Why You Should Treat Long Tones Like Musical Meditation
Over the past year, I’ve started exploring musical mindfulness and intentionality. I’ve been practicing yoga and meditation and noticing the parallels they share with music, and these have greatly benefited me as a musician. Meditation and mindfulness can mean different things to different people. For me, they are a chance to focus on the present moment without worrying about the past or future. They are also a chance to focus on breathing and connecting with your body. During this journey, I came across this profound realization:
Long tones are meditation in a musical form.
I am a firm believer in the power of long tones, but too often they are treated as another item to mark off our practice checklist. It’s so easy to switch to autopilot and play long tones without actively focusing on the sound and our breathing, which defeats the entire purpose of practicing long tones. Breathing and producing a beautiful sound are at the core of everything we do, which is why it’s crucial to practice mindfulness during your routines.
Since my realization, I’ve begun to treat long tones as a musical meditation to begin my practice session. Long tones are the only part of our routine where we are not multitasking (or at least not to the same extent as other portions). Treating long tones as a meditation has completely changed my outlook on these exercises. Now, I am more mentally engaged and find much more joy in my long tones, which is a great way to begin a productive practice session. Not only has this vastly helped improve my sound, but it’s also offered a mental warm-up to the rigors in the rest of my practice routine. Here are a few tips I use to get the most out of my long tones meditation:
- Focus on your breathing. Air is the foundation of sound, and you cannot produce a wonderful sound without using wonderful air support. I am fully convinced that at least 90% of problems clarinetists encounter is a result of improper air. Before even playing a note, I take several deep breaths and relax my body. You know how good it feels to take a good stretch after you’ve been hunched over your computer for hours? Try to capture this feeling, but in the form of expansive, full-body breaths to fuel your sound. Notice the expansion of your torso when you breath, and imagine exhaling all extraneous thoughts, worries, and stresses.
- Always aim to create your purest sound. As you begin playing, choose a few notes to center your sound. Sustain this note as you listen and adjust until you have achieved your ideal sound. (On a clarinet level, you can alter the sound by increasing air speed, making sure you have proper posture, and checking the embouchure.) Finding your sound’s “sweet spot” might take a bit longer at first. Once you’ve centered your sound, try to replicate the sound again without using so much time to produce this sound. Repeat as many times as necessary until you can immediately produce this pure sound and give life to every note that you play.
- Focus on the present. During busy days, it can be difficult not to feel rushed and overwhelmed by your mounting to-do lists. This is when it’s especially important to practice meditative long tones to focus only on the present and block out all other thoughts or worries. Your only goal in this present moment should be using your breathing to create a beautiful sound.
- Use drones. Many meditation practices incorporate chanting, which can easily be replaced by drones during your long tone routine. Personally, I don’t use drones in my own long tones, but find what helps you be musically mindful.
- Check for tension. Musicians often overcompensate for technical shortcomings by using physical tension in the body. At the slightest sign of tension, reset your body to its relaxed position and repeat the passage.
- Use a mantra. This isn’t for everyone, but some might find it useful to create a mantra to repeat throughout your long tones. Sometimes I think of adjectives describing my ideal sound (sweet, rich, and pure), but you can use any words or phrases which focus and inspire you.
- Accept this journey. Like music, meditation requires consistent practice. There will be some days where you may feel discouraged or overwhelmed. This is completely normal! Continue and commit to your long tone journey, despite any setbacks.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my thoughts on long tones and meditation! Let me know if you decide to incorporate this into your own practice routine and how it works for you.
As always, happy practicing!
This is great for someone just starting saxophone, thank you. I would actually extend this by saying that long tones are not just musical meditation — they are meditation period. A while ago I did breathing meditation as an activity in itself and it’s basically the same thing. So I imagine long tones treated as meditation confer the same benefit as breathing meditation without music (and there are many proven benefits both mentally and physically to learning to breathe).
Thank you for your insightful comment David! It would be interesting to examine what benefits long tones have in common with traditional meditation!
I must compliment you on this well written and thought provoking article. My clarinet returned today after its visit to the repair technician to readjust the bridge key and free up 2 stiff joints … what joy to have it back and feel my renewed soft touch to the keys have more impact on the sound than my more determined ‘hard bit’ touch. What I did forget in my enthusiasm was my warm-up and this article has not only reminded my of the value of warming up but also added a new dimension of the sound that drew me to the clarinet in the first place.
I hope you are well and keeping safe.
Hi Rodney and thank you for your kind comment. I’m so glad you enjoyed this article, and I’m happy to hear that it’s inspired you to approach your warm-up routine with fresh enthusiasm. It’s so important to always focus on our sound, especially if it’s what drew you to the clarinet in the first place. Thanks again for your comment!
Hi Jenny, thank you for a very interesting and thought-provoking article. Forgive my ignorance, but could you expand on the use of drones re. “Use drones. Many meditation practices incorporate chanting, which can easily be replaced by drones during your long tone routine. Personally, I don’t use drones in my own long tones, but find what helps you be musically mindful.” – I’m familiar with the use if chanting within some forms of meditation practice, but I really cannot visualise what a drone is in this context! Many thanks, Paul
Hi Paul, in this context drones refer to musical drones (as found on many metronome and tuning devices to match pitch) to imitate the chanting found in some forms of meditation. I hope this helps!
Vincent de Luise
A superbly crafted article, Jenny.
So well-written, true and essential.
Thank you for reminding us as to why long tones are fundamental to our playing clarinet (or any wind instrument).
Our band director in high school, those many decades ago, was rigid about us beginning practice with long tones.
He was so right, and you have articulated it all so well.
Thank you so much for your kind words Vincent!