Avoiding the Most Common Pitfall – TENSION!

The most common problem that teachers come across when working with brass players is tension.  Tension is, unfortunately, very natural for a young musician. However, to make a beautiful sound on a brass instrument there has to be a complete lack of tension. For this reason, I repeat a phrase to my students that I learned from one of my incredible teachers “Tension is the enemy!” This phrase has become almost a reset button for my students. Once they learn what to look for and how it affects their sound, it helps them to check their body and make adjustments.

The manifestation of tension.
Early in the life of a young brass player, there is a constant impatience (by the student) to go faster and be able to play more. Students rarely have to wait on anything or work at something for more than a few minutes to reach mastery in other aspects of school and life. They try to push the teacher to focus on playing songs right away. These desires to push forward and speed up the process with out enough attention to the basic skills of sound development create the first lesson in tension. However, the good band director continues to encourage developing the best possible fundamental skills and having patience. Teaching them what to look for gives them some of the responsibility, which will help root out tension problems early.

As a student progresses and becomes proficient, teachers have to become more diligent to watch and address tension at the first signs. This is because the student, who now has physical skills and knowledge of musical reading, will start to learn things that are more complicated and will stop paying attention to the important fundamentals they learned as a beginner. In short, they have enough information to be dangerous. They can learn on their own and go at the speed they wished they could have as a beginner.

The most common times for this to occur in a middle school student’s learning are:

  • region music
  • pop/stand tunes
  • a very tricky solo
  • playing from the fun book they bought on Amazon that goes out of their normal range.

As students transition to high school and enter the marching field, the high school director must be the most proactive to prevent tension. Students are asked to hold their body and instrument differently. Often, the brass players learn much more complex “warm-up” exercises and they are asked to play in new dynamic and pitch ranges. All of these lead to tension that will interrupt a highly skilled young player’s great sound.

What does tension sound like?
When a brass player makes an uncharacteristic sound, it can most often be traced to tension somewhere in the body. The most common tense sound is one that is very thin/pinched possibly with a hiss in it. This is often caused by tightness in the jaw that closes the teeth. However, the tension could be in the face, neck, shoulders or other parts of the upper body and have nearly the same effect. It could also be caused by tension associated with the air. Tension in the air is most commonly missed by a director simply because it cannot be seen.

A Lesson Learned
When I was a young brass player, I was told, “Open your throat.” Although I realize now what my teachers were trying to accomplish, it never made sense to me. I made every attempt to open my throat – but to do that would have required me to widen my neck… which can’t be done.  So I failed to produce the sound my directors were looking for even though I was striving to follow their directions.

As a young teacher, I caught myself using the same “Open your throat” phrase, and it bothered me that I was putting my students in the same frustrating position I had been in.  I realized I needed to search deeper to figure out what the true sources of the sound problems were and find ways to treat the true symptoms so I was no longer using a one-size-fits-all phrase when every child is so different.

In part 2 of this series here, we will look at the locations of tension as well as how to diagnose and treat the situation in order to allow the student to produce a more characteristic sound. The specifics of Part 2 will give you strategies to tailor your words and teaching to each student’s individual needs.

Annette Mitchell is currently in her 17th year of teaching middle school band. She was blessed to study at WTAMU and South Methodist University. She credits much of her brass methods thoughts, beliefs and techniques to her teacher Lynne Jackson and mentor Pete Tolhuizen. When she is not in a band room, Mrs. Mitchell is enjoying time with her husband and two year old son.

Related Posts:
It’s a Tuba Thing
Improving Sightreading Skills with Thirds
So, I Teach Band at a Low SES School, now what?

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