- lip (reeds)
- air (power, energy, etc.)
- attack (or release) system – glottis and tongue
Playing can be compared to cooking, and good playing is the result of having correctly measured the ingredients. The ingredients are the same for all players. Each of us has lips, fingers, teeth, lungs etc. Just as in cooking, even a bad combination of the ingredients may be edible or will at least end up by being recognizable as food. So in playing the wrong proportions of the ingredients called for may still produce tolerable playing or at least bad sounds and wrong notes.
The moment of truth is when the various physical efforts, each measured to the correct degree, combine at precisely the required instant. It is achievable only when a unity of all the required parts occurs at the desired moment. Any mis-measurement or tardiness of any effort suffices to create the musical accident.
The whole result of good playing is the combination of the individual efforts of various ingredients in the player. They become a unity of action. Because they are basically separate things, each ingredient can be separately understood and developed.
When the parts become a unity, a subtle and slight change takes place in the way each does its job in so far as it is affected by the others; for example, the embouchure not being set quite exactly right without a well-blown airstream.
The danger of searching for a particular sound is that it can get in the way of doing certain basic things. As the basics are developed, the sound will find its place.
The tone of the horn can be forceful, almost unbelievably strong and sustained, and at the same time be of great nobleness and purity of quality and intonation. The horn can achieve a truly spine- tingling sustained fortissimo. A horn can grow from soft, to loud and louder with slowly increasing intensity. We are talking about intensity, about projection, and not merely about sheer volume as such, although that is needed also.
An embouchure must be the kind of arrangement that can make this intensity, this projection, and also this sheer great volume easily possible and controllable. Warming up must always be built around this concept.
The concept of sound is always present with the player, whether he is practicing, playing a concert, or simply listening. His concept of sound influences the type of facial arrangement that develops. It influences every muscle used in playing the instrument. When the player rejects a sound he has produced (because it’s not intense, not compact, etc.), then he is also rejecting the way it was produced. He is saying no to the combined efforts of the muscles involved. He is saying, “That was the right note, but it wasn’t right enough. Try it again some other way.” He may have to repeat the note many times until it has the right ring to it, the right intensity, and the right sound of reserve strength waiting to be used when needed.
In this sense, your sound can be your teacher. The old fashioned Prussian type of teaching, in which the professor offered no more than a growl (or a rap on the knuckles) when displeased could sometimes produce great players. No discussion of facial arrangement, no advice on tonguing, no theories, or teaching as such. Simply great anger when the student sounded bad or an occasional “Ja, gut” when the results pleased the teacher. Can one learn in such a manner? Yes, if the teacher’s standards are true and valid ones. One must admire and desire to emulate the musical concepts of one's teacher. In the absence of such a teacher, one must foster and develop one’s own musical concepts, one’s grand idea of what a sound can say and mean.
The benefits to the embouchure of such sound-oriented practice are many. The muscles are alert, they don’t collapse, slurring becomes sure and smooth, and missing becomes rare. Nervousness decreases, endurance improves, and extreme loud and soft improve.
Crescendo and Forte
To start with a sound that is small, that hardly lets its presence be known, that is one small unnoticed voice in the orchestral palette, hidden among the husky low strings, the shining high strings, and the busy twittering woodwinds; to slowly begin to rise with mysterious intensity and increasing size of sound, a controlled growing that sounds like it will never stop, much like a genie released from a bottle growing before your very eyes to a terrifying size and power until all the sounds of strings and winds is covered and replaced by your own full sound and musical meaning – such is the drama and the power of the crescendo of a brass instrument. And that dramatic power has been understood and used by the good composers.
What a pleasure it is to hear the horn player who is capable of filling the demands of this role, who can ride with sure authority over the orchestra. What a pleasure for the conductor to be able to call for and receive this bonus from his player. How satisfying it is for him to know that he can afford to ask for it without risking frustration both for himself and for the horn player.
What a blessing it is for the horn player who can achieve this strength. He knows how to combine watchful accuracy with dramatically projected sound. He does not have to let the musical phrase fall before its climax and know that he has failed to satisfy the conductor and the music.
While practicing, a student should think more about the problems of projection (and of accuracy with it) than about sheer beauty of sound. The dangers of always going for the pretty gentle sound are that you end up with an embouchure that can’t produce the real fortes, but will produce less accuracy and no projection. A flabby embouchure will not produce the firm loud sound, but the firm embouchure will produce both soft and loud dynamics.
Why practice tonguing before slurring? Because in attacks, one can pay more attention to the glottis and the resulting compressed air from the diaphragm and surrounding muscles, making sure that the glottis is completely closed before each note. This gradually becomes habitual and the player gets the habit of using glottis (with relaxed lips) for each note. This then transfers over, in modified form, to notes that are slurred.
All attacked notes are somewhat “catapulted” by the release of air by the tongue. In the case of long notes, the catapult effect is obscured by the length of the note, which hides the suddenness of the beginning. Making a note speak every time is good practice, a reason for many repeated notes.
In the case of short notes, the catapult effect is far more apparent. This should not be resisted or hidden but used. Staccato (short separate notes) is regularly confused with a sharp, somewhat tense action of the tongue. The short note should be judged not by what the tongue is doing, but by how short the note sounds, with quality. Each separate part of a note is a different moment in sound than every other part of the same continued sound. It’s like a river passing by in front of us. The sound must be kept alive with live air and lip alertness. The same concept can be used for intonation.
Even a quarter note or a slow eighth note is a series of connected sounds. Once the air that is used to blow the first part of a note has entered the horn, the balance of the note is played with a continuing series of air puffs that must be as carefully and artistically controlled as that used for the initial effort. The hammer blows of air against the lips build up the lips and especially the supporting muscles adjacent to the muscles which actually shape the notes.
Articulation is like clean clothing and good manners. It is like well-groomed fingernails or shined shoes. It is that which precedes and presents each note in a specific way. Important for embouchure and for good tonguing procedure is to practice double and triple tonguing on moving figures.
Slurring or legato playing need hardly be practiced as a separate thing. It is the putting together of notes that are produced with the same physical effort as non-legato notes, but without the use of the tongue. In slurring, go for more clearly produced notes than for a smooth connection. The cleaner the notes, the smoother the connection.
If the face is committed to the correct arrangement and tension for any note; and if the supported air is blown through the small hole in the lips, then the right note must and always does come out. The slur is simply to move or change from one facial arrangement to a different one without the articulation of the tongue.
The best way to prepare for a good legato is to repeat often, separately, each note in this passage, trying to remember the facial, muscle, and air sensation of each. When each note feels and sounds secure when played separately, then the player is ready to try them slurred. If the player actually does repeat when slurring, the efforts and sensations experienced while playing the notes separately, the clear, absolutely even slur is inevitable.
The trouble too often is that at the sight of the symbol denoting legato, the player melts into a debilitating feeling of sentiment and begins a wishful type of blowing. This is especially true if in addition to the legato line are also included such directives as dolce, pp, or (the very worst) dolce expressivo (or cantabile). At the very time when the player should be most watchfully sustaining the physical efforts of each note and then sharply — at once! — changing the efforts to produce another note, he is relaxing and giving up all control.
Sometimes an effort is made to counteract this tendency to relax before a slur by following the suggestion to glissando in between the two ends of the slur. This is locking the barn door after the horse has been stolen and shouldn’t be necessary if watchful control has not been dropped.
One of the causes for the development of problems with regard to lip position in both high and low notes is that we do have to contend with an instrument which can, in fact, play quite high and quite low. Composers naturally use both these extremes (as well as all of the notes in between), and we are forced ordinarily to produce all of these notes with the same mouthpiece and instrument, and the same pair of lips. I venture to say that the problems of lip and jaw positions, etc. would not exist at all if the instrument could produce a range of no more than one octave.
In attempting to play the full range of the horn, we face what appear to be almost insurmountable differences in the requirements needed to produce these extremes. What takes place often is a piecemeal approach, which tries to resolve separately the problems of each register. This approach gives way to a sometimes agonizing array of choices and sometimes contradictory advice.
Examples of piecemeal solutions could include advice to drop the jaw for lower notes and raising it gradually for high notes. This generally leads to more puckering for low notes and more smiling (or a different kind of puckering) for high notes. This raises, or exacerbates, problems of various kind with regard to the position of the lips. Should the lips roll inward against or even over the teeth, should they open outward toward the mouthpiece? Just how much should they do in either case? Should the lips be quite relaxed, mildly relaxed, or tense enough to buzz? Perhaps mouthpiece placement is the answer. Should it be higher or lower? Or in the center or off to the side of the mouth? The list of choices could continue on and on. It is no wonder that this Pandora’s box of choices often leads practical teachers sooner or later to advise students to think less and play more. The problem is further compounded by the fact that the arrangement found for the low notes is so radically different than that for the high, that the player then faces the arduous task of learning how to successfully connect the registers within the same musical passage.
These are all familiar choices that are faced by the player who has not had the luck, or intuitive perception, to chance upon a workable arrangement from the beginning. Some players overcome these difficulties admirably, and become highly competent in playing the entire register of the instrument. Most simply settle by becoming either “high” or “low” players.
High versus Low
In all three registers, the correct sized mouth is the one that not only helps hit the note (by virtue of its proper size), but which allows the lips their own necessary muscular control over the notes (connected with fortissimo in middle register). This why Tchaikovsky 5th practiced fortissimo has been so helpful to me. It makes the lip develop a muscular control, awareness, and recollection in the easy-to-lose middle register.
The high isn’t simply more like the firm middle register. It is not only a smaller mouth, but a different pull and shape of the lips. The three different registers are therefore really quite different. The problem as always remains of getting from one register to the other.
The middle c' area is a sort of hybrid section. It is a cross between the low and the high. More specifically, it is a cross between the feelings of the lips working with the jaw lowered (for low) and the feeling of the lips when they are pulled more laterally (for high) with the jaw up.
The horn has become a split personality divided into sectors, and players have been characterized as low or high players because too many players have tried to play the low notes with the same sized mouth cavity as the high notes. This they do by keeping their lower teeth position constant relative to the upper teeth and relative to lower lip, and then simply over-relaxing their lips and cheeks, which is a useless way of producing low notes.
Such a system makes high horn players only from those few who manage to gain both facility and security up high, and it makes low horn players from the large majority of high horn failures. So we end up with no true low horn players, just merely players who are hopefully (and gingerly) playing at low notes using a high note mouth cavity and lip shape and over-relaxing to get low results instead of high results.
Low notes should not be played with the same sized mouth cavity and teeth placement and by over-relaxing the lips.
One keeps oneself on the right track by trusting sound and strength in the middle register. Immediate strong volume is a better test of the lips’ reliability than is a slur to a high c'''. Projection with control is the goal. An embouchure that does not project with control is unreliable even though it often feels good and can blithely fly around the instrument. The feeling of the lips of not losing track of what is going on even during widely different types of passages is the goal.
Air is the basic ingredient. Though we can’t see it, and can barely feel its movement, it nevertheless is more in motion than any of the other ingredients. It must remain alive and fast moving.
When taking in air, don’t smile too much.