“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 “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!
There are many questions I receive from students who are just starting to learn to play, as well as parents of beginning students. Today, I will answer a few of the most common questions.
Q: How old does a student have to be to learn a brass instrument?
A: Compared to instruments like piano, guitar, or violin, all commonly taught to very young students, brass instruments take much more effort to make a sound. Both the lips and lungs have to be large enough to support sustained notes on a brass instrument. Also, if a student still has most of his or her baby teeth, it will be a considerable adjustment when permanent teeth start growing in. In some cases, the pressure of a brass mouthpiece can even affect the angle of those teeth as they are growing in. This is why most school bands don’t start students until 4th grade (age 9-10) or later. Most students at this age have enough physical development to play notes, as well as most of their permanent teeth. I typically tell parents that, if they have most of their permanent teeth, they can begin a brass instrument. That being said, I have seen students as young as 6 able to support a good tone on the instrument, and some famous players, like Wynton Marsalis and Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, started at that age. If you have a very young student, I recommend signing him or her up for a trial lesson to see if they have the physical and mental maturity to handle the task of learning a brass instrument.
Q: How long should the student’s lesson be?
A: In my studio, I offer 30- and 60-minute lessons. Some teachers also offer 45-minute lessons, though I personally have not found much benefit in that intermediate time. 30 minutes is plenty for most beginners. Until they get some practice and experience developing their “chops” (the lip muscles needed to play), they won’t be able to play much longer than that, anyway.
After a couple years, if the student is playing very well and is serious about the instrument, really enjoys playing, or simply wants to know everything they can about the instrument, they should move up to a 60 minute lesson. That being said, as much as parents and teachers want all their students to be superstars on their instruments, the simple fact is that not every student will put in that level of work. If they will not put in the extra practice time needed for a 60-minute lesson, but still enjoy the instrument and want to keep learning, they should continue with 30-minute lessons.
Q: How much should the student practice?
A: First, they should practice every day. A small practice time every day will help them much more than a lot of practice every few days. For beginners, 15 minutes per day is plenty, until they develop their lip muscles enough to play longer (usually from several weeks to a couple of months). After that, 30-minute practice sessions are the gold standard for most young students. That level will allow the student to cover most of what they need for school or for their own recreation. After a year or two, again when the chops have developed, the top students will play 45 minutes to an hour each day, or longer! With advanced students, the answer becomes, “as long as they need to;” this article covers that idea in much more detail.
Q: How long does it take to “get good” at playing?
A: It will take as long as it takes! Like all musical instruments, the student will get out what they put into it. With regular practice and guidance, most students can have a good tone within a couple months, and can play most basic music confidently in as quickly as a year. Of course, “showier” music and more advanced techniques will take longer. And if the student practices infrequently or not at all, expect the amount of time to increase exponentially, regardless of how good a teacher he or she has!
Q: Where should I buy an instrument? Is buying a used horn okay?
A: I recommend purchasing (or renting) a horn from a reputable music store. Some big-box stores sell brass instruments, but those instruments are often hit-or-miss in terms of quality. If this is for a young beginner and commitment is uncertain, many music stores offer rental programs that will let the student play for a few months with a small down-payment. The most important thing to look for is a reputable brand. Bach, Yamaha, King, Conn, and Jupiter are all common, established, high-quality brands for brass. Used horns are perfectly fine, but make sure you can check them out first. Look at all the moving parts and make sure they move easily with no hangups, especially the valves. This is doubly true with trombone: make sure the slide is effortless to move up and down its full length! If you do not feel comfortable evaluating used horns, and don’t know anyone that is, I recommend seeking a new horn.
If you have a question that I have not answered here, please leave a comment or send me an email and ask! I am happy to answer any questions regarding lessons and learning brass instruments.