You’ve probably heard your band director, private teacher, or other well-meaning music instructor tout the benefits of long tones at some point during your musical career. Maybe you’ve even been known to play a few long tones yourself (when the mood strikes). Better yet, maybe long tones are as integral to your daily routine as your morning coffee (#longtonesforlife).
So what’s the big deal about long tones anyway?
There’s a reason everybody keeps talking about long tones – they’re kind of a big deal for musicians. Whether you’re a long tone skeptic or believer, there’s no argument that long tones are super important for your musical growth and development. Much like eating your vegetables or going to the gym regularly, you probably know that you *should* be doing long tones, but for whatever reason…you’re not.
Let’s start with the basics.
What are long tones?
Simply put, long tones are…long or sustained tones, aka notes. Anything can be a long tone if you try hard enough (can somebody please make me a motivational poster with this saying??). By playing notes slowly, musicians can focus on their breathing and producing an excellent tone quality on each note. When we’re practicing scales, band music, or other repertoire, we are often focused on technique, articulation, and other fundamentals, so sound production and tone quality are often neglected.
Long tones are a crucial aspect of your warm-up routine and overall practice regimen. I consider long tones my musical multivitamin – if used effectively, they can prepare you for a plethora of musical situations, such as creating smooth intervals, delicate attacks, symmetrical dynamics, consistent tuning, and a myriad of other musical skills. But most importantly, long tones help you to produce a beautiful sound.
Why are long tones so important?
Long tones help you improve your sound, aka your musical voice. It doesn’t matter how fast/high/loud you can play if you can’t do so with a beautiful sound. It’s easy to train your body to execute technical pyrotechnics, but it requires extraordinary focus, imagination, and attention to detail to create a beautiful sound.
Long tones also allow you to physically and mentally prepare for your practice session, thus decreasing the risk of injury. Just like you shouldn’t go to the gym and start exercising without first stretching and properly preparing your body for the physical demands it’s about to endure, you shouldn’t begin practicing without doing some long tones.
My long tone story (full disclosure): I wasn’t always a long tone believer. It wasn’t until 5 or 6 years ago that I consistently began incorporating long tones into my practice routine. Before, I would take my clarinet out and dive straight into whatever music I was working on – sans warm-up! I thought my tone quality was decent, and I didn’t really see the point of wasting time on long tones when there was so much music to learn. For those of you that know me IRL, you probably know that I’ve battled some repetitive strain injuries for over a decade, and skipping long tones wasn’t doing me any favors. So, I decided to add long tones to my warm-up routine to see if my pain was more manageable and/or my sound improved. Spoiler alert: both improved.
How long should I practice long tones?
I aim for 5-15 minutes of long tones a day, depending on my schedule. Beginners should start with a few minutes a day to build their embouchure muscles and develop endurance; advanced players can play 10-15 minutes of long tones a day. I know some musicians who practice up to an hour of long tones each day – find the amount of time which feels right for you and your schedule. Make sure to actively listen to maximize your long tone time.
When should I practice long tones?
First! I always start my practice routine with long tones. Musicians are never too young to start learning long tones. Beginner students can play whatever notes they know in whole notes or double whole notes to focus on creating a smooth sound devoid of any waves.
There is no one right way to practice long tones. The only wrong way is to not practice them at all.
Common questions and complaints about long tones
Long tones are boring. How can I make long tones more fun?
Make sure that you stay engaged. Actively listen and adjust to constantly improve your breathing and tone. Find long tone exercises which are challenging but not overly difficult so you don’t become discouraged. Set goals and create mini-challenges for yourself, such as counting how many beats you can sustain a note, how soft/loud you can play a note, complete an exercise without taking any breaths, etc. Using a drone in unison or harmony is also an excellent way to play duets (albeit of the robotic tuner variety).
If you’re crunched for time, make your long tones multitask. I often combine long tones with other concepts that I am practicing (or having my students practice). For younger students, I’ll have them play a scale in whole notes. This gives them time to review the scale at a manageable tempo while also focusing on the sound (as well as correct fingerings, hand position, voicing, head position, embouchure…the list goes on and on!)
What tempo should I practice my long tones?
The slower the better! Long tones are probably one of the only things you’ll ever practice that get harder the slower you play them (usually it’s the other way around!). I start my long tones around 80BPM and try to slow them to 60BPM or slower.
How can I increase the difficulty/spice things up?
- Gradually decrease the tempo
- Add dynamics
- Add a fermata over the last note and see how long you can sustain it (at all dynamics, especially al niente)
- Change octaves
- Play with different styles of attacks and releases
- Use a variety of articulation patterns
- Change the tuning (for example, if you normally tune to A=440, try play at A=442)
- Play with a drone (in unison then in harmony)
Long tone mistakes
- Playing the same long tones forever. Switch things up! Just like your body plateaus with the same workout after a while, you will plateau if you keep using the same long tones. If you aren’t being challenged or stimulated, try another long tone exercise.
- Playing generic long tone exercises. Customize your long tones to your goals and skill set. I give my students long tones according to their strengths and weaknesses. Example: When a student was learning the Lutoslawski Dance Preludes, I had her practice fulcrum long tones beginning on throat tone Bb to imitate the first two notes of the second movement.
- Not listening. If you’re “practicing” long tones but not actively listening, you’re wasting your time. Focus on your breathing and sound production to create your most beautiful tone. Analyze all fundamentals to make sure that you are creating your best sound possible.
- Trying to fix everything at once. Look, I get it – when I started my long tone routine, I wanted my sound to go from 0-100 overnight. (It didn’t.) Long tones are a journey. Practice long tones consistently over a long period of time to reap the benefits. Focus on one or two elements each time (such as tuning and air stream) so you don’t get overwhelmed. Be patient and remain diligent – your hard work will pay off eventually.
- Have high standards, but don’t be overly critical. There is no such thing as a perfect sound. Just like the human voice, musical tone will have slight imperfections. And since playing music is not a static art form, your tone will be different from day to day, depending on the weather, reeds, your physical and mental state, etc. You should always want to improve your tone, but realize that the search for a beautiful sound is a never-ending journey.
Here are my favorite clarinet long tone books and resources:
- Baermann Complete Method for Clarinet, Op. 63, Division II
- Vandoren Etude and Exercise Book for Clarinet
- Time for Tone and Thinking Tone by Eva Wasserman-Margolis
Now that you know all about long tones, I invite you to participate in my 30 day long tone challenge, which I will be posting in the next few days. Stay tuned for the details!
Whether you are a long tone novice or long-time long tone lover (try to say THAT five time quickly!), good luck in your continued long tone journey! As always, happy practicing!