HBM – Concept of Sound

Tone quality and a student’s concept of sound are the MOST CRITICAL elements in a student’s success. A beautiful sound encourages practicing – imagine walking into a practice room and producing the most incredible sound ever heard! Wouldn’t you quickly fall in love with it and never want to quit? When you sound great, it’s easy to practice; when you sound bad, why would you put yourself through that???

(It’s only when you are a brand new beginner that the excitement of playing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” overrides any consideration of tone quality. As soon as you begin to hear the difference between good and bad sounds, it’s over – you no longer want to listen to a bad tone and it’s a lot harder to practice.)

It is extremely important to understand that the only way to get a great sound is to play correctly; when that happens great endurance, range, intonation, flexibility, etc. result. If the sound is not good, these areas will not be good, either.

My philosophy is: the instrument wants to sound good; all you have to do is do things correctly. Well, there is one more thing – you have to practice. No matter how good your approach, strength can only be built by playing and much repetition is required to create a strong habit of excellent playing under pressure.

Tone quality is the performer’s and the teacher’s key to evaluating playing. Your knowledge of what brass instruments should sound like plus your ability to discern the difference between that and what you are hearing are critical to successful brass playing and teaching. (FYI, a number of great brass teachers have stated that they might have been better teachers if they were blind because they would not be distracted by what they see; listening would help them more accurately determine what needed to be fixed.)

There are many, many good sounds, but you cannot accurately describe them with words. We can describe our emotional response (“bright,” “heroic,” “warm,” etc., but words are inadequate – tone quality is created by the relative strength of overtones, which are constantly in flux, along with pitch changes created by vibrato. Keith Johnson, retired trumpet professor (University of North Texas) and author of The Art of Trumpet Playing has stated that all great tones are “full freely flowing sounds,” and that’s as close as you can get.

It is important to understand that the conscious mind tries to communicate with the body by using words, even when we’re thinking and not speaking. When we think words, the muscles involved in speaking microscopically twitch, so we really can’t think much faster than we can speak. Most people speak 110-130 words per minute (How Fast Does the Average Person Speak?), which is about 2 words per second.

Uncompressed wav files tend to run about 10 Mb per minute, so when we are processing aurally, that’s how much data we’re dealing with. One Mb is equal to about 500 pages (How many pages of text will one megabyte hold?), so that’s 5,000 pages per minute, which is about 1.4 pages per second. An average page is 500 words, so that would be 700 words per second, which is 350 times faster than we can think. Words cannot handle the information rate required.

So, there is the reason you can’t tell the muscles what to do by thinking words. BUT, when you hear sounds in your mind, you communicate with your body at full speed. I believe that instructions to the muscles are embedded in the sound, including pitch, attacks, vibrato, dynamics, etc. No fine-tuning of the muscles is possible without listening.

How do you develop your concept of sound? Live performances are the best…period. No recording successfully captures all the nuances that are heard live. HOWEVER, recordings of great players are MUCH better than not listening. In this age of Youtube, Spotify, etc., there is no excuse for you or your students to not listen to great musicians. (The great trumpeter Vince DiMartino recommends that for each hour of practice, you should listen an hour so you know what you should sound like.) Your students need to love the sound of their instruments, and they need “heroes,” someone they want to emulate and who inspires them to achieve higher and higher levels.

As a teacher, you must embed the correct sound concept in your students’ minds; if all students hear is each other, you have the blind leading the blind. It would be like asking students to draw a picture of an elephant if they’d never seen one. Remember, a picture is worth a thousand words and a sound is worth a million words! After a Chicago Symphony concert, I once spoke to their principal trumpeter, Adolph “Bud” Herseth, whose beautiful sound was legendary. I asked him what he thought about when he played, was he thinking words like “dark” or “teutonic”? He said, “No, you tend to produce what you hear in your mind.”

It’s no wonder that most beginners don’t sound good – they need high-quality role models! Find a way to make listening part of your instruction; the time you “lose” working pitches and rhythms will be made up at least 10 times over by how great the band sounds!

Ii should mention that some students do everything right from the beginning, but most do not. Without guidance, they’re not going to sound good, which means they are doing things wrong, which means they’re getting good at playing badly. And, what about you? What do you want to hear every day, 5 days a week, for decades??? Many band directors get out of the business, and I think the reason they do is that it’s too much work for the pay they get. But, if your band sounds GREAT, how much is that worth??? You’ll never want to quit if you stand in front of a band full of wonderful musicians!

One last thing – record your students and play it back for them. It takes time to learn to hear yourself accurately while you play; most people don’t listen to themselves, so they’re missing the most important feedback they can get – their tone quality!!

Suggested Listening