This article introduces the concept of "weight lifting for your face" to develop muscle control quickly. In other words, strength conditioning for brass players.
Brass instruments are different than woodwinds. All wind instruments make sound as the player blows air through the instrument, but the action that initiates the sound is different for brass and woodwinds. Woodwind players, except for the flute, generate sound by using their air to vibrate a reed. All wind players will develop specific facial muscles which form their ‘embouchure’ as they learn to play their instruments.
Brass players generate sound by using their airstream to vibrate their lips. While this is natural to most babies, big kids and adults generally do not develop the action into a skill. Think of the word “poo”. Now think of blowing air through a straw. That is pretty simple to do. Now combine the two. Brass players blow a focused airstream through the instrument mouthpiece to create sound.
A great way to gain muscle control is to simply play long tones. This is a great way to warm up similar to stretching before athletics. Set a metronome to 60 (1 beat per second), take a good breath and play a single note as long as you can while counting the beats. Try to extend the number of beats you can play in one breath. Repeat this exercise on another note, and another to develop a smooth, strong air stream which improves your sound.
Like all muscle development, the trick of course is regular exercise. When it comes to developing skill as a brass player, stick to the three “S’s” – Slurs, Scales, and Sight reading. There are many excellent method books which provide excellent practice routines. Scales and sight reading are helpful to the development of all musicians, and should be a big part of every practice routine.
Slurs are especially helpful to brass players as they learn to change notes without moving their fingers. To change the pitch, the brass player needs to learn to control their airspeed.
If you think of running water through a garden hose, you can either turn the faucet to push more water through the hose, or you can use a nozzle (or your thumb) over the open end of the hose to direct the water through a smaller hole. The speed of the water is increased by either pushing more water through the hose, or controlling the exit hole on the open end of the hose. The same principle applies to controlling the brass player's airstream. Brass players practice slurs to learn to control both their 'air pump' and their embouchure.
Here are two specific tools designed specifically to help brass players develop their embouchure.
What is a BERP?
The BERP is a nifty teaching tool developed by Mario Guarneri. He had a teacher who emphasized buzzing on the mouthpiece as a way to improve. The student would buzz (play) a passage on just the mouthpiece before playing it on the instrument. The idea is to train the player to better control their sound. Mr. Guarneri created a device, the BERP, which clamps on the instrument next to the mouthpiece. The player inserts their mouthpiece into the BERP and plays the mouthpiece while holding their instrument and using correct finger positions for the notes.
In the school band setting, the BERP allows students to practice while reducing the overall sound in the band hall. This device has been so successful in helping beginners and experienced players, it is required by many school band directors. The BERP is made in several sizes to accommodate the large and small instruments of the brass family.
What is a P.E.T.E.?
P.E.T.E stands for Personal Embouchure Training Exerciser. This simple device marketed by Warburton is a unique tool used to perform isometric exercises to strengthen and develop the embouchure. It is designed to exercise the exact musculature involved in playing wind instruments. The P.E.T.E. is highly endorsed by professional musicians as a very effective way to develop strength without actually playing the instrument.
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