Thursday, July 05, 2012

The Corporal Quartet

Breathing: It seems to be almost everybody’s fascination! For as many wind instrument and voice teachers as there are, there are that many theories on what is the right way to breathe. Everyone agrees that breathing should be natural and simple, but too frequently the results only become more complicated. Breathing needs to stay simple and needs to always be part of the music.

Embouchure: As we concentrate on the embouchure, making it stronger, playing higher, lower, louder or softer, we often forget that nothing would happen if it weren’t for our brass playing power supply, air. Embouchure is a verb, an action verb.

Articulation: The nearly infinite number of ways that we can start and end notes. Articulation is the fine-tuning of rhythm; articulation is the consonance of the musical language.

Fingering: Manipulating our instrument to the correct length for a required pitch. Fingering (or slide manipulation) is much too often forgotten in the shadow of our preoccupation with breathing, embouchure and articulation. Digital dexterity, fingering, is the key to our music-making dimension of velocity.

These four mechanisms: breathing, embouchure, articulation and fingering form a quartet of musical functions; a corporal quartet that we spend our musical lives coordinating and fine-tuning. But there is something missing. Who’s in charge? Of course, it’s our brain! It is particularly that part of our brain that determines our musicality and controls this corporal quartet. Like a conductor, whose responsibility it is to see that the ensemble functions together as one. Of course, we hope the conductor is clever enough to achieve those results he envisions.

Let’s create a scenario: You are rehearsing a trombone quartet and working on a fast passage, everybody is playing well except the 3rd trombone, he’s a little slow; what do you do? The first step is to give the responsibility to the 3rd player; it could go like this: “Excuse me Mr. 3rd trombone player, you have a very important part in this passage. If you could rhythmically lead here, it would make it easier for the other three players to keep it moving”. Hopefully, the 3rd player will respond and the passage will come together.

The exact same scenario could take place with the corporal quartet but making fingering the slow member (fingering is often the slow member). Giving responsibility to the fingers to lead the other quartet members, air, embouchure and tongue, the problem will probably be corrected.

Hopefully, we can simply practice and things will come together without analyzing but everyone at some time has to take a realistic look at where the problem is and take the right steps to correct it.

Fingering so often falls behind in the corporal quartet, especially with the tuba, because we simply do not hear as clearly in the lower tessitura as well as we do in higher registers. Also, the tuba has the largest sound in the symphony orchestra, therefore it is one of the most difficult instruments to articulate with its sonic mass. Clarity, especially in rapid passages, can be too easily overlooked and compromised. Playing the same passage two octaves higher on trumpet simply would not allow the same imperfections that frequently occur on the tuba. I discuss this in another article called “FINGERING”.

When the corporal quartet works well together we are able to concentrate on musical matters and depend on all the aspects of function to be at our simultaneous demand.

All successful players have at one time also been successful teachers to themselves; perhaps it’s the same with being a successful conductor of your corporal quartet. … And almost everyone wants to be a conductor! 

Tokyo, February 20, 2006
Revised July 5, 2012