In recent months I have been teaching pupils about the Tongue Controlled Embouchure over Skype. This has been a really valuable experience for me as a teacher because it has enabled me to refine resources and see how a number of people respond to using them over time. For those that I am teaching their fees pay for three things. Access to resources without cost, the lesson itself, and a summary email in which I write in greater detail about the concepts that we have covered in the session. Something else that I’m gaining from the experience personally is affirmation that these techniques really work. It isn’t only that I happened to have stumbled across an esoteric method that works for me but I have taken this knowledge and managed to package it together in a way that is really helping people to improve their trumpet playing technique. That’s a good feeling.
A subject of conversation that tends to come up with some pupils fairly frequently is the one of how this information compares to the more traditional approaches and whether similar benefits would be found from practising any set of progressive exercises. Specifically there are three techniques that keep arising and those are to be the subject of this post. Since my switch to TCE I’ve adopted a pretty hardcore means to trimming down aspects of trumpet practise to make sure I get the most out of it. I have a simple rule that governs what I believe to be a no-nonsense strategy: If you’re practising a technique and don’t directly observe improvement to some aspect of your playing within two weeks you’re either doing it wrong or it doesn’t work.
Having this strategy means that you need to have a pretty fixed idea about the definition of improvement. At my stage of playing I keep an eye on a few things, in this order:
- Quality of tone
- General ease of playing
- Maintenance of or improvement in range
I actually think that these few things are all linked so I know just from listening whether I’ve upset the balance, or improved it.
With that in mind I invite you to ask yourself these questions:
- Do you know why you play pedal notes? What are they actually doing to your embouchure, and how is this benefiting your playing?
- Do you know why you practise bending notes off pitch centre and how (or if) it is improving your playing?
- Do you know why you buzz on the mouthpiece? Do you realise that in physical terms mouthpiece buzzing is not the same as playing your instrument and the ways that it could actually adversely affect your embouchure?
This is a topic that is a little over discussed already. To date the trumpet community is still pretty divided on the topic. So far as I can see there are basically three opinions:
- Good: Buzzing is completely invaluable, Bud Herseth used to do it an hour a day, therefore so should you.
- Bad: Buzzing causes problems like too much lip tension and overblowing. It is also not the same thing as when you play the instrument.
- Ugly: It’s pointless. Don’t do it.
In a masterclass with trumpeter Jim Watson I remember him once saying that he wouldn’t waste time practising anything that he wouldn’t need to do on stage. The attitude would illuminate the need for mouthpiece buzzing, and echoes the thoughts of some other popular schools of trumpet pedagogy. Those who support buzzing believe that you are refining both your aural skills and your embouchure co-ordination. Some also use mouthpiece buzzing as a way to improve breath control.
Having spent a lot of time doing this myself I wouldn’t really deny that people could benefit in these ways from the practice, but in recent years I have come to believe that buzzing on the mouthpiece can have negative consequences too. The famous American teacher Bill Adam advocated the practice of buzzing pitches on the lead pipe. Because there is a column of air in the lead pipe your lips are vibrating in sympathy, more similarly to when you play the whole instrument. In order to keep this true, however, there would only be about four notes that you should play on the lead pipe and many who buzz in this way are bending things all over the place by trying to play scales and melodies.
This is the problem with mouthpiece buzzing in general. Because of the length of the tube there is no pitch centre. Therefore your lips cannot vibrate in sympathy with the column of air and it is necessary for you to tense the lips and overblow for any tone to be produced. If this approach lines up with your understanding of how to play the instrument then your stamina and range are going to be quite seriously restricted. It’s basically a brute force approach to playing.
The Buzzing Book by James Thompson describes how buzzing on the mouthpiece will enable a player to develop their aperture and air control in order to enable them to play in pitch centre, but considering that there is no pitch centre without a length of tube this seems to be a bit of a contradiction. Whilst looking reading through this book for research I stumbled across a pitch-bending exercise that I once saw a student practising as part of their warm-up. When I asked them about it they couldn’t explain why they were doing it or whether they felt that it helped them to play better. I would argue that even the uncertainty is reason enough to stop doing it, but this person was not my pupil so I only hope that our conversation provoked them to quiz their teacher for further details. Many of the exercises in Thompson’s book are recommended that you play first on the mouthpiece and then on the trumpet. I’m sure that they can help people by increasing awareness of how it feels to play the instrument when doing these exercises but I also think that many are confused into believing that there is an esoteric muscle development or tissue manipulation that will improve their sound and other aspects of playing over a long period of time. Personally I just don’t think that’s true.
There are other methods of buzzing without the instrument such as free “loose-lip” buzzing, spit buzzing and Lynn Nicholson’s Rimpet/HMH. These are also interesting techniques, but I’d go way over my word-limit if I started on about all that!
Pitch bending is the process of playing a note and then using the embouchure to force the pitch away from the resonant centre until you reach the pitch of a different note. As a brief co-ordination exercise it can have value in teaching people to hear and feel what it is like to play in tune verses playing out of tune. However, as part of daily practise I think that it is pretty detrimental. I’ve heard it said in a lecture that note bending “trains the fine muscles in your lips to improve control and tone”. I’d love to know exactly which muscles they are. In fact I’m very confident that no such muscles exist and this was somebody’s attempt to explain something they don’t understand by talking nonsense until everybody listening is in such awe of their “knowledge” that they submit to believing that they just aren’t experienced enough to understand.
Consider the idea that by bending notes off pitch centre there are two things that need to take place:
- You are forcing the lips to work against the physics of the instrument.
- In order for the lips to vibrate contrary to the resonant frequency (pitch) of the air column you need to blow more air.
Even without my critical analysis of the technique please answer me this question: Why would you want to dedicate time and effort to improving your ability to play out of tune with a bad sound? Do people not have enough intonation problems without them spending time cultivating the ability?
As with the mouthpiece buzzing, these sorts of exercises can help somebody to hear and feel what it is like to play on pitch, but as a mundane routine without measurable improvement I cannot see any longer-term advantage. Many people are promoting the idea of wrestling the instrument under control as though it’s a battle of player vs trumpet. None of the world’s best players think that way.
As you may have seen in a previous post of mine playing pedal notes is a part of the TCE practise routine. However the method that I teach is vastly different from those you see in the school of Louis Maggio, Claude Gordon or James Stamp. These, the more tradition advocates, define pedal tones as including pitches moving chromatically downwards from the trumpet’s lowest available pitch and spending time cultivating a strong pedal C, among other things. I’ll spare you all the rant about why I believe pedal C to be a pointless venture as I’m sure you could find it elsewhere in my writings, but we do need to think for a minute about how these pedal notes are produced.
The first step to playing pedal notes is to find the first pedal note, F. This is first achieved by playing a low F-sharp and bending it downwards by a semitone. Once this “lip position” is secure then you have to fight the instrument to produce this same pitch on the “correct fingering”: just the first valve. When you were playing the F on all three valves you were only bending the pitch off centre by a semitone. When you play it with only the first valve you are now being the note off centre by a Perfect 4th. When settled with this procedure you can keep adding valves to find your way chromatically down to pedal C-sharp. The pedal C is a whole different beast because you are actually bending a pitch, which is an octave lower than the low F-sharp, upwards by a tritone. It is hard to do because your lips want to vibrate in sympathy with the air column at a pitch an octave higher (i.e. low C). Anyway… we now have enough information to see that yet again the general theme here is forcing the instrument to produce notes off-centre, working against how the instrument is designed to function and in all likelihood overblowing as a means to wrestle it under control.
What it really brings into question however, is why people believe there to be benefit to doing these things. When you play pedal notes in the traditional way the instructions given are often pretty strict about maintaining the same embouchure as you descend. Whereas with einsetzen/ansetzen exercises the player discovers a balanced lip position, develops efficient use of air and learns how to play across their range with minimal mouthpiece pressure. There don’t appear to be any detailed justifications for the traditional method at all. Is that why people are divided about whether or not we should bother doing it? There’s just no evidence that it works. There is often illusion to relaxing the lips and aligning the jaw, but both of those things are contradicted when you consider that tradition approaches to playing also advocate tight mouth corners and tongue level (using the tongue level to manipulate pitch results in movement of the jaw). Jeff Smiley has a section in his book where he describes how many mistake cause for effect when coming up with playing techniques. However you should strive to make up your own mind. Apply the strategy above and see whether or not you see measurable short-term improvement.
So there we have it… if nothing else this post is intended as food for thought. Even if it serves no purpose than to force those who take a different approach than me to consider and justify the reasons that they practise these things then that justifies me taking the time to write it. But it would be really good if some readers can take the time to honestly look at the time and effort you put into your maintenance routines and ask yourself:
“Are these exercises actually making me into a better player? Have my tone, power, range and endurance been the same for a decade or more? Do these exercises help me at all? What would happen if I were to just stop doing them?”
With information about modern approaches to playing being freely available online I believe that it’s only a matter of time before we realise that much of the teaching techniques, gimmicks and accessories that we used in the twentieth century were just a stepping stone to what we have now and that players can just stop wasting countless hours in the practise room cultivating destructive skills and instead spend the time playing challenging music.