(My apologies for the lateness of this post. I had hoped to write on Friday or Saturday but was prevented from doing so by various responsibilities at the end of the week.)
Brass playing is very much an athletic activity. Like top athletes, musicians must train (i.e. practice) for many hours in order to develop the strength, flexibility, and fine motor response in order to play well. While occasional periods of rest are beneficial, frequent neglect of practice/training will lead to substantial loss of the physical capacity for playing, just as athletes that neglect their regimented exercise programs will see declines in strength, agility, and overall skill. The most successful brass players are highly disciplined in their approaches to developing and maintaining the body’s capacities, both as applied directly to brass playing and from a more holistic standpoint.
However, we often err when we think of brass playing as an athletic activity in the same way that football or weightlifting are athletic activities, requiring tremendous muscular exertion. Many players, whether purposefully or as an involuntary response to stress, engage large muscle groups when playing in a manner that is unproductive at best and harmful at worst. (To be honest, nearly all of us have been guilty of this at times.) While those that engage in such effort might identify it as necessary for playing, in reality this is usually isometric tension (opposing muscle groups working against one another), in which much energy is expended but no positive action occurs. In extreme cases, this tension can impede the action of those muscles which are necessary for playing, and even in the best of circumstances a body full of tense muscles will not be able to produce a resonant tone. The brass player must instead seek to play with a minimal amount of muscular exertion, to prize efficiency and economy of effort rather than approaching the instrument as if playing should be a great feat of strength. Indeed, from a muscular perspective our efforts should look more like the graceful and economical motions required for ballet, rather than the exertions of brute strength used in weightlifting.
An important step to gaining this efficiency is learning to move air more effectively. Too often brass players try to do things with muscular effort that should be accomplished by air. After all, the air is what causes the lips to vibrate, and that vibration is what causes sound. When the lips are not restrained by excessive tension in the face and neck they will vibrate freely in response to the air being blown through them, the result being a beautiful and pleasing sound. To this end, I have begun using and recommending that my students regularly work through The Breathing Book by David Vining (Mountain Peak Music, 2009). This slender volume, with editions for every wind instrument, provides a sequential review of the various physical actions used in playing. While correct use of the breathing apparatus is a primary focus, the suggestions in the book impact nearly every facet of the use of the body when playing. The end result is the elimination of unnecessary effort and tension, and thus more efficient and effective use of the entire body when playing.
Low brass players and teachers know that references to science-fiction programs often resonate with our students, so I often find myself making such comparisons to characters and events in such programs in order to illustrate a concept in brass playing. When talking about economy of effort I have recently begun referring to the battle between Obi-Wan Kenobi and General Grievous in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. In that battle Kenobi, armed only with a single lightsaber and his Jedi intuition, defeated the cybernetically enhanced Grievous, who was wielding four lightsabers. While Grievous’s fighting style was very physically involved, Kenobi observed his opponent as calmly as possible, and with great precision and economy of effort systematically disarmed and eventually killed him. Efficient and economical efforts won the day over great strength and effort. A similar comparison could be made to Kenobi’s defeat of Anakin Skywalker in the same film.
Of course, comparisons to fictional characters and events—particularly in CGI-enhanced sci-fi films—will collapse if analyzed too deeply, but for my students this particular illustration has been quite effective. In brass playing, as evidently in lightsaber duels, the player whose actions are precise, efficient, and economical will always deliver a superior result to the one using great muscular effort. Play like Obi-Wan Kenobi, not General Grievous!