High register playing: stable embouchure

All trumpeters want to have a solid high register–even if their job isn’t playing lead trumpet in a big band. This is the first blog of a series that will present basic, no-nonsense ideas that will work with you and the playing responsibilities you have right now. The exercises that go with these concepts may take a few months to deliver dependable results for maybe one or two notes higher than your present range. The overall process can go on for years, however.

Stable embouchure, strong and resistant to injury–some concepts:

  • Have good corners (going up or down depending on the type of embouchure you have)
  • “Hug” the aperture, allowing for flexible vibration inside the mouthpiece. This also provides some cushioning between the rim of the mouthpiece and the lips
  • Be fairly centered in terms of vertical placement of mouthpiece (the mouthpiece inner edge of the rim should not cut into the soft, red, fleshy part of the upper lip–but rather is above this area, on the tougher skin)
  • Do not tuck the lower lip underneath the upper lip (upper lip should be right above the lower lip)

Progressive exercises for stable embouchure. These are generally “static.”

  • The author, free-buzzing.

    Level 1: free-buzz long tones and simple, low-range melodies. Focus on a small aperture. Don’t give in to temptation to fold the upper lip over the lower lip.

  • Level 2: regular long tones. Rest between each tone, always emphasizing “fresh chops.” Mid-range and below, only (not high range).
  • Level 3: long tones with lip bends. Bend each note down 1/2 step and then back to the original pitch. At the end of each long tone, try to center the pitch by listening to the resonance of the tone. Mid-range and below, only.
  • Level 4: “Caruso”-style long tones. Play a long tone that last full breath (10 to 20 seconds). The next long tone is played a step up or down in the same way, but do not remove the lips from the mouthpiece to breathe (breathe through nose) and the embouchure remains engaged during breath. The pitch pattern could be chromatic or diatonic, up or down (start on an easy note, like a second-line G or a third-space C). When going up, do not continue anymore if you cannot make any more sound. Optional: start each note with a breath attack (no tongue).
  • Level 5: long lip trills in the upper-mid register. Do not play more than 10 minutes at first.


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Tidying up

With apologies to cartoonist Eric Lewis…

I have had an incredible run of luck lately.

Two weeks ago, I won my first orchestral audition in 24 years–I’m now the principal trumpet of the Fort Collins Symphony, a leading regional orchestra in Colorado. A few months before that, I won my very first tenure-track teaching job at Colorado State University–also in Fort Collins. Almost a year before that, I retired from a 20-year career in the U.S. Navy Band in Washington, DC. These were all big, really big, items to check off in my bucket list.

This summer was filled with other big-ticket events in our lives: the graduation of my oldest son from high school, playing in the Vintage Band Festival in Minnesota, the 25th wedding anniversary of my wife and me, and the retirement of my wife (also from the U.S. Navy Band).

When this type of external growth comes down the pipeline, I think about my internal approach to life and music-making.

Driving to New York City and back recently, my wife and I listened to an Audible recording of Marie Kondo’s “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” I had never seen her on TV and only vaguely knew about her work up to that time. Kondo’s approach is not conventional. Basically she urges her readers to focus on discarding quite a lot–because most of our possessions don’t really mean that much to us. Sometimes we cling to the past or we fear the future, and these mental states hijack our mind into reactively keeping too many things and things that simply do not “spark joy.” She has a few basic rules:

  1. Commit to tidying up
  2. Imagine your ideal lifestyle
  3. Finish discarding first
  4. Tidy by category, not location
  5. Follow the right order
  6. Ask yourself if it sparks joy

This was the perfect book to listen to together for my wife and me as we were getting ready to move from the DC area to Colorado. It resulted in about 150 bags of unwanted things thrown away; about 20 boxes of books donated to our local library; about 15 boxes of documents that we didn’t need–shredded or recycled; donated furniture that had served its purpose; my CD collection given to a former colleague. All of these things had served us well, and we were grateful for them, but we were ready to let them go. We were ready to focus more on who we really had become.

Kondo writes about her method as being life-changing to her clients. They are happier, more successful and more focused. Her book made me wonder if some of her principles could be adapted to trumpet playing. Her first two rules certainly made sense–we have to totally commit ourselves to our trumpet craft and we have to imagine the best version of ourselves as trumpeters. I think it’s always a good thing to ask yourself, “does trumpet playing itself spark joy in my life?” There is no right or wrong answer for everyone. Just the correct answer for you. What kind of trumpeter do you want to be? If trumpet playing sparks joy in you and if you really see yourself as a jazz, rock, band or orchestral player, then great! You’re reading the right blog!

But if you are like me, you probably have lots of hobbies and interests. You have reached an impressive level of mastery in some of these areas. This is normal. But at some point, instead of amassing more skills and interests, you can ask yourself what interests resonate more naturally with who you really are. Yes, it’s good to have a few other skills that can compliment your trumpet playing, but when they begin to sabotage your growth, reconsider them. Do your other interests really spark joy? Keep coming back to that. And if you’re not sure, it probably doesn’t spark joy. Move on and let that half-baked dream go. Don’t waste trumpet time!

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