Brass Players Singing in Italian

by | Feb 3, 2022

The Morning Moose Gets A Wake-Up Call

Ten years ago, if you told me that someday I’d play the tuba, I’d have doubted you, but most mornings, I start the day warming up with a few jazzy licks on my tuba. Playing the tuba has been great for my horn playing, and living below the bass clef is just cool. It takes deep breaths to play the tuba, and the horn seems light and easy after a bit of time singing through the beast. The deer love it, too. I’m the morning moose with a wake-up call.

What began with the popularity of musical theater during the year of “Hamilton” ended in me and my fellow brass players singing in Italian. I would never have guessed I’d be teaching brass players to sing in Italian. Here’s the story of how we started singing in Italian and the benefits brass players get from learning to sing in Italian.

The Theater Bug Bites The Brass

Show Brass
The Monsters

In the story of “The “Tone-Deaf” Wednesday Brass,” we learn that matching a pitch is a skill that can be learned and that being tone-deaf doesn’t have to be a permanent condition. This was a significant discovery for these brass players who couldn’t match a pitch when they started lessons. Once they learned how to sing, their playing blossomed. However, most brass students studying with me were NOT “tone-deaf.”

There were some very talented singers in the studio. Several singing brass students, including my daughter, who plays the trombone, wanted to sing in musical theater. They started to bring in music for auditions, and we learned to sing a few show tunes together. It didn’t seem strange since we sang in every lesson.

Brass on Stage
The Mad Hatter

When we learn music on the instrument, we sing it. Choosing lyrics that fit the sounds, phrasing, or articulation we want for the musical situation. We sing while we finger the horn or slide the trombone. Then, using the same mindset, we play the instrument. Our phrasing is fluid and flows easily as if we are singing. It comes out of the instrument just the way we sing it. The fingers move easily without any thought of a horn or hand. We sing it and play it with the same musical phrasing. Teaching them to sing show tunes was easy. We just skipped the whole playing it on the instrument part. This was great fun for me, too. I love to sing.

Mary Poppins
Mary Poppins

As the Voice Goes, So Goes The Instrument

While preparing for these auditions, I witnessed beautiful things happening to these singing brass players. The first thing I noticed was their confidence growing. Maybe performing and getting into character helped them feel less self-conscious. Knowing you can sing also brings its own level of confidence. And as their voices started sounding better, there were vast improvements in the sound quality on their instruments. I had them play parts of the songs they were working on singing on their instruments. The idea was to keep them from thinking of the body while singing. We treated the body as if it were a trumpet. That mindless tube we use merely amplifies the sound coming from the inner musician.

They made nice, mature sounds when they played the parts they were singing with their instruments. I was excited to hear this and ready to get back to some brass playing to explore this new idea of great singing leading to great playing. Then these singing brass players got the lead roles and wanted to continue “voice lessons,” so thirty minutes went to sixty, and I was teaching them voice lessons, too. The first thing to do was get some help, research, and find a method I could believe in. Luckily, I knew some voice instructors.

Voice Teachers Teach Like Brass Teachers

I didn’t take long to see the similarities between voice and brass teachers. I remember reading Arnold Jacobs’ thoughts after having an office next to a voice teacher. The focus on the body seems even more extreme than with brass teachers, and that’s saying a lot. As I asked questions about teaching a singer, I learned about the head and chest voice, proper posture and position of the throat and mouth, and how one could control the larynx and the diaphragm. I was researching how to teach the voice and its part of the body, so we focus on the body, right? It might seem logical to some, but that wasn’t the path I was teaching these students, and I had to find another way.

The vocal methods I found were like the brass methods of my youth, and I was avoiding them in my teaching now. Repetitive exercises, mindless scales, and arpeggios were not how I wanted to go with these students. Like Arnold Jacobs, I taught in a room that came complete with vocal lessons in the room next door. Through the thin walls, I would hear Italian songs day after day! As I sat in my office looking through vocal methods, the method I was looking for “found me.” I was told they were “The Vaccai.” I got Vaccai’s Practical Method for Italian Singing and read the introduction.

Vaccai and I

I found the I in Vaccai instantly. He was frustrated with the current vocal methods of his time. Teaching a slow and tedious method using scales and exercises on pure vowel sounds was what everyone else did, but Vaccai wanted something his students could enjoy singing. This sounded like the same problems I had with brass methods. Vaccai didn’t want to discourage his students with hours of mindless exercises. He taught using music with emotional value so that his students could learn to sing with expression. He showed his students how to use the emotion in the music to activate the body. After reading the introduction, I knew I’d found it!

Brass players sing in Italian
Moose Sings The Wake-Up Call in Italian

My new vocal students loved singing in Italian, and together, we learned to sing with the round sounds needed to get the most out of every vowel. We also played them on our instruments as we did with the show tunes. When excellent round full sounds started coming out of these instruments, I decided all my brass players needed to start singing in Italian. This idea didn’t fly with everyone. I taught some without the Vaccai. This group became the control group of brass players, singing but not in Italian. Their sounds never matured the way the multi-lingual players did.

Arranging for Success

I enjoy arranging. In 2019, I arranged over fifty pieces for our horn ensemble, The Westminster Horns. I will arrange any song or melody they know for my students and use it in lessons. Playing songs they know, they can easily sing along in their head while the body learns to play without too many thoughts outside the music. The music becomes the main focus, and it is easier to ignore the body, allowing efficient playing to develop quickly. An excellent side effect for the student is that lessons are fun. Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Indiana Jones are obvious favorites, and students have asked for video games, popular music, and show tunes. Of course, show tunes!

I arranged the first ten tunes in Vaccai’s Practical Method for the brass instruments I taught. I wanted students to sing and play what we were learning to sing. We had done it with Star Wars and tried to sing with good sounds. Whether they sang soft or severely, the same bad sounds they sang came out of the horn as if they were singing. I find that whatever you play comes out just the way you sing it. The sounds made while singing the Vaccai were much better than the ones they were making, just dah-dah-ing to the Harry Potter theme or doo doo-ing to Darth Vader’s Imperial March. Whether we are singing or playing, we call it singing, and our goal is always beautiful singing, or bel canto, in Italian.

Learning to Make Good Sounds

Bel Canto was the name given to the singing taught by Nicola Vaccai in Italy in 1833 when his Practical Method was first published. This is a lyrical style of operatic singing using a full, rich, broad tone and smooth phrasing. These Italian songs were beautiful for my young singers. Many of the problems we had singing in English with a Missouri accent had magically vanished. Rich, satisfying vowel sounds came out easily as we learned to sing in Italian. We’d imagine we were ordering food in a restaurant in Italy and filling up on round vowel sounds. With the focus solely on imitating sounds, finding the best way to use the mouth, throat, or chest occurred naturally, without thinking of what we were doing physically. The body found the most efficient way to open up, relax, and produce the rich round sounds we were imitating.

As the brass players lost their accents and sang in Italian, they also made great sounds on their brass instruments. Finding the sweet spot in the vowel and rolling on it with the voice had transferred to the instrument the same way that singing a phrase would come out the same way on the instrument as the voice. Not only were we getting mature phrasing, but we were also getting mature sounds. The right notes were coming out with nice round sounds. We’d fine-tuned the instruments. The students are the instruments, not the horn or the body, but the students. Their inner musicians had learned to make good sounds and put those sounds out through the body and the instrument.

A Perfect Ten

These first ten tunes add more than good sounds to the students’ tool chest. The first eight songs in the Vaccai method each showcase an interval. An interval in music is the space between notes, and intervals are essential for musicians to know. I don’t mean knowing in the math sense but with the sense of sound. These intervals were taught to me using songs that I knew, like “Happy Birthday” for a major 2nd or “Here Comes the Bride” for a perfect 4th. This instantly puts ideas in the mind that have nothing to do with what you are playing unless you’re playing Happy Birthday or Wagner’s Wedding March. Learning the intervals with these Italian songs we’ve never heard that have no real meaning helps keep the mind free to focus on the sound of the interval. 

The last two of the perfect ten help round out musical lessons we picked up while learning the intervals in the first eight. The ninth song centers on syncopation. Playing on the upbeat can be awkward at first. It’s a catchy tune and one of the student’s favorites. When they play it, they get a good feel for syncopated rhythms. The tenth song is an exercise with sixteenth notes in a scaler pattern. By the time we get through these ten songs, they are ready to play anything they will see in the band, and we can get to the real fun stuff here in the studio, playing anything they can imagine.

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