a conversation with Joshua Smith
interview conducted by Madeline Lucas
note: Maddi Lucas, who recently earned her Bachelor of Music degree from CIM, interviewed me to satisfy her Pedagogy credit. I liked the way the interview turned out, and I'd like to share it here, in several episodes.
Part One: Sound Development
ML: Our first topic is developing tone. What is your sound concept and how do you convey it to your students?
JS: Sound is so interesting. It's the first thing that anyone notices about your playing, so, of course, it bears a lot of thinking about. I have mixed feelings, though, about the importance of sound. On one hand, I spend a lot of time developing a particular sound, my voice, and, then, on the other hand, I try not to think about sound as a blanket concept. If you're only focused on making one particular sound, you can end up using that all the time, and then there's no flexibility built into your playing. So I think everyone should develop his or her own approach, through a process of experimentation with many different possible approaches, learning how to be flexible, learning how to develop a palette of color possibilities.
It's good to understand not only what a good sound is, but also what a bad sound can be: it's not always important to sound beautiful-- there are reasons, sometimes, to make other choices.
Overall, I think the basic concept of sound has a lot to do with what I call "resonance," the idea that sound is both focused and round. Allowing it to be that way is based on your body and how you are physically created, as well as on what kind of instrument you are using. What you allow to come through the instrument should spin in a way that the sound isn't forced and that it can always ring into the space you're in. But, again, I feel that if you only think about making a beautiful, blanket sound, maybe you're not being as interesting as possible.
ML: Are you saying, then, that sound is more of a personal choice?
JS: I think it has to be personal, yes. Anyone has a simple, sort of instinctive, knee-jerk reaction to what you sound like. So, when I am working for myself, I have quick reactions to what I like and don't like about my sound, too. I guess I'm just saying that it's really important to develop flexibility and creativity in the way you approach what you sound like.
We were just talking about Madeline Bruser's The Art of Practicing, and I think that one of the ways she talks about practicing meditatively has to do with hearing yourself and reacting to how you sound in the moment. You're listening to how you sound, striving both for consistence across registers and control over sound within a broad dynamic and color spectrum, but you're also taking it a step further, reacting to the specific context and creating a special sound for that context.
ML: What roles do breathing and support play in your sound concept and production of sound? How do you view breathing?
JS: Are we talking about inhaling or exhaling?
ML: Exhaling, to phrase.
JS: Well, how you blow, how you control your airstream has everything to do with how you sound. Learning to control the air-speed, using all parts of your body in the process, you understand how your body affects whether the air (and therefore the sound) is relaxed or constricted, big or small, resonant or forced, more or less focused. The velocity of air across the instrument has everything to do with how you sound.
ML: If a student came in and wasn't supporting well enough, how would you counsel her?
JS: My working definition of "supporting": take a nice, deep, comfortable breath and notice how your diaphragm muscles expand to let air into your lungs. "Supporting" is the ability to keep these muscles expanded, or flexed, over the course of an entire, controlled exhale. So, what you're doing is controlling the rate at which the air is coming out of your body. The goal is to have a steady, consistent, solid, usually rather fast air speed. I used to say, "Support, support." But what I think is maybe clearer and easier for students to hear is, "Try blowing steadily but faster." Actually, that often solves a lot of problems.
ML: So often in a lesson, you only get to hear a student's sound as he plays by himself. How would you counsel him about playing in a wind section, about playing with others?
JS: That's something that develops over time, and again goes back to that idea of specific contexts. You start to become aware of what is possible by hearing great orchestras and chamber musicians, and using those experiences as arbiters of what can be possible, developing personal goals for yourself. Generally speaking, in a wind section, the most important thing is to find a way towards cohesion so that all of the instruments have their own individual colors when they need to, but manage to sound blended when they're playing together, especially in octaves or unisons. Somehow, what you end up creating is a sound that is a combination of two colors-- because of the way a flute and clarinet combine, for example, you get a new color that is the result of blending both separate colors. That's something that can only be done if you really understand the qualities of the other instrument you're playing with.
ML: How does one go from just playing loudly to projecting, especially in a large ensemble?
JS: That has a lot to do with air-speed, actually, and what I talked about earlier in terms of resonance. Sound goes the wrong direction if it has an edge or is forced, because when you start forcing air, you're not actually supporting it; rather than channeling the air column so that it's coming out of you quickly and steadily, you're anchoring something in your body so that the column tightens. Yelling might sound loud, but it doesn't necessarily carry the same weight underneath it that speaking resonantly can.
From all the experience I've had, both listening to myself and my students play, hearing people both in big halls and small rooms, I know that a sound that is focused and round is what carries; again, that has a lot to do with air speed: what projects into a space from a wind instrument is sound created with round and spinning air. Just like with a voice, focusing your energy on depth and enunciation is what carries the sound forward.
Back to that book, Bruser's The Art of Practicing. As I try to explain this to you, I find myself listening carefully to my own voice, exactly in the moment, while I'm speaking. That's such a great practicing technique, becoming aware of what you sound like, because as you listen, you start to learn what is possible. Having feedback from others helps, too: "When you do that it doesn't carry into the hall as much as when you do this" is helpful, and having gotten a lot of feedback like that, I know that projecting takes a lot less effort than most people think it does. The effort is meditative more than forceful, so that you end up expressing yourself rather than yelling.
ML: How do you view your body, in light of producing your tone?
JS: I guess the best tips come from the idea of what happens when you elongate your ribcage, when you carry yourself from the center of your body, and when you flex your diaphragm muscles. What happens is that your whole upper body straightens and lengthens, and that openness allows for the sound to become deeper and more relaxed-- the muscle action allows for the air to be channeled in an efficient way. Mainly, feeling grounded to the floor and yet lifted from the core center of your body is a good way to get started.