I know I've written about this before but reminders are always good!
When you practice a difficult passage, you don't always need to change something to make it work. In fact most of the time, it'll correct itself without you doing anything about it after a while. Your body just need some time to develop the right reflexes. Just because something doesn't work doesn't mean that you're doing something wrong. If you try forcing things, you might get some short term results but you can also develop bad habits.
By playing a passage without trying to correct it, you let go and trust your body to make the adjustments. You stop acting physically about it and let your reflexes take over. This will work once you're beyond the stage of learning the piece and are working on polishing it. It will make your playing more fluid and relaxed.
It's a bit like when you play video games. At first you're not good at it and get defeated by the small monsters in the beginning but after a while, your reflexes adjust and you start fighting the bigger ones and beat them without having done anything special. You're just playing and having fun. You very rarely have to "change" anything to become better at a particular game. It just happens over time as long as you keep playing.
If something really won't work and you keep missing the same notes all the time, you might want to take a few steps back and practice the passage slower. If it's something high, maybe your chops aren't ready for this piece and need more time to develop some strength. Or it could be that your air, chops and fingers aren't well coordinated. In this case, letting go and playing without trying to correct the mistakes can help you as this is often the result of tensions in your body.
In any case, remember that learning a music instrument takes time and patience. There is no magic wand that will solve all problems right away! Just keep doing what you need to do day after day and you'll improve over time. The good news is that you can still have a lot of fun even if you're not the worlds greatest player!
Before we start this topic, it is important to say that playing music is not an olympic sport. You won't get a medal for playing louder than your colleagues in a concert. In fact, playing louder than everyone else is a rather rude and selfish thing to do. Remember: it's not about how loud you can play, it's about how loud you should play. With that in mind, open your ears and use your artistic taste to determine your dynamics. Don't let your physical ability to blow in your horn dictate how loud you will play.
Having said that, when the situation demands it, you need to be able to play a good forte or fortissimo. Developing a good dynamic range will take time and patience but if you work on it daily, you should see some fast progress.
Here are a few things you can do to make more sound:
1) long tones with 8 beats crescendo and 8 beats diminuendo. Doing a few of these daily will help your tone and increase your dynamic range.
2)Breathing exercises. Take deep breaths and stretch your harms at the same time making a "T" shape with your body. This will expand your rib cage and increase the air intake. Immediately pick up your instrument after a few breaths and play something. You'll be amazed how good it feels.
3) Fool around a bit. A few years ago, I asked a colleague who could play super loud how he did it. He said that he just spent a few weeks playing ridiculously loud just to fool around and that it worked for him...
4)Embouchure building techniques. If your chops are stronger, you will be more relaxed in the high register and will get a better air flow to make more sound.
5)Don't be shy! Play with confidence. Go for it and don't worry about missing some notes. Your audience wants to be entertained. They don't mind you missing as long as you really try. Fear of missing notes will make you hold back and you won't be able to play as loud as you want.
I'm sure there are a lot of other things you can do to turn up the volume but these 5 ideas should make a difference.
The embouchure position varies from one instrument to another and there can be as many variations as there are players since no one as the same teeth and facial muscles. You don't need a "text book" embouchure position to perform well. As long as it's not completely off, it's better not to change anything if it feels good and sounds good.
Some embouchure position might feel right at this moment but cause you problems in the future so it may be necessary to tweak it a bit. However, it is very difficult to predict what will happen so you might want to seek advices from more than one teacher before you do anything to your chops. Be aware that it takes time and patience to adapt to a new embouchure position and the results are often mitigated.
Here are a few simple guide lines on where to place the mouthpiece for all brass instruments:
For the french horn, 2/3 of the mouthpiece should be above the line formed by your closed lips and 1/3 below as shown in the illustration on the left.
Trumpet and trombone players will place it more or less in the middle
Tuba players can play in the middle for better sound but can also play 2/3-1/3 as it makes it easier to reach some notes.
Don't worry too much if your embouchure position isn't like what you see in books or on pictures online. I have seen people playing slightly on the side and still sound great. Everyone is different and it's more about how you feel than how it looks.
Unfortunately, some teachers will have their students change their embouchure position into something that works perfectly for them but isn't necessarily what is best for the student. They end up doing more damage than good. I've seen many people with a fine tone losing their sound, strength and self confidence after studying a few months with a so-called great teacher who made them change their perfectly fine embouchure. Don't let this happen to you.
If you do choose to make a change, consult two or three teachers. Be patient as it will take time for your lips to unlearn what they are used to, adapt to the new feeling and build new muscles. Monitor your progress over weeks/ months and tweak the new position to make it your own. You will get better results this way.
Practicing with metronome is very useful to keep a steady tempo. You can also use it to learn difficult passages by playing slowly at first and gradually increasing the speed. Since there isn't much difference between let's say 60 and 64, you won't feel you are actually playing faster. Once you're good at 64 then try 68 and so on until you reach the desired tempo. You'll be amazed how quickly you can learn hard passages this way.
You will achieve a lot more by dividing your pieces or etudes in small sections and practicing each small part individually. Your brain will develop the right reflexes faster by repeating the same passage many times until it gets it right just like a martial artist repeats the same movement over and over again until he/she doesn't have to think about it. You can put all the bits together afterwards once you've thoroughly worked on them separately.
It is not a good idea to practice on worn out chops. You should always plan to take breaks in your practicing sessions especially if you are doing 2-3 hours everyday. First warm up in the morning and let your embouchure rest for 15-20 minutes. Then start working on what you need to prepare for your lessons, rehearsals, concerts etc. Depending on what you play, you'll have to adjust the length of your practicing time. Ideally, you should be doing 30 minutes sessions followed by 30 minutes breaks. You can use that break in a productive way by singing your music or working on your ear training. It's not a waste of time. Of course that depends on how much time you have. Also, low brass players can play longer than horn or trumpet players so it also depends on which instrument you play. The bottom line is don't wait until your chops are dead to stop. If you practice on a worn out embouchure, you will eventually have to force to get the notes out and develop bad habits.
If you plan on increasing your overall practicing time, do it gradually over a few weeks. Suddenly going from one hour a day to three hours will damage your embouchure and you'll have a hard time playing after a few days if the change is to abrupt.
I've seen students going to a band or orchestra camp suddenly playing 6-7 hours per day while their embouchure wasn't used to it. They could barely play after a couple of days. If you find yourself in that situation, remember that the most important is the concert at the end. It is not necessary to play all the notes all the time in all rehearsals. You can always take turns in the section if you have a lot of players. You also don't need to play the loud long notes over and over again. See it as a marathon, the concert being the final sprint.
If I have a big concert to play, I usually take it easy during the dress rehearsal. I avoid playing high, sustained, long notes or repeated notes if they're not too important. No conductor has ever complained about it. They usually understand that you need to save your chops for the show.
I often say as a joke that if someone's evening is ruined by me missing a note or two in the concert, I'll gladly reimburse his ticket!
Seriously, I use to be upset after missing a note in a concert or even in rehearsal. With time, I learned to accept that I'm not a machine and that missed notes are just part of the show. Of course, no one misses notes on purpose but if you just focus on that, you get more nervous about it and end up missing more.
There are a few things you can do to improve your accuracy though. The most important is to hear the notes clearly in your head before you play them. Try singing your music with your voice before playing. Take your ear training class seriously! We often say, if you can sing it, you can play it.
Being in good shape and having a good feeling in your chops will also help you. If you get tense, you'll miss more notes. That's why I said earlier that you shouldn't worry about it too much. You'll end up in a vicious circle of worrying-getting stiff-missing more-worrying more etc.
Be patient when you learn a new piece. Your brain and body need time to develop the right reflexes for each new piece or etude you play. If you allow yourself proper time and don't expect perfection immediately, you'll improve gradually and will gradually miss fewer notes.
When I go to a concert, I want to hear great music, musicality and energy from the players. I don't really care if they miss a bit as long as they try to make something interesting. I tell my students not to try making something perfect but something beautiful. The purpose of music is not to hit all the notes but to touch people's hearts.
Next time you practice, free yourself from the obligation of hitting all the notes. You'll still miss a couple but you'll sound much better, your chops will feel great and you'll have a lot more fun playing.
When you produce a tone with your instrument, you are not only using your lips but also all the muscles involved in breathing. You need to make sure that you coordinate all these muscles with your lips properly to get the best possible result.
One comment we hear about a singer sometimes is that "His tone really comes from deep". That's because they need to use their entire torso to move the air through their vocal cords to produce a nice tone. We can learn from that and learn to support our chops with a good air stream.
It's not very complicated after all. Here is something you can do to practice your air support:
1) Stand up or sit with your back straight.
2) Fill your lungs with air completely and let the air come out without making any effort to push it out. When you breath, extend your entire rib cage as much as possible.
3) After a few breaths, place your hand in front of your mouth and blow in it. Try to maintain the same air pressure for as long as possible. You will have to apply gentle pressure from your rib cage and diaphragm to keep the air pressure. Don't blow to hard, It's not necessary.
Do this a few time and be aware the muscles you are using to keep the air running.
4) Repeat the exercise using your mouthpiece this time. Hold long notes. You can try various pitches. You'll notice that it gets harder to stay relaxed as you get higher. Try to keep your torso muscles from getting tense as you go higher.
5) Now put your mouthpiece on your instrument and do the same thing with various notes. Once you feel comfortable, try scales and arpeggios.
Try to be aware that you're are using your entire body to produce your tone. Not only your chops. Feel which muscles are working.
You will have more power in the high register and more endurance if your lips are well supported by a good air stream that comes from the bottom.
It is important to take a break from your instrument sometimes. I just came back from a couple of weeks of vacation myself! Not playing for a little while will help your body to get rid of tensions accumulated during the past few months and rest your head while you think of something else. When you come back to your instrument,
you're more enthusiastic about playing and ready to rock!
The downside of this is that you'll be out of shape when you pick up your horn again. If I don't do anything during my break, it normally takes me one day of practice for each day of break before I get my optimal shape back. For example, it would take me two weeks to get back in full shape after a two weeks rest. That's why I always plan to come back from vacation several days before we start working again to get my chops running again. If I can't do that, I'll just bring my horn with me and play during my trip.
There are things you can do to speed up the process. I did the pencil exercise every day for a week before coming back and it helped maintaining some strength in my muscles. I also buzzed my mouthpiece a bit for 15 minutes/day during my trip. Once I got back to my horn, I did the Caruso technique every second day to strengthen my embouchure. Doing all this cut my recovery time in half and I'm almost ready for work after 5-6 days.
You need to be patient when you come back from a break. The first practice session will most likely not be very pleasant. Especially if you add jet lag on top of that! Increase the duration of your practice sessions and level of difficulty of what you play gradually. At first, play some very easy pieces and just get through them. The next day, try to play a bit longer and work on your tone a bit. When you feel a bit stronger, start playing etudes. They are very good for endurance since they normally have no or very few bars of rest so your chops can get use to play non stop for a while again. Like I said, the Caruso technique or any other chops building method is always good. With all this, you should be able to get back in shape in time for your next gig with a strong embouchure, a well rested mind and a relaxed body!
You can work on your dynamics, articulations and phrasing by practicing a phrase on one note. It can be any note you feel comfortable with. You can for example play the whole passage on a B flat if it's the first note. It will sound a bit silly but it really works.
When you practice on one note, you don't have to worry about hitting the notes and you can focus on all the other things that you need to play musically . Try to make the phrase interesting and musical this way and then play it with the right notes. You should have a much nicer phrasing and sense of direction to your phrase after that.
There will always be many different opinions about how we should play technically and artistically. One teacher can tell you to play in a certain way while another will tell you the exact opposite!. On top of that,if you search the web, you'll find an unlimited amount of ideas not always going in the same direction. So how do you sort out all this input? Who's right?
You can trust one teacher or another but the person you should trust the most at the end of the day is YOURSELF.
You are the one who's playing and you're in the best position to see if what you're taught actually works. You have every right to seek as many opinions as you want on a specific topic and choose the one that YOU find the best. It's YOUR playing and YOUR life. You're the boss.
Before you ask a teacher what he/she thinks, you can ask yourself what do YOU think and how do you feel about it. At the end you're the one performing so your opinion should matter. Make your own experiments. Try things for yourself and be your own teacher. Some things you'll try will work and some won't. That's okay. You don't need a 100% success rate. You'll always make more progress if you're proactive about your playing than if you just passively wait for someone else to show you the way.
As long as you regularly get feed back from a teacher who has more life and playing experience than you and can make you see and hear things you wouldn't notice otherwise and show you techniques and ideas, you can make your own decisions and be in control of your own playing.
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.