Developing Tone

Monday February 22, 2016

Recently, I gave a masterclass to some young players. When I asked them who they listen to, I received mostly blank stares.

As I live infinitely in my head, it got me to thinking about the things I did at their age, and much later on, to develop my sound.

Some may argue that physiology is the reason some people sound they way they do. While I am certain this has some role in it, the other much larger portion has to do with practice. A good tone can be, and must be, practiced.

“Well, if a good professional sound can be practiced why don’t we all just sound like Phil Smith? I practice all the time, and don’t sound like that.”

Tone starts with aural impression.

Starting out on trumpet can be tough. Many of us sounded like a hoover vacuum cleaner with gravel in it! (I know I sure did.) Our instrument is not one where you strike a key or pluck a string and the tone is the one your instrument will produce.

I knew my first sounds were not the way it was supposed to sound, because I had a strong aural impression from an early age. Exposure to excellent trumpet playing, excellent trumpet sounds, and excellent musicians of all varieties is so important. Listening and remembering things that excite you musically is one of the absolute fundamental things we must do as musicians.

Like a sponge, our memory absorbs the sounds we here, and like learning to talk we slowly imitate our memories. Things will click in your head, do you have a memory from childhood and ever think “Holy cow, how can I even remember something 15-20 years later so clearly?” Well, it is because it left an impression in your memory. The same is true musically.

Think about the first guy or gal you heard that really wowed your ears off with their sound. I bet you can remember it! Arnold Jacobs said (I’m paraphrasing this) “It is one thing to listen to music and another thing to create it.” Listening with intent, listening to details. What is it about the quality of the sound, or phrasing, or even the start of a note that makes the sound so excellent? Those are the things that we as brass players must start with, our ears will guide us.

Go listen to live music!

I’ll throw another Jacobs quote at you, “Don’t learn to play right, learn to sound good.” There is a lot of depth in that last quote, and it means a lot to me as a player. We can think so much about how we “Should” be executing a maneuver, or we can think about the end goal.

Having a great sound, and playing in tune, are two things that go hand in hand.

I have decided to do away with thinking of it as playing in tune, rather I consider myself to be playing in TONE. As we experiment with our playing, you will generally find that the most vibrant and pleasing sounds will be those that are right down the center of the horn— as a result they are in tune.

We are often prescribed long tones, everyone says “Long tones, long tones, long tones!” Have you ever really wondered why that is? It isn’t because holding a note for an infinitely long time will make us better trumpet players. The exercise allows us to put things under a microscope.

If you are looking to change, or improve, your sound long tones can be a great method for this. By removing the complications of the music you can focus on one thing, your sound. Start with a G, is your sound full? Is it beautiful? The longer you play, your ears will help you make the adjustments that are necessary, and you have removed yourself from the burden of physical analysis. Let your ears do the work, and your body will follow.

Strong fundamentals coupled with a strong aural concept are the pathway to developing a good sound. Allow your wind, your ears, and your musical integrity to guide you and your tone will improve. You only have to commit to it, hear it, and start to imitate it. Doing these things will help your body figure itself out.

Any great pedagogue will constantly be encouraging their students to go see live music. It is absolutely imperative to developing a good sound. Do not limit yourself to just trumpet players! One of the best trumpet lessons I ever had in my life was from a vocalist. I sat at the piano with her and played a passage of music. She laughed, put lyrics to it and sang exactly as I played. It sounded so ludicrous, then she modeled it for me. At that point I finally had the connection of “singing” the music through my horn.