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The Ensemble Sound Series #6: Sustains: The final Chapter

January 18, 2017


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


Sustains: An Alternative to Long Tones


When I became part of the music department at Creekside Middle School in the Carmel school system, I was excited to learn how Richard Saucedo and Michael Pote had such great results with their groups’ sound at Carmel High School. Interestingly, one of the techniques they used were sustains. The final fundamental exercise that I use with my students is simply having them sustain a concert F. In addition to working on the fundamentals of sound daily and the exercises that I have described already, we spend time simply sustaining a concert F for an extended, untimed length. For an example of this exercise, click here.


Long tones are essential in developing embouchure strength and improving tone quality. Most long tones are done to a specific tempo (usually slow) and for

various count lengths. What I would like to suggest is a different approach to

long tones where students sustain one single note for at least thirty to sixty

seconds. Your students should be encouraged to breathe whenever they feel like their sound will suffer if they don’t take a breath while focusing on playing with a full sound that is steady and free from tension. Sustaining a note for an

extended amount of time will allow your students to listen to themselves and make adjustments. Being able to hold a single note for up to a minute will definitely improve the ability to perform longer phrases. This exercise can be used to work on other important ensemble skills like balance and blend, as well as playing in a lyrical style. It is important that students understand that this is not to see how long they can hold the F without having to take a breath. When the student nears the end of their air capacity, students will start to strain to continue playing causing tension which will start to produce impurities in the sound. During this exercise, students should be instructed to breath the same way as during the previous exercises. It should be a full, relaxed two count breath each and every time.


I recommend that you start working on this exercise by having the students only sustain for up to 30 seconds. This way the students should only have to take a breath two or three times during this exercise. The first two goals that should be focused on are: 1) taking a relaxed breath when necessary and 2) striving to keep the sound as steady and vibrant as possible. I will often times take a tally during the exercise of how many times I hear the sound waver or an impurity in the sound. The students like this as they are obviously working to keep that number as low as possible. Once students are successful at taking relaxed breaths and keeping the sound steady, other skills can be focused on. For example, start extending the length of time and introduce the idea of stagger breathing.


Using sustains to teach stagger breathing is very powerful. Not only are you working on the skill of not breathing when your neighbor takes a breath you are also beginning to teach the students ensemble awareness. To not breath when their neighbors breath requires they be aware of what others are doing. Most importantly, each student then has to make a decision while playing of when it is the best time to breath. This adds another dimension of responsibility. Having the students feel comfortable making that decision will help lead the way to your students listening to intonation and then actually making adjustments on their own based on what they are hearing. Listening for their neighbors’ sound to stop is one of the easiest possible ensemble awareness skills that students can learn but is the foundation of being able to expand listening awareness and feel comfortable in making their own decisions that best suits the ensemble.


Using a drone is also a great way to help to show students what a sustain should sound like. A drone sound can be produced by a synthesizer or the use of an app like Tonal Energy Tuner (available at the App Store or Google Play). Obviously, the electronic sound will stay steady and constant because it is electronically produced and an electronic device does not need to take a breath. The most frequent impurity that occurs during a sustain is how a student renters after taking their full and relaxed breath. This is another great time to use the impurity counter to focus on the students reentering and not being noticed.


Once very little to no impurities are being heard in the sustain you can start to really work on more advanced ensemble awareness skills including balance and intonation. Sustains are a great way to teach the 3 levels of listening.


Level 1 – Listening to yourself and producing your best possible sound.

Level 2 – Listening to your trio/section and matching your best possible sound in tone, balance, and intonation.

Level 3 – Listening down to the tubas or your lowest instrument and taking your level 2 sound and putting it inside the tuba’s sound.


The idea is to have the students start to increase their ensemble awareness and again be comfortable in making a decision while they are playing to improve the sound of the group. As you move through the three levels, the ensemble sound should begin to get clearer and more focused.


Next, you can start to teach harmony clarity using sustains. Since we are starting on concert F, we will use an F five note scale (F, G, A, Bb, C) so make sure that your students can do this. While students are playing a sustain in their best level 3 ensemble sound, you can select either the woodwinds or the upper instruments and have them switch to the next note in the 5 note scale. This would now put an F in the brass/lows against a G in the woodwinds/uppers. The goal is to make sure that the woodwinds/uppers can hear the F from the brass/lows and with the goal of getting the the two sounds to “work” or “vibrate” together. Once the two notes sound vibrant and balanced, you can move on to the 3rd, the 4th and then the 5th. This is also a great exercise to do in the  keys of pieces that you may be working on. As the students get better at making these harmonies vibrate, they will start to make appropriate adjustments and “sound” comfortable harmonically no matter the key. To hear an example of this exercise, click here.


Sustains are a powerful tool to use with your students at any grade level. I start teaching sustains to my beginners on a low Bb. As soon as their embouchures are strong enough and we have learned a concert F, we will then do the sustain on an F. If your groups can sustain an unwavering concert F for 30 seconds or more with little to no impurities being created in the sound, your group will be well on their way to improving their ensemble sound.


Check out the other blogs in the Ensemble Sound Blog Series:


Part 1: Deciding on Your Sound

Part 2: The Power 5

Part 3: The Power of 1-1: Episode I: 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





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