A couple of days ago I wrote a little article about the historical and musical reasons for taking a “singing” approach to trombone playing. While I did not say so directly, this approach is appropriate not only for the trombone, but for all of the low brass instruments. (And perhaps other instruments as well, but I don’t want to step beyond my own expertise.) I should add one caveat, though: while a singing approach is normally a good thing, that does to certain extent depend on what particular singer one wishes to emulate.
Many low brass players, when questioned, would say that the pursuit of a “dark” sound is an appropriate goal. At one point in my career I would have agreed without question, but I wonder if the subjective categories of “bright” and “dark” are as helpful as we sometimes think. At the very least, there are times when a brighter sound is appropriate and other times when a darker one is so. Therefore, I instead encourage students to pursue a vibrant sound. When the lips are vibrating as freely as possible in the mouthpiece, the sound will be a full and desirable one, regardless of the particular bright or dark coloring one wishes to pursue.
One unhappy side effect of the unquestioned pursuit of a dark sound is the development of what I have begun calling the “Patrick Star Sound,” after the character on the Spongebob Squarepants cartoon. Players seeking a dark sound often will in some way stop using an energetic airstream that engages the lips with vigor, and instead allow the air to lose momentum in the back of the oral cavity or top of the throat. The effect of this when singing is to move from a clear and natural tone to one more like Patrick’s voice on the show. The effect when playing a brass instrument is not unlike this. The tone might be described as very warm, but without focus or vigor, and a certain inconsistency that comes from the air not engaging the embouchure as vigorously as possible. Needless to say, this is not a characteristic sound.
While an affable character, Patrick Star is certainly the buffoon of the Spongebob Squarepants program, and not a character one would wish to emulate in real life. For the brass player, add Patrick’s vocal tone to the list of traits worth *not* emulating.
And in case you have no idea what in the world I’m talking about, perhaps this video will be instructive. I doubt you’ll have to watch the entire thing in order to get the point!