Eric Salazar

Making Music for Our Time

This is the website of Eric Salazar--Clarinetist, Chamber Musician, Teacher, and Innovator. Come see what Eric is up to on this site!

Practicing Tips #1: How to Find Your Sound Part 1

Welcome to the first edition of Practicing Tips! My goal for this blog is to help people get better at playing their instruments, show people how to teach themselves, develop a community place where musicians can go to share advice, increase confidence of regular readers, and have some fun!

How to Find Your Sound Part 1

Today, we will be looking at finding your sound! What does that mean? Well, first and foremost, everyone has their own unique sound. That's right, there is a sound that ONLY YOU can produce and no one else! Pretty cool, huh? I think so! A common issue for musicians is that we often have a sound in our mind's ear that we want to produce, but struggle to create 100% of the time. I'm going to share my four step process of how I find my ideal sound, and how I get my ideal sound to stay! This blog post is most relevant to wind players, string players, and singers... BUT most of these concepts are applicable to all instrumentalists and vocalists.


Step One: Long Tones With A Mindful Ear

When I'm picking up my instrument for the first time of the day or picking it up after a break from playing, the first thing I always do is play a note and hold it. These notes are called "Long Tones." Long Tones are simply notes that are held for a long time. Sound boring? NOPE!

Long Tones are honestly my favorite notes to play. Why? Because they give me a chance to listen unconditionally to the tone itself. I don't have to worry about rhythm, fingerings, tongue motion, nothing - just tone. If you put in the effort, long tones can help you achieve your dream sound. Here's how:

Being an artist means using a combination of learned knowledge, instinct, and experimentation to make decisions.
  • Regardless of what instrument you play, start by closing your eyes and taking a few deep breaths. Allow your body to relax. Take a moment to listen to the sounds around you. Get your ears ready to listen.
  • Take a breath and then play a note! Hold the note for a long time. As you are holding, really listen to the sound you are creating. Listen critically, without being negative. Is this the sound you want? Is the tone dark enough, bright enough, strong enough, pure enough - is this the sound that lives in your mind's ear? For no, see below. For yes, move on to step two!
  • Using your knowledge of your instrument, consciously change something to change the sound. For wind players, this might be subtly changing your lip muscles or air, for string players this might be adjusting your grip on the bow, for singers this might be shifting the inside of your mouth around. Now comes the time for you to have to be an artist. Being an artist means using a combination of learned knowledge, instinct, and experimentation to make decisions. Did your change get you closer to your ideal sound or farther away? Continue to REALLY listen to your sound as you make subtle changes in the way you are playing. Go back to the previous bullet.

Step Two: Meaningful Scales

Please don't cringe at this next sentence: I LOVE SCALES! A scale is just a specific arrangement of notes - you play a series of notes in a certain order. Sound boring? Again, NOPE!

Scales are one of the simplest ways to become a better musician. A lot of people hate scales. This is usually because they view scales as something they are forced to play for no reason - they view scales as irrelevant to getting better at their instrument. No wonder they hate it, they are playing their scales in a way that is meaningless! In truth, playing your scales with a mindful ear can teach you almost everything you need to know about playing your instrument. Building off of step one, here is how to make your scales meaningful:

In truth, playing your scales with a mindful ear can teach you almost everything you need to know about playing your instrument.
  • Now that you are getting your ideal sound with your long tones, it's time to play something with a little bit more motion! Before you do any scales though, take a moment to enjoy playing one last long tone! Still getting your ideal sound? Awesome! Doesn't it feel great!
  • Pick a scale, any scale! [Disclaimer: this works best if you are playing scales from memory. If you need help memorizing scales, leave a comment below so I can help!] Let's not worry about rhythm right away. Simply play your scale as if it were long tones. Now, instead of holding one note, listen with your critical ears as you slowly play the notes of your scale. Were you able to retain your ideal sound throughout the scale?
  • IMPORTANT! Most people notice at this point that when they move their fingers/tongue/arm/mouth/whatever that their ideal sound goes away. This will take some practice, but do not allow the fact that you have to move more affect maintaining your ideal sound! The good news is that your ears are now really critically listening, so you can note when exactly your ideal sound goes away and when it stays.
  • Same as above, you must now behave like an artist. Try subtly changing things. Try conciously not changing things. Maybe you notice that you are accidentally shifting something that shouldn't be moving as you play. Experiment. Use your ears. Are you getting closer to playing with your ideal sound 100% of the time, or are you getting farther away? As you get your ideal sound more consistently, start playing at a faster tempo and with a more deliberate rhythm. Continue to experiment until you are ready to move on.

This should be a great start to finding your ideal sound! Next week we will continue by looking at how experimentation/improvisation can help you keep your ideal sound when playing the tune!


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