Troubleshooting for Music Teachers

Many of the problems listed below are indications that students have not mastered the fundamentals of brass playing, which include efficient use of air, correct buzzing technique and absence of tension. Therefore, these problems do not have a quick fix; rather they require consistent daily practice of fundamental exercises to build these skills.

This list represents common problems faced by the band teacher in the average program. It has been developed as an aid to the non-brass music specialist and is by no means complete. For more detailed information on the technical aspects of sound production and performance please peruse the other topics addressed on this website.

Boredom on low brass parts Solutions: Find band repertoire that features low brass, create a brass ensemble to play small ensemble literature as a classroom project for marks, give students solo literature to practice at home and perform in a concert, give students a sense of pride by explaining their important role in the ensemble.

Braces Solution: The student could try using wax available at orthodontist’s office. Have student return to basics by buzzing without a mouthpiece, with the mouthpiece only with minimum contact pressure and good air flow, and finally with the instrument. Encourage student to do beginner warm-up exercises until adjustment is made. The same procedure is necessary when the student has the braces removed.

Double horn: when to switch from the F to the B Flat side It is generally agreed that G# on the 2nd line and the notes above it should be played on the B Flat side of the horn.

High notes difficult to obtain Although encouraging faster air, saying the syllable ‘tee’ and narrowing the aperture of the lips are techniques used by teachers to elicit higher notes from students, it must be stressed that there is no substitute for fundamental skill development in the mid-range. Ensure that students not only practice regularly, but also spend at least half their practice time on relevant warm-up exercises. Reward this type of practice, create games and friendly competitions in the classroom based on an ‘exercise of the week’ and make technique a fun and everyday part of the rehearsal routine. Once students develop these skills, they will be able to extend their range more easily.

Maintaining the low brass section The low brass section is probably the most important part of the ensemble in terms of balance and intonation. Extra care should be given to the section for various reasons to ensure their success. In beginning band, these students may require special help with pitch recognition (see below) since the notes they play are out of their vocal range. Access to a piano or keyboard during practice may be helpful to ensure correct notes are sounded. Most importantly, students who practice the fundamentals (buzzing, breathing exercises) daily will quickly develop the necessary skills as well as confidence and pride. Be sure that students with large instruments have the support structure in place to transport their instruments to and from home. School bus drivers often have to find creative ways of securing large instruments if the buses do not have storage compartments. Parents and/or older siblings can often help transporting the instrument by car if the student cannot carry the instrument home.

Overbite Students with overbites tend to play their instruments pointing downwards, since their receding jaws invite that position. This is especially detrimental to trumpet and trombone players since these directional instruments require the bell to point out rather than down to the floor. Encourage students to move their jaws forward (comfortably, not unnaturally) so that they can blow out a thin, horizontal stream of air. Students should always play with their jaws in this position.

Playing legato on trombone Trombonists require special instructions for playing legato, since they must tongue every note to avoid sounding the microtones between positions. When teaching two-note slurs to the rest of the band, emphasize to trombonists that they should lightly tongue ‘loo’ or ‘doo’ to achieve the same legato effect on their instruments.

Posture Posture problems can be due to tension, jaw placement (see OVERBITE), lack of information or lack of confidence. By analyzing the student and situation, teachers can discover which approach to use. Trumpet players should flatten their stands to allow the sound to project over them. Trombone players should move their stands to the right to allow easy movement of the slide and projection of the sound from the bell. Students who slouch may need to imagine themselves as marionettes whose puppet master has pulled the string attached to their heads so that ‘Sit straight!’ develops new meaning. Students need to understand the science of breathing. Borrowing the biology class’s skeleton to demonstrate how the breathing passages are restricted when the body is folded may be a visual way to review the importance of posture. Finally, there is no substitute for student pride (which is naturally reflected in their body language) than success on their instrument. Consistent practice of specific exercises helps the student achieve this success.

Recognition of pitches Beginning students with no musical background may find pitch discrimination difficult at first. Students must learn to hear the difference between notes as well as learn how to physically produce them. Some students will naturally vacillate to concert F as their first note; others may feel more comfortable on concert B Flat. Encourage the student to play that first note well three times in a row. When they can achieve that goal consistently, they are ready to attempt another pitch, since they have established an anchor in their first note. Teach students aural intervals and the songs that match these intervals right from the start. If students can sing pitches and intervals before they play them, their pitch discrimination will increase dramatically.

Recruitment for low brass One of the best ways to recruit for low brass is to bring in a specialist (a musician from the local community?) who has good student rapport and a dynamic personality. Expose not only your music students to this person, but also students from your feeder schools who may one day be in your program. Bring students to events like Tuba Christmas, etc. Play recordings of low brass music and hang posters of famous musicians on the wall. When playing at feeder schools, demonstrate what a group sounds like without low instrumentation and then with, explaining how special low brass players are.

Stuck mouthpiece Use a mouthpiece puller. Do not attempt to remove the mouthpiece by force.

Stuck slide or valve Read your repair manual or get an expert to show you. Again, force can damage tubing.

Thin sound Thin sound usually implies that fundamentals have not been established. Thin sound may be the result of tension in the throat or lips that are stretched too tightly. Tension is the enemy of all brass playing. Have the student buzz daily on the lips and with the mouthpiece. Once this routine is established and the student consciously feels his/her breathing passage is more open and/or the lips are more relaxed, have the student add easy warm-up exercises, focusing on physical relaxation.

Uncentered tone An uncentered tone is usually the result of the player playing on the sharp end of the note where the pitch feels more secure. To develop a centred tone, the student must lip down to the spot where the pitch may wobble but will sound clearer and cleaner. The best way to develop ‘lip-down’ control is to do the warm-down exercise listed in the exercise section of Teacher Resources on this website.

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