Imagine that you are manually searching with a dial for a radio station. You know you are in the general vicinity of the station because you can hear some scraps of music, so you slowly move the dial forward and backward. Suddenly, boom! You have full sound and a clear station. What you are actually doing is dialing into the carrier frequency of that station. Once you have tuned in to that frequency you have volume and clear sound.
You love the song that is playing and you turn up the volume to its maximum. The sound crackles a bit so you quickly back off the sound because you do not want your speaker to blow. The receiver in your speaker can handle a certain level of amplitude, and if you pass that you can blow the speaker. A blown speaker will result in a muffled, distorted sound.
As brass players, when we want to turn up the volume it is all about projection. The conductor or composer says “Give me a fff” and we say “Challenge accepted.” If babies are not crying in the back row, we have failed at our job. In order to project effectively, much like the above scenario, you must dial in to the center pitch of your tone and then slowly increase the amplitude, or air in this case. However, you must be aware of how much air you can handle with your mouthpiece, lest you overblow which will result in sound and pitch distortion.
Many brass players assume loud is the natural volume of their instrument, so they pay special attention to only their soft dynamics. While our instruments perhaps are louder in comparison to others, playing truly loud requires more air, and as a result a unique way in which our muscles and embouchure will respond. A brass player must practice some fff playing in each practice session in order to learn how to build the muscles your embouchure needs to support and harness the extra energy from the air.
As you incorporate fff into your daily practice, approach it as you would this opening scenario. Begin with dialing into the correct station. Is your tone focused? How is your pitch? When you are dialed into the right station, start turning up the amplitude. Be sensitive to the focus and clarity of your sound, and your pitch as you increase air. You will begin to notice that when you depend on a focused sound and honest pitch to drive your volume, you will feel more relaxed than when you just blow more air. You will also increase your endurance because your embouchure is not wasting energy on an excess of moving air. The more you learn to harness the airflow, the louder, more projecting sound you will master.
The easiest way I have found to focus my sound with the correct amount of air is with the use of my Denis Wick practice mute and this exercise.
Find a short passage (4-8 measures) of music that spans a comfortable octave
Play this passage at a comfortable forte
Stick the Denis Wick Practice Mute in the bell, and play the same passage of music. Do this a second time, but blow so much air that the tone starts to wobble
Pull the mute out, and play the passage of music again, and you will have an amazingly bigger and more open sound with half the effort.
In this exercise, the mute will not allow you to overblow, and makes the maximum amplitude painfully obvious to your air, your ears, and your embouchure. The ease in volume, and relaxation in your body that you feel at the end of the exercise is what you need to apply to every time you play loud. As you practice your fff this summer, remember that the big projecting sound you want is fed by air, but does not exist unless you are able to harness it with attention to tuning and a focused sound.