David McCullough (This article is a guest post by long time ChopSaver fan and band director David McCullough. His concept of a “Tone Hero” for young musicians is a must read for all musicians and he has gone to the trouble of providing numerous links to examples of great tone on any instrument.)

Who is Your “Tone Hero?”
By David McCullough 

Some students do not play instruments as well as they might because they seem to lack a clear idea what that weapon in their hands is really supposed to sound like.  In clinic settings, or when guest conducting, I often ask students what they would do if they wanted to become a great basketball player.  Their answers tend to be, “I would watch great players like Stephen Curry or Lebron James.”  I further inquire, “So what is your plan to becomeagreat trumpet, oboe, or clarinet player?” Incredibly,theyoften still sit there with few ideas atall.  The following is how I encourage them to understand the”hero” analogy.

I first ask students to consider a favorite Jerry Sternin quote: “It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting.” That always creates the most interesting facial expressions!  Try it yourself and see!  Rather quickly, however, the students’ “I get it” lights begin to turn on.  (Take a moment to ponder that thought-provoking quote for yourself and see what youmake of it.  There is much depth in those 23 little words!)  And then something like the following conversation occurs:

Me:                 “Do you want to be a great clarinet player?”

Them:             Usually some mumblings in the affirmative

Me:                 “Well, if you sit there thinking, ‘I want to be a great clarinet player! I want to be a great clarinet player! I want to be a great clarinet player!’ while you pound your forehead with your fist, you’re probably still going to be a rather weak clarinet player—and now your head hurts. But if you observe a great clarinet player, and start to act like that person, you will get better rather quickly!  Your actions (that word contains ‘act’) will soon become good life-long habits.

I contend that acquiring a personal “Tone Hero” is a vital act that will develop a remarkably productive habit in young instrumentalists.  A “Tone Hero” is that professional player whose superb quality of sound is what that student desires for themselves.  Just as observed athletic skills can improve sports performance, listening to exceptional instrumental tone can improve student tone quality.

Why is tone so important?  Well, simply put, tone is EVERYTHING!  Carlos Santana once stated that if he were playing, and the audience could not recognize him in just three notes, there was something wrong with his TONE.  And he’s a guitar player—how much more important is tone to an instrumental ensemble like a band or orchestra?  Well, consider that on most band adjudication sheets, the first two boxes focus on evaluating tone.  Now, you might counter, “Hey, wait a minute!  That second box is (often) labeled intonation.  What does that have to do with tone?”  Well, have you ever tried to tune two or more students who play with a poorly developed tone quality?  I tell students that a tone like a fuzzy bunny and one like a laser beam can’t be tuned to each other.  When individual student tone qualities improve, so does their ability to play in tune with each other.  Those maturing individual tone qualities also provide you better opportunities to teach good ensemble intonation.  I suggest that we look at that second-box word a different way: In–TONE–ation.  Once again, tone is everything.

How then do we help students understand that theirtone is theirresponsibility?  Good teachers provide breathing and embouchure technical assistance of course, but those who insist that their students each select a personal “tone hero” will find their students’ commitment to individual tone development to be stronger. Those teachers also report that overall ensemble tone and intonation improve faster as well.  So how do we assist our students in discovering their own “tone hero?” Like most music teachers I have many good recordings, but since there are few ways to legally share recordings with students, I created the list below at the request of a local band director.  This short list was meant simply to get recordings into students’ ears via the internet without them spending money.  Itwas never intended to be a list of “who is the best,” or a complete and comprehensive discography.  Many of the recordings were chosen in the hope they might have appeal for young instrumentalists.  The goal here is to entice students into discovering for themselves what incredible performers on their instruments are out there usinga technology they find easy to use.

So, here we go! Since the needs of a junior high band differ greatly from a collegiate jazz ensemble, I encourage you to tailor the list below for your own students and your own situation.  Revise this list, or create one of your own that takes into consideration what YOUR band needs.  Then, ask your students a simple but vital question: “Who is YOUR tone hero?”



English Horn












Missing Instruments

  • If you feel I have forgotten some instruments (e.g., bass flute, contrabass clarinet, sopranino saxophone, piccolo trumpet, soprano and piccolo trombone, Eb sopranino clarinet), or yours was omitted, check this out – your instrument may just be here:

I am certain I have left many favorites off this list.  As I said in the beginning, this was never intended to be a “who’s the best” list, or a comprehensive discography/videography of what’s out there. The concept of asking your students to improve their own tone qualities was the only intent, and the list is simply meant to give students a starting place if they do not know where to begin.  I hope your students will come ask you for your ideas.  After they get started, feel free to ask them, “So, who is your Tone Hero?”

David McCullough is the Director of Bands at Union College in Barbourville, Kentucky. He has taught music in the public schools and at the university level for 40 years.  He feels blessed for the new friends and colleagues he has here in Kentucky and looks forward to returning Union’s bands to a position of distinction in the South/Midwest.  David wishes to thank Monica Crowder, the exceptional director of central Kentucky’s Barren County Middle School Band for the idea of creating and sharing this list. Her band students have all had “Tone Heroes” for 15 years!