tool to help make long low notes and fast ones more presentable.
What caused my sudden realization was a challenge by my college professor at Tennessee Technological University, Professor R. Winston Morris. He invited some of us TTU alumni to form an all-star group from the last forty years of the TTU Tuba-Euphonium Ensemble and to come to Cookeville, Tennessee (home of TTU) and record/perform nine newly-commissioned works for tuba and euphonium ensemble. This accomplished without any rehearsals ahead of time, without having heard the music, and without having played with the other musicians (even though we were all from the same school, most of us had not been there at the same time).
Proudly, I can say that some of the best musicians in the world have come out of Winston’s studio, and, at the same time, I can say I was quite anxious to do my absolute best in performing my part. I wound up with the lowest tuba parts and was worried since I didn’t consider my low chops to be very good. You all know the story from here. I practiced two to four hours a day just on this music for several weeks prior to the recording and performance. I made myself play every note, slow and fast. My realization about my embouchure weaknesses came when I was trying to hold the lowest notes for two and three measures—double piano—steadily—in tune. At first, my cheek muscles collapsed quickly and things began to shake. But after sticking with it for several days, the muscles began to take on some hidden strength I had not experienced before. The low notes began to remain steady and in tune. And then the tone began to get better than I remembered ever being able to make it. To summarize—I was able to hold the “oh.”
Side note—Funny how teachers keep teaching us things all throughout life. Same thing happened to me several years ago when my Alcoa, Tennessee high school band teacher, Mr. Roy Holder, asked me in his then new position to perform with The Lake Braddock High School Symphonic Band as a soloist on a Chicago Mid-West concert. He selected Jim Barnes’ new Concerto for Tuba, third movement. I got tendonitis in my right elbow, but I learned some things about tonguing and moving my fingers I had never done before. I hope all of us as educators continue to take such interest in our students throughout their years.
So, my discovery was that my strength was coming from the cheek muscles behind my embouchure and not just at the corners. Especially for the low notes, where the lips have to remain very supple, yet the embouchure remains supportive to help keep the shape. Since trying this with some of my students, I have had several moments of success with helping them to make a better sound. I say “moments” because at their stage of development, that is exactly what it is. When I help students with this, most of them can’t even hold the “oh” embouchure past the initial starting of the note. When we work on it, their cheek muscles quickly begin to tire.
High note side item—This process of trying to hold the “oh” forward from the cheek muscles has had its success with keeping the students from smiling so much in their high notes too. This helps them keep more lip between their teeth and the mouthpiece, thereby keeping some of the pressure off of their embouchure to play the high notes. They quickly realize how weak they are in the muscles holding the note and how they have been using pressure as a crutch.
Here are some recommended solutions to helping students with this process. On this particular subject—more than any I have written about—I think that many of you will have solutions to help students with solving their good low tone issues. The main issue to me is not about figuring the best process for holding good sounding low notes, but for all of us, especially ensemble directors and young students, to have awareness that this is an area that is not easy and cannot be ignored. It is hard to work on and not always fun, but the end results are always beautiful to anyone listening to the tuba (buy the recording of TTU 40th Anniversary All-Star Ensemble from Mark Records).
1. Long Tones
Good old-fashioned long tones on scales for several octaves is an excellent exercise. My favorite approach to this method is to have the students play slow half notes two octaves up and down on all scales over a period of weeks. I say half notes at first instead of whole notes, because this is more palatable for students. Right away this gives us a platform in lessons to work on sound and embouchure.
Of course, play for them and get them to try and imitate what they hear. My bigger problem with the students is for them to “hear” the good sound as it resonates to them from their position behind the bell and realizing that they are trying to “hear” at the same time their whole head is vibrating from the inside out. I plan to say more about this in the next article.
My new realization approach on this is to periodically shift the student’s focus on the side facial cheek muscles, rather than on the corners. I used to say (and sometimes still do) for the students to move their corners forward to get a fuller sound. This was supposed to cause them to open up more and have more lip into the buzz as they pushed their corners forward. What I did not realize, was that the “push” needed to possibly come from behind the corners. Hence, when I practiced holding the “oh” from the facial cheeks, it was easier to keep my corners forward to keep the shape. When starting out, many of my students are used to feeling a grip, bond, and firmness (or dare I say—pressure) between themselves and the mouthpiece for the low notes. When pushing from the cheeks, they feel as one student put it “like my lips are unconnected to the mouthpiece.” Now, the truth is that same student was not leaking air around the mouthpiece when working on this process, but all of a sudden their lips felt like they were floating in space between their teeth and the mouthpiece. Too many times, the students want to grip the notes with their lips. Try telling them to grip the notes from their cheek muscles and they might find themselves all of a sudden relaxing their lips just enough to make a wonderful sound, yet holding the embouchure sturdy enough to support the lips vibrating.
4. Breathing IS KEY
As you can imagine, they do run out of air quick when trying to do this process. They get frustrated because they cannot hold a phrase for eight measures (especially my junior high students) any more trying to hold the “oh” from the behind the corners. Most of my students are used to taking a deep breath for starting the note but not keep it going. They tend to “settle” with both the air and the embouchure after they get the note going. This means they close the embouchure to match their decreased air stream and vice versa. In order to even keep sound going with the support from the back of the face, they will be forced to keep their air going and going and going and going. At first, the air may be coming out of them at very fast rates, but the more efficient they get the more the air can be collapsed at slower rates. For some students, it may feel like it takes twice as much air to keep a note going as to start it—like the air keeps collapsing faster and faster. Indeed, I heard once that our perception of someone playing louder could be achieved by us holding the note at the same volume without even having to crescendo. Use a decibel meter to try this. It might be hard to hold the same volume, let alone crescendo steadily. Besides long tone scale studies, my practical suggestion for the students is to try this with all whole and half notes in their ensemble music. This gives them something to do and think about in rehearsals.
Tuba players seem to be getting younger and sometimes smaller when they are starting out. Fifth and sixth grade tubists (sometimes even fourth) are not uncommon. They already face challenges of not being tall enough to reach the mouthpiece, not having embouchures wide enough to even get a full buzz, and not having fully developed breath capacities yet. For your elementary tubists in this country, perhaps they may have read the book called “Go Dogs, Go!” This delightful book was one of my favorites as a child, and it still continues to inspire me to go, go, and go with drive for life accomplishments. Likewise, our air has to go, go, and go when playing the tuba with a good sound. Even the young students need to develop an aggressive approach in studying the tuba.
This was made clear to me in a preparatory lesson with Daniel Perantoni for my audition with The United States Air Force Band. He pointed out that when I played the tuba, I used an aggressive and driving approach that seemed different than my otherwise passive personality. Please do not confuse aggressive with tense. My meaning is to move air in large quantities quickly, do large movements with our embouchure, but still stay relaxed. The aggressive approach was producing good sounds and techniques for making music on the tuba. This was the approach that I used when learning how to hold the “oh” better. However, even those of who are professionals can still forget the most important thing that makes the tuba world go round—don’t forget to breathe!
David Porter currently holds positions as Principal Tuba with The McLean Orchestra, faculty member for The Masterworks Festival, tubist with the Camerata Brass Quintet, and Director of Youth and Youth Music at Fairlington United Methodist Church in Alexandria, Virginia.
Editor’s Note:I TEA members may recall a previous article by John Schlabach that appeared in the ITEA Journal 30:2 (Winter 2003) entitled “On Connecting the Ear and Brass Performance.” As stated in a note to that article, I’m most fortunate to be a colleague of John’s, as I am constantly impressed with his successful pedagogy. The following article is also being published in an upcoming issue of the ITG Journal, and the ITEA Journal appreciates ITG and John for allowing our publication of the article in this issue’s Pedagogy Section.
I am convinced that the trumpet either attracts students with an impatient personality or causes that trait. It is unlikely that anyone can ever completely master a musical instrument, but the lifetime quest for physical and mental control of our piece of brass tubing with three valves is particularly challenging. This is due in large part to the high level of blowing resistance of the trumpet and the body and brain’s tendency to generate tension. When anger and frustration creep into a practice session or a performance, the tension factor increases exponentially. It is imperative that players learn to calm and quiet the mind, training it to be a positive rather than negative influence when playing.
A critical aspect of improving one’s playing level is the development of relaxed and efficient playing mechanics. The body can only learn better habits through many correct repetitions, and this ongoing process usually takes much longer than we would like. The great tubist and pedagogue Arnold Jacobs believed that it took a year of consistent effort before a specific playing habit yielded entirely to a better habit. Of course, there can be improvement in that time span, but the body forgets its habits very slowly. This can be especially irritating for more advanced players such as graduate students, as they have more strongly ingrained habits than incoming college freshmen. It may take longer for them to see significant improvement in their playing mechanics because their habits more stubbornly resist change. Their improvements are also more subtle and less physically noticeable as a blowing sensation, compared to the more obvious basic and fundamental changes that challenge younger players.
As gradual playing improvement happens over time, students can feel that they are either getting nowhere or taking baby steps. Everyone prefers large leaps to baby steps, but this is not the usual course when developing a physical skill. Those “light bulb” moments in lessons when a sudden improvement or insight occurs are important and rewarding, but the body hasn’t even begun to learn the improved response as a habit. Also, the teacher probably arrived at that moment with the student through a much more sequential, systematic and patient process than the student would have gone through alone in the practice room. Good teachers can make improvements seem obvious and simple, and their playing often reflects an appealing level of refinement that seems effortless. It is important to realize their level of playing and understanding took many years to acquire, because the body and mind learn in gradual steps over time.
It is inevitable that at times all players will experience frustration. There will be conflicts between old habits and the desired playing improvements. I often tell my students that the first important step towards improvement is inconsistency. They don’t have to like it but they must understand and accept it. Playing habits improve unevenly, and it often seems that for every two steps forward, there is a step backward. Some improvements can actually impede progress in other areas. For example, when students begin to relax their blowing and achieve a more full and resonant tone, range is often temporarily reduced, which is the last thing anyone wants!
Highly motivated students are often the most impatient and self-critical. “Trying hard” can actually get in the way. Sometimes it’s as if you can sense students trying to command their playing to “Relax and do it right, you idiot!” My teacher in graduate school, Vincent Cichowicz, would sometimes sense my rising frustration in a lesson, put his hand on my shoulder and say something to the effect, “I know you want to play this perfectly, but getting mad isn’t helping.” Another characteristic many motivated students share is the reluctance to acknowledge a better playing level. In a lesson after a student makes a significant difference I usually ask, “Does that sound better to you?” Frequently the response is, “It’s still not good.” The desire or expectation of perfection achieved in a short time is a hindrance.
The goal of practice sessions is improvement, not perfection. One should work to calmly realize that if a passage doesn’t go well, the only effective response is another, anger-free attempt, perhaps played much more slowly or an octave lower. My article “Practicing for Musicianship” in the December 1997 ITG Journal contains helpful information in this area. With our ears listening for improvement, the better repetitions will gradually begin to dominate over time.
Another source of frustration is that one’s playing level under pressure, such as in a performance or audition, usually lags behind what one is capable of noticeable playing improvements that are occurring in the practice room. Better habits that are emerging take a while to become consistent in performance, usually because the brain is more likely to be engaged in negative thoughts under pressure, such as assessing how the performance is going or worrying about who might be in the audience. Instead, the brain should be vividly conceiving music without any other conscious thoughts. With persistence and experience, the gap between the performing level that players are capable of and what is actually achieved under pressure will narrow.
There are no quick and easy solutions to calming one’s mind. The first crucial step is awareness; a commitment to continuing attention and effort is required. There is no “switch” in the brain to better mental control that players ultimately just flip on when their playing habits are ready. Mental and aural skills, just like physical habits, improve in small and uneven steps over time.
Mental improvement can include disciplines such as yoga. Michigan State University trumpet professor Richard Illman has long been an advocate of using yoga to enhance progress on the trumpet. He states, “Through yoga, one learns breath awareness and to pinpoint and eliminate areas of tension in the body. As a result the mind can both better focus on the job at hand, and better maintain composure while performing. ”
Another path towards improvement is meditation. Everyone knows what it’s like to be playing long tones or lip slurs while the mind is distracted, dwelling on the errands, homework, rehearsals, etc. that still need to be accomplished that day. But it is not possible to dwell on these thoughts and, at the same time, vividly hear what’s coming out of the end of the instrument! Before a practice session in a hectic day, students can try something as simple as pausing for a few minutes alone in a quiet area to try to calm and “unclutter” the mind. This will increasingly lend a better sense of purpose and direction to the practice session.
Sports psychology books are another great resource. A long time favorite of mine is Golf is Not a Game of Perfect by Bob Rotella. This book focuses on training the mind to think positive, helpful thoughts rather than destructive ones in pressure situations, because everyone has the ability to choose conscious thought. Another book with the same purpose that has been helpful to many musicians is The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey.
During a performance, fine players exude a sense of serenity and joy. Their thoughts are concentrated on making music, and when they do miss notes (nobody is perfect), it is unusual to see or hear them react to the flaw. Compare this to young players whose performances decline as they react to unexpected mistakes, often in simple passages. The audience can hear the doubt and tentative thinking enter into the performance. The fine players don’t just “luck” into the better mental state, but cultivate it through years of effective practice and performance experience.
Advanced players are also better able to dismiss performances that are below their usual standard. On several occasions I have heard performances by world-class artists that I am certain they weren’t pleased with. It struck me that they didn’t seem to mentally “beat themselves up” afterwards. They chose to accept that the performance was below their potential, but would not let it become a factor that would negatively affect future efforts.
Players must embrace the idea of baby steps to improvement and gauge their progress over the long term. Over a period of six months or a year, the baby steps that seemed to be going so slowly have added up to walking a mile with the player hardly noticing the improvement. Teachers can help keep this process in perspective by calling attention to aspects of a student’s performing level that are clearly better compared to the previous year.
The goal is to patiently train the mind to be calm and free of negative thought, with an increasing ability to conceive music and eliminate conscious intrusions, instructions, or judgments when performing. An appealing byproduct of this improved mental function is increased endurance. Over time, experiences in the practice room and in performance are increasingly more positive and rewarding. It’s a nice difference!
John Schlabach is Professor of Trumpet at Ohio University in Athens. He has extensive performing experience as a solo, orchestra, and chamber music musician. His article “On Connecting the Ear and Brass Performance” was published in the journals of four professional brass organizations—International Trumpet Guild, International Horn Society, International Trombone Association, and the International Tuba Euphonium Association. He earned degrees from Northwestern and Western Illinois Universities.
I often find myself harping at my students to use playing-efficiency as their guide in developing their fundamental brass skills, but developing the efficiency of their practice can prove even more valuable in the long run. But have we ever stopped for a moment to ask ourselves what “practice” is? Practice is really about achieving goals in the least amount of time, without negatively impacting longer-term goals. Although many say “practice makes perfect,” it is generally more appropriate to say “practice makes permanent” as when we practice, we are establishing habits and patterns of behavior that, if established well-enough, will carry over to our performance, whether we happen to be anxious or relaxed.
Of course, the more we practice “good” habits, the more ingrained these habits will become, thus making our practice time more efficient. But how can we ensure the maximization of practicing good habits?
Research indicates that we are more likely to practice good habits when we are actively engaged in the task of achieving goals. So it stands to reason that we must spend some of our practice time arriving at reasonable goals for that session; the more specific and clear your goals are, the more likely you will achieve them. Write your goal(s) down for that session. How can other portions of your session (warm-up or technical exercise) help you achieve that goal or other long-term goals?
Often, students will squeeze their practice sessions between other classes and commitments, resulting in shortening or skipping practice time when schedules get particularly busy. When this happens, does this accurately reflect your valuation of your development of musical skills? In order for practice to be effective, it must occur when the student is the least fatigued, and the greatest potential for engagement is present; this may be in the morning, afternoon, or night, but what is important is that students reflect on what time is best for them to practice and then put it in their schedule at that time, just like a class or other commitment.
It stands to reason (and is confirmed by research) that there is a positive relationship between amount of practice time and general improvement in musical skills, with music students averaging 20–25 hours per week. If you realize that you need to practice more, it may be helpful to make a contract with yourself to practice a certain amount of time in a week, with rewards or punitive consequences that result if the terms of the contract are upheld or broken. It may also be helpful to view practice as “investing” in a practice account, which will accrue value (as represented by your playing) over the years depending on how much you deposit over the long term. Small amounts make a substantial difference over the long term, and this will likely be reflected in your performance skills.
Some may argue that parts of a work should be mastered before playing the whole work, and others will argue that stopping in the middle of practice in order to fix problems foremost reinforces the habit of stopping in the middle of a piece. A combination of each technique (isolation of passages and practicing the whole) works best for most students. When selecting passages for practice, it is most important that selections are musically meaningful to you. Passages can be shortened or lengthened depending on their difficulty at any point; what is most important is that you can perform the passage 1) easily, without undue strain or effort, and 2) to a high standard, that you are not allowing any aspects of your performance to suffer in order to achieve that session’s goals. In order to encourage my students to practice using the isolation of passages approach, I often enlist the help of a “lick sheet.” First, one must decide what target tempo is desired for the piece. Then the piece is played through to see what “licks” are not performed to personal standards. These licks are written down on a large post-it with its accompanying “boundary tempo.” A boundary tempo is the fastest tempo in which a lick can be consistently executed (three times in a row) up to the student’s standard. This lick sheet is then revisited each practice session when the student is most prepared to work creatively and diligently to solve problems. The boundary tempo will slowly begin to move up, and eventually will meet and surpass the target tempo for the piece. This way, records are kept so the student is not wasting time running the piece from beginning to end every practice session to find what they need to work on, and can more efficiently address pressing issues that are preventing convincing performance. Even with the use of a lick sheet, it is still important to periodically practice the entire work without stopping in order to integrate the licks and reinforce the habit of quick recovery from mistakes while in performance.
An added dimension can be used with the lick sheet by alternating between the boundary tempo, where the lick is perfect, and the faster performance tempo, which will contain errors but will “inform” the slower rendering by executing movements, articulations, etc. in real time; this can often save practice time by not wasting time on aspects of playing that will not apply to the faster tempo. For example, the space between notes in a fast multiple-tongued passage will not exist at the faster tempo, but the student may not immediately recognize that the multiple tongued notes should be practiced long at the slower tempo in order to optimize the transfer of skill to the faster tempo.
Although “knowledge of results,” or awareness of what has changed as a result of the practice session, is widely regarded as essential to learning by educational psychologists, it is quite rare that a conscious evaluation of a practice session is done at its conclusion. Evaluation is important in order to determine what was effective or ineffective in the practice session and use that to make plans and goals for the next session. Although thoughtful reflection on the practice session is more helpful than no evaluation at all, recording oneself can provide a distance from the task that simply relying on memory is unlikely to provide. Reinforcing mental models by listening to recordings and comparing those models to your own performance can result in clearer, and consequently more valuable, goals for the next practice session. This can also contribute to motivation to practice more frequently, as there is always direction and strategies to try out.
As you develop greater awareness of your practice habits, it is important to remember that most tasks are not accomplished in a single session, but by making small steps forward, every challenge will be met. By implementing the suggestions in this article, those small steps will become ever larger, and your practice effort will result in faster and more satisfying acquisition of performance skills.
Jørgensen, Harald. (2004). “Strategies for Individual Practice,” ch. 5 in Musical Excellence, Aaron Williamon, ed. London: Oxford University Press.