Recently, I published a post on the correct positions for holding musical instruments. That post was brought to mind today as I was in attendance at a school band concert. It was a recruiting concert, so the director was having each section play the same tune, giving the young audience a chance to see and hear each instrument played. The flutes played first, then the saxophones, and then the clarinets. When the clarinets started to play, I noticed they were not really in the same key as the flutes and saxophones, though the fingerings indicated they were intended to be. I had overlooked intonation mishaps in the flutes and saxophones, but now I looked at all of them and it was then that I made a disturbing realization. Not one of them had a correctly formed embouchure or was holding their instrument correctly. Not one. Both trends, that of poor intonation and that of improperly formed embouchures and incorrectly held instruments, continued through the trumpets and trombones. With accurate rhythms and correctly executed fingerings, their performance would have been excellent but for the wrong approaches to each instrument. Here is what I saw.
- Flutes were not parallel to the floor, and embouchures were to open, creating an unfocused and airy sound.
- Saxophones were held too low to the ground, requiring one player to crane their head forward and down to reach the mouthpiece, and the other to slouch and bend to the side.
- Embouchures were too loosely formed around the mouthpiece, and too little mouthpiece was in the mouth (the former necessitates the latter).
- Clarinets, like the saxophones, were played with embouchures that were too loose, and which used too little mouthpiece.
- The heads of the clarinet players were lowered, resulting in the clarinet entering their mouths at the wrong angle.
- Trumpets were played with bells too low, and with elbows against the rib cage, which inhibits proper intercostal breathing.
- Trombone was played by a slouched player.
The director of this band is a drummer. The students’ rhythmic precision reflected his area of expertise. Nonetheless, many method books contain high quality photographs of instruments being played correctly, including close up pictures of the embouchure, of the fingers on the keys, and of standing and sitting position. Students should be encouraged to refer to these pictures frequently, and monitor their conformance to those positions. Directors should study and memorize all of the pictures so that they can instantly spot and correct inmproperly held instruments and incorrectly formed embouchures during class lessons and band rehearsals. For directors, and excellent source of guidance is Mr. T. Silvis’ web page, which gives detailed instructions with pictures for assembling, holding and forming an embouchure for all wind instruments. I highly recommend this site for any director who is unsure of how an instrument should be played. It is better to “nip bad habits in the bud” than to let them linger and become permanent or difficult to change later.
When all musicians are playing their instruments correctly, the ensemble instantly sounds better, and students get more joy out of playing. All instrumental teachers should be diligent in guiding their students to playing with solid technique at all times.