Tips for Improved Brass Fundamentals and Sound Practice

brass fundamentals

Editor’s note: As many of you know, Marie Speziale was the first female trumpet player to play in a major symphony orchestra. In honor of the Midwest Clinic’s 70th Anniversary in 2016, she was invited to present a masterclass in Chicago last December. Below are some highlights from that masterclass, parts of which previously appeared in an article in The Woman Conductor.

As educators, we are charged with training our students to perform with the highest standards of sound, pitch, rhythm and style. In formulating my thoughts for the Midwest Clinic masterclass, I organized my presentation to focus on these important categories, with an emphasis on playing with maximum efficiency, with ease of tone production and natural resonance.

Breathing and Tone Production

It is vitally important that we help students establish habits that will help them develop a more natural, relaxed manner of breathing for easy, efficient tone production.

Air is the source of sound! Unfortunately, the simple process of breathing has become so very analyzed and has been made far too complicated. Breathing needs to be a natural process with easy, effortless inhalation. With a proper, relaxed breath, there is a definite sensation of lateral expansion that extends down into the small of the back.

Unfortunately, young brass players have a tendency to lift their shoulders when they take a breath. This action results in a false sense of full inhalation. The reality is that they tap into only a small portion of their lung capacity and quite likely wind up introducing upper body tension and/or tightness in the neck/throat area thereby affecting tone production and reducing performance efficiency.

The sensation in the exhalation process should be a loose, steady stream of air without any compression. Compressing the air simply does not work and leads to production problems. That’s like driving down the expressway with one foot on the gas pedal and one foot on the brake. In the exhalation, the character of the air line is always horizontal, whether playing high or low, loud or soft, fast or slow, long or short.

The approach is very much like the bowing of a string instrument where the bowing, whether up bow or down bow, is always horizontal. The bow does not come up under the chin for the upper register. Conversely, it does not move down to the scroll for the lower register.

The inhalation/exhalation process should be as smooth as possible with the air always in motion – a seamless uninterrupted air line. Imagine the air line diagramming the infinity sign. I encourage young musicians to think of their lungs as mini heaters where the air entering the body is immediately warmed up. The exhalation is then warm and moist. Example: Fogging up the mirror!

In our 2016 Midwest Clinic presentation, we used smoothie straws (cut in half) to help the students experience the naturalness of breathing and to focus on full inhalation. I had them place the palms of their hands about an inch away from the end of the straw to detect the direction, quality, quantity, velocity, and temperature of the air line being blown through the straw.

For demonstration purposes, we used excerpts from a Bach chorale. Once the students grasped the concept of full inhalation, we immediately heard a difference in tone production. The ensemble’s tone was full, focused and resonant. I encouraged the students to imagine what they wanted to sound like before they played their first note – focusing on that tone quality in their mind’s ear – paying close attention to using their air column to produce that fully, supported tone. We focused on developing their efficient sound production, easy sound production, effortless sound production … their ESP.


Tuning, very much like breathing, is over analyzed. Once proper breathing and tone production have been addressed, potential intonation issues are automatically eliminated. It is much easier to tune to a full tone rather than a thin, unsupported tone.

The larger the target, the easier to tune to.

When faulty intonation does surface, it’s important to isolate the problem area. If it’s a linear issue, have the students alternate between singing and playing the line. For this demonstration, I had the students play excerpts from the Bach Cantata No. 118 on an air line through the straw – with no pitches. I selected short lines for optimum results. When tuning a chord, there are a number of options to assist in establishing solid interval management. I asked the students to alternate playing and singing each other’s pitches. Some pitches were played while other pitches were sung – simultaneously. Then vice versa. I asked them to memorize the sound of the intervals they were singing and playing. We need to let our ears do the work. Imagine the pitch/interval as a quality of sound – then focus on reproducing that quality of sound throughout.


The tongue is motivated by the air. Not the other way around. Articulations should be considered a process of blowing notes in place or releasing them into the instrument. To reduce reliance on the tongue, I encourage students to practice articulation without the tongue.

Once the student realizes that the tone is motivated by the air, they can then add the tongue into the equation. It is important to be aware of where the air column and the tongue connect for articulation – then develop the different gradations of articulations. For this demonstration, we played excerpts from the Holcombe Fanfare and Toccata. We focused on increasing the velocity of the air column behind the tongue to execute well-centered articulations – with clarity, crispness and great energy.


For this demonstration, we played excerpts from the Husa Divertimento and the Gabrieli Canzon Septimi Toni No. 2 for contrasting styles.

In the Husa, I asked the young musicians to make a bold statement in the opening, maintaining intensity, energy, and direction of line. I emphasized the importance of breathing in time and in the character of the music so that the audience understood the emotion of the piece from the very first note. It is extremely important to execute convincingly the dynamics of a piece as they communicate the emotional temperature of the music.

To convey the contrasting style of the Gabrieli Canzon, we focused on a much lighter approach.

To achieve that, I had the brass players whistle their lines for lightness and crispness of articulation. I prompted them to project their articulations with a concentrated, lighter, more direct airline – one without weight. For a sense of smooth, seamless phrasing in the legato lines, I had the musicians hum their parts – focusing on a more vocal approach rather than instrumental. I discussed the importance of crossing bar lines for longer phrases – larger musical arches. Bar lines were invented for organizational purposes and should not confine phrasing concepts.

In summation, I hope these practice tips help your students develop new habits and encourage them to approach their practice sessions in an organized, thoughtful manner. The goal is to develop effective practice techniques to achieve maximum productivity with a minimum of wasted effort – and without contributing to unnecessary embouchure stress and fatigue.

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