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Characteristic Tone
Developing characteristic tone for your band and its individual players
by Donald DeRoche, Ph.D.
DePaul University, Chicago
Dr. Donald DeRoche is director of bands and chair of the Performance Studies Di-vision at DePaul University in Chicago. Among his many activities, he has given premiere performances of some dozen pieces for winds with the DePaul Wind Ensemble, which he directs. Dr. DeRoche is a regular contributor to this column.

One of the basic building blocks of wind-instrument playing is a well-developed sense of tone. A focused, characteristic tone is a “given” in good music making. In a band, the collective tone quality of all those individuals is fundamental to a beautiful ensemble sound and blend. In addition, a well-controlled tone is the starting point for the development of good intonation.

Good tone depends on (1) having excellent and well-maintained equipment, (2) developing an internal concept of a characteristic sound and (3) practicing regularly and thoughtfully.

Proper equipment. Before I say anything specific about instruments, I must stress how important it is to tune
as closely as possible to the standard A-440 pitch level.

Wind instruments are built to be “pulled out” some when they are in tune, thus giving room to “push in” if pitch needs to be raised. Attempting to develop a good tone when the instrument is very sharp or flat forces the player to use an incorrect embouchure.

Without good equipment that is well maintained, it is difficult to produce a really excellent tone quality. While a superior instrument will not automatically guarantee a great tone, a poor instrument will make achieving good tone virtually impossible.

It’s an unfortunate irony: of those students with poor equipment, those who suffer the most are our best students. A student with a good ear will intuitively try to find a way to make a good sound and play in tune, often straining his embouchure or developing some unorthodox playing mode to accommodate a poor instrument.

In addition to using the best possible instrument, be very careful to select the best possible accessories and parts for those instruments. Mouthpieces, barrels, saxophone necks, leadpipes and bocals can all have a great influence on tone.

While it should go without saying, it is clear that too many of us pay too little attention to reeds for woodwind players. I can’t overemphasize how important it is for your students to have knowledgeable advice regarding the selection, adjustment and care of their reeds.

Instruments must be well maintained and adjusted. Are brass “spit valves” closing tightly? Are valve bumper corks adjusted so that the valves are lining up correctly? Are mouthpieces, bocals and leadpipes clean? Do woodwind pads seat well? Are tone holes clear? Are all serious dents removed?

I know a band director who performs in-class instrument inspections every few weeks to check these things. He makes a big show of pointing out poorly maintained instruments. He also takes class time to show his students how they can clean, oil and care for their own instruments.

Don’t forget that the tone and intonation of percussion and keyboard instruments depends on maintenance as well.

Drum heads, resonators, bars, drum shells and mallets all have an impact on tone and intonation. Non-pitched drum heads can be “tuned” for tone, and mallet instruments can often develop pitch and tone troubles as the bars change. The mallets themselves must not only be chosen for the tone they produce; their yarn or felt wrapping must be maintained in order to maintain that tone. Keeping pianos in tune, well voiced and at a consistent pitch level is critical to their sound.

I have spent years witnessing dramatic improvement in the tones of college freshmen during the first five weeks of school, as their teachers get them to the proper equipment. It’s a shame that more students aren’t taught the value of good equipment earlier.

Developing an internal concept. A local high school director asked me to spend a morning with her clarinet section to see if I could help improve what she thought was their poor tone quality. She was right. They had an open, “honky,” thoroughly unpleasant sound.

I worked with embouchures, changed the angles of their instruments from their bodies, adjusted some reeds and tried having them insert more or less mouthpiece. The successes were small at best. I played for them to ask if they could tell the difference between my sound and theirs, and they all said they could.

When I asked them to try to match my sound, one student said, “That doesn’t sound like Marcy’s tone.” Marcy was the first-chair player, and she demonstrated all the characteristics of poor tone that I was hearing from all of the students. I realized that the entire section had developed an inner concept of Marcy’s tone. When they closed their eyes and heard clarinet in their minds, up popped Marcy.

Clearly, it is important that students develop a strong, positive inner concept of tone. Their inner tone is the way they imagine the best, most characteristic sound for their instrument. You can help them to do that by first stressing to them the importance of developing the ability to hear good tone in their minds. Next you need to provide good models.

These models can come from recordings of the best professional players or from hearing excellent players live. Private teachers, local symphony or professional players you admire or guests you bring to the school can all provide positive models.

Talk with students about the similarities and differences in the tones produced by excellent players. Encourage them to pick their favorites and to try to model their playing after their heroes.

The great brass teacher, Arnold Jacobs, used to tell very advanced students to imagine their favorite player and then to try to perform passages the way that person would. All he was doing was helping the student to develop an inner tonal concept. The most important thing is that the tones students choose to use as models must be really good.

This idea of inner tone can be helpful for ensemble tone as well.

Does your band know what you think a good band tone is? Do you listen to excellent examples of full-band tones, clarinet-section tones or low-brass tones? Do you take time in class to let your students hear well-blended, balanced sounds within and between sections of the band?

Band sounds vary widely and you can have a strong influence on what yours will be. The ways students hear brightness or mellowness is important. Are woodwind sounds open or focused? Does your brass have an outdoor or indoor sound, a mellow-brass or an orchestral-brass sound, a lyrical or macho sound?

There are a number of acceptable band sounds. It is not important whether you go toward a cornet sound or an orchestral-trumpet sound. It is important, however, that you choose a sound and try to be consistent with it. It is also important that your various sections can blend—and that your students know what that means.

Practicing regularly. In previous articles, I have suggested that playing an instrument is like an athletic event for which the player must be in good shape and practice regularly. This is absolutely true for the development of good tone. Embouchure muscles must be strong and flexible. The physical feeling of intake and exhalation of air must be refined so that a wide range of tonal colors and tonal dynamics can be achieved.

The great oboist and teacher, Marcel Tabuteau, stressed the importance of keeping what he called a “dolce” tone through the entire dynamic and pitch range of the instrument. What he meant was that the best, most beautiful tone, in your best range, at a mf level, is the tone you should produce in the highest and lowest ranges as well as at the highest and lowest dynamics.

Well, achieving this depends on being in excellent playing shape, which in turn depends on regular practice of physical skills done in the context of a solid inner tonal concept.

Here is not the place for me to offer specifics about how to form embouchures, or to discuss developing the breathing mechanism. In all probability, if I did try to address those issues in a single article, most of you would disagree with much of what I had to say.

There is an ongoing, lively discussion in our profession regarding the physical details of tone production. I seriously doubt that there is a single correct way to approach tone production, so I’ll leave those details to you and to the private teachers with whom you work.

What I would like to stress is that tone is so important that you cannot afford to clutter the road to its development with poor equipment, poorly conceived internal or external models, or bad practice habits. It takes time for even our best students to gain a sophisticated sense of the mental and physical aspects of developing tone.

Start early by helping them the moment they walk through your door, and keep it up until they leave.