With all the technology available to us these days, it can be easy to get lost in the variety of practice aids available to musicians, not to mention simply getting distracted by social media and other fun apps on our devices!
Over the past few years, I've found something that helps me make my daily trombone long tone practice a little more engaging, and also scratches my itch to involve technology and audio recording into my routine. This can be a fun way for brass players to inject some fun into our practicing, as well as possibly learn some new technology skills.
A couple of years ago, a friend of mine mentioned that he sometimes used the decibel level meters on an analog mixer when he played long tones. As I had never heard of this, I asked him to explain what he meant! He described that if he turned on his microphone and simply watched the level meters on the mixer, without even recording anything, the visual feedback of the meter activity provided a great cue for him to avoid missing slight dips and sagging in his tone. After I got home, I gave it a try on the setup I had at the time, and found it to be a pretty cool way to spice up my long tone practice.
With the availability of digital audio workstations, including freebies like GarageBand and Audacity, the possibility to use something similar to our old analog meters is readily available. I've been learning the ins and outs of Logic Pro X over the past year, so most of my experience lately is with Apple's flagship DAW.
I enjoy this kind of practice for a couple of reasons. First of all, it works. Healthy tone production is half the battle on a brass instrument, and for me, long tones are the basis that keeps my playing healthy and grounded.
Occasionally, I feel like I lapse into sloppy habits in my playing, with one of the biggest being my tendency to make my warmup so chill and mellow that I lose all sense of timing and immediacy of tone production. "Letting it happen" is all well and good until you have others depending on you to start a note at an exact place in the space-time continuum!
While doing some basic long tones a few months ago, I just happened to be fiddling with my computer, and I had the DAW up and recording. The click track was running and I noticed after I stopped playing and looked at the track waveform that after every sharp tic of the click track, it took a little time for my sound to really kick in. In other words, I was hearing in my head those words that every brass player dreads, "You're late!"
After scraping my ego off the floor and drying my tears, I set about figuring out exactly what I was doing. I could see the sharp tic of the metronome, followed by a slight space, then the beginning of my trombone sound. The sound started as a small point and blossomed into a full tone. So not only was I late, I was getting a "wah" or slight blooming of the sound as well. Damn.
How to fix this? First of all, I felt the need to just remind my body what it feels like to expel air instantly, and on time. The simplest way, for me, is to hold my palm flat in front of my face and blow air, with articulation, directly at my palm. Not hard, but making the air hit my hand instantly and right with the tap of the metronome.
The next step was the same but substituting a mouthpiece buzz where the air alone had been. Same process, but concentrating on a healthy, full buzz that started instantly.
Finally, I moved back to the horn. I recommend starting at a medium volume - we don't want to substitute brute force for excellent air usage and timing. I have found that a little of this practice goes a long way to helping me create a healthy sound. You may practice Remington long tones, scales, easy Arban exercises, or whatever you enjoy to implement this session into your routine.
Besides GarageBand, Audacity, Logic Pro, and Protools, there's a great iOS app called Tonal Energy Tuner. TE has a screen called analysis that allows you to watch a wave graphic while using the metronome. It runs whether you have the click on or off, and whether you are recording or not as well. I use this a lot as an easy and quick to set up solution when a full on audio program is not feasible.
I hope this simple exercise helps you to get some healthy sound production happening in your practice. I welcome anyone else's methods or ideas in the comments!