As musicians we are constantly judging and evaluating our progress based on a variety of benchmarks. Whether we are learning a new solo, increasing our range, or trying to speed up our triple tonguing, we often lose sight of the most important and fundamental issue….our sound.
When putting technique and “getting all the right notes” at the forefront of practicing, we need to constantly ask ourselves, “Right, but how does it sound?” Right notes, right rhythm, and musicality are all important but it’s much harder for an audience to get past a “bad sound.” Obstacles like conquering the technique need for tough passages can be learned and practiced relatively quickly, but a great sound takes time to develop and nurture.
Sound, and things associated with it (tone, intonation, etc.), is the first thing we hear and usually the thing we remember most vividly. When you are auditioning for a professional job, summer festival, or even all-district band, missed notes are expected. Making mistakes shows that we are human; but having a bad sound is a strong indicator of the level of player we are.
It takes real maturity and discipline to put your projects on hold just to focus on sound. Believe me, IT TAKES TIME. It comes naturally for some but the sound (whether it’s good or not) when you’re 12 is not going to be the same sound you have when you’re 30 (at least lets hope not!).
Listen to what #FredBrassUMKC Trumpet Artist, Jens Lindemann has to say when it comes to someone’s sound:
I remember so vividly my first lesson with Craig Morris as a transfer student at the University of Miami. Up to this point, Professor Morris had only heard me play on two occasions: my audition for the school over six months ago, and my ensemble placement audition for seven minutes earlier that week. He simply asked, “Would you mind playing me just a little something so I can remember what you sound like?” I happily obliged and started the first movement of Oskar Böhme’s “Concerto in F minor,” a beautiful Romantic piece with loads of technical passages. I felt confident because I have been performing this piece for years and even participated in competitions with it.
Without playing more than 30 seconds, Professor Morris stopped me and said “That’s right……….you do a lot of things wrong really well.” As the smile on my face began to droop downwards, he then had me do a series of medial exercises. “Can you play a C scale, one octave up and down? Great now a G scale two octaves? Ok, what do you hear?” I sat there confused. “Your low register is fuzzy, your upper register is pinched, and you don’t have the same sound going down as you do going up.”
Then it hit me; there is so much music out in the world; so many solos, so many etudes, excerpts, chamber music, and so on. How was I ever going to play all of them well when I couldn’t play arguably the two easiest scales with a good sound?
The emphasis here is that we tend to rush forward in the music we are trying to make while leaving the fundamentals of a good sound in the back seat. When you think about it, in everything you play, what are people listening to?
IT ALL COMES DOWN TO SOUND.
Now, yes, as a student we have ensembles to play in and lessons to prepare, but we need to strive to take the same amount of time you do on playing the right notes as the sound you make playing them.
I don’t preach this on top of the high horse I rode in on, but rather as someone that is seeing the importance of it more and more each day. People want to hear someone with a good sound, not necessarily some technical monster. It’s the first thing we notice and the first thing we compliment.
“Hey, you SOUND good!”
7 Tips to improve your sound:
1. Slow down what you’re playing
When we play things fast, we often gloss over the problems and we don’t realize they are there.
2. Play etudes, scales, exercises, solos, etc. in all registers.
We tend to avoid playing in the registers we are uncomfortable with and stay in our “safe zone”.
3. Let sound guide you.
Instead of focusing on whether or not the notes and rhythms are right, let whether or not you have the right sound drive your success.
4. Record yourself
I know this. You know this. #justdoit
5. Listen to the Masters.
Find your favorite players and favorite musicians to emulate to get the sound in your ear.
6. Know what specifically you want better in your sound.
Saying you want a better sound is vague, be specific. Do you want to get rid of fuzz? Pinching? Is your sound too bright and you want it darker?
7. Make playing fun and simple.
I’ve found that the best playing comes from it being easy and musical. #duh
But we forget this constantly. Ask yourself, "Am I making this more difficult? Can this be more musical?"
We have so much to learn and so much to work on, but we won’t go as far as we dream if the fundamental essence of music suffers.
Just ask yourself, what is it that you would want to hear?