Essentials of Brass Playing

Essentials of Brass Playing.

Next in my list of edifying brass texts is Essentials of Brass Playing by Fred Fox. I like this book. Fox’s method might be summed up in his teaching slogan, “Eternal Vigilance.” He stresses that attention to details is what makes for excellent performance on a brass instrument, and likens mastery of these details to knowing a correct safe combination. Fox explains that the right way is the easiest way and eliminates the need for brute force (like blowing up the safe).

While there are few picture-illustrations in Essentials of Brass Playing, Fox uses his strong grasp of simile and metaphor to get his ideas across, and he uses his own descriptive names like “Accordion Effect,” “Hydraulic Effect,” or “Fourth Gear” to illustrate many of his concepts. When it comes to the production of brass sounds, these comparisons encourage the reader to think about cause and effect. Here, for example, is part of Fox’s discussion of the air column from early in the book:

Brass players usually believe, quite mistakenly, that they must literally blow the sounds out of the instrument. This is natural and very common misconception.

The purpose of the air is to pass between the tensed lips and make them vibrate. It is similar to a bow that passes across the string of a violin to make the string vibrate. True, more air is used to get a larger lip vibration, and thus play louder. In the same manner, more bow pressure is used on a string to produce a louder sound. But it should be observed that even when the violin sounds louder there is no rush of air past the strings. Similarly, with any other non-wind instrument, such as piano, tympani, or even loud speaker (which can reproduce recorded brass sounds), the rush of air is no factor in the volume of the speaker sounds.

Interestingly, Fox defines “diaphragm” in his own way:

For our purposes I consider the upper abdominal area the upper diaphragm and the lower abdominal area the lower diaphragm.

For firm, full-bodied notes, whether played loud or soft, the upper diaphragm must remain under tension as long as a note or phrase is played …

While Fox isn’t incredibly explicit about forming an embouchure, these main points come through strongly throughout the text:

  1. The buzz of the embouchure should be possible without using the mouthpiece as a crutch.
  2. The embouchure corners should be firm, more-or-less pinned in the same position throughout the range of the instrument.
  3. Most, if not all, of the embouchure tension changes should occur within the mouthpiece.

Essentials of Brass Playing covers every technical aspect of brass performance and a few non-technical aspects as well; it’s highly recommended.

Carmine Caruso’s Musical Calisthenics for Brass

Carmine Caruso - Musical Calisthenics for Brass [Paperback]

Because it’s mostly true, it has often been said that when it comes to playing a brass instrument, there’s no substitute for a good one-on-one teacher. But it’s also true that people have been playing brass instruments for hundreds of years, and that, consequently, some great teachers have been able to collect their best insights and teaching methods into books. In a series of posts, I’m going to write about some books on brass playing I think are well worth your while. Is all the information you’ll find in these books perfectly consistent? Can you guess what the answer to that question is? I can say you’ll find common threads of wisdom throughout these books. First up, it’s Carmine Caruso’s Musical Calisthenics for Brass..

When I was in high school, I studied with a teacher who was studying with Carmine Caruso at the time [Warning: clicking on the previous link will cause you to return to the golden glory days of the World Wide Web, back when it was full of stars]. In turn, my teacher taught me many of Caruso’s brass calisthenics. To over-simplify somewhat, Caruso’s teaching and exercises revolve around three things:

  1. The exposure of embouchure muscles to the actions they need to perform in order to play a brass instrument.
  2. The consistency of airflow, or “blow.”
  3. The timing of 1 and 2 (accomplished by tapping the foot during exercises).

In the book, Carmine says this about timing:

It takes over 200 muscles to play a note. It’s important to remember that before you play music you must train your muscles to work together. The key factor is timing: it will determine when the muscles start and stop a certain movement. The type of time is established by tapping the foot to a regular, recurring beat.

You expose the muscles to a physical activity by repetition and timing until the muscles synchronize into a conditioned reflex response …

Caruso’s method also specifies a single setting of the embouchure on the mouthpiece for the duration of each exercise. During rests, the player breathes through the nose in order not to disturb the embouchure setting. The aim is to minimize the unnecessary movement of the muscles so that they can learn what to do. Caruso stresses that these are, after all, calisthenics, and not musical exercises.

What Carmine doesn’t discuss is how to create a embouchure specifically. Here, an embouchure that works — at least to a degree — is a given. This does not preclude the idea that, for a given brass player, a certain embouchure formation may be most efficient and simply “work better.” In my own experience, once I identified embouchure formation that worked well for me, Caruso’s exercises became that much more valuable.

How do you form an embouchure for playing a brass instrument? We’ll undoubtedly come across ideas about that as we proceed through the books I’ll be discussing in the next installment.

Jazz Insights Redux

Jack Teagarden

UPDATE: 1/24/16: The podcast I mention below is no longer hosted by AM 1690, but you’ll find Mr. Vernick’s Jazz Insights at iTunes U.

A while back, I had a little write-up about Gordon Vernick and his Jazz Insights radio show that’s also a podcast. Jazz and trombone aficionados should know that in August, Vernick authored episodes featuring five jazz trombone players of the 20s, including Kid Ory, Miff Mole, Jimmy Harrison, Charlie Green and Jack Teagarden. Another good reason to check the show out.

It’s October, and presumably time to start raking leaves. Despite the date on the calendar, though, it’s still getting up to 80º degrees up here in Minnesota! Whoo-hoo!

Dan Wynn: Art of the Cover

Last time, I wrote about the varying quality of digital transfers at the iTunes music store, specifically on some Kai Winding and J.J. Johnson recordings. The odd situation I mentioned was that newer cover art sometimes accompanies some digital transfers of the albums — even from a scratchy LP as the source ― while the original cover art sometimes accompanies separate digital transfers, which — possibly ― come from the original master tapes.

But wait — there are more geeky details: below is the original LP cover art for J Is For Jazz. Look familiar? The striking photo sets J.J. against a black background, head-on down the length of his trombone slide, just like the art for Kai Winding’s The Trombone Sound (See the last post, which appeared far too long ago).

J is For Jazz cover Art

What you can’t see on the iTunes cover art is the photo credit that exits on the LP versions. Not surprisingly, both of these album cover photos are by the same photographer, Dan Wynn, who died in 1995. Although he had training in art, Wynn began developing technical skills in photography while serving in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II. Out of the Army in 1947, he began focussing his photographic eye on fashion while working for Seventeen Magazine. In his subsequent career, he ended up photographing nearly everything — cars and scooters, food, models, movie stars, and, of course, musicians.

Exercises and Etudes for the Jazz Instrumentalist

Exercises and Etudes for the Jazz Instrumentalist

J.J. Johnson’s Exercises and Etudes for the Jazz Instrumentalist is probably not as celebrated an etude book as it should be. On the cover, the publisher Hal Leonard promotes it as “Easy to advanced,” and “Great for sight reading.” Certainly true, but J.J., after dedicating the book to Fred Beckett inside, makes this better explanation:

This method book is based primarily on my own personal experiences and career as a jazz trombonist, and therefore has very little to do with dogma or tenets…In my opinion, if jazz improvisation is the heart and soul of jazz music, then a clear and basic understanding of jazz syntax (or the language of jazz) is the necessary heart and soul of jazz improvisation. With this book I am committed to helping you get a basic and clear understanding of jazz syntax.

Naturally, it won’t be a surprise to see Johnson drawing on the blues as a musical form. He also sometimes uses the be-bopper’s idea of “contrafact,” or writing a new melody over an existing chord progression. You’ll have to guess — or hear — which tunes are used as underpinning, though. No chord progressions are given.

J.J. sneaks in good advice, too. Over one etude, a reminder:

“How do you feel? Don’t overdue it. When your body is trying to tell you something, LISTEN !!! AND OBEY !!!

To sum up quickly, this is a fun, worthwhile, and thoroughly modern take on the traditional etude book. It’s available for all instruments, and is highly recommended.