You blow down the small end

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james strettonBy James Stretton

As a freelance musician I fill my days and pay my mortgage with a great diversity of musical activities. Primarily this includes playing the trumpet, teaching and performing my multi instrumental orichalcum – World of Brass shows.

Each activity has it’s own distinct challenges, but all involve blowing into various metal tubes in order to produce pleasing musical sounds. A challenge that 1000s of fellow brass players enjoy (or not) everyday.

Trans-Atlantic physics

Let’s get one thing absolutely clear from the start that I do realise a great amount of highly complex physics is occurring when we endeavour to control the whole harmonic series and valve thing – aka playing.

Some teachers particularly in America delight in the scientific aspect of playing, whereas traditionally in England we generally say “ay up lad – stick it on and blow the blundering thing!”

For me I take a mid-atlantic approach and would advise you to do likewise, ie a sensible compromise is to be aware of the science but ultimately concentrate on the music and only get the slide rule out if there’s a specific problem. Similarly we need to be more thoughtful if we find ourselves on a plateau and unable to progress to the next level, and no matter how good you get rest assured there’s always another level.

A meeting of art and science

Brass playing, and of course music in general is where art and science meet. Sounds are controlled and combined for the entertainment of audiences, the expression of complex emotions and finally to calm the savage breast.

Music is such a fundamentally simple activity, merely control sounds effectively and the magic will reveal itself. However, the slight fly in the ointment is that “control the sound” bit. Brass instruments are fantastically efficient amplifiers, and as such they amplify not only the good vibrations you create but also project all the splits and out of tuneness all the way to the cheap seats.

Blowing through the instrument?

I’ve been playing now for 34 years – no wonder I’m so tired…… until very recently I have agreed with the established view that we blow through the instrument.

Indeed it is perceived wisdom that we must move the air, that’s a column of 4’6” for trumpeters, 9’ for trombonists and 18’ for our BBb bass friends at the back of the class. I’ve been involved with all sorts of master classes and workshops over the years both as a student and teacher, and lots of brass players (myself included) have emphasised the need for physical commitment to BLOWING.

Like trying to inflate some huge imaginary balloon or blow a candle out ten feet away – or my personal favourite hold a piece of A4 paper against a vertical wall (what other kinds are there?) by blowing it very hard before gravity wins. However, my views on this subject are now radically changing. I’ve recently been seriously investigating the route of least resistance.

Effortlessness, ease, efficiency

Consider how the truly great players make it look so easy. Effortless almost, no puffing and panting, sighing and wheezing, bright purple faces are nowhere to be seen. Look at Wynton Marsalis playing Carnival of Venice on Youtube.

As I get older and my energy reserves diminish I realise I’ve been putting way way way too much effort into playing over the years. So what has suddenly dawned on me after all this time?

I put it to you that we are in fact not blowing through the tube at all.

I suggest that somewhere along the line we have forgotten a very simple truth about brass playing and it is this; the vibration is the thing that moves through the instrument not the air itself.

Thinking about quality, not quantity

You could attach an industrial generator up to a tuba and pump 1000s of litres of compressed air through it and it wouldn’t make a sound – though it may explode a bit. However, I’ve heard tiny asthmatic children make huge tuba sounds in my school workshops. So in a nutshell it’s quality not quantity that we are concerned with.

Maybe it’s because I’ve spent the last five years of my life learning to become a consistent performer on every brass instrument, I’ve given considerable thought and hours of practice into such things as clean slurs on the french horn and how to swap instantly between piccolo trumpet and tuba.

The more time I spend in this pursuit of multi instrumental mastery the more I realise that it’s familiarity with the vibration point that we need to concern ourselves with as brass players. Brass players seem to focus their mind about 6 feet away from the bell, I suggest we shouldn’t forget the first millimetre of what occurs just in front of our embouchure.

Speed of sound

We can blow at a rate of perhaps 40mph, a sneeze is just about 100mph and yet the quietest ppp (and at this moment I remember the first time I every played Deep Harmony with Black Dyke – or should I say mimed) travels at the speed of sound, that’s 767mph at sea level – or indeed top C level.

Just think about this for a moment the wave is travelling through the brass tube of your instrument at the same rate on a pp bottom C as it is in the tube when you knock out a ff top C. Frequency and amplitude change throughout the harmonic series and dynamics, but the speed of sound is constant.

Some things are carved in stone. Higher? Blow faster. Louder? Blow more. But I know my playing continues to improve when I find ways to use less energy and just concentrate on those good vibrations. Efficiency is the key.


Let’s get back to considering those good vibrations for a moment. As brass players we are blowing into a metal tube that already contains air.

Just think about that implication for a moment. We are not trying to inflate something that doesn’t contain air yet ie a balloon.

Economy of effort should be considered, feel for and be aware of the vibration point – the point at which noise will instantly be created. Life as brass player becomes infinitely less complicated when we focus on creating a quality vibration. One that is consistent and well supported by a constant column of air. Many of the great players’ warm up consist largely of feeling for and encouraging the vibration point.

Additional reading

For further reading may I suggest you log onto and read Dr Richard Smith’s articles on “Getting Technical – 4 parts” these will fill in the scientific gaps.

However, remember I suggested music is where art and science meet?

Ultimately the brass player must concern him/herself with the here and now and concentrate 100% on the note in hand, we all know the consequences of not doing so.


Consider the following;

1) the speed of sound is constant whether at pp bottom C or ff top C
2) you are blowing into something that already contains air
3) concern yourself with quality of vibration and air support
4) look for efficiency and economy of effort
5) are you playing too loud? Cleanness & accuracy are what really project

I’d be very interested to hear your point of view.

You can send me an email via

Happy blowing!

ACKNOWLEDGMENT – Many thanks to Roger Webster, John Elliot and Dr Richard Smith with whom I discussed these issues.

One Response to “You blow down the small end”

  1. Alan Edgar says:

    Dear James,

    I have a revised score and set of parts for the Fanfare for the Vulcan which you very kindly tried out at York SJ. Where can I send them? (Hard copies)


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