Editorials, Articles and Playing Tips
- Building a Better Sound
- Mouthpiece Whistling and Resistance Mouthpiece Inhalation from the book, A Brass Player's Cookbook, published by Meredith Music
- Time to SHAPE UP! The Mead guide to getting the year off to a good start
- Using Vocal Techniques to Enhance All Aspects of Low Brass Performance
Steven Mead's lecture notes from the Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic, 2001
- Preparing a Major Solo Piece for Euphonium - by Steven Mead
- Getting the Simple Things Right - by Steven Mead
- Stamina and Nerves - by Steven Mead
- Touring - by Steven Mead
- Two British Euphonium Legends - by Steven Mead
Article by Steven Mead (as printed in February/March editions of Brass Band World Magazine)
When you answer the telephone often the first thing the other person says is , 'Hi, its me', the voice will be instantly reconizable. When you play one note on your instrument, its 'you'. Your musical 'DNA' is recognisable by you, fellow band members, and people who hear you practice (usually family or neighbours).Maybe people pay you the compliment that they like your sound, they exercise their subjective opinion that what u do is pleasing on the ear and feel it is a true enough feeling to tell you. You may modestly and hopefully discreetly agree with them or you may not. Some people will go through their musical lives permanently unfilled by the sound they make on their brass instrument, and that's a pity.
I know 99% of readers will probably be amateurs and as such can always say they don't have enough spare time to work on their playing to get it to a 'professional' level, but getting a high quality sound may not need as much time as you think.
With low brass playing the essential requirement is quality air, taken in a deep relaxed way. In all the classes and workshops I give, the basics always come first for after the mastery of these all is possible. Try slow inhalations like a yawn with the back of the throat open , mentally counting 4 seconds, and then 'blow' out for 4 seconds, now with the lips closer together, producing a 'whooshing' sound. Repeat then with different combinations of 2:4,2:6, 2:8, 4:2, 4:4, 4:6, 4:8
There are many breathing exercises to help you get the air moving, but this will get you started. You might consider a breath training device like the popular 'Ultrabreathe' too, to really work the lungs.
Now consider the space inside your mouth, the essential resonator for your tone. This is the 2nd essential element of good tone. If you enjoying singing and if singing was an important part of your musical training you will create a round and high vocal cavity quite naturally. I was taught to imagine an egg standing vertically inside your mouth. The air from your lungs passes around this space to achieve a rich tone quality. If you can also maintain this feeling when inhaling you can keep tension out of the sound too and are less likely to squeeze the sound. Using a lot of 'high quality' air also necessitates support from the moving abdominal muscles and I like to imagine this as the moving of a cello bow, and its varying speeds of movement change the sound accordingly.
Many low brass players are never instructed to think of changing vowel sounds when playing different tessitura. For me this was only an extension of vocal techniques I learned as a young lad, but found it reinforced later in life in the great teachings of Arnold Jacobs and others. In the mid-range imagine the sound 'AH', with a normal tongue position (sing it to find this !).In the low range 'AW' and in the upper range 'OO' and in the super high range with the air traveling very fast, 'EE'. Practice with 'D' articulations (Daw-Dah-Doo) very slow 2 octave arpeggios using the right sounds for the right pitches, keeping every note the same dynamic, around 'mf' to start, and producing the best quality sound possible. The essential element in all this is that you are listening to yourself, having first imagined the best sound you possibly can. If you have something tonally to aim at before you play the art of imitating that sound can be quite easy. When I was growing up in Bournemouth that was how I learned, by training the voice and by listening and trying to imitate great euphonium artists on recordings.
Another really useful technique is to spend more of your practice time playing low notes, for low brass players (if you have a 4th valve) from low C to pedal C. It is not important that you don't use these notes too often in the band room. My favourite warm up is to start on pedal C, then slowly ascend in this pattern: C,Db, C,D, C,Eb, C,E,etc playing a sustained 'forte' dynamic, without vibrato or inflection of any kind, holding each note for 4 slow counts. When you arrive at the octave, go back the other way, C,B,C,Bb,C,A,C,Ab, etc. Repeat daily ! If you have a practice mute use this too as the resistance you have to blow against will open the back of the throat. I guarantee you will make a bigger more open tone afterwards. By practicing below the stave you will be simultaneously be helping yourself to play better high notes too. And finally try to keep the aperture (the space between your lips) constant. It may seem an easy thing to say but over time if facilitates so many other features of successful brass playing. Good luck, it is possible to change your musical DNA!
One of the hardest things for a brass player is to sense that your playing is developing, getting better, particularly after the age of say 25, when the first push for 'stardom' is over and you are left to contemplate the balance between your work, family commitments, band and all that goes with that. Where is your motivation to practice to take you to the next level? Some people are naturally ambitious and to ascertain quite where this comes from might necessitate some expensive minutes on a psychiatrists couch. Some people want a bigger and better house, others are happy with what they have, and so it is with brass playing. So, this advice is for all whether you seem happy with your lot or you continually aspire to do better. The low brass fraternity are a gregarious warm-hearted breed of musicians who share the same brand of basic humour, who appreciate each others work and are happy to provide rich tones in a band and orchestra that give pleasure and simultaneously make the others musicians sound better!
That said, there are many who lack anything like a daily routine and herein lies the potential for a lack of sustainable improvement. In the last article I mentioned the importance of quality air, relaxing, utilising the open resonant space within the mouth, vowel sounds and low tone practice. These key points underlie all we do, it's if you like in computer speak, the default way of playing. These are there from the first to last notes every day.
The playing position is vital too; the distance from the small of the back to the top of the head has to be maximized, almost a military style straightness maximizes the potential of the lung capacity. Try this for yourself: stand with your back against a wall with your feet about 30 cms away, slouch a little and take a big breath. You can sense the air intake is 'in the chest', so if you were to exhale strongly your lower muscles simply wont need to function. In playing terms, you will be working the facial muscles too much as the 'support' muscles (with their cello-bow-motion, as per the last article) are not being used. Repeat this a few times. Then stand completely straight with the back of your feet touching the wall, as well as the backside, shoulders and head. Now exhale and feel the air automatically entering lower, filling up like one fills a glass with liquid..(ah ha now you understand!). As you exhale strongly the full use of the muscles can be felt and you have more air. As if to reinforce this critical point, try this: stand up straight, put your arms up (a la cop movie!) above your head, take a deep breath then exhale. Repeat 3 times each time with your arms stretching a little more than before. Then return to a normal position and take a powerful breath and feel the difference that internal stretching has made. If we can trace 90% of brass players problems to poor air use then surely the question of posture and good air intake is something immediately fixable.
Start your daily routine with this awareness and your lips, tongue, fingers and ears will thank you. I always begin by 'waking up' the low notes and then progress into a technical warm up of Clarke studies, scales and arpeggios. These may seem terribly old-fashioned to many 'progressive' thinkers but believe you me all the students I know who have practiced and mastered their scales are brilliant sight readers and can learn music very quickly. It may shock you learn than many players who audition at the RNCM can barely play a scale to save their lives! Shocking indeed but am I more sad for them or frustrated with their teachers? In this 'push-button' age the timeless discipline of regular disciplined study is not very trendy but I for one will not accept the watering down of our music education. The long lasting benefits of scales and arpeggios can steer you through a career in music or give you the edge in reading and maintaining an even sound with whatever ensemble you play in. On a similar topic, and I hate to sound like a dreary school master, the long note routine I adopted as a teenager is still as useful in sound development as it ever was. Using 20 seconds as the unit of length, start on a middle F#, then proceed alternately higher and lower, G, F, G#, E, A, Eb etc arriving after some minutes at octave Cs. Rest for a minute then continue, C#, low B, D, Bb, D#, A etc. Rest after the two octave F#s, then fourth valve permitting, continuing on to high C and pedal C. Then take a few minutes off and contemplate the sounds you've been listening to. Try to play with a beautiful soft sound ('mp' maximum) and a little vibrato. Breath deeply and effortlessly on the 20 second mark ( I hang a watch on the music stand). A metronome is ok but can disturb the beauty with its ruthless clicking or beeping. This simple exercise has kept me is reasonable shape for over 20 years. One final point for now is the subject of vibrato, a much maligned feature of the brass players expressive vocabulary. Often overdone, often predictable and distracting, when used sensitively it puts the human element of warmth, beauty as well as the creation and resolution of tension into our music. We should cultivate this as we do pure tone, but the two are not to be confused. If you are unsure of the mechanics of vibrato 'creation' here is a quick five-step guide:
- Repeat over the word 'Yah' (like in a German women's institute meeting),yah yah yah yah.
- Repeat again but silence the voice so only the jaw action continues.
- Repeat again but try to keep the lips as fixed as possible so the movement is seemingly at the back of the jaw.
- Repeat step three but simultaneously exhale strongly a strong stream on air with the lips in the 'playing' position with the jaw creating the messaging effect which is the basis of a rich and controlled vibrato.
- Take up instrument and play some mid range long tones using the experience of step 4 to guide you. Then listen and keep listening and refine your sound in the way an artist or sculptor will perfect a work of art.
So that's it for this little piece: posture, scales, long notes and vibrato all of which can help the building progress whatever your age or aspirations.
Enjoy your practice and make beautiful sounds.
Two unconventional things to do with your mouthpiece that enable you to play with more open, freer sound
Musically, all of us are 'products' of our past musical training and we instinctively behave and react in a similar way to the way we did when we were very young. So does it mean that our brass performance is pre-defined for us? Maybe, but my tempting little recipes can enable any brass player to unlearn some bad habits and quickly formulate new ones. A bold promise yes, but these simple related recipes may balance your acquired knowledge of how to play a brass instrument with the skills, (good and bad) that you picked up between the ages of say 5 and 12.
Here are two techniques to try with mouthpiece alone, really a 'starter' to be consumed before the main course, rather than as the main dish itself.
- your mouthpiece, cleaned inside and out (as per normal!)
- a tuning machine or keyboard, or just a very good sense of pitch
- a mirror
all brass players who feel the need to play well, in particular those who suffer from airflow issues and a poorly shaped embouchure.
The first recipe can be served either at the beginning of a practice session or indeed in the middle of one, or mid-rehearsal.
Often our performance can be improved by utilizing more space inside the mouth and at the back of the throat. The benefits of deep breathing are often negated by a restriction in the throat area and at the back of the oral cavity. Tension makes this worse as does a lack of 'vocal awareness'. The air simply cannot pass freely through the lips, causing a restriction in tone quality, dynamic range and pitch range, to name but three. If such a concept is appreciated very early in one's musical life this area of technique often stays with us a lifetime, but it can be learned of course.
- Take your mouthpiece (mp), ensuring the shank has been cleaned, turn it around, then put your lips around the shank ensuring the lips overlap at least 2 cms (about _ inch) from the end of the mp.
- Hold the mp with one hand and now breathe in and out slowly. Stay as relaxed and open as possible and check using the mirror there is no facial tension.
- Now take the forefinger of the spare hand and jam it into the backbore of the mp, blocking just about all the space. Breathe in again, gently at first, sensing how the body is now trying to take in the air despite the massive resistance you've created. Relax more and check for facial tension.
- Now increase the velocity of the intake, trying to fill you lungs completely in about 4 seconds, and then exhale too for the same duration.
- You are now creating a wonderfully powerful tone chamber inside your mouth and in the throat area.
- Continue this for about a minute (stopping earlier if you become dizzy, faint or die)
- Re-unite mouthpiece with instrument and carry on playing. The benefits of this 'dish' are immediate and can be long-lasting.
The second recipe uses exactly and same ingredients but now the mouthpiece is the 'correct' way round. I've enjoyed this dish for years and it brings back happy childhood memories of when I was an 'angelic' boy soprano! Vocal concepts have always been important to me and this unites a vocal approach with whistling; not whistling with the lips but the natural pitched sounds that emanate from the mp alone when warm 'round' air is passed through it. Benefits of this are essentially: 1. a more rounded aperture 2. an awareness of the 'bicycle wheel' of control muscles we have round our lips and 3. control of the moving air from the base of the lungs.
- Hold the mp as if you are going to buzz on it. Without vibrating the lips pass a large amount of air through so you're empty your lungs in say 2 seconds for trombone, euphonium or tuba, maybe 5 seconds for trumpet and 4 for horn (a real fortissimo burst of pure warm air). Ensure the sensation in the middle of your aperture is the same as when you had the shank of the mp in your mouth in recipe 1.
- Now take a good breath but allow the air to pass slower, say mezzo forte and double the exhalation time. As you do this imagine the pure sound of your lips whistling (don't worry if you are a non-whistler) or a pure hummed tone. You might, as you near the end of this breath, hear the first signs of the elusive mp whistle.
- Now take a similar large breath but now try to make the exhaled air very warm and very slow. If you hear anything resembling a hiss there is either a snake in your practice room, or you are forcing/squeezing the air through an aperture that is too 'flat'.
- Persist with this very soft air and the pure whistle will come (it's possible on a trumpet mp, but very high pitched; quite easy of a horn mp and very easy, once you do it right, on anything bigger.
- Use a keyboard or tuning machine to ascertain its pitch, and then try to increase your whistle range to 3 notes, then up to 8. Don't press too hard on the mouthpiece and check in the mirror that your eyes are open and you don't look too weird! Try to sustain your notes for 10 seconds or more. Once you get good, expand your mp whistling range to include Clarke No.2 finger drills.
This exercise will improve your tone quality as you are forming a rounder aperture and maintaining the 'cylindrical' aspects of your air column to where it leaves your lips and as it travels through your instrument. If it doesn't happen right away don't give up, it may take a few days. Like recipe 1 you could hear an immediate improvement with the 'real' playing that follows. Good luck with this. Enjoy.
Well we all need a break sometimes, and probably you, like me, eased off over the holiday season, maybe only for 2 or 3 days, maybe a week and... surely not, even 10 days? And now you want to pick up your instrument and expect it will feel alright after about half an hour. Sorry, its not my fault, but it won't, or at least it shouldn't.
It is true to say the more you practice, you more you miss it when you don't; your muscles get accustomed to the workout and when you don't use them in that unique way that playing a brass instrument demands, they forget and lose power and co-ordination very quickly. Its only a subtle shift, but you're out of the zone and there's work to be done to get you right for that first rehearsal with the band/orchestra , never mind the first concert or solo gig.
Just how much you've over-indulged yourself on your holiday will also be a factor in your 'recovery'. If you did not exercise at all, not even walking, for a week and ate too much everyday, not to mention the cumulative effect of several days alcohol-induced dehydration, its not only the lips that are going to protest.
The first symptoms are that you cannot seem to get much air in the lungs...you feel fat, even if the bathroom scales are only edging a little higher. The breathing machine that we become when our brass playing is in good shape is quite sophisticated , with open oral cavity, relaxed throat, flexible abdominal muscles allowing for a rapid intake of air, like a turbo-charged yawn. These 'opening' muscles are the first to tense up with inactivity, you didn't practice, you didn't exercise...duh !
When the mouthpiece is re-united with the 'face' it can feel like a stranger, a borrowed mouthpiece, the rim may feel smaller and sharper. You might well play brilliantly for the first 5 minutes and then...oh dear, it all goes wrong...tone production, sound quality, flexibility, sustainability all , as one diminish to the point of embarrassment and you check out of the window and around the door that no-one you respect is listening.
It's time to work out, so here goes my one week recovery plan
Day 1 (2 sessions 20 mins each)
Stand tall - stretch up with the arms, then down , then higher, breathing in and out each time, stretch higher and breath deeper and slower each time. Repeat for 3 mins
- Twist the body left and right keeping you head still , again increasing width of the twist and the speed, don't forget to breath...repeat 3 mins
- Take a deep breath and flap the lips (NOT buzz), make the lips sound like the engine of a Harley Davidson on low revs, hold sound for 5 secs, then 6 then 8 then 10. Rest for a minute and repeat
- Timed inhalation and exhalation, 4 (secs):4, 4:6, 4:8, 4:10, 4:4, 6:4, 8:4, 10:4
- repeat No.3
- With instrument start very gently and low, in treble clef Bb pitch, bottom C,B,C,Bb, C,A,C, Ab, C, G, C, F#, each note 4 slow beats, breathing only when you need to at mp dynamics, repeat three times. Then C, Db, C, D, C, D#, C, E, C, F, C, F#, C, G (@3)
- Rest for five minutes
- Repeat No. 6 tonguing four crotchets (1/4 notes) for each pitch, at 1/4 = 88
- Rest for 5 minutes
- slow chromatic one octave scales , up and down in one breath and be very positive with the fingers and keep the throat open all the time, add small cresc. and dim. , first legato then with the tongue
- Gently play your favourite 10 mins of warm up exercises but not too fast or too loud. Limit you Day 1 session to about 25 min and if possible do it twice in the first day, finishing each session with Ex.3
- Walk vigorously for 20/30 mins. Drink lots of water
Day 2 (2 sessions 30 mins each)
All of Day 1 exercises and then:
- Two note flexibility in descending 4th s (1 /8th notes), starting middle cgcgcgcgc-------- X2, bf# bf# bf# bf#b---------X2 etc as low as you can go . Slowly with firm corners of the mouth and good round space in the middle of the aperture and constant support from the middle of the body. Repeat twice
- Pedal tones, 4 mins, quite strong but very stable in pitch, keep eyes and throat open keep posture very upright
- simple single tongue exercises (Arban)
- Use 'Basics Plus' (Guggenberger) or similar basic method book from the beginning to develop pitch and dynamic range.
- Take your time, with frequent breaks, stay hydrated
- Walk vigorously for 20/30 mins. Drink lots of water
Day 3 (2 sessions 40 mins each)
Repeat Day 1, but compact all exercises into 15 mins, gently increasing speed of chromatic scales, and two octaves now, tongue quicker note values of ex 8, to include triplets and 1/16 notes.
Repeat Day 2, but add the following:
- Two octave major and minor scales, not too quick and take very deep breaths before you start
- Practice more extended flexibility exercises but not too fast, use a metronome if possible
- Long tone exercises, starting middle F#, G, F, G#, E, A, Eb, Bb, D, B, Db, C, C (octave below), each note 20 secs long
- Play 3 of your favourite slow melodies, with full expression and dynamics and make sure you stand up for this...things are starting to get 'real'.
- More 'Basics Plus' - type exercises
- Make sure you warm down, with the 'Harley' exercise.
- Walk vigorously for 20/30 mins. Drink lots of water
Day 4 (3 sessions of 20 mins, more if you're feeling GOOD)
You're doing fine, feel what you body is allowing you to do and try to increase the performance without 'pushing' anything too hard....repetition, rest..repetition rest....it pays off, so to be patient.
Try to get the Day 1 breathing exercises to fell much deeper now....the Ultrabreath trainer can be used right from Day 1 but increase the power and duration of the exercises step by step, day by day. ADD:
- Two octave arpeggios, tongued and slurred at quite a brisk tempo but always even dynamics
- Double and triple tongue (eg Arban)
- Sight-read some new exercises or a solo... use that 'dark' side of the brain.
- Go back to you favourite slow melodies and now transpose them higher and/or lower...use that musical brain of yours
- Increase pitch range of Day 3 long tone exercise, now continue (alternately higher and lower notes) until you get to high F# and (two octaves lower F#)..rest for 3 mins after this
- 'Rev-up' the Harley exercise, in 2s, 4s, 6s, 8s, 10s
- Walk vigorously for 20/30 mins. Drink lots of water. Don't forget to warm down each time...pedal tones will do fine.
Day 5 (3 sessions of 30 mins, or two of 45 mins)
You know you are getting better, but you ain't there yet; you need to start to tackle more of the lengthy Arban technical exercises, a couple of the Rochut Melodius Etudes, book 1 or 2 : 3 if you're really ace!
Step up each of the exercises from the previous days, adding range to the flexibility exercises and some dynamics, Clarke finger studies, keep the dynamics on the soft side and use a metronome.
Take frequent rests now so you don't flatten the lips too much.
Keep the posture upright, eyes always open, keep drinking water.
Take time out to do some more breathing exercises...push the Ultrabreathe exercises harder.
Use the Basics Plus range-building exercises and scale exercises.
Day 6 and 7
Increase the above to your normal , (or newly elevated) practice schedule, for me its 3 sessions of 1 and 1/4 hours minimum but ...hey...you will be as good as you wanna' be !! It's your life...but if a job's worth doing it's worth doing well.
Implement your New Year musical resolutions:
- Learn 6 new solos, buy (not photocopy) some new euph or baritone solos.
- Learn all the scales and arpeggios you could never be bothered to learn before
- Improve your sight-reading, 'look' at a new study or solo for 5 minutes before you play it...imagine how it will sound, work out any difficult rhythms, watch accidentals, watch for changes of key..GO FOR IT !!
- Keep your instrument in good condition, brush the leadpipe out , with a long bendy brush, not just water ! This alone could transform your sound and intonation.
- Don't just own a metronome, use it.
- Set yourself a challenge, a solo in a concert, a recital, tackle a piece you never thought you'd be able to play, form a quartet, play duets regularly with a friend in the Band.
- We're all driven by motivation...the art of musical performance particularly. So it's time to 'shape up' and enjoy another year playing your instrument...better than you've ever done before. Good luck
Steven Mead January 2005
Friday December 21st 2001, 3pm - Midwest Band and Orchestral Clinic, Chicago
Steven Mead, Clinician (sponsored by Boosey and Hawkes)
A personal history, mine and yours, early singing experiences, allied to the performance of singing.
- What were the experiences, good/bad and what about the substance?
- Was it vocal training, or just singing, trained or untrained?
- Was there any concept of vocal performance or was it just with others at school, church , in the bath etc?
- What was the music: spiritual, descriptive, competition orientated, recreational, academic etc ?
- What elements of our personal history do we remember and are we aware that it influences our core musicality, ability to phrase, tonal concepts, natural musical breathing?
- If we all had some early singing experiences is it possible to remember them now and re-apply what was part or our experience to the way we make music/teach music now?
- early sounds I heard. S.A. junior choir, junior band, first music lessons, brass lessons
- feeling for sonority, UK brass bands, soloists, recordings
- singing in public
- How brass playing took over from singing for me, and why
- My career, in brief and how the realization that as I developed as a musician and brass performer, I was regressing in terms of my memory of vocal tuition and honing what was clearly working to become a detailed method I could apply to my students and my own playing.
B. Elements of the method
- from before the beginning of the inhalation to the end of the respiration the body should feel powerful and relaxed
- the air passes without any over constraint through into the mouthpiece
- the air is supported on its journey through the instrument , like an extension of ourselves
FREEING the BODY OF TENSION
- relaxation techniques and breathing exercises all contribute as does increasing personal self confidence
- correct straight body posture, with the upper body upright as if supported like a puppet on strings
- my eyes theory !! link between the action (or inaction preferably) of the eyes muscles and the throat
- extending/heightening the oral cavity- egg shape, vertical
- you have to, as performers or teachers, adopt a method that works for you and seems to work for your students
- expand as you breathe, taking the air low, filling the lungs from their base
- use the correct muscles to support your 'air bag'
- keep upper body relaxed during the breathing process
- keep the eyes clearly open
- work at regular 'open' breathing exercises, timed, paced and controlled
ORIGIN of the SOUND
- the sound for low brass players does not originate from any one place; throat, lips, lungs, oral cavity, mouthpiece !!
- the whole middle body 'creates' and sustains the sound
- the rest of the body forms itself around this core tone and captures its energy and power
- the conception of timbre and the ability to sustain an even tone throughout the pitch range starts in the brain, we pre-programme ourselves with tonal excellence (getting this concept appreciated by the student is normally the hardest skill)
- importance of guided listening and encouragement of student when tone improves. Use of sound models, whilst still allowing for the student to develop their own personal preferences
- depending on the age of the student, the teacher will need to understand what muscles need to 'move' and which need to be kept fixed.
- 'fix' the sides of the lips
- keep the aperture of the lips open in a precise and focused way
- relax the neck and shoulder muscles
- use the strong diaphragmatic muscles in the same way as a cellist uses a bow...we are normally only 'down' bow !
- use the mouth's internal muscles to preserve the shape
- basic understanding of resonance (from the Latin: resonantia, "echo")
- in vocal terms: amplification of a source of speech sounds, especially of phonation, by sympathetic vibration of the air, especially in the cavities of the mouth, nose and pharynx.
- brass players can grasp this concept by singing in a variety of ways, with their teacher
- brass players do not need complex explanations, keep it simple
TONGUE POSITION - VOWEL SOUNDS
- three basic vowel sounds, 'ah', 'aw', and 'oo'. These sounds, can be developed through singing, 'half whistling', and blowing pitched air through the mouthpiece
- make sure the tongue movement is not excessive
- ensure the tip of the tongue position for the beginning of the note does not vary
- support all the vowel sounds with the right kind of air
- vowel sound technique will only work if the aperture shape and 'bicycle' wheel muscles work together in the correct way.
OPENNESS of the EMBOUCHURE
- this is critical to the free flow of the air
- each student's lips will be slightly different so a flexible approach is necessary
- think 'ah' as the basic sonority and projecting this sound through the instrument
- always moving, causing easy vibration of the lips, throughout the dynamic and pitch range
EVENNESS OF LIP VIBRATION
- use the vertical, centered index finger method to assess evenness
- essential for maintaining consistent response
C. Musical Applications
SOUND QUALITY - SUBJECTIVE OR OBJECTIVE ?
- can we use vocal models to teach sound quality and do we have to be able to demonstrate it ? Yes and ideally ..yes.
- long tone practice, how to do it.
- building dynamics into long tone work
- think legato, play melodies
- articulate within the air stream, play and sing the same example
BUILDING A BETTER SOUND
- the right mouthpiece and instrument combination make a huge difference
- mouthpiece: getting the balance correct between cup shape/depth, rim diameter and back bore
- use a large a size as possible to help you do the job
- maintain a consistent warm-up method which also allows for new 'elements' to enter the regular routine
- make tone allied to open, powerful airflow a focus of practice
EASE OF PRODUCTION
- essential for all-round development; practice 'combination' exercises, with free air, singing, 'mouthpiece' air, half whistling and then playing, keeping the air flow consistent and the lips in the same position
- consequent less reliance on the tongue
- 'dah' rather than 'tah' for low brass
- tongue and air together
- imaginary dart-throwing exercises for tone placement
- a good conductor can improve the tone production of his/her musicians
LEGATO MELODIC LINE
- listen to singers: imitate the smoothness, imitate aspects of diction, imitate starts and ends of phrases
- use vocal techniques even with 'normal' technical , range- building exercises.
DEVELOPING RANGE - RICH FULL LOW TONES, POWERFUL CLEAR HIGH RANGE
- once the above elements, both physical/muscular and mental conceptions are embraced the dedication of the student and teacher will be the determining factor as to the full extent of development
- variety of daily exercises , use of metronome and imagination, keeping the air free, upper body, (including the eyes) relaxed and open
- develop even response from the low tones, particularly Bb,B and the lower octave in particular
- make all tongue position flexibility natural using daily lip slurs
- vocalize two notes lip flexibilities
- then three note
- then focus the 'face' and play them, keeping the body still
- develop four , five etc note exercises until complete freedom is achieved
VARIETY IN ARTICULATION
- use the 'tonguing on a line' (Remington method) as the basis then exploit contrasts of dah, dat, doo, ta, tu, la etc and assess the application determined by style, dynamic of the music
- "Singers should not produce musical tones with a voice gaping wide in a distorted fashion or with an absurdly powerful bellowing, especially when singing at the divine mysteries; moreover they should avoid tones having a wide and ringing vibrato, since these tones do not maintain a true pitch and because of their continuous wobble cannot form a balanced concord with other voices". Practica musicae (1496) of Gaffunus (MSD, xx, 1968, pp.148ff)
- avoid extremist teaching and theories; allow your students to develop a beautiful sound but one which is always musically sympathetic to the ensemble or situation
- do not be tempted to imitate the excesses of vocal vibrato
- for low brass, free the lower jaw allowing the resonant sound to vibrate rather than just the pitch, i.e. keep the space of the oral cavity round and high
TECHNICAL STUDIES, FAST EXECUTION, COMBINED WITH FAST TONGUE USE, EXPRESSION AND NUANCE
- use a large range of technical exercises and use them in a consistent yet flexible manner
- stress the use of a metronome for instilling and re-asserting rhythmic discipline
- even in study material listen to ends of phrases and sustaining quality of long tones; it marks out a high quality student from an average one.
Think like a musician, not like a brass player
Thinking musically is one of the most important things to learn in the process of creating of a vocal style of brass playing. Develop the ear and a feeling for melodic line so that good musical experiences in the memory trigger immediate solutions to musical problems.
- Steven Mead, December, 2001
"Euphonium Concerto" - Joseph Horovitz
Preparing a major solo piece takes a lot time, whoever the soloist is. Playing the notes may take a shorter time but a piece of stature and importance needs more of your time than the time it takes to get through the notes. There are not really enough quality solo pieces for euphonium in existence yet but the situation has improved rapidly over the past 15 years or so to the extent a euphonium soloist has up to 50 extended high quality pieces to select from, from sonatas to rhapsodies, fantasies, fantasias, concertinos, concerti and so on. These major works range from 8 minutes to 25 minutes duration and have various accompaniments from piano to brass and wind band, string and full symphony orchestra. Some have extreme technical difficulty, so much so that there are maybe less than ten players in the world you could do a good job with it. Therefore the purpose of this article is not to confuse or impress with seemingly "mythical" ways to play one of these incredibly hard works with the 5 or 6 hours practice per day to learn, and memorize such works, but rather to take what is perhaps the best known and most often played concertos for euphonium and show a variety of methods to achieve musical success.
The work I have selected is the Euphonium Concerto by Joseph Horovitz, composed in 1972 as a commission from the National Brass Band Championships of Great Britain. Trevor Groom gave the first performance on October 14th of that year with the famous GUS Footwear Band conductor Stanley Boddington, at London's Royal Albert Hall. The work was subsequently recorded shortly after by the same soloist and band with the composer conducting.
When it was composed it was, almost unbelievably, the euphonium's first concerto save for one of two extended theme and variation solos that erroneously called themselves "concerto". The composer thought at the time he was making quite high technical demands on soloists and in a few instances in the score asks for one or two phrases in the outer movements to be played a little slower as he considered them to be too difficult for most players. With the technique "inflation" that has gone on since then, not only do these phrases not need to be slowed down, almost every college level player is able to master the technique required with some ease, save for about four or five phrases.
Horovitz deliberately wrote for a three valve euphonium, aware in 1972 that not all euphoniums had four valves, and not wishing to prejudice wide selling of the sheet music (a very shrewd composer), decided to restrict the range demanded so that nothing lower than concert Bb is demanding (he could of course, even with a three valve compensating instrument has asked for low E) or higher than high concert C. It really is amazing that this, the most popular euphonium concerto, has a range of only just over two octaves, or maybe that is the reason!
However, the musical challenges and an understanding of the sense and idiom of the musical language seems to remain a mystery to the generations of euphoniumists whose musical vocabulary is inevitably derived for the music of their history, i.e. operatic style slow melodies and theme and variation solos. The thought processes necessary to master large scale 3 movements works had not been called into action before and therefore lie dormant for the most part. So concert preparation must see technical and musical considerations go hand in hand for a deficit in either one will mean failure, for the composer at least. Also I suppose it essential to say that just playing studies, exercises, and general "practice" does not make the complete musician. It is imperative to listen to music, to understand the unique "language" that it is, like inflections of speech. By studying other instrumentalists and particularly vocalists we can go beyond the notes very quickly and leave our minds open to musical refinement rather than the simple playing of the "symbols" we see on the printed page.
So now a brief overview of the Euphonium Concerto by Horovitz for those not familiar. It is in the standard three movement concerto form; fast /slow /fast, although the term "fast" is not really as applicable with these outer movements than in other euphonium works! It is Horovitz at his romantic best, with many intricate passages requiring detailed articulation immediately contrasted by smooth melodies. He is always meticulous to mark exact details of tempi, articulations and dynamics, more so than many other large scale euphonium works; yet I still hear countless performances where many of these clear markings are completely overlooked. The use of contrasting dynamics is not overdone but a controlled well articulated pianissimo technique is important for this work. In the outer movements (1 and 3) there are several passages that require extremely well developed finger technique and that require detailed slow practice. The music is full of character, sometimes bold, sometimes tender, sometimes a little pompous and often cheeky. The second movement undoubtedly contains some of the finest slow music ever composed specifically for the euphonium and is a movement, which well played and sensitively accompanied, rarely fails to create a special atmosphere and a magical silence in the hall at the end. Whilst on the subject of accompaniment, this work exists with brass band, symphonic wind band (recently completed), chamber orchestra and piano; all orchestrations done by the composer.
In terms of specific preparation for this work I must confess here to have played this work over 35 times and so I know all the "corners" and have only to slowly play some of the technical sections for the "finger memory" to return and having had the luxury of being able to work with the composer (now aged 73 living happily in London with his wife Anna) I know exactly what he wants. This of course raises another interesting point; how much of the learning process involves us deciding we want to play something a bit different from what the composer has asked, or rather how much originality or license can a soloist allow him/herself before the approach can be questioned. Do we want all performances to sound the same? Of course not or there would be no interest in going to concerts or buying recordings. The temptation to exaggerate certain features, indulge oneself, show off etc are real dilemmas for the soloist and one‚s musical integrity is őon the line‚ every time we perform a well known major work, just as trumpet players are judged on how they play the Haydn and Hummel concerti. In many cases even quite well known works from the repertoire seem almost incomplete in terms of performers instructions, articulation, dynamics etc but in the hands of talented musicians the piece is able to come to life. With others the absence of such marking leads them to thinking what I describe as a őmezzo forte‚ approach to everything∑how dull!
Horovitz makes our job easier in a way, by specifying exactly what he wants and so we should do our best to obey the creator's instructions and in order to do this we need to practice the music slowly so that we can take in all the details, like a slow drive in the car to absorb all the beautiful sites, not to mention the road signs.
In the newest edition on the Concerto, (Pub. Novello 1991), Horovitz has revised some of his tempo markings so that the outer movements do not keep changing speed quite so much, thus giving the music more flow and line. It is a good idea to follow this clearly; from my experience if you ever get the chance to perform this with the composer present he will tell you in no uncertain terms how much faster or slower you played it from what he really wanted.
And so the opening theme of the 1st movement is a typically joyous, elegant Horovitz theme with alternating smooth and staccato moments for the soloist to begin his/her őjourney‚. I have often spent a lot of time with this opening when students play this at a masterclass at it has to be right, full of energy and strength yet still retaining a feeling of ease and quality, like driving a Jaguar car, (or Mercedes if you like!) as a steady comfortable speed. Perhaps the euphonium's primary strength is the lyrical, cantabile quality of its sound and so this Concerto always gives the chance for the soloist to demonstrate their tone. I never advise soloists to change their basic practice routine to suite a particular piece as their basic routine should contain all the essential ingredients to master even the hardest works. Long note practice and technical studies played slowly (Arban, Clarke, Vizzutti etc) however are particularly useful here. As I‚ve said earlier the need to listen to other types of music is essential too, particularly great vocal music as the teacher can find himself explaining the shape of every single phrase whereas a musician who has a feeling for sung melody will instinctively find the meaning of a phrase and play it musically without prompting.
Giving the music time and space is a major factor in making any work sound good. Take away the rush and panic and the audience gets a chance to appreciate what you are trying to say. This is very true for the first big "technical" challenge of the work (Bar 8, C), where it is easy to let the music accelerando to a point where the soloist stops trying to play all the notes and all we hear is a blur. It will probably be necessary to break this phrase down into 3 or 4 pieces and practice each very slowly until the brain and figures, helped by a continuous air flow, begin to communicate with each other. Keep the right hand relaxed but ensure the fingers always move in a strong way, without tension.
The alternation between slurred and staccato elements is an essential component of the 1st movement so a strict observance, even exaggeration of the long lengths (i.e. short notes shorter, long notes longer) will help tremendously. The controlled use of vibrato is also an important factor in making Horovitz's solo music work well and excesses here (too much vibrato or no vibrato at all) can destroy a performance. Think like a singer and the rest is up to your personal good taste and preference.
The last phrase of the first movement can also cause problems, usually because the soloist has never really appreciated exactly what the pitches of the notes are, particularly the last six 1/16 notes . Practice it slowly and smoothly (without tongue) until everything is in place, then bring in the correct articulation (a controlled flat-style double tongue is probably the most efficient).
Great breath control and perfect tuning are essential for the success of the 2nd movement. This is one of the greatest slow movements ever composed for the euphonium; its beautifully shaped phrases and calm shifting harmonies can create an incredible atmosphere in a live concert. So the soloist must keep relaxed and rely on the flow of air through the instrument to sustain the quality of the tone throughout. I recommend students to record themselves practicing and then a process of self-analysis can be helpful, listening carefully for an even sound throughout the bigger intervals and precise tuning, particularly in the higher notes. They will usually be sharp in this movement, so adjust valve slides/main slides/lips/triggers etc as necessary. Don't blame your instrument - audiences hate excuses!
Some rubato to the music will also help the feeling so keep the music flowing gently forwards all the time, not too static. The end of the movement is quite memorable, 14 measures of middle concert A; sounds easy, but it is not. It demands total control of the tone, the ability to allow the volume to rise and fall as directed whilst keeping the tuning perfect and gently re-articulating as required. Although it is very slow, practice it slower than you intend to play it, getting used to the time passing very slowly. Not unrelated to this is the need to keep oneself in good physical condition to play a major solo piece, with the need for sustained concentration and the ability to provide a constant high-quality air supply both being dependant on reasonably good health; jogging, swimming, walking, sensible diet etc all help greatly in the preparation for musical excellence in performance.
The 3rd movement allows the soloist the chance to show off technical prowess but Horovitz doesn‚t make it easy for us, with many of the fast passages needing very careful preparation for the fingers and the use of a metronome in rehearsal is essential to keep the notes even-paced and clear. The mood is again joyous and almost pompous, and like the first movement very clear attention to note lengths, particularly the contrast between long and short notes is vital. In preparing for this Concerto it is the desire to make the piece sound easy that drives me to practice it more; simply getting through without őinjury‚ is not enough. Consider the champion bullfighter of Spain, he doesn‚t run around madly trying to escape the charging bull, but "plays" it with ease to the amazement of the audience. I have many such strange analogies in my head but I try to keep most of them to myself!
Keep the music rhythmic, feeling the pulse of the metre and even in the hardest passages keep a rhythmic feel to it (6 before I). Try to find if any "alternative" fingerings will help keep the smoothness, for example middle concert D on 1/2 instead of 0 and concert G and low D on 3 instead of 1/2. What is easy for one player may seem more awkward to the next so you have to find your own solution to the problems.
By keeping a daily routine covering all aspects of "normal" valve technique the player should not find any of the passages unplayable but will still need to slow the music down to get it right before playing it in tempo.
Try to rehearse with the accompaniment when you can. If you are to perform with a band or orchestra, familiarise yourself with the accompaniment before you get what will probably be very limited time with the large ensemble. If you are to play with band then the need for constant projection of sound also has to be a focus of your thoughts in rehearsal; if the audience cannot hear clearly what you are doing then there's not point you playing ! Rehearse in a variety of acoustic situations so that you are used to both dry and resonant halls and can easily adjust articulations/dynamics/note lengths for maximum effect. A dry acoustic will mean to need to play smoother and generally longer notes and a very resonant hall will demand greater clarity of tonguing and cleaner articulation.
As the music challenges are overcome with patient practice so the confidence of the performer should also grow and the psychological aspect of performing becomes one of enjoying the prospect of playing the piece to the public rather than the fear of what could go wrong. It is in this vital final step that so many students fall. Be clear in your mind that you are the master of the music, enjoying the act of giving your interpretation of the notes to an audience. The study of a major work, such as the Horovitz Concerto is a rewarding and challenging experience and after one or even ten performances the dedicated musician will still find ways of improving it, refining all aspects. I hope the above thoughts will be of benefit to all brass performers.
-Steven Mead, August 2000
Much of the music we play today seems to be 'technically' very difficult. That is to say we need to have great flexibility , fast fingers, super fast tongue action etc. Anyone who has ever taken part in , or adjudicated a solo contest can testify it is often the simple things that can go wrong. In slow movements of test pieces the quiet soft passages, lone entries, high sustained sections for exposed instruments are often the undoing of an otherwise successful performance. Similarly I often find with students nowadays the teaching of rhythmic playing has clearly not been thorough enough, nor the counting of exact note values, tied notes, rests. Triplets are often played in any rhythm apart from that which is mathematically correct. Many players only ever practice scales the night before an exam at school or college. Aren't we missing the point? You wouldn't pretend to be a qualified mechanic if you just like cars and have lots of tools in the garage. You have to learn the trade and keep learning it.
Music is a language . Like anyone who has travelled to France it is possible to get by with a basic knowledge and order 'one beer please!' To strike up a reasonable conversation with someone takes a little more practice and effort.
Whatever your practice time try to spend a sizable percentage , say 70% doing what 'experts' call the simple things: controlled flexibilities, long notes, scales and arpeggios (major and minor), single tongue exercises with metronome, the playing of classic melodies, soft playing, dotted rhythm exercises., mouthpiece practice, breathing exercises. And so the list goes on.
Much of my solo repertoire has got much more 'difficult' in recent years but the routine of getting the simple things right has not altered. If it has it is to get them even more right than before. In a world that seems to be constantly changing one thing remains. If you want to sound good on a brass instrument no lottery grant on its own is going to make you play better. Think of brass playing as a language that you sing through your instrument. The more disciplined your practice the more you will be able to communicate with people.
Stamina is the ability to sustain something at the strength at which you would like, in brass playing terms there are two kinds of stamina:
The breakdown of either is clear, one the result of lost concentration, the other from a muscle fatigue, usually , but not always in the ability to sustain the pitch and quality of high notes. The more subtle deficiencies include lack of flexibility, inability to play anything less than FORTE, lip vibration reduces due to excessive pressure and therefore tone production becomes like trying to fire a faulty rifle.
Stamina then requires active and continually quick mental thought processes and sustained use of correct breathing, blowing technique, body posture, embouchure position and sufficient relaxation to allow the body to continue to function for as long as necessary. How long is this ? It depends.
Nerves can take on many guises, and not all of them are by any means harmful. In fact that 'sense of occasion feel' can enable us to play better than ordinarily, with a real mental alertness organising our body to act in an unusually well coordinated way with strong powerful relaxed attitude to performance. The sense of importance created makes us think about the minutiae of performance details more than usual. The positive effect of the detailed thought can make all aspects of our preparation more detailed and therefore more thorough which gives us the confidence to play better. It is only with the negative effects of nerves that our performance starts to drop off, sometimes quite dramatically and inexplicably. We have to understand the individual topics to integrate them to a strong combination that can sustain and enhance our performing career.
It must seem to readers of the BB that I've been travelling with my euphonium for hundreds of years as many have been hearing of my exploits for some time! Well I enjoy my playing and have in the last 10 years or so been able to concentrate on professional solo playing around the world , while still trying to keep my feet on the ground and look after my family, teaching, private students , writing and other commitments at home. My 'job' has evolved; it was never advertised in the paper but I instinctively moved my career into a position where I was able to play the euphonium as much as possible and make a living from it.
When I left school in 1980 I was told that I'd never earn a living from the euphonium , unless I joined a military band , so why not play the trombone or tuba. I stuck to my guns and after three years at Bristol University and then teaching training at Bath moved to the Midlands to get a real job, teaching at deFerrers High School in Burton on Trent and playing with the Desford Colliery Band. It goes without saying it was a fantastic time to have joined the Band and the atmosphere in the Band was electric. I practiced at school from early morning and then as soon as extra-curricular activities were finished around 6pm, went directly to the band room or stayed at school till 9pm to practice. I was single then !!
Practice makes you lucky so they say and I've never lost the urge to play, I'm a practice junkie , unfortunately. It paid off then and still does, as the solo engagements started coming in , mostly as a result of the exposure I was getting with Desford, and particularly through the BBC Best of Brass . The travelling initially had to fit pr