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The Case Against Buzzing

April 22, 2015

Buzzing seems to be a divisive topic in the brass world.  Some consider it an absolute necessity.  Others say it’s useless.  Although the title of this article may lead you to believe I’m against buzzing, I’m not.  I am against bad technique.  And there are some dangers in buzzing to watch out for.

First let’s clarify what we mean by buzzing.  There are 3 large categories:

  1. Free buzzing- Making sounds with only the lips.
  2. Rim buzzing- Using only the rim of a mouthpiece (or a mouthpiece visualizer) to make sound.
  3. Mouthpiece buzzing- Using a mouthpiece to make sound.

Now let’s move on to the fun part.  When buzzing in any of the ways mentioned above, you are not doing exactly the same thing as when you are playing the instrument.  When free buzzing or buzzing on a rim, the sound is made at the lips.  When on a mouthpiece, the sound comes out the end of the mouthpiece.  As soon as you put the mouthpiece back into the horn, the sound comes out of the bell.  This difference is significant.  The instrument provides a certain amount of resistance that obviously does not exist when buzzing.  This brings us to:

DANGER #1: Creating Resistance

When looking for the same exact feel as playing the instrument, some people will resort to creating their own resistance.  Often, this is done in the neck.  People will tighten up their necks when buzzing to get the same feel of resistance.  Sometimes this can be easier to see than to feel.  If you’re concerned, buzz while standing in front of a mirror, and look at the side of your neck.  Once you start doing this while buzzing, it can be difficult to stop doing when you’re playing.

A really good exercise that I’ve seen several people use in buzzing is making a siren sound.  First, take a nice, easy breath.  Next, buzz a comfortable low pitch and gliss up and down.  The aim is to make both the feel and the sound very free.  While playing the trumpet with this smooth, consistent blow, we build the coordination of seamlessly moving from the center of pitch on one note to the next.  Since the lips, rim, and/or mouthpiece provide no help in finding the center of pitch, we are now at:

DANGER #2: Placing Notes

The siren exercise shows how buzzing does not help finding the middle of any one pitch.  But when people move to playing simple melodies or exercises that require specific pitches, often they will look for the same feel of certainty as they get when playing the trumpet.  This can lead to a slight hitch just before the initial attack, and/or, tonguing too hard (to put that note in place).  When working with specific pitches, sit at a piano and play the note first.  If you don’t have a piano, most smartphones have tunings apps that will also play any specified pitch.  Get it in your ear, then take your best shot.  Should you miss, gliss to the center of the pitch before moving on.  When moving between notes, start by thinking of each interval as a gliss.  If you want to have beautiful intervals in the music you play, start by blowing from one note to the next, making each interval a mini-siren.  As you get better, you’ll be able to make the transitions quicker without placing them.  Then, when you make the transition to playing the instrument, the trumpet will actually make it easier when you are blowing from note-to-note.

The last big problem to tackle today is one of my favorites: range.  There are those who say that to be able to play the note on a trumpet, you need to be able to buzz it.  I have not found this to be true.  To be able to do so brings us to:

DANGER #3: Physical Manipulation

When it comes to range, trumpet players will do all kinds of crazy things to try and play higher.  I’ll be happy to revisit how I believe range to just another aspect of playing that can be improved with dedicated practice and good technique, just like sound, articulation, flexibility, and finger dexterity, another time.  But for now, I want to warn you about the dangers of wacky physical manipulations to make higher notes come out while buzzing.  The first one is covered above in DANGER #1.  Part of trumpet playing, and this includes playing in the upper register, is blowing against the resistance of the trumpet.  Without that resistance, especially in the upper register, people will lock up their necks to get it.  There are several examples on the internet.  Another physical manipulation to watch out for is stopping your air.  Ideally, when playing the trumpet, you take a nice easy breath and, coordinated with the tongue, blow right back out.  The air does not stop.  But some will demonstrate upper range, especially while buzzing, by taking a breath, holding it, then using the tongue to release the air and put that note in its place (see DANGER #2 above).  This technique might get the note to speak, but the sound will be thinner and trumpet playing has now gotten harder by adding two steps: 1) stopping the air, and 2) restarting the air.  The last physical manipulation I want to warn you about today is mouthpiece pressure.  Generally speaking, I don’t see a lot a problems with too much pressure while playing the trumpet.  The problem certainly exists, but I don’t think it to be as big of a problem as others.  Mouthpiece buzzing, especially into the upper register, is a different story.  Trumpet players will mash that mouthpiece as hard as they can to get higher notes to speak.  One way to combat this is to hold the mouthpiece with your thumb and index finger at the spot where it meets the trumpet.  If you’ve been playing any length of time, there’s already a line there.  Use it.

As you can see, I don’t hate buzzing, or think it’s inherently evil.  It can be valuable if practiced well.  Dedicated is good.  Smart and dedicated is better.

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14 comments

  1. Beautifully written blog Joey. I would add that buzzing is great ear training; a kind of trumpet solfeggio for those reluctant to or incapable of singing. As Jake said “it’s singing w your lips” and Bud always played melodies not just exercise. Thank you for your measured and wise posts. S


  2. Hi Joey, wonderful read! Can you do me a quick favor and just re-post the 2nd sentence in the “Danger #3” section? I’m having trouble following the point about range due to an editing anomaly. Thanks! -Tom


    • Tom,

      Here’s the sentence:

      I’ll be happy to revisit how I believe range to just another aspect of playing that can be improved with dedicated practice and good technique, just like sound, articulation, flexibility, and finger dexterity, another time.

      I hope that helps.

      Joey


  3. Agree completely – very well written and clearly explained.


  4. Mr. Tartell, great post as this is something I go back and forth on in my own playing and teaching. This article is obviously directed at the more advanced trumpet students (and pros), what are your thoughts on how soon you would start to teach buzzing to a younger student? Would you even teach buzzing to a beginner?


    • following.


    • With beginners I like to get them going on the horn. I use buzzing more as a tool for specific problems. If a beginner had a problem that I thought buzzing could help, I’d try it.


  5. Hello Joey, I really like your post. Also, I found to be true what you said about holding the mouthpiece with the thumb and index finger. I buzzed my mouthpiece for a long time using the “buzzer” attached to my trumpet, trying to play the mouthpiece exactly like the trumpet. After long while I realized that I was using too much pressure to play in the high register, loosing the resilience of my chops.

    Alessandro


  6. Agreed again Joey! Bottom line, there are NO shortcuts.


  7. I completely disagree. Thanks.


  8. Joey, thanks for the well-balanced analysis of buzzing. I always do a short, quiet buzzing warm-up before starting with the horn, for a very specific reason. While doing a 2-octave “siren buzz” there will sometimes be a discontinuity in my glissando, especially when descending. Basically my upper and lower lips aren’t sliding past each other properly while changing pitch, and I need to “work through” the issue with continued siren buzzing until the discontinuity disappears and I have a continuous glissando. (Only takes a minute or so.) If I don’t do this, once I insert the mouthpiece into the horn, I’ll clam the note where the discontinuity existed all night. So some gentle buzzing at the beginning of my warmup leads to fewer clams and cleaner attacks.

    I also usually buzz in the car on the way to the gig, especially if I’m going somewhere that people will interrupt me during my warmup with logistical issues, saying “hi”, etc. Sometimes buzzing in the car is my only opportunity for uninterrupted warmup.


  9. […] Tartell has recently published a blog concerning buzzing: The Case Against Buzzing | Tartellog I have my own take about buzzing especially as it applies to part time Recreational players: […]


  10. Yes!


  11. This is a great article. Full of insights I hadn’t thought about!

    My euphonium playing days are all but over, but when I was very active I found buzzing (often in the car which turned otherwise ‘dead’ time into practice of sorts) useful for keeping the facial muscles, technically termed ‘chops’, toned and maintaining a degree of flexibility.

    I didn’t experience any issues; I think probably because I always regarded it as a completely different activity to playing the instrument – a bit like stretching before taking part in sport or working out.



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