If you have fun playing, people will have fun listening to you.
As a music student, you are constantly preparing for a lesson, an exam, a recital, an audition etc. There is always something coming up where you'll have to present something or compete with others.
This constant obligation to prove something to teachers, judges, classmates and yourself can become a burden if you're not careful about it. I personally went through a hard time in school until I told myself that if I wasn't gonna enjoy myself playing music, I'd rather do something else. My life changed when I decided to make fun the most important aspect of my playing. I became more relaxed and played a lot better. The results in exams and auditions followed. I also had much better relations with my classmates.
Take time to play pieces or etudes just for yourself with fun and pleasure as your only goal. No public to impress, no jury to win over, no conductor to follow, no teacher to satisfy, nothing to prove and nothing to explain! Chose pieces you won't be performing for anybody. Just music you really like. It can be something new or something you played before. Just enjoy yourself. When you go back to the pieces you need to prepare, you'll feel much better.
Make the fun aspect of your playing just as important as rhythm, intonation, tone and musicality. Those aspects will improve if you enjoy yourself, trust me.
Some people say we should never use an electronic tuner. I think tuners can be very useful if used correctly.
It's not a good idea to clip a tuner on your instrument and tune every note on sight while playing in a group. It's more important to tune to the group than to a machine so you'll have to learn to do it by ear . With a bit of practice, it's not that hard. Also be aware that notes are tuned differently depending on their function in the chord. ( major thirds are tuned lower, minor thirds higher etc.) So when you are working on brass chords, you can only use the tuner for the root of the chord. The tuner can be used if we disagree on some notes but not all the time.
When teaching a group of beginners or young students, it's easy to lose the pitch when the kids are going in all directions. A quick check on the machine will help putting the group back on track.
It's also very useful when you need to arrange your or a student's slides.
Intonation can be a very subjective thing. Depending on how our ears have been educated, we ear things differently. The way we "feel" the pitch is also different from one person to another. I played an exam once where one of the three judges said I was a bit flat, the other one said I was a bit sharp and the last one said I was just right! That happens a lot actually.
I personally prefer someone using an electronic tuner once in a while to someone who pretend he hears everything but doesn't really have a clue. There's nothing wrong in admitting you don't hear everything like a machine. As long as you can tune yourself by ear in the group, it's ok to take a couple of seconds to check a note here and there with the machine.
Don't be too precious to about your ear. At the end, it's not about who's right or who's wrong. It's about how do we play in tune together. If tuners can help us a little, than why not?
In many ways brass playing is similar to singing. Once you have conquered the technical abilities to play concertos, etudes and exerps, what you will be remembered for is your tone and musicality. What matters is not WHAT you play but HOW you play it. We all remember Luciano Pavarotti for his unforgettable voice. Have you ever heard anyone say "Man! That guy Pavarotti can sing so fast!" ? Of course not! It's his tone that everyone remembers.
There are many things you can do to improve your tone. Here are a few ideas:
1) Long tones. Play 8 beats crescendo and 8 beats diminuendo on a chosen note. Try to maintain a nice warm sound through the whole note. Repeat as many times as you want with other notes.
2) Practice easy pieces and make them sound as good as possible. We are so busy practicing high, fast and loud stuff that we forget to practice soft, slow middle range pieces. Most solos in the orchestral repertoire aren't that difficult technically but require great lyrical skills. Also, playing easy pieces is relaxing and makes you embouchure feel good again if your chops are stiff.
3) Hear the tone that you want in your head. Take a few seconds to imagine the greatest sound in your head before you play. Then, do a few long tones while keep producing that tone in your brain. Your brain will send signals to the rest of your body to make it happen. After a few minutes doing this, you should see your tone changing.
Try to play your pieces, etudes and exerps slowly using THAT tone that you just made and speed up to the desired tempo when you feel comfortable.
4) Stay in shape...
5) But don't over practice. Use your judgement to determine how much you really need to practice. It depends on your level, what you need to play, what are your goals etc. It's hard to sound good if you rarely touch your instrument. On the other hand, nothing good comes out of practicing on worn out chops. Practice a lot but also give your chops some rest.
6) Don't over blow. Unless the conductor asks for more, play at a dynamic you can control. Of course, in your practice room, you will work to expand your dynamic range while keeping a nice sound so you'll have it when you need it. Needlessly forcing air into your horn will only give you a harsh tone without that much more power.
7) Don't be too perfectionist. I never play well when I try to be perfect. It makes me tense, it's boring and I still miss notes! Let yourself be human and you'll sound a lot better.
8)Try different mouthpieces. Take all the mouthpieces at a music store or at your school and try them all. See which one feels and sounds the best. A different mouthpiece can change your tone a lot.
9) Think about it when you play. When playing fast passages,we are often so busy playing the notes that we forget about the tone. Sometimes, just reminding yourself to produce a nice sound will solve the problem.
I'm sure there are many other things that can improve your tone. This is what I can think of for now. If you have other ideas, write them in the comment section and I'll add it to the list.
Don't we all love these high and soft passages? They make us look so good all the time! Just kidding of course!
I'm afraid there is no trick that will guaranty a 100% success rate but there are a few things that can help you.
First, you need to plan your dynamics according to your artistic judgement rather than your physical abilities. If you just try to play as soft as you can, you'll always try to get softer and softer and your playing will become uncomfortable. This will cause you to miss notes and create more stress. You should always play as soft as you SHOULD instead. This way, you will get to a nice soft sound and keep it there unless the conductor asks for less. They don't always do by the way contrary to what most people say! By having a "bottom" to your dynamics, you give yourself a realistic goal and take some stress off your shoulders.
Second, take a good breath before playing. When we see piano written in our part, we very often have the reflex to take a small breath. It's much easier to play a soft passage with full lungs.
Third, let go a nice piano sound rather then restraining your forte.
These tricks can help you playing soft in the high range but there is no guaranty. You need to be patient with this aspect of your playing. Avoid over-practicing a passage before a concert. You'll eventually miss a note if you try to play it 100 times in a row which will make you more nervous. Concentrate on what you have to do to make it work and trust yourself.
I am associate principal horn of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and the author of the progressive methods. I'm happy to share my experience as a horn player and teacher with you.