Let’s Talk Tone


Specifically, how much specific control can a player get for creating tonal variation in their soprano sound?

The flip side of that question is this: how much of the tone achieved by a player is dependent on his equipment (mouthpiece, reed, horn)?

The answer to the first question is a lot. The answer to the second question is also, a lot. So, how can that be?

Well, this is a long and deep subject, but I will take a lot of short cuts in order to get the heart of the matter. Many things will be unsaid here but will be said in subsequent articles. The first thing I’d like to do is make a strange analogy, but one that gets to a certain truth.

Try hitting a curveball thrown at 85 mph sometime. You know how to swing a bat; you can see the ball and you swing at the ball. And you miss. Often, you miss by a lot. If you continue to do the same thing again and again, you get the same results. Want something different to happen? Make a change.

So, you have a certain tone on your horn and you want it to be different in some way. You need to make a change. The emphasis here is on “you” making the change.

What kind of “changes” can you make, keeping the same equipment?

Here they are, in no particular order:

  • Take more mouthpiece.
  • Take less mouthpiece.
  • Use a different style embouchure ( double lip, offset )
  • Change the shape of your oral cavity ( enlarge, reduce )
  • Put more or less lower lip on the reed.
  • Blow harder or easier.
  • Create a longer, deeper air column.
  • Create a shallower, shorter air column.

Now, these things exist independently and also in combination with one another. That’s a lot of possibilities to explore. But ‘exploring” is hard and dangerous work. It’s hard because it takes you away from your comfort zone. It’s dangerous because what you discover may change everything you thought you knew, and that is not usually a fun time.

Let’s take one example. Take “less” mouthpiece. Same mouthpiece, same reed, same horn.

First, you’ll likely feel that your oral cavity got smaller. Also that you’ve lost some embouchure strength, as the muscles around your mouth have to do something new to them. The sound likely got smaller and likely some of the range of the horn does not speak well or at all. Seems like a dead end, but it’s not.

Take what it gives you. If that is a narrow range of the horn, work there. If the sound is small, play long tones and work to gradually make the sound bigger. Don’t be in a hurry. Results are not what we are after right away; we are after glimpses of what can be.

You will likely tire quickly. Stop. Rest. Then go back to it. Commit to the thing you are doing and do not look for ‘alternatives” just yet. Feel the changes in the air column. It should get deeper and firmer is you want to grow the sound. But also hear the change in tone that is achieved. Again, you will likely catch “glimpses” of it before you fully recognize what it is and how you are achieving it.

If the range was narrow when you started, which is very likely, try to gradually expand it by a semitone in each direction. Stay at it until each is as full as the rest of the playable range.

I suggest that you don’t go back to your former way of blowing to compare it. Not yet. Of course, you’ll need to play the way you play but not as part of this exploration. Leave this work as its own adventure. It will pay dividends.

So, what exactly are you discovering?

Much of it will be about how you deliver the air: the shape, the depth, the force, the consistency of the air column. Taking less mouthpiece will change all of those things and they will settle into a new relationship with each other and with this new connection to the mouthpiece.

And the other thing will be sound quality: texture, evenness, intonation.

Keep in mind that these changes will be uncomfortable to a large degree. Your ‘chops” will seem shot quickly, our back muscles may ache a little because they’ll be working differently. It doesn’t matter. That will change and it won’t take long for that to happen.

But, the sound will change. The tone will change. And, very likely, so will your ideas about how you play soprano.

Keep in mind that the chances are that your mouthpiece/reed combination will likely not be the best for what you are now doing. But that is a different subject.

If you like the sound, the piece can almost certainly be balanced to play easily. Your choice of reed brand and strength may change as well. But first, before you make any changes, explore these things.

They will make you a better player, even if you wind up keeping your old approach. Why will it make you better? Because once you “know” something, you can’t pretend to not know it.

This is a very interesting path to take. It’s hard and it’s dangerous but it is very rewarding. And you don’t need anybody else with you.

And try this: after a practice session, write down what you “think” you learned. You’ll find those insights to be a constant source of inspiration and consideration for years and years.