Use of air: Quality not quantity

Use of air: Quality not quantity

A discussion by Richard Colquhoun about correct breathing technique for brass players

There are a number of blog articles that I have tried to write a few times and failed to find the right approach to the topic. There are some points of view I have about trumpet playing that are not conventional and so when writing about these topics I often have to start a number of times until I feel I’ve found the right angle or voice. This is one such topic. My drafts folder has a good few attempts at this subject and this could well end up being another of those attempts. If you’re reading this then I have had some degree of success.

I usually start this topic with a story about how I started out playing the cornet in a certain way and how a journey brought me back to where I started but I’ve found that not to be helpful. Instead I’m going to make a statement and then back up that statement with the research of a respected scientist, some instrument designers and teachers. I will then throw in a simple experiment you can do that proves my point. Resistance to change is something that occurs in many disciplines and I don’t expect people’s beliefs to change overnight, but the understanding of the mechanics of brass playing has changed significantly for those who care to do the research and I hope to share that with anyone willing to listen.

“Fill the instrument” or “Use more air” are examples of the kind of uninformed phrases that one hears pouring out of the mouths of brass teachers the world over. Many of these people are suffering from an “it never did me any harm” attitude or are simply describing what they think they do rather than knowing what they actually do. Unfortunately there are also a fair number of brass method books available that describe technique based upon what people feel rather than what people do.

Here’s my statement: Contrary to popular belief, traditional teaching, and many books on the subject of brass technique the idea of using more air and developing the ability to use more air when playing a brass instrument is always wrong.

This statement is one that I first came across when I began learning about the work of Jerome Callet. On page 8 of his book Superchops (published 1987) he states:

There is a large movement to increase lung capacity and measure each player. This concept, I feel, is completely wrong. […] It is how you use your wind power, not how much air capacity you have.

But it doesn’t stop there. Knowing that there is plenty of criticism of Superchops by people who find these ideas to be too extreme to digest I decided to research further. I found out fairly quickly that Jerome was not the first or only person to be saying this. On an undated paper distributed at clinics by the Schilke Company, Renold Schilke describes an experiment whereby he demonstrates to an audience of brass instructors that it is not in fact air moving through an instrument that makes sound, but instead it is the air that is already inside the instrument that carries the sound.

If, after our lips were vibrated, the air could be disposed of in another way other than going through the instrument, the tone would be at its best. People who have used and understand physics know that this is true. However, there are people who do not understand this point. I put this as a question one time when I was giving a clinic to some bandmasters after listening to various remarks made by them about air having to go through the horn. I asked, “Is it necessary in the production of sound for the air to carry the sound through the horn?” I had hands by people in the affirmative that it was. To prove my point, I had a tuba player come up on the stage and had him blow some smoke into his tuba and begin to play. He played over a minute before some smoke finally began to tickle out the bell of the instrument. So, it is necessary to have air in the instrument so the player can establish the nodal pattern. It is not necessary for that air to move through the instrument any more than an energy impulse created by dropping a stone in water causes the water to actually move.

The paper can be found in its entirety by following this link. Here is a link to a YouTube video in which Roger Ingram, one of the worlds most accomplished lead trumpet players, describes the same idea. In his video titled Got High Notes? Lynn Nicholson also talks about how little air is needed to play, but that is a subscribe-to-view lesson so I cannot post it here.

To further illustrate this point Dr Richard Smith (12 years as chief designer for Boosey and Hawkes, and Smith Watkins Instruments for 30 years since) had an article published in the International Trumpet Guild Journal in May 1999 titled Exciting Your Instrument (available here). In that article he shows, by sealing off a mouthpiece and drilling a hole in the side for the air to escape, that the instrument works perfectly well with no air going into it at all. The article is well worth reading to open your mind to this idea.

Update: Dr Richard Smith has a video on YouTube in which he demonstrates this idea. Click here to view.

So how can we use this information to better understand brass playing and become better brass players? When asking why people believe that deeper breathing and more air is the solution we quickly find that there are a number of technical issues that are trying to be solved:

Playing a long phrase in one breath: I see this as being a matter of efficiency. You are using too much air to produce the sound and so you solve it by using more air…? By learning to play more efficiently (i.e. putting less in and getting more out) you can make your air last much longer. One way this can be done is by prioritising articulation, but that’s the subject of another blog post.

Getting out of breath whilst playing for a long time: I frequently have to remind my pupils that after playing a few long phrases the reason they feel out of breath is not because they should have breathed deeper or sooner but because they are biological creatures that need oxygen-rich air to survive. If you hold your breath for 30 seconds then this upsets your natural rhythm and you feel the need to take a few breaths to re-oxygenate your blood. I tell my pupils to breathe so that they stay alive, not because they’re playing an instrument. This idea alone can sometimes instantly solve the problem.

Misunderstanding compression: Compression of air is where all the power comes from in brass playing. To some people the only way you can get more compression is by squeezing more air into the limited confines of your body. This is the sort of approach heralded by people like Claude Gordon, Kristian Steenstrup or the guys behind Breathing Gym (a quick YouTube search will show you what you need to know about that). In learning to play with the Tongue Controlled Embouchure I have learnt that compression is created by resisting the flow of air with the tongue. The reason that it is important for it to be the tongue and not the lips is that the tongue is much stronger. It doesn’t matter how much your try to strengthen your face, your tongue will always be stronger.

Fundamentally the problem I have with a “more air” approach is that it results in a loud, spread and dull sound. Playing efficiently results in a focused, powerful and exciting tone. Loud is not the same as powerful and nor is it exciting to listen to. In the interest of keeping this post relatively concise I will recommend that you read my post titled An analysis of tone (click here).

Here’s the experiment I would like you to try: I am doing this with a normal B-flat trumpet, but any brass instrument will be fine as they all work in the same way (pitches of the notes differ). There is no preference for mouthpiece either.

  1. Remove the tuning slide and play a note on only the leadpipe. (On this length of tube you should be able to produce a pitch approximately concert E-flat above middle C)
  2. Put your hand about 1cm from the end of the pipe and feel the air moving whilst you play.
  3. The next available note in the harmonic series is approximately a major 9th higher. Play this note and observe that at the same dynamic much less air is moving through the tube.
  4. If you can produce the next harmonic (approximately a perfect fifth higher again) then you’ll notice that now there is further reduction in the air flow. You can almost block the end of the tube with your finger and still produce this note.
  5. Think about what this means.

For some people this is a good trick to learn the sensation of playing notes above the stave and to prove how easy it actually is.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. As always please feel free to comment below. Share this article on social media – there are buttons below for that too.

~iii<0

What is a Spanish Corneta?

Introduction

I’m always on the lookout for weird and wonderful brass instruments. Because of the way that a brass instrument works there are a huge number of ways they could be re-designed. Some ideas that have been tried include:

  • Compensating valve systems (used on French Horns, Euphoniums and Tubas – extra pieces of tubing are added to correct intonation when the fourth valve is pressed)
  • Tuning holes (as added to rotary valve trumpets)
  • Triggers on tuning slides (recent Besson cornets and Euphoniums, and some Kanstul marching trumpets)

There have been other ideas that have been less popular such as:

  • Valves that shorten the instrument (for example moving a C trumpet into D)
  • Transposing keys (offering a trumpet that works in both B-flat and A)
  • Instruments that feature both a moveable slide and valves (Maynard Ferguson’s Firebird trumpet, or the comically named Superbone).

There has been a trumpet developed recently with five valves, offering an array of different fingering/tuning options. It is currently being promoted by trumpeter David Hickman (click this link for more information).

These, however, are not the things that interest me quite so much as the instruments that have been purpose-built for a specific task. By this I mean things such as a the two-valved instruments pitched in G that were designed and used exclusively in Drum and Bugle Corps competitions and the subject of this blog post – the Carmen Cornet, a.k.a Spanish Bugle, or simply Corneta in Spain.

This is an instrument that is pretty unheard of in Britain, and from what I can gleam most other English-speaking countries. The utter lack of information I’ve found online has led me to write this post in the hope of starting to remedy that.

How it looks and works

The Spanish corneta at first glance looks like a military bugle with an added rotary valve. On closer inspection you’ll see that there are a few more details to describe. Disclaimer: When I was in Spain and borrowed one of these instruments I did not have any measuring tools with me so there are no precise measurements. However, you should definitely find enough information here to get a good understanding.

The corneta is held horizontally in the right hand so that that the rotary key can be turned with the left hand. The rotary valve changes the length of tubing by a semitone.

When in the longest form, the harmonic series that can be produced is based upon C and moving the valve then raises this by a semitone. Because the music you read for this instrument is written at concert pitch you would therefore say that the valve works in the opposite way to the middle valve on a standard modern brass instrument. At first this is a little odd to get your head around, but is by no means the most tricky thing. Overlapping the two available series of notes gives you the following scale, which only really allows you to play full scales in the keys of F minor and A-flat major.

Corneta Scale 0 and 1 represent the two positions of the valve. These are arbitrary labels as there is no spring mechanism so there is no default position for the valve.

You’ll also notice in this scale that the lowest note is a G. Playing the low C (second harmonic) is not possible because of the bore profile of the instrument (the fact that it starts and stays small relative to the length of tubing). This is just like the missing first harmonic on any modern trumpet – you cannot play a proper pedal C on a B-flat trumpet, but you can on a flugelhorn because the bore profile is different.

The receiver is large enough to take a trumpet mouthpiece. This receiver is part of a lead pipe that goes into the tubing in the same way as a piccolo trumpet or flugelhorn and then acts as a tuning slide. The size of the tubing up to and including the valve mechanism is small. Visually it looks about the same bore as you’d expect on a piccolo, or maybe a D trumpet, definitely no bigger. I believe that this is a major contributing factor to that missing low C. The rest of the instrument in then conical but unlike a military bugle it has a proper flare to the bell which is not dissimilar to the bell of a modern pocket trumpet.

Mouthpieces

This instrument cannot be well described without also addressing the mouthpiece that is used with it. I will attempt to be concise about this and will probably return to the subject when I write the blog post about small mouthpieces that I have been meaning to for a long time…

These are the features of a Honsuy 1 mouthpiece:

  • Length: short, like an old short-shank British cornet mouthpiece. Differing from that mouthpiece however because the size of the instrument’s receiver is large enough to fit a trumpet mouthpiece, unlike a normal cornet.
  • Rim: thinner than a trumpet or cornet mouthpiece; like that on a French-horn mouthpiece.
  • Diameter: approximately 15.10mm or 0.590 inches.
  • Cup: by the standards of most, this would be described as very shallow. I expect that most trumpet players would “bottom out” on this mouthpiece.
  • Throat: very small, at most a 30 drill (standard size is 27). I think that this is a defining feature of the mouthpiece as it creates a lot of resistance.
  • Backbore: No measurements available, but it is around half the length of a normal trumpet backbore and increases from the small throat to full-bore-size in that space.

I also had access to an unmarked mouthpiece with a slightly larger internal diameter and deeper cup but found this much harder to play in the usable range of the instrument.

Sound

The only way to get a good feel for how these instruments sound is to hear them. Below is a short list of videos that I think give you a good idea of how they should sound. Warning: Allowing YouTube to recommend similar videos could waste hours of your life.

Ensembles

Generally these cornets are only used in one type of band. This is a style of music that has been gaining popularity in the southern regions of Spain for approximately thirty years.

Typically the ensemble is a drum and bugle band. There are three sections of instruments. Firstly the percussion section; secondly the bugles, which are split into four parts; and thirdly a group of trumpets, flugelhorns, baritones and tubas that fill in the rest of the tonality and harmony of the music.

Coda

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this brief explanation of the Spanish Bugle. At the bottom of this post I have added a small gallery of photographs that I took of the instrument I borrowed.

If you have any questions for me then please comment. ~iii<0