Welcome to the Ensemble Sound Blog Series. The blog posts in this series are meant to help you think through and hopefully help you come up with some ideas on how to achieve your ideal ensemble sound! As always, these posts are not meant to tell you what to do, but to hopefully make you think more about what you are doing!
“That is what learning is. You suddenly understand something that you’ve understood all your life, but in a new way.” – Doris Lessing
Part 2 – The Power 5
Once you have found your ideal sound, the next step is to figure out what it is about that sound that you like and how that sound is being achieved. As I stated in Part 1, what struck me about the University of Houston was how pure their sound was. How are they accomplishing this? Fortunately, I came across the book, On Teaching Band: Notes from Eddie Green- (Hal Leonard, 2012 available from Amazon). For those of you that have been keeping up with my blogs, you have already heard about this book. In my opinion, this book is a must read for every band director and includes fundamental concepts for posture, embouchure, tone, tonguing, and releases for every instrument. There are also many ideas on improving your ensemble’s timing and sound. Every time I read it, I take away something new. Check out the BDG - Book Club Groups on Facebook as we are currently doing a book study on this book. There have already been some great discussions going on and we have only just started!
As I was doing my research, I started to understand more about sound. Sound is vibration and in order to create the purest vibration possible, there are fundamentals concepts that need to be achieved. I call these basic fundamentals the “Power Five” and include posture, breathing, embouchure, tonguing, and releases. The continual mastery of these fundamentals can lead to a wonderful ensemble sound. I look at this list even now and I think back to the beginning of my career and I think, I worked on these important skills back then too. I would teach students correct posture;, I would teach students to take a one-count breath and get as much air into their system as possible; the proper embouchure; , all of my kids where using their tongue to articulate a notearticulation using the tongue; and using the breath for releases! Check, check, and check! Why am I getting better results now? The answer is in the “how” I was teaching these skills not so much the “what”, even though the “what” has changed a little as well. Tension was running rampant in my ensembles. Tension is the “dark side ” and it was everywhere!
“A hammer can be used to build a house or break a window. It’s a tool and the results are based on how it’s being used. ”
- Mike Pote, Director of Bands at Carmel High School on teaching fundamentals and the Essential Musicianship Ensemble Concepts series
The number one enemy of sound is tension and can occur in all of the fundamental basics of playing an instrument. Tension can create “impurities” or “blemishes” in the sound. Removing tension from the fundamentals needs to start from the first day that a student starts instruction and needs to be reinforced daily all the way through high school. Here are some basic concepts to improve the “Power Five” in your ensembles.
The Power Five
A student’s posture must be balanced. Students should be able to easily stand up when they are sitting in their proper posture. Their feet should be flat on the floor with their knees over their ankles. Their backs should be straight and their shoulders should be down and relaxed. Their chins should be in a neutral position and their faces should be natural as there should be no unnatural creases. Unnatural creases mean the students are straining which signals tension. No part of their body should touch any other part of their body. Look for tension in their eyes and their hands. Most importantly, students must strive to remain still while both resting and playing. Students love to fidget! Constant attention needs to be given to help remind the students to be as still as possible at all times. Make sure that students set their posture first before setting the height of their music stands.
As we all know, breathing in our daily lives and breathing to play an instrument is very different. Where a student may just be learning how to play their instrument, this is one area where a student has previous experience! Focusing on relaxed but full breathing from the beginning will eliminate 80% of all tension created issues. Students need to concentrate on letting their stomachs expand as they breathe down and through their chair instead of making their stomachs expand. Everything should feel natural. As a student exhales, the air must be directional and focused. When I start teaching breathing concepts to my students, I begin by teaching them to take a four count breath then gradually move to a two count and then finally to a one-count breath when the students can demonstrate even and focused breathing. As I mentioned earlier, I used to teach a one-count breath exclusively. I now understand that this is how a majority of the tension issues were created. Again, there is nothing wrong with a one-count breath and we use it frequently. It goes back to the hammer quote from above; it is the “how” that is crucial. Having students use their eyes to send air to a specific spot in the front of the room will help them have a visual aid to help focus their air at a constant speed.
Constant care and attention need to be given to the development and maintenance of the embouchure. Without constant attention, the embouchure can go through many unwanted adjustments that will make their continued musical learning more challenging. Every instrument utilizes a different embouchure setup and this is one area a director needs to spend time understanding. Each student in your ensemble needs to know how to describe their proper embouchure set up, what vibrates on their instrument to create sound and the specific vowel sound/shape they need to produce. Using the proper airstream and correct embouchure will produce a better vibration that will result in a better tone quality.
Tonguing is a challenging area to address when eliminating unwanted sounds. Students need to first know what their exact tonguing technique is and which tonguing syllable to use. For example, they could use either “tOO” or “dOO”. These syllables will be different depending on the instrument but having your students know which to use will help get their tongue in the correct place. For every instrument, the tongue needs to use a quick motion as well as strike the “same spot with the same strength every time” (Eddie Green, Essential Musicianship Ensemble Concepts). The tongue also needs to be in the down position 98% of the time as to not get in the way of the air. One of the most challenging concepts for students to understand is that the tongue always starts the note the same way no matter the note length.
This is an often-overlooked area in the fundamentals of sound but can provide great results with the proper attention. One of my personal favorite moments is when a group can release a note and it just reverberates in the performance venue. There are a couple of ways that a note can be released, either with a breath or just stopping their air. Either way, every student must do it the same way at the same time and most importantly their embouchure and tongue must stay still as to not create any unwanted changes to the sound. With my middle school group, I prefer that the students take a small sip of air on the release as to give the students a physical activity that they can place on the release count to help ensure timing. We also talk about defining the beginning of the silence (a rest) as clearly as the beginning of a note.
Another reason that I like the Essential Musicianship: Ensemble Concepts series (published by Hal Leanord) which has a beginning book (beginning band level), an intermediate book (middle school level) and an advanced book (advanced middle school and high school level) is that each exercise includes goals for all of the instruments that are based on constantly reminding the students about the Power 5. Also, with Eddie Green being one of the writers of the series, the goals correspond to the language that was used in On Teaching Band. Working on the power 5 daily with my groups, I have found that my students have learned how to “approach” their instruments rather than just “playing” their instruments. To explain that more fully, I feel that my students now more often think about “what” and “how” they are about to play when they put their instrument into playing position instead of just putting their instrument up and just playing, hoping for the best! I feel more confident that my students are also creating better sounds at home when they are practicing due to hearing the same fundamental information every day.
Constant attention to the Power Five is essential to the development of a great ensemble sound. To fully incorporate these fundamentals, they must be worked on daily with all groups; from beginners to your more advanced groups, even if it is just for five minutes! Think about the following questions: Do you have a particular sound in mind? Are you comfortable in your knowledge of tone production on all instruments you teach? What do you do during your warm-up time to reinforce these fundamentals? What is it that you are trying to accomplish doing those exercises? What are your sound goals? During my career I have been lucky enough to work with some amazing educators, including Mr. Richard Saucedo. Something he said that was simple but powerful that struck me the most while working with our wind symphony was “You have to first make your instrument sound like your instrument.” We all want our groups to sound amazing, to play in tune, in balance and with clarity. To accomplish this, your students have to first play with a proper tone as individuals. Then we can unlock the door to playing as an ensemble. All of these fundamentals can be introduced within the first few weeks of the students’ beginning year with some being introduced on day one! Again, a key is that these fundamentals need to be reinforced daily.
Be on the look out for the third part of the Ensemble Sound Blog Series, which is coming soon! I will discuss the exercises that we use to work on the Power 5 and how to use them. Be sure to check out the media section of www.chrisgrifamusic.com to hear those exercises performed by students!
Thanks for reading!
Other Blogs in the Ensemble Sound Blog Series:
Part 1: Deciding on Your Ensemble Sound
Part 3: The Power of 1-1: The Return of the Power 5
Part 3: The Power of 1-1: Episode II: The Quest for Purity
Part 3: The Power of 1-1: Episode III: The Journey Continues
Part 4: High Definition Articulations
Part 5: Bridging the Gap: The F Remington
Part 6: Sustains: The Final Chapter