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Without a doubt one of the best practice techniques for improvement on a wind instrument is long tones. A teacher of mine once professed that long tones were good for practically every aspect of playing – with the exception of tonguing.
Some of the benefits include:
- improved tone quality
- better breath control
- greater embouchure strength
- wider dynamic expression
In the most elementary form, any series of sustained pitches might be considered as a long tone exercise. Some might call these quality tones.
One simple variation is to incorporate breath attacks. This technique subtracts the tongue from the equation of tone production and can solve a lot of problems.
Myself, I also put pitch-bending and glissando exercises into this general category of sustained notes being considered as long tones.
The “classic” long tone
While this simple approach indeed has great value, adding even the smallest crescendos and diminuendos can increase the benefit.
John Ericson noted in “A Key Thing to Practice” that a perfect and gradual increase and decrease in volume is key in executing the crescendo/diminuendo long tone. A primary concern is to smooth out any bumps or wavers in pitch, especially when transitioning from soft-to-loud and loud-to-soft.
This is something that I have also written about in “The Art of Practice, Part II”,
Practiced on a cycle of different notes for 5 to 10 minutes daily, unforced and gentle long tones like these produce tremendous results over the long term.
The main goals in practicing long-tones are:
- the most beautiful sound possible
- smooth transitions and even pitch throughout all dynamic levels
For myself, I practice the “classic” long-tone starting in the middle/low register and progress chromatically up or down, or in a cycle of fifths, depending on how I feel or what was practiced the previous day.
Along this line of thought, I have a distinct memory from a masterclass many years ago with cello virtuoso Yo-Yo Ma. In instructing a student, he emphasized that one should draw the sound out from the instrument rather than forcing it out.
This is a key distinction to keep in mind when practicing anything really, but it is particularly relevant in this case when practicing long tones.
Adding the”wow” factor
Adding more sudden and immediate effects – fast crescendos/diminuendos, forte-pianos and sforzandos – adds an extra element that I call the wow factor.
I call it this in part because of the aural effect but also for the end result. Taking it a step further, here are variations on the same theme to consider:
Long tones do not need to be a boring exercise and these variations are only a beginning. Injected with a some inventiveness and creativity they can be beneficial and fun to play.