Trumpet No Limits: Take a Deep Breath and Blow!, Part 1

Mike Lawson • Commentary • December 3, 2020

Share This:

All of us who are involved in teaching the trumpet to players of all ages speak so often about using air as a means to producing the desired sound. In my teaching, I have a statement that I use consistently, and I refer to it as The Six No’s. No air, no vibration; no vibration, no sound; no sound, no music.

It’s as simple as that. Brass wind players need to inhale and exhale properly. If this occurs, the lips will respond by vibrating and the result is a good sound and hopefully music. We cannot neglect the importance of the brain and its ability to send the correct signals to make all of these things happen, resulting in the sound of the correct, desired pitch. After all, brass players, like vocalists, are unable to play what they cannot hear in desired pitch. We’ll discuss more on that subject later on.

Many teachers use a wide variety of instructional phrases when they speak to their students about how to establish good breathing habits. Some tell the students to prevent the shoulders from rising during the inhalation process. Some also say to breathe from the diaphragm, while others say to make the diaphragm tense. I disagree completely with these statements.

Firstly, breathing is a habit that we are born with. We come into this world with the ability to inhale and exhale without having to be taught how to go about doing it. So, why should breathing be so difficult in the process of teaching a wind instrument like the trumpet? It’s not! Open your mouth as if you were you’re yawning – inhale the air – then exhale the air. What can be simpler than that? I encounter students of all ages who haven’t been taught how easy the breathing process should be. I see students take in very small amounts air and as a result, they play with a very weak sound and have limited flexibility and range. Also, teachers and students, forget that when we inflate the lungs, they don’t increase in size in only one direction. Think about blowing up a balloon, does the air only go to the bottom? Of course not, it moves in the direction of the lowest point of the balloon and then begins to fill upwards and outwards. This is what our lungs do. When I take a full breath, my shoulders rise as a direct result of proper breathing. This is a natural process, which is simply an exaggeration of natural breathing.

When this scenario presents itself, I simply take a piece of notebook paper, hold it at the top middle of the page, place the bottom portion of the sheet against my mouth. I take a deep and relaxed breath, and then blow an air column at the paper, as if blowing out a candle. The result is that the paper moves away from my mouth and stays in motion as long as I blow the air column.

That’s a full breath and anyone can do it. Once I feel that the student understands the concept of freely moving air going in and the same going out, I have them begin to move the paper farther away from their mouth and repeat the process. Without having to be told to do so, they inevitably take in a much deeper breath to make the paper move as the distance from the mouth increases. This is very much like what we have to do when we play the trumpet. We don’t, very often, play just one tone and then stop. We play tones of differing lengths, many measures of tones, tones which ascend and descend, tones with changing dynamic ranges and tempos – all the while keeping the air flow moving.

In conjunction with all of this talk on breathing, I should mention that during the inhalation we can think about saying syllables like “OH” or “AH” in the mouth. This can help to relax and increase the opening of the throat so that air can move in freely. These syllables also help to shape the sound that we make. “EH” and “UH” sounds are dull and flat qualities, while “OH” and “AH” give more color, life, and fullness to the sound.

One last concept on the breath; during several lessons with Boyde Hood from the Los Angeles Philharmonic, he stopped me several times because he could hear me inhale and he said that this noticeable breathing habit creates too much tension and will prevent a free release of the air. I believe he is totally correct. In observing great wind instrumentalists and vocalists, I have noticed that there is really no audible sound during the inhalation and that the sound they make is one of pure tone quality that is free of tension and is vibrant. I mention this concept to all of my students and remind them, once again, to inhale as if they’re yawning. The result is a sound that is free and beautiful.

The first sounds: Developing a good aural concept of a trumpet sound – for the teacher, as well as for the student What draws each of us to music? Why do we gravitate towards a particular instrument? I believe it’s because sounds intrigue our mind and ears. I grew up in a household in which music was unimportant.

My parents didn’t play music on the radio. The only stations that were tuned in were talk radio and sports. I attended a private school from 1st grade through 8th grade that had absolutely no music curriculum. So how did I become enamored with music? I think the reasons are twofold. One, because I had friends that attended public schools that had music programs and I heard them play their instruments and two, because I joined a boys club in my home town that had a drum and bugle corps. Now, this organization was nothing compared with the incredible groups that are a part of Drums Corps International but it filled a void in my creative being. When I joined the corps I was given a one-piston bugle pitched in G and thus I began my musical journey. Being around other young people who were making good sounds and working together to create a musical ensemble really got me hooked.

I am always concerned with the quality of sound in each of my students. Ask any one of them what I keep reminding them about and they will answer, “What kind of sound do you want to make? Or “What do you want your audience to hear when you play?” I find that those questions are not addressed in many cases in a student’s development. A good number of teachers work so much on teaching notes, tonguing, flexibility, and finger dexterity that sound quality is delegated to the end of the line. This is not the case with my teaching. How we make sound comes first, our sound is what identifies each of us. It is the most important physical product that we make. It’s not that tonguing, finger dexterity, etc. are not important, but I feel that those aspects of playing can be developed while students are improving their concepts of sound.

So, how do we teach a good sound? Firstly, the teacher must possess a concept of the highest quality sound possible. This comes from listening to really great players who have beautiful sounds. I know many band directors who own recordings and DVDs of great instrumentalists. They play those performances for their students so that they will begin to form a concept of beautiful sound. The very same teachers settle for nothing less in their day to day teaching. This reinforcement is a must both in the development of the individual instrumentalist and in the band’s ensembles.

My good friend, Rick Vars, spent 30 years as both a middle and high school band director in Rhode Island. He began and ended every band period by playing recordings of great music ensembles and instrumentalists. The students entered and left his band room listening to groups like the Eastman Wind Ensemble, the Tokyo Kosei Wind Ensemble, Jean Pierre Rampal, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, etc. He said that this simple act of establishing the band room as a place for making good sounds had a tremendous effect on his students. Rick’s band was one of the very finest public school instrumental programs in New England. We are teaching music to young people – shouldn’t we promote this by introducing quality performances to them on a daily basis? Each and every child should have world-class instrumentalists as their role models.

As educators, we have the ability to influence our students’ taste in quality music and performance. As we go through our educational training we are influenced by teachers and colleagues who introduce us to great performers and ensembles. Shouldn’t we do the same for our students? So many bands have the ability to play all of the notes on the page, and the same is true for student soloists, but in many cases what’s really lacking is a beautiful sound. Rick Vars offers each and every one of us a solution to this dilemma by showing us the way. Play recorded music for your students in your band room on a daily basis, and you will hear a remarkable difference in the quality of their music making and it will reinforce each of the fundamentals that you teach.

So what is a good trumpet sound? The sound should be pleasing to listen to. It should be as clear as possible, supported with proper amounts of air, free of tension, as in tune as possible, and it should sound as if it were being sung not mechanically played. How do we teach these attributes? It begins with our individual playing. In beginning band classes every student is essentially playing the same concert pitch for a number of weeks. Choose an instrument that you are comfortable on and play along with your students. You’ll be their role model, plus they will see that you are practicing what you preach to them such as: sit up straight, put both feet on the floor, take a deep breath, hold your instrument correctly, make a good sound, etc. Also, try to spend some time away from your podium each day. Walk between the rows of your band students to be sure that they are doing what you ask of them. This will also give you the opportunity to hear and see each of them close up. It’s easier to fix problems and bad habits if the student is directly in front of you instead of being three of four rows away. If you have a stellar student on a particular instrument, have him or her play the concert pitch that the group is working on first before everyone plays the note. They’ll set an example for the other players. I’ve seen this work in many middle school bands and this method helps to develop a healthy sense of competition within each section, especially if you choose a different soloist each day. This is a sign of recognition of individual achievement and it will show that you are listening to everyone.

Establishing the First Sound

Establishing a good sound from day one is of the utmost importance. Most beginners will be able to play a sound right at first, but what if they don’t have a concept of good sound. Presenting that model is our job and responsibility. So what if you don’t play the trumpet, why should this pose a roadblock? If your instrument is bassoon, alto saxophone, tuba, flute, or whatever, you can demonstrate a good sound on the concert pitch of the method book that you’re using in class. Additionally, the practice of playing for your students will do you good – you can be their role model.

Most of the method books that I’ve seen have the trumpets starting on either second line G (concert F) or low C (concert Bb) below the treble staff. Either is a good place to start, but I see no reason why we shouldn’t start kids on first line E (concert D) or first space F (concert Eb). I have found that these “in the middle” pitches are quite often easier for a kid to begin on, rather than low C or second line G.

If your students had a good elementary school music teacher, then they are accustomed to singing and matching pitches. I think that having the kids sing the first pitch from your band method really helps establish the sound in their heads. You want them to associate the note that they are seeing on the page with a particular sound that they hear rather than just the name or fingering. They’ll all be playing the same concert pitch in your band method book, so why not have them sing the pitch before they play it? I tell all of my students, especially the music education students in my brass methods class, that brass players are very much like vocalists. Vocalists cannot sing any pitch unless they hear it in their head. Brass players are exactly the same.

Knowing the name of a note and its fingering does not guarantee that the correct pitch will be produced. After all, the trumpet only has seven valve combinations and we can play any number of sounds with any one of them. So, it is essential that we hear the correct pitch in our head before we begin to play the sound. With the method book that you are using in class, you can demonstrate the sound of the first note on your instrument of choice. You could then sing the pitch, and then you could have the students imitate you. This may take a bit of time to take hold, but they will learn to rely upon their hearing as individuals and they will develop a group sense of matching pitch.

I have seen this done at Satellite High School in Satellite Beach, Florida, where Mark Nelson had been the director of bands and orchestras at Satellite for over twenty years. His program was recognized as one of the finest in the state and his groups have performed at the Midwest Clinic and at CBDNA national conventions on many occasions. He would have his students sing in unison and in harmony at the beginning of each band rehearsal. They would warm up vocally before they’d play their instruments. The results are remarkable! His band had a beautiful sound and the sonority of his ensemble was always inspiring.

All of these suggestions take time to incorporate into your daily teaching, but you will be pleased with the results, as your students begin to establish strong fundamentals in their playing and continue to hear growth in the quality of their sound. I have my trumpet students sing in their lessons and I sing to them as they play. This makes them aware of singing the music in their head and giving shape to the musical line.

Stay tuned for part two of this commentary, coming next month in SBO.

John Almeida holds a BM in performance from the Univ. of Alabama and an MA in music from Appalachian State Univ. Almeida currently teaches applied trumpet at Eastern Florida State College and Seminole State College. Previously he held the position of associate professor of trumpet studies at UCF from 1993 – 2017. In 2011, the UCF Trumpet Ensemble, under Almeida’s direction, appeared at the 2011 Schagerl International Brass Festival in Melk, Austria. They were the only American brass ensemble invited to perform at this prestigious festival. In July 2014, Almeida was invited to perform as a member of the European Brass Ensemble throughout Austria and in the opening concert of the Schagerl International Brass Festival. In December 2010, Almeida presented a clinic at the Midwest International Band and Orchestra Clinic entitled “Sound Ideas on Playing the Trumpet”.

In 2002, Almeida was one of two participants selected to perform in Adolph Herseth’s master class at the DePaul University Trumpet Symposium in Chicago, IL. His students have gone on to receive music performance degrees from Appalachian State Univ., Indiana Univ., Rice Univ., Rutgers Univ., the Univ. of Southern California in Los Angeles, the Univ. of Oklahoma, Vandercook College of Music, the North Carolina School of the Arts, Florida State Univ., the Univ. of North Florida, the Univ. of South Florida, and the Univ. of Texas at Austin. A number of Almeida’s students have been first place winners in the International Trumpet Guild Solo Jazz Trumpet Competitions, members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, the U.S. Army Jazz Ambassadors, the U.S. Navy Band, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, the Houston Symphony Orch., the Walt Disney All-American College Band, BLAST, Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey Circus Band, and professional musicians in the Los Angeles movie and television music industry. He remains active as an adjudicator for the Florida Bandmasters Association. Almeida has been a guest artist/clinician in Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Rhode Island, Maine, Massachusetts, Virginia, Wyoming, Colorado, South Dakota, New York City, and Florida. John Almeida is a Yamaha Performing Artist. Almeida’s principal teachers include William Adam, Indiana Univ., and Thomas Wholwender, The Cleveland Orchestra, and Joe F. Phelps, Appalachian State Univ.

The Latest News and Gear in Your Inbox - Sign Up Today!