Brass players have a peculiar challenge that many other instrumentalists do not share in that in that brass instruments have multiple notes available for each fingering or slide position. This means that the player must not only depress the correct finger(s) and/or find the correct slide position but that he must also vibrate the correct pitch with the embouchure in order to play accurately. While most students are rather conscientious about correcting fingering errors, often those same students will excuse missed partials (i.e. where the player buzzes the wrong pitch despite using the correct fingering or slide position) in the practice room and even in performance. While a small amount of inaccuracy is to be expected even in the best players (we are, after all, only human), excusing these inaccuracies too easily will lead to unnecessarily sloppy playing. Here are seven suggestions for improvement in this regard.
- Resolve to Not Excuse Missed Partials.
The first step is a simple one: decide that missed partials are, in fact, “real” mistakes that are to be eliminated. That seems obvious, but for many students it’s not. For that matter, even those of us that play professionally will sometimes let a “fracked note” or other partial error go by in the practice room, tacitly assuring ourselves that it won’t happen again. Successful performances do not come from dismissing minor errors; they come from eliminating them. Demand perfection from yourselves.
2. Learn How Your Music “Goes.”
As I mentioned in another post about a year ago, successful playing requires that the player know the sound for which he is striving before he attempts to produce it. This is true for any instrumentalist, but is especially true for the brass player, whose process of tone production is more akin to singing than those of other instrumentalists—the vibration is simply moved from the vocal folds to the embouchure. While the natural tendencies of the instrument provide some help, ultimately the player is responsible for hearing the pitches and producing vibrations in the mouthpiece. If you don’t know how the pieces you are working on are supposed to sound, you’re reduced to “putting the slide (or fingers) in the right place and hoping for the best.” This is not a recipe for success.
3. Develop Your Ear.
On a related note, develop your ear, that is, the ability to know what a piece should sound like simply by looking at it. While the above suggestion about learning “how it goes” is great for pieces that one prepares over time, it is not entirely adequate for situations in which one is sight reading. And yet, sometimes in the “real world” sight reading the gig is the order of the day. Develop your reading, listening, singing, and solfège skills so that you become increasingly adept at knowing “how it goes” simply by looking at it.
4. Correct Your Physical Approach to the Instrument.
While problems with audiation are often a big factor in missing partials, errors in how one plays the instrument can lead to poor performance no matter how good your ear is. Poor posture, unnecessary tension, faulty understandings of breathing, and related problems often lead to inaccuracies in tone production, and can be present even in very advanced players. I recommend that every brass player purchase, read, and regularly complete the exercises in The Breathing Book by David Vining. This short book, with editions for all of the common brass instruments, provides a systematic overview of correct usage of the body, an approach centered upon breathing but ultimately affecting all aspects of playing. If we are honest, all of us have inefficiencies whether great or small that creep into our playing from time to time. This book is one useful tool for detecting, diagnosing, and remedying such inefficiencies.
5. Develop Good Timing.
Sometimes missed partials are not the result of problems with the breathing apparatus or embouchure, but rather of problems with the player’s coordination of these things. Players without good time (i.e. the ability to feel a musical pulse internally; this is different than the perception of rhythm) will often introduce one or more “hiccups” between inhalation, exhalation, embouchure formation, and buzzing in a way that disrupts the creation of sound and often leads to missed partials in particular. Practicing breathing and buzzing in time, without pausing between inhalation and exhalation, is vital here, as is the use of a metronome or even a backbeat of some kind generated from a computer or other device.
6. Buzz Your Mouthpiece.
I often tell students that mouthpiece buzzing is helpful because it is intolerant of inefficiencies in one’s use of the body, particularly the embouchure, when playing. Buzzing helps with ear training, efficient use of the embouchure, and particularly with cultivating the sound and feeling of constant buzz, particularly in slurred passages (which should be buzzed as glissandi). While excessive amounts of mouthpiece buzzing can be harmful, a small amount each day is vital to accurate and successful brass playing.
7. Practice Until You Get It Right…Repeatedly!
The suggestion that one practice a lot should go without saying, but don’t just practice a lot—practice correctly, and repeatedly. Whether you are dealing with missed partials or some other type of error, don’t stop practicing a passage when you get it right once—if you play something incorrectly multiple times and correctly only once, which one have you practiced more? In that case the same errors will almost certainly reemerge during the next practice session. Practice your materials—and particularly problematic passages—until you play them perfectly several times in a row. In other words, don’t practice until you get it right; practice until you can’t get it wrong!