Sunday, August 21, 2005

Tacet, attaca Oral Sensations

I've emerged from the slew of events and obligations that kept me away from the blogosphere. Tomorrow I plan to write a post on musical acoustics, based on some recent discoveries revealed at the latest ASA conference. Why tomorrow? Because my references are in my office, and I ain't commuting on a Sunday for a blog post!

For today, I offer the realization I had while playing the last show of Pippin last night. I think all performers rely on tactile feedback as much as aural feedback in making corrections. This isn't always the case. A possibly apocryphal example is that of Adolph Herseth, former principal trumpet of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. In the 1950s, Herseth was in a car accident that injured his lips. He started playing again soon after the accident, but the scar tissue and nerve damage prevented him from having tactile feedback from his lips. He therefore relied on his ears, knowing what sound he should have and making adjustments so he produced that sound. (The car accident is a fact. I am uncertain whether the damage really prevented Bud from feeling the contact of mouthpiece and lips.)

In my case, the tactile response is less that of the lips vibrating, and more that of the air vibrating inside my mouth. I can feel the shape of the inside of my mouth as I play, from the arch of the soft palate to the position of the tongue, from the angle of my jaws to the pull of my mentalis muscles. And I can feel how the air in my mouth reacts to these different shapes, as it pulses in pressure waves. Proper trumpet playing requires a steady air stream exhaled. This air stream builds up pressure in the mouth when the lips are closed. The pressure is released when the lips open, allowing the air to flow into the trumpet. The buzzing of the lips is a very quick opening and closing of the lips, at periods related to the pitch that the trumpet plays. The important air pressure waves are in the trumpet itself, but they are directly related to the pressure waves in my mouth. I'm not counting the pressure waves, but rather "tasting" them, feeling the vibrancy and the shape of the waves. For each pitch and each sound color, the waves are stronger in different parts of my mouth, and I adjust the shape to encourage the proper waves.

I never thought about how the inside of my mouth felt before, beyond the pure mechanics of tonguing and tongue arching for lip flexibility. But it is amazing how vivid this feeling is. String players have very visible physical sensations, from the movement of the bow arm to the finger placement and vibrato of the left hand. Pianists also have visible physical motions of their hands on the keyboards. But wind players have to seek the physical sensations inside. This can be challenging to understand bya novice, and hard to explain by an experienced performer. However, when it clicks, the feeling is marvelous.

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