Some people call it edge; some sizzle, and some just call it energy. Many think it’s a bad thing, especially when it’s referred to as ‘edge’ and sometimes that may be correct, but this timbre, with its many names, is an essential enhancement to any brass player’s sonic palette. In seeking one appropriate word that describes this special timbre I have chosen“Friction”; technically it’s the correct word and it doesn’t have the negative connotations that we see in some of the other words used to describe the same thing.
Friction starts when our air passes between the lips and causes the vibrations to travel through the length of the instrument; the longer the instrument, the more friction the smaller the bore size, the more friction. Instrument makers and brass performers have been working for centuries trying to get that ratio just right.
There’s something magical about the high register of a brass instrument when it’s played strongly, we hear it in the sound of the single F horns of the Vienna Philharmonic, we hear it with commercial trumpet players like Harry James, Doc Severinsen and Maynard Ferguson; that’s exciting sound! Sometimes we hear friction in the trombone solo in Ravel’s Bolero when the player uses a smaller bore instrument, of course, if the instrument is smaller friction will start at a lower dynamic.
Frequently, for the sake of security, many players choose to use a higher pitched (shorter) instrument, which in most cases proves to be a prudent decision, but sometimes something is lost by doing this. I have two personal examples that point this out very clearly. In the mid 50s, when I first started to perform the Vaughan Williams Concerto I learned it on a CC tuba and it wasn’t until the late 70s that I started using an F tuba. Of course, the results were better on the F, the Vaughan Williams is written in a tessitura that is far more idiomatic for F tuba. But in the Romanza, the 2nd Movement, I missed the friction I was accustomed to on the CC, it sung, it projected and it had a rich intensity. I had a similar experience with the Encounters ll by William Kraft; the power and drama I could get on the CC tuba just wasn’t there when I relearned it on the F. The very thought of the Bolero trombone solo played on an alto trombone would be a very clear example of the same situation; the excitement would just be gone.
Perhaps the Vienna Philharmonic, with their tradition of playing everything on single F horns, is one of the best examples of friction. Everyone agrees that is an absolutely exciting sound, which usually functions beautifully. Now the question is evident; is it better to play a higher pitched (shorter) instrument, Bb horn instead of F for example, for security issues? It’s a very personal decision that needs to be made by every player, and every section for every situation.
And a more polarizing question is the option of changing to instruments of different bore sizes in order to achieve the quality of friction. Again, this is very personal. Concert halls also have a huge influence on friction. Most players try to achieve friction in some way and many times that way is simply by playing louder. The dynamic level that results in friction is very influenced by the halls we play in. The New York Philharmonic performing in Avery Fischer Hall with sometimes problematic autistics has to play at a very loud dynamic to achieve friction, while the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, playing in the extraordinary Concertgebouw, can achieve the effect of friction at a much softer dynamic and therefore is able to use equipment considerably smaller than New York.
Friction is an aspect of brass playing that many players fear, especially when we refer to it as “edge”. It exists in all instruments including voice and it’s a powerful and essential tool in music making. Too much of it is ugly and too little is boring, but when it’s just right it’s beautiful.
Tokyo. Japan, October, 2007
Revised, Oaxaca, Mexico, September, 2020