Get Fit with Wick
Stay tuned for more on this series where we're bringing you health-conscious content that will keep you fit for your next brass performance.
Of all the different kinds of brass playing I have done over my career, drum corps playing is perhaps the most physically demanding in terms of volume, register, and pure amount of time with the instrument on my face. As a performer, I was lucky to receive great brass instruction on a daily basis that let me not just survive but build good lifelong playing habits. Continuing on as an instructor, it has been my pleasure and privilege to pass on those lessons while learning from my colleagues and hopefully making some contributions of my own. These are a few of the key lessons I try to reinforce with all the musicians I work with.
It’s good to be strong; it’s better to be efficient.
When building strength for brass playing, the point isn’t just to work hard or to build muscle, it’s to work efficiently to build the right muscles. Striving for proper sensations and building good habits will lead to better performance ability, even if it initially yields a worse result.
When outside of a performance, don’t be afraid to overdo a concept.
When working on a concept such as upper dynamics, it is important to over-train and be able to go past what you need in the performance; if you need to play forte, practice fortissimo. The idea is to expand your comfortable range so that the needs of the performance feel less extreme, so in a practice setting be willing to make bad sounds to learn how to make good ones.
As a performer, you need to be be willing to sound bad in a practice room so you sound good on stage, and as a teacher this sometimes means creating a time for students to experiment with sounds you don’t want so they can learn how to make the sounds you do want.
Let the air do the work.
More often than not, the bad sounds we produce as brass players are a result of muscle tension on the human side of the horn. As we work to get stronger, staying relaxed while playing outside of our comfort zone is extremely important. The best way I’ve found to do so is to concentrate on proper airflow techniques rather than any facial musculature.
Build ability over time.
When you hear a brass performer do something impressive, it’s a safe bet that they’ve worked on it endlessly away from the spotlight and had some equally impressive failures along the way. Building strength and other abilities is about consistent incremental improvement over months, not instant improvement from a magic pill.
Here are two exercises I use regularly to build strength in both my DCI students and my own playing.
This is far from an original exercise and it exists in endless variations, but it is invaluable in developing dynamic ability and contrast both as an individual and an ensemble.
- Overdo the extremes of dynamic (bars 4-7 and 12-15) to the point of creating bad sounds, but always strive for good sensations and good physical habits in terms of embouchure and oral shape.
- Always return to a good sound at the mezzo forte to reinforce positive concepts.
- Vary the register or perform on specific ensemble chords as performance material dictates.
- Define specific dynamics and rates of crescendo and decrescendo to relate it to performance material.
- Do the exercise just on air, with no lip vibration. A surprising amount of problems and tendencies can be identified and addressed before tone is ever produced.
Backs and Fronts
This is an alternate application of an exercise I first saw in an Allen Vizutti book. In addition to being a good exercise for developing strength, it’s also useful to improve response if your chops are tight the day after a lot of playing.
- The articulation markings are not meant as a musical definition. The legato/tenuto notes should be played as long as possible concentrating on the “back” or “right edge” of the note, and the marcato notes should be played with space but concentrating purely on instant response for the “front” or “left edge” of the note.
- Like the strength tones exercise, this is more about overtraining than sounding good in the process. When concentrating on the back of the note, play so long that you risk missing the front of the next note. When concentrating on the front, risk getting a bad sound or articulating out of center to get the bell to ring with instant sound.
- As a default start on the lowest open partial on the instrument and then repeat it down as low as possible a half step at a time, but playing this in other registers is also useful.
- On high brass the exercise should be attempted in one breath if possible. For low brass, either take a breath as needed or shorten the exercise by playing fewer of each note value.
- While the default is to play this at a loud volume, playing it softly can help detail the same concepts (i.e. how little effort or air does it take to create or maintain response).
Both of these exercises are what I lovingly refer to as “sausage making exercises” because the end result is significantly more appealing than the process. That said, part of this process highlights some important concepts about building strength as a brass player.