Do you know why?

Introduction

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:

  1. Quality of tone
  2. General ease of playing
  3. 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:

  1. Do you know why you play pedal notes? What are they actually doing to your embouchure, and how is this benefiting your playing?
  2. Do you know why you practise bending notes off pitch centre and how (or if) it is improving your playing?
  3. 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?

Mouthpiece Buzzing

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:

  1. Good: Buzzing is completely invaluable, Bud Herseth used to do it an hour a day, therefore so should you.
  2. Bad: Buzzing causes problems like too much lip tension and overblowing. It is also not the same thing as when you play the instrument.
  3. 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 eliminate 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 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

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:

  1. You are forcing the lips to work against the physics of the instrument.
  2. 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.

Pedal Notes

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 traditional 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 bending 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 grapple 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.

Conclusion

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.

~iii<0

A Follow-up on Tone, Cornets and Mouthpieces

The purpose of this post is a brief follow-up on some previous articles. It’s a bit of a rant, but in this case I feel it’s necessary.

I have recently seen some people discussing one of my posts on an internet forum and there are a couple of things that I would like to address. The post in question is titled Trumpet vs Cornet, and why it’s important. If you haven’t read that then click here to have a quick look. Some people had expressed confusion about a statement I had made in terms of cornet embouchure and because I was happy with the blog post at the time of publishing I don’t want to re-write it. What I’ll do instead is give a less formal summary of the main point in that article to make sure that it is clear.

First of all it is worth me pointing out that this is my opinion, and it is also more of a philosophical point than one describing an instrument’s limitations. I must stress, however, that this is an opinion that I have developed over a period of twenty-five years as a performer on both the trumpet and the cornet, seventeen of which I have been a working professional player in a variety of genres of music. I am also a specialist embouchure and technique teacher who works with people around the world. I write these things because I am trying to help people to improve their understanding of the instruments they play so that they don’t waste decades trying to smack a square peg into a round hole. I genuinely believe that somebody can improve their playing instantly by changing their ideas because I have done exactly that. The vast majority of people out there discussing trumpet playing on the internet are sharing old, dated concepts and they are very defensive of these ideas. I have worked on my playing with really forward-thinking teachers who have decades of experience proving that traditional trumpet teaching simply does not work for the majority. Now that I’ve said this piece I will leave it up to you to decide whether you wish to take notice of what I have to share and good luck to you if you don’t.

In the Trumpet vs Cornet article my main points were these:

  1. Modern trumpets and cornets are more similar than different and one of the main ways to distinguish between them is the mouthpiece. Despite that fact, players love to use the same type of mouthpiece for both and as a result limit their abilities on both instruments.
  2. Taking a historically informed approach to performing on these instruments has lead me to believe that whilst it is the correct decision to switch to a shorter cornet (E-flat soprano being the most common) to facilitate playing with finesse in the high register it is not the correct thing to do on a trumpet.
  3. The tonal qualities of these two instruments should be noticeably different to a non-musician. The cornet was designed for lyrical chromatic playing in the low and middle register and in contrast the trumpet should sound brilliant and strident. It is those qualities that facilitate playing well in the high register on the trumpet but it does require far greater embouchure control. Simply switching to a shorter instrument makes a strong embouchure seem unnecessary, but you’re really just hiding from your problems…
  4. Many players out there make a great cornet sound on the trumpet and wonder why they cannot play well in the high register. This is my answer to that question.

Point 4 on this list brings us full-circle back to the issue of appropriate mouthpiece selection. And that in turn brings up the issue of correct tone concept.

The sound that a brass instrument produces is a composite of the fundamental pitch and a series of overtones above it. When a player makes an effort to play with a “dark tone” they are effectively putting a premium on the fundamental pitch and killing off the overtones. This is making the sound less resonant. Also, if there are no high overtones then they are not available to be excited and therefore producing high pitches on the instrument is much more difficult. Whenever a trumpet player starts chatting with me about blending with trombones I always ask them when they last heard an oboe player talking about making their instrument sound like a bassoon, or a violinist trying to sound like a cello… Even in the homogenous sound of a brass band it wouldn’t work if the soprano cornet was trying to sound like a flugelhorn.

Generally people believe that there is a trade-off to be had between having a pleasing sound and being able to play well in the high register but I believe this to be a misnomer. Something that I mentioned in my article about mouthpieces was that as a general rule those who favour large mouthpieces really struggle to produce a good tone on something smaller, but the opposite is rarely true (In his book The Balanced Embouchure Jeff Smiley writes about this being a byproduct the embouchure’s ability to “focus”). I think that at this point in time there are so few people that use really small equipment to play classical music that there simply aren’t enough use cases for comparison, however there are plenty of experienced professionals out there talking about this idea. There is a pretty widely-discussed article by Jens Lindemann on the topic, and also there have been recent podcast interviews with people such as Mark Gould and Jim Pandolfi when the subject of players not understanding trumpet sound comes up. As a final example, here is a quote from an article by Mark Van Cleave on the same subject:

It is unfortunate that many players and teachers automatically go for the wide/deep cups to produce a big fat orchestral sound. It is interesting to know that some of the players that DEFINED the orchestral sound such as Harry Glanz played a Bach 6C through out his career in New York. and Adolph Herseth won his job in Chicago playing a Bach 7B. Herseth went to a larger cup later in his career in order to accommodate scar tissue that he had developed due to an automobile accident he had in the early 50’s which severely injured his chops. Funny thing… Shortly after Herseth made the switch to a larger mouthpiece (for physical reasons), orchestral players in Boston and New York began to go larger as well. I can’t help wonder what THEIR reasons were.

So anyway… Just to top all of this part off I think I should also point out that all of my statements here are in reference to using an instrument in its most common setting. I am capable of producing the same range of notes on a cornet as I am a trumpet, and I can play the same range of notes on a Schilke 24 as I can on a 6A4a but I wouldn’t be able to practise baroque concertos on a standard B-flat trumpet (which I do) if I were using a Bach 1C for everything (which I don’t) and nor would I be able to produce an appropriate sound in a salsa band. I never need to play above high C or D on a B-flat cornet so I’m going to pick equipment that helps me sound best on a lyrical cornet solo. It’s all about making informed choices and realising where you got your information from.

If a guy in a shop is telling you that something is a “Best Seller“, is that just because he told the same thing to the last fifty people that walked through the door? The biggest brass retailer in the south-west of England only stocks mouthpieces that players traditionally buy – that’s why people only buy those mouthpieces from them… if they want something better they go elsewhere. Never listen to a salesman for specialist equipment advise because their area of expertise is sales, not music. There are great players who also sell equipment, but they can always demonstrate why they’re telling you something. Ask for a demonstration. If somebody cannot show you why their advise is correct then it probably isn’t.

Finally I should be addressing the fact that I was accused of historical inaccuracy. When I make statements on this blog I back them up with quotes and references to books. I go out of my way to find examples of the ideas I share being discussed by those in both the traditional and alternative pedagogical circles. I even pride myself on this fact. I always make a point of inviting people to comment on my blog posts and would welcome questions from the genuinely curious or even those who disagree if they’re willing to engage in rational conversation. If there are errors then I am more than happy to edit or retract statements I’ve made. It was the ability to admit that I didn’t know enough that put me on the path of learning that has resulted in this blog being possible.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. I hope that my thoughts on the subjects addressed are now clearer. If in doubt please comment below, get in touch via contact button.

~iii<0