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Suggested Reading

1. Rehearsal Rooms

Struggling to improve the acoustics in your band room? Check out how the Medan Band did it.

2. Concerned about playing swing music properly?

Check out my guidelines

3. Ear training exercises for bands

Unlike piano players, ear training is essential for wind band performers. But how many band directors bother to give their bands suitable exercises?

4. Intonation problems

While tuning is simple act of adjusting a length of tubing on a wind instrument (often by reference to a single note), intonation is an ongoing process in which a player strives to match the pitch of others in the ensemble during performance. 

5. “Blowing” a wind instrument

A common misconception among wind players is to believe that the air moves through the instrument in order to produce the sound. This is simply not true. 

6. Conducting – suggestions for home practice

The best way for a conductor to improve is in front of a live ensemble. The unfortunate reality, however, is that this is not always possible. Aspiring conductors therefore have little choice but to find other ways of honing their skills.

Suggested Books, Instruments & Accessories

Care and Maintenance

General Principles
Valves
Tuning Slides
Trombones and Tubas


General Principles

Although brass instruments are generally more robust than woodwinds, students should be made familiar with a few basic principles regarding proper maintenance. Most experienced brass instructors can relate horror stories of serious damage done to brass instruments by well-meaning but uninformed parents and students. Plain neglect can also be depressingly common.

Sugar causes the valves to stick.
Candy, soft drinks and other sugar-based foods should never be consumed either before or during playing.  This is because sugar and other food particles tend to lodge inside the instrument and become a breeding place for bacteria.  This is particularly so in the tropics.  Sugar also causes the valves to stick.  Rinsing the mouth thoroughly with water before playing can go a long way towards helping to keep the instrument clean and in good working order.  Some schools go so far as to issue plain bottled water to players before a performance.

New instruments should not be used immediately.  Instead, they should be flushed with warm water to remove any dust or fine metal particles that may have accumulated in the instrument during manufacture, packing and shipping.  For the same reason, the valves of new instruments may also require frequent cleaning and oiling during the first few weeks. 

Acidic perspiration contains hydrochloric acid.
Apart from the usual knocks and dents caused by careless handling, the main enemies of brass instruments over the long term are saliva and hand perspiration.  Alkaline saliva is responsible for the deposits of calcium chloride that occur in mouthpieces, leadpipes and slide tubing.  Such deposits cannot be washed off.  Acidic saliva attacks soft solder joints and piston valves. Acidic perspiration, on the other hand, contains hydrochloric acid, which attacks the zinc in the brass.  Perspiration with alkaline properties discolors plated and lacquer finishes.  All this, and I have not even mentioned the organic materials that collect inside the tubing!

All instruments should therefore be washed regularly in warm (not hot) water.  For this purpose, you will need a bucket or perhaps a large sink or bathtub, depending on the size of the instrument. If the instrument is particularly dirty, soap may also be used.  Manufacturers such as Yamaha produce special brass soaps for this purpose.  A mild dishwashing detergent works just as well, however.  Avoid toilet bowl cleaners, baking soda, oil soap and drain cleaners.  Remember also that the instrument must be rinsed thoroughly afterwards to prevent dried soap particles gumming up the valves. Boiling water should be avoided.  It forces the metal to expand and can cause serious damage at stress points. 

Mouthpieces can be boiled if necessary.
Most of the dirt tends to accumulate in the leadpipe and the mouthpiece.  These areas should therefore receive particular attention.  Small flexible brushes can be purchased from most suppliers for this purpose.  Unlike other parts of a brass instrument, mouthpieces can also be boiled if necessary.  If a mouthpiece shank has been knocked out of shape, it can be fixed with a simple truing tool.  Some authorities also suggest putting a few drops of valve oil into the leadpipe to help prevent the build up of grime. 

Because brass and nickel silver alloys can be toxic, it is important to ensure that your students do not use old mouthpieces that have lost their plating on either the cup or the rim.  Bare brass mouthpieces offer no acoustical benefits and can be a health hazard, particularly if they become corroded.


Valves

The valves should be kept well oiled, but not excessively so.   Oil is no substitute for clean valves.  Too much oil simply helps the sludge accumulate more quickly.  Amateurs sometimes use saliva as a substitute.  Although effective in the short term, saliva contains acids that are injurious to the valves.  If your students do not have any valve oil, tell them to use water instead (dry valves often respond slowly, if at all) and make sure the valves are cleaned frequently.  Do not attempt to use substitutes such as kerosene or sewing machine oil.  This will only make matters worse.

Do not clean valves with rough sponges.
Considerable care needs to be exercised when cleaning the valves.  Once removed from the casings, they should be wiped gently but thoroughly with a clean, soft cloth.  Do not immerse the valves in water.  This can damage the felts. Under no circumstances should valves or slides be cleaned with rough sponges of the type used on household pots and pans.  Avoid using sandpaper, steel wool or scouring pads.  The above materials will damage the valves by either scratching them or removing some of the nickel plating. 

The interior of the casings should be cleaned using a soft lint-free cloth.  When using a swab it is important that the metal end is well covered to prevent accidental scratches. After cleaning, the valves should be placed back into their casings following the numbers engraved on them.

Valves should never be dropped.  Even the slightest bump can throw a valve out of alignment with its casing, causing it to respond sluggishly, if at all.


Tuning Slides

The tuning slides should also be removed regularly and lubricated lightly with tuning slide grease.  Petroleum jelly is not an entirely satisfactory substitute. It  is a corrosive that eventually results in the valves becoming stuck, particularly in the case of poorly maintained instruments. If the slides become jammed and cannot be removed with a moderate degree of pressure, try soaking the instrument in water for several hours.  If this does not work, call in a competent repairperson.   Serious damage can result from the use of brute force in an attempt to remove a stuck mouthpiece or tuning slide.   

Regular "popping" can produce leaks.
When removing tuning slides, the affected valve should be depressed.  If this is not done, a popping sound results as the air pressure equalizes.  Regular popping can produce leaks in the valve or the slide.


Trombones and Tubas

The trombone slide is particularly vulnerable to damage because of its delicate construction.  Students should therefore be instructed to handle the instrument with great care.   For example, they should never assume that the slide is locked.  Instead, insist that players get into the habit of always picking up the trombone by the two side braces.  Similarly, no trombone should ever be left balanced on a chair.  When drawing up seating plans, ensure that there is plenty of playing room for the trombones so that the outer slide does not knock against other objects. Trombone slides are lubricated either with slide cream and water, or with oil, never both.

Avoid placing a tuba or sousaphone on the floor with its bell down. The weight resting on the bell can cause a dent or bend. Instead, place the instrument on its side or in the case provided.

Warm-ups

Just as an athlete finds it necessary to limber up ahead of a training session, regular warm-ups should form an important part of every brass players practice session,.  Warm-ups are essentially embouchure training and muscle building exercises designed to allow the muscles and tissues involved to become supple. They also promote good tone, breath support, flexibility and range.  They typically include long tone studies in the middle and low registers, scales and lip slurs. Some teachers also recommend that players “warm-down”, especially after a demanding practice session.  A warm-down usually consists of a few soft notes in the low register designed to relax the lips and prevent stiffness.

Lip Slurs

Producing a lip slur on a brass instrument involves moving smoothly between two notes using the same valve combination or trombone slide position. In other words, the player moves to another pitch within the same harmonic series using his lip muscles and air support alone. The tongue is not used! Because the embouchure has to tighten when moving to higher pitches, it is usually more difficult to execute a lip slur properly when moving upwards rather than downwards.

Playing lip slurs with the full band makes it easy for players to tongue the upper notes without being spotted.
Practising lip slurs is an important means of building embouchure strength and flexibility. Unfortunately, exercises involving lip slurs are also among the most erroneously played! All too often, students who are asked to practise etudes involving lip slurs simply tongue the upper notes notes, thus negating the purpose of the whole exercise. With the full ensemble playing the sort of etudes found in the standard band method books, it is easy for young players to tongue the notes without being spotted.

Rehearse the brass players in small groups - or one by one if necessary - in order to spot the laggards. Insist that they make the necessary effort to play the exercises properly. While doing this, it is also a good idea to remind the ensemble not to apply more mouthpiece pressure in order to reach the upper notes of a lip slur. A lip slur should be executed by the lip muscles!

Playing lip slurs correctly involves:

 
  • Maintaining a steady airstream throughout the slur.
 
  • Ensuring that there is enough flesh of the lower lip in the mouthpiece to begin the slur.
 
  • Contracting the muscles at the corners of the mouth to obtain the upper note.
 
  • Arching the tongue upwards when moving to higher pitches and flattening it when moving to lower pitches.
 
  • Ensuring that the tone does not become excessively pinched.

Playing lip slurs on a brass instrument is not easy for beginners or even many moderately experienced players. Unfortunately, many standard band method books do not give the subject the careful attention it deserves. The following graded exercises are intended for use with cornet or trumpet players who are having real difficulty. Suitably transposed, they can also be used with other brass instruments. Practise these exercises in consecutive order: open (no valves depressed), 2, 1, 12, 23, and 123. Once they have been mastered, the student should be encouraged to attempt more advanced lip slur etudes.

Mutes

Introduction
Straight Mute
Cup Mute
Harmon Mute
Other Mutes


Introduction

Contemporary composers often require brass instruments to be muted in order to achieve certain special effects. Generally speaking, mutes raise the pitch of an instrument, especially in the lower register, and this factor must be borne in mind during performance. Because mutes also add resistance, some band directors recommend that their students practice with them as a means of building up embouchure strength. The value of such practice is debatable, however. After all, it is difficult to work on tone quality when an instrument is muted. My reservations here also extend to so-called "practice" mutes.

There are also mutes for tubas, euphoniums and French horns.
Trumpet players are the most likely to play music demanding the use of a mute (often indicated by the words con sordini or avec sourdine in the score). Trombone players may also come across similar instructions. Although rarely used, special mutes are also available for tubas, euphoniums and French horns. The general rule of thumb when using a mute is to play one dynamic level louder then written.

In order to ensure a good blend, it is important that mutes made of different materials or produced by different manufacturers are not mixed within a section. Mutes vary widely in sound quality and intonation tendencies, even when they appear to be of the same general design.

There is an entire range of specialised mutes, each producing its own characteristic timbre. Some of the most common are discussed below.


Straight Mute

The straight mute is the most basic, It is also the one you should use if  the composer fails to specify which type of mute he requires. The conventional straight mute can be made from plastic, fibre or aluminium and come in both conical and pear shapes. The most popular, however, is the pear shaped mute made of aluminium.

The straight mute produces a sharp, bright sound.
All straight mutes have three or four strips of cork down the side to hold the mute in the bell of the instrument. The quality of the sound can often depend on the size of these corks. Thick corks tend to produce a more open sound and free blowing response. Because the bell throats of different model trumpets and trombones vary in size, the corks may need to be sandpapered down a little to achieve a proper fit in the bell. The straight mute produces a sharp, bright sound, with a rather thin tone.


Cup Mute

A cup mute is little more than a straight mute with a cupped resonator attached to the end. Primarily used in jazz ensembles, cup mutes tend to affect normal playing less than any other type of mute. Some players experiment with the sound by stuffing cloth or other soft material into the cup. Somewhat surprisingly, cup mutes sometimes tend to lower rather than raise the pitch, particularly in the middle register. A cup mute produces a velvety tone quality.


Harmon Mute

The harmon mute looks, sounds and performs quite differently from the straight mute and the cup mute. It consists of a thick cylinder with a partial cone on one end. This cone is the part that fits into the bell. Unlike the straight mute and the cup mute, it has a solid ring of cork that does not allow any air to escape except through the mute. At the other end of the cylinder, there is a detachable stem that extents through the centre of the mute.

This mute is more difficult to play.
The harmon mute produces a piercing, strident sound. Extending or removing the centre stem, however, can darken the tone quality. Unless otherwise indicated, harmon mutes are played with the stems removed. The notation stem in and stem out calls for the stem to be placed all the way in or extended as far as possible. This mute is more difficult to play than other types of mutes. This fact often causes the performer to play sharp, particularly in the middle register. The low register, on the other hand, is sometimes flat.

The harmon mute can also be used as a wah-wah mute. This is done by covering the bell with the left hand. The symbol "+" indicates that the hand should completely cover the bell, while the symbol "o" indicates completely removing the hand.


Other Mutes

Other mutes include the solotone, the whisper, the plunger and the hat. The solotone mute looks something like a straight mute within a straight mute, but with a solid band of cork to grip the bell and force the vibrating column of air to travel through the mute. It has a soft, dark sound that lacks the brassy quality of the harmon mute. The whisper mute looks a bit like a conical straight mute. Like the harmon mute and the solotone, however, it has a solid cork band to hold the mute to the bell. A tightly fitting resonator filled with felt ensures a soft, remote sound. Both the solotone and the whisper mute can be difficult to play, and the performer has to work hard to ensure that he does not play sharp.

The hat mute changes the tone quality the least.
Several other mutes clearly have their origins in common objects. The plunger, for example, can consist of nothing more than a regular plumber's plunger. It is used to produce sound effects in a similar manner to the wah-wah. Plunger mutes manufactured especially for the purpose are usually made of aluminium. The hat mute changes the tonal quality of the instrument the least. In this case, an ordinary hat stuffed with cloth can be used. The hat is held directly in front of the bell (but without touching it), to produce a sort, far-away quality. When found on a score, the term in hat can also include similar effects produced by other means such as playing into the music stand or tying a cloth bag around the bell.

Common Embouchure Problems

Introduction
Excessive Pressure
Bunched Chin
Smile Embouchure
Lip Protrusion
Orthodontic Braces


Introduction

This section takes a look at a few of the more common embouchure faults and suggests ways to correct them.  The discussion, however, is not meant to be comprehensive.  Inevitably, band directors will need to make analyses of embouchure problems themselves and engage in a good deal of experimentation in order to find a solution.  This is not as forbidding as it sounds.  Most embouchure problems can be identified by careful reference to the standard embouchure described in the section on the player.  As for solutions, they often amount to little more than commonsense procedures.

The visualiser is particularly useful in studying mouthpiece placement.
Two aids may also prove useful.  A mouthpiece visualizer consists of a mouthpiece rim (without the cup or shank) attached to a long handle.  By looking into a mirror when the visualizer is placed on the embouchure, it is possible to detect a number of embouchure errors. The visualizer is particularly helpful in studying mouthpiece placement and determining the size and shape of the lip aperture. The illustration here shows the visualizer illustrating the correct position of the mouthpiece for trombone or euphonium.

Yet another – more recent – invention is the transparent mouthpiece.  This enables the embouchure to be observed in action.  Unfortunately, even well stocked retailers rarely sell such products in Asia.  The resourceful band director, however, can have a substitute visualizer manufactured almost anywhere by supplying a local machine shop with an old mouthpiece.


Excessive Pressure

This is perhaps the most common embouchure fault found among young players.  It is certainly the one that is most well known. The problem usually develops early on when the performer, anxious to hit a note he or she finds particularly high, discovers that increasing mouthpiece pressure seems to produce the desired result. The short-term advantage, however, is more than outweighed by the long-term damage.  Excessive pressure adversely affects tone quality, flexibility and even range. 

There is no such thing as a "no pressure" system.
Note the use of the word “excessive”.  Even the very best players exert some mouthpiece pressure on the lips, but only enough to ensure that a good seal is maintained between the lips and the mouthpiece such that air does not escape from the sides.  This is the reason why workable “no pressure” systems do not really exist.  It is true that some famous players have been known to hit very high notes by suspending their instruments from the ceiling and avoiding all contact with them except at the lips. Such demonstrations can be impressive, but they rarely result in the production of a good sound. 

Heavy mouthpiece pressure restricts the flow of blood to the lips, causing them to tire quickly.  Moreover, players who employ excessive pressure will not improve their endurance no matter how frequently they practice.  This is because the muscles at the corners of the lips (which determine lip tension in good embouchures) are hardly being used at all and therefore do not get the opportunity to experience a good workout.

One or two comments at the wrong time may take years to correct.
Many band directors do not appreciate the extent to which they may inadvertently contribute to this problem.  One or two comments at the wrong moment can make a lasting impression on young minds, leading to the formation of bad habits that take months or even years to correct.  When students ask about how they should approach the high register, avoid using negative words such as pinch, tighten, press or strain.  Instead, emphasize the need to support the high tones with air while locking the corners of the lips. 

Band directors can also become the source of the problem by pushing students to play in the high register too soon, or simply trying to scare the notes out of the players by making threats.  Comments such as “I don’t care how you do it, but play that high C properly at the concert or you will shame the band and the entire school” are potentially very destructive because they encourage a student to tense up. 

Symptoms of excessive lip pressure include the following:

 
  • A “pressure ring” that remains visible on the lips for more than 20 minutes after the student has finished playing.
 
  • A bruised or swollen upper lip.
 
  • The player has much less endurance than his classmates do at approximately the same level of development.
 
  • Thin tone in the upper register.

Once the habit of using too much pressure has been formed it can be a difficult one to break.  Even so, it can be done provided the student is sufficiently determined.  I have found the following to be particularly helpful:

 
  • Try buzzing tones and intervals without the instrument or the mouthpiece.  This will help strengthen the facial muscles and make the use of increased pressure on high notes seem less necessary.
 
  • Place the instrument on a table or desk and try playing long tones in the low and middle register without holding the instrument.  This works particularly well with trumpets and cornets.  The surface of the table should provide sufficient resistance to make possible a minimum seal between the lips and the mouthpiece.
 
  • Hold the corners of the mouth firm and try pulling the mouthpiece away from the embouchure when playing. 




Bunched Chin

In the case of a good embouchure, the chin remains flat or arched down.  Some students, however, thrust their chins upward instead, creating a bunched chin.  This can affect flexibility and cause upper register notes to sound thin.  The following can help resolve the problem:

 
  • Buzz on the lips without the mouthpiece.  This is almost impossible to do with a bunched chin.
 
  • While buzzing as above and looking into a mirror, add the mouthpiece.  Watch carefully to ensure that the bunched chin does not return. 





Smile Embouchure

Once regarded as a legitimate means of sound production for brass instruments, the smile embouchure has few adherents these days. This is because the stretched lips tend to produce a thin, hard tone.  Endurance also suffers.  Such an embouchure places the chin muscles in a relaxed state.  The tissue inside the mouthpiece, however, becomes tense and the lip aperture tends to close, thus reducing control and flexibility.  In resolving the problem, the trick is to find the proper balance between the smile and pucker.

 
  • Look into a mirror.  With the use of the mouthpiece, adopt the regular (incorrect) embouchure.  Then modify this by producing a slight pucker while holding the corners of the mouth tight. 
 
  • Practice buzzing on the mouthpiece while maintaining this modified embouchure setting.





Lip Protrusion

In this case the student adopts an excessively puckered embouchure such that the lips tend to sag into the mouthpiece.  The resulting widening of the lip aperture produces a thick, airy sound that is without resonance.  The suggested solution is almost the opposite of that recommended for the smile embouchure:

 
  • Look into a mirror.  With the use of the mouthpiece, adopt the regular (incorrect) embouchure.  Then modify this by tightening the corners of the mouth into a slight smile.
 
  • Practice buzzing on the mouthpiece while maintaining this modified embouchure setting.

A word of warning.  Take care not to pull the lips back over the teeth like an oboe player.  This will result in even more serious embouchure problems.


Orthodontic Braces

A brass player undergoing orthodontic therapy often has brackets and wires attached to his teeth that can seriously impair his ability to play properly.  Orthodontic appliances disturb the delicate balance of the embouchure by changing the contours of the hard structures over which the soft muscle tissues lie.  Playing often causes pain in the high register – particularly for trumpet players -- when mouthpiece pressure increases.  Forced to concentrate on adjusting his embouchure, the young trumpeter tends to neglect other aspects of performance such as breath support.  As a result, tone production suffers along with range and flexibility. In my experience, the lips of such players are often found to be protruding into the mouthpiece as well, producing the airy sound described earlier.  Because such braces tend to dig into the soft flesh of the lips, players try to avoid the resulting discomfort by relaxing their cheek muscles.  In such cases, removing the braces would obviously be the best solution. 

Some short-term remedies may help minimize the problem.
Assuming that this cannot be done, however, there are a number of short-term remedies that may help minimize the problem.  Soft dental wax applied to the braces before practicing, for example, can reduce the irritation.  The problem with such wax, however, is that the resulting configuration is different each time the wax is applied, forcing the player to make slightly different embouchure adjustments.  Merrill Wilson has suggested the use of a custom lip protective device.  Such a device is relatively simple for a dentist to construct using standard orthodontic materials. A cheaper alternative is for the player to apply Teflon tape – the kind plumbers use for wrapping pipes -- each time he performs. Failing this, the student should probably be encouraged to consider a temporary shift to another brass instrument, such as the euphonium, which has a significantly wider mouthpiece diameter and requires less lip tension.

No mouthpiece has yet been devised that will eliminate the pain of playing with braces.  Vincent Bach has pointed out that any mouthpiece radical enough in design to minimize the problem also tends to inhibit the development of important technical skills.  His advice to a young person facing the problem is that it is “better to concentrate for two or three years on aspects of technique that require minimum lip pressure than to develop habits that may never be corrected" [Vincent Bach "The Search for the Perfect Mouthpiece" in Embouchure and Mouthpiece Manual, The Selmer Company, Elkhar, Indiana, 1979 page 11].

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