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.