Let’s talk slurs: part five, the jaw and oral cavity

Today I wanted to talk a little about the movement of the and the (connected, of course, to the jaw) in helping to do . The lower the tongue (and/or jaw), the lower the pitch. The higher the tongue (and/or jaw), the higher the pitch. You probably have seen the cross-section illustration in the Earl Irons book of the tongue movement. If everything else is equal, the jaw and tongue make a difference in pitch, because a more open oral cavity slows down the , and a more closed oral cavity speeds up our air. Well, the graphic design team here at Trumpet Journey has produced our own illustration of this:

The tongue in the lower position (for lower notes):

Cross section of mouth with lower tongue and jaw

The Tongue in the higher position (for higher notes):

Cross section of mouth with higher tongue and jaw position

Of course this is a little simplistic, because we can play higher notes with a lower tongue position and lower notes with a higher tongue position (by controlling our aperture). Nevertheless, the oral cavity is a very important control point for our playing, and we should try to master it.

As I mentioned in an earlier post about slur “stretches,” it is very important to keep the air flowing during slurs–especially BETWEEN the notes. One mental model that I now like to picture is that of a little squishy ball between my tongue and the roof of my mouth. This squishy ball is my airstream. I like to feel that squishy ball as I am going up and down in my slurs. Here are my tongue position graphics, but now with the imaginary squishy balls.

Cross section, lower tongue with imaginary squishy ball

Cross section of mouth in higher position with squishy ball

One of the problems is tension in the jaw. For this reason, I like to soften the jaw muscles while increasing their range of motion. I use a simple wine for this. I put the cork between my teeth to open up the jaws, while I “scan” my jaw muscles for tension. If there is tension, I gently try to direct these muscles to relax.

I think it is easier to understand some of these concepts by watching a video.

Let’s talk slurs: part 1, stretches

On the trumpet, slurring is a big challenge. I often hear students ignoring written , because they’re hard. Or sometimes I hear young trumpeters playing slurs poorly by gapping the between the notes. In this mini-series on slurs, I would like to make slurs easier by explaining key concepts and suggesting exercises to help.

Primary motor for airspeed. The first concept is that, when everything else is equal, air speed determines pitch. If air speed is increased, the pitch goes up. If air speed decreases, the pitch goes down. If this seems overly simple, it’s because there are so many things that determine air speed. The primary, or most basic, motor for airspeed is the torso apparatus. I want to explore this primary factor by suggesting some exercises.

. I learned these exercises from Roger Behrend, a fantastic euphonium soloist in the U.S. Navy Band. He called these “stretches.”

Stretch, going down. In this exercise, play a 2nd-line G at a forte dynamic. Slowly drop your while you maintain airspeed. The dropping jaw will slow the airspeed down by increasing the volume in the oral cavity (imagine how a river slows down when it enters a bay). The pitch will begin to bend down. If you do not change this jaw motion, you will arrive at the harmonic break between the G and the low C. Then, you will go over this break in a rather rude way, and you will arrive at the low C. The harsher and ruder this break change is, the better for this exercise.

Stretch, going up. In this exercise, play the 2nd-line G again at forte. This time increase the air speed by increasing the effort from your torso area. Keep increasing the air more and more while maintaining the same and jaw position (if you were to expand your oral cavity by lowering your tongue or jaw, you would get louder and stay on pitch, but that is not the object). Eventually, you will cross over the harmonic break and get to the 3rd-space C. If you are doing this correctly, the break will again be rude sounding.

These two simple exercises help set you up for better slur practice, because they bring so much attention to the primary airspeed motor (the torso), and because they encourage healthy air between notes (instead of the all-too-common slur that has gaps between the notes). Below, I made a video to demonstrate. First in the video, I do both the down and up stretches. Then I play a small number of slurs, incorporating stretches. Finally, I do the same slurs normally, while remembering the good air flow established in the stretching exercises. Since the total set takes less than 40 seconds, they are very practical to do before a more extensive slurring practice session.