How to Make Long Tones Fun
Ah, long tones. Possibly the most valuable exercise while simultaneously the most hated by students all over the world. Just take a deep breath and let out a long honk until you run out of air. Gotta make sure your lungs work, right?
Long tones, while not the most exciting, are crucial.
Ask any pro what they consider to be unskippable elements of their daily practice, I can guarantee long tones will be on that list.
Unless they play piano. Or percussion. Or harp. Or guitar…
It’s not just about holding the note as long as you can, it’s about checking in to make everything else about your playing easier. I don’t know about you, but I’m willing to work really hard in order to be lazy later on. It's actually my motto. Just ask my students.
Here are some things I think about when playing long tones:
Posture and hand position Am I setting myself up to be the most efficient breathing and finger wiggling machine? Do I feel tense anywhere? Can I play just as easily and freely when I’m sitting?
Sound quality Can I make the sound more resonant? Are there any funky overtones I can reduce? Can I exaggerate them? How quickly can I find the sweet spot—that precise position where the sound is beautiful and pure without any air noise.
Intonation Can I keep the pitch stable as I run out of air, or when I change colour and dynamic? Is each note I play in tune with the one that came before?
Breathing How full can I get my lungs in a slow, controlled inhale? How quickly can I fill up with air? What is the sound difference if I breathe through my nose instead of my mouth?
Still not convinced this can be fun? Fair, I get that. But here's what you're missing: you don’t need to be staring at your tuner while you play long tones. That’s a one-way street to Frustrationville with a slight detour in Bored-out-of-your-mind City.
Here are some of my favourite ways to play long tones:
With a backing track Go on Youtube and you’ll find hundreds, if not thousands of backing tracks in specific keys. Not only will you be forced to work on your intonation with your ears, but you can have fun instinctively changing the pitch and colour as the chords change. Tanpura drones are great as well. Pick a style, pick a key, and enjoy. Try some of these: pop , disco, rock, blues, tanpura and tabla.
Lying on the floor Ok, hear me out, I know this sounds crazy. I can only speak to my own experience, but lying on my back with my knees bent really helps me reconnect with my support and makes diaphragmatic breathing more obvious. I can feel my back and shoulders move as my lungs expand, which helps remind me I need to breathe to the back of my lungs, not just the front. I can feel my core engage as I blow. Plus, if I get a little sleepy after all that deep breathing, I don’t have far to go to take a nap. Keep in mind, this does not work on soft surfaces—no beds or sofas. If you're doing this at school where there's a good chance a brass player has emptied their spit valve where you're lying, maybe rethink this one.
With dynamics Why not get two things done at once? Sforzandos, crescendos, decrescendos, pppppppp, fffffffff. Throw them all into the mix!
With extended techniques This is especially great on those bad sound days where things just won’t work. Multiphonics are my personal favourite. Play the note once, really get the pitch in your ears. Then sing it. Use a tuner if you’re like me and your mom almost didn’t let you have lessons because you sing so poorly she thought you were tone-deaf (true story). Then hum and sing the pitch at the same time. Flutter tonguing and harmonics are great for this as well.
Make games or challenges for yourself to keep you motivated. Time how long you can hold a note, see how things change in the first octave or in the fourth. Grab a friend for competitive long tones. Get creative, have some fun with them!
Do you have a favourite way to play long tones? Share your methods with me in the comments below!