Favorite blog posts, April 2016

Achieving an ideal tone

A lot of the questions people have about woodwind playing center on tone: how can I get a better tone? a darker tone? a tone like _____’s? There’s not a lot of clarity on this, for a few reasons:

  • Firstly, of course, “good” tone is subjective, and trying to communicate clearly about tone in more dispassionate terms is problematic due to inconsistent vocabulary.
  • Tone is made from a recipe of factors, so it’s hard to isolate individual ones. Will adding another egg improve your cake? Depends on what else is in it. Will a certain warm-up exercise or piece of equipment have a specific effect on your tone? Depends on what other equipment and playing techniques you are using.
  • Much of what affects tone is difficult or impossible to observe and measure.

Let’s look at the physical factors that influence tone:

  • Yes, of course, equipment. It’s axiomatic in woodwind playing that your equipment does affect your tone, but not as much as you affect your tone. Still, your particular combination of headjoint, reed, mouthpiece, ligature, barrel, bocal, instrument, and various other parts and accessories does influence in some way the sound that you make. Equipment of good design and construction, and within typical parameters, will contribute to an essentially characteristic tone quality. (By characteristic I mean easily identifiable as a specific instrument by someone with a musically-educated ear.)
  • Basic woodwind-playing techniques, including most notably breath support, voicing, and embouchure. Assuming these are well-trained, they also contribute to a characteristic tone quality.
  • Some subtle aspects of those woodwind-playing techniques that are hard to pin down. These small things determine how the tone fits into the larger world of characteristic tone qualities, usually described poorly in vague terms like “good” or “pure” or “rich” or “buttery” or “vocal.” For example, an oboist’s embouchure puts different pressures on different parts of the reed. Those pressures can be adjusted very subtly using the small and flexible muscles of the embouchure, but most oboists probably aren’t very aware of exactly what adjustments they are making (though they may know what it feels like). Most are also not very capable of passing that wisdom (i.e. a feeling) along to a student or colleague. Some of them can be described in too-general terms (“bring the corners of your mouth in more”), or can be evoked with spotty accuracy through metaphor or through tone exercises.
photo, Tom Page
photo, Tom Page

So, how do you ever develop a tone that is characteristic, personal, and beautiful?

  • Use appropriate equipment.
  • Employ solid fundamental woodwind-playing techniques.
  • Listen frequently, widely, and at length to good music, particularly on your instrument, to develop a tone concept—an aural impression of your ideal tone. In early stages, that might be based on how deeply you have absorbed the sound of a favorite musician, perhaps your teacher. In later stages, it might be a sort of composite of your favorite aspects of many tones that you have internalized, perhaps even things that inspired you about a performance on an instrument other than your own (or a voice). Ultimately, it might be a tone that you have never heard before, but which you can imagine.

Here’s why tone concept is so crucial:

All those subtleties of woodwind technique that affect tone, the ones that are so hard to understand and communicate? You can find them with patient and dedicated practice, if you know what you are listening for. As you have already discovered, your tone tends to change from day to day. This inconsistency can be a problem, but can also be a way of stumbling, even subconsciously, onto something positive. (When it’s a conscious process, your thought might be, “when I hold my embouchure this way, I get a sound that is more _____.”) Additionally, a clear tone concept may aid you in intuitively pursuing it; you already use the muscles of breathing, voicing, and embouchure to intuitively produce a huge and subtly-differentiated set of speech sounds, and for most of those you would be hard-pressed to explain how you make them. If you get comfortable and familiar enough with your instrument through years of practice, you can begin to tap into that intuitive control, but again: only if you know what sound you want to make.

An ideal tone is a lifelong pursuit—invest in yours by listening and practicing daily.

Practicing and breathing

When I play woodwind instruments in a stress situation, such as a performance (or, back in my student days, a lesson), one of the first things affected is my breathing.

Maybe you have had this experience. The performance begins, and the breathing seems somehow off. You find yourself breathing in awkward or unaccustomed places, ending up either short of breath or too full of stale air. You end up skipping notes or whole measures of music to reset your breathing and get back on track, but panic has already set in and things spiral.

Most of our favorite practice tips and tricks are about finger technique or articulation or tone, and are meant to help ensure solid performance even when the stress kicks in. But sometimes we forget to practice breathing. Don’t let your performances be derailed by panicky breathing—practice the breaths just like you practice the notes.

photo, jean-daniel pauget
photo, jean-daniel pauget

Make breaths part of the process from day one. Don’t assume they will fall into place once you have learned the notes—by the time that is done, you may have unwittingly “practiced” breaths in less-than-ideal spots. Make thoughtful breathing decisions the first time you practice a new étude or repertoire piece, and mark them in. Create a habit of breathing only at the places you have marked.

You are hopefully starting your practice of the piece below tempo, so your breathing needs may change as you approach performance tempo. That’s okay—you can always change the markings as your tempo and interpretation progress. Be flexible about moving breath marks around, but disciplined about observing them.

This approach makes your chosen breaths habitual, so hopefully they are less likely to change when you are nervous or distracted. It also creates a mindset of breathing purposefully, rather than winging it.

It’s worth pointing out, too, that controlled breathing can actually reduce your body’s stress response, so practicing deliberate, relaxed breathing can help prevent the panic-breathing spiral.

Breathe easy!

Follow @woodwindtips on Twitter

If you follow me on Twitter (@woodwindninja) you know I have not been a terribly active tweeter, mostly just auto-tweets of my newest blog posts. But I have started up an additional account, @woodwindtips, which I encourage you to check out for several-times-per-day tips on woodwind playing. Enjoy!