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Building Range for the Beginning Trumpet Player
I teach many students every week, and all of them are interested in one thing: playing high notes on the trumpet.
I’m not sure where this fascination with who’s better came from (well, I guess we could Maynard Ferguson for this), but it’s typically the area that most students, old and young, want to improve.
Unfortunately, students are often pressured to play high. A first part trumpet player in high school is expected to play up to above the C staff; sometimes, up to D. Because the student does not want to disappoint the director or look foolish in front of the rest of the group (the trumpet is a very loud instrument, and mistakes are projected as well as correct notes), he or she will do anything to create these high notes. Often the wrong method is used. Most common is using too much pressure.
Some pressure is required to play the trumpet. However, too much pressure can create problems, such as loose teeth and fatigue. As a victim of too much pressure, I myself know the dangers that can occur. After 15 years of playing with a great amount of pressure, my two front teeth came loose with a cracking sound one day while I was playing. Five trips to the dentist and $5,000.00 later, I started researching methods to play with less pressure.
Many factors must be taken into account before attempting a range building exercise. An often overlooked factor is how the student holds the trumpet. The student must be aware that the trumpet must be gently supported with the left hand; the right hand is used only to press the valves. The student should avoid putting a “dead grip” on the trumpet with the left hand, and should avoid using the pinky ring on the right hand.
Once this is established, a correct embouchure should then be formed. Much controversy has always been present on the perfect embouchure. However, one that usually works well is a smile-pucker combination. The student is asked to smile, and then slowly purse the lips while continuing to smile. The result is an embouchure with firm corners and a center loose enough to vibrate (after all, to play trumpet you have to vibrate your lips).
Finally, I will reveal the secret to properly develop range in students: AIR. This commonly used, general solution actually works. It is common for many teachers, when all else fails, to blame the problem on air support. In this case, it is air, but it is also a combination of other techniques.
To begin with, the student must get used to deep breathing. To observe what the student thinks a deep breath is, ask him or her to take one. More than likely, he or she would inhale loudly and rapidly, and his or her chest would visibly swell. THIS IS WRONG! The student uses only half of his lung capacity. I like to use the analogy of breathing like a baby. Whenever you watch a baby breathe (especially during sleep) his or her stomach moves up and down. Observing this, we can come to the conclusion that we must breathe completely down into our stomach (or you can think about dropping the diaphragm). Try this: have the student breathe down to the stomach; tell them to inhale and aim for their toes. They will probably still take a loud, rapid breath, but it will be deeper.
To improve this, we need to help the student take a more open breath. My favorite tool to use for this is an empty toilet paper tube. Try this: take the empty toilet paper tube, and put it inside your mouth (about 1 inch of the tube will actually be in your mouth). Seal your lips around it, and inhale. First, you will notice how much air you are taking in, and second, you may notice that the back of your throat feels cold. THIS IS HOW EVERY BREATHING SHOULD BE DONE! Have your students try this. They might find it funny or silly, but it will help. As for breathing without the toilet paper tube, tell the student to imagine they have a baseball in their mouth. This will ultimately lead to more open breathing as well.
Now that breathing has been covered, range can be focused. The best range building exercise I’ve used is one I got from Bill Adam’s routine. This exercise involves starting on second line G, and playing it as a long tone, and then expanding on both sides on long tones. For example, I would start with G, and then play F#, then G#/Ab, then F, then A, etc. Go as high as you can safely, and as low as you can go (pedal tones work great for interval exercises). Be sure to play each note as a long tone as well. You can either assign a specific number of counts (like play each note for 8 counts) or just play them until you run out. By enlarging, you not only build a range, but also accustom your lips to the different parts and develop your ear by playing large intervals. It should also be noted that low grades are just as, if not more, important than high grades. A good, three-dimensional sound should always be achieved.
The most important part of this exercise is not to play higher than is comfortable for you or the student, as injury could occur. To prevent this, tell the student that the embouchure (lip position) should never change; just the amount of air. As the range increases upward, the air should be pushed by the diaphragm (stomach) muscles.
I used this method with beginners, and now all those students have an equally comfortable range of at least 14th after 2 months of weekly lessons (the average range for beginners is a range of 7th after one year). With this method, the student will be on his way to playing sound in all ranges.
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