Since I was young, I have always been told that physical tension while playing is not good: That it could ruin your playing or hurt your body in the long run. Many teachers have recommended that I approach the instrument in the most natural way possible. Lately, I have been thinking about that and wondering if tension really does have a negative affect on the development of healthy playing.

A good starting point in order to understand tension is asking the question “is tension natural?” Is tension present in our daily lives? It is indeed! Tension is relaxation’s counterpart: Just think, when tension and relaxation alternate, movement occurs. Every single movement, even the smallest one, requires some degree of tension and relaxation from opposing muscles. Without tension no one would be able to move, or even breathe.

So what is so bad about having some tension? There are two things related to tension that can lead to trouble while approaching the instrument: The amount of tension used while performing, and the misplacement of tension while playing.

I’ve observed there are two zones in the body where tension is located and necessary in order to perform in an effective and efficient way: The embouchure and the middle section of the body (abdominal, rib cage and lower back).

During the breathing process, the diaphragm lowers creating room for the lungs to expand while taking in air: This is the vacuum created by the diaphragm. In order to exhale the air, the abdominal, rib cage, and lower pelvic muscles tense, pushing air out of the lungs. If tension in these muscles is present during inhalation, pulling air in would be impossible. The same applies to exhaling without the use of any tension.

The muscles located in the cheek and chin tense in order to create a frame where the mouthpiece will be placed. The lips that remain inside the mouthpiece’s rim produce  vibrations when the air is released from the lungs through the lips’ aperture. In order to produce this vibration, the lips must be in contact with one another while the air stream is going through: In order to ensure this, the lips must tense against each other, so they are not pulled apart by the air’s pressure on its way out.

The amount of tension used in both processes determines the outcome of the product: During the breathing process, too much tension during exhalation can result in a tone that sounds forced, while an absence of tension can result in a tone that sounds big but lazy. Any excessive pressure between the lips can undermine the lips’ vibration, resulting in narrow, nasal sounds that often pitch higher on intonation. On the other hand, a loose embouchure can result in unfocused, airy sounds, and (in the long run) a weak, trembly embouchure, due to under-development of the lip muscles, failing to respond to the requirements demanded to produce sound.

So far, I have only discussed tension applied to performing. Tension that has little or nothing to do with the playing process, often located in the arms, chest, shoulders and neck, is not only useless, but also negatively affects the sound quality, the efficiency of sound production, and (in the long run) the musician’s health.

The proper level and appropriate placement of tension is everything. Keep in mind that the level varies from player to player, and the level requirement differs at each register and dynamic. Experimenting in order to determine the right amount of tension for each pitch and dynamic is highly recommended.

How many times have we thought, “who cares?,” when not holding a note long enough, not breathing in the designated place, or skipping over an articulation that is clearly indicated in the part? Details are commonly regarded as, “the small stuff,” and  are deemed unimportant, or even superfluous. With that in mind, think about what happens when any number of these tiny elements start to pile up, what can we expect of the performance quality in the end? Can overlooking the details result in failing to reach even an average product?

The answer is: Absolutely. The importance given to details depends on the desired quality of the product. If the desired level of achievement is  average or better, attention to detail is of the utmost importance. For an outstanding product it is mandatory: A great product cannot be realized without focusing on details.

Dream cars, high quality clothing articles, fine dining, luxury watches, these are all examples of goods where details are examined and perfected at every stage of production: From the initial concept to the final product, through the quality of materials, special techniques used to form them, the research and development of new materials and techniques, and the quality control measures used to scrutinize them before sale…

What makes these products so expensive, rare, and scarce? What puts them within the reach of only a small number of consumers? The price tag  summarizes the value of the time and standard adhered to during their production. The careful effort put into producing an outstanding product results in the brand and its image. Although the price tag may seem “expensive” from a quantitative point of view, the price asked matches the worth: No more no less.

No detail should be overlooked, big or small. Hence intense scrutiny when identifying them becomes intrinsically crucial. Like the production of the goods described above, when it comes to the instrument, it is during practice that precise craftsmanship should take place. Elements needed to insure such a product are: Careful work and execution of all the components mandatory to play the instrument, exhaustive research and understanding of playing mechanics, and the development of precise planning, which fulfills all technical aspects in each stage of practice. Being meticulous and discerning throughout the production process is obligatory if the result desired is to beget great value.

The result of practice with focus on details results in a product that represents the mastery of those details. It is this product that stands apart from what is merely average.

Because of the relatively low degree of complexity, long tones are one of the first things young musicians work on.  Although, at the time, the reason of their study may be unclear to the student, the teacher’s directive is reason enough to focus on their practice. Understanding and acknowledging the importance of long tone practice is the first step toward their mastery and the benefits associated with playing them well.

The apparent simplicity of the long tone, however, is deceptive: when a result is so straightforward, there is no place for individual aspects of its composition to be hidden when they are not working. It comes down to: ‘Is the final product being delivered or not?’. This means being able to hold a note straight without any variation on intonation or the appearance of elements that distort the sound quality (like a lip’s double buzz, trembling, or a ‘bacon sizzle’ effect due to the presence of spit in the embouchure’s aperture). The sound that is being produced should be defunct of any dullness, and instead have an interesting, resonant, singing quality. Furthermore, (and this is the most cumbrous aspect of the challenge) all these points should be addressed throughout the dynamic range and register of the instrument.

The benefits associated with long tone practice are the facts that they comprise the bulk of our orchestral repertoire, and that they assist in the development of other playing aspects, such as control and endurance, by making the vibrating and supporting lip effective. Thus both of the aforementioned turn the outgoing air into as many vibrations as possible, hence making the use of the embouchure more efficient as well as increasing its endurance.

The aspects that have to work well in conjunction to produce a good long tone are:

  • An effective and efficient embouchure (a vibrating lip that is flexible and responsive, a supporting one that is strong, firm and helps keep the vibrations one in place, and a strong, yet pliable, set of face muscles which work as a frame, allowing the vibration from the lips to take place). The embouchure must be solid, yet malleable: Solid in order to keep a note straight with no variation, yet limber enough to change between registers and dynamics with ease).
  • A constant and supportive use of the air stream (always in balance with the embouchure, not providing more air than one can handle, or failing to produce enough air for the embouchure to work properly).
  • A relaxed and efficient use of the body (allowing it to be used as a resonance chamber in the production of the sound).

A solid mental concept of the sound you want to generate is also important: Here a personal preference of mine comes into play. When I envision my ideal note, I focus on a sound that is appropriate to the instrument I am playing. Not too big, resulting in an unfocused sound, nor too small, resulting in a nasal quality, but rather in the center: A sound that is beautiful, active, interesting, solid without being harsh, and always with a singing quality.

I have to admit, for me, working on long tones is hard from the standpoint of motivation: they are not among the most compelling and stimulating of exercises. Being able to practice them over a long period of time begs for an incentive to do so. I came to the conclusion, that practicing them within a musical context that I favor, makes them far less cumbersome. I often practice my long tones within the context of music that I like, such as this excerpt composed by Two Steps from Hell. (For a more traditional approach to long tones, check the Exercises section)

Two_steps_from_hell 16 Undying Love(1)-page-001

Things to keep in mind while practicing long tones:

  • Do not limit practice to only one dynamic or register.
  • Avoid the use of isolated embouchures which allow you to get one good note at the expense of all the others. Consolidate the embouchure you play with to allow ease during a change in register, always anchor the mouthpiece on the same spot and keep all notes within the same embouchure to reduce any movement needed to a bare minimum.
  • Be mindful with the use of shortcuts that force out the sound, like excessive pressure or tension in the body which may have harmful effects in the long run.
  • Mouthpiece practice will assist in identifying sound inconsistencies that might be occurring while playing long notes. For success while practicing on the mouthpiece, try to keep the same embouchure setting and mouthpiece placement as the one you use with the instrument.

Efficiency was defined in the previous post as being able to accomplish something with the least waste of time and effort. Effectiveness applies to the quality of the final product, it is the degree to which addressed problems are solved. As I like to say: Doing it right.

What is right? It is not doing it perfectly: Perfection is an unattainable and unrealistic goal that often leads to frustration. Trying to achieve something to the best of your ability is a sounder solution, as well as a more realistic and attainable goal.

At some point we have all become slaves to routine and have unconsciously been more permissive and complacent regarding things that we normally would not allow: a slower and sloppier slide technique, an improper playing posture, shallower breathing, etc. Why does this happen? It is likely the result of issues with concentration, enthusiasm, or simply not being aware of what is required to perform an activity to the best of our own ability.

A proper level of concentration is needed in order to fulfill a goal. An inappropriate level of concentration can cause harm in either extreme: not being concentrated enough can drive us to overlook the treatment of important aspects that could lead to improvement, while being concentrated beyond need can prevent us from attaining aspects that require a simple and natural approach.

It is difficult to be able to perform at our highest level when there is no disposition to do so. Following the same principle as concentration, if excessive enthusiasm (or extreme impulse) is given to the practice of one mere aspect, we spend all our time on that one aspect, rather than giving appropriate attention to all important aspects.

I remember when I used to play computer games, each had a number of minimum requirements that had to be met in order to assure adequate performance of the game. If they were not met, the computer struggled and the game would run poorly or not at all. I believe that similar minimum requirements combine in order to achieve the highest level of performance. There are three aspects that have to be understood and have to work properly: The breathing, the embouchure (a very good study about the embouchure’s performance can be found at wilktone.com), and the slide technique. It is not enough to work on them separately: The way we manage their practice and combine them in performance is extremely important.

Are there other concepts that could insure quality without increasing quantity of the study? There certainly are, but that would be in another post.

When it comes to practice, the physical and mental endurance and the time assigned to practice ARE limited, as much as one might like to believe they are not. The use we make of these resources will determine the quality of the practice. Here there is the first E: Efficiency, defined as: ‘the state or quality of being efficient, or able to accomplish something with the least waste of time and effort’.

Aimless practice is likely to be a waste of time and effort. What is aimless practice? Practice for the sake of practice. Practice without a plan or goal, with a starting time but not a finishing time, with content that is set as we go, that makes no difference between important content, which is required to develop better playing, and the ‘not-so-important content’. Does this practice offer no results? It surely does, however they are not accomplished in an efficient way, but rather achieved by prolonging the time and effort beyond need. Practice should be about getting the most out of the limited resources available, by making the best use of them.

Opposed to wasting time, is investing time: This is required when researching and developing a better more efficient practice routine. It is necessary to distinguish the important content, exercises and concepts needed to achieve a higher level of performance, from those that act as ‘filler’ and waste our limited time and resources. Once these essential concepts and exercises are acknowledged and understood, they should be written down, organized in a reasonable time frame, and implemented to develop efficient practice habits. This establishes a personalized practice ideology (not merely playing through from top to bottom) that includes the content needed to improve and meet specific goals.

What are essential concepts and exercises? The usual suspects are likely to be there. Aspects such as sound, tonging, slide concepts, long tones, slow flexibility, scales, arpeggios, excerpts, technical etudes or breathing exercises, just to name a few. There is always and additional component that applies to each player individually. This consideration makes it impossible to generalize what concepts should be included and what exercises should be played (some exercises might be significant to the development of some people but superfluous and unnecessary to others).

Efficiency in combination with the second E and other concepts assure a sustainable, more enjoyable, frustration-free practice that sets a goal of becoming the best version of ourselves.

From the time I was in high school until I finished my studies, my habit became to practice between 3 and 4 hours daily. This is a relatively average time students spend practicing during their formative years. However, for what reasons do we feel practicing so many hours is necessary? Everything was waiting to be done: There was a lot of NEW material to learn (solo pieces, excerpts, etudes, etc.), and MANY technical aspects to develop (such as sound, articulation, flexibility). In my case,  there was also nothing I would rather have been doing anyway: music was the only thing that interested me and I was happy to spend 3 or 4 hours a day in the practice room.

Once I began to perform more as a professional I noticed two things: primarily, I had covered all the standard material (Of course, there will always be new material in development: a recently published etude book, an obscure operatic or orchestral excerpt, etc.) secondly, I was playing the same materials over and over. Additionally, the circumstances surrounding my personal life had changed: I started a family who I wanted to spend time with and developed other interests and hobbies that I found as fulfilling as my music.

Thus in rethinking the time I spent practicing, I observed that my progression with the instrument was not as noticeable as it was before, the chop and mental freshness prior to practice was not the same after rehearsing a heavy piece with the Orchestra during the morning, nor was the feeling fresh the following day. At some point the game had changed, but I was still playing by the old rules…

The benefits from practicing will always exist. However, the key may actually lie in appreciating quantity vs. quality: more time in the practice room does not necessarily lead to greater results. Here is when the two E’s enter into play. Check my next post to discover how I developed a more efficient practice routine.