There is an ongoing debate among brass players that pops up from time to time on social media and internet message boards. The subject: “What do you do to warm up?” What should brass players do to prepare for the day’s playing demands as well as to maintain and extend one’s physical capacity to play the instrument in terms of strength, flexibility, breath control, etc.? Brass players face a unique set of challenges among instrumentalists because the vibration—the actual tone—is produced not by a reed, string, drumhead, wooden bar, or other implement exterior to the body, but by a part of the body, the lips. The instrument merely provides amplification and color to the vibration produced by the body. One way or another, the lips and surrounding musculature need to be maintained at a certain level of fitness in order to perform this rather unnatural “buzzing” function in an efficient manner that leads to a beautiful tone. The oft-answered question is how to best achieve that.
There are many nuanced answers to this question among brass players, but broadly speaking they can be sorted into two camps, which I will identify using famous low brass teachers that represent these schools of thought. I’ll call the first group the “Remington camp,” after Emory Remington (1891-1971), longtime trombone teacher at the Eastman School of Music who was famous not only for establishing the modern iteration of the trombone choir as a teaching tool, but also for his emphasis on the use of a comprehensive daily routine of long tones, lip slurs, articulation exercises, etc. These exercises were intended not as mere warm-up material and certainly not as ends in themselves, but as tools to give trombonists “the physical wherewithal…to be the most musical being possible.” (ed. Donald Hunsberger, The Remington Warm-Up Studies, p.5). Remington believed in using a more or less repetitive daily set of exercises to build the player’s physical capacity to then go and make great music.
The other group I’ll call the “Jacobs camp,” after Arnold Jacobs (1915-1998), the famous tubist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and during his lifetime (and perhaps since) the world’s leading expert on pulmonary function as related to wind playing. Interestingly, even though Jacobs possessed great knowledge of the physical aspects of brass playing, his “Song and Wind” approach placed primary emphasis on the “song,” one’s mental concept of the desired sound, and he exhorted students to avoid overthinking about what the body is doing while playing beyond efficiently moving air in and out (“wind”). Although I have less immediate familiarity with Jacobs’s teaching than with Remington’s, the sense I get from his students (and their students) is one that places far less emphasis on a daily regimen of technical exercises than on simply playing musically and allowing the body to work.
In the often-polarizing environment that is the internet, advocates of these two extremes rarely seem to find a way to “meet in the middle.” But can they? I think so. My students certainly have heard me invoke both Remington and Jacobs on numerous occasions when the approach of one or the other will yield the best result. I have a great appreciation for Jacobs’s approach—in fact, one of the great regrets of my professional life is that I was unable to take a lesson with him before he passed. Besides a general appreciation for his knowledge of and approach to the breath, I think that many, many brass players think too much about “what to do” when playing and far too little about “how it sounds.” Jacobs’s fundamentally musical approach frees players to focus on the music and not on the body…and then to their surprise and delight they discover that only then does the body “work right.”
Nevertheless, I suppose if I were forced to align myself with one of these “camps” or the other, I would choose Remington. My trombone teachers at the collegiate level included a Remington student and student-of-a-Remington-student, so my training was largely in that tradition. My own daily routines, which I have developed over nearly 25 years, have a small following in the brass playing world and immediately betray a decidedly “Remingtonian” influence. While I use routines of varying length (depending on factors such as student ability, available practice time, etc.) and will vary the exercises somewhat to address immediate concerns, I find that returning each day to familiar patterns helps me to prepare not only physically but mentally for the demands of my profession. Incidentally, I find that this daily repetition (though not necessarily first thing each day) leaves me free to approach the “real work” of performing and teaching in a much more “Song and Wind” manner.
Although I have occasionally experimented with abandoning the daily routine approach, I’ve never lasted very long doing that. These “old paths,” this familiar way of approaching brass playing has a centering, almost catechetical effect, as I am each day reminded of the very basic elements of playing a brass instrument correctly before moving on to focus on “the music.”
And that deliberate word choice (“catechetical”) hints at the topic I’ll address in Part Two, Lord willing.