Building a Better Band Begins in the Basement
Patrick Lawrence, Guest Writer
The low brass section can be compared to the foundation of a building; it must be strong, reliable and sturdy. At times this section, much like the basement of many homes, becomes neglected. With a few consistently implemented practices, your band’s low brass section will sound like it is built on bedrock.
Get Kids Interested Early
We all are familiar with the proper ensemble balance being depicted as a triangle with the low brass at the bottom and the piccolo at the top. Obviously this is difficult to achieve without a large roster of players on the bottom of the band. In many ways this goes right back to beginning band class. Band directors must realize that the best way to end up with a well-balanced ensemble is to fill the low brass sections early. All too often we see hoards of saxophones, clarinets, trumpets and percussionists in the elementary programs. When the students are deciding what to play, invest more time “showing” the low brass instruments. Bring in capable players who can demonstrate the capability of the instruments. This will create interest and get students hooked early. I encourage high school directors to work closely with the middle school teachers to help develop strong low brass sections all the way up. In addition, the high school director’s interaction with the younger students will build a strong relationship and foster better retention from one level to the next.
Maintain Their Instruments
There are few things worse than playing a trombone with a slide so full of dents that it hardly moves or a tarnished baritone or tuba that hasn’t been cleaned in years and smells like a goat. I often see bands with nice new bari saxes or bass clarinets, but the tubas and euphoniums are antiquated. Unfortunately, it seems that the low brass instruments are repaired or replaced less often than the other instruments in the band. Since they are less finicky than the other instruments, they become old war-horses. Your program might not have the funds to refit the entire section-but taking a few instruments home each weekend, giving them a warm bath and running a cleaning snake with some dish soap through, combined with a quick vacuum of the case will help give older instruments a new lease on life. Mouthpieces with nicks and flattened ends are also problematic. When I taught middle school, I would approach the parents of students who were using a school instrument about investing in a good mouthpiece and rubber mouthpiece pouch of their own. To my surprise, I discovered that this simple forty-dollar investment had a real effect on the students’ dedication to the instrument. Moving trombone and euphonium students away from 12C mouthpieces to a slightly larger 6 ½ AL cup early on will open up the sound of the section.
Once the instruments are cleaned, regular maintenance is required. When oiling piston-valved euphoniums and tubas, the valve should be removed half way so that a few drops of oil may be applied directly to the piston. The practice of squirting oil into the holes on the bottom of the casings draws the grime up from the valve’s spring area below the travel of the piston causing sluggish valves. Rotor valves on tubas and trombones tend to require oil less often than piston valves, a few drops on the moving parts and under the caps will suffice. Typically, younger trombonists use slide oil and then are encouraged to use slide cream once they get to high school. With time, the cream builds up and becomes quite thick on the slide. There are several products on the market that don’t gum-up the slide with repeated applications.
Music selection is equally important in achieving a better low brass sound. Choose pieces that have more than half and whole notes for the lower voices; everyone in the ensemble deserves to play an exciting line once in a while. Developing a concept about what good low brass playing should sound like is vital when learning to play. With so many great recordings available on iTunes and YouTube, it’s never been easier to get students plugged into developing a good sound image. We wouldn’t ask an art student to paint in the style of Van Gogh without showing him/her the nuance that makes Van Gogh great. Similarly we should provide aural guidance in regards to color, tone, vibrato and resonance to our music students.
Teach Correct Positioning
Posture is something that directors often feel is an uphill battle. This is especially true with low brass students because of the size of their instruments. Beside the common mistake of resting their slide arm on the knee when playing in 6th position, trombonist tend to bring the instrument almost up to the correct playing position with their left hand, but end up shifting their heads forward to meet the mouthpiece. This creates problems with tension and crimps the air-column. Similarly, the vertical placement of tubas and euphoniums should be fitted to each student. When the player is seated the mouthpiece should make contact with the embouchure without the player having to crane his/her neck. Tuba stands or specially designed tuba chairs will help support the instrument and can be set for the proper height. If not available, a hockey puck on the chair can help raise the instrument an inch and a half or so. When euphonium players begin in middle school, the instrument can comfortably rest on the players lap. As they grow the tendency is to keep the instrument resting in the same place causing them to double over. Raise the instrument up using a towel, a block of foam, or a small pillow so that the spine is long and they are sitting up tall.
Focus on Air and Articulation
Once your student’s equipment and posture issues have been resolved, focus on sound and articulation. Help all your brass players develop healthy practice and playing habits including daily warm up routines. You will see results quickly. Brass players require several minutes of long tones, flexibility, high/low range and articulation exercises at the beginning of their playing day.
Air and tonguing are often the two main culprits keeping your low brass section sounding its best. Without constant reminding, brass players tend to neglect their air. The fastest way to give your section a boost is to develop the habit of using more air. Breathing exercises like the Breathing Gym will increase air volume and velocity, which equates to a larger, more vibrant sound. I like to begin rehearsals with a few stretches and breathing drills. This helps focus the group’s attention at the beginning of the rehearsal and the proper breathing quickly transfers to the instruments.
Buzzing is another important practice for all brass players; a good sound on the mouthpiece is under-valued. The instrument beyond the mouthpiece does little more than amplify the sound, much like a speaker. At first, students should work buzzing long tones and matching pitches on just the mouthpiece; later, as they become more proficient, they should be able to buzz entire phrases while maintaining pitch, much like singing. A well-defined buzz on the mouthpiece will assist in the production of rich, centered pitches on the instruments.
If you are hearing notes that have undefined beginnings and ends it is likely a tonguing issue. Because of the timber of the low brass instruments, they can sound muddy if the tongue isn’t working correctly with the air. In many cases students develop tonguing problems, especially on trombone. The tongue works best in conjunction with fast air. Since we can’t see the tongue in action, we must listen. Again, using just the mouthpiece, have the student tongue a passage with just air and tongue, no buzz. Listen for a crisp clean articulation from fast moving air past the tongue. Then do the same with the buzz added back in before returning to the instrument. It’s alarming how many high school trombonist “fake tongue.” It is unfortunate that this can go undetected while using a variety of destructive techniques, which usually consist of stopping the air with the throat.
Intonation can be problematic on low brass instruments. Encourage students to listen to their own sound. Since tuning characteristics differ on individual instruments, have them create an intonation chart by playing a chromatic scale with a tuner in order to discover how each note needs to be adjusted.) When rehearsing as a section, have the students determine which note they are playing in the chord – when to lower thirds, and raise fifths. Not only is this good from a music theory perspective, but with practice, the harmonies will lock into place creating fewer intonation problems in the rest of the ensemble.
The 6th partial (F above the staff) on trombone is always quite sharp. Train students to extend the hand slide out about a half-inch rather than lipping the note down. Similarly, try tuning your ensemble to the tuba section. Have your principal tuba tune with a tuner and then have all the tubas join-in before the rest of the band.
Finally, how often do you find yourself saying, “low brass, you’re behind?” The problem here is two-fold. Not only must a good low brass section learn to play on the front part of the beat because of the acoustical delay from sitting in the back row, they’re blowing through large amounts of tubing, 9 feet for trombones and 18 feet for tubas! Rather than attempting to teach players to overcome these problems through anticipation, I have greater success in teaching them to breathe and use fast air.
The implementation of these techniques will go a long way in keeping your low brass students interested and engaged in your ensemble, which in turn makes the whole band sound better.
Patrick Lawrence is assistant professor of low brass and music education at UW-Stevens Point. Email: email@example.com