• Brass Instrument Maintenance

    Posted by Maxwell WANG

               Everyone can agree that playing our instrument is much more enjoyable than dealing with the maintenance needed to keep our horn in proper working order, but it’s a necessary evil. And if you think cleaning isn’t important, search for the article written by NPR of the trombone player who would get a very bad cough every time he played. Not only is it important for your health to clean your horn out, but it also keeps slides, rotors, and pistons moving quickly and smoothly so that your instrument is able to do what you want it to. This article won’t go into depth on HOW to clean your horn (there’s a PDF with instructions located on the bottom of our homepage) but will briefly give suggestions and advice on when and why you should do some much-needed maintenance.

                It is recommended that you do a complete interior and exterior cleaning once or twice a year, which includes giving the whole instrument a bath, wiping slides, disassembling and cleaning the valves, reapplying oil and grease, and putting everything back together. Piston valves are easier to maintain than rotary valves, so unless you're very handy and know exactly what you’re doing, rotary valve instruments should probably be sent to your local technician when needed. You certainly don't want to break your instrument only to have to pay someone else to fix and clean it. Speaking from experience, it is much easier to take apart a rotary valve than it is to put one back together and have it still spin freely.

    You should be cleaning your horn at home every few months, but you should also have your horn professionally cleaned by a qualified technician every year or two because the quality of the cleaning will greatly differ between what you can do at home and what a qualified technician will do. At home, you use soapy warm water for piston instruments and just warm water for rotary valve instruments. A qualified technician will most likely either give the horn a chem-clean, which uses chemicals to break down anything built up throughout the horn, or a sonic clean that uses less harsh water-based chemicals and sonic vibration to break apart debris. They might throw in some polishing and dent removal too! If you want to stay out of the news for contracting lung disease from playing a dirty instrument, clean and have your horn cleaned every now and then.

                Apart from full cleanings, there is some regular maintenance that needs to happen for your horn to operate properly as well, and can be done on your own for the most part. Basically, all the moving parts need to be wiped off and re-oil or greased regularly. Piston valves should be oiled every few days or when you feel that they aren’t moving as quickly or smoothly as you think they should, and rotary valves should be oiled once a week or so, again when they aren’t moving quickly or smoothly. Valve slides should be wiped off and re-greased once a month, and should be moved every time you pick up the horn to prevent them from getting “stuck.” If a slide does get stuck, you have a choice to make: how hard do you pull on it to try and get it to move without twisting or breaking some metal and then have to pay a technician a lot of money to fix or replace the part. My suggestion is to always err on the side of caution. I’d much rather pay a technician a couple bucks to use a small torch and/or liquid wrench to get the slide un-stuck in a couple minutes than pay a lot more for a part and have to wait for it to get delivered.

                All of this sure sounds like a lot of work, but it’s something you have to do so that you can keep playing your horn well. My advice is to make a maintenance schedule and space it all out so you don’t have to do it all at once. And once again, err on the side of caution. If you are unsure of how to do something, let a qualified technician do it or show you how for in the future, because it’s always easier to do something right the first time instead of having to go through fixing what should have been easy to deal with in the first place.

                Do the maintenance so you can keep playing!

  • Auditioning for the job!

    Posted by Maxwell WANG

    Everyone will have to take a job interview at some point in their lives, and musicians are no exceptions. For us though, our form of job interview is an audition in which we have to play our instruments and try to convince the hiring committee (or judges) to pick us for the opening. And much like a job interview, the committee has just a few minutes to make up their minds about us. And if you are a serious musician, you will have to take plenty of auditions. There are auditions for chair placement in your high school band, auditions for honors bands at the local, regional, and state levels, auditions for colleges, auditions for college ensemble placement, auditions for music teaching positions, and auditions for professional ensembles. Hopefully by that, you get the point that you will have to take a lot of auditions in your lifetime. This article will go over key aspects of what you need to focus on in order to really impress the judges and win the spot! Middle and high school honors bands will be the primary focus, but a short discussion on college auditions will be at the end.

                First up are scales. If you are in middle school, you may use a scale sheet to play your scales, but in high school they must all be memorized. Judges will be listening for four areas: tone, intonation, articulation, and rhythm. To achieve a characteristic tone on any instrument, you must always use good breath support and keep a relaxed, open mouth cavity. Intonation is both playing the correct notes and playing every note in tune with the others. For articulation, the judges will decide whether each specific scale should be played slurred or articulated, so you should practice all of your scales in both styles. When you come into the audition room, there will be a piece of paper telling you how the judges want each scale to be articulated, so you must follow it exactly. And finally, rhythm is that you play each scale evenly and with the correct rhythms. Take note that you should also play the triplet eighth note arpeggios in the same tempo as the sixteenth note scale, and that you hold the half notes for their full value! As for tempo, it is always better to play the scales slower but correctly than play them too fast and miss a lot of notes. To make things a little more interesting in high school, you also have to play all of the scales in under two and a half minutes, so when you are practicing scales, it is best that you time yourself to make sure you fit everything in the limit.

                Next, you will have to play a predetermined solo or selection of excerpts from pieces that the judges picked out. Again, judges will be listening for tone, intonation, articulation, rhythm, and your sense of phrasing. Just like with scales, you know what the solo will be, so you can practice it well in advance of the audition and make sure that you are playing all the right notes and rhythms in time with a good tone. Phrasing in the solo is important and shows that you both know how the piece should sound and that you have the technique to play it how it should sound. If you don’t know how the piece sounds, then all you have to do is whip out your smart phone or laptop and look it up on YouTube and at least one person will have posted a video of them playing it. There is no excuse nowadays to not know how a piece should sound. The last thing with the solo is that more than likely is that the judges will not have you play the whole solo. In the interest of time, they will pick a short section of it that you will have to play, and every person auditioning will play the same section. This still means you have to practice the whole piece because you never know which section they’re going to pick.

                Finally, you will be asked to sight read a short excerpt from a random piece that you’ve never seen before. This is also the part of the audition that gives people the most trouble. After you’ve finished your scales and solo excerpt, there will be another face down piece of paper on the stand, and you will be asked to flip it over, take 30 seconds to look it over without making any sounds on your instrument, and then play it. The judges will be listening for the same things, tone, intonation, articulation, rhythm, and phrasing, but this time you won’t have seen the music before. During your 30 seconds to look it over, it’s very important to look at the key signature and time signature, any accidentals, and any rhythms that look tricky, or anything else that you know would be hard to play without any practice. Though you can’t make any sounds on your instrument, you can still silently finger those tough passages. And just as important, you should take the whole 30 seconds they give you. Your adrenaline will most likely be pumping, so the 30 seconds will probably seem like an eternity, but in actuality, it isn’t very long. The judges will announce when it is time to play. When it’s time to play, take a deep breath and try and relax, and while playing, don’t stop even if (or when) you make a mistake. No one is expected to play a piece perfectly when sight reading. Before the audition, there are ways you can help your sight reading, which include practicing scales (they’re what make up music entirely!), practicing all different rhythmic patterns, and most important, sight read something new every day. The best way to get better at doing something is just doing it over and over again.

                And there you have it, the not so secret secrets to doing well in your honors band auditions in middle and high school. Practice a bunch at home and make everything sound as good as you can, and then when you get in the audition room, try and relax and play how you practiced. If you get really nervous during auditions, try eating a banana before you go in, as this helps calm your nerves. If you are put in a group warm up room before your audition time, the best thing to do is warm up comfortably and don’t overplay, and try not to compare yourself to others also playing around you. Everyone has experienced the one trumpet player playing really fast and really high, just trying to show off. It might seem daunting while listening to them, but chances are they tire themselves out before the audition and don’t win. And lastly, taking private lessons in middle and high school is almost a must if you really want to make a good chair in the honors bands. A good private teacher will help you make sure your scales and solo are sounding good and give you tips on how to improve your sight reading. Check out our other blog post on private lessons to learn more about them.

                Above, we focused on middle and high school honors bands, but if you’re thinking of majoring in music in college, you’ll have to audition for the school in order to get into the program. From slightly embarrassing past experience, there are some important things to know about college auditions. The playing aspects are similar to honors band auditions in that you’ll have to play a solo or two, but you may or may not have to play scales as well. When looking into possible colleges, you will want to try and go take a lesson with the professor you will be studying with for the next hopefully four years to see if you like their teaching style. This is also a good time to find out exactly what they expect of you for the audition. Some colleges want you to play scales, some don’t, so it’s best to find out what they want. They will also want you to play a solo or etude and possibly excerpts from orchestra or band pieces. When the audition comes around, make sure you arrive with plenty of time to spare and know where to park, and unlike honors band auditions that are blind with the judges turned away from you, your future professor and other music professors will be facing and talking with you, so dress formally and be ready to answer questions like why you want to come to their school. Making a good first impression could be the difference between getting in or not or getting any amount of scholarship money.

                That does it for another blog post on auditioning! Just like a job interview, you have a very short time to display all of the hard work you put into your craft. Make it the best experience you can by using these tips and impress the judges. Practice what you need to beforehand, and when the audition rolls around, relax, play how you practice, and good luck!
  • Warm Up/Daily Routine

    Posted by Maxwell WANG

    Imagine that you play on the US national soccer team and you’ve just arrived at the stadium for the World Cup final game. Game time is in 30 minutes. Do you see your teammates sitting around, listening to headphones or just talking to one another, or better yet, kicking the soccer ball as far as they can? I’ll give you the answer. Nope. You are going to see them warming up, stretching, and mentally preparing for the game ahead. Now imagine another scenario. You are sitting in the balcony, ready to see the North Carolina Symphony play Mahler’s 1st symphony. The concert starts in 30 minutes. Is the stage empty because everyone shows up right before the first downbeat? I’ll give you this answer too. Nope. Chances are, everyone is either on stage or backstage warming up. You can probably guess why soccer players warm up. They’re going to be physically exerting themselves and their muscles need to be loose so that they don’t pull a muscle or become injured. Well what’s the point of a musician warming up? First, it gets their instrument warmed up (yes, temperature affects the intonation of instruments) and second, it loosens up either their embouchures and/or fingers, depending on what you play. But hey, there’s a big difference between stretching out someone’s arms and legs before the game and buzzing your lips or wiggling your fingers. Your lips and fingers are comprised of a multitude of much smaller muscles that have to make much more complex movements than arms or legs, and can get injured just the same. Yes, you heard right, you can pull a lip muscle. And as a musician, haven’t you ever noticed that you don’t play your best right off the bat? You need to warm things up before everything will work properly.

                Now you’re probably thinking back to your class warm up in high school and remembering how boring it was doing the same long tones every day. Well simply put, it doesn’t have to be, and you can and probably should change it slightly on a frequent basis! I’m going to walk you through a sample warm up/ daily routine outline for you to try.

    1. Do just a little bit of free buzzing and/or mouthpiece buzzing of very simple tunes. This is to get your brain sending the correct signals to your lips. You should spend no more than 5 or so minutes doing this.
    2. Next, go to your horn and blow shorter, relaxed notes in the middle register. It can be a scale or chromatic in half notes with a break in between each note, preferably going down. Playing long tones first like you do in almost every single high school band is actually very taxing and hard to keep sustained and even when not already warmed up.
    3. From here, you are basically “warmed up,” and what you do now could be considered your daily routine and fundamental work. I’m putting these in an order, but you can swap them around depending on what you prefer. Based on the time you have to warm up, you might pick an exercise that most relates to what you will be playing later. For example, if you are going to be playing something fast and technical, you might start with articulation exercises, or if you will be playing something lyrical, you might start on slurs.
    4. Slurred chromatic scales with a metronome get your fingers moving in time and get you using consistent airflow. You can do one or two octaves, but always try to push yourself farther each week, whether in range or in tempo. Once you’ve played going up, then try them going down to work on your low range as well.
    5. Same-fingering slurs help use the correct embouchure and air support across partials, and help you develop evenness throughout the horn. Start with your open fingering or 1st position and then work your way down by half step. Feel free to make up slurring patterns and don’t just do the same one day in and day out. You want to be able to slur anywhere on the horn!
    6. Articulation exercises work on both your tongue speed and finger-tongue coordination. I would suggest articulating on the same pitch to work on tongue speed first, and then playing scales to work on your coordination. And again, tonguing exercises you can make up, or there are plenty to find online. Scales can be found online, and you should try and go through every scale each day to keep your brain and fingers nimble. Once you’ve mastered all the major scales, you can start adding minor scales and different modes.
    7. If you aren’t tired by now, you can work on multiple tonguing or flexibility training, which I just use the exercises out of the Arban book. If you don’t know what that is and are really serious about music, you should look it up and get one, because it has great exercises to work on everything. There is an Arban book for every brass instrument.


    That wraps up a full warm-up/daily routine. I intentionally left everything vague because it is up to you to create new exercises and figure out ways to practice the things that you know you need to practice. Hopefully this blog post has convinced you to never go without a warm up because you either don’t think you need one, think they’re boring, or don’t know what to do. Warming up has a negative stigma about it, but it doesn’t have to. You can easily make it into something that you actually enjoy doing every single day!

    Posted by Luc Kerkhof

    When we moved last year into our new facility, we knew that the building we moved into was a non-descriptive concrete block exterior and that had little or no “curb appeal”!

    As soon as we moved in, Betty and I started thinking about how to improve the appearance of the store.

    We had seen murals in the downtown Durham area. She went into the store and asked the owner who the painter was.

    This led us to Michael Brown’s website(www.muralsbymichaelbrown.com). I thought we were sold on the mural idea!

    I finally scraped all my courage together and called Michael Brown’s number. He agreed to meet with us and discuss our plan (I was not sure that we could afford an artist to do this !). To my surprise, we were assured by Michael that his prices were very reasonable, so we decided to go ahead with the idea.

    Next issue to tackle was, what do we want in a mural? We starting kicking some ideas around, looked at a lot of postcards and posters, and the one we all agreed upon was an old poster of stick figures from the 70’s!  Michael was on board and proceeded with computer designing some models for approval.

    There was no contest and we were all thrilled with this design he came up with!  Go ahead Michael!... but he was booked for 4-5 months (that put a damper on our mood!) And then on September 12, there he was and he started painting. It was a joy to see him working and even bigger pleasure to see his enthusiasm in what he is doing.

    We are absolutely in love with our mural (our old dog McBuddy is even in the mural, can you find him?). It really made the bland wall look more appealing, we can use it as an identifier for Customers who ask for directions (“You can’t miss it, it’s the building with the funny marching band painted on the wall…”).

     In short, we enjoy it, we love it and we hope it will spread  joy and good vibes to everyone driving by and coming into the store!



  • Private Lessons

    Posted by Maxwell WANG

               One of the most important decisions in a young musician’s career is whether or not to take private lessons, and it really depends on the level of commitment of both the student and their parents. But the rewards of quality private lessons could be a top chair in the school band and equally good placement in honors bands like all-county, all-district, and all-state. This post will go over different points and considerations for taking lessons throughout one’s musical career.

                Students start beginning band around 4th to 6th grade and can continue in school through college and graduate degrees. It isn’t until college that you are required to take lessons if you want to be a music major, but before then, unless your band director plays your specific instrument, you don’t receive any specialized instruction by someone who knows all the ins and outs of that instrument. Yes, your band director most likely has a degree or two in music education and has taken classes on all the different instruments, but truly learning an instrument and how to play it takes longer than part of a semester.

                Possibly an even bigger point for private lessons is that private instructors give you one-on-one teaching for specific aspects of YOUR playing, as opposed to classroom band learning along with 60 other students. Your band director just doesn’t have the time to give every person in their band that kind of direct teaching, and definitely not the kind of instrument specific instruction you would get from a private teacher.

                In my experience, you can do fine in middle and high school band without private lessons, but you will notice that almost all of the students who take private lessons are sitting in the top chairs in the band and are the ones making the honors bands. I came in as a high school freshman not having taken any private lessons, and I didn’t make any honors bands. After that first year, I began taking lessons and made both all-county and all-district band every year after that and was sitting in first chair in my high school band ahead of upperclassmen.

                If you as a student want private lessons, then the next step is to talk with your parents about the logistical aspects of taking lessons, like location, transportation, and how much they cost. Private lessons can be given at a number of locations, and you could find a teacher that comes to your school, your house, you go to their house, or at a third party location. You also need to consider whether you have the necessary transportation to get both you and your instrument to where the lesson will take place on time. And the most important aspect to your parents is the cost. Cost can vary a bit depending on your location and what quality of teacher you are looking for. Sure, you can find the cheapest lessons possible, but most likely you are getting what you pay for. Feel free to shop around and find the teacher that you like the most and that won’t break the bank.

                So if you are at all interested in being one of the best players in the band, unless your band director plays your instrument AND has the time to give you private instruction, then you should definitely consider taking private lessons. And for my shameless plug, if you are a low brass player (Tuba, Euphonium, Trombone) looking for private lessons in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area, please feel free to contact me, Max Wang, if interested. I just completed my master’s degree in music performance from UNC Greensboro and have a music education degree from UNC Chapel Hill, and am the principal tubist of the Durham Symphony and a frequent sub with the NC Symphony. You can contact me via email at max@tubaexchange.com or you can visit my website for more information at maxwangtuba.com.