A Trumpeter’s Tale
It is not unfair to say that at times I obsess over trumpet playing technique. Sometimes I’ll try to excuse myself by pointing out that it is an important part of my job (as a teacher and player). It’s not, however, an uncommon trait for brass players. Chatting with fellow trumpeters on the job reveals that a lot of them sweat the small stuff when they’re in the practise room and I have been recommended a reading list that could keep me busy until 2026 (for future reference I am writing this in 2016).
The way that I feel I differ from many others though is in the way I have come to use this blog (bear with me, I know that others have blogs…). As you may well know, my journey has lead me to settle on the Tongue Controlled Embouchure in my playing and the best way I feel I can justify that decision is to research each of the elements of the technique so that I can explain and justify them to anybody curious enough to ask. I am often surprised by some of the information I discover and it baffles me how some well documented and distributed information is ignored and forgotten by the brass playing community. This post discusses one such topic, so let’s get going!
The topic of this post is the use of the tongue, as described by Jean-Baptiste Arban in La Grande Méthode Complète De Cornet. Arban’s Grande Méthode is, in all likelihood, the most distributed and translated book on the subject of brass playing in the world. Many people have their own ideas about how to use the exercises printed within its pages and there have been a number of additions written to the standard editions that extend the range and keys of many of the exercises in an attempt to modernise the book. There are also plenty of people who have discarded the method saying that it is out-dated. When teaching and playing at a high professional level this may well be the case; however I think that it still provides a solid starting point for any aspiring brass player and the true value is in how you choose to use it.
Recently I was thinking about ways to describe the use of the tongue when teaching the trumpet. I do not insist that my pupils play with the Tongue Controlled Embouchure but I do teach them the principles, which include correct sound, efficient use of air, and solid articulation. I had recently asked some of my pupils to try the Tongue On Lips exercises from Jeff Smiley’s The Balanced Embouchure and they had all demonstrated vastly improved clarity and projection from doing so. I had, however, prefaced this exercise by explaining as it says in the book this is a not technique you need to do in all of your playing, but you do need to be able to do it. (I have written a supplementary post explaining Tongue On Lips here). Having witnessed first hand the instant improvement in these players I then had the dilemma of whether to backtrack and insist that is how they should play, or to find another way to replicate this improved attack.
On remembering seeing the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra’s trumpet player Herb Smith talking on the Master Superchops DVD about how “this is the method that Arban was talking about” I thought that I should clarify for myself what he had meant. What I uncovered in checking the text of this book has lead me to two interesting things that I will share with you in the rest of these blog posts.
Act One – Scene One: The Solid Foundation Approach
In the 1893 Carl Fischer New Revised And Authentic Edition of Arban’s Complete Celebrated Method for the Cornet (Spoiler alert: there is more about various editions in Act Two…) it says the following:
It should never be lost sight of, that the expression coup de langùe (stroke of the tongue) is merely a conventional expression; the tongue does not strike; on the contrary, it performs a retrograde movement; it simply supplies the place of a valve.
This circumstance should be well borne in mind before placing the mouthpiece on the lips. The tongue ought to be placed against the teeth of the upper jaw in such a way that the mouth should be hermetically sealed. As the tongue recedes, the column of air which was pressing against it is precipitated violently into the mouthpiece and causes a sound.
The pronunciation of the syllable “Tu” serves to determine the striking of the sound. This syllable may be pronounced with more or less softness, according to the degree of force to be imparted to the note.
It is my intention to clarify this writing to form a set of instructions. This will involve explaining the directions given here more clearly and then re-ordering them into a process that can be followed, learnt and practised.
Let’s begin at the top. Please read the following carefully. At first I am not adding to or speculating about the meaning of these terms. It is only my intention to clarify what has been printed.
- Coup de langùe or stroke of the tongue – To strike suggests that the tongue begins at a distance from something, moves forward at speed hitting the thing, and then retracts to its original position before the next articulation. The text clearly states that this is not what the tongue should do.
- Retrograde movement – To move backwards. Specifically a retrograde movement is movement in the opposite direction to something else. In this case it most likely means the air or lips as there are no other moving parts.
- It supplies the place of a valve – This is an important distinction. A valve is a mechanical device that blocks a pipe either partially or completely to change the amount of fluid (liquid or gas) that passes through it. If you are at all unsure about this then take a look at this link.
- The tongue ought to be placed against the teeth of the upper jaw – Some people have debated whether Arban means that the tip, or the flat top surface, of the tongue should be against the top teeth. There is not sufficient information in the text to draw a conclusion at this point so in the interest of an unbiased analysis I suggest experimentation. What he does not say is behind the teeth.
- The mouth should be hermetically sealed – A hermetic seal is the attribute of something being airtight. The direction being given here is to use the tongue to block the flow of air before, and by effect after, each note. This is reinforcing the comment about acting like a valve.
- The column of air which was pressing against it – As a result of the hermetic seal there has been an increase in air pressure in the mouth. This can be felt with your tongue.
- …is precipitated violently into the mouthpiece and causes a sound – The pressurised (compressed) air is released by the tongue and in bursting through the lips begins the process of producing sound on the instrument. Arban is describing here how the tongue is being used to compress air in the mouth before it reaches the lips. I particularly like his use of the word ‘violently’. There is no room for mis-interpretation of this term – using the tongue to compress air in the mouth and create a violent attack is the way to produce a sound on a cornet.
- This syllable may be pronounced with more or less softness, according to the degree of force to be imparted to the note – Although the whole process has been described at this point he goes on to clarify that you can use this same process to produce harder and softer attacks.
Now that we have an understanding of each part of Arban’s description I will place them in an order that can be used as a guide for implementing this use of the tongue.
- Take a breath – This is obviously necessary and mentioned at another point in Arban’s book.
- Use the tongue, against the teeth of your upper jaw, to form an airtight seal inside your mouth.
- Pressurise some air in your mouth by blowing against the seal.
- Release the tongue allowing the air to forcefully burst through the lips.
- Return to step 2 for the next note.
Before I take things in a different direction I would just like to add an observation. There are 88 exercises in the first 25 pages of the method before Arban introduces the concept of the slur. Assuming that a beginner cornet or trumpet student were to use this method exclusively, from the beginning, it could take a considerable amount of time (months, or a year) to practise and learn each one of those exercises. By the end of that time this way of using the tongue would be thoroughly engrained in the student’s understanding of how to play. By comparison most modern brass instruction books are introducing slurs after only a few pages and haven’t even begun to cover the range of notes or rhythmic complexity covered in this start to Arban’s method. I believe that this speaks volumes about the changes to expectations about learning to play an instrument and approaches to teaching over time. Starting out learning to play by establishing a clean, effective tonguing technique is the best way to develop a solid foundation to playing a brass instrument.
Act One – Scene Two: Reading between the lines
The following section is food for thought. If we can agree at this stage that all I have done is explain in greater detail the choice of words used in the American English translation of Arban’s book then nothing above this point is open for debate. Now I will present a few questions of logic that may lead you to agree that what Arban describes is very similar to the use of the tongue by proponents of the Tongue Controlled Embouchure.
- Looking back at the original quote, use of the term “retrograde movement” is very interesting as it insinuates that the position of the tongue before starting is a forward position. If the tongue is flat against the bottom of the mouth, anchored to the bottom teeth, or simply out of the way allowing air to flow past it, then this retrograde movement would have no effect. There would also be no build-up of pressure allowing the “violent” release of air. The tongue must start in a forward position to fulfil its office as a valve, and create an airtight seal.
- Air precipitates violently into the mouthpiece – Notice that there is no mention of the lips. This suggests two things: Firstly that it is not the job of the lips to resist the air (this has already been done by the tongue), and secondly that at the time this book was written people just didn’t think about the lips, where they move, or how they buzz/vibrate/excite the airstream. Not because those ideas are wrong, but because they are not necessary for developing technique.
- A question of distance – How far do you need to move the tongue to release air into the mouthpiece? I would argue that the best answer is “as little as possible”. In order to allow pressurised air past the tongue you need to move it by about 1mm. My logic being that the further you pull the tongue back then the further you need to move to return it to its original position. The faster you need to play, the less you want to move the tongue.
- A tap (faucet) is a valve – if you are relying on the tongue to control compression of the air then it is also helpful to think about how a tap works. In order to maintain compression on longer notes it makes sense not to fully open the valve. This is something that I am often asked about: This use of the tongue is obviously helpful for playing staccato notes, but what happens when I want to play a long smooth phrase? Because they tongue-valve can be used like a tap. This creates a very efficient system for controlling air flow.
So here is our description: The tongue is forward in the mouth, pushing upwards against the top teeth in order to form an airtight seal. Pressurised air is then released into the mouthpiece resulting in a clean attack. The note is stopped by the tongue-valve, preparing the system for the next note. Where the explanation in Scene One sounds about 85% like a description of the Tongue Controlled Embouchure, this is now a complete description. The Tongue Controlled Embouchure is not a new idea.