Building Range for the Beginning Trumpet Player

I teach many students each week, and all of them are interested in one thing: playing high notes on the trumpet.

I’m not sure where this fascination that higher is better came from (well, I guess we could Maynard Ferguson for this), but it is typically the area that most students, old and young, want to improve on.

Unfortunately, students are often pressured to play high. A first part trumpet player in high school is expected to play up to an above the staff C; sometimes, up to D. Because the student does not want to disappoint the director or look foolish in front of the rest of the band (the trumpet is a very loud instrument, and mistakes are projected just as much as correct notes), he or she will do anything to create these high notes. Often, an incorrect method is used. Most common is using too much pressure.

Some pressure is required to play the trumpet. However, too much pressure can create problems, such as loose teeth and fatigue. As a victim of too much pressure, I know firsthand the dangers that can occur. After 15 years of playing with a large amount of pressure, my two front teeth came loose with a cracking sound one day as I was playing. Five trips to the dentist and $5,000.00 later, I began researching methods on playing with less pressure.

Many factors must be accounted for before attempting a range building exercise. An often over-looked factor is how the student holds the trumpet. The student should be aware that the trumpet should be gently supported by the left hand; the right hand is only used to press the valves. The student should avoid putting a “death grip” on the trumpet with the left hand, and should avoid using the pinky ring on the right hand.

After this has been established, a correct embouchure should then be formed. Much controversy has always been present on the perfect embouchure. However, one that usually works well is a smile-pucker combination. The student is asked to smile, and then slowly pucker the lips while still smiling. The result is an embouchure with firm corners and a center that is loose enough to vibrate (after all, to play a trumpet one must vibrate the lips).

Finally, I will reveal the secret to correctly developing range in students: AIR. This often used, generic solution actually does work. It’s common for many teachers, when all else fails, to blame the problem on air support. In this case, it is air, but it is also a combination of other techniques.

To begin, the student must become used to taking a deep breath. To observe what the student thinks a deep breath is, ask him or her to take one. More than likely, he or she would breathe in loud and fast, and his or her chest would visibly swell up. THIS IS INCORRECT! The student is only using half of his or her lung capacity. I like to use the analogy of breathing like a baby. Whenever you watch a baby breath (especially when sleeping) his or her stomach rises up and down. By observing this, we can come to the conclusion that we should breathe all the way down into our stomach (or you can think of dropping the diaphragm). Try this: have the student breathe down to their stomach; tell them to breathe in and aim for their toes. They probably will still take in a loud, fast breath, but it will be deeper.

In order to improve on this, we must help the student take a more open breath. My favorite tool to use for this is an empty toilet paper tube. Try this: take the empty toilet paper tube, and put it inside of your mouth (about 1 inch of the tube will actually be in your mouth). Seal your lips around it, and breathe in. You will notice first off how much air you are taking in, and secondly, you may notice that the back of your throat feels cold. THIS IS HOW ALL BREATHING SHOULD BE DONE! Have your students try this. They may find it funny or goofy, but it will help. As for breathing without the toilet paper tube, tell the student to imagine that they have a baseball in their mouth. This will ultimately lead to more open breathing as well.

Now that breathing has been covered, range can be focused on. The best range building exercise I have used is one that I obtained from the Bill Adam routine. This exercise involves starting on a second line G, and playing it as a long tone, and then expanding out both ways on long tones. For example, I would start on G, and then play F#, then G#/Ab, then F, then A, and so on. Go as high as you safely can, and as low as you can go (pedal tones work great for range exercises). Be sure to also play each note as a long tone. You can either assign a specific number of counts (such as playing each note for 8 counts) or just play them until you run out of air. By expanding out, you are not only building range, but also getting your lips used to the different partials and developing your ear by playing large intervals. It should also be noted that low notes are just as, if not more, important than high notes. A good, three dimensional sound should always be attained.

The most important part of this exercise is to not play higher than is comfortable for you or the student, as injury could occur. To prevent this, tell the student that the embouchure (lip position) should never change; only the amount of air. As the range expands upwards, the air should be pushed from the diaphragm (stomach) muscles.

I have used this method on beginners, and now all of those students have as comfortable range of at least a 14th after 2 months of weekly lessons (the average range for beginners is an interval of a 7th after one year). With this method, the student will be on his or her way to playing solid in all ranges.