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Thread: Sustaining tones on brass instruments

  1. #1
    Senior Member Argus's Avatar
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    Default Sustaining tones on brass instruments

    Could any resident brass players/knowledgable people help me out.

    I'd like to write a piece for brass ensemble but before I begin I'd like to know some practical limits for how long I can expect competent brass players to hold notes for before turning blue and/or keel over, gasping for air.

    I'd like to know what would be good guidelines for length of notes (in seconds) to use for trumpets, tenor trombones and tubas, throughout most of their ranges excluding the really high (the written C two leger lines above the treble staff is the highest trumpet note I'll use), and the differences caused by playing at loud or soft dynamic levels. Also, I'm respecially interested in how long the low Bb (six leger lines below the bass staff) pedal tone on the tuba and the low Bb pedal tone on the trombone can be held for at p or mp, and if they can be sounded with a very smooth attack and gradual decay/release.

    I've used 8 seconds as a conservative limit in the past for brass, but that was mostly in the comfortable mid-range of the instruments, and the high or low ranges are likely to be much harder without even considering possible intonation problems.

    Any help would be greatly appreciated.

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    Senior Member Kopachris's Avatar
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    As long as you have enough players, you can simply direct them to stagger their breathing as a choir would, and you can hold a note indefinitely. Also, mega-super-talented players who are capable of circular breathing have been able to hold notes for several minutes at a time (Kenny G. once held a saxophone (okay, that's a woodwind, not a brass) note for 40 minutes). If neither of those apply, I'd say eight seconds is a pretty good estimate for most instruments at any extreme of range or dynamics, and up to 16 seconds in the middle of their range. Of course, I don't play a brass instrument (I sing), so you might want to take that with a grain of salt. Wikipedia probably has more information about intonation problems at extreme registers and dynamics.
    Last edited by Kopachris; Dec-02-2011 at 06:36.

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    Senior Member Klavierspieler's Avatar
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    Do not tell your brass players to circular breathe! Hardly anyone can do it.

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    Senior Member Kopachris's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Klavierspieler View Post
    Do not tell your brass players to circular breathe! Hardly anyone can do it.
    Well, duh. I guess I should've clarified that they need to be mega-super-talented for that. Fixed.

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    I'd say 8 seconds is easily achievable by any brass player worth his salt. I'm a trumpet player and if given enough time to get a decent breath can hold a tone out for, without circular breathing, about 30 seconds. Circular breathing is something that should almost always be avoided in any ensemble work, it causes distortion in timbre and intonation even at a highly skilled level.

    Dynamics play a LARGE part in the ability of a brass player to be able to hold out a tone. At a fortissimo dynamic I'll be able to hold a tone for 10 seconds top if I want to maintain timbre and intonation. While at a pianissimo dynamic I could probably hold a note as long as I could hold my breath, a minute or so.

    On larger instruments (trombone, tuba, etc) the flow of air is less restricted and the aperture through which it can flow is larger thus limiting the amount of time you can hold a note. On these larger instruments pressure is less of a factor and the ability to sustain a note thus decreases.

    Although composers have written for the sustaining of high and low notes in brass literature for extended periods of time before it is something that should be generally avoided due, unless your writing for the Chicago Symphony Brass, not so much to their ability to hold the note, but to hold the note with good intonation.

    Anyways, what you're asking depends on the dynamic (louder = shorter amount of time), range (high or extreme low, approaching and at pedal tone range = amount of time), intonation of the particular note on the instrument (it's harder to hold naturally flat notes as we have to use our embouchure to straighten them out), and strength of chops (don't ask me to hold out a High G for 10 seconds at the end of a ten minute ensemble piece).

    All being said and done it depends on for whom you're writing. Some brass ensembles out there are practically capable of anything. German Brass, Mnozil Brass, Canadian Brass, Chicago Symphony Brass, The National Brass Symposium, etc.

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    Here's an example of a player who can hold a note pretty much forever, but even at this skill level you'll notice intonation and timbre changes when he circular breathes.

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    Senior Member Argus's Avatar
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    Thanks for the reply Aidan, although I did complete the piece just before Christmas.

    I didn't write any parts where circular breathing was necessary and tried to make it playable even for competent amateur players. The longest tones I used were on the trumpets were in the upper portion of their register (no higher than high written C though) and were to be held for about 12 seconds at mf with a crescendo into and diminuendo out of the tones. I thought this was a pretty safe level to expect from decent trumpeters with any ff notes being held for less than 9 seconds with a few seconds breathing space in between.

    The longest tones the tubas are asked to hold are 7 seconds but only at mp and in the middle register, with any f notes being less than 4 seconds. The tubas were my biggest concern because I know it takes much more lung power especially in the lower registers.

    Also I made use of the 6th overtone (the 7/4, or Ab harmonic seventh) in the upper registers. I believe players normally avoid this harmonic because it's too flat but would they be able to hit it if needed?

    If anything I might have compromised a bit too much and played it safer than necessary by raising my original tempo a bit, but if I ever manage to get a performance of it, that can be easily remedied.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Argus View Post
    Also I made use of the 6th overtone (the 7/4, or Ab harmonic seventh) in the upper registers. I believe players normally avoid this harmonic because it's too flat but would they be able to hit it if needed?
    Any note on the trumpet between low F-sharp below the staff and high C should be able to be played in-tune by a college level brass player or very proficient high school player.

    Trumpet players in a major orchestra should be able to play from low pedal Db to about high F above the staff with full timbre and intonation assuming that there isn't much pyrotechnics surrounding the note.

    Notes between G just above the staff and high C should be no problem for 12 seconds with those dynamic markings by a college level trumpet player.

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