The Physics of Brass Playing

It is important to understand that playing with TCE does not work against the laws of nature in relation to how brass instruments work. There are a number of misconceptions about how a tone is produced on a brass pipe and many methods even advocate thinking that contradicts science with the hope that the correct physical movements can be learned without real understanding being necessary.

The people who have best described the physics of brass instruments in the last century were undoubtedly Renold Schilke (former principal trumpet of Chicago Symphony Orchestra and co-founder of the Schilke Music Products Inc.), William Cardwell (worked for F.E. Olds) and Dr Richard Smith (of Smith-Watkins, formerly Boosey & Hawkes). In terms of how this applies to playing then some great sources of wisdom include K.O. (who at the time of writing works for Stomvi USA) and Lynn Nicholson (previously a member of Maynard Ferguson’s Band), both of whom have quite a collection of videos on YouTube that dispel common myths about what should be happening when you play.

None of the people mentioned above advocate the Tongue Controlled Embouchure in their playing, but that fact is not important because the way that instruments work does not change with your embouchure type. With the abundance of information now available online it is best practice to learn from all available sources and discern for yourself whether information is helpful.

Lynn Nicholson describes trumpet playing in the following way:

  • Air needs to get into the trumpet
  • The chops have to be available to vibrate, in response to the correct application of air
  • We are interfacing a mechanical air stream against a more esoteric acoustical resistance; we do not need to know the reasons for it.

These quotes are far from a full explanation and do not include instructions on how to play. They do, however, sum up a simple way of grasping the task at hand when playing a brass instrument. If you’re struggling to play in any range of a brass instrument then the chances are that the solution is somewhere in those three sentences. How to “correctly apply air” is the real subject of every method book and, indeed, this website…

After writing the page “The Tongue Controls Everything!” it became apparent that there wasn’t an adequate explanation of what that means. The tongue controls the aperture through which the air must pass to produce a sound. The regulation of this aperture provides resistance for the air stream, enabling the compression of the air. Air compression is necessary for good tone production regardless of range, dynamic and style of music being performed. This is the imperative point that is being missed when teachers say things such as “blow more air” or “faster air as you go higher” – these phrases are not specific enough to be helpful for anyone and further compounded by the fact that they’re plain old wrong… It is also the deeper meaning behind things said by master players when they say cryptic things like “Every piano needs a bit of forte and every forte needs a bit of piano”. Translation: “You still need air compression for soft notes and don’t over blow for high notes”. Plain English would make learning brass instruments so much easier!!

Esoteric acoustical resistance?

Following Hornbostel-Sach’s system for defining musical instruments the physics of brass can be understood like this:

A brass aerophone is a musical instrument that produces sound by sympathetic vibration of air in a tubular resonator in sympathy with the vibration of the player’s lips

Here it is as a step-by-step process:

  1. The tone is initiated when the air pressure on the inside of the lips is greater than the pressure outside of the lips, causing the aperture to open.
  2. The opening of the lips releases air, which sends a pressure wave along the whole length of the instrument and back again in a fraction of a second.
  3. At the point that the pressure wave has reflected back from the end of the bell (final point of rarefaction) the air pressure is now greater outside of the lips than inside the mouth, causing the aperture to close.
  4. Provided the player is still pushing air the process loops back to the start and the tone is maintained.

Now that we have a basic model for tone production comes the argument for TCE. TCE is obviously not necessary for making sounds come out of a trumpet, and there are many many good players who do not play this way. However, there are countless thousands of brass players who have very basic problems with their playing that simply would not exist if they were to adopt TCE. In fact full adoption isn’t even required, but when you can play in a way that makes everything easier then why would you choose not to? The most common ways of playing brass are very inefficient and players often learn their limitations very quickly. Overcoming these limitations can be easier than most believe.

An issue that tends to come up when teaching brass is the belief that playing higher on an instrument requires more physical strength than playing in the low register. Whilst it is true that playing high and loud requires more energy, the misconceptions begin to build when understanding where that energy is supposed to come from. Learning to play with the TCE will enable you to get around on your instrument without straining incorrectly, stretching your lips or blowing out your embouchure with too much air.

Please use the contact button above to ask further questions on this topic or share your thoughts. There are also frequent updates made to the FAQ page so remember to check that out.