As brass players, we often focus on playing difficult musical passages, improving our range and tone, and studying scales and techniques as parts of our practice. We also maintain our instruments through cleaning, oiling, and the occasional repair. Well, like our instruments, our embouchures also require routine maintenance. Your embouchure is also a muscle (or, really, a set of muscles), which means it needs daily exercise just as any athlete stretches and does basic exercises at the beginning of each day. This is why, in my eyes, the most important part of practicing is the Daily Warmup. (It’s so important, I’m going to capitalize it!)
Now, the specific things you play in your Daily Warmup will vary depending on your experience, your strengths and weaknesses, and even your embouchure response for any given day. I have found that most students benefit from a combination of the following:
- Mouthpiece buzzing – The first step is to wake up your embouchure for the day and get your air moving. This is the stretching and loosening stage of our exercise. Start with some low long tones at a medium volume, holding the pitch as steady as you can with a strong tone and good embouchure shape. Then, gliss up and down your range a few times (the old “siren” exercise). If you have been playing a while, you may also choose to “play” a few scales through your mouthpiece or even buzz through some musical tunes.
- Long tones – You can ask any student of mine, and they will tell you: I love my long tones! Playing the full instrument, start at the middle of your range, and work your way outward (example below). Hold each note for a comfortably long time, again while maintaining a steady pitch and deep, open tone. Rest after each note for about as long as you played the note.
- Lip slurs – Now the real exercise begins. After the long tones, you should have a pretty good idea how your chops are feeling that day. Start with a set of slurs in a range you know you can play without much difficulty. This will help you loosen up further and coordinate your air and your lips. If you’re having trouble in the upper ranges today, staying in a comfortable range will also help you get the proper “set” you need. Then, work on more difficult slurs, maybe aiming for higher notes or quicker speed. For more, go here.
- Scales – If you are still learning your scales, this is a great time to work on your newest scales. If you know your scales pretty well, running through a few (or all) of them is another good way to coordinate your embouchure for playing music. You may also choose to do some advanced scale exercises (intervals, added range, Clarke exercises, etc.). For more, go here.
- Rest – I recommend playing your Daily Warmups in the morning so you have time to put the horn down before playing any music or playing in band class. If you’re in school, and playing through this after school, you probably won’t have time for a long rest period, but even a five-minute pause will give your chops a chance to recover and realize the full benefit of your warmup.
Now, the steps I just listed are not a formula for everyone. Depending on your needs, you may also want to include breathing exercises, whisper tones, isometric exercises, articulation exercises, or any variety of other exercises into your Daily Warmup. A private teacher will be able to help craft a warmup to your individual needs and abilities. By sticking to a regular warmup routine at the beginning of each practice, you will find that your embouchure, tone, and all aspects of your playing improve much better than simply playing through your music assignments!
“Articulations” describe the way that we attack notes, or how we transition from one note to another. Is the note short or long? Heavy or light? One common type of articulation is the legato. When learning legato style, sometimes indicated by tenuto markings, you might hear words like, “long,” “smooth,” or “connected.” These are a few simple ways of looking at this common marking.
As far as the tongue itself is concerned, legato notes are played very lightly. Most of the time, legato notes will be tongued lighter than normal notes. In some passages, just a very light touch of the tongue to start a note will be the only difference between a legato passage and a slurred passage.
The real key to legato, though, is the space between the notes, or more correctly, the lack of space. Each note in a legato phrase should lead right into the next note with very little separation. The notes should all connect together with one long, steady airstream. What little separation is present should be created only with your tongue, and no stoppage of the air.
To start, play a long tone. Then, add a very light tongue, using a “da” syllable, or even almost a “la” syllable to articulate. As you start to articulate individual notes, keep the sound steady and constant, putting as little break as possible between notes:
Try this on single notes in different ranges. Once you are comfortable on single notes, start moving around. Scales are a great way to practice this. Keep the transitions smooth by moving your valves/slides quickly between notes, so as not to get any “smear” between notes:
Then, do the same with different intervals, increasing the distance between the notes, but still keeping the tone steady and making the transitions as smoothly as possible:
In addition to being a valuable articulation, legato playing can also help improve your tone by focusing on steady airflow and effortless, solid transitions between moving notes. Even if you’re working on a more separated passage, temporarily playing the notes legato can help with accuracy and tone. Let legato practice be your key to beautiful playing!
It’s probably the single most common request I hear out of students: “I want to play higher notes.”
It’s a perfectly reasonable request. Who wouldn’t want to expand their limits on their instrument? We love hearing those exciting, piercing tones, and we love watching players seemingly working hard (or not!) to reach them. I believe range-building is a very important part of playing brass instruments — as long as it’s done properly.
Tone is everything. A note is useless if you don’t have full control over it and every note leading up to it. So, if you’re wanting to reach notes well above the staff, but your first-octave concert Bb scale is full of fuzzy attacks and scooped notes, you’ll have to fix those problems before you can hit those higher notes. That being said, here are some steps you can take to help improve your range:
- To play high notes, you have to play high notes. This means if the top of your range is an A above the staff, you need to be playing that A several times a day, and trying to reach the Bb, B, and C above it. If you’re not pushing yourself to hit those higher notes, they aren’t going to magically start happening.
- Add one partial at a time. Notice I didn’t say to add one note at a time! This is because that “new” top note will develop the best if you are hitting all the fingerings on that partial. I find that I have the best luck if I start at the lowest fingering (all 3 valves, or 7th position) and work chromatically upward, though some people may prefer to go for the open note first and work down chromatically from there. However, if you can’t hit the top few fingerings of a partial, don’t force it. Give your “stuck” note two or three tries, then work on something else and try again tomorrow.
- Lip slurs are your friend. To get to those top notes with solid tone, support, and an even embouchure, start at a midrange note, like an open F or G (depending on your instrument), and slur up the partials until you get to the range you are building. Then, and this is the most important part, slur back down at the same pace, keeping full control over every note as you come back down. Do this with all your fingerings (see #2). For more help with this, go here.
- Scales and arpeggios are your second best friend. In addition to using lip slurs, slur up some scales until you reach your new range. This is a great way to make sure your air and tone are steady throughout the range of your instrument. Arpeggios are helpful, too, for the same reason. Plus, you’re practicing scales at the same time, killing two birds with one stone! I’ve reproduced an exercise below that I use with my trumpet students that combines scales and arpeggios to reach higher notes. If you can’t hit these notes yet, start at a lower scale:
- There are no shortcuts. Yes, there are exercises out there that can help build your embouchure strength (the “pencil” exercise, whisper Gs, etc.), and those exercises can help with range building. They are not, however, a quick, easy way to high notes. Without actually playing exercises on your instrument with good tone up to the range you are aiming for, you will not get a steady, consistent tone or even consistent notes in the upper range.
- To play high notes, you have to play high notes. I really can’t stress this enough. It amazes me how many students start to work on range, but then only practice in the range they are comfortable. In addition to the exercises I have suggested, find some music that pushes your limits in the upper range. Be careful with this one: you don’t want to hurt yourself with a piece that stays at the top of your “new” range, but do play a lot of music that occasionally pushes the top of your comfortable range.
In Part 1 we talked about relaxing while playing, and how focusing on that relaxation usually has the opposite effect. We also talked about small ways to reduce tension. In this section, we’ll talk about taking a more relaxed breath and making your air work more effortlessly.
One important way I relax my students’ airstreams is with the “sudden attack.” Many students, without realizing it, hold their breath for a moment between breathing in and playing. Sometimes, they take that moment to set their embouchure, and sometimes they’re preparing themselves mentally for the note they’re about to play. Regardless, that moment creates lots of tension in the body as your muscles contract to hold in the air.
Instead, think about your note before you even take that first breath. Think about how your embouchure is going to feel and how the note is going to sound. Then, take in your full, deep breath through your mouth and IMMEDIATELY move that air into the horn, playing the note. You might miss the note on the first few tries, but when it works, you should have a full, relaxed sound. Sustain the note to keep the air moving and get used to the feeling of moving your air in this manner.
As this type of breath becomes more automatic, shorten the notes to just quick attacks. This will make sure your air is moving and the embouchure is immediately engaging to produce a sound. Focus more on the tone of your attack, while keeping the same sudden breathing you had in the previous exercise. This will also help prepare you to keep your breathing relaxed when playing shorter notes in rapid passages.
Being a Mouth-Breather
I want to emphasize the importance of breathing in through your mouth. Your air passageways open and close differently when you breathe through your nose instead of your mouth. Since all the air will be going out through your mouth into your horn, breathe in through your mouth as well. Muscles that would have to take action if you switched between nose and mouth breathing won’t have to work as hard, and this, of course, reduces tension. Some exercises, such as the Caruso Six Notes and the infamous “Pencil Exercise,” require breathing in through your nose. While I have no problem with those exercises in general, I recommend avoiding them while you are working on eliminating pauses in your breathing.
The techniques I describe in Part 1 and Part 2 won’t completely eliminate tension in your playing, but they will go a long way toward helping you relax in key areas. If you are truly struggling with the idea of “relaxed” trumpet playing, I highly recommend seeking an experienced teacher to help you.
If you are learning a brass instrument, you’ve probably been told to “relax.” Relax your shoulders. Relax your neck muscles. Take a relaxed breath. Relax while you play that double-C.
There are two problems with constantly being told to relax. First, a lot of the muscles we use to play trumpet are not ones we are used to controlling. Many students simply don’t know how to relax those muscles while playing. Second, by being told to relax and concentrating on the thing you’re trying to relax, odds are you are actually becoming more tense! Many students, including myself, have stressed ourselves out trying to relax!
Even if we don’t know how to relax some muscles, we can remove tension by controlling other things while playing, such as posture. That doesn’t mean you should be leaning back, slouched in your chair, feet on the table, playing the trumpet! You will still breathe the most air by sitting up straight with your feet flat on the floor. While that doesn’t sound relaxed, a good posture lets your chest and diaphragm move in the ways they need to in order for you to take in the most air. By keeping your feet flat, it relaxes your legs, which helps to relax the muscles connected to your legs, which helps to relax the muscles connected to those muscles, and so on.
The place I most often see tension is in the arms. If your arms are shaking as you struggle to reach that high note, you’re trying too hard! The good news is, this is something you can control. To relax your arms, use a lighter grip on your instrument, and make sure you’re not pressing your horn into your mouth harder as you go higher. Focus on your hands to make sure your grip does not tighten as you play up the scale. It will take some practice to completely reverse the habit of squeezing in the upper range, but most students see improvement almost immediately. (Note: this may make those high notes seem harder to hit at first, but if you practice proper range building, those notes will soon be bigger and fuller than they’ve ever been!)
Likewise, shoulders are another visible and correctable source of tension. When you are playing, keep your shoulders low and back. If your shoulders start shrugging as you play, you have tension. Play slowly, and focus on holding your shoulders back and down. At first, like any new habit, it will feel awkward and maybe even a little tense as you “force” your shoulders to stay low. Once this becomes habit, though, it will help you play more freely. Both the arms and the shoulders are connected directly to the chest and neck muscles, so by getting rid of tension in those two places, you are helping to relax your whole upper body!
In part 2, we’ll introduce a few techniques to help relieve tension in those places that are harder to control.
One of the most common requests I get from my young brass students is, “I want to learn jazz.” I usually follow that request with, “Do you listen to a lot of jazz?” or “Do you have any favorite jazz songs?” The answer is almost always, “No,” which brings me to the first lesson for learning jazz:
Listen to jazz. Whether on a local radio station, an internet radio station, or YouTube, find some jazz that you like, and listen to it a lot. Find some songs you like, see if you can find music for them, and play them. Real Books are great resources to find tunes. However, as much as you can try to read jazz printed on a page, jazz is much more about what happens off the page. The feel and rhythm of jazz is something you will have to learn and imitate by ear.
Now, on to the technicals. The most important aspect of jazz rhythm is “swing.” Unlike other styles, where 8th notes evenly divide the beat in half, swung 8th notes are unequal. The first note is longer than the second. The closest rhythm we can notate would be a quarter note plus an 8th note as triplets:
This is not exact, though. Swing 8th notes will either be a little longer or shorter on the first note, depending on how heavy a swing feel the piece requires.
Next, make sure you know ALL the notes of your chromatic scale for as high and low as your chops will take you. Much jazz is far more chromatic than the classical or concert band music you will typically play, and you will need to be able to recognize every note (and its enharmonic equivalent; be ready to play A-sharp!). This will be even more important when you start soloing and playing improvisation.
Which brings me to the most important element of jazz. While learning tunes (or “charts” or “heads”) is important, the real foundation of jazz is improvisation. Don’t let that freak you out, though. “How to improvise” is too big a topic for this post, so for now, I’ll just say: try it! Play along with one of those recordings you learned, and see what you can come up with. There are lots of great backing track resources for this, such as the Jamey Aebersold Play-a-Long series and the iReal Pro app, for just two examples. The more you play around with songs like this, the more jazz you’ll learn and the better you’ll become!
“Articulations” describe the way that we attack notes, or how we transition from one note to another. Is the note short or long? Heavy or light? One of the most common types of articulation is the staccato. When learning staccato, you might hear words like, “short,” “detached,” or “separated.” This is one simple way of looking at this common marking.
Unlike other “separated” articulations like the marcato, staccato is typically played very lightly. On brass, this means no tonguing harder or playing louder than you would play an unmarked note. Sometimes, particularly during fast passages, you may even have to tongue lighter than normal. However, the shortness of the note should never come from the tongue when playing classical music*. In other words, do not stop the note with your tongue!
Instead, the separation should come from your air. Imagine yourself whispering the word, “da,” quickly. You should have a light tongue to form the “d” followed by a puff of air. Play staccato notes the same way. On a single note, it’s relatively easy. Once you start making the notes faster, it becomes more difficult, since you’ll want to make sure the notes sound like they’re stopping with your air, not with your tongue.
As always, start slow, playing individual notes. Give each note a light puff of air so that it’s short while still having good tone during the brief time that it sounds:
Then, start working it up to quicker speeds. If you’re breathing correctly, you should almost feel your diaphragm “bouncing” as you play the notes quickly:
Once you get up to fast 16th notes or faster, the rules change. You don’t have to worry as much about that “puff” of air. Notes automatically start taking on a staccato sound once your tongue starts moving fast enough! Keep your air steady, and let your tongue do the work:
Like everything else, playing proper staccato takes practice. If you’ve never played staccato, it should come pretty quickly. If you are trying to improve your staccato, and have always stopped the note with your tongue, it will take more time to “unlearn” the bad habits before the good habits take over.
* Jazz and popular music are a different story, and will be reserved for a later post!