Sound is vibration. The way something vibrates determines the way it sounds. For example, the frequency of vibration determines the pitch, and the amplitude of vibration determines the loudness. When we play any instrument, the vibrations we create determine every aspect of the sound that is produced.
When you play your instrument, the vibrations (sounds) are not just created from your lips and your instrument. Vibrations are created and projected by the interaction of your instrument and your whole body. The way your mouth, face, head, neck, and the rest of your body vibrate, are all important in creating your best sound.
As woodwind and brass instrumentalists, we have a lot to learn from vocalists. For great singers, there is no doubt that the whole body is the instrument. When they sing, singers don't just vibrate with their vocal cords; they vibrate with as much of the body as possible. By allowing and encouraging resonance in different parts of the body, singers are able to create different colors in their voices, project their voices more efficiently, and have more expressive possibilities in their music. Similarly, when you play your instrument, the more your body is allowed to vibrate, the more you will be able to create a unique, colorful, and expressive sound.
We usually think of vibrations as something felt, and sound as something heard, but they are really just different ways of experiencing the same thing. Build your ability to feel vibrations, and you will deepen your understanding and sensitivity to sound. Here are seven ways to become aware of, and control your body's vibrations, so you can sound your best.
Start with the embouchure. Whatever instrument you play, your embouchure is where vibrations originate. Numbers 1-4 describe how to become aware of vibrations in your embouchure:
1. Feel changes in the size of vibration, or amplitude. The amplitude is how far the vibrating lips or reed(s) travel from their starting position. (Larger amplitude vibrations create louder sounds and smaller amplitude vibrations create softer sounds.)
Hold a long tone in the lower register of your instrument. As you hold the tone, pinpoint the exact location where vibrations originate in your lips. Bring your attention to this location as you hold the note, and feel the buzz of vibrations. As you hold the note, gradually increase the volume, and you will feel a change in the vibration. The amplitude of the vibration increases as you increase the volume of the note, so you should feel the sensation of the vibrations intensifying or increasing in size. Decrease the volume of the note, and you will feel a decrease in the amplitude of the vibration. Don't seek to control the changes in vibration with your embouchure, just bring your attention to the changes. Practice feeling vibrations in all dynamics, and practice feeling the smallest changes in sensation.
2. Feel changes in the rate of vibration, or frequency. The frequency is the number of vibrations per second. (Higher frequency vibrations create higher pitched sounds and lower frequency vibrations create lower pitched sounds.)
Create and sustain a tone in a comfortable register and dynamic. Bring your attention to the vibrations in your lips. With your attention on the vibrations, slur to a higher note, and feel the frequency of the vibration increase. Slur back to the original note, and feel the vibrations return to the original frequency. Special attention should be brought to the vibrations in the moments as you are changing notes. Practice remaining in touch with the vibrations in between the notes. As the frequency of the vibrations increase, the sensation of vibrations becomes less obvious. Practice feeling the vibrations throughout the whole range of your instrument.
3. Clarify the feeling of vibrations in your lips by exaggerating the sensation. Some woodwind musicians can have difficulty feeling the vibrations in a strong way in their lips. This is because the vibrations originate in the reed, and the lips are only in contact with the reed.
Without your instrument, position your lips as you do with your embouchure. With only a small opening between your lips, sing. Focus on how your lips vibrate with the sound of your voice. Notice how the vibrations change with differences in the volume and pitch of your voice (See numbers 1 and 2). Sing at a specific pitch and volume and feel the vibrations in the lips, then play the same pitch and volume on your instrument and feel the same vibrations. Repeat the process of singing, then playing, until you feel the sensation of vibrations in your lips when playing your instrument.
4. Feel the connection between embouchure pressure and the sensation of vibration. Allowing good vibrations in your lips is a balancing act. Too much pressure in or on the lips, and you gain an illusion of control but limit vibrations. Too little pressure in or on the lips and you gain vibrations but lose control over them. The right amount of pressure provides a balance of vibration and control, allowing you to produce your best sound.
Create and sustain the most beautiful tone you can. Bring your attention to the vibrations. If the sound is good, the vibrations will be plentiful and they will be achieved without physical strain. As you hold the tone, increase the amount of embouchure pressure by a tiny amount. With the extra embouchure pressure, feel how the sensation of vibrations becomes more limited. Start again from a beautiful tone, and then decrease the amount of embouchure pressure by a tiny amount. With the lack of embouchure pressure, feel how your control over the vibrations becomes more limited. Learn to recognize and connect changes in pressure with changes in vibration.
Almost everybody errs on the side of more control, and therefore limits the amount of vibration. If you notice this, saying, "don't bite" or "relax," won't help you much. Instead, seek the feeling of vibrations. If you can maximize the feeling of vibrations without losing control of the sound, then you will be using the appropriate amount of pressure.
5. To expand beyond feeling vibrations in your embouchure, think of your body as a conductor (not the kind of conductor that stands in front of your orchestra.) A conductor is a material that electricity can flow through easily, such as the metal wire in an electric cord. The opposite of a conductor is an insulator, which prevents the flow of electricity, such as the rubber casing around the metal wire in an electric cord. Instead of electricity, think of your body as a conductor through which vibrations can flow.
Hold a long tone in the lower register of your instrument. After you have developed a healthy sense of vibrations in the lips, feel the vibrations spread to the area directly surrounding your lips. The buzz that you feel in your lips should be felt (to a lesser extent) in the part of your face around your lips. When you become more aware of vibrations in the area around your lips, feel the vibrations spread to your nose. Feel the air inside of the nasal cavity vibrate. Let the feeling of vibrations in your nose spread to your eyes and forehead. Feel your forehead vibrating with the rest of your face. Continue the pattern of cultivating a strong sense of vibrations in one part of the body, then feeling them spread to a directly adjacent part of the body.
If any part of the body is too rigid or too floppy, vibrations will not be conducted efficiently through it. To optimally conduct vibrations, the body cannot have any extra tension, and must also be stable, balanced, and ready to move. This state can be described as poise.
Practicing feeling vibrations throughout your body is a good way to be aware of and control tension in your body. The better your body is positioned and poised, the better you will be able to feel the vibrations.
You might find yourself making adjustments to your posture, voicing, or air to maximize the vibratory sensations. As long as none of these adjustments are forced or extreme, bring your awareness to the changes and let them happen.
When we play our instruments, we create vibrations with our lips or reed(s), and attempt to create resonance in other parts of our body. We can clarify the feeling of vibrations by working backwards: creating vibrations in other parts of our body. Numbers 6 and 7 describe how singing and humming can help you understand the feeling of vibration in different parts of your body.
6. Feel vibrations in your throat, mouth, neck, and chest when you sing.
Set up the instrument with your embouchure exactly in place as if you are going to play, but instead, sing through the instrument with your voice. Sing a comfortable note while using the correct fingering for that note. Feel the vibrations in your throat and neck. When you have a good sense of the vibrations in your throat and neck, feel the vibrations spread to the air inside of your mouth. Feel the air inside your mouth vibrate, and if your embouchure is poised, you will feel your lips vibrate slightly. Without changing the positioning of your body, play the same note on your instrument and try to recreate all of those sensations. Repeat the process of singing, then playing, until the throat is comfortably vibrating when you play your instrument.
7. Feel vibrations in your nose, nasal cavity, forehead, and throat when you hum.
Hum. While you are humming, feel the vibrations especially in the nose. While you are humming, touch your nose, and you will feel vibrations on the surface. Feel how the air inside of your nasal cavity vibrates, and how the sound is projected out of your nose when you hum. When you play your instrument, try to recreate these physical feelings. Repeat the process of humming, then playing, until you can feel your nose vibrating when you play your instrument.
As you become more in touch with vibrations, continually connect what is felt with what is heard. Learn to connect certain sounds with certain kinds of vibrations. Use your feeling of vibrations to improve your ears' sensitivity to sound, and use what you hear to improve your body's awareness of vibrations. Connect your feeling of vibrations with your experience of sound, and you will be able to produce a sound that is colorful, expressive, and unique.
© 2015 Chris Stoutenborough - All Rights Reserved