Tone Without Tension

Marcus Reynolds is a clinician and lecturer for the British Association of Performing Arts, and the British Trombone Society. Also the creator of Stratos embouchure system, in this feature article (originally published in ‘Brass Band World’) he unravels more mysteries of the embouchure.

“In my last article [click here to read ‘Power over Pressure’], I explained how whistling against your palm would indicate the trajectory of the air. If the top-lip ventures over the bottom lip, then the air is directed against a metal wall – the side of the mouthpiece. When this occurs, great resistance will be felt. By trying to force the same amount of air through the instrument, the cheeks and all sorts of air cushions could start to inflate, vastly reducing the power of the original articulation.

In my previous article, I mentioned whistling or blowing out candles. This will open the teeth and allow more air to travel to the lips. Here’s a trick that keeps the corners of the lips towards the point of pitch, and keeps the cheeks in and the teeth open. Two tongued whistles and then two ‘blow the candles out’, followed by two tongued buzzes.

Practise these three exercises 20 or 30 times. It sounds laborious, but it really is a short cut to clear and powerful precise notes. I cannot see how you perform these exercises, but if you are not relaxed and there is over tension in the neck, the air will not flow. The sensation is that of blowing candles out.

Now we need to ensure that there is enough air being directed towards the aperture so the lips can vibrate most efficiently. Whistle again, or get as close as you can to the shape, keeping your facial muscles still and breathing through the nose. See if you can fit your little finger into the gap between the teeth. Most times you will not be able to because, as you strive for a greater range, the jaw can go into clenching mode, closing the aperture and stifling the air flow.

Let’s next examine the journey of the air from the back of the throat. It must travel without being choked or diverted. Take a breath and use the lips as a ‘stopper’ to inflate the cheeks. Then force your cheeks in to push out the air, but purse your lips so that the air escapes under pressure. You must practice this many times until you start to hear high-pitch squeaks escaping through the lips. These squeaks are actually unrefined notes from above the stave, whatever instrument you play. This process is used in learning to circular breathe.

This is where the Stratos will help; adjust the chin rest to its extreme setting. Keeping the airstream level as you empty your cheeks, aim those squeaks into the mouthpiece – eventually you will be rewarded with the high note clarity you were seeking. So many players start playing into the higher register without foundation.

Try this: play an octave interval well within your comfort range. Start to move upwards in semi- tones. Take your time, going up say five semi-tones, ensure no strain is felt, then go down to where you started. Place the tip of your finger between your teeth to check the gap, and then buzz through the same exercise. The buzzing won’t sound wonderful, but with perseverance the notes will sound freer and richer when you return to playing them because blood and oxygen have been delivered to the lips, and with the buzzing the capillaries and filtrum (the bit between the bottom of the nose and the top lip) are no longer being crushed.

The beauty of Stratos is that it rids students of the fear of changing their playing technique and allows you, or your mentor, to make micro-adjustments that do not hinder your playing.

Many teachers tell their students to use less pressure, but what is being offered as a substitute? Remove the scaffold too early and the building collapses in much the same way that your mouth muscles will, if the mouthpiece weight is removed too quickly. Stratos incrementally reduces the weight of the mouthpiece from the lips until the new muscle memory is self-supporting. “

Please visit the Stratos website for further information.


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