Trumpet Techniques

Mike Lawson • Performance • December 1, 2003

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It is fall in Texas. On football fields across the state, hundreds of young athletes are struggling to deliver a product that will be appreciated by their teachers, parents, friends, and perhaps even themselves. These athletes will contort their faces and tense every muscle possible to find the physical action necessary to accomplish what is being asked of them. They are not lazy. They work as hard as possible. They are trumpet players. When they are unable to come up with the winning combination, the frustration they feel will only push them to try harder. It is a vicious and potentially destructive cycle that is being imposed on younger and younger trumpet students every year.

One trend that is particularly disturbing is the proliferation of middle school students being asked to play under the Friday night lights. Some play every week right alongside the middle school football team. Others play once a year as band directors attempt to bolster community pride and support for expensive music programs desperately trying to survive the budgetary ax. Few activities can impress a community of tax payers, donors and, perhaps more importantly, new recruits more than hearing (and seeing) hundreds of young musicians from every school in the district gathered for a mass performance. Still others are inside their middle school gymnasiums performing for mini versions of their future high school pep rallies, eagerly pumping up the student body to achieve in all things academic and otherwise. These are all valid reasons to push young players out into the light – into the world of high Cs and fortissississimo dynamics.

Such added pressures are common in our art. Composers are constantly making our lives miserable by expanding tessituras and dynamics in order to accomplish the same thing that band directors are striving for – namely the survival of their own programs. After all, high notes and loud dynamics have a large emotional payoff for the composer and are very easy to write. When realities force the issue, it is critical that we provide our young players with the necessary information to avoid the damage of enlarged apertures, decreased flexibility, and additional psychological problems pertaining to the individual’s ability to perform on the instrument. After all, we need to keep our students enrolled if our efforts to promote the program actually end up working.

Why ‘Blow More Air’ Doesn’t Work

The adage “blow more air” can really cause problems, yet it remains the number-one pedagogical utterance used when addressing range. It doesn’t work, and here’s why. High notes require an increase in the velocity of the air being exhaled along with an increase in breath support provided by an upward (not inward) push from the abdominal muscles – not an increase in the volume of air.

Thanks to our wonderful science and math teachers, students already have a basic understanding of the differences between volume and velocity when they enter band. If we can relate these two scientific concepts to the air stream, range will improve and the embouchure will respond by becoming more efficient without getting damaged in the process. We may even morph the embouchure into a more textbook-like appearance.

There are four ways we can adjust our air. We can adjust the volume of air being used (more/less air) and we can adjust the velocity of air being used (faster/slower air).

The word “volume” describes the amount of air we use in the process. If I ask my students to increase the volume of air they are using, they know they are supposed to suck in “more” air by taking a deeper, richer, more relaxed yawning breath and blow out “more” air by making sure that all of the air that they have sucked in gets through the horn out into the room.

The word “velocity” describes the speed of the air going in and coming out. If I ask my students to increase the velocity of air they are using to play a note, they know they are supposed to exhale faster – like trying to blow a candle out on a birthday cake from across the kitchen. Raising the arch of the back of the tongue can help also but is very hard to accomplish for a young player – even with proper syllabic motion (ah-ee). I prefer to wait to add this as a “cherry on top” rather than relying on it as a fundamental method for increasing velocity.

Breath Adjustments

The four types of breath adjustments should first be learned away from the horn. Have each student take a normal “sitting in front of the TV” breath. Then have them breathe in more air. (This is also an excellent opportunity to teach the famous “sipping” inhales which serve to increase lung capacity.) The exhale will take care of itself and should occur naturally. Next, have each student breathe in less air than their original normal breath. Exhale naturally. Then move on to velocity by having each student visualize and perform the birthday cake example mentioned above, which will increase the velocity of the exhale and automatically shrink the aperture. Finally, have the student breathe in more air and blow out slower air through a very open, rounded “who” syllable formed mouth opening. The lungs should feel like they are emptying very quickly when doing this adjustment. Have each student place their palm on their chest to feel their lungs collapsing.

After a few weeks of practice with these breaths, you will hear a marked improvement in your students’ tone quality. It’s then time to apply the breaths to range. A quick and simple (not easy) exercise that can help lead students to discover the correct balance of volume and velocity on their own is to have them play a sustained G above the staff for as long as possible, as softly and as physically relaxed (except for the upward support from the abdomen) as possible. If they cannot make a sound, an adjustment must first be made to the volume of air used during the inhale – it must increase. The second step is to increase the velocity of the air entering the trumpet while decreasing the volume being exhaled. Once they can sustain the note, have them gradually increase the volume of air being used until the dynamic reaches a comfortable forte. Then tongue various rhythmic subdivisions on the note. Proceed up by half- step.

Another way of thinking about it is:
1. More in
2. Faster out and less out
THEN, and only then…
3. More out (“blow more air”)

Finally, even though it is rarely mentioned, slower air does have its place. It helps with the low register. Low notes require slower air – not less air. In fact, most young players need to dramatically increase the volume of air being used when exhaling to play low notes, not the velocity.

High Notes

When teachers ask students to “blow more air,” are they asking for an increase in volume or velocity? When addressing high notes, should teachers ask their students to “blow faster air” instead? Yes, as long as their students understand the difference between faster air and more air and make a change to the volume of air at the same time because high notes require less air out and more air in. If the volume of air during exhalation is too high in relationship to the velocity, the aperture can not close to buzz in the upper register. A more appropriate and beneficial instruction might be to stop whatever is happening and have the student breathe in again.

It is understandable why “blow more air” has become the chestnut that it has. When we hear a young player struggling to function in the upper register, we instinctively know it is an air issue. However, to attempt to correct the problem during the exhale is a mistake. The problem of not achieving the proper velocity capable of supporting high notes is best addressed before the inhale so that the player can stay properly relaxed when going into the upper register of the horn. If the problem is addressed during the exhale, extra tension will be produced and the chest will no longer release the air smoothly or quickly. There is also the danger of extra pressure being added to the embouchure from the mouthpiece, causing it to spread and making it more difficult for the subconscious to focus the aperture, as the student, misdirecting his body, tries to respond to your instructions. So much more could be accomplished if we trained our young players to think of a volume increase on the inhale as the correct way to play high. Training a starting breath for this will eventually lead to the ability to achieve a proper breath inside of a phrase – or right before the glorious last note.

Another reason for not addressing the problem during the exhale is that the student must be taught about the timing involved in making a proper velocity change. Most young players will instinctively wait to speed up their air until right before the note they are trying to play. If a vocal instruction to “blow faster air” is to be successful, it must be delivered before the required note – preferably at least a measure ahead of the trouble spot. Waiting to make a velocity change until it’s time for the attack of the note is like trying to jump 15 garbage cans on a motorcycle and starting with your bike already halfway up the launch ramp. You will not achieve enough momentum to make the leap. If you start gathering speed 100 yards away from the ramp, your momentum will carry you over the obstacle and you will land safely on the other side.

“Blow more air” is a scattershot across every student’s bow that might occasionally fix one or two players by inadvertently causing them to use their abdominal muscles properly. It does not address the real issue and will cause more problems in the long run by creating malformed and weakened embouchures, inadequate breath control and numerous psychological barriers that will have to be removed before proper playing techniques can be given a chance to take hold. Since it is becoming apparent that even seventh- and eighth-graders are now occasionally being expected to have a high C, it would seem that the first year is the best time to develop the concepts of air volume and air velocity so that when your seventh-graders need to nail that note at the end of the Star Spangled Banner, you will be able to give them very specific instructions on how to satisfy these ever-increasing demands. Besides, it’s good for them. Right?

Dan Cook is a former band director currently working as a freelance trumpet player and private instructor in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. He is second trumpet with the Allen Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra and is currently on the private lesson staff for Coppell Middle Schools West and East in the Coppell Independent School District in Coppell, Texas.

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