How do you improve your sound? It sometimes feels like it is something that is out of our control.
The sound we make on our instrument is a concept, its a hugely personal concept, but one that we often neglect. Unlike other topics in these blogs, sound development is not something that we can always say “do these exercises and you will get the sound of your dreams”. It’s more about understanding you the player, and you the listener. Once you come to terms with this, then you will start to see change in your sound and move towards the sound you want to make.
Lots of long tones, and low register work will definitely help free up your sound, but today I want to go a step further and talk more philosophically about the process of making the sound you want to make.
First up - what makes a good sound? You listen to a player and you say, wow I love that sound, but its often hard to put your finger on what it is about it that you love. Being analytical about this is important - we often listen to the wrong things, unfortunately this is very common in brass bands. We are so programmed towards competitions, that we listen more for split notes and inaccuracies than we do the sound of the performer.
So, what makes a good sound? That is completely up to you! Go and listen to Wynton Marsalis, and then tell me what makes his sound so incredible, is it the warmth? the character? Or is it the rawness in his sound? It’s more than a good sound, it’s HIS sound. He owns that, its his passport to his performance. When you put a record on, you know instantly that that is Wynton Marsalis. I often think that he is the perfect example of what we are all trying to achieve - our own unique sound.
His sound comes from every Smokey Jazz club he has played in, it comes from the classical repertoire he knows so well, it comes from every experience that has shaped him, and then he breathes that all in and it comes out his bell. How do we get there? How do we make our own version of this? Well I am really glad you asked....
Firstly, we need to decide what is it we want to sound like. I like to think of sound as a huge circle on the wall. The circle is filled with colours. When I practice at home, I look at the wall and think about the sound I am making, is it dark and mysterious (rich blues and green) or is it light and edgy (reds and yellows). How much of the circle is my core sound (the dark material in the middle) and how much is the light colour on the edges. By doing this, I have entered into the most important part about this process, I am thinking about the colours I am producing and manipulating my sound through this concept. This might sound all airy fairy, but I can tell you that it has worked for me, and thats why I am writing about it. A huge part of making the sound you want to make, is thinking about that sound every time you pick up your instrument. Don’t throw away the opportunity to make a good sound because you are not concentrating. A teacher once said to me that ‘every time you pick up your instrument, you just have to make your best sound’. It’s a concept, its concentration, its the single best habit you will ever get into.
I get furious with myself when my sound is not right, when it’s unfocused, I reset and try again. Every time I play, I think about the sound I am going to make before I even breathe in air. I know that without my sound, I am just a trombone player, but by producing the sound I want to, I am me.
The second part of producing the sound you want to, is always listening and adapting your sound to your environment. Listen, Listen, Listen. Put on a recording of players you love, and write down what it is about their sound that connects with you - think about those positives, and then make it part of your playing. I listen to players all the time, and it doesn’t matter if they are learning or a professional, there are always things to learn from. The thing I often take away is the sound, the quality of it, and I try and take an aural photo of it, imprinting it on my brain to think about.
The last thing I want to mention, is that you are capable of making many different sounds on the instrument. Light or heavy, bright or dark, you can manipulate the instrument to create the sound you want - dont ever settle for one sound. If you want to change your sound, then go looking, find the sound you want and strive everyday to make it. Never stop thinking about the sound you want, its a life search, and one that is equal part infuriating and awesome.
Having a clear idea of what you want to sound like is vital. Watch Beauden Barrett before he kicks a goal, he visualises the ball sailing through the posts, and then goes through the physical process of kicking it. That visualisation is the same as conceptualising your sound. Think about the sound you want to produce, take in great air, and then sing through the instrument. You just made a great sound.