Cracked Note or How to Make a Brass Player Cringe

Cracked note
This trombone player has more to worry about than the occasional cracked note.

The dreaded Cracked Note and how to Fix it.

Every brass instrument player will experience the dreaded split or cracked note from time to time. It is obvious when it happens. You attempt to play a beautiful tone through your instrument. Instead, the sound that comes out resembles a car backfiring. When this happens, other brass players in the audience breath a sigh of relief. It confirms that you too, are human. You have just done them all a huge favour. They feel better about themselves. They all identify with the experience you are going through.  (There are players out there who never seem to crack a note.  It is my strong suspicion that they are not, in fact, human).

Why does a cracked note happen?

Simply put; a note cracks when the player is not cleanly buzzing the note that the instrument is trying to play.

In more complex terms, the valves (or trombone slide) set the length of the instrument.  For any particular length the instrument will resonate notes across several partials.  For example, with no valves or with the slide in 1st position, a brass instrument will blow the following notes (partials);

  • C, G, C, E, G, etc for treble clef instruments or
  • Bb, F, Bb, D, F, etc for bass clef instruments.

If a player buzzes any note other than those notes, the instrument will do it’s best to respond. However, if the buzzed note is too far away from its intended destination, the instrument may produce an initial unintended note.  The note flicks between partials resulting in a cracked note.  If the note being buzzed is off-centre but close enough to the intended note, then the instrument will still play the note, but the sound will suffer and will probably sound out of tune.

Besides buzzing the wrong frequency with your lips, another possible cause of a cracked sounding note is a buzz that isn’t clean.  For instance, the lips could be producing two different buzzes simultaneously, usually because two areas of the lips are buzzing at the same time.

How to fix a cracked note

Simply put; you fix a cracked note by cleanly buzzing the exact note you are trying to play while the slide or valves are in the correct positions.

Firstly, make sure your valves or slide are in the correct position for the note you are trying to play. The accuracy of trombone positions become more vital as the pitch rises. Even if you are buzzing the correct note, if the slide or valves are in the wrong position, you risk cracking a note.

To listen to the note you are actually buzzing, pull the mouthpiece from the instrument while holding a note and listen to the note you are buzzing. If the pitch is different to the note you are playing, the instrument won’t resonate properly and your sound will suffer.

With the mouthpiece removed, try to buzz the notes as accurately as possible. If you are having trouble buzzing the notes, try to sing them and then try buzzing them again. When you can buzz the notes accurately, do the same with the mouthpiece in the instrument.  Magically your cracked note should disappear.

Of course, if you are performing, it will be difficult to go through the above process without the audience noticing. Its important to practice your skills before attempting to perform in front of an audience that is expecting to be entertained through your music rather than by your antics.

Be Familiar with Your Instrument

A critical skill for every brass player is to be able to ‘hear’ a note in your head before playing it.  A player should be familiar enough with their instrument to know what it ‘feels’ like to play any particular note.  So if you can hear a note before it is played and your brain is trained to know what it feels like to play that note, then you’ll have an excellent chance of hitting that note dead on, every time.

cracked note 2
This player is having fun jamming away. However, it’s unlikely he will be able to produce any musical tone from his trombone using this embouchure.

Other factors can come into play, such as your embouchure…but that’s a whole other topic.


Recommended reading:

How to Play Trombone ebook

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