The Two Things…
By Mark Van Cleave
After years of teaching trumpet to both young and advanced players, It became clear to me that there were two things that seem to cure about 90% of all players problems (beginners and professionals). I know, this may be obvious to everyone but me, but then again, I end up having to work through these two things with almost every trumpet student early on in our lessons.
One of the most important skills for any trumpet or brass player is the ability to produce a clear and efficient tone. One with no fuzz, air leaks, or anything else that is not sound. I call anything that is not producing tone “frizz-frazz”. A clear sound that is easy to produce is one of the most basic, but also one of the most important skills that EVERY trumpet player needs to develop. Hopefully EARLY in their development.
One of the two things that many players have a problem with is the buzz. They do not produce a buzz that is clean and pure. Many players struggle to produce a clear and controlled buzz or lip vibration. Seeing as this buzz is the single most important mechanical process that is needed to play the trumpet, having a buzz with any kind of “frizz-frazz” in it will make playing any type of music more difficult.
The first thing that you need to remember when setting up your embouchure is to make SURE that your lips are actually TOUCHING each other while playing. Many players approach making sound on the trumpet by first blowing the air through the lips and then closing the lips on the airstream just until the sound starts… and this is where their embouchure stays… in a position that is just BARELY capable of producing a vibration or sound. This is a VERY inefficient setup. One that is in such an open position that the lips are just BARELY touching and thus BARELY able to produce a rich and full sound. Much of the airstream just passes through the aperture without producing a vibration. This unused airstream is just wasted.
To set your embouchure in the most efficient position, it is important to start your setup with your lips actually TOUCHING. With your lips together. Then, as you start the airstream, your lips will at some point open and IMMEDIATELY start vibrating. That is the point at which your embouchure is set up in its most efficient setting. Your aperture is in a perfect position… your aperture is just open enough to allow the CORRECT amount of air through your lips to produce a vibration. Not too large or too small…just right!
An easy way to put your lips into a closed position is to start out with your lips in the ”P” position or “M” position. Then, with a light attack (or even breath attacks), start the note. Never get into the habit of WHACKING the note with a ton of air or a very harsh attack to kick-start the sound. This will not develop control or ease of response.
If you start to hear any “frizz-frazz” in your sound, your lips have opened too far and are not touching. If they were touching, they would be vibrating! If your sound has stopped completely… one of following has happened…
This also requires a reasonable airstream to start and maintain a good vibration. This does not mean that you have to blow in a FFF manner. A well supported MP volume should be fine. As you get used to setting up a more efficient embouchure and aperture size, you should be able to do this at softer and softer volumes. These softer volumes will develop even better efficiency of your airstream/aperture balance giving you an even better response.
The second “thing” that most players have issues with is AIR. There is MUCH well intentioned misinformation in the wind instrument community concerning breathing. As I said above, playing the trumpet “requires a reasonable airstream”. This does not mean that you have to be able to blow walls down with ridiculously pressurized air. But it DOES require a REASONABLY energized airstream. As far as breathing techniques for brass playing goes, I always say that if you are NOT DEAD that you are breathing correctly. An airstream that is static has no energy. It is important for brass players to play with an ENERGIZED airstream in order play efficiently.
Your lungs are like balloons. When they are filled with air, they expand in ALL directions. Once expanded, the air inside your lungs is proportionally pressurized. ALL of the air is pressurized or energized… not just part of the air. All of air is energized by this pressure no matter if you are going to play FFF or ppp. A wimpy breath that does not fill your lungs will not energize the air. This non-energized air will NOT play any brass instrument well. You have to FILL your lungs with air to produce this ENERGIZING effect. No need to CHOKE yourself by overfilling your lungs, but you DO need a comfortably FULL breath of air to produce usably energized air. So FILL UP! Every time!
Many players breathe as they think the music requires… small breaths for soft playing and bigger breaths for louder playing. Your breathing is primarily connected to the MECHANICAL PROCESS of playing and is much less connected to the music you are playing.
So remember to always start with your lips together and take in a comfortably full (energized) breath. I know… simple, but so important. And to think that these two “things” fix many of the problems that we all face every day as trumpet and brass players… Tone, endurance, flexibility, destructive pressure, etc.