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)
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.