Brass instruments are amazingly simple devices. In their simplest form, these “lip-reed aerophones” as Anthony Baines called them are just tubes into one end of which players vibrate their lips to generate musical tones. The overtone series native to a particular length of tubing determines which pitches are available, or at least which ones will resonate. The function of valves and slides is to vary the length of tubing so that more resonant-sounding pitches become available. Beyond that, variances is design and construction serve only to provide particular tonal ranges (higher and lower), different tone colors, improved ergonomic or mechanical function, and even greater visual interest. Maybe that’s an oversimplification, but not by much. We brass players operate delightfully simple machines.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, these simple machines generate the best sounds when the players operate them in the simplest manner possible, using “minimal motors,” as tubist and pedagogue Arnold Jacobs (1915-1998) would put it. Indeed, much of my effort in my own practice and in teaching students is devoted to eliminating unnecessary, extraneous, and sometimes even painful physical actions from one’s approach to playing the instrument. To put it differently, while an important aspect of practicing is the development of the strength, skill, and coordination needed to play a brass instrument, of at least equal and sometimes greater importance is the elimination of unneeded tension.
While the deleterious nature of excess tension in the jaw and embouchure muscles, neck, shoulders, arms, hands, and chest is no doubt obvious, these are not the only areas of the body in which tension can negatively affect brass performance. Here are three areas where brass players too often harbor unnoticed and unhelpful muscle tension.
1. The abdomen. Although this type of breathing instruction is becoming less common, many of us were taught in one way or another to “breathe low,” with the focus being upon abdominal expansion. While the movement of the diaphragm and pelvic floor with associated shifting of the abdominal organs does introduce some movement in that part of the body with each breath, the lungs themselves are in the chest, not the abdomen. An unwarranted focus on the abdomen can often lead to excessive engagement of the abdominal muscles when breathing, which in turn creates a tension that can negatively affect tone quality and resonance, free movement of the arms and hands, and even embouchure flexibility. Should the abdomen move when you inhale? Yes, but there should be movement throughout the torso, and movement should occur as a result of the air coming in, not because of unnecessary and unnatural engagement of the abdominal muscles or other muscle groups. Let the abdomen expand, but maintain a “flabby belly” as much as possible (though there will be a bit more muscular engagement here when playing in the high register).
2. The legs and glutes. A few years ago I heard another trombonist give a lecture on this topic and when sharing his own struggles with tension he mentioned an orchestral concert in which he proudly reflected at the end that he had remained more or less tension-free in his arms, shoulders, and neck—or so he thought. His pride evaporated when the conductor asked the orchestra members to stand and he discovered that his legs were so tight that he couldn’t move from his seat! Brass players are quite prone to recruiting unnecessary muscle strength in the hamstrings, glutes, and other muscles when playing, especially when seated. Over the course of a performance this tension can creep up the back until the body is literally pulling against itself during the act of performing. Because Western medicine tends to treat the various parts of the body atomistically we are prone to forget that tension, injury, disease, or other maladies in one part inevitably affect other parts of the body in some way. Tight legs might seem immaterial to brass playing, but tight legs lead to tight back, then tight breathing apparatus, then tight shoulders, then tight arms, neck, and embouchure. Keep the legs relaxed when playing. When sitting, make sure whenever possible that your feet are flat on the floor in front of you rather than drawn back underneath the chair, as the latter position promotes this tension. When standing avoid locking the knees or otherwise flexing these muscles. As with the abdomen, it is loose, relaxed muscles that lead to free, comfortable playing.
3. The forehead and eyebrows. Emory Remington (1891-1971), longtime trombone professor at the Eastman School of Music, was known to admonish his students to “keep your eyebrows out of your playing.” I’ll confess that I did not understand the importance of this until a few years into my teaching career. Excessive tension in the forehead and eyebrows tends to manifest itself in two opposite but equally destructive ways. Either the player will furrow the brow, making an angry sort of face and causing the opposing musculature around the embouchure to tense excessively, or he will lift the eyebrows in a bid to open the eyes more widely, thus lifting the musculature of the top half of the face and to a certain extent pulling the upper lip away from the lower lip. The player thus has to expend extra effort in order to keep the embouchure together. The solution to this problem is simple; keep the eyes relaxed. An angry face won’t enable you to play with greater intensity and focus, and slightly more open eyes will not improve your reading ability. A relaxed face will, on the other hand, lead to better, easier tone production in addition to giving the appearance of effortless playing, which audiences always receive positively.
Tension in any of these areas is easy to overlook, as these muscle groups are removed from the embouchure and might not seem immediately relevant. And yet, such tension destructive of great playing, and exceedingly common, at least in my teaching experience. Happily, eliminating tension in these areas is also rather simple, and the benefits immediately realized.