Using Vocal Techniques to Enhance All Aspects of Low Brass Performance

by Steven Mead

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?
My influences
  • 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 to 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.

A. 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
  • 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
  • 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 preference
  • 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
  • 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.
  • 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
  • use the vertical, centered index finger method to assess evenness
  • essential for maintaining consistent response

B. Musical Applications

  • 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
  • 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
  • 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
  • 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.
  • 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
  • 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
  • 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.

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