Sunday, 28 February 2010

Raising the tone 2 - controlling and changing tone colour

Changing the "tone colour" can greatly increase the expressive range of your playing. Here, I'm going to concentrate on the mechanics of tone control and production, rather than on the decisions about when and how you fit each technique to the musical circumstance.

Part of the problem with describing this on the horn is that none of it is very visible. For stringed instruments, there are obvious externally visible changes you can make. These include:
  • Playing at the heel of the bow or at the tip
  • The width and speed of your vibrato
  • How close to the bridge you have the bow
  • How much pressure on the string you have
  • What speed you move the bow
  • Which string you play on
  • What angle you hold the bow - affecting how much hair of the bow is touching the string.
And this is just how you can affect the tone of sustained notes. There is in addition the whole business of the attack, how you start a note, whether you start the bow motionless on the string or you have the bow already in motion when it comes into contact with the string, and how hard and at what angle you bring it down.

Similarly, there is a surprisingly wide range of tones you can get from percussion instruments such as the timpani. Here, you can change tone by means including the following
  • The type of drumstick you use - you get great variation in tone from differences in weight, material and hardness.
  • Where you strike the drum - different distances from the edge can have quite different effects
  • The manner in which you make the stroke - what speed and weight you put into it
I claim no expertise in either string or percussion technique beyond what I have picked up as an interested spectator and fellow musician, fascinated with how players of other instruments go about their business. Both string and percussion technique have their own vocabulary for their tone production techniques, and I've found that conductors are reasonably familiar with them, and know roughly what to ask for when they want a particular tone colour, especially from strings.

The point is that the techniques are visible, and have a vocabulary associated with the actions you take to achieve a tone, so it is relatively easy for both string and percussion players both to talk about tone techniques to each other, and to teach them from a relatively early age.

But it is a bit different for wind instruments. The techniques for changing tone colour do exist, but they aren't visible. They consist of changes in air support, in minute changes of muscle position and tension, and for the horn changes of the position of the hand in the bell. It is far harder to say "change such and so by this amount to change the tone in that way", because neither the teacher nor the pupil can see what is going on. Because the changes aren't visible, they are visualised instead, and often quite inaccurately.

This has bedevilled the teaching of wind instruments for ever. And as a result, the common vocabulary has tended to grow up not so much about techniques, but rather about effects. Wind players have a range of words they use to describe subtle differences in tone colour, in much the same way as the Inuit have many different words describe different varieties of snow.

But there are some things you can say. On the horn for instance, having the right hand closing the aperture of the bell a little more produces a darker, more velvety tone, whereas opening the right hand produces a brighter sound. Tightening the lips and reducing the aperture, and increasing the air pressure to compensate trends to produce a more "brassy" edge to the sound, whereas relaxing the muscles a bit and allowing more airflow with less pressure tends to produce a more mellow "projected" sound.

And just as you can vary the attack as a string player by how you place the bow on the string, so you can do the same in wind playing, by how you tongue a note. You can vary where on the roof of the mouth the tongue rests, how fast you move it, and how much of an excess of air pressure you allow to build up behind the tongue. All of these things will affect how the start of the note sounds.

Each wind instrument has its own techniques. They tend to have a certain amount in common, in that they are for the most part concerned with intimate control over air supply and embouchure. But the effects do vary a significant amount from one instrument to the next, given the differences in the basic mechanics of sound production.

But the first and most important thing to realise is that you can gain conscious control over your tone, as distinct from control over your dynamics. You can decide how you sound as well as how loud. The second thing to realise is that differences sound much greater to you than they will sound to the audience having been attenuated by distance. So if you want variety of tone to feature in your repertoire of expression, then you need to be able to produce exaggerated changes. Only if the variation seems comically overdone to you will the audience be able to notice much of a difference at all.

Most professional horn players are well familiar with this, but I'm surprised at how many even quite good amateurs haven't quite grasped the concept of tone control and variation as a deliberate tool of expression.


  1. Thanks for these posts on tone. That point about exaggerating in performance to better communicate to the audience one that seems often overlooked.

    A minor quibble might be that while one's desire for a particular tone is conscious, the discreet muscle adjustments to create that tone are, for me anyway, right there between conscious and unconscious. It seems easier to create a particular tone color by imagining the end product than by telling all the large and small muscles exactly what to do. (With the caveat that we're on such opposite ends of the skill spectrum, it's more of a difference of kind than degree.)

  2. Hi Lyle
    Actually, I largely agree with your quibble, and this is reflected in the fact that the wind players' vocabulary on tone focusses on outcomes (i.e. tone colours) rather than techniques.

    The visualisation of what the muscles are about is almost certainly inaccurate to a large degree. The outcome is tangible - it is a different tone colour for both the player and the audience to hear. So it is words concerning the outcome which tend to be used.

    But this makes it very difficult to teach tone control and variation. In fact, looking back on my horn lessons, I recall very little explicit instruction in this. It was all done by indirection - by means of studies that required particular kinds of tone. I was given the study and told to get on with it.

    Describing the "how" of it all is something that I worked out for myself long after my student days were over, when somebody first asked me what I meant by a projected sound.

    Because I've worked it out for myself, I've also developed my own vocabulary for it as well, I doubt very much that I'm the first or the only person to have found a way of describing this, so you may well come across others who say the same sort of things but using different words.

    By the way, I've got one more article to come in this set, on deciding how and when to use different tones, and how to decide what tone a particular musical context requires.