Article for Dutch Brass magazine, by Steven Mead December 2008
Planning for the future whilst enjoying the present.
Following the conclusion of the recent Dutch Brass Band Championships it was felt that an article which explores some possibilities of development within players and bands in post-contest mood would be useful. There is always a feeling of emptiness once competitions are over due to the intense and concentrated work that leads to the final result on stage. I saw at first hand the enthusiasm and passion with which the bands took part at the recent championships in Groningen. With Christmas and the holidays beckoning it makes it doubly hard to be motivated to practice. Knowing that there is an annual pattern of rise and fall in practice routines as competitions come and go, it’s often good to take stock of what it actually is we do when we practice, in other words, what we practice and how we practice. There may be some reading this who would be honest enough to confess that very little practice is done at home and most of the work is done in the band room, but let’s face it, the reason that we play our instruments is that we enjoy it, and we must love the feeling of playing well otherwise there is nothing to aspire to.
If a band has won or done well in the competition the atmosphere of elation will obviously spill into the individuals to continue to play well and hopefully be more successful in the future. For those who either failed or things didn’t go well or feel unlucky in the contest the feelings of course will be quite the opposite, especially if one tends to blame oneself. That said, it is always a good time to reassess how we practice and what we believe the fundamentals of playing well. Playing around the holiday season is difficult because one tends to over indulge in terms of eating and drinking making the body feel less mobile, less flexible and lacking in energy especially with the power of the breath.
I would say a large percentage of my teaching is spent encouraging players to maximize their breath capacity, taking the air in a full and relaxed way and then being able to use this air to vibrate the lips to facilitate the whole playing process. So it might be a good idea to start with this most important of fundamentals.
A lot of players confuse lung capacity with the ability to control this air. When you cycle, as many if you do in Holland, you can use this time to practice inhale and exhale exercises. So open the throat as if you are yawning, and breathe in slowly over four counts, then strongly exhale through a round aperture, as if you are whistling very hard. Change the numbers for example, 2:4 2:6 2:8 2:10 and the reverse.
Try breathing in slowly until you feel you can breathe in no more, then without releasing any air snatch in two more breaths, staying relaxed as you do so. Then exhale strongly pausing momentarily as you feel you have run out of air, and then push out two short extra bursts of air. If you repeat these two exercises on a daily basis you can maximize your lung capacity whilst staying calm. And this calmness is by far the most important aspect of this.
It might be an idea to think about doing some mouthpiece practice; a lot of people wish to do this but had never been told how to. Before I go any further a lot of the basic routines that I use are to be found in the excellent Brass Gym book by Sam Pilafian and Pat Sheridan (from www.justforbrass.com is you cant find it locally) Everyone will have their favourite method books but I am always amazed at the lack of variety and poor approaches students have to daily regimes. No wonder players get bored.
Slowly building an ascending scale, using just the mouthpiece, for example, CD, CE, CF, CG CA CB Cc, with a nice slow glissandi between notes, is one of my favourites, and try to get as much as sound between the notes as possible and do it very slowly, the slower the better and at a good ‘mf’ dynamic. Then repeat with a descending pattern CB, CA CG etc
Sometimes at this period of the year it can be a good idea to examine the full range of things we do when we practice and make sure you don’t waste time when playing things that just ‘feel’ nice rather than making us play better.
Whilst talking about mouthpieces, perhaps now would be the time to contemplate whether you are perhaps playing on the optimum and shape for you. I have to confess that I have no special theory as to which mouthpieces suit particular players, neither do I subscribe to the idea that there is a formulae based on lip size that can determine what size and brand of mouthpiece you should play. Really, it’s such a bizarre concept. There are so many other factors at play which can determine this, such as air use, correct or incorrect tongue position, and the ability of the lips to vibrate freely related to the tension a player has in their embouchure muscles. Clearly it’s best to start by taking recommendations for an average size or perhaps something slightly larger which may be an added motivation to practice. Nobody really wants to play with a small sound, neither does one want a multitudinous low/pedal register and a squeezed thin high register. Avoid extremes where possible. If you haven’t updated your mouthpiece for more than about four or five years you will probably find that there are new brands on the market that quite frankly will make your playing easier, and you would be foolish not to investigate this, as compared to the cost of the instrument a mouthpiece is still a relatively cheap piece of equipment.
Long tones can be thought of as a very unfashionable exercise in the same category as scale playing, but their benefits are long lasting. A short ten minute routine will give you time to listen to your sound, allow the brain and the lips to work together to make small but essential changes and will help you to relax the all essential air supply. My favourite routine for this is quite a well known one: each note 20 seconds in duration, at ‘p’, with just a little bit of singing vibrato but nothing excessive. Begin on the middle F#, and then continue alternately higher and lower, ie G,F,G#,E,A,Eb, Bb,D,B,Db,C,C And then rest for 1 minute (obviously breathe between notes quickly and in a relaxed way), then continue: middle C#, low B,D, Bb, Eb, A etc until you come to rest on high F# and low F# (two octaves lower), rest once more, and then continue your journey until you get to the high C and pedal C. I swear by this exercise and have done for years, and it’s helped a lot of people.
You then need to work on routines of single and double tongue exercises and all good method book will have copious pages of such things, but ensure that the breath preparation is the best it can be and that the air is allowed freedom, rather than imagine this is just for that muscle called the ‘tongue’ alone.
The same basic principles apply to flexibility exercises, where the stability of the sides of the mouth should be focused upon.
For finger exercises, slow chromatic scales, or parts of scales are my favourite, and make sure your hands and fingers are in the absolute optimum position; this may be a good time to simplify your valve technique, rather than allow the fingers free movement over that entire part of your instrument!
It might be a fine time of year to brush up on your sight reading skills, so why not to dig out some solos from your cabinet that you have never played or borrow a friends study book and a over the course of a week try to play it from cover to cover with as few mistakes as possible.
And this brings me perhaps on to my most important point. Don’t forget we are trying to be musicians, not just technically perfect brass players. There is nothing that motivates me more to practice than to play great music and I’m very fortunate that in recent years I have been involved with the premieres of many new pieces for euphonium the have really made me look forward to every practice session with a renewed sense of vigour. Far too many brass band players fall back on their standard supply of three or four favourite solos, some of which may have little or no musical interest but simply exist as part of our musical armoury and we have them when we are called upon to play solo. Start the New Year with a new resolution that you will search out new solos and a new study book with which to stimulate your interest in musical development.
Practice can be a very lonely affair, and increasingly there are demands and temptations that can persuade us to do something else except practice (internet, Satellite TV, videos on demand, Wii etc). There are many books and publications that enable you nowadays to play along with an accompaniment, preferably with headphones, so that you really feel you are making music with others. Such learning material also encourages you to think about playing in tune all the time and keep in good rhythm. The beginning of the year may be a great time to think about forming a new smaller ensemble within your band, for example, a low brass quartet of euphoniums and baritones and tubas or any combination of such instruments. The standard brass band quartet of two cornets, one tenor horn and one euphonium seems very unfashionable these days but there is a huge and satisfying repertoire for this combination, and it makes for great musical understanding in the full band situation. The same can be said for trombone ensembles. Playing with people is a truly satisfying musical experience. I urge you to explore the possibilities you have in your area even if you form a small ensemble with musicians from another band.
Musicians respond best to challenges, and this is why at the recent competition your band lifted itself to a new higher plane of excellence. You need to find ways to recreate this feeling of lift as often as possible. Maybe a performing diploma examination, or entering a solo competition, do a concert with your new ensemble competition. Maybe it’s just the motivation you need to put the spark into your playing. For some professional musicians if the fear of failure that drives one to practice, but let’s be honest we play music because we love it and the feeling it gives us. Playing well is such a satisfying feeling because musical skill is something that is acquired overtime, as we constantly refine our skills using great musical experiences to create wisdom and knowledge that encourages the next satisfying experiences. Don’t forget to encourage the younger players in your band too. You’ll be amazed how much they look up to experience, and I think we can all speak with hindsight, at least those of us that have reached a certain age. If you love your banding, you will try to safeguard the future of which means working with young players. This could be yet one more New Year’s resolution.
So, hopefully a few things to think about as we take stock of the year and plan for the new one to come. Good luck with all your music making.
Steven Mead FRNCM
Bocchino Music, www.euphonium.net
Clinician for Besson/Buffet Crampon
Senior Tutor RNCM