Brass Clinic: Developing a Beautiful Brass Sound

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This discussion was developed for horn students, but works well for all brass.  Sound is the first thing we notice and the last thing we remember about any performance.  Tone is the most important aspect of our playing.  Every note we play demonstrates our sound, good or bad.  Our sound is a critical aspect of our musical personality and fingerprint.  The following ideas will help develop a beautiful brass sound.



We must have a very definite concept of a beautiful tone in order to produce a great sound.  Conception of tone is a mental memory, aural visualization, imagination or recollection of what a beautiful tone sounds like.  We cannot imagine or remember what we have not heard and memorized so we must frequently listen to fine players live and on recordings.  Daily listening to recordings of fine players will develop our concept of tone.  iTunes, YouTube, television and movie sound tracks, orchestra and military band recordings make it easier than ever to find wonderful recordings of great artists.  Playing along with recordings on the mouthpiece, a mouthpiece rim/visualizer or a muted instrument helps imprint the aural role model and imitation in our minds.


We should listen, imitate and compare our sounds to the great artists of our instrument.  Horn players should listen to recordings by Barry Tuckwell, Hermann Baumann, Dennis Brain, Dale Clevenger, Eric Ruske and many other great artists.  Daily listening is not enough.  We must remember the sound of a beautiful tone and strive to imitate or recreate that sound whenever we play, on every single note.  Our ideal tone begins in our mind with imagination and recall.  As we play, we communicate the ideals of sound and style through the instrument in our hands.  To learn phrasing, style and artistry, listen to concerts and recordings of great singers, string players and pianists, not just brass players.  To play with a beautiful sound, imagine a lovely sound in your mind and imitate.  While you play, mentally hear a great artist playing the music on your stand.  Horn players should also read the chapter on Tone Quality in The Art of French Horn Playing by Philip Farkas.  A good way to develop your own individual tone is to listen, play along with and imitate great artists.  One day try to imitate Dennis Brain, the next day Barry Tuckwell, the next Hermann Baumann, the next Dale Clevenger, etc.  This process may help you decide what quality, color and clarity you like best and what is your own best sound.



An important key to efficient, easy brass technique is to learn to move the lips only inside the mouthpiece, not at the sides of the mouth or corners.  “Free buzzing” without a mouthpiece, rim buzzing on a mouthpiece visualizer, cutaway mouthpiece rim or valve slide pull ring,

and practicing loud non-tongued SFFZ huffs, long tones, scales, arpeggios and flexibility lip slurs help develop the efficient, strong embouchure necessary for a beautiful sound in all registers.





Another important element of a good tone is the proper use of vowel.  The use of OO, dOO, tOOH, tOH and tAAWH vowels pull the tongue down and back to enlarge the oral cavity and encourage contracted mouth corners which reduce corner motion and are vital to good tone and technique.  Minimum corner motion is important to developing a consistently beautiful tone, easy technique and good intonation in all registers.  Playing with the vowels EEE, TAH, TEE and THEEE are common mistakes, which produce poor response, a bright tone and sharpness.

To develop the correct vowels and a better sound, students should say OH and OO, place the mouthpiece on the lips, say OH and OO again and memorize the feeling of the lowered tongue position, enlarged oral cavity and open throat.  With mouthpiece on lips, students should again speak OH and OO, through the instrument and then play with these vowels.  To find the best sound, students should mouthpiece buzz a long middle register pitch and experiment with different vowels.  “EE” restricts the airflow and relaxes the corners causing poor response and weak buzzing.  OH and OO vowels improve response and buzz.  We should use the vowel tAAWH in the low register, from middle c downward, to slow the air, open the jaw and enlarge the oral cavity.  Pitch bending exercises and tAAWH can help open up a nasal, pinched sounding low register.  Students should avoid THOO and THEE vowels which cause tonguing between the teeth and heavy attacks.



A steady relaxed airstream is critical to a full, beautiful tone.  Keep breathing instructions simple.  Ask students to blow through their instrument as they would to check for water in the slides or empty the water key. Remind students to blow the exact same way through the mouthpiece and horn when they play.  When we ascend into the upper register we should blow faster and avoid tightening the abdominal muscles, which restricts the throat and causes a strained, brighter, sharper sound.  There are many ways to improve breathing, blowing and tone.  I recommend visiting, reading books and articles about or by Arnold Jacobs, working with  The Breathing Gym and breathing devices.


Practice Mute

Using a Practice Mute can help improve projection and response.   Practice mutes, designed for apartment and hotel use reduce decibels and increase resistance. Practice mutes encourage us to inhale more air and blow faster, developing both tone and dynamic range.  Playing along with loud recordings on a muted instrument helps to develop a great sound.


Long Tones

Great players practice long tones, from ppp to fff each day.  We should begin with phooh, without the tongue, make an immediate crescendo to as loud as possible and a slower decrescendo to as soft as possible.  During crescendos we should relax the aperture to allow more and thicker air and contract the aperture slightly inward to produce a smaller diameter airstream for diminuendos.  We should strive for steady, consistent pitch and a beautiful sound at all times.  It may help to watch a tuner.








Right Hand Position, Horn Players Only

The position of the right hand in the bell is very important to a good horn tone and intonation.  There is much variety in the right hand positions use by professional hornists, but there is general agreement concerning the following ideas.  Insert the right hand, in a vertical position, similar to a handshake, into the bell.  Keep the thumb and fingers close together without any spaces and touch the back of the hand/fingers to the inside of the bell at 3 on the face of a clock.  Keep the hand and wrist straight and so that the tone flows past the palm, not into it and is not muffled by excess cupping of the palm.  Read the chapter on Playing Position and Use of the Right Hand in The Art of French Horn Playing by Philip Farkas and The Dale Clevenger French Horn Method.




Choice of instrument and mouthpiece can influence sound.  A change of mouthpiece often changes the tone more than a change of instrument.  We should purchase the best quality, free blowing, warm sounding equipment that we can afford, but remember it’s the player not the instrument that produces the sound.


The imagination and desire for a beautiful sound while playing and daily fundamentals are the most important keys to developing a beautiful sound.


Joe Neisler

Illinois State University


Joe Neisler, Professor of Horn, joined the faculty at Illinois State in 1985. Dr. Neisler performs with the ISU Sonneries Woodwind Quintet. Formerly Principal Horn of the Peoria Symphony, Opera Illinois, Sinfonia da Camera, Champaign-Urbana Symphony, the Prairie Ensemble and Pine Brook Studio, Dr. Neisler has also performed with the Indianapolis and Memphis Symphony Orchestras. Joe Neisler is a Jurist for the International Horn Competition of America, the Horn Clinician for Music For All and has performed as a soloist and adjudicator at Regional and International Horn Workshops. Joe Neisler has performed with Julie Andrews, Tony Bennett, The Moody Blues, Vince Gill, Johnny Mathis, Suzy Bogguss, Englebert Humperdinck and Robert Goulet. He studied with Philip Farkas, Myron Bloom, Frank Brouk, Meir Rimon and Michael Hatfield. He holds the BM and MM and DM from Indiana University. Dr. Neisler is an Artist/Clinician for Conn-Selmer and has performed and given Master Classes in North America, Europe and the Orient. For more information about Dr. Neisler and the Illinois State Horn Studio visit

3 Responses to “Brass Clinic: Developing a Beautiful Brass Sound”

  1. Lyn Banghart says:

    Enjoyed this article. I am struggling with tone right now and going back and forth between mouthpieces. I know I should stick with one but not sure which one to stick with! I’m caught up in playing on a custom mouthpiece as opposed to the mouthpiece that came with my horn. Anyway, just venting. Thanks for the tips! (A lot of them reminders…)

  2. Tom says:

    PLease check check Out Anatowind Music Clinic for complete answers to these questions

  3. Miroslav says:

    I am very excited about your article. It is not only review of famous horn treatises but it is a treasure of information and upgrade on free blowing and long notes. I am an amateur and I grabbed a single F horn as an aid to fight mid age depression. The think that I cannot make better is that I play occasionally as my job and timing does not allow more free time. Combining listening to famous horn players and thinking about horn made me crystalized my concept about tone. Lately tone quality became all I strive when playing. This opened treasure cove and changed my view of the instrument. I began thinking of many different horns and their tonal qualities in just one, F horn. It also inflected me in thinking of important notes within melody line since the horn is naturally making it by the virtue of harmonics. I just want to add a sentence from The Art of French Horn Playing that adds to your explanation of long notes: “diminuendo…, the lip tension gradually taking over as the air column diminishes in force…. in order to taper the diminuendo into infinity..” . And now I want to thank again for the phenomenal article and I want to share my choice of “the best horn performance – ever..” and that is: Beethoven Quintet in E flat Op. 16 (Brandel, Holliger, Brunner, Baumann and Thunemann) on the same edition is Mozart Quintet in E flat K 452 Philips 1986.

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