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Watch Where You Point that Thing

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At some point during my adult life I began to notice singers "working" the microphone. I may have first noticed this with Steve Lawrence, who was quite popular in my early adult life and was on television very often for a couple decades or so. He would employ a variety of microphone angles and placements, depending on the musical needs. If he wanted a deep, sullen sound, he would bring the mic in very close to his mouth. As the dynamics picked up, he would move it further away. There were also some side-to-side movements, but I didn't figure exactly what the desired change was to be. No doubt it had something to do with the way various syllables exit the mouth. It is a good bet that someone as professional as he would have known about the effects achieved by moving more on-axis or more off-axis. This was his livelihood, after all.

Why can't more brass players learn from the same concepts in our own world? I'm referring to our equivalent of working the mic: "working the bell." As so often happens, I came away from ITEC with new or resurfaced thoughts about the world of low brass performance. The concept is simple, but it requires a new type of attention or awareness during practice and performance. Also, there are two "stages" in the process.

1. Overall Tone in the Room

The euphonium is inherently a non-directional instrument. Normally the audience does not hear sound directly from the bell of the horn, but instead hears the sound after it is reflected off various surfaces in the performance room. This helps give the euphonium the smooth, dark sound we all like. But some rooms are less friendly than others because of hard surfaces that reflect sound directly back to the listeners. You can simulate this effect by aiming your bell directly at a hard surface. You will probably hear more air and articulation noise. If there is a slanted surface above your head during a performance, it can cause much the same effect out in the audience area.

Before you play a solo or recital, you should experiment with your position on the performance stage and with the angle of your bell. You can logically assess the situation by looking where you bell could be pointing if you stand in various locations. You will also want another person out in the audience (or congregation) area to give you some feedback.

As you test the room, be sure to try both lyrical and technical passages. I once tried a performance with my bell pointing a little toward the rear of the stage. I wanted a mellow, blended sound in the hall, and that is what I got. It sounded nice on the slow sections of music, but the sound was muddled on faster passages. And overall there was just not enough presence.

2. Transient Considerations

This consideration is more similar to the "moves" of the singer, although for euphonium the transitions are slower. A singer moves the microphone to keep obnoxious sounds out of the mix - sounds like the explosion a "P" can make or the "frying egg" sound a strong "S" might produce. Euphoniumists would not move their bell for single notes, but might wish to move it during sections of a piece. At ITEC 2012 I observed some soloists (certainly not all) who were adept at this technique.

Most ITEC soloists stood at about the angle one would expect for a euphonium soloist: more or less facing the audience with the eyes, while the bell is roughly 90 degrees away from the audience. The was a good stance for most musical needs. The euphonium is by nature an indirect instrument, and the sound is more smooth when not directed at the audience. But in some cases, the notes will be lost with this positioning.

Especially when playing with an accompaniment, technical passages may sound very muddy with the "normal" bell position. The indirect approach lets the sound of the fast notes run together. To compensate for this, the experienced soloists will turn the bell outward for these passages. The ITEC soloists who did this were much more effective in their performances!

Other

While the Coast Guard Band was on tour I used to look at the stage environment before the concert. A fairly common venue would be a school stage, and those are often set up for theatrical performances. As such, they had rows of short curtains above our heads, which were parallel to the stage lip. In between the rows of curtains were rows of lights. Those were very effective at soaking up sound that was directed upward! If there was a solo or important line in one of the band pieces, I found it necessary to turn in my chair so my bell was pointed past the top edge of the stage and more directly toward the audience. In some cases I had to turn in such a way that I could not see the conductor, or sometimes could not see my music! But at least my sound had a good chance of getting to the audience. (Curtains like those create a generally "dead" sound for the ensemble, but trumpets and trombones have a major advantage because they point straight out. Euphoniums and tubas need to keep this in mind.)

There are also times when you need to dampen your sound. A stage as described in the previous paragraph will sometimes have a row of bandshell segments across the back. In that case, upright instruments get an extra "lift" compared to some of the others and your section may need to hold back.

Some stages have rows of curtains along each side. Most euphoniums have bells that point to the right. If you are on the right side of the band, your sound may be dampened severely by pointing toward the side curtains. A little pivot to the right during important passages may be needed.

For outside concerts with no shell, you need to remember that our normally reflective sound has no ceiling or walls from which to refect. You can use the same technique described above for important passages. Point your bell as much as possible toward the audience. This may require you to rotate in your chair and to tip the horn to a more horizontal angle. It would be helpful for your section to be more on the band's right side to your bell has a natural angle toward the audience.

Presentation

In using any of the suggestions above, the audience's attention should not be drawn to your bell-pointing technique. Some of us have to learn to not stand like a statue while performing a solo or counting rests. A little movement is a good thing, especially as that movement contributes to the feel of the music. So just make any bell-pointing movements subtle to your audience.

Studying the Effects

As you experiment with these techniques, the best method is to have a trusted listener in the audience area to comment on the different angles you try. But you can also learn a lot when someone else is practicing in a large room. Walk around the room and observe the changes in sound quality/clarity as get more on-axis or more off-axis.

This may seem like a lot of talk about a minor point, but you will be surprised at the difference it can make in the effectiveness of your presentation.

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