Hornmasters: Yancich and Fox on the Slur, Air, and Vowels

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Continuing our series on the topic of the slur, air, and vowels, Milan Yancich has an interesting angle on the “wah-wah” problem in the form of an exercise in A Practical Guide to French Horn Playing. He calls it “Line in Tone Production.” What he is looking for is the perfect portamento between notes played very slowly to “break the habit of a clicking slur or a slur pushed by the breath.”

Farkas and Schuller in the previous article were not fans of hearing a wah-wah. Yancich however expanded the topic a bit with the inclusion of the problem of the “clicking slur.” Clicks relate to how smooth your horn goes over the harmonics and how smoothly notes pass through valve changes. Different horns will be more “clicky” than others in this respect. This short article introduces the topic further. You certainly can hear (and feel!) these clicks, and they will be helped (smoothed out) the most by having a better quality instrument.

Why this is the case is due to acoustic transients. As background, acording to the Wikipedia “In acoustics and audio, a transient is a high amplitude, short-duration sound at the beginning of a waveform that occurs in phenomena such as musical sounds, noises or speech.” This is the underlying source of the click. In a recent (2016) article on his website horn maker Jacob Medlin explains that

The best horns navigate the transients using a complex series of dampening effects to smooth the bump between the notes. This allows the player to blow through note changes either with or without depressing valves. Playing a slurred passage should require no micromanagement of the air column, it should be smooth and effortless.

Fred Fox in Essentials of Brass Playing is clearly thinking about that same general topic of clicks as well.  After noting that the valves must move quickly in slow slurs he has a warning, and a solution.

There is another factor in smooth slurring that is worth considering. I bring it up with a strong word of caution, since it can lead to “wah wahing” each note.

There tends to be a “bump” between two notes when slurred even if they are gotten with the same valve or slide position. Let us use the example of a slur requiring a valve change, for a moment. When the valve is pressed down there is an instant when the whole instrument is blocked off. If a steady flow of vibration is being produced, then, at the moment of the valve change, the instrument is blocked, and pressure builds up behind the valve. This bit of pressures causes a sort of bump in the legato on the next note, when the valve completes the change. Ideally we should ease off the flow of vibration at the moment of valve change to avoid the pressure buildup behind the valve. This is not too impossible to achieve. Though again, one must be careful not to get the “wa, wa, wa” type of playing.

Sing a series of slurred notes. Observe, does the air flow past the vocal chords at a steady rate? Or is the air held back unconsciously, or naturally, between each note of the slur? The air is held back momentarily between each note. Sing the notes again. This time use a glissando or slide effect between each note. Now there is no air held back between each note change….

To play a smooth slur, simply apply the air technique as used when singing. Avoid building up pressure behind the valve and the slur will be much smoother. The same principle applies when slurring notes that do not require a valve or slide change.

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While undoubtedly this approach might help reduce the issue, in the big picture getting a better horn, as suggested by the Medlin quote at the beginning of the article, would be a better solution if clicks are a problem.

As to the topic of vowel sounds, it is one Fox addresses in a variety of contexts. In this example he applies the concept primarily to the high register.

We have discussed the fact that the tongue position goes gradually to the “eee” sound in the higher registers. However, when playing in the highest possible range of the instrument, that “eee” tongue position tends to stop getting smaller as it should.

Visualize the “eee” tongue position. The back part of the tongue (that is used to pronounce the “g” in the word “get”) is up near the roof of the mouth, but the tip on the tongue still rests directly down in back of the lower teeth. Sort of like a ski slope. The vowel position can be made still small by consciously lifting the tip of the tongue towards the roof of the mouth. This lifting action now has made the sound box still smaller.

Try singing a high note with the normal “eee” tongue position. As the note is sung, bring the tip of the tongue up towards the roof of the mouth. Notice that the sound now becomes even more pinpointed. The vowel sound has been made increasingly smaller by lifting up the tip of the tongue, a most important adjustment for the very highest notes of the instrument….

Lift the tip of the tongue towards the roof of the mouth and you will find the highest notes easier to play. They will sound better in focus and will continue to contain the importantly consistent ratio of highs and lows. Remember, throughout this whole small-vowel-sound approach the throat must remain open at all times.

What exactly he means by the throat being open all the time is a good question, as MRI studies have also shown that the glottis (voice box) closes in every articulation. But that jumps ahead a few topics in this series, as when we return we will have more on the topics of the slur, air, and vowels.

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