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Upgrading With Details

Harvey G. Phillips and NorlanBewley

Rhythm warmup.
Learn to match pitch, articulation, release, tone.
Learn to take a breath as a rhythm.

Low Brass Ensemble:

Quartets in orchestrated parts. Low brass must often change musical roles quickly, and must determine which role they are playing at the moment to lead, accompany, bring out a fill, or drive the bass line appropriately. They must learn to play their parts independently well in order to play together well. Independence allows them more awareness to match or stand out as needed. Develop greater understanding of how to play different styles of music – symphonic to jazz and their related variants, so students know how to completely switch stylistically as the music demands. Use rhythm positions/fingerings to learn difficult passages.


Matching is a simple yet critical musical skill that is typically overlooked. The tuner is a great reference but students must then match the pitch together that they just played individually. Many don’t understand this and think they are now in tune once checked by the tuner, as if “in tune” is a finite state of arrival. Emphasize matching rather than flat or sharp. This is an “eye-opener” for many students. Once they learn that they should tune this way, matching articulations, note releases, and tone can be developed.

Projection is a tone production concept that is often unfamiliar to students. They think they sound fine because their tone surrounds them instead of going to the listener, so they sound close to themselves and distant to the listener.

With projection, they sound distant to themselves (behind the tone) and close to the listener (back of the hall). A characteristic tone requires projection, and the lack of it is a major reason why the tone is not big or full. Without projection, no matter how loud they try to play, they will never sound big because the tone does not carry so it goes nowhere.

Dynamics require contrast to be effective. Students have trouble achieving dynamic contrast because they think only in terms of volume. Dynamics require much more. Dynamics = volume + articulations x mood. A loud tone with a soft articulation will not sound loud and a soft tone with a loud articulation will not sound soft.

Articulations change the perception of the tone, and must be matched accordingly with the proper volume to achieve the desired dynamic effect. For brass, TAH – TOH – TOO are the loud articulations, DAH – DOH – DOO are the soft articulations. They are mixed and matched by degree with volume to produce a huge variety of dynamics and tone colors determined by the mood of the music played. It is not literally how loud or soft (volume) the music actually is, but rather the perception of how loud or soft the mood of the music seems that creates dynamic contrast. Inhale and Exhale should sound different. Students usually try to make them the same. Inhale with HO (no resistance) and exhale with TAH (resistance – vocal breath). Practice in a loud whisper inhaling HO and exhaling TAH: HOOO – TAAAAAAH

Breathing as a rhythm is the next step in applying the HO-TAH breath. Most students only have one breath that is the same speed and timing, regardless of the music. Assign a rhythmic value to every breath and learn to take a quarter breath, eighth breath, or sixteenth breath so the breathing becomes a part of the music. Non-rhythmic breathing is often why breaths are so apparent in phrasing. Rhythmic breaths disappear into the music, which is important for low brass as they need lots of air. But never take a half breath (just kidding).

Sniff Breaths are very useful for low brass, particularly tubas. The mouth breath is the main way to breathe and should be used to fill-up with air. Sniff breaths are supplemental breaths through the nose used only to stay full of air when it is difficult to find a place to get a mouth breath. Just remember: a sniff breath will not get you full of air, but only help you stay full of air until you can get another mouth breath.

Tonguing faster is something students always want (and need) to learn. It is mostly a matter of learning to say TAH and DAH clearly as fast as desired. When students try to tongue faster, they say TUH instead of TAH. This closes the throat, which chokes the tone and shuts down the tongue. Practice saying TAH out loud and as the speed increases, listen carefully for TUH, especially when the tongue starts to stumble. Replace every TUH heard with TAH, keeping the rhythm smooth and even. Learn to say TAH as fast as you can, basically, much like learning to say a tongue twister.

Sight-reading is dreaded by students because they don’t know how to prepare for it. Make sure they understand that they need to look over the music right before they play it, even if they only have a minute. Give them a check-list of what to look for:

  • Key signature – What is it, does it change?
  • Time signature – What is it, does it change?
  • Accidentals – Are there any, what are they?
  • Rhythms – Find the trickiest rhythms and sound them out.
  • Signs – Are there any repeat signs, coda signs, DC, DS, first and second endings and where do they go back to?

This helps locate potential problem spots before beginning to play, so there are NO SURPRISES. No one instantly becomes a great sight-reader, so establish a list of priorities: Get the rhythm first, then get as many fingerings/positions as possible, then get as many notes as possible, in that order. It’s not perfect, but it is the logical way to develop the coordination skill (with practice) to get them all. Students tend to stop and want to go back and play something they miss over again, so teach them to Keep going, no matter what. The way to do this is to get the rhythm first, so they can get back on when they get off. “The right note at the wrong time is still a wrong note” – Harvey Phillips. They must learn to recover quickly to develop as sight-readers. As their skill grows they can begin to pick-up the articulations, dynamics, style, and interpretation as well.

Pop Trios For All – Belwin ELM 00090,
Pop Quartets For All – Belwin ELM 00102,
Quartets For All – PROBK 01431,
Flex-ability Pops – Belwin 0628B,
Low Brass

Ensemble Series – Bewley Music 1LB through 12LB
Click here to download the zip file of Sheet Music Exercises associated with this article.