Generous, efficient airflow is vital to playing any brass instrument, but it is important that players understand just what the role of the air is, and what it is not. When working with new students one of my first questions is something to the effect of “how do you produce a tone on your instrument?” The answer given nearly always focuses upon airflow. The problem with this way of thinking is easily demonstrated by blowing air through the instrument without producing a pitch. After such a demonstration, students quickly correct themselves, stating that the tone on a brass instrument is created by buzz, by vibration. The role of the air in brass playing is to cause the lips to vibrate. The vibrating lips—the buzz—creates the tone.
In light of this, I want to briefly highlight three concepts in this area that help to facilitate quality tone production. First, despite the way in which I introduced this article, airflow really is important. Breathing exercises such as those in The Breathing Gym and related resources really do improve playing by helping musicians to move air effectively. Aerobic exercise—I am partial to swimming because of its peculiar benefits for wind players—has a similar outcome. While the buzzing of the lips is what creates a musical tone, the air is what causes the lips to vibrate. Make sure you are able to move a maximum amount of air throughout both inhalation and exhalation.
Secondly, embouchure strength, flexibility, and response must be maintained and increased. In last week’s post I discussed the importance of structured, comprehensive, daily fundamentals practice. A key purpose of the daily routine is getting the muscles and tissues of the embouchure into the best possible shape. When the embouchure is in top shape the lips will vibrate with less effort—and even less airflow—than they otherwise would. Effortless playing is efficient playing, and is more enjoyable for both player and listener.
Finally, the more flesh you have vibrating in the mouthpiece, the fuller your sound will be. One major pitfall of an excessive focus on airflow is that players will mistake “using lots of air” for “creating a full sound.” The two do not necessarily coincide. For example, when the aperture is too large a great quantity of air can pass through the mouthpiece and instrument without actually contributing to the vibration of the lips. This leads not to a fuller sound but rather to a more airy one, and leaves the player needing to breathe more frequently in order to produce this inferior result. An opposite problem has to do with allowing too little of the lip tissue to vibrate in the mouthpiece, such as what happens when a trumpet player tries to play on the tuba, but still using a trumpet embouchure. The tone is thin because the entire lip area inside the mouthpiece is not contributing to the buzz.
To put this more briefly, if you want a full sound your goal is to fill the instrument not with air, per se, but with buzz. Play in such a way that the entire lip surface inside the mouthpiece contributes to the vibration—imagine the whole mouthpiece cup being filled with vibrating flesh. Learning to move large quantities of air is a vital means to this end, as are exercises to improve the strength, flexibility, and efficiency of the embouchure. But the goal must always be to fill the instrument and, in turn, the room in which you’re playing, with vibration. The more vibration there is, the better the tone will be.