Dive Bombs: Better Low Brass Pitch Through Better Sound

This article was submitted as a part of the TMEA 2017 Preview Series. See the end of the article for clinic information.

Intonation on low brass instruments hinges on one single, most important concept. This concept is not your ability to stop the dial on a tuner, nor to anticipate what the pitch tendencies of your instrument will be before you play a note. Although these are important subjects that will be addressed in the at the TMEA clinic, the topic I want to discuss is the way we produce sound as brass players.

Producing sound on brass instruments may be condensed down to two basic physical components: air and aperture. Yes, it’s that simple. The first component, air, needs to move through the lips and cause them to vibrate at a specific frequency (pitch) and amplitude (volume). Every inhalation should be relaxed and as close to full capacity as time permits. Every exhalation should be relaxed as well. Air speed also has bearing on good sound production, and will be addressed with the second component of sound production: aperture.

In brass playing, the aperture is merely the opening between the lips through which air must pass to produce vibration. This vibration is dependent upon aperture size, aperture tension, and air speed.

  • A smaller aperture may produce a low note if air speed is low enough and the aperture is sufficiently relaxed.
  • A moderately sized aperture that is of medium tension, with comfortable air speed (think blowing bubbles with a wand) will produce a note in the middle register at a roughly mezzo forte dynamic.
  • A small aperture with a high degree of tension and very slow air speed (think blowing through a coffee straw) will generally produce a high note that is pianissimo.
  • Finally, a very large aperture that is very relaxed with slow air speed (think fogging a mirror) will produce a low note at forte.

Finding a Balance

Problems with pitch and sound generally occur when a student is overly dependent upon one of the physical components mentioned above. For example, a student that depends on the aperture to produce sound will consistently be sharp and have a sound quality which is nasal, pinched, small, and sharp. These students will usually sound great at a soft dynamic level, but the sound deteriorates with increased air volume. These students typically have a great deal of trouble in the low register. This is usually due to an aperture size which is far too small.

The opposite end of the spectrum, students who depend excessively upon air, will have a sound which is airy, diffuse, and flat. These students will often have a solid low register when playing loud, but have response issues when attempting softer or higher notes. These students will attempt to ascend by blowing harder which works to a certain extent, but will limit them to a truncated high register at best.

The previously mentioned students each have problems with sound quality and pitch. The two categories are intricately related. To achieve the best possible sound quality (and by extension, pitch), air and aperture must be in balance. The best way to fix issues of balance is to practice bending pitches. This is done primarily by changing the size of the aperture and maintaining the speed of the air. A larger aperture with equivalent air and aperture tension produces a lower note. A smaller aperture with equivalent air speed and aperture tension produces a higher note. The best approach to having a student understand how to lower a pitch is to have them say, “WOW.” Do this away from the instrument at first, then with the mouthpiece, then with the instrument.

Every student comes to me with issues of air/aperture balance and the subsequent pitch and sound deficiency. Most of them will be too reliant upon aperture to produce pitch. This is why most teachers will tell students that it’s not about the “chops” or having “strong chops.” Said teachers want to lead the student in question away from aperture reliance. However, I find that explaining to students the concept of air/aperture balance is much more useful since they are so intricately related.

Dive Bombs

To address issues of balance I like to have students work on what I call “Dive Bombs.” At first this exercise consists of sustaining a pitch then bending (larger aperture while maintaining air speed and aperture tension) the note downward until either the pitch drops to the next lower note in the harmonic series or the sound stops. Do this on a series of descending chromatic notes registers daily. For example, execute Dive Bombs starting on B-flat2, then A2, A-flat2, G2, etc.

After a week or two of Dive Bombs the student should have developed sufficient control to lower a note without having the pitch drop a harmonic or having the sound stop. Now the goal should be to find where the sound becomes most resonant, in tune, and open. The student then experiments for another week on finding a better sound before adding a tuner to the Dive Bomb exercise. Over the course of several more weeks gradually the student homes in on an increasingly more specific point as sound quality and pitch continue to improve. Given time and effort, the results of Dive Bombs (more open sound, pitch control) will begin to find its way into the student’s playing as second nature.

This article was submitted as part of BandDirectorsTalkShop.com’s TMEA 2017 preview series. Jeremy Lewis will be presenting the clinic “Banish the B-52s: Precise Intonation in Your Tuba Section” at the TMEA Convention in San Antonio on Thursday, Feb 9 at 2:30 in CC 225.

Dr. Jeremy Lewis is currently the tuba and euphonium instructor at West Texas A&M University in Canyon. Prior to  WT, Dr. Lewis worked as a private teacher and clinician in North Texas. He earned degrees from Texas Christian University, Indiana University and Texas Tech University. Learn more about Dr. Lewis here.

If you’d like to learn more from Dr. Lewis about improving your low brass students, he is one of the clinicians you can meet at Band Directors Workshop in July at WTAMU.

 

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