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Brass Tacks (Part 1)

Article from Making Music, August 1986

Little boy blue, come blow up your horn — but first, read this introduction to blowing saxes etc.

Synths are very clever but there's still a great demand for a real live brass sound. If you're an aspiring horn player, or a band in search of a section, read on. Jeremy Buxton, who definitely knows the sharp end of a trumpet, begins this two parter with a few important pointers for any one planning on blowing their own horn for the first time.

THINK POSITIVE, but don't believe you're David Sanborn or Miles Davis as soon as you start. Initial training is important and if you start by learning classical methods you can diversify into more styles than if you begin playing by ear.

If you've had lessons from a qualified teacher so much the better. They're a good investment. A teacher can help you with problems and demonstrate technique to you first-hand. If you need a teacher, ask at your local brass instrument dealer who will probably know most of the teachers in the area, or ring your nearest school/college and the music department should be able to locate one.

However good you one day become, there are some important aspects you will always be practising, so be prepared. They are the basis of everything you will ever play:-

LONG NOTES:- play them for a comfortable length, say, between 8 and 16 beats. Play loud and soft and practice crescendo and diminuendo notes (getting louder and softer). This helps control, tuning and accuracy.

TONGUEING AND SLURRING EXERCISES:- co-ordinate all the aspects of playing the instrument, lips, diaphragm, tongue and breathing. There are many in nearly all the tutor manuals.

SCALES AND ARPEGGIOS:- The never ending battle! There are untold variations and they are a real test of all the above elements including a smattering fingerwork on valves and keys. Don't try and play to quickly or attempt the hardest exercises for the hell of it. Measure your own progression in an ordered fashion, setting yourself targets you can achieve otherwise you'll develop bad habits and end up sounding like an Italian traffic jam.

So let's assume you can play. The fun begins. Many players have been in dance bands or orchestras during their youth. You may not love the music, but it teaches the discipline of playing together in a section and producing part of an overall sound. A good thing. If you get into a band with a horn section then you'll be required to play lines together, and you'll ruin it if you're the only one heard. Many young players feel a desperate need to be great improvisers straight away. It doesn't work. You'll end up twiddling valves, keys or slides and getting few interesting sounds. Get down to your local music shop and look through the improvisation books.

These are graded from elementary (easy) to advanced (bloody hard, mate). Some are specifically for one instrument e.g. Bb trumpet or Eb sax, others are general. They explain all the elements of jazz in easy to follow steps, plus giving exercises to improve your skills and examples of solos by the greats. So how do you go about it?

SELECT A 'TUTOR':- They're nearly all American, so the terminology will take some getting used to, but if you find one that is clear to you, start from there.

IMPROVISE ON TUNES YOU KNOW:- Perhaps using a book like '101 tunes for buskers' start with songs you know words to. Slower ones are better, but in any case you'll start to get the hang of phrasing your lines to suit the mood of the tune.

LISTENING:- Try to listen to as much soloing as you can. You pick up so much this way. If there is an example solo in your 'tutor', try and get the original, listen and play it.

TECHNIQUE PROGRESSION:- There are manuals which deal with individual aspects of improvisation such as pentatonic scales and fourths. The Ramon Ricker Jazz Improvision Series is good for this. These techniques will introduce complexity and interest to your playing.

But remember!! Don't run before you can walk. Nothing sounds worse than an improvised blur. Initially, try the 101 tunes for buskers type manuals before working towards more technical improvisation techniques. What instrument you choose to play is up to you, but it is essential to get one that works correctly and then keep it well maintained. So, a few closing words on the horn itself, after all it is your voice. The inside is more important than the outside... the lacquer doesn't affect the sound. Be aware of these points.

Choose an instrument and mouthpiece to suit your needs. Large bore instruments give a bigger warmer sound than smaller bore instruments which are generally more piercing (the former tend to be more useful in modern music). The larger the bore, the easier the horn will be to play (to begin with) though getting higher notes will be harder. Those top notes will come more readily with a shallower cupped mouthpiece than a deep one. But more vital than all those considerations is that you feel comfortable with what you buy. It's a big investment. Seek as much advice as you can and try a number of instruments before deciding.

Maintain it thoroughly. Spit and saliva build up can ruin an instrument's performance and impair precision moving parts. Valves, slides, keys etc. Also, check for decay of cork pads and springs on valves, keys and waterkeys (to drain off saliva). This will be more gradual, but worn pads and weak springs cause squeaks and bum notes — the horn players' nightmare! And always remember to lubricate moving parts using the recommended agents (oil and grease). It should go without saying that constant practise and performance is the best way to keep player and instrument in form.

So that's the first half of the story for anybody considering picking up a tube of something and blowing down it. Next month we'll worry about the other side of the deal... the band hunting its first horn player or horn section, and what they should know, do and play.

Series - "Playing Brass"

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Publisher: Making Music - Track Record Publishing Ltd, Nexus Media Ltd.

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Making Music - Aug 1986


Tuition / Technique


Playing Brass

Part 1 (Viewing) | Part 2

Feature by Jeremy Buxton

Previous article in this issue:

> The Dumb Chums

Next article in this issue:

> Secondhand Synths

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