The Brass Player as Singer

Remington singing while conducting a trombone choir rehearsal.

Emory Remington (1891-1971) was one of the twentieth century’s foremost trombone pedagogues. Over the course of several decades as trombone professor at the Eastman School of Music, he built a program that produced dozens of orchestral trombonists, performers in other genres, and university professors, including one of my teachers, Dr. Edward R. Bahr (b. 1941). Remington’s development of the “balanced daily routine” for playing fundamentals practice is so synonymous with his name that countless band directors and students refer regularly to “Remington long tones” with only minimal awareness that these exercises originated with a trombone professor. The introduction of the trombone choir as a pedagogical and performance medium is another important part of his legacy. But one aspect of Remington’s teaching that is perhaps sometimes overlooked is his emphasis on singing as a tool for teaching, demonstration, and conceptualization.

By all accounts, Remington rarely played with or for his students in lessons, and did not play at all during the last two decades of his life. Instead, he sang constantly, demonstrating tone, phrasing, and overall musical concept using his voice only. Dr. Bahr emulated this approach in large measure, though he employed a mix of singing and demonstration. That has been my overall approach, as well, though in recent years I have leaned more toward demonstration by playing rather than singing, despite referencing the importance of a singing-type concept in my teaching and writing. (See here, here, and here for examples.) There are good reasons for favoring demonstration by playing over singing. Some pieces of music extend well beyond the comfortable vocal range, for example, and many students who would play in tune with a demonstration on the instrument will fail to tune to singing in the same way. Nevertheless, I have recently begun to experiment with singing more frequently while teaching, thus far with very favorable results. Here are a few reasons why singing during brass lessons can be a most effective teaching tool.

1. Brass players must hear like singers in order to play effectively. Unlike pretty much every other type of instrument, with which the sound—the vibration—is produced using a part of the instrument, brass instruments produce sound by amplifying the vibrations of a part of the body, the lips. The signals from the brain that cause the lips to vibrate are similar to those that cause vibrations in the voice when singing, and just as one must hear the desired pitch in order to sing it, one must hear the desired pitch in order to buzz it.

2. Brass players must resonate like singers in order to play effectively. The effects of an excessively tense use of the body when singing are immediately evident: pinched sound, limited tonal range, intonation problems, etc. These difficulties are less immediately obvious when brass players are too tense, but they are there. We have to learn to breathe and vibrate in a relaxed and efficient manner to achieve a resonant tone, just like singers do.

3. Brass players must phrase like singers in order to play effectively. The best playing on any instrument can be described as songlike in quality, with the instrumentalist emulating the naturally expressive approach of a fine singer. For brass players, whose physical approach is already so analogous to that of singers, it should be second nature for us to employ a similar approach to musical phrases. That this is so often not the case—that our approach is focused on mechanics rather than music—demonstrates what happens when we fail to employ a singing approach to the instrument and model it to our students.

Given the positive effects of approaching brass playing more like singing, we as brass teachers would do well to model this effectively for our students. This includes not merely singing along, but taking the time to develop at least a reasonably good vocal sound, and sufficient pitch accuracy to provide students with effective models. Happily, the physical similarities between brass playing and singing mean that using very similar breathing and tone production techniques to those we use while playing will also serve us well while singing. Furthermore, we must encourage our students to do the same, not only employing singing in their individual practice but also paying special attention to skill development in ear training and solfège classes. Another eminent brass pedagogue, Arnold Jacobs (1915-1998), repeated the ear training course every year while a student at the Curtis Institute of Music. While Jacobs’s approach differed from Remington’s in a number of respects, the emphasis on emulating singers both mechanically and stylistically was a vital point of shared emphasis between the two.

Great brass playing is really a lot like great singing, except that the vibration is produced by the lips instead of the vocal folds. The more we can think and execute like singers instead of “brass machine operators,” the more beautiful and expressive our playing will be.

About Micah Everett

Micah Everett is Associate Professor of Music (Trombone/Low Brass) at the University of Mississippi, Principal Trombonist of the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, Interim Music Director at College Hill Presbyterian Church, Assistant Editor (Audio/Video Reviews) for the International Trombone Association Journal, and an S.E. Shires trombone artist. He is the author of THE LOW BRASS PLAYER'S GUIDE TO DOUBLING, published by Mountain Peak Music, and released two solo recordings, STEPPING STONES FOR BASS TROMBONE, VOLS. 1 and 2, on the Potenza Music label in 2015 and 2022, respectively. In addition to his professional work, he maintains an avid interest in the study of the Bible and of Reformed theology. He holds doctoral and master's degrees in music from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, a bachelor's degree in music education from Delta State University, and a certificate in systematic theology from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary.
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