Incubation Period—Training Beginning Music Instrumental Students on Flute, Oboe, and High Brass

Thomas J. WestThroughout my career as an instrumental music teacher in American public schools, I have had the opportunity to start a lot of students on a new instrument. My approach to starting beginners is typical: I begin with mouthpiece and embouchure formation, basic playing position, and so on. Where I diverge from tradition is in my approach to teaching basic playing technique, which I will discuss in a future article.

In training these beginners, I typically find that there are a handful of wind instruments that require a longer period of time for most students to become proficient at basic tone production. Until a student can reliably produce the tone of the instrument, it is difficult to move forward into technique building or music reading. I call these instruments ones with longer “incubation periods”.

Tone Production on the Trumpet and French Horn

While most beginning students are fairly successful early on in buzzing the lips and producing their first sounds, all brass instruments, and particularly the high brass, require the students to work on embouchure building and flexibility with a great deal of consistency over the course of several months to be able to produce an octave’s worth of pitches.

To produce an air stream that is compressed enough to play mid-range pitches, players must build the musculature of the face to a point where the aperture (portion of the lips that actually vibrates) can vibrate freely while the muscles hold back the resulting internal air pressure. As I tell my students, it literally is “weight lifting for your face”.

The French horn has the additional challenge of having their typical tessitura in band literature written for the middle to upper part of the instrument’s playable range, requiring not only strength, but enough control to accurately find partials that are as close together as a whole step. Because of the strength and conditioning required, trumpet and French horn students must put in consistent practice time on a daily basis in order to develop this control.

Tone Production on Oboe

Oboe students typically do not have difficulty producing their initial tones on their instruments. Refining that tone and playing in extended ranges, however, can take consistent work that lasts at least a year, a fact that applies to bassoon as well. The initial sounds made by oboists are jarring and strident at best, and the quality and adjustments made to their reeds can be a major contributing factor.

If oboe or bassoon is not your primary instrument, dealing with double reeds may be a bit perplexing. If you have the luxury of having your double reed students study privately or work with a double reed clinician at your school, many of these issues can be addressed. If not, everyone, director and students alike, will have to exercise patience as the oboe students continue to work on improving the total quality and range of their instrument.

Tone Production on Flute

The instrument with the longest incubation period, perhaps, is the flute. There is little about producing the tone of the flute that is intuitive. It is quite literally a trial and error process, and because of the nature of the Hemoltz resonator effect being produced, students often find themselves in the early stages becoming light-headed from hyperventilation. Once the initial sounds become more consistently produced, they still remain breathy and unfocused.

Once tone can be produced reliably, the next challenge for flutists is developing control of the air stream to become capable of changing octaves reliably. I wrote at length about this topic, including some useful exercises, in this article. Even after gaining control of the low, middle, and lower portion of the high register, it will take more time and experience for the flutist’s tone quality to go from the breathy, intermediate stage to a purer, more rounded flute tone.

Tone Production Is Essential for All

Even for instruments that do not need extensive work to produce a good tone in the middle register, such as clarinet and saxophone, good tone quality must come before nearly every other aspect of performance. The saxophone embouchure is fairly forgiving, but players still need to apply the mouthpiece firmly against the top teeth and use the correct amount of reed tip opening to produce the correct pitch on the reed. Many sax players are producing the wrong pitch on the mouthpiece well into high school, leading to perpetual intonation problems and strident tone quality.

Clarinetists, because of the downward angle of the instrument, must have a firm lower lip, correct angle of pressure from the jaw, and must position the tongue correctly to direct the airflow to produce the correct pitch and tone in all registers. This is especially true at the intermediate level as they venture into the register above high C.

Low brass performers are under the same kind of regiment as their high brass counterparts; there is simply less need for muscular development at the earlier stages of learning. Breaking through the “high F ceiling” is a tough process for many intermediate players.

Little else can fall into place for a wind instrumentalist until they are using the correct embouchure formation with the right amount and quality of air stream. Good tone is a prerequisite for tuning, intonation, articulation, and even simply getting the instrument to respond in time for the downbeat. Many secondary level band directors are guilty of taking tone production for granted, not revisiting tone concepts enough to continue to help each section of the ensemble develop as individual performers. For the highest quality performance of the full ensemble, however, revisiting tone production needs to be a periodic checkpoint that is part of every ensemble’s routine.

Thank you  to Thomas J. West for letting us use his blog!
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