Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Mouthpiece Buzzing: "Buzzy" v. "Windy"

No, this isn't some obscure supreme court decision.
But, like some of those decisions, this might stir up some controversy...
  1. Play a middle F on your trombone with your best sound.
  2. As you continue to attempt to play the note, gently pull the mouthpiece out of the trombone.
  3. What happens/should happen to the note when the mouthpiece is removed?
For me, the note stops pretty quickly.

When I play on the trombone, there is a slightly larger gap between upper and lower lip. The resistance of the instrument sets the lips buzzing.
Conversely, try this:
  1. Buzz a nice-sounding middle F.
  2. As you continue to buzz the note, gently insert the mouthpiece into the trombone.
  3. What does the note sound like?
For me, the answer is, "pinched...memories of middle school"
(actually junior high school in my case but that's beside the point).

When I buzz on the mouthpiece, there is a somewhat smaller gap between the upper and lower lip. This gives me a nice, full buzz on the mouthpiece but a pinched sound on the trombone.

In fact, I can slightly alter that gap to get different kinds of buzzes, ranging from what I call a "windy" buzz to what might be called a "tight" buzz.
So, we can think of a continuum like this:

I often hear advice like, "Get more buzz in the buzz." or "Strive for a buzzy buzz." To me, these can usually be translated to, "Lips closer together."
True, this kind of buzz generates a clearer tone on the mouthpiece.

But will that translate to a clearer tone on the instrument? Maybe, maybe not.

Some observations:
  1. Buzzing isn't physically the same as playing but, for most people, it helps.
  2. A tighter buzz may be useful to build embouchure muscles.
  3. A tighter buzz generates a clearer pitch to hear.
  4. A looser buzz, however, requires more air and is closer to the setting used on the trombone.
I suspect a lot of band directors out there are dutifully telling their brass players to buzz and then assuming that ...the louder the buzz, the better the tone will be on the instrument.
Maybe, maybe not.
Personally, I've been leaning towards the "windy" buzz lately. I like the volume of air it requires and, although it isn't the same as actually playing, it's closer.
Here's the tricky part: a good buzz does need a core to the sound. There is a fine and very subtle line between a good "windy" buzz and a buzz without any definition or core to the sound.
I sometimes demonstrate this in lessons by recording my buzz with the microphone to the side of my head. When we play it back over good stereo speakers, the mid-range and low-range speakers really vibrate as they play back the sound of that buzz.
For a weak buzz lacking in core...not so much.

It's subtle difference but one worth thinking about.


john said...

Funny, my buzz continues in and out of the horn, on and off the mouthpiece for these easy midrange notes and with best sound.

But there's clearly something that goes on with the gap. I wonder if regular practice with a closer gap on the horn will translate to both a best sound on the horn and a best sound on the piece for you?

Brad Edwards said...

Well, another factor is dynamics. One of my "tricks" for soft entrances in orchestral passages is to keep the lips closer together and maybe even breathe through the nose before the entrance. I think I learned this from Better Glover.

Gabe Langfur said...

I was talking to Toby Oft this summer about this very topic. In school in Chicago he was taught to go for the more windy buzz as you describe. But at the suggestion of Joe Alessi he started experimenting with a buzzier buzz, with the lips closer together.

I've been trying it too, and I find that it helps me connect registers better as I buzz the mouthpiece. I don't try to do the same thing when I play the horn, but I am finding that practicing buzzing the mouthpiece this way seems to help quite a bit when I go back to playing trombone.

Incidentally, I don't buzz that much as a practice aid for music. I mostly buzz in the beginning stages of my warm-up. If I were buzzing for a different purpose I might approach it differently.

Becca Clemens said...

I like the new layout!

And as always, great post.

Russ Zokaites said...


You should talk to Chris Dudley about this. He talks about three positions of the buzz, inside your mouth, in the shank of the mouthpiece and further out in the audience. I believe he was talking about the some thing only thinks about it a little differently.

I use buzzing to help with pitch, centering notes and the connection between notes. But, I agree buzzing does change the sound, most of the time for the better. However, too much buzzing I have found to be damaging.

Andrew Reich said...

brad, great thought provoking material as always!! i was reading the comments and saw what Gabe wrote. I recently took another lesson with Toby, and was amazed at the difference of my sound, when we were really working on Buzzing. He was really pushing me to get the angry hornet buzz.

Eventually I was able to recreate the sound of his buzz.

I think it was the "volume of air"-with my windy buzz combined with the smaller aperture of my "buzzy buzz" that got the desired result he was looking for.

the end product was me listening to to the recording of mahler three thinking it was Toby playing, then after the excerpt finished you hear toby's voice say "WOW!, can you hear the difference in your sound"

a true lightbulb moment!