Oops. If you were looking for something here in the last couple of days you got an error message. In making some updates some stuff got changed around which resulted in the site not being accessible. The solution turned out to be pretty easy, it was harder for me to figure out what changed than it was to make the correction.
At any rate, now that I’ve got that fixed, I’m planning on doing some more cleaning up of the site here. Hopefully there won’t be any other access issues, but you might notice some plugins going off and on as I test out some different stuff.
Like a lot of musicians right now, I’ve been participating in some different recording projects where all the musicians either video or audio record themselves from different locations and then put everything together to sync things up. It’s been a good way for me to keep excited and interested in playing music, even though we’re not able to make music in person right now.
There are many places people can go for advice on the technological aspects of putting together these recording projects, and most of those resources are probably more informed and experienced than I am. I did, however, want to share some of the things I’ve been working on recently and how those recordings were put together.
This first one my involvement was just as a player. The parts were sent out and assigned to everyone and we were given a click track and some basic instructions to help everyone get coordinated. I did maybe 3 or 3 takes, with a few false starts in there. The click track we used was modified from a recording of a quartet performing this piece. The starting tempo was plugged in and a metronome clicked it off. During a couple of moments where there was some silence a metronome click was dubbed in to help all the musicians stay at the same tempo without being able to breathe together and cue each other.
While recording for this project I found it a little tricky to cue up my camera, then the click track, and get into position to be ready to play quickly enough. In retrospect, having a longer count off or even just some extra silence at the beginning of the click track would have made it just a little bit easier to be ready to play from the beginning.
Once the parts were all recorded, the audio files were pulled out and synced with each other using GarageBand. The videos were compiled and synced up separately using Adobe Premier Pro and the mixed and edited audio was dropped into the video. Some of the audio and video aren’t perfectly lined up with each other, but you have to look for it and the final audio ended up pretty good.
I made this video for my elementary school music students, so it’s a bit on the silly side. I did this project completely on my own and took me a while, mostly because I don’t have the necessarily video editing software to do this split screen video technique, so I had to come up with a different solution. Again, I started with a click track that was just a bass line and a metronome click. In order to get the opening shtick to a line up with the timing I also recorded my lines and stuck them in before the bass line started in the click track. That way I was saying my lines about the same time as on the click track and would also be able to react on the other video parts at the right time.
I mentioned I don’t have video editing software to do the split screen technique, so my solution was to open up four QuickTime windows on my computer monitor and start each one at the correct time while recording my screen, also using QuickTime. In order to get them synced together I needed to find a way to start separate video window one at a time and at the correct time. My solution was to include at the beginning of each video a count off for each instrument as a point of reference.
So on each video at the very beginning I recorded myself saying, “One, two – one, tow three four. Voice, two – one, two, three four” (in time with the metronome click in my headphones), then “Bone, two…” “Bass, two…” and “Keys, two…” On my computer I arranged the video windows where I wanted them and then watched each video until just before that instrument was counted in. In other words, starting the trombone video would start it right at the “Bone, two…” count off, etc. I then recorded my screen with QuickTime and started the voice window, starting the trombone window right as the voice recording got there, then started the other two video windows in the same way. There was a lot of hit-or-miss here where I ended up a a little bit off, but after a few tries I was able to get each video playing together being synced up pretty close.
The audio for this was done in GarageBand to make sure the audio was lined up. The QuickTime screen recording and the audio recording from GarageBand were lined up as close as I could get using iMovie. I wouldn’t want to try to use this technique for more than 4 videos, but it did the job for me.
This last one is just an example of an audio recording project I made with two of my musician friends/colleagues. My friend Annie played both bass and guitar on this and James played the trombone. The tune is a Jelly Roll Morton composition called “Grandpa’s Spells.” I sent out a click track to Annie and James ahead of time that included a metronome click and a bass and drum part.
To create the bass and piano click track, as well as to help me chart out the arrangement we were to use, I used Finale to input in simple parts, exported those parts as a MIDI file, and then dumped those into GarageBand. Once in GarageBand I could record my part over those and send out click tracks to the other musicians that had their part removed. That way James could play his piano part without having a MIDI piano getting in his way, etc. The musicians recorded their parts and sent them back to me, which I dumped back into GarageBand to edit and mix.
Even though the musicians I’ve worked with on these, and other similar projects, were not able to get together in person or go to the same studio to record, it’s pretty amazing what we are able to do today with fairly cheap and easy to use technology. In fact, I would say that the most difficult hurdle to completing these projects is that you need to rely on everyone to have the time, energy, and inclination to set up a device to record on and a device to listen to the click track on at the same time and record their part. For a variety of reasons, many of my current remote recording projects are in limbo because we’re still waiting for musicians to get around to doing their part. Hopefully I’ll have some more of these to share before too long.
Hopefully by the time you’re reading this post it will be out of date. Currently my area is still under a the 2020 pandemic lockdown and the only music performances going on are digital. But as we start to open things back up again there are questions about how soon we can get back to making music together again. One major question that I wondered about is how contagious are those of us playing wind instruments? If we’re carriers of covid-19 or flu are we putting our fellow musicians at risk by playing our instruments with them? There are some researchers who have been looking at this, including some from the Frieburg University of Music and the Bamberg Symphony. Dr. Sixto Montesinos helps us with translations from those publications.
To the best of our knowledge, there are no measurements of the viral load in the blowing air of wind instruments at present. It is known, however, that wind instrument playing requires an intensive exchange of air in the lungs and respiratory tract with sometimes high air pressures. To what extent the viral load is reduced by the airway in the instrument is unclear. It is to be assumed that the release of the breathing air into the environment during playing can lead to virus-containing aerosols. In addition, playing wind instruments causes condensation of the exhaled air in the instrument, which is to be regarded as another potentially virus-spreading material.
“We (The Bamberg Symphony) believe that playing a clarinet or a horn, for example, hardly releases any aerosols because the air flow in the instrument is slowed down where the sounds are generated.” said Marcus Axt, Director of the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra.
So preliminarily, it looks like woodwind and brass instruments don’t increase the risk of spreading the covid-19 virus, although as far as I can tell they don’t address the need for emptying spit (I mean, water) from the water key. Joking aside, while it’s mostly condensation that we’re emptying out of the spit valve, there must be some spit getting in there and we already know that the inside of brass instruments aren’t always the most sterile environment to start with.
A number of the ensembles that I work with have members who are more at risk from covid-19. Some of these groups also cater to audiences that are older and in the high-risk population. Many of the venues where I play have smaller stages where musicians really need to squeeze together to all fit. Before we go back to playing together it would be nice to know for sure that we’re not inadvertently putting our fellow musicians and audiences at risk.
Then we also need to consider private lesson teaching. I fortunately have a larger room for my at-home music studio, but in the past I’ve used very small offices to teach private lessons where it’s not really possible to stand 6 feet apart. Many of my colleagues use very small rooms to teach their private lessons in.
I’m glad that there folks out there taking a science-based approach to what sort of risk playing a wind instrument will be as we start playing together again. So far it looks like the risk will be minimal based purely on playing your instrument near other musicians, but please keep in mind that the results are still preliminary and will require further research. I’ll post any updates that I learn about here, but please also pass along any information or articles if you happen to come across them in the comments below.
I had previously posted Lloyd Leno’s film, “Lip Vibration of Trombone Embouchures” on YouTube and wrote about it here, but at the time YouTube was restricting the length of videos. I broke up the film into three parts in order to get it onto YouTube in its entirety.
I’ve finally gotten around to uploading the entire film in one part. Here it is.
Here’s a pretty neat short video of the Salaputia Brass Ensemble performing the movement “EWAME” from the new album “Sounds of Evolution.” They are all playing into mouthpieces that have cameras installed in them, so that you can see the view of their embouchure inside the mouthpiece while performing. Take a look at them and see if you can guess all of their embouchure types. My guesses will be after the break.
Because we’re only able to get an accurate look at which lip predominates, we’re not going to be able to note the musicians’ embouchure motion, but we can tell the player’s air stream direction. Starting from the upper left and moving across each row here are my guesses.
Hopefully this post will soon be obsolete. At the time that I’m writing this a large number of schools across the U.S. (and the world) are switching from in person classes to teaching online in order to stop the spread of covid-19. While it still remains up in the air whether or not my teaching will need to switch to online (hard to teach ensemble playing online), faculty at both at the college where I teach and the school system where MusicWorks is hosted have been asked to begin preparations to teach their courses online.
I’ve done a pretty fair amount of online teaching in the past, so it’s not something that intimidates me particularly. That said, Rebecca Barrett Fox has a counterintuitive suggestion. Do a “bad job.”
For my colleagues who are now being instructed to put some or all of the remainder of their semester online, now is a time to do a poor job of it. You are NOT building an online class. You are NOT teaching students who can be expected to be ready to learn online. And, most importantly, your class is NOT the highest priority of their OR your life right now. Release yourself from high expectations right now, because that’s the best way to help your students learn.
Her main point is that if your course was not initially designed to be taught online that your students’ circumstances may not be well suited to take online. Students may be living in homes that have poor online access. They may be sharing computers or be accessing course work on their phones. Some students may be also caring for children or sick family members.
The college ensemble I’m directing is really impossible to teach online. While I have ideas for how to keep my students engaged in playing their instruments online, they are really better geared towards one-on-one learning, rather than the group playing that we’ve been focusing on. Fortunately it’s a small group, so it won’t really be much of a drain on my time to do some one-on-one online teaching and there are all sorts of things I can help them with that will translate to better ensemble playing when we’re able to meet in person.
As I wrote above, my hope is that this post will soon be out of date. Everyone please stay healthy.
After over 10 years of blogging I figured that I had already covered this very common embouchure issue in its own post, but after wanting to help out a teacher with some questions about it I searched and realized that I’ve only discussed the smile embouchure in the context other topics. In this post I’m going to dig into the smile embouchure and go over some common suggestions for eliminating it that I think are inefficient before I go over what I’ve found to be the best approach. If you want to skip all that, check out this post on free buzzing.
Around the turn of the last century it was apparently common for brass teachers to actually instruct students to ascend by pulling the mouth corners back into a smile. It works, to a degree, similar to the way that stretching a rubber band while you pluck it will cause the band to vibrate faster and therefore sound a higher pitch. This technique has a characteristic look.
Today this technique is almost universally rejected by brass teachers. It tends to limit the upper register and endurance. Pulling the mouth corners back to ascend eventually reaches a limit to where the musician simply can’t smile even further to ascend, resulting in a range cap. Stretching the lips back also makes the lips more sensitive to mouthpiece pressure. This results in difficulty with endurance and also simply risks injury due to mouthpiece pressure.
While brass pedagogy seems to have come to a general consensus on avoiding the smile embouchure, we don’t have an agreement on the best way to help students make corrections to the smile embouchure. Part of this disagreement is due to every student being a little different and responding to instructions in their own ways, but a large part of the disparity in instruction seems to be due to a general lack of knowledge about what’s happening in the embouchure in the first place.
Awareness and Conscious Effort Is Inefficient
If you’ve never struggled with the smile embouchure yourself it might seem that the best way to eliminate the smile embouchure is to help your student become aware of the problem and ask him or her to consciously stop it. Mirror observation is often used for feedback and brass teachers will often prescribe exercises that start in the range where the corners are not pulling back and ascend gradually into the trouble range. The idea here is to start from a point of good technique (mouth corners in place) and strive to keep that technique the same while ascending.
This usually doesn’t work, at least not very efficiently. It’s notoriously difficult for brass players to make this sort of adjustment for a couple of reason. First, these musicians have a “conditioned response” to ascending on their instrument. It’s simply too habitual for them to just stop. Secondly, and even more relevant, the muscles at and around the mouth corners are usually too weak to hold them in place while ascending.
It’s pretty well established now that the area around mouth corners are responsible for a lot of the muscular effort for a well-formed brass embouchure. There have been studies that empirically investigate which muscles in the embouchure are active while playing a brass instrument. The more advanced the player, the more focused the embouchure effort is on keeping the corners firm (and the chin flat). The advanced trumpet player in the image above (the top row) shows a much more focused muscular effort at the mouth corners (and chin) than the beginner (middle row) and trumpet student (bottom row).
One reason why it’s so difficult for brass students to eliminate the smile embouchure is because the muscles that should be holding the mouth corners in place are too weak. Just as you can’t expect someone to bench press 200 pounds without building up to it, a brass musician can’t hold their mouth corners in place without developing the strength to hold them in position.
Embouchure Problems Are Embouchure Problems – QED
One of the most common approaches I come across from teachers, who I feel should know better, promote the idea the all embouchure problems are really breathing problems. These teachers insist that the best way to help a student make corrections to a smile embouchure are to work on breathing. Many also emphasize assignments of music, rather than technical exercises.
While there’s nothing inherently wrong in teaching good breathing and musical expression, any smile embouchure correction that happens as a result here is largely going to be in spite of, rather than because of the focus on breathing. Don’t misunderstand what I’m pointing out. Excellent brass technique requires efficient breathing and musical expression, but embouchure problems are embouchure problems. Teachers who advocate for developing embouchure technique purely through good breathing and musical expression usually insist that it’s ultimately better to take a student’s attention away from their embouchure. That may be all well and good, depending on the student, but in the process they ignore what the real cause and effect of the smile embouchure actually is. In this case, I think advocating that the teacher have a good understanding of embouchure technique here is different from discussing how much of that to communicate to students and when.
In a little bit I’ll show you how you can get a student to stop pulling the mouth corners back into a smile while forming an embouchure almost immediately (with some qualifications). I have never seen working on breathing to help a student correct a smile embouchure as immediately. If fixing the breathing fixes any “embouchure problem” immediately then the original issue was misdiagnosed. Embouchure problems are embouchure problems – by definition.
Sure, working on breathing and musical expression can (eventually) result in a brass musician correcting the smile embouchure. However, this is because the student is developing embouchure strength and control over time from practicing the instrument, not because the breathing is better or the musician’s mental image of the music is in mind. Furthermore, some players who happen to be more prone to a smile embouchure appear to have difficulty building embouchure strength simply by playing a lot (see Low Placement embouchure type players), at least more so compared to peers who have different anatomical features.
In my experience, regular free buzzing practice is the fastest and most efficient route to eliminating the smile embouchure, for a number of reasons. While I go over my rational, it’s important that I specify how I teach free buzzing and address some common concerns about it.
There are many brass players and teachers who dismiss free buzzing because it doesn’t directly relate to how the instrument is played. This is true, but if you are careful and methodical about your approach you are actually exploiting this difference. Consider the “conditioned response” difficulties I mentioned above.
For advocates of fixing the smile embouchure with breathing and musical expression, my rational for addressing it instead with free buzzing should be already familiar to them.
For example, in order to change the preconditioned responses elicited in a student when playing his or her instrument, Mr. Jacobs will simply remove the musical instrument and have the student blow on the back of the hand, buzz on a mouthpiece, or breathe into a strange apparatus. By conditioning the correct response away from the horn, it is then transferable to the instrument. This offers the additional benefits of keeping exercises from dulling musical passion, enhancing strangeness, allowing a multi-sensoral approach, and avoiding previously conditioned baggage. Most importantly, this additive approach keeps players from having to go back to square one on their instruments-particularly valuable for professional players who must maintain a busy schedule. Thus instead of altering a bad behavior, Mr Jacobs advocates that one simply learn a new correct behavior to supplant it by changing stimuli and eventually transferring the response back to the horn. Meanwhile, the old, undesired behavior will extinguish itself from lack of use.
When a student has developed a habitual way of playing the instrument that is getting in their way, it’s very difficult to approach it from what they are doing wrong. Instead, it’s more effective to go after what to do correctly. Furthermore, crafty teachers like Arnold Jacobs used ways to remove the trigger for the conditioned response (the instrument) and make corrections where those bad habits didn’t come into play. As the proper technique became learned, the instrument was gradually added to the mix.
Free buzzing does exactly this, with the added benefit of actually building strength in the muscles that hold the mouth corners in place. Furthermore, free buzzing higher pitches softly and with a mosquito-like sound makes it virtually impossible to pull the mouth corners back into a smile. Instead of helping to raise the pitch, it hinders it. While free buzzing the brass musician has to keep the corners locked in place.
So to return to what I wrote above, it instantly fixes the smile embouchure, albeit in a different context. It introduces “strangeness” removing the conditioned response. Even better, where playing the instrument allows the student to pull the corners back to ascend before the range caps, free buzzing only reinforces the correct mouth corner position. For these reasons, I feel that using free buzzing to eliminate a student’s smile embouchure is superior to addressing it directly while playing or through breathing and musical expression.
How to Free Buzz
My personal favorite free buzzing exercise to teach is from Donald Reinhardt. He prescribed slightly rolling in the lower lip inward and just over the lower teeth while bringing the top lip down to lightly touching the lower lip.
Without any assistance from the mouthpiece or the instrument, form the lips in the prescribed manner and sustain a buzz on middle concert B flat to the fullest extent of a normal playing breath. . . Buzz and inhale three times in the prescribed manner and strive to make each buzz a higher pitch than the previous one – then rest.
Encyclopedia of the Pivot System, p. 169, by Donald Reinhardt
That’s it. Maybe 3-5 minutes at most. Done as described and with just a little bit of work daily spread out over several weeks it should make for noticeable improvements without the risk of feeling “muscle bound” or otherwise screwing up a brass musician’s chops.
As an aside, I edited out the part where Reinhardt instructs holding your finger over your lips when inhaling and breathing in through the mouth corners for clarity here, but I do teach and recommend that in my more detailed discussion and video of this exercise. I also want to point out that the free buzz should be soft and thin sounding. Try to make it sound like a mosquito buzz.
That one exercise done daily for a few weeks or so should translate into a reduction of the smile embouchure at least, and over time can even eliminate it by itself. If your student needs some more help, there are two additional ideas you can try with free buzzing. One can be helpful for pretty much all players, others require you to know and understand the student’s basic embouchure type. These are also based on (if not outright taken from) exercises I picked up from Reinhardt’s writings.
Using Reinhardt’s description of a free buzz above, instruct your student to free buzz a pitch that is at least F below middle C (concert pitch, in other words F3 or F inside the bass clef). Keep the free buzzing tone soft and mosquito-like. After free buzzing that pitch, have the student play the pitch on their instrument as a long tone, then stop and rest. Then buzz pitches up a scale and repeat this exercise until they start feeling fatigued. Observe how the mouth corners look, but it’s not necessary to have the student watch in a mirror unless it helps then to see it (another option is to have the student watch in the mirror every other pitch). This exercise, which I feel is good for any brass player, can help eliminate the smile embouchure by helping the student to experience the correct mouth corner position while free buzzing and then quickly try to translate that to the instrument.
If the student is one of the downstream embouchure types, particularly the Very High Placement type, you can take the above exercise but instead of free buzzing and then playing the pitch on the instrument next, have him or her free buzz into the instrument. For some downstream embouchure type players this can be an excellent way to fine tune other elements of embouchure form as well as the mouth corner position. Low Placement/upstream type brass player will not want to practice buzzing into the instrument, since their mouthpiece placement too drastically changes certain elements of their embouchure form while playing compared to free buzzing.
Free buzzing ticks off all the boxes that we know is effective for correcting instrumental technique. It specifically strengthens the muscles we want. It forces the brass musician’s mouth corner form towards the habit we’re trying to develop while also removing the trigger for the habit we’re trying to eliminate. Lastly, it’s effective over time, but it’s probably more efficient than any other common approach to correcting the smile embouchure.
Remember, keep your student’s free buzzing light, soft, and somewhat airy sounding. A little bit every day spread out over time is much better than a lot at once.
One final idea for those teachers who insist that everything their student works on should have musical value. Use the same described procedure for free buzzing (soft and thin sounding, keep it above F3, etc.) but free buzz simple tunes. Personally, I think it’s fine to work on instrumental technique by removing it from a musical context at times, but if your student has difficulty switching focus back on the music or slips too easily into trying to multitask while playing, free buzzing melodies has the same benefits.