Spiritual preparation for Rosh Hashanah officially begins at the start of the month of Elul, and one way to engage in spiritual preparation is by practicing the shofar. Indeed, the custom is to sound the shofar at the end of the daily Shacharit services (except on Shabbat).
Sounding the shofar at services is a practical way of preparing for the “real deal” on Rosh HaShanah. In addition, this period serves as a reminder to orient one’s focus on repentance.
Warming up is crucial. This should not be left to chance nor treated lightly by a serious musician on any instrument. Most brass players have several routines. For shofar sounding, warm up by blowing the fundamental note. In simple terms, a noise from a musical instrument plays more than one note, called harmonics, but the principal musical tone produced by vibration (as of a string or column of air) is the fundamental or most prominent tone.
Then, focus on your attack (how you articulate the note). Then play the Tekiah, Shevarim, Shevarim-Teruah, and Tekiah. Your warm up should be at home because the shul does not offer privacy. In shul, you should hold the Shofar between your arms so that the horn will become the same temperature as your body because the instrument should be at least room temperature. A cold note becomes flat (off-tune or atonal).
The shofar’s sound is similar to that of a brass instrument (e.g. trumpet, trombone, tuba, French horn) in that the lips vibrate, thereby creating a “buzzing.”
You should practice buzzing; brass players do this by playing the mouthpiece alone. In the case of Shofar playing, you can buzz by shaping your thumb and forefinger in the shape of a mouthpiece and blowing into it to stimulate your embouchure.
(See The Art of French Horn Playing by Philip Farkas, The Complete Method by Milan Yancich, and Embouchure Building by Joseph Singer.)
Professional brass players warm-up every time they get the instrument out of the case to play. The first warm-up in the morning is the most important, as it sets up your embouchure for the rest of the day. The second and third warm-ups are usually shorter, but still needed to maintain and build the embouchure.
How to play the shofar
If time allows, the serious brass student or professional usually practices three times a day for no more than one hour per session. A shofar sounder, not being a professional in the brass instrumentalist sense of the word, should practice each day at the same time of day. Always practice standing up, because sitting down will change your embouchure.
Initially, practice the fundamental note until you feel your muscles are adjusted. Do not play much beyond this level. If they tire, your muscles are telling you that they have had enough. By repeated playing, however, your musculature will develop a capability for high quality sound and endurance. Ten minutes is the usual limit.
Once, you have mastered the one fundamental note, you should concentrate on the attack. The quality of an attack is determined by the position of the tongue’s touching the lips. In some cases, the tip of the front of the tongue can be the part of the tongue used to tongue the attack. In other cases, you can use the side of your tongue. Some use the side of their tongue and move it back. The technique that is most effective for the sounder – and still allows maintenance of the correct embouchure – is the correct way.
During the first week, work on your embouchure (muscle tone of your lip and surrounding facial muscles) by sounding the most prominent note (fundamental). Start with no more than five minutes per day, gradually increasing this practice time as you build and tone your embouchure.
The tekiah is a single, solid blast. Some shofar players end it with a small ‘up’ note, but this is not necessary.
The shevarim is three moaning sounds. In music we call these slurs. They begin with a low note and slide up to the dominant note. You accomplish this by tightening the lips.
The teruah is comprised of nine staccato notes. To avoid confusion, count the nine notes as three triplets: — — —. The notes are articulated by touching the tongue to the tip of the shofar nine times.
Tonguing requires practice and repetition in order to become natural.
You may suffer “lip fatigue” – your lip will tire and will not respond the way you desire.
Continue practicing the phrases for as many times as you can In doing so, you will memorize the association of the sounds and their names. Also, you will build stamina and embouchure definition. Note that you will need a certain amount of stamina and lip strength to beat fatigue.
Work from the siddur to practice each series of sounds. Some congregations sound 30 notes; others, 90; most, 100 shofar sounds.
You should try to arrange times to work with the the person who prompts the sounds so you can coordinate your activities. You also will “get a feel for one another,” as so often happens in musical schemes.
On the day before Rosh Hashanah, do not practice. Jewish law forbids such practice, and from a musical perspective it enables your embouchure to rest on the day prior to performance, just as soloists rest prior to musical recitals.
Adapted from an article by Arthur L. Finkle, who has served as a shofar sounder for over 30 years.