Fundamentals for a Great Sounding Band
I’ve always liked what I once saw in a Bruce Pearson (Standard of Excellence series) article: A + E = T, which means, Air + Embouchure = Tone. It’s a very simple concept but will make all the difference. If a student has a good airstream alongside a proper embouchure, a good sound will be produced. Now for the specifics:
There’s a wealth of materials focusing on breathing and the airstream. Search out resources for methods and exercises, try them out, and use what works for you and your group. Here’s what helped my band to sound great:
1) Posture — I always obsess about posture. I even do the “rest, ready, and play” with younger groups. It’s a visual cue that holds students accountable and as the teacher, you can constantly remind students of posture to keep them focused in rehearsal. I teach students that your lungs can work correctly if your lungs are collapsed down on themselves.
2) Steady Air — When I first started teaching, I used to talk a lot about MORE air. I later amended this to STEADY air because students tend to create a more consistent sound with steady air. A great exercise is to hold the hand in front of your face and blow a consistent airstream. I also talk a lot about keeping the stomach (core) muscles firm as to keep the airstream supported. The words “steady air” made a great leap in the sound of my early bands.
Remington Long Tones (or something comparable) and steady air — every day.
Here’s where it can get really fuzzy as many people have varying views on embouchure.. I’m briefly going to give a few basics that have worked for me. Please know that I don’t see any of this as Gospel!
1) Flute — Work on the head joint a lot getting out the various partials by redirecting the air, make sure to have a tall syllable in the mouth and that aperture is focused (not too thin and not too spread)
2) Single Reeds — Get the teeth in the center of the bottom lip (I tell students they would “bite” though the middle of their bottom lip), keep the lip stretched out and the corners firm. Students tend to change their embouchure when they place the reed in their mouth, so you have to watch this as they bring the top teeth down (obviously make sure the teeth are on the top of the mouthpiece) … when articulating make sure that the embouchure isn’t affected. Using the mouthpiece only is a great habit to get into.. check the pitch. If they’re flat on the mouthpiece only, your intonation is doomed (as you can fix sharp by pulling out)
3) Brass — Make sure placement of the mouthpiece is good (look up some specific resources about each instrument’s placement, as opinions can vary greatly). I am a believer in a RELAXED brass embouchure. Corners should be tight, but the middle should not. The air should produce the note. I say this a lot: “The AIR should produce the tone.” Meaning there is a steady and consistent airflow to create that starts and sustains the sound. Buzz on the mouthpiece a lot and learn what a good buzz sounds like. Do sirens, scales, etc. Have the woodwinds play lines out of the book while the brass buzz them.
For high notes, focus on the direction of the airstream and the speed of the air. Squeezing lips will produce a higher tone, but if they get in this habit of squeezing, they’ll have a very difficult time fixing it in later years.
Here’s the takeaway. Students must have a characteristic tone. If every student plays with a characteristic tone (emphasis on young bands at the moment), then you’ll have a good band. Instrumentation matters, balance, blend, all that stuff matter… but if the kids don’t sound good individually, your band won’t sound good. There are ways to hide in numbers and such… don’t do that, just make the individuals sound good and you’re set.
**Note: the above opinions have worked for me. I’ve done most of my teaching in places that there are some students who take lessons, most do not. I always had mixed classes of instruments, so these are what I used to find success.**
The musings of a composer that also band directs!! ... or maybe it's the other way around..