How effective is my practise?

As an instrumental music teacher the subject of practise is one that I discuss almost on a daily basis with all kinds of people. Usually it’s with my pupils or their parents but it is a topic that comes up in social situations too. Maybe I’m chatting with someone about cookery, open source software or learning a language; eventually the subject of practising to learn new skills will creep into the conversation. I also tend to talk a lot about podcasts and YouTube videos as I can be quite an obsessive consumer of these at times. I find it quite mind-blowing how much you can passively learn over time just from listening to others talking about their passions and interests.

One YouTube channel that I’m a bit of a fan of is that of Mike Boyd. Mike constantly tasks himself with learning new skills and in the past few years has learnt over fifty-two new skills. These vary from the frivolous, such as spinning a ball on his finger or doing a wheelie on a bike, to more serious skills such as swimming a mile in freezing cold water. Mike, it appears, is a real master of mind and body… or is he? I think that if you were to ask him then he’d probably say no. What Mike seems to be master of is practise.

A recent video that Mike put out featured his wife Kim, who learned to juggle as a test to see whether or not Mike learns skills faster than the average person. You can watch this video here, but please remember to read the rest of this article… you haven’t gotten to the good bit yet!

This video really got me into thinking about how I describe the process of practise to people. I’ve done it in a couple ways in the past and neither of them have been particularly effective.

I’m not a fan of the traditional model of music practise that is sold to keen beginners when they take up an instrument. By that I mean getting your instrument and music out, standing in a room alone and repeatedly struggling to get better at the work you’ve been set for half an hour per day, every day. My modus operandi goes like this: I leave instruments and mouthpieces lying around in most rooms of the house. Whenever I walk into a room, get bored whilst sat at the computer, am forced to wait the labourious ninety seconds for the kettle to boil, etc., I pick up an instrument and I start to play. This way I do between five and ten minutes of practise repeatedly throughout the day. This is how I learnt to play when I was young and playing along to the radio in this way is how I learned to play by ear and later developed that into perfect pitch. Another way this system can work is to have a trumpet or cornet nearby when watching television. Whenever the adverts come on you can play for a few minutes. Working like this I would set goals to achieve in that short time and it’s a very effective way to add a little pressure to your mini practise sessions. I’ve told many of my pupils about this way of working. To date I’m only aware of one of them who has actually tried it. I know this because after six months his trumpet had been dropped and knocked off of tables so many times that it needed replacing… #facepalm.

Another thing that I’ve often reserved for more experienced players is simply describing how many hours of an average week I would spend playing my cornet or trumpet between the ages of twelve and sixteen. During that time I attended brass band rehearsals twice per week (four hours). I played in two bands at a Saturday morning music club (two and a half hours). I had a weekly lesson (half an hour) and a couple of lunchtime music groups at school (one hour). In an average week I was engaged in musical activities for a minimum of eight and a half hours before personal practise. And that’s an average week without concerts on the weekends or county brass band or concert band courses to attend. There actually weren’t very many of these minimal “average” weeks. Telling people this information rarely inspires them to try harder so these days I just save it for someone who needs a scare.

In Mike Boyd’s videos he places a counter on the screen so that the viewer gets to see how much time he has dedicated to practising his new skill. In the video above it took Kim just over four hours to learn to juggle three balls continuously for over thirty seconds. She did this over the course of eight days, which is an average of half an hour per day. If Kim were to have only spent ten minutes per day, six days per week, practising then it would have taken a month to achieve her goal. In all likelihood it would have taken longer because a basic familiarity with the task would have taken much longer to settle in her mind and muscle memory.

The problem with this comparison is that it isn’t simply one thing that you are trying to learn when you pick up a musical instrument. What if the skill that you are trying to master is playing one scale from memory and it requires four hours of continuous practise? Well, if you were to practise one scale at a time for ten minutes per day then you could learn all twelve major scales in a year. But after eleven months do you think you’d remember the first scale that you learnt to play? Maybe. (click this link to learn more about my method of teaching scales. There’s also a book about it in my store.)

Here’s another example: a student has an exam coming up in two months and they still cannot play the required music from beginning to end without stopping. If they practise for ten minutes per day, six days per week, then as far as playing time is concerned the exam is eight hours away. It is 9am, could they take the exam at 5pm and pass?

All in all I think there’s a lot of perspective to be gained from doing some simple maths relating to instrumental practise. It’s a great way of understanding how much work needs to be done but also a good way of allowing yourself to accept your limitations in terms of progress. Are you having trouble with double tonguing? How many hours have you invested in nothing but trying to improve it? Maybe you could learn it in four hours of dedicated practise. But something else that Mike Boyd does is research. If you’re struggling to do something on your instrument then it’s best to find out how others do it before you waste time practising the wrong way. It takes longer to over-write a bad habit than to form it correctly in the first place.

The most important things are motivation and enjoyment. Enjoyment can even be used as motivation! I always tell my pupils that it’s fun to be good at something and you get good by setting goals. So, what are you going to learn this week?

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

Why do people think TCE is bad?

There are a number of discussions you can find in forums on the web and blogs of players who religiously follow the teachings of one brass guru or another who try to talk about the Tongue Controlled Embouchure. This is good; discussion is healthy; and at least if people are talking about an idea then that means it is spreading. The problem I see, however, is that the vast majority of these conversations are completely devoid of one thing: participants who knows anything about the subject.

There is a lot of speculation, guess work, fear, and anecdotal evidence from people with very little or no experience of the technique. Many people have tried and failed at TCE, MSC or Superchops and then devote their time to damning the existence of an idea. The question that is rarely asked is whether those same people are actually progressing by following their more traditional ideas…

The truth is that the majority of information available on the subject is poorly explained and poorly or incorrectly demonstrated and the only good book on the subject is out of print.

So here, I propose a solution: Simplify the definition.

One of the biggest problems with TCE not being understood is that the volume of misinformation leads people to believe that there is anything to this method other than this:

TCE means playing with an anchored tongue, between the teeth.

When put in these terms it seems ridiculous that people get so worked up about it all. Sure it raises questions about how that can work, but  I can answer all of those questions with reasoned, researched, logical answers. All of the other ideas I write about, including over-blowing, clean articulation, playing with a centered sound, pedal notes, etc. are things that expert players, teachers, and embouchure gurus have been discussing for decades.

There is no requirement that you should use any particular equipment. And once practiced you can play any kind of music that you normally would with a brass instrument perfectly well.

I often like to finish with a quote, so here one is:

David Hickman, when being interviewed about his book Trumpet Pedagogy: A Compendium of Modern Teaching Techniques stated:

My realization that there are “many roads to Rome” came during my studies at the University of Colorado with Dr. Frank Baird.  His dissertation is titled A History and Annotated Bibliography of Tutors for Trumpet and Cornet.  He summarized the main ideas of hundreds of methods, often sharing some of the more interesting or controversial ones with me.  I was amazed and fascinated with all of the different, sometimes opposing, ways of playing and teaching the trumpet.  I decided then that I would never laugh at or “put down” any method of playing just because I didn’t use it.  By memorizing or referring to various methods other than my own, I have had a much greater success in my teaching than I would have had otherwise.  Most teachers are very lucky to have 20-50% success in making their students into fine professionals.  I have been fortunate to have perhaps a 98% success rate.

For more information about the Tongue Controlled Embouchure, visit http://tonguecontrolled.info/

Einsetzen and Ansetzen

What is Einsetzen/Ansetzen?

An article that describes, defines and explains the use of these lip positions in modern trumpet embouchure systems by Richard Colquhoun

Intro

One of the highlights of spending time with Bahb Civiletti in April this year was having the chance to watch him teaching TCE to trumpet players who had not tried it before. The thing that really stood out for me was how simple he made this process. Since then I have been thinking a lot about the simplest ways to explain the principles of TCE to those interested in learning about it. In a similar manner to how Claude Gordon describes technique in the start of his Systematic Approach I believe that you could list three independent ideas, each with a some exercises for working on them, and arrive at a pretty comprehensive understanding of the Tongue Controlled Embouchure that you can apply in daily practise to improve your trumpet playing.

These principles are as follows:

  1. Anchored tongue, through the teeth.
  2. Correct use of air (quantity and compression).
  3. Einsetzen/Ansetzen.

In a few posts that I’ve written previously (these ones: 1, 2, 3) I have explained two of these ideas and the purpose of this post is to explain the third – Einsetzen/Ansetzen.

Terminology

The terms Einsetzen and Ansetzen originate in French horn technique. They are not terms that are usually associated with trumpet playing and I don’t know how, if at all, they relate to players of larger brass instruments. In his book Complete Method for French Horn, Oscar Franz describes Einsetzen as meaning “setting in” and refers to it as an embouchure type ideal for low horn players for which the player has to unfurl the bottom lip and set the mouthpiece “within the inner part of the lower lip”. In contrast Anstezen means “setting against” and refers to placing the mouthpiece on the outside of both lips – this is most people’s “normal” lip set up. In his book The Art of French Horn Playing, Philip Farkas basically dismisses the use of Einsetzen in modern playing due the demands put upon modern players and the need for a different kind of mouthpiece for playing in the Einsetzen position. He goes on to say that modern embouchures are a combination of the two older techniques, but claims that this is exclusively in French Horn players as a result of technique having evolved from a dual system to a single system. Whilst this was probably true at the time Farkas wrote his book it is no-longer the case as it is exactly this idea that forms the basis of Jerome Callet’s earliest book Trumpet Yoga (published in 1971).

It was in learning to use the Einsetzen embouchure to play notes in the double-pedal register and in moving from the unfurled position into the normal playing register that Jerome Callet discovered the ability to develop what he went on to call Super chops. Another term that has been used, which I believe better explains the result of using these lip positions, is lip-to-lip isometric. This is something that is very difficult to describe in words and before I had lessons with Bahb Civiletti I had not fully grasped the benefit of the exercises and the resulting ease of playing that comes from learning them. In fact I had taught myself to play double pedal notes about three years earlier and practised them a lot in various ways but after only one lesson and a week of practising my efficiency and perceived strength had increased measurably. I actually don’t think that it is a matter of strength at all, just simply finding the right balance in the way the lips grip. It is not too dissimilar to the balance that Jeff Smiley describes in his book The Balanced Embouchure.

Double Pedals

Pedal tones are notes that you produce on the trumpet that are lower than the harmonic series allows you to play. Playing pedal notes is not a new idea as they can be found extensively in the teachings of Louis Maggio, Claude Gordon, Pierre Thibaud, and plenty of others. These teachings, however, deal with playing notes that are close to those in the playable range of the instrument. Generally one will learn to bend a low-F# down a semitone, then learn to play that note with only the first valve – forcing the tone. Once this is mastered they carry on down to the illusive Pedal-C, one octave below the lowest note you can play with no valves depressed. Just for the record, Pedal-C does not exist as a note on the trumpet for physical reasons – i.e. the bell is too small. In my opinion, if you want to play a pedal-C then use a flugelhorn, you will master it in less than a minute and save yourself years of wasted practise. But that’s just my opinion and you’re welcome to explore anything that interests you!

The double pedal register begins an octave lower than pedal-C. Written down, it is the lower note in the featured image at the top of this post. These notes are to be played with the Einsetzen embouchure and when done properly will have a very characteristic sound. It is not the airy, unfocused sound usually associated with playing pedals, bent or fake notes, but actually a vibrant tone. Regardless of it having no real value in music performance this tone is important as an indicator that you are playing the notes properly. Playing notes in this position really helps to engage the muscles of the orbicularis oris. It will also encourage blood flow to the muscles and lips. After playing double pedals for a few minutes your lips should start to feel “fat”. This is not a bad thing; it is also not the same as swelling from working incorrectly. The intention of the exercises is to then keep this relaxed, fat, strong lip set up throughout the range of the instrument.

The Exercises

As with my other posts about TCE, this article is not meant to be a substitute for buying a book or having lessons with a trained professional. I do like to make sure, though, that my readers can at least take on board the ideas that I’m presenting. As with all aspects of trumpet practice, exercises really come to life when you create your own versions and figure out what really works for you.

As a beginner in the ideas of using Einsetzen and Ansetzen I would recommend that you first take the time to explore the Einsetzen lip position. Learn to play the double pedal notes from double-pedal-C down to double-pedal-F#. The biggest challenge is usually in finding and becoming comfortable with the pitches of these notes. It often helps to find them on a piano and try to match the pitch. This is fun! You are making fart noises into a trumpet – I have found with my pupils that the more seriously you take this, the harder it is to do. Be patient; those notes are down there somewhere.

Ansetzen/Einsetzen – The first challenge is in learning to slur (or gliss) from the normal playing register down to the double pedals. It is usually done in the form of two or three octave slides. This is the easier of the two movements and it will reinforce your ability to find the position and pitches of the double pedals.

Einsetzen/Ansetzen – The other half of the equation is learning to move from the double pedal register into the normal playing register. Slur from double-pedal-C to low-C and continue up the harmonics as far as you can. At first this is difficult and you may not be able to play your normal range in this manner. That’s the point of the exercise. Over time you will discover that you can slur from double-pedal-C to higher than you could play before with less effort. The real challenge is to remember how it feels when you are playing music!

Finale

Hopefully you’ve found my brief description of Einsetzen and Ansetzen useful. As with all aspects of the Tongue Controlled Embouchure this is a doing thing. You will not understand it unless you do it. The biggest critics are those who have never devoted any time to practising these exercises. I have found them to be invaluable to my trumpet playing, especially now that I don’t have the same hours-per-day to devote to practise like when I was at college.

As always please post comments and questions in the box below. Share this post and use it as you like provided you give credit where it is due.

~iii<0

 

Arban on Tonguing – The Solid Foundation

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.

Prelude

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.

  1. Take a breath – This is obviously necessary and mentioned at another point in Arban’s book.
  2. Use the tongue, against the teeth of your upper jaw, to form an airtight seal inside your mouth.
  3. Pressurise some air in your mouth by blowing against the seal.
  4. Release the tongue allowing the air to forcefully burst through the lips.
  5. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

~iii<0

Tongue On Lips (The Balanced Embouchure Way)

This is a short post to explain the Tongue On Lips exercises from Jeff Smiley’s The Balanced Embouchure. This is only one of a series of exercises that makes up the method and the effect of its practice as a stand-alone exercise may be of limited value. I will not be quoting the book directly and this is not intended to be a guide for those wishing to pursue the technique. Simply put, this post is a supplement to another blog post written here to prevent it from drifting off-topic.

Tongue On Lips is an idea that originates, at least in the twentieth century, in the teaching of Jerome Callet. It is described in The Balanced Embouchure as a means to an end, meaning that you do not have to play in this way, but you do have to be able to play in this way to fulfil the exercise. My personal take on the results that it has slightly differ from Mr Smiley’s, hence the disclaimer-style introduction.

The basic premise is that to tongue on the lips you need to touch your top lip with your tongue as a means of articulating notes. Another basic description is like the classic “spitting a tea-leaf from your lips” to start a note. Some trumpet ideologies, specifically the work of Donald Reinhardt and Claude Gordon among others, strictly forbid this method of attack although it can easily be traced back at least to the methods of Jean-Baptiste Arban and Jules Levy.

In his massive book titled Trumpet Pedagogy: A Compendium of Modern Teaching Techniques (page 29), David Hickman writes:

Lightly touching the tip of the tongue on the upper lip and releasing it in a quick but gentle manner is a good method for beginning tonguing. […] With proper guidance, the student can find his or her most efficient manner of tonguing.

In order to articulate with your tongue touching your lips there are a number of things that have to take place. This is where the beauty of the idea comes into play.

  1. You cannot touch your lips with your tongue unless your jaw is open. Closing of the jaw, especially as you ascend in pitch, is a common problem for players that is solved by practising this exercise.
  2. Having your tongue forward enough in your mouth for it to touch the lips means that the back of the tongue is pulled out of your throat. Many people allow their tongue to recede too much in their mouth when playing, resulting in a “blocking” of the throat.
  3. Tonguing on the lips allows the tongue to perform the task of blocking the air flow, allowing for a build-up of pressure in the mouth, resulting in firmer attacks and generally all-round easier playing. I’ve written before about air compression…

So there you have it. Without going into a huge amount of detail – the how and why you may wish to try tonguing on the lips if you haven’t already. More information on The Balanced Embouchure can be found by clicking here.

If you experiment with this idea then please feel free to comment below. You are also welcome to share this post as you see fit.

~iii<0

The Cycle of Pressure

Here is a flow chart illustrating something that I refer to as The Cycle of Pressure. I have scribbled it on paper for my pupils so many times that I decided to make a digital copy to refer to instead. Due to the template I used I ended up adding some more detailed steps. Be aware that as you are playing you could fall into this cycle at any point. The solution is to learn to recognise the symptoms and get out of the cycle before it’s too late!

Untitled-Diagram

 

As always, please feel free to share or use this image as you choose. Comment below; post on Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest etc; enjoy!

~iii<0

Understanding Callet: The Wisdom Behind Superchops

Understanding Callet: The Wisdom Behind Superchops

A discussion by Richard Colquhoun explaining the Tongue Controlled Embouchure
for those who wish to develop informed opinions

Introduction:

Below you will find 2000 words explaining the fundamental teachings of Jerome Callet. The reason I feel this article is necessary is because as I browse the internet I repeatedly find negative comments about Superchops, written not by people who understand the system, but by people reacting to and jumping to conclusions about things that they have clearly not researched. I do not wish to convert or change the minds of people, but instead to present facts so that people can develop informed opinions about this brass playing technique.

On the surface Superchops (closely related to the Tongue Controlled Embouchure) is an embouchure technique for brass players that includes using the tongue in a way that may people find unusual. This, however, is not all there is to it. Superchops is the result of half a century of research, testing and teaching. The goals of the system are very clear and striving to achieve these goals, even without using the technique, should be of benefit to every brass player.

Within this article I use the term “Superchops” to refer to the research and teaching of Jerome Callet. “Tongue Controlled Embouchure“, and “TCE” refer to the work of Bahb Civiletti, who has developed the technique further through the addition of different articulations and exercises. Some people use the terms comparably so in the “Narrative” section below I do too. Unless specified I am not referring to any one of his books or videos that share the same name (but could represent different time frames in the method’s development).

Narrative:

Imagine that you’re a trumpet player. One day you are having a break between practise sessions and you sit at your computer with a cup of coffee. You load up YouTube and because of your previous trumpet-themed viewing habits you see something titled Tongue Controlled Embouchure in your suggested videos list. Not having come across this term before you unwittingly click and watch a video in which somebody tells you to bevel your tongue forward, block the airway, and spit into a stupidly small mouthpiece. Instantly you know this guy is a hack and browse on to something else. When you return to your trumpet this stupid idea is still playing on your mind and you give it a try. You can’t even get a sound out of your instrument this way and again you reinforce the thought that this is a dumb idea.

Some time later you are browsing the web for some information about improving your higher register and you come across a forum post about using TCE for screaming high notes. Within a few replies of this thread you see people saying things like “TCE gives you a really piercing bright sound, is that really what you want?”, “I tried that once and I could never get a good sound, the articulation was too messy”, or “I can’t believe people do this… what flawed teaching!” (These are all direct quotes taken from various websites).

The problem I see with this narrative is that you’ve not been presented with a balanced argument but rather had your opinion dictated to you by people who, most likely, don’t have any experience of learning from Jerome Callet, or know what the goals of this teaching actually are. If you’re still reading this then my hope is to clarify the situation for you. It’s worth pointing out here that I am pro-TCE and use this technique in my playing. However I do assert that despite the development in my own playing, this method and way of thinking is not for everyone and trying to learn it without a teacher and the proper books will lead to you becoming another internet hater. OK… here we go!

What Superchops is not:

Here are some common misconceptions relating to Superchops:

  1. Superchops is a high note technique. FALSE. This method is very efficient and requires little physical effort. When mastered it means that playing high notes is easy, but that is definitely not its purpose.
  2. Superchops gives you a bad sound. FALSE. Playing badly, whether it be overblowing, poor articluation, or simply a lack of balance between different aspects of your technique, gives you a bad sound. This is true of all techniques. If you switch to playing with another technique you will start out sounding like a beginner because you are a beginner.
  3. Superchops gives you a bright sound. The principal lesson in Superchops is understanding how a trumpet should sound. This is achieved by listening to examples of the best recorded players in history and identifying the common features in their playing. This, coupled with learning to identify problems in your own sound, teaches you to be dis-satisfied with anything other than making the correct trumpet sound.
  4. If Superchops is about developing a powerful embouchure with strong articulation, what if I want to play a nice soft melody? This is the one that bugs me the most. Contrary to popular belief, learning about trumpet playing does not eliminate ones ability to be a musician. This argument is like suggesting that somebody in a Ferrari is incapable of observing speed limits. Just because the car can go fast, it doesn’t mean that it cannot go slowly.
  5. You need a small mouthpiece to play with Superchops. FALSE. You can learn to play anything on any mouthpiece. I have learnt how to make a big sound with a small mouthpiece because Superchops is efficient, but I can still play on any mouthpiece I need to should I have to adjust my sound for different playing situations.
A little history:

I don’t wish to repeat the standard story about Mr Callet’s failed trumpet playing as a youth, and how that drove him to rediscover techniques from the past and create a modern embouchure system based upon these ideas, because you can go and read that somewhere else. I also do not believe that creating a mythology around this subject matter helps to make things clear.

Here’s the story how I tell it. In 1972 Jerome Callet released a book called Trumpet Yoga. In that book he describes how through practicing exercises that involve moving between an Einsetzen and an Ansetzen embouchure enabled him to develop the strength to consistently play notes in the extreme upper register with ease every day. In 1987 he wrote another book titled Superchops. In this second book he explained a little more detail about the direction of the movement of the lips. There is a little more analytical information for those who want it. In both of these books he writes about articulating through the teeth with the tongue touching the lips, but it isn’t until the book Trumpet Secrets (written in 2002 with Bahb Civiletti) that he insists that the tongue never breaks contact with the bottom lip. This is the biggest point that most people have a problem with when introduced to the Superchops or the Tongue Controlled Embouchure. Interestingly he actually got the idea of tonguing against the lips from ancient cornet methods such as the one written by celebrated cornet soloist Jules Levy. The idea of tonguing through the lips being bad has mainly been perpetuated by writers and teachers such as Donald Reinhardt and Claude Gordon. Throughout Jerome’s work, over the whole 30 year span outlined here, the things that didn’t evolve or change were his definitions of a correct trumpet sound.

Correct Sound:

Jerome Callet’s definition of correct trumpet sound is “Very centred and brilliant where you can hear the total resonance of the sound. Solid, but never overblown.” It is worth noting that there are certain words that are not used here, such as bright or dark. That’s because these are not accurate descriptors of sound. For further explanation of this please refer to this previous blog post.

This definition came from years of listening to the best trumpet players in the world. In order to learn what this sounds like for yourself it is recommended that you listen to recordings of Bud Herseth, Peter Masseurs, Timofei Dokshizer, Maurice Andre, Rafael Mendez, Conrad Gozzo, Charlie Shavers, Horst Fisher, Al Hirt, Roy Eldridge, or Harry James. There is no claim that these people follow the teachings of Jerome Callet, but he teaches that you should aim to sound as they do. These are just a few examples, but there is a distinct quality that these players have that others lack.

This definition of good trumpet sound is not contradictory to traditional teaching. There are a couple points that many people miss when thinking about how they sound. Firstly, the sound you hear behind the mouthpiece is nothing like what is coming out of the bell. I know this gets said a lot, but I feel that particularly in reference to a dull, spread sound it cannot be emphasised enough. Players try to spread their sound so that they can hear themselves clearly. I think it’s more important for the audience to hear me clearly. Secondly, the small rooms we practice in are nothing like the rooms in which we perform. When I began practicing Superchops I found the sound to be harsh, and the sound bouncing back off of the walls hurt my ears. When I played with that same sound in a church or concert hall the resonance was brilliant, exciting and complimented by my colleagues. My college teacher Philippe Schartz used to make it clear that piano dynamics needed to be soft, but clean enough to be heard 100 metres away at the back of an auditorium. People worry too much about sounding beautiful in a 5-metre-squared box.

Now that we’ve established the main goal of Superchops, the difference from traditional technique comes when describing how that sound is achieved.

Why Tongue on the lips?

The reason for playing with the tongue on the lips is quite simple. This way of articulating a note allows the full power of the attack to happen at the instant the sound begins. It puts everything in the right order, allowing for improved accuracy and intonation. If the tongue remains anchored to the bottom lip as instructed in Trumpet Secrets and Master Superchops (2007) then this adds stability to the embouchure. The lips grip against the tongue rather than pulling apart from each other or squeezing together, thus creating a strong structure that does not collapse into the mouthpiece.

Here is a quote from the Master Superchops DVD:

In the Arban book it says never play with a du-waaah sound. We want pomp, pomp, like hitting a bell. Never blah, blah, blah. 150 years ago, Arban described the du-wah sound as thick, disagreeable, and flat. Many modern teachers want to hear a so-called symphonic sound, not too percussive. But in starting a student or for a player who wants to correct embouchure problems, they must have a sharp attack with a tongue-stop before each note . The tongue-stop is like hitting a bell: ping-ping.

Edit (19th April 2016): Since meeting with Bahb Civiletti I have re-considered my opinion of the necessity of using the tongue to stop the air. My current thoughts are that the tongue is not making an action to stop the air; the fact that the aperture is controlled by the tongue means that the stopping of air moving is synchronised with the closing of the aperture by the tongue. It’s a chicken-and-egg situation. When playing with TCE as described by Bahb there are 5-articulations to practise that result in the same thing as thinking about the tongue-stop – the ability to maintain the tongue in the correct position.

Did you say tongue-stop? Yes. It is important here to realise that if the tip of your tongue never leaves the bottom lip then a tongue-stop does not create the unfavourable slapping sound that it would if the tongue were moving from further back in the mouth. In fact whilst you are playing this way the aperture between the top of the tongue and the cutting-edge of the top teeth is only a couple of millimetres, so stopping the sound with the tongue is quite logical. This is also the primary source of increased air compression as it acts like the valve on a bike tyre – releasing pressurised air when allowed. It is this system that makes this way of playing so efficient.

Efficiency/Correct use of air:

I’ve mentioned efficiency a few times in this post so I’ll only briefly cover the topic here. You may also wish to read my blog post Use of air: Quality not quantity for further information.

Jerome Callet writes in his books about the importance of understanding the difference between how you use air rather than how much air you have. In learning to play with compressed air and tongue on the lips you find that the quantity of air needed to play becomes less and less. At most approximately one third of that used when people talk of taking a full yoga breath. This is because the power needed to play the instrument no-longer comes from your lips resisting an air flow, but instead the air being compressed before it reaches the lips. I constantly demonstrate to pupils and other players that I can play the note ‘G’ in five different octaves without taking a breath. Sometimes I’ll breathe out first to further emphasise the point. It is not volume of air that changes the pitch of notes but the compression.

If you wish for proof of this idea then I would recommend that you search for Jim Manley on YouTube. He is not a Superchops player, but he constantly proves how he can play anything on the instrument by taking a very small breath.

Final statement:

One of the most important things to take on board when considering the teaching of Jerome Callet is that he does not claim to have any original ideas. Although his method appears on the surface to be extreme the more research I do into his ideas the more people I discover who are saying the same things. Most are not saying all of the same things, but priorities such as clean sound and efficient use of air are prevalent in the teachings and descriptions of the world’s best players. This is simply because Jerome Callet developed his ideas by observing, listening to and meeting with the world’s best players. Maurice Andre was excited by Jerome’s double pedal notes, and Pierre Thibaud wrote about them in his methods after taking lessons from Jerome (The Callet Opera mouthpiece was actually designed for Pierre Thibaud, in case you’re interested).

There is definitely more than one way to play the trumpet, and the wisest of players take tips to improve their playing from many different sources. Making a switch to Superchops or TCE is hard work and I would not recommend it for anyone who is not completely dedicated. In fact there are methods such as Jeff Smiley’s Balanced Embouchure, that are influenced by and derived from Callet’s research that people may find more favourable. Maybe in time a derivative method will gain more popularity. What would be sad is if in time the fruits of Callet’s personal success are forgotten again.

~iii<0

Please feel free to comment below and share, redistribute or quote. On top of that you can also use the Get In Touch tab above to drop me an email with any questions you may have about Superchops or TCE. I am always happy to talk about it. You may also like to take a look at tonguecontrolled.info a website dedicated to explaining the Tongue Controlled Embouchure, or email chops@tonguecontrolled.info.

Dear readers,

I have recently started a Patreon account in order to take donations for my writing. You will only see this message at the bottom of posts that have taken me considerable time to research and write. If you have enjoyed reading this post or feel that you have learned from it then please consider using my tip-jar by following this link.

All the best,

Rich

Use of air: Quality not quantity

Use of air: Quality not quantity

A discussion by Richard Colquhoun about correct breathing technique for brass players

There are a number of blog articles that I have tried to write a few times and failed to find the right approach to the topic. There are some points of view I have about trumpet playing that are not conventional and so when writing about these topics I often have to start a number of times until I feel I’ve found the right angle or voice. This is one such topic. My drafts folder has a good few attempts at this subject and this could well end up being another of those attempts. If you’re reading this then I have had some degree of success.

I usually start this topic with a story about how I started out playing the cornet in a certain way and how a journey brought me back to where I started but I’ve found that not to be helpful. Instead I’m going to make a statement and then back up that statement with the research of a respected scientist, some instrument designers and teachers. I will then throw in a simple experiment you can do that proves my point. Resistance to change is something that occurs in many disciplines and I don’t expect people’s beliefs to change overnight, but the understanding of the mechanics of brass playing has changed significantly for those who care to do the research and I hope to share that with anyone willing to listen.

“Fill the instrument” or “Use more air” are examples of the kind of uninformed phrases that one hears pouring out of the mouths of brass teachers the world over. Many of these people are suffering from an “it never did me any harm” attitude or are simply describing what they think they do rather than knowing what they actually do. Unfortunately there are also a fair number of brass method books available that describe technique based upon what people feel rather than what people do.

Here’s my statement: Contrary to popular belief, traditional teaching, and many books on the subject of brass technique the idea of using more air and developing the ability to use more air when playing a brass instrument is always wrong.

This statement is one that I first came across when I began learning about the work of Jerome Callet. On page 8 of his book Superchops (published 1987) he states:

There is a large movement to increase lung capacity and measure each player. This concept, I feel, is completely wrong. […] It is how you use your wind power, not how much air capacity you have.

But it doesn’t stop there. Knowing that there is plenty of criticism of Superchops by people who find these ideas to be too extreme to digest I decided to research further. I found out fairly quickly that Jerome was not the first or only person to be saying this. On an undated paper distributed at clinics by the Schilke Company, Renold Schilke describes an experiment whereby he demonstrates to an audience of brass instructors that it is not in fact air moving through an instrument that makes sound, but instead it is the air that is already inside the instrument that carries the sound.

If, after our lips were vibrated, the air could be disposed of in another way other than going through the instrument, the tone would be at its best. People who have used and understand physics know that this is true. However, there are people who do not understand this point. I put this as a question one time when I was giving a clinic to some bandmasters after listening to various remarks made by them about air having to go through the horn. I asked, “Is it necessary in the production of sound for the air to carry the sound through the horn?” I had hands by people in the affirmative that it was. To prove my point, I had a tuba player come up on the stage and had him blow some smoke into his tuba and begin to play. He played over a minute before some smoke finally began to tickle out the bell of the instrument. So, it is necessary to have air in the instrument so the player can establish the nodal pattern. It is not necessary for that air to move through the instrument any more than an energy impulse created by dropping a stone in water causes the water to actually move.

The paper can be found in its entirety by following this link. Here is a link to a YouTube video in which Roger Ingram, one of the worlds most accomplished lead trumpet players, describes the same idea. In his video titled Got High Notes? Lynn Nicholson also talks about how little air is needed to play, but that is a subscribe-to-view lesson so I cannot post it here.

To further illustrate this point Dr Richard Smith (12 years as chief designer for Boosey and Hawkes, and Smith Watkins Instruments for 30 years since) had an article published in the International Trumpet Guild Journal in May 1999 titled Exciting Your Instrument (available here). In that article he shows, by sealing off a mouthpiece and drilling a hole in the side for the air to escape, that the instrument works perfectly well with no air going into it at all. The article is well worth reading to open your mind to this idea.

Update: Dr Richard Smith has a video on YouTube in which he demonstrates this idea. Click here to view.

So how can we use this information to better understand brass playing and become better brass players? When asking why people believe that deeper breathing and more air is the solution we quickly find that there are a number of technical issues that are trying to be solved:

Playing a long phrase in one breath: I see this as being a matter of efficiency. You are using too much air to produce the sound and so you solve it by using more air…? By learning to play more efficiently (i.e. putting less in and getting more out) you can make your air last much longer. One way this can be done is by prioritising articulation, but that’s the subject of another blog post.

Getting out of breath whilst playing for a long time: I frequently have to remind my pupils that after playing a few long phrases the reason they feel out of breath is not because they should have breathed deeper or sooner but because they are biological creatures that need oxygen-rich air to survive. If you hold your breath for 30 seconds then this upsets your natural rhythm and you feel the need to take a few breaths to re-oxygenate your blood. I tell my pupils to breathe so that they stay alive, not because they’re playing an instrument. This idea alone can sometimes instantly solve the problem.

Misunderstanding compression: Compression of air is where all the power comes from in brass playing. To some people the only way you can get more compression is by squeezing more air into the limited confines of your body. This is the sort of approach heralded by people like Claude Gordon, Kristian Steenstrup or the guys behind Breathing Gym (a quick YouTube search will show you what you need to know about that). In learning to play with the Tongue Controlled Embouchure I have learnt that compression is created by resisting the flow of air with the tongue. The reason that it is important for it to be the tongue and not the lips is that the tongue is much stronger. It doesn’t matter how much your try to strengthen your face, your tongue will always be stronger.

Fundamentally the problem I have with a “more air” approach is that it results in a loud, spread and dull sound. Playing efficiently results in a focused, powerful and exciting tone. Loud is not the same as powerful and nor is it exciting to listen to. In the interest of keeping this post relatively concise I will recommend that you read my post titled An analysis of tone (click here).

Here’s the experiment I would like you to try: I am doing this with a normal B-flat trumpet, but any brass instrument will be fine as they all work in the same way (pitches of the notes differ). There is no preference for mouthpiece either.

  1. Remove the tuning slide and play a note on only the leadpipe. (On this length of tube you should be able to produce a pitch approximately concert E-flat above middle C)
  2. Put your hand about 1cm from the end of the pipe and feel the air moving whilst you play.
  3. The next available note in the harmonic series is approximately a major 9th higher. Play this note and observe that at the same dynamic much less air is moving through the tube.
  4. If you can produce the next harmonic (approximately a perfect fifth higher again) then you’ll notice that now there is further reduction in the air flow. You can almost block the end of the tube with your finger and still produce this note.
  5. Think about what this means.

For some people this is a good trick to learn the sensation of playing notes above the stave and to prove how easy it actually is.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. As always please feel free to comment below. Share this article on social media – there are buttons below for that too.

~iii<0

A quote about tone from Trumpet Secrets

This is a quote from Trumpet Secrets Volume 1 by Jerome Callet and Bahb Civiletti. Sadly this book is now out of print but luckily I have it!

If the player tries to play with the clearest, most compact and brilliant sound, the player will produce overtones that will project the tone in the largest concert halls. Most trumpeters and trombonists are trying to develop a tone that is not truly characteristic of these instruments. The incorrect tonal abuse causes it to spread the tone too wide. When you play this way, with a “spread” tone, you cannot produce purity of sound for which your instrument was built, and you will always force your tone and over-blow.

Open your ears to the true trumpet sound.
~iii<0