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, 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.