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Music Fundamentals in Brass Playing

Constructing a musical image of a piece, not only requires learning “how it goes,” but also applying musical fundamentals to the image. You absolutely must hear the music with great sound, great rhythmic underpinning, and pure intonation. These are the laws of music…don’t break them!

What is a great Sound? How do you know if you are making a great sound? This is a pretty fundamentally difficult question to answer. People will give lots of answers: a great sound is… big, open, free, clear, flexible, resonant, dark, brilliant. A lot of times what these terms mean is very nebulous and hard to explain in a technical way. We will discuss later some techniques for developing sound, but the best way is to hear great sounds and imitate.

We also need to address your understanding of what a great brass ensemble sounds like. There are lots of great recordings out there and some of my favourites come from the group German Brass. We’ll listen together to some of their recordings and we’ll talk through what they do right.

Intonation is very important to having a great sounding group. Interestingly, having players with great sounds makes playing in tune much easier! Beyond working on sound, there are some other practical ways to develop your sense of intonation.

Make sure your instrument is always in tune. Tune to A=440. Use a tuner to test whether your instrument is properly adjusted.

Make sure you are fully warmed up and that your instrument is not cold.

Since brass instruments are at the best of times fairly out of tune with themselves, I recommend tuning on at least three open (1st position) intervals, usually the first three partials. (Bb, F, Bb concert … F, C, F concert on horn) you will find that even if one is in tune, the others may be out just a bit. Find the tuning slide position that gets the most notes closest.

Once your instrument is in tune, spot check yourself occasionally: land on a note and hold it. Check the tuner to see if you are playing in tune. If not, notice the tendency and be prepared for that the next time it comes around. Try to hear the correct intonation in your musical image.

Fixing Tendencies

Trombones can simply adjust their positions in or out to find the proper intonation (except 1st). All others can adjust smaller slides (i.e. 1st and 3rd slides on a trumpet, which should be working smoothly by the way!) to lower sharper pitches. When it comes to notes that are typically flat, we have to “lip” it up by using just a little more embouchure and energizing the air. Use a drone pitch to practice interval intonation: find a sustained drone source: keyboard, tuner, etc. I use a Dr. Beat and listen through good headphones. The drone must be fairly loud compared to your sound. Play different notes above and below. Start with major scale – check out each note. You will be able to find a “place” on each note where you get the strongest co-vibration with the drone…that’s where it’s in tune you will notice your tendencies come into play here as well. Try all the chromatic notes vs. the drone.

Perfect Pitch: “Perfect Pitch” is the ability to hear/identify notes or generate/sing them without referencing an instrument. Some people are born with it. Many others develop it because it so useful, especially to brass players. Here’s how you can work on this skill…

Start by trying to simply imagine a Bb, and once you have a clear idea, sing it. Then check it (with piano or your instrument). Were you close? Another way is to try imagining the start of a favorite song. Often times this can be easier than just trying to pick a pitch out of nowhere. Learn what note your song starts on, say it’s an F. Then practice hearing the song in your head, and singing the note. Check yourself again. It may take some time to develop your accuracy at this but the payoff is big.

Once you are able to generate that one note from scratch, you can work on finding the other notes in relation. An easy one is to try to find a fourth (use the opening of Mendelssohn’s wedding march “here comes the bride”=automatic perfect fourth). Start by hearing your note, then hear the tune starting on that note. You should end up on the note you want. As you get better at this, the process will quicken and you will be able to find any note you need quickly. You will also be ready to hear new things and match them to what you hear in you head, being able to “magically” name notes out of thin air!

Rhythm: Rhythm is the other major music fundamental that we as a group and as individuals need to develop. Correct rhythms need to be precisely divided over the beat. The beat, or pulse, needs to remain constant. Within these two areas, pulse and rhythms, there is a tremendous possibility for small pitfalls that will detract from the music. If pulse and rhythm are cornerstones in every player’s technique, the rhythmic clarity and energy this combination creates will knock the listener’s socks off.

Here’s what to work on

Pulse: ability to maintain a steady beat by oneself and as a group. Use a Metronome often in your own practice. Even if you’re working on things at a slower tempo, the metronome provides precise pulse for you to coordinate with. If you practice coordinating with steady pulse, you will be much better prepared to accomplish it.

Find the Groove, Baby! This exercise we will do as a group for sure but it is also useful to do during your own practice. Groove is something you might find percussionists talking about a lot, but there’s no reason we can’t work on this concept as well. Start by creating a simple beat; use a metronome. Perhaps use the tempo of a particular piece you would like to improve on. Next add some vocalized rhythms, whatever you like, have fun, improvise, beat box – make it all fit with the beat. Finally, start moving your body. Anything you want to do, go for it! If you were using this to generate the pulse of a particular piece, at this point you would phase out the vocalizations and movements while you keep the pulse and groove going. Then count off your piece. Play within the groove that you have established and you find rhythms will fit easily into the groove you are feeling.

Rhythm is the ability to accurately divide a beat into smaller note values

When approaching a new piece of music, it is vitally important to accurately understand all rhythms in the work. Part of being able to accomplish requires having the ability to subdivide different types of note values perfectly over a beat, and to be able to switch. For a humbling experience, try setting your metronome at quarter = 60. First, practice different types of subdivisions (eighths, triplets, sixteenths, quintuplets) accurately placing them over the beat. Next, play one right after the other, in different orders and strive to maintain even subdivision, and steady pulse!

In complicated passages here are a few suggestions to help simply any problems. We will go over these techniques and how to use them at some point in rehearsal; they are here for your reference.

Practice slowly and with a steady tempo: Find the beat, and mark it. Remove ties between notes for practicing, when you go to play as written, pretend that you actually play this note and it will help you feel the rhythm accurately. Find the smallest note value, subdivide the entire passage by that value. For example if the smallest note is a sixteenth, play all quarter notes as four sixteenths, eighth notes as two sixteenths, etc. For another example, practice playing the passage this way several times, then go back and play it as written.

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