In his book Daily Fundamentals for the Trumpet, Cleveland Orchestra Principal Trumpet Michael Sachs writes, “Avoid playing on one breath to the end of your air capacity. Playing on stale air leads to a squeezed tone and unwanted tension.”
I understand Sach’s advice and where he’s coming from. He doesn’t want you to sound tense, so he advises against playing to the end of your air capacity. But many decades ago, when technique was much more important to trumpeters, a different kind of breath control advice held sway. Here are some quotes from the good old days:
In Herbert L. Clarke’s Technical Studies, the famed cornetist writes: “Practice each exercise eight to sixteen times in one breath, keeping the lips and fingers flexible” and “Practice Etude III until you can play it in one breath” and “Mastery of the preceding material will have improved your breath control and endurance” and “Begin slowly and practice until you can play them many times in one breath.”
Claude Gordon, a go-to pedagogue that helped a lot of commercial trumpeters, said about long tones, “Hold the note as long as possible with a crescendo at the end. Hold the note until all air is gone and longer (until your stomach shakes).”
Rafael Mendez, one of the best trumpet soloists ever, was a fanatic breath control practicer. “Go at this practice with a vengeance. Don’t be satisfied until you are over the 100-second mark (of exhaling).”
I don’t think these masters of their instrument wanted to sound strained (as Sachs warns), but they did want to increase their capacity. If you practice H.L. Clarke in the way that he prescribed (in terms of breath control), over time, a few things will change that are very beneficial to your playing:
- You can play longer phrases.
- In order to play these exercises in one breath, you are forced to play softer. Softer playing is important in and of itself and, in turn, helps you play with more responsiveness in all dynamics. Softer playing also helps the lower register.
- You begin to focus more.
- You gain confidence.
- Your improved breath control improves your high range.