This is the second article of a series discussing the process of building a warm-up that will grow your group’s abilities through creating connections. It starts with separating your warm-up activities into those that isolate the development of certain fundamentals and those that fully integrate all the fundamentals into one connected practice. It is important to include both in your warm-up routine. Balanced work is the key to maximum growth. In this post, we will look at creating connections with exercises that isolate the structures we want to develop so we can be more specific/basic with the goals the students are focused on achieving.
Creating Connections During Warm-Ups
Students need the ability to understand any rhythmic structure they will encounter. The rhythmic precision of the group depends on the rhythmic independence of each individual. I have a set of rhythms that we rotate through to build rhythmic understanding that they clap, sing or play. I add subdivisions and metric stress to create musical connections.
It is good that so many bands do breathing exercises now. Study how the body works during inhalation and exhalation. You might be surprised to learn there is a difference between how it feels and what really happens. For example, during inhalation the lungs fill up from the top down even though we feel all the expansion in our midsection. While we never want the shoulders to rise and restrict the airways, the chest does have a natural lift and roll to it. Restricting the chest from any movement will only create a situation where muscles are in opposition instead of working in tandem. This will result in tension in the breathing process and restrict the student’s performance. Make sure your breathing practice builds alongside the natural function of the body. Incorporate posture awareness during this time as well. I have the students place one hand on their belly button and the other hand on their chest right below the collar bone so they can both monitor and memorize the kinesthetic feeling of breathing. Use exercises with various rhythms, tempos or dynamics to condition muscle responses and build connections for breathing in a performance setting.
Let’s connect our facial muscles to the warm-up. These muscles are key to supporting our embouchure structures. We can strengthen this connection during breathing exercises. Use various vowel shapes while you inhale and exhale to stretch, strengthen and build flexibility in these muscles.
How many of us think of the muscle that encircles our lips (Orbicularis oris) as the embouchure muscle? I propose we think of the linear muscles connecting to this circular muscle as the work horse for the embouchure. These linear muscles are able to produce and maintain the firmness necessary to support the production of sound naturally, allowing the circular shape of Orbicularis oris to create a seal without having to maintain the force needed to channel air through the instrument. This means a more relaxed state for the lips, giving brass a surface that vibrates easier without as much fatigue. Woodwinds now have a surface that will not inhibit reed vibration while providing a flexibility that facilitates the lipping of notes up or down for pitch adjustments. Good flute players already do this because of the relaxed nature of their embouchure. Once you begin to explore these muscles you will see how they influence other areas, such as pitch center, overtones, airspeed etc. for all wind instruments. Take the idea of voicing exercises and do them with instruments. Play a longtone and have them put their facial muscles in the position as if they are singing “AH.” While playing the longtone move to an “OO” singing position. You can do this with any vowel combination you choose.
No matter the exercise you use, Remingtons, Longtones, Chords, Chorales etc., connecting an awareness of our facial muscles to the playing of their instrument will enhance their performances.
Do you think of playing the mouthpiece as strictly brass buzzing? Can everyone produce a characteristic sound on their mouthpiece every time? Do your woodwinds still play just the mouthpiece beyond the start of beginning band? You might be surprised to find if this is not done regularly, many students will be pinching their reeds while playing. Everyone needs to be able to perform a straight tone, a tone with vibrato and a tone with correct articulations on the mouthpiece/headjoint/reed alone to develop the correct relationship between their tongue, embouchure, aperture, facial muscles and air stream.
- When playing on the mouthpiece, headjoint or double reed, be aware of the relationship between your aperture and tone. Listen for an open, heavy vibration content in the tone. You should never feel tight and restricted. The mouthpiece is where wind players connect to their instrument.
- Reed players, when you make your embouchure, it feels like the lips are holding the reeds along their sides. Feel the rails and the heart vibrate also. It’s never just the tip of the reed that vibrates. Use the whole reed to produce sound.
Brass, feel the vibration and sound coming from the air leaving the end of the mouthpiece never from squeezing the lips at the front of the mouthpiece.
- Flute, feel the sound coming not from just splitting the air at the lip plate but rather as the combination of the air exiting at both the tone hole and the end of the head joint.
I am really big on the benefits of having everyone learn vibrato and using it during the warm-up period. It’s not a complicated process to teach vibrato in a large group. Flutes and double reeds learn their standard vibrato. Whether you use the term diaphragm, air pulse etc., you get the same result if you teach it by modeling. We start by saying HOO, HOO, HOO, HOO etc. with a slight crescendo-diminuendo. When they can do this with air alone (No vocal chords) we are ready to add the headjoint/reed. You should notice that the chest, throat and facial muscles are integrated when done properly.
For single reeds and brass I use a modified lip vibrato. For those of you that swear by jaw vibrato, don’t panic, you’ll see why at the end. This form of lip vibrato gives great control and flexibility as well. It can be used with great versatility. We start with firm corners and softly saying WOO, WOO, WOO, WOO etc. Notice when you say this syllable you can flex the muscles just inside the corners, but still maintain control at the corners and center of the lips. This allows for great control over every part of your playing without any interference from the production of vibrato. It also builds your single-reed players’ ability to stabilize the reed from the sides and not bite in the center. You will also notice that the WOO syllable automatically engages a slight use of the jaw. So for anyone who wants a wider vibrato, you just gradually employ a more prominent WOO and the jaw will naturally respond with a wider motion. So jaw vibrato is built into this lip vibrato.
Start slowly with quarter note pulses at 60 bpm on mouthpieces until they can maintain tone and pitch performing eighth notes at 80 bpm. Next, add it to the instruments and continue from there. Work towards the vibrato sounding like a rolling sine wave and not a set of jagged teeth. We add it in various places throughout the warm-up. I change it up each practice. Vibrato adds so much to everyone’s ability to control their tone, embouchure, aperture, tuning, articulation, tongue position, etc. It adds so much connection during warm-ups.
Starting vibrato early actually prevents other issues. On flute it contributes to aperture focus. With reeds it really helps prevent biting to hold the mouthpiece or reeds. It forces clarinets and saxes to put top teeth on mouthpiece and not rest reed on bottom lip. It helps brass players learn not to rely on mouthpiece pressure. The best players in my band always have the best vibrato in the band.
By continuing to isolate the fundamentals, we will hopefully prevent bad habits from taking hold. It’s important to remember that kids are changing physically throughout this time. We need to keep providing time to retrain muscles and habits as they grow. The younger the student, the more isolated activities your warm-up will contain. As they get older, more of the warm-up will focus on full integration of fundamentals, but we can never completely do away with isolated practice. The next post will focus on making connections with exercises that integrate many or all of the fundamentals we want to develop into a cohesive warm-up performance.
Steve Giovanoni is in his 23rd year of teaching. He is currently in his 12th year at Randolph Field ISD in Universal City, TX. While at RFISD he has taught Band, Dual Credit Music Appreciation and Music Theory courses.
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