Don’t Look Down – It’s “Your Sound”

The Romance of Nature at a Distance

Find a beautiful view in a natural setting, whether it be the red rocks of Sedona, Arizona during the magic hour just before sunset or a more modest, though perhaps equally awe inspiring rock bridge in Red River Gorge.  Take in the scene.  Notice the play of light, the vegetation, all of the elements of natural beauty that blend together to create a stunning vista.

Now, look down.  Not just below the scene, but at the area right by your feet.  What do you see now?  Chances are, it’s not such a breath taking picture. In fact, it’s probably some disappointingly unromantic dirt, gravel, mud, sand, or some combination of random junk that one finds on the ground in any natural environment.*


(the two pictures above where taken from the same spot in Red River Gorge)

“Your Sound” is everything?

As a serious musician, chances are you have (and will have) spent a significant amount of time and focus working on your sound.  Most of the exceptional performers I’ve met can point to a period in their development in which they’ve devoted considerable time and energy to this end.  And it’s a never-ending process because the sound you make on your instrument is not only your voice, but, for all intents and purposes, your calling card.

So when is your sound good enough?  There are two correct answers at any given time.

Answer #1: NEVER.  Answer #2: NOW.

So herein lies the problem.  Sometimes, the closer you listen to your sound, worse it sounds.  I’ve lost count of the hours I’ve spent over the years trying to “clean up” my sound in the practice room with ponderous long tones or flow studies.  That, or fiddling with equipment in an attempt alleviate or mask imperfections or an airy sound.

“Focus on the core of your sound” and other unhelpful advice

I tried this approach in earnest while in the throes of battling an airy and inconsistent tone (over the course of YEARS). To be dedicated and thorough, I played hours of long tones, Schlossburg, Chichowicz flow studies, you name it. I can’t say for certain what will work for you, but I can say that focusing on the core of “my sound” in this way either improved nothing, or called my attention to everything wrong or imperfect in my tone.  It sucked.

To compound the problem, many practice sessions were so intensely focused on tone, that the business of learning new and challenging music was left to end when I was tired and mentally drained.  I became psychologically dependent on long hours of slow, repetitive exercises to feel prepared to play well.  I became a Routine Zombie.

Don’t waste time on the foreground, paint the musical picture

Two interesting things started to happen when my practice began to gravitate away from this rigid, “tone-based” way of thinking and practicing.  When my practice focus shifted toward making musical lines easier to execute, my sound got better. A LOT better. It was as if I had performed the Jedi Mind Trick on my tone.  I let my tone do it’s thing and stopped micromanaging it.

In other words, I took Answer #2 (Your tone is good enough NOW! ) at face value and proceeded accordingly.

The other thing that happened is that music started to get easier to play, since that was now the goal, which in turn freed up the sound even more.  When the music got physically easier to play, there were more choices for how to phrase, how to shade and color the line.  The process of playing music became considerably more interesting and more fun.

Look Up and See the Beautiful Landscape

Working on tone is one of the most important aspects of being a professional and an artist.  But it can, if you let it, chew up huge amounts of mental energy and practice time. There comes a time in every practice session when you simply must let go and move on to making music instead of just sound.


Author: sbelck

Trumpet player, teacher, jazz musician, and the illegitimate father of the modern lip slur.

One thought

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s