We’re all frequently told about the importance of long tones within our daily practice routine and I’m sure most of us include them at some point. However, after recently questioning a number of my students about the benefits, and how we are to approach these exercises, it became quite clear that players tend to get into the habit of running through these on ‘automatic pilot’. So, as a kind of refresher for all of us, I thought it might be useful to pass on just a few thoughts about how we can approach long tone practice.
Why do we have to practice long tones?
There are numerous benefits available to us from the inclusion of long tones in our practice routine. They kill many birds with one stone. By this I mean that we are involving many aspects of our playing systems; our breathing apparatus, our posture, our air supply, our embouchure, our tongue and our ears. All these are essential elements for the rest of our technique and control.
How do we practice long tones?
Again, there are many ways to approach the practice of long tones. For me, in my daily routine I simply play from middle Bb down to low E natural chromatically, each note lasting for eight beats at crotchet equals 60 beats per minute. I play each tone at mezzo forte, no louder, ensuring every tone is produced with minimal effort both from a breathing point of view and from mouthpiece pressure.
What do we listen for?
When I teach my younger students I ask them to remember three simple S’s:
We must listen closely to the clarity of the starts of the notes, we have to listen for and ensure accurate pitch (using a tuning machine or a tuning app is really useful here) and finally we have to strive for the most beautiful sound we can imagine.
How long do we have to practice them?
Again, there are many variables, mostly dependent on time available. I personally practice my long tones for a maximum of ten minutes if I only have a 30/45 minute practice slot available. This ensures that the exercises don’t become monotonous and that I'm able to closely analyze how I sound and how I feel. Breaking your practice sessions down into small segments ensures we can guarantee 100% focus and concentration on each aspect of our session.
The bottom line.
We can receive numerous benefits from the study of long tones IF we approach them in the correct manner. Every part of the body, including our breathing apparatus, our embouchure, our posture should all feel relaxed. The breathing should be deep and slow, ensuring you keep your shoulders down and you expand horizontally not vertically. The production of the tones should be clean and articulate with no hesitancy between inhalation and exhalation. Remember, the tongue merely releases the air, it does not start the note. Listen closely; do the tones buckle at the beginning? If so, limit the use of the tongue. Brush the notes into place don’t hammer them in! Is the pitch accurate? Use your tuning app to ensure pitch is accurate throughout the full duration of the note. Focus on keeping a constant, relaxed stream of air at all times - this greatly affects pitch and intonation. Finally, listen to the quality of the sound you produce. Ensure the tone is rich, warm and is free from those dreaded ‘bacon sizzling’ sounds!
Nowadays musicians have many ways to record practice sessions. Use a simple recording app on your phone, iPad, iPod or computer to help analyze and ensure your final product is first class. If we listen closely and act upon our results then our brief long tone session will be constructive and monotony free.
These are just my brief thoughts surrounding this aspect of our practice. Do feel free to comment and add your ideas below.