You feel terrible. You’ve just gotten out of a graded performance and lost points for tone quality. You throw the paper down and think it’s just a subjective consideration.
And yet a nagging sensation persists: you don’t fully understand what they meant or how to fix it.
Or maybe you got back from seeing a top brass quintet. You marvel at the beautiful tone quality. You wish you could sound like that, but you have no idea how to begin the journey.
Lucky for you, this article will answer all those questions and give you a solid plan for improving tone quality.
I’ll even teach you the best strategy that no one else seems to talk about. The best part is that it’s fun and easy!
What is Tone Quality?
This is a very complicated question. Otto Ortmann tried to answer it back in 1935 with a famous article entitled, “What is Tone-Quality?” It got published in The Musical Quarterly.
He argues that the phenomenon is very real. Most people can tell the difference between Steven Mead and Brian Bowman
You might not be able to tell me which was which from the performance, but you’ll hear a difference. It’s also likely that you can’t put into words the differences you heard.
The same instrument, playing the same notes, can be distinguished based on certain other characteristics.
These characteristics are the tone quality.
There are two ways to make this concept a little more precise.
- Characteristic Sound
- Bad Tone Quality
Good tone quality is basically a measure of how close the tone is to a “characteristic sound” for the instrument. We’ll dig into this a bit in the next sections.
Unfortunately, this is a subjective definition that basically means “whatever the professionals sound like on the instrument.”
But at least that’s a start.
The easier thing to define is bad tone quality. Good tone quality is essentially tone that doesn’t have any of the bad characteristics.
Bad tone quality is defined as a weak sound, thin sound, lacking in overtones, strangled or choked off, lack of focus or clarity, and so on.
This may also sound vague, but I can easily tell when a player has one of those bad characteristics, and I can usually fix the problem since it’s due to something physical.
Good tone is open and flows freely. If tone quality is based on characteristic sounds, let’s start with model examples of good characteristic sound for each low brass instrument.
First off, the euphonium is a conical instrument, and all conical instruments have a characteristic sound that is mellower and darker than their cylindrical counterparts.
For more details on this, you can check out my article: Are Tuba and Euphonium the Same?
One of the best performances I can think of to demonstrate this is Steven Mead’s Harlequin by Philip Sparke.
The trombone is a cylindrical instrument, so it has a characteristic sound that is a bit brighter and “brassy” and penetrating tone.
If you’re still skeptical about this tone quality concept, then listen to a trombone vs a euphonium. They have the exact same range, yet I doubt very many brass players would confuse the two.
Here’s an example. What I like about this is that in the slower movement, the timbre darkens, but the characteristic sound is still unmistakably there.
The tuba brings us back to a conical bore instrument. As expected it is the darkest of the tones, but shares many of the characteristic sounds with the euphonium down an octave.
Intonation vs. Timbre vs Tone Quality
A lot of times these terms get thrown around, and it’s hard to tell if any of them are actually different. Let’s sort them out here before going any further.
Intonation refers to how in-tune you’re playing. If you came here hoping to improve that, you may want to go check out my article: 5 Steps to Playing in Tune.
That was the easy one, because it’s so different.
Timbre and tone quality are a bit harder to distinguish. I tend to think of tone quality as a single spectrum: bad to good or ugly to beautiful (I know, that sounds a bit harsh).
Timbre is basically an infinite collection of spectra. These spectra are bright to dark, warm to cool, harsh to pleasant, and so on. These all have understood physical distinctions, but we won’t get into the physics of sound here.
This is very different than what many sources will tell you. I’ll reiterate that I’m taking a contrarian opinion on this definition. Music dictionaries use tone, tone color, tone quality, and timbre pretty interchangeably.
But here’s why I keep these concepts separate. A good player can alter the timbre they use to better convey emotional content of the music without ever resorting to bad tone quality.
In other words, you can play with good tone and use different tone colors. These different tone colors are what I call the different timbres.
It’s a subtle distinction that I think is worth keeping conceptually, especially since we already have the words timbre, tone, and tone color. We can reserve tone quality for this other use.
Guide to Improve Tone Quality
I know what you’re thinking: for goodness sake, get on with it.
I’ll let you in on a secret:
Knowing what we’re dealing with and carefully listening to some examples is half the battle to improving tone quality.
The other half are given by these six exercises.
1. Long Tone Pedal Exercises
How does one improve tone? The answer is always the same: long tone exercises. I was brought up believing that I wouldn’t be warmed up unless I had done my Remington exercises.
The Remington warm up is great. I don’t discount how effective it was at helping me develop my own tone.
But if you’re interested in truly improving tone quality, I recommend doing long tone pedal exercises. This wasn’t introduced to me until college.
So much about tone is about opening up the throat, using supported air, and relaxing all tension.
One of the best ways to practice all of these things at the same time is to do pedal long tones. The pedal tones on your instrument require all these things to even produce a sound.
Take your favorite descending long tone exercise and start on the pedal B-flat instead of something in the middle of your range (or whatever fundamental of your particular instrument).
Within a month, you should have noticeable results.
2. Imitate the Best
This is the most important thing on the list. It’s also never mentioned when talking about developing tone.
And, in my opinion, it’s the most fun!
Take any piece you’re learning and find a professional recording of it. Listen carefully to the tone quality the player uses.
Now play the piece along with the person. I recommend something slow and lyrical. You don’t even have to consciously try to adjust your tone.
Just imitate the performance along with them. Do it over and over each week. You can even change up the piece and/or performer or use some orchestral excerpts.
I used to do this, and it is when I saw the most improvement in my tone. Playing along with these excellent players worked on my subconscious like no other exercise.
I started to sound like them when I was playing other things by myself, and it was in this period that I started to get compliments on my tone.
It wasn’t until much later that I realized this simple activity was the cause. And I had been doing it mostly because it was a fun way to learn the pieces I was playing (the full accompaniment is with it!).
You may want to listen to more brass band music in general.
3. Upgrade Your Equipment
Before you go out and buy something super expensive, let me make something very clear.
Expensive equipment is not a magic bullet.
Great players make the cheapest instruments sound great, and people with strained tone quality still have that quality on expensive instruments.
That being said, if you’re still playing on the mouthpiece you started on, then you’re probably due for an upgrade. Check out my mouthpiece guide if you need help navigating the choices.
If you’re on a small bore instrument, then you might consider playing on a medium or large bore. It is possible that the narrow passages of a small bore are part of what’s causing you to tighten up when you play.
Having a deeper or wider mouthpiece can let you relax into the sound more. Having a wider bore can let you open up more.
Again, before you make a drastic change, these things only do so much.
4. Breathing Exercises
Breathing exercises are often ignored during a practice session. People get hung up on the notes and technique but forget about the basics.
I talk about this more in my article on What to Practice.
Breathing exercises are a bit hard to explain, but they come in several forms. Here are a few to get a feel for it:
- Stretches to open up the diaphragm and reduce tension.
- Deep breath exercises to increase lung capacity.
- Exhale exercises to work on using as much air as possible.
- Visualization exercises to work on focused air streams to improve tone.
I took a masterclass from someone in high school right when the book The Breathing Gym came out. I can’t remember who it was, but my guess is that they were a student of Sam Pilafian.
He taught us a bunch of exercises from this book, and I started to use them. I was so impressed with the results that I bought the book. I still use them all these years later.
5. Buzz the Notes on the Mouthpiece
This is surprisingly effective: take the whole instrument away. First off, buzzing teach you to hear where the notes should be placed. This gives you a more focused sound.
Second off, buzzing on the mouthpiece takes away all of the resistance the instrument provides. This means you have to use a lot more air to buzz the same amount of material.
It’s almost like magic when you put the instrument back. The piece should now have stronger air support, leading to a freer and more open tone.
Tension is the number one cause of poor tone quality.
Where is this tension?
Well, it could be anywhere, depending on the person. Sometimes tension occurs in the lips if you’re struggling to get higher notes out. This will require learning to play with more air.
Sometimes tension occurs in the throat. Try yawning. Feel what that openness feels like. Now try yawning while playing.
You must learn to let all those muscles back there relax. Try blowing on your hand and figure out the difference between cool air and warm air coming out. You’ll want to play with the warm air.
But tension can also occur all over the body. Watch yourself in a mirror when you play. Do your shoulders rise? This indicates tension. Relax the shoulders.
Are you tensing the stomach or lower back? This could restrict how much air you can take in.
It’s impossible to name all possibilities. The way to get rid of tension is to identify it. To do this, you just need to play and bring a complete awareness to your body as you do it.
This shouldn’t be as hard as it sounds, because it’s usually pretty obvious once you know to look for it.
Final Thoughts on Tone Quality
Tone quality is one of those things that must mature over time. Young players can’t be handed any quick fixes. This is especially true of players who haven’t developed the strength to easily play in the upper registers.
On the other hand, a mature player with a weak or strangled sound often does have a few physical impediments that can be fixed quickly with a knowledgeable teacher.
If you think you’re in this category, try playing while standing up to open up the diaphragm and concentrate on using a lot of air. Pay attention to the throat and lips. Are you squeezing either to get some notes out?
The exercises above should help players of all levels who want to improve their tone quality.