Long Tones: A Love/Hate Relationship

This semester I added long tones back into my practice routine, and I’ve noticed some positive results over the past several weeks. To clarify, I normally play long tones in my warm-up routine, but it’s been a few years since I did any additional long tone work during the day. In graduate school I practiced them regularly, using ear plugs to protect my hearing in the mostly tile and glass practice rooms at UW-Madison. Over time, though, I felt like the long tone exercises I was doing were tiring out my chops rather than helping. Perhaps I wasn’t doing them correctly, or perhaps I was doing too much strenuous playing in addition to the long tones, but at any rate that experience turned me off to those kinds of exercises for a long time. However, after reading Eli Epstein’s Horn Playing from the Inside Out, I was inspired to pick them back up using the routine he provides in the book. His exercises are similar to many others, but they incorporate breath attacks and plenty of rest to help keep things fresh. They are still tiring, but the benefits outweigh the drawbacks this time. Some of the benefits include more secure attacks, a more consistent tone across the range and at various dynamics, and improved endurance. Are these improvements due entirely to the long tones? Probably not, but I think they have definitely contributed. If you find yourself getting bored with long tones, try changing up your routine, or cycling through variations of the same exercise over a week or so. Not convinced that long tones can be beneficial? You don’t have to take my word for it; just consider these quotes about long tones from several noted pedagogues.

Verne Reynolds, The Horn Handbook, p. 32

We never outgrow our need for long tones. They allow us to concentrate on

  1. breathing techniques
  2. body support
  3. attack and response
  4. intonation
  5. release
  6. mouthpiece pressure

Douglas Hill, Collected Thoughts on Teaching and Learning, Creativity, and Horn Performancep. 20

There is no one single type of exercise that receives more praise from one group of players and more disdain from the other than long tones. “Long tones are boring!” “Long tones solved all of my problems!” Extremes perhaps, but both are true to an extent.

Randy Gardner, Mastering the Horn’s Low Registerp. 19

Many aspects of superb tone production can be related to the steady air stream that the performance of long tones mandates.

Frøydis Ree Wekre, Thoughts on Playing the Horn Well, p. 26

Long tones can be practised in many different ways. Some people find them boring and stiffening, but I find them interesting and strengthening. I do prefer them, however, in the evening rather than in the morning.

Wendell Rider, Real World Horn Playingp. 65

As brass players, we need to develop a secure sense of tone and pitch by playing relatively simple exercises that allow us to focus on a minimum of variables. Long tones let us concentrate on the air flow and a relaxed, consistent vibration.

Barry Tuckwell, Playing the Horn, p. 32

Long Notes: The term is self-explanatory; however, the object in playing long notes on brass instruments is to develop a sure control of breathing and embouchure…Always try to maintain a beautiful sound at all times. (Long notes are tiring and care should be taken not to play beyond certain limits.) If at all possible, every note from pedal F to top C should be played each day, but if undue strain is felt it may be a good idea to curtail this exercise.

Richard Deane, The Efficient Approach: Accelerated Development for the Hornp. 56

Long tone exercises in their many forms can be tedious and somewhat strenuous, but should never be “boring” because, of all the daily exercises we do, these actually give the most useful feedback to the player.

Eli Epstein, Horn Playing from the Inside Out (electronic version, so page numbers vary)

Playing daily long tones has long-term benefits: We develop excellent breath control, a round, clear, centered sound, and stable pitch as we change dynamic levels. The more quality we infuse into long tones, the more we get out of them. A famous principal horn player calls them “quality tones.”

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I did long tones for about a half hour today (doing intervals w/ a drone) and it was amazing. Will do again tomorrow 🙂

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