Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Tuning Slide: 2.6- All About the Sound

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music

Last week I talked about the basic (and oversimplified) physics and acoustics of trumpet playing. Being centered in sound was at the heart of it and the way practicing long tones can help us visualize and enhance the resonance of the sound we produce. That can then lead us to finding ways to center our own lives through focus, visualization, and breathing. The result is the congruence of who we are and how we play.

This week I want to look a little more at this fine instrument many of us have fallen in love (and hate?) with.

First, here’s how it’s made from the How Products Are Made website:
Brass instruments are almost universally made from brass, but a solid gold or silver trumpet might be created for special occasions. The most common type of brass used is yellow brass, which is 70 percent copper and 30 percent zinc. Other types include gold brass (80 percent copper and 20 percent zinc), and silver brass (made from copper, zinc, and nickel). The relatively small amount of zinc present in the alloy is necessary to make brass that is workable when cold. Some small manufacturers will use such special brasses as Ambronze (85 percent copper, 2 percent tin, and 13 percent zinc) for making certain parts of the trumpet (such as the bell) because such alloys produce a sonorous, ringing sound when struck. Some manufacturers will silver- or goldplate the basic brass instrument.
Very little of the trumpet is not made of brass. Any screws are usually steel; the water key is usually lined with cork; the rubbing surfaces in the valves and slides might be electroplated with chromium or a stainless nickel alloy such as monel; the valves may be lined with felt; and the valve keys may be decorated with mother-of-pearl.
[Not a surprise that they look for alloys that produce a “sonorous, ringing sound.” That’s part of the overall acoustics we talked about last week. The trumpet is about $5.00 or so in metal. Probably less on the junk market where you may get as much as $1.30/pound. Weighing in at an average 2.5 pounds of metal, you might get $3 - $3.50 for the metal as junk. The thousands of dollars a Strad costs is in the design that helps make the sound.]
The most important feature of a trumpet is sound quality. Besides meeting exacting tolerances of approximately 1 x 105 meters, every trumpet that is manufactured is tested by professional musicians who check the tone and pitch of the instrument while listening to see if it is in tune within its desired dynamic range. The musicians test-play in different acoustical set-ups, ranging from small studios to large concert halls, depending on the eventual use of the trumpet. Large trumpet manufacturers hire professional musicians as full-time testers, while small manufacturers rely on themselves or the customer to test their product. --Link
Now comes what may be the most important paragraph from the website:
At least half the work involved in creating and maintaining a clear-sounding trumpet is done by the customer. [Emphasis added.] The delicate instruments require special handling, and, because of their inherent asymmetry, they are prone to imbalance. Therefore, great care must be taken so as not to carelessly damage the instrument. To prevent dents, trumpets are kept in cases, where they are held in place by trumpet-shaped cavities that are lined with velvet. The trumpet needs to be lubricated once a day or whenever it is played. The lubricant is usually a petroleum derivative similar to kerosene for inside the valves, mineral oil for the key mechanism, and axle grease for the slides. The grime in the mouthpiece and main pipe should be cleaned every month, and every three months the entire trumpet should soak in soapy water for 15 minutes. It should then be scrubbed throughout with special small brushes, rinsed, and dried. --Link
Perhaps I am overdoing it with this whole thing, but the one thread working through these quotes as well as what we talked about last week:

The Sound.
It’s all about the sound! Sound is everything- tone, upper register, melody, etc.

Everything is done in order to produce the best sound possible. From the chemistry of mixing metals to the long tones we practice, the end product is the best sound possible from the instrument you own. Period. With that in mind let me quote Mr. Bob Baca from the Shell Lake Trumpet Workshop.
These are the three characteristics of a great trumpet player:
1. Every time you play you have a great- not a good- sound.
2. You have great- not good- rhythm.
3. You have great- not good- ears to hear the sound.
Let’s expand some more about developing a great sound. Remember that after the right mix of metals, tubing, etc. it is:
• being centered,
• finding the resonance,
• utilizing long tones in our basic practice.

Going beyond those basics, them, here are some thoughts from Brass Musician magazine’s web site.
We must have a very definite concept of a beautiful tone in order to produce a great sound. Conception of tone is a mental memory, aural visualization, imagination or recollection of what a beautiful tone sounds like. We cannot imagine or remember what we have not heard and memorized so we must frequently listen to fine players live and on recordings. Daily listening to recordings of fine players will develop our concept of tone. … Playing along with recordings… helps imprint the aural role model and imitation in our minds.
Olympic champion Michael Phelps and Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski were interviewed on TV last week. Both of them spoke of the value of “visualization.” Phelps said he works through the possibilities in a race beforehand- including potential problems. That way, he said, he will be ready for anything. Coach K. said he prepares visualizations for his players to use on iPads. They can see what a “champion” looks like- how champions carry themselves- including how they walk and talk. That’s what the above paragraph is talking about. You can’t hit the notes if you don’t know what they sound like. What better way to learn than to hear them, get them aurally imprinted, visualize the sound, and then “rehearse” it in your mind. I have heard a number of musicians say they hear the note or sound in that small fraction of a second before they play it.

For years I had the problem of not being able to come in on the right note after a rest, or at the beginning of a piece. Sometimes the note would slide off downward or I would overshoot it higher. It was particularly difficult if it was happening during or after an unusual chord structure where my note didn’t seem to be right. I asked one of my colleagues how she did it- and why I was having difficulty. She simply told me that I have to hear the note before I play it. No, I do not have anything like perfect or near-perfect pitch. If you asked me to sing that note in tune I probably couldn’t. What I could do was take a second and silently “sing” my way to the note using the open tones- middle C, G, and the C on the staff. That helped with the B or D on the staff. If I was going for the E or F at the top of the staff, I just silently sang the open notes to the E. It worked. I am still not in the habit of doing that as regularly as I could, but I don’t miss the notes as often as I used to.

Such visualization helps with a player like me who rends to be somewhat lazy in hitting notes. It focuses, centers my sound and keeps me in the music. That also means I am less tense when I come to the notes. I find myself able to hit the note with a stronger sound, probably more in tune and less pressured. Which brings me to the next paragraph from Brass Musician:
A steady relaxed airstream is critical to a full, beautiful tone. … When we ascend into the upper register we should blow faster and avoid tightening the abdominal muscles, which restricts the throat and causes a strained, brighter, sharper sound. There are many ways to improve breathing, blowing and tone. I recommend visiting, reading books and articles about or by Arnold Jacobs…
◆ Steady
◆ Relaxed
◆ Don’t tighten the abs
◆ Keep the throat open

Seems simple enough.

Check your shoulder position? Have you pulled your shoulders up toward your ears? You are probably tense. Drop them. Let them droop.

Are you holding the trumpet with a left-hand death grip? Relax. That tension is going all the way up your arm and even into your jaw. Loosen it.

It is amazing how much physical work is involved in playing a trumpet. For me it even goes to my posture either sitting or standing. I know, sadly, that if I took the iconic “Miles Davis Stance” I would not be relaxed. MY sound, at least at this point, would be constricted. That may be part of what Miles wanted. For me, it hurts my style. I have to sit up, give my abs the room to relax. Leaning forward tightens them, reduces my airflow and abdominal support for my sound.

That is where those infernal long tones help. Playing them in a relaxed but appropriate position helps our bodies to learn how to do it and enhance our muscle memory.

Arnold Jacobs is mentioned above. He was principal tubist for the Chicago Symphony and many consider Jacobs one of the great music instructors of the second half of the 20th Century. He has become well known as an expert on breathing and wind instruments.

(Here is a collection of quotes and explanations of some of what he taught.)

One of the quotes and explanations from the site.(Bold in original):
"Conceive, don´t perceive"

Controling our thoughts is one of the most important parts of musical performance. When we are playing, it is very common to ask ourselves questions like "does this sound good?" "am I breathing right?", "am I using my fingers correctly", "do I feel okay?", etc.

Arnold Jacobs thinks we shouldn´t ask ourselves these kind of questions during the performance because we´re sending information from our muscles to our brain when we should be doing exactly the opposite; creating music in our mind and making our muscles to produce it.

As Jacobs says, "be a great artist in your imagination", since analysis does not help performance. If we want to progress and improve we should present what we want listeners to perceive.

Jacobs points out that musicians should show their feeling and tell stories with their sound. If we want a specific colour in our sound, we have to create it in our mind and then our body will produce it by making the necessary adjustments. The idea is to tell a story though musical orders.
All this talk about breathing- remember that it is always in support of the sound, the great sound that we should always be seeking for. Breathing is the best way to start in any attempt to improve our playing. But it is also the starting point for stress reduction, personal centering, meditative focus, and many other introductions to better health.

Keep breathing- and learning to breathe better.

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