In Part One of our discussion we focused on overtones and their role in defining tone color. Next comes the nuts and bolts of producing a centered tone. Solid fundamentals are the essential building blocks of resonant sound beginning with air and embouchure.
Airflow – The Fuel Supply
First, the airflow fueling the embouchure must be free and energetic. Poor posture and tense muscles cause shallow breathing and restricted air movement. Just like clogged plumbing creates poor water pressure at the faucet, a tense airflow compromised by a constricted throat, closed teeth or improper tongue placement will adversely affect the vibrating embouchure and impair good tone quality.
Begin with a full, deep breath and a posture that resembles standing. Good posture keeps the body properly aligned and balanced resulting in relaxed muscles. (Many musicians have benefited from the study of the Alexander Technique to help with excess tension. Here is a great resource for getting started: https://www.alexandertechnique.com/musicians.htm).
Make sure the passageway from lungs to lips is unobstructed. (The glottal area and back of the tongue are major culprits here!) Keep the throat open as if to yawn. Use an “OH” vowel shape.
The benefits of a large air column can be realized in many areas of playing, both physical and aural. Sound is vibration in the air around us. Moving air energizes the embouchure causing the air molecules inside the trumpet to vibrate. The trumpet amplifies these vibrations and projects them outward causing the air around us to vibrate. A large, active airflow translates into a large, active sound with a full complement of overtones (see Tone Centering Pt. 1). A constricted airflow translates to a constricted sound, lacking overtones essential for resonance. Physically, this large, active air column also helps the embouchure work more efficiently allowing for reduced mouthpiece pressure and a more relaxed setting. This in turn enhances the vibration of the lips and increases endurance.
Embouchure – The Vibration Motor
The brass player’s embouchure is a paradoxical phenomenon requiring careful training and regular maintenance. An intricate combination of tension and suppleness, compression and flow are required to create a resonant sound.
The most crucial area of the embouchure is the aperture – where wind and flesh meet to produce sound. A properly functioning aperture requires a balance between firmness and softness, wind and muscle, flow and flesh. The aperture is really a nozzle controlling the air column’s focus and speed and must remain soft enough to vibrate freely, firm enough to produce desired pitches and open enough to allow air to flow. Excess tension dampens vibration adversely affecting tone and intonation. Inadequate tension leads to an unstable sound and limited range. A well-developed embouchure, when properly trained and adequately fueled, can remain more relaxed and therefore exert less effort in tone production thus enhancing vibration, resonance and endurance.
A common problem with aperture formation is the tendency to press the lips too tightly together, especially in the upper register, thus closing off the “nozzle” and limiting the flow of air. If the lips are pressed so tightly together that air cannot flow through them sufficiently, they will not vibrate. No amount of pressing or straining will work if there is no room for the air to travel through the lips and make them buzz. This presents us with a dilemma: How are we to tighten our lips for the upper register if tightening tends to close the aperture and stop the flow of air? The answer may be found in studying Trumpeter’s Enemy Number One: Excessive Mouthpiece Pressure. Why does mouthpiece pressure work? It “works” because we are using your arms to do what our lips ought to be doing – compressing against the firm foundation of the dental structure and producing a resilient vibrating surface which can react with increased air speed to produce higher frequency vibrations. But pressing creates a whole host of other problems – swollen lips, bruising, cuts and abrasions along with tone and intonation issues. What we need to do instead is compress the lips against the teeth by using the lip muscles themselves, not our arms. This allows the lips to become firm enough to produce higher pitches without closing off the opening that lets the air pass through and energize them.
The contracted muscle becomes thicker providing a foundation as well as a protective cushion between the teeth and the mouthpiece. This “pucker tempered with a smile” is a fundamental characteristic of all effective brass embouchures. The lips come in towards the teeth as if to smile, but the corners stay firmly planted without stretching back as the area of lip outside the mouthpiece moves toward the center of the mouth as if to grip the outside of the mouthpiece.
Great caution must be used when reading about or working on the embouchure! It is extremely easy to do too much of something and throw the whole mechanism out of balance. Use good judgment and common sense, and above all, use your ears. Good sound and good technique go hand-in-hand.
Randy Adams is Professor of Trumpet at Sam Houston State University where he has taught since 1993. He served as Houston Symphony Orchestra Interim Trumpet for the 2001-2002 season and has been a member of the Houston Grand Opera Orchestra since 1984. SHSU trumpet students have placed in the top five in the National Trumpet Competition’s Trumpet Ensemble division, two SHSU students have played Lead Trumpet in the Disney College All-Star Band and graduates have gone on to play Lead Trumpet in the UNT 1:00 Lab Band and sub with the Houston, Dallas and Pittsburgh Symphonies.
Now that we have discussed overtones in the sound and some of the basics of a properly functioning embouchure, let’s move on to Part Three:
Tone Centering – Finding the Correct Frequency
Tuning the Tone – Making it Work with the Ensemble
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