I once asked my teacher, while I was a student at the Berklee College of Music, how I would be able to tell whether or not the long tones I was doing were working. He told me that the changes were so subtle, that I actually wouldn't be able to tell. I continued to do them anyway on blind faith. But I always suspected that it had to be more to it than that.
Today, I have discovered that long tones are more than just playing notes long and sustaining; that's just part of it. It's a balance between pitch, breath support, and embouchure control.
As a young Berklee student I would make the mistake of only playing the notes long and sustaining, not really given much consideration to the aforementioned things. I figured just by the mere process of doing it, my sound would correct itself. Sort of like running on the treadmill. You can run on the treadmill every morning without thinking about the speed, the incline or your form, and you will still become more conditioned just from running at all. And I guess with long tones, the same principle applies. Your sound will improve somewhat, regardless. But I'd like to discuss here is getting the maximum results for your efforts.
When playing long tones the two most important things you must do is (1) practice them at different dynamic levels and (2) practice them with a chromatic tuner.
Back to the treadmill analogy. Playing long tones at one dynamic level is actually like running on the treadmill at one speed and one incline level. You're not really working your muscles to their full burnout potential. To keep this from happening with long tones, I suggest following this dynamic arc: pp---mf----ff---mf---pp. When you're playing at these different dynamic levels you'll notice that you'll need varied levels of embouchure control and breath support. For example, when you're playing fortissimo, you'll notice you're working a lot more facial muscles. Whereas, when playing pianissimo you tend to need more diaphragm support. It can feel like having to pull back the reins to control a wild horse.
In terms of loudness, practicing using this dynamic arc helps to increase your ability to project. Because now you're learning how to direct the air at high velocity with control and precision. Almost like controlling the wheel of a car at high speed. In terms of pitch, you'll notice that when you play louder and softer, the pitch has a natural tendency to go flat or sharp.
For my set-up, I tend to get sharper when I play louder due to the increased blowing intensity as well as the reed is vibrating more. I also play sharp when playing soft, too, since now the embouchure is less tight. Sort of like loosening a screw on a latch; the whole thing now becomes a little more wobbly. And as I've said in earlier posts, that's why it's great to practice long tones with a tuner. It can difficult to distinguish between having a dark tone quality versus being flat and having a bright sound and being sharp. And of course, the advantage to this is that the more in tune you are, the uniformed your tone will sound.
So as you can see there's a lot more to long tones than just playing long tones. It's not the mindless activity that it's perceived to be. It requires just as much focus and technique as playing a prepared piece, sometimes more.
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