The Development of Brass Artistry Through Sound Fundamentals
by William Stowman
The most effective pedagogy is simple, repeatable, and effective. Throughout my career, I have always appreciated those perfectly stated phrases shared by teachers in lessons or master classes that seem to immediately make sense and have a lasting impact. It seems that great pedagogues have handfuls of these phrases at their disposal to wield at any given time and usually at the perfect moment. I have worked diligently to build such a vocabulary and work each day to add to my collection.
To that end, Body-Center-Breathe-and Flow was born of the need to create a simple, effective catchphrase that could serve as both an outline for instruction, as well as a powerful mantra heard by the player in the moments before sound is generated. In fact, the phrase itself fits beautifully into a four-beat preparatory pattern (1-and, 2-and, 3-and, 4) that reminds the player of the most vital aspects of making a great sound as they stand, or sit, to deliver.
Much work has been done to categorize the most important elements of efficient playing. The phrase Body-Center-Breathe-and Flow is a distillation of four common issues: Posture, Ergonomics, Breathing, and the Airstream itself. Couched in the idea of the Spiral Curriculum, these issues are introduced to beginners, then refined and repeatedly addressed with performers throughout their career. While the basic pillars remain a constant, the amount of detail associated with each one increases exponentially as players develop physically, gather more information, and gain experience. As a result, the system has been effective with students from the elementary level through the adult level.
In greater detail, for the purpose of instruction:
- Stand tall and align the body with a vertical line somewhere in the room
- Be sure the shoulders and arms are relaxed; feel heavy on your feet
- Shoulders over hips, hips over heels (no rounded shoulders or rolled hips)
- This is a position of relaxed strength – the ideal posture
- Now, without moving the torso or head
- Raise the instrument to the center of your face – consider the X and Y axes
- This will likely result in challenges:
- Horns suddenly off of legs
- Euphoniums no longer resting on laps, etc.
- Work to solve these problems creatively with hand positions
- Consider the use of devices or aids intended to help hold instruments
- This will likely result in challenges:
- Be sure the horn comes to the body, and not vice versa
- Practice this motion several times before moving to the next step
- Allow the chest to rise during the inhalation
- Be mindful that the shoulders remain relaxed and do not rise
- The sound of the inhalation is the best way to ensure a quality, capacity breath
- Breathe in backward through the letter “O”
- Breathe in across the bottom of the mouth
- Get tall, now breathe in and get wide (promotes good expansion)
- Acquire a target across the room, pull the air from the target
- Now exhale and put the air back on the target.
- The goal is to achieve a capacity breath each time, and remain relaxed
- Release the air into the instrument
- Blow the air through the instrument, not to the instrument
- Blow the air through the embouchure not to the embouchure
- Technique is added to an already established and free-flowing airstream
- Work towards the most connected line possible, and then add technique to that
- Focus on the linear aspects of playing even for the most angular music
Mindfulness of fundamentals is essential to excellent brass playing. The approach outlined here is intended to put those fundamentals in a useful context that promotes efficient, easy playing. Brass playing is full of constants and variables. As players, the more constants we can establish, the more we diminish the impact of variables.
Finally, the ideas contained here also work beautifully as a daily reminder of what matters personally, an important consideration so that music is always being made from a positive happy place.
BODY: Take care of yourself
CENTER: Know your center, honor it; be true to it
BREATHE: Remember to pause, exhale, and relax
FLOW: Embrace the dynamic nature of each day
Great brass playing is a lifelong pursuit. A well-established set of fundamentals that can be enhanced through knowledge and experience is absolutely crucial. Ultimately, our goal is to take a big breath and make a beautiful sound. Having the foundation on which to build such an easy approach can make all the difference, and allow for meaningful musical experiences.
©William Stowman 2018
used by permission
Dr. William Stowman is Professor of Trumpet at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. He holds the DMA from The University of North Texas and has performed and recorded with the North Texas Wind Symphony, BrassCross, The Keystone Wind Ensemble, and Tromba Mundi. He has two solo recordings to his credit; A Matter of Seconds (MarkCustom), and A Timeless Place (Klavier). Dr. Stowman performs on Shires Trumpets, and mouthpieces by Pickett Brass. His new book “Body, Center, Breathe, and Flow: The Artistry of Teaching, and the Teaching of Artistry” is in process for a 2020 release.