Achieving an ideal tone

April 21, 2016

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.


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