Breathing Technique

  Always Take a Full, In-Time Breath
  • It is essential to breathe in and out in one uninterrupted motion (without a “hitch” between the inhale and the exhale). In other words, breathe without catching the breath in the throat for an instant, just prior to articulating the entry note. It should be one fluid action, not three (inhale, hold, and exhale). It is also essential that this breath takes up the entire beat prior to articulating the entry note. However, if the tempo is very slow, it makes more sense to fill the entire second half of the beat (the Ann) with the breath.

  Maintaining a Steady Stream of Air

  • Maintaining a steady stream of air through every phrase supersedes all articulation indicated. Most problems of matching style, pitch, and intent are the result of not maintaining the intensity of the air through the phrase.

  Fill Every Beat
  • When counting out loud or in your mind, fill every beat entirely with sound whether it is a note or a rest (whisper during the rest).

  Never Breathe After a Long Note
  • Never, ever, ever, breathe after a long note unless we all decide to do so. This is, perhaps, the most common mistake found in every young or underachieving musical ensemble. It happens when playing warm-ups, drills, chorales, and repertoire and transfers directly to the performance and interpretation of the music for years to come. 

  A Word about Percussion
  • Percussionists must learn to breathe together with their woodwinds/strings and brasses counterparts. Therefore, include them in every exercise and regularly check and listen for them to be breathing and performing in-time. If we breathe together, we play together.

Articulation Technique

 Start with a “TOH" and dent the air.

  • Denting the air is particularly important at fast tempi, but also through fast rhythms. Most concerns in staying together are due to stopping the air with the tongue. This slows the articulations and makes it difficult for the performer to stay in-time with everyone else.

 

Quick-Twitch and Slow-Twitch

  • Embedded in the notion starting with a TOH and then denting the air on the exhalation using a TOH and doh tongue motion is the idea that it helps develop what is referred to as the quick- twitch muscles in the tongue, a requirement for playing wind instruments. This can be practiced and improved upon. By denting the air, the pitch is “bent”, making it sound as if the note has been rearticulated.

 Slow Music—Quick Articulation
  • Many musicians encounter the problem of denting the air too slowly between long or slow notes. The result is a sound something like “ahhh---ooo” between notes because the denting of the air is so slow that it alters the pitch. It is important to ensure that even though the pace of the note or music is slow, the articulation speed is quick. Note: If you are satisfied you have solved this issue but the air flow still sounds like it is being interrupted, encourage students to apply the same principle (slow music—quick articulation) to their fingers i.e., slow music—quick fingers.

Tone and Tuning Technique

Tone In-Tune

  • It is critically important for everyone to play in tune with a characteristic sound. If this is determined to be a major concern and it is not addressed, then no matter what else happens, the ensemble sound will be less than desirable.

3-Peat Tuning Method
  • It is suggested that you teach students to tune by performing three separated short notes (TOH TOH TOH) and listening to see if it matches the pitch around them or demonstrated for them. This is opposed to the student simply holding a note while they listen and adjusting the pitch with embouchure or air and not truly adjusting their instrument. The three short notes do not give them enough time to do that.

  • Most humans can hear if a note is flat easier than they can hear if it is sharp. Therefore, advise students that if they are unsure, they should make their instrument longer first and then shorten it slowly until it sounds in-tune to them. After students believe they are in tune, you should check it with them to either concur or guide them to better listening. Repetition of this technique of “trust-but-verify” will lead to confident, in-tune playing.  

Unifying Tempo Technique

 In-time On-time   
  • It is essential to stress this simple notion from the beginning of musical training. It must be taught that in an ensemble it is more important to get to the next beat in tempo than it is to play every note or rhythm perfectly within any given beat. It is best to introduce this by having ensemble members say “in-time” while scooping their hand in a counter-clockwise motion and then “karate chopping” the beat on the word “on” as they say “on-time” together in unison.

  • Demonstrate this by showing the beat continuing to move with your left-hand palm up moving from your right to left and “chopping” your left hand with your right. You can demonstrate that if the in-time rhythms cause a performer to be late to the next beat, they have created a problem for the ensemble.

Balance Technique

  • Volume as Intent. Often referred to as dynamics, the preference is to refer to it as “adjusting the volume for musical intent.” It is a subtle difference, but when approaching it this way, students will apply volume with a purpose as opposed to simply playing or singing loud or soft. These tend to be unmusical, and when trying to play or sing softly, the tone becomes unsupported. Conversely, when playing or singing ff, the tone can  become forced and out of tune.  

  • Executing Volume. If p gets so soft that it is unsupported by air, it becomes unmusical. Therefore, rather than defining p as soft, define p as quiet intensity, and encourage the performer to make it their best quiet sound. Conversely, f becomes the performer’s biggest and best full sound. This avoids unmusical sounds at higher volume levels. Then, mf and mp both represent mezzo or medium with intensity. Once those volume levels are understood and established pp, ppp, ff, and fff become matters of increasing intensity and thus are manageable and far more musical. What generally happens when musicians see fff is that they interpret it as “blastissimo” or “shouting.” Conversely, pp often becomes “nothingissimo” or “wimpissimo.” The idea of intensifying the full or quiet volumes avoids this.   

  • Balancing Volume with Intent. Question: When is mf not mf? Answer: When it is not mf. What this implies is that volume is relative to balance. In other words, it may indicate to the performer to perform at a forte level, but if they are one of ten musicians performing that note, it will be too loud and should therefore be executed as an ensemble forte, which is less than an individual forte. Or perhaps, if the performer is a soloist and it says piano, that will not be heard. It all becomes relative to the intent and combination of other aspects of the context of the music.     

  • Recalibrating. Recalibrating is a notion once again founded on the premise that volume is relative and is based on the intent of the marking as opposed to an absolute number of decibels. Often in music, the composer or editor will sequentially indicate an increase or decrease in the volume desired such as mf, mp, p, pp, pp or the opposite mf, f, ff, fff. When this type of sequential growth or diminishing of the volume is indicated, musicians must be taught to recalibrate and execute the intent by diminishing the actual volume and intensifying the notes and volume direction. Thus, the music does not get out of control at the higher volume levels and does not disappear or lose intensity at the lower volume levels.   

  • Volume Should Never Affect Style. Often in performance, a shift of the articulation style of a note can be heard when the volume changes. When it is piano, articulations frequently become piano as well, when instead they need to maintain their style intensity. It becomes like whispering while connecting the words with soft consonant sounds as opposed to enunciating clearly. In the upper volume range the articulation often becomes larger than the tone of the note, and thus is unmusical.

  • Comfort Zone Development. Constant work is required to extend a musician’s comfort zone up and down from their best notes. Like seeing the mounting stress on a rubber band as it is stretched, the listener can often hear the stress in the sound of the notes as musicians move beyond their comfort zone. Explaining the difference between range (bottom note to top note) and tessitura (the best range for a voice type or instrument) will help students understand this concept. Musicians must continually work to increase their ability to sound confident and relaxed in all ranges. 

  • Interpreting the Four Types of Crescendi. Although there is only one iconic notation for increasing and decreasing volume there are four basic types of crescendi and decrescendi that composers have in mind when they indicate them on the score. Learning to select the appropriate crescendo for each occasion will significantly enhance the expression of the music. If applied properly, a crescendo will seldom become out of balance or overstated. As well, the ensemble musicians will have little doubt about their individual roles in executing a crescendo. Rehearsal time will be spared for other issues, and the ensemble will have a more unified approach to their performance. The execution of decrescendo can be safely applied in reverse order of the crescendo methodology. All notions apply if you choose to interpret the volume change using espansione and diminuendo rather than crescendo and decrescendo. For the visuals of how to execute these volume changes click here.