How to Improve Sound
Sound in many ways is like a musician’s fingerprint. It is a form of identity for a brass player. There are several factors that interact dynamically to help shape our individual sound. The Two most important factors for having a great sound are:
1- Being in control of your sound
One needs to be able to make what they want come out of the bell, and it takes productive practice!
2- Being well-informed of the sound you want
Here are the FOUR factors to consider:
Mental Factors- This is probably the most significant group of factors that will help to shape one’s individual sound. Your internalized concept of sound is a constantly evolving byproduct of every sound you have mindfully heard leading up to this moment, including imagined sounds! Your internalized concept of sound is also the most malleable group of factors- you can make changes on what types of sounds you listen to on a regular basis, and this will change how you perceive the sound you want to make.
Dynamic Physical Factors- These factors are related to physical characteristics but can be altered with practice. Good examples here are the level of relaxation one keeps while playing, posture, breathing habits, embouchure, etc.
Static Physical Factors- The shape of one’s oral cavity (some of this is dynamic, but here I am referring to the relative size of various physical features), the position of one’s teeth relative to their lips, the size of their lips, the relative size of one’s tongue, etc. will all contribute to one’s sound and for the most part these physical factors will not change very much (perhaps teeth shifting with age but overall these are relatively ‘fixed’ factors). Fortunately they do very little (if anything) to limit us. Mindful practice can overcome just about any less desirable static physical factor.
Mechanical Factors- The equipment that one plays will help to shape one’s sound. The type of instrument, the alloy it is made out of, etc. will also help to shape one’s sound. Other than changing equipment, there really isn’t much that you can do here and a certain instrument is designed to play a certain way, and to try to manipulate that instrument to play differently is usually quite laborious and with somewhat diminishing result. For developing players, this should occupy an extremely small portion (if any) of your thoughts on the matter- concern yourself instead with dynamic physical factors and mental factors. Until those are well-refined, it doesn’t really matter what equipment you play- you can get a decent sound on almost anything and if you haven't really refined the mental factors or the dynamic physical factors, it doesn't matter how fancy your horn is.
Ways to change your sound
For the most part, static physical factors won’t change much. Mechanical factors are linked to financial means (i.e being able to afford better equipment) and there are already a number of places to learn about the effects of changing equipment on one’s sound. I would like to focus on mental factors and dynamic physical factors and how they can alter one’s sound.
Experiences shape who you are, and who you are will shape your sound. Here are my recommendations on how to most effectively evolve your sound.
Listen to great players on your instrument
Listen to great players on other instruments
Figure out what types of qualities you want in your sound (“bright”, “dark”, “brilliant”, “mellow”, “smooth”, “crisp”, etc.) and find ways to create abstract representations of those sounds through experiences in the physical world. If you want to play “smooth like silk” then feel how smooth silk is- become familiar with that sensation so it can shape your concept of sound. There are literally endless ways to experience sensations that can shape our internalized concept of sound, and really my job is to help students refine it. It is not my job to define such things. That is your job, and you owe it to yourself to define and master your own sound!
Become a Connoisseur of Sound
Refining a concept of sound really comes down to being able to discern between two sounds. THIS sound is different than THAT sound. The better you are, the smaller the differences can be. To a large extent, the ability to differentiate between a horrible brass sound and a great sound is a pretty easy thing to do. My mother (who has no training on any musical instrument) can tell the difference between a rough sounding beginner and a professional. The real challenge comes when the two sounds are quite close in quality. For example, my mother might struggle with evaluating four beginners and choosing who has the best sound. Since they are all similar in their level of play, it takes a much more refined ability to tell the difference.
As we mindfully listen to sounds we start to recognize the similarities. When we can hear similarities, we start to hear differences too. The greatest players at some point (at many points really) had to develop the ability to hear the difference between the sound they had and the sound they wanted. This happens thousands of times in a player’s career. Two sounds that sounded the same even a moment ago "all of a sudden" sound slightly different. This Gestalt moment of a new level of perception is known as a breakthrough. The best musicians have had the most breakthroughs.
The funny thing about becoming a connoisseur of sound (or any of the perceptual senses) is that it is not unique to musicians.
Highly trained people in many different domains have learned subtle differences in stimuli. The ace mechanic that can hear a shabby timing belt just from the car idling. The all-star linebacker being able to tell that the offense is orchestrating a pass play from the sound of the player’s helmets clashing together. The physician that has learned to see the smallest difference in an x-ray to diagnose the presence of a tumor. The wine taster that can tell the difference between two bottles of the same wine- one was opened 20 minutes ago and the other two minutes ago. Sensory discrimination is a trained skill, and one that takes mindful perception- lots of it. We as musicians need to develop our sense of sound- our ability to discriminate between two similar sounds- to an amazing level of specificity in order to truly master our craft.
Dynamic Physical Factors
The best thing you can do to positively affect your sound from a physical standpoint is to stretch. Stretching is the best way to develop more physical ease while you play, more ease while you breathe, and allow more resonance in your body while you are playing. I cannot say enough about stretching and the positive effect it will have on your playing. If you aren't stretching regularly, then you aren't serious in your pursuit.
Technical Exercises to Develop Sound
I work on my sound in two distinct ways: I develop my stability and my agility. Click on the following links for more info.
Here are some videos that further explain my thoughts on sound. First, a two part video called "Sound Advice" I gave to the young student of Indiana University's "College Audition Preparation" Seminar (CAP).
I also highly recommend practicing on a wobble board. Here is a video demonstrating why I use one.