Luck is not chance, it’s toil. Fortune’s expensive smile is earned. ~ Emily Dickinson

Mr. Ahrens teaches band & choir at Bear River High School in Grass Valley, CA.


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Less Buzz, More Tone


I had the opportunity to hear Allen Vizzutti speak this summer at grad school and really had my mind blown by a couple of things. The first actually occurred as he played his trumpet for us:

His tone.
His technical fluidity.
His relaxed state.

I was really just completely stunned by his sound. The man is the man.

The second transformational thing I took in from Mr. Vizzutti was his thought on buzzing into your brass instrument. He says not to do it. What?!  I know, I was confused for a minute too. He contends that we should not be teaching our beginning students to buzz. Instead we should focus on full, relaxed breathing and aggressive, sustained airflow through the horn.

Vizzutti did a demonstration where he blew steady air through the mouthpiece – just the sound of rushing air. He then added the trumpet to it while blowing and a full, beautiful tone immediately came out of the trumpet. He pulled the mouthpiece out and it was back to straight rushing air, no buzz sound. This is similar to what I used to do when I taught beginning band, but I did it while buzzing. I actually started buzzing only on my lips (which I’m hearing from many is undesirable), then added the mouthpiece, and finally the instrument. This was effective, but my beginning brass players – while quickly achieving tone – had the unmistakable tone of beginning brass players. It takes years of subtle adjustment for a musician to get away from this concept and play with a more open embouchure and less buzz in search of better tone. They often do not realize this is what they are doing though. I didn’t.

If a student were taught to create tone on their brass instrument without forcing the buzz from the start, their tone would be immediately more successful which would likely lead to a more promising development as a musician.

So what is actually happening and why does it work? When an aggressive stream of air is funneled through the cup and then narrow throat of the mouthpiece there is an acceleration that takes place similar to placing your thumb over the end of a garden hose. This agitated airflow then is propelled through the body of the horn creating a natural wave form from the beginning of the leadpipe to the flare of the bell (where the spatial constriction is removed). This lifting of the constricted space actually sends the wave back in the opposing direction toward the mouthpiece and the player’s lips. This is what is known as a standing wave. The frequency of this wave will interact with the edge of the lips as the air flows through them causing a sympathetic vibration to occur naturally in the lips. This is not a forced or self-initiated buzz. This is why you can create a tone on a brass instrument merely by focusing airflow into the horn. The lip aperture should actually remain open and relatively relaxed. The sound wave will initiate a small amount of lip buzz – but not lips buzzing against each other, merely to the frequency of the wave.  This will end as soon as you break the standing wave by removing the mouthpiece from your lips. If you keep the air going, you will just be blowing, not buzzing.

If it wasn’t someone with the credentials (and chops) of Allen Vizzutti explaining this concept, I may have really doubted it. But instead, I immediately got out my horn and tried it. Sure enough I could create a great sound from simple focused air. I also found that his insistence on a relaxed but full inhale and a focused, but open embouchure helped me achieve more control right away in the high range –  in immediate tone production, pitch accuracy, soft control, and endurance. Plus it is in alignment with the notion of reducing all tension in playing, which I completely embrace.  This concept is  thoroughly changing the way I practice and perform. It’s changing the way I approach my horn. And it is changing my approach to teaching brass students.

What do you think? I imagine this topic could be fairly controversial. I’d love to hear an opposing view as well as those in agreement. I’ve tried it and it works.

 photo credit: Andrew Allio

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