Vibration, Tension, and the Fundamentals
Welcome to the Ensemble Sound Blog Series. The blog posts in this series are meant to help improve your ensemble sound!
Sound is Vibration
Sound is vibration and in order to create the purest vibration possible, there are fundamental concepts that need to be achieved. I call these basic fundamentals the “Power Five," which includes posture, breathing, embouchure, tonguing, and releases. Early in my career, I was teaching these concepts to my students, however I was not getting the results I wanted. I discovered it was not "what" I was teaching my students, it was "how" I was teaching these concepts. Mr. Eddie Green helped me to realize the number one enemy of vibration (sound) is tension and tension can show up anywhere within the "Power Five" fundamentals (Cavitt, 2012). I began to realize I was inadvertently teaching my students to play with tension from their first day of band.
“A hammer can be used to build a house or break a window. It’s a tool and the results are based on how it’s being used. ”
- Mike Pote, Director of Bands at Carmel High School
The number one enemy of sound is tension, which can occur in all of the fundamental basics of playing an instrument. Removing tension from these fundamental basics needs to start from the first day a student starts instruction and needs to be reinforced daily all the way through high school. Here are some basic ways to improve the “Power Five” fundamentals in your ensembles.
The Power Five
A student’s posture must be balanced. Students should be able to easily stand up when they are sitting in their proper posture. Their feet should be flat on the floor with their knees over their ankles. Their backs should be straight and their shoulders should be down and relaxed. Their chins should be in a neutral position and their faces should be natural as there should be no unnatural creases. Unnatural creases mean the students are straining, which signals tension. No part of their body should touch any other part of their body. Look for tension in their eyes and their hands. Most importantly, students must strive to remain still when both resting and playing. Students love to fidget! Constant attention needs to be given to help remind the students to be as still as possible at all times. Make sure students set their posture first before setting the height of their music stands.
TIP: While teaching posture to beginners, have students sit still in their posture (with or without the instrument) while listening to music (I use upbeat electronic music and the students love it). Have the students focus on their breathing and staying relaxed while slowly increasing the amount of time they sit still. The skill of remaining still is important and must be worked on!
Breathing in our daily lives and breathing to play an instrument are very different. Where a student may just be learning how to play their instrument, students have been breathing all of their lives! Focusing on relaxed but full breathing from the beginning will eliminate 90% of all tension created issues. Students need to concentrate on letting their stomachs expand as they breathe down and through their chair instead of trying force their stomachs to expand. Everything should feel natural. As a student exhales, the air must be directional, focused, and consistent. When I start teaching breathing concepts to my students, I begin by teaching them to take a four-count breath. I used to exclusively teach a one-count breath to help with timing of the breath and articulation. I now understand that this is how a majority of the tension issues my students were exhibiting were created. Students, especially beginners did't understand how to breath in one-count without creating tension. By teaching a four-count breath from the beginning, my students never learn to associate breathing with tension. When students encounter spots where they have to take a smaller than a four count breath, the students can now do so in a relaxed manner (we do eventually move to a two-count breath later in the year).
Constant care and attention need to be given to the development and maintenance of the embouchure. Without constant attention, the embouchure can go through many unwanted adjustments that will make their continued musical learning more challenging (Cavitt, 2012). Every instrument utilizes a different embouchure setup and this is one area a director needs to spend time understanding. Each student in your ensemble needs to know how to describe their proper embouchure set up, what vibrates on their instrument to create sound, and the specific vowel sound/shape they need to produce. Using the proper airstream and correct embouchure will produce a better vibration that will result in a better tone quality. Look for unwanted creases around the mouth being formed by too much tension in the embouchure.
Tonguing is a challenging area to address when eliminating unwanted sounds. Students need to first know what their exact tonguing technique is and the correct tonguing syllable to use. For example, they could use either “tOO” or “dOO”. These syllables will be different depending on the instrument but having your students know which to use will help get their tongue in the correct place. For every instrument, the tongue needs to use a quick motion as well as strike the “same spot with the same strength every time” (Green, Benzer, & Bertman, 2004). The tongue also needs to be in the down position 98% of the time as to not get in the way of the air. One of the most challenging concepts for students to understand is that the tongue always starts the note the same way no matter the note length. Much like the embouchure, a students' tonguing habits can go through unwanted adjustments. I recommend to start each year with a quick tonguing check to make sure your students are still tonguing correctly!
This is an often-overlooked area in the fundamentals of sound but can provide great results with proper attention. There are a couple of ways that a note can be released, either with a breath or just stopping their air. Either way, every student must do it the same way, at the same time, and most importantly their embouchure and tongue must stay still as to not create any unwanted changes to the sound. With my middle school group, I prefer the students take a small sip of air on the release as to give the students a physical activity they can place on the release count to help ensure proper timing within the ensemble. We also talk about how to define the beginning of the silence (a rest) as clearly as the beginning of a note.
Another reason I like the Essential Musicianship: Ensemble Concepts series (Green, Benzer, & Bertman, 2004), which has a beginning book (beginning band level), an intermediate book (middle school level) and an advanced book (advanced middle school and high school level) is each exercise includes goals for all of the instruments constantly reminding the students about the Power 5. Also, with Eddie Green being one of the writers of the series, the goals correspond to the language that was used in "On Teaching Band" (Cavitt, 2012).
Consistently working on removing the tension in the power 5 fundamentals daily with my groups, I have found my students have learned how to “approach” their instruments rather than just “playing” their instruments. For example, I feel my students think more about “what” and “how” they are about to play when they put their instrument into playing position instead of just putting their instrument up hoping for the best! I feel more confident my students are also creating better sounds at home when they are practicing due to hearing the same fundamental information every day.
Reinforce, Reinforce, Reinforce
Constant attention to the Power Five are essential to the development of a great ensemble sound. To fully incorporate these fundamentals they must be worked on daily with all groups, from beginners to your more advanced groups, even if it is just for five minutes! Think about the following questions: 1) Do you have a particular sound in mind? 2) Are you comfortable in your knowledge of tone production on all instruments you teach? 3) What do you do during your warm-up time to reinforce these fundamentals? 4) What is it you are trying to accomplish doing those exercises? 5) What are your sound goals?
During my career I have been lucky enough to work with some amazing educators, including Mr. Richard Saucedo. He said something that was very simple but powerful that struck me while working with our advance group. He told the students “you have to first make your instrument sound like your instrument.” We all want our groups to sound amazing, play in tune, in balance, and with clarity. To accomplish this, your students have to first play with a proper tone as individuals. Once this is achieved, we can unlock the door to more advanced ensemble concepts. All of these fundamentals can be introduced within the first few weeks of the students’ beginning year with some being introduced on day one! The key is to reinforce the Power 5 daily!
Cavitt, M. E. (2012). On teaching band: Notes from Eddie Green. Milwaukee, WI: Hal Leonard Corporation.
Green, E., Benzer, J., & Bertman, D. (2004). Essential musicianship for band: Ensemble concepts. Milwaukee, WI: Hal Leonard Corporation.