Axes of tone: slot

Finally we are at the point in our exploration of tone that we can consider our body and the way it affects tone.

The trumpet contains an air column that wants to vibrate at a given fundamental pitch or any multiple of that pitch (we call these multiples “overtones”). It is pretty mathematical, but there are quite a few complexities of lip-vibrated acoustics that I cannot address here (due to lack of space and my lack of expertise).

The lips start the vibration of the air column, but they are not entirely passive in relation to the frequencies that the air columns wants to vibrate at. They can force the column to vibrate outside of its “sweet spot.” I like to use this tennis racket term when talking about note placement, because the student can easily visualize how a ball that is not hit in the center of the racket will not go as efficiently (and far) as the ball that is. Likewise, a sweet spot pitch will go farther, be more efficient and sound better.

And so, we will consider how we “slot” our notes. Slotting is the term we trumpeters use to refer to how high or low we are playing any given note. We can change the timbre and efficiency of our playing by changing the way we slot. For the sake of this post, we will say that the best tone comes from slotting as close to the sweet spot as possible.

It is typical for a beginner-to-intermediate trumpet student to slot inefficiently and inconsistently. I most often hear a 2nd-line G being played very high on the slot, causing that note to sound stuffy and brittle. If a note is played too low (often our lowest notes get this treatment), then the tone is too tubby and dull.

How do we get more control over slotting? By doing lip bends. Practicing lip bends on long tones gives us the strength to bend tones during actual musical performance. And most importantly, practicing lip bends gives us the opportunity to listen to our tone as we cover the range of pitch that is possible in any given slot (in any given note). The way in which we bend the tone is usually by lowering the jaw to go low. We can raise the pitch of a tone by pinching the lips a little. We can hear the tone change as we go high (shrill and pinched) and go low (dull).

I sometimes like to think of the range of the slot as an axis on a graph. You can plot low,  high, or right at the zero mark.

How to practice lip bends:

I usually start as neutral as possible (as close as possible to what I think the center of the slot is). Then I slowly bend the pitch lower by lowering my jaw (I don’t recommend going as low as possible; just low enough to hear a significant change). After that, I raise my jaw and bring the pitch up to about where I started, listening attentively to the pitch and timbre. Then I increase the “pinchiness” of the lips to raise the pitch as much as possible (it’s never very high), and then back down–listening to pitch and timbre. As I lower it, I am listening to the timbre and trying to optimize the tone. I am trying to zero in on the sweet spot. I am listening for the most resonant sound that I can produce. When I get to this optimal tone, I stop and listen. I try to commit this tone quality to my memory.

Ultimately, trumpeters are musicians, and we play best when we play to our mental models of ideal sounds rather than the “feel” of a note. When I am playing other material (solos, etudes, excerpts), I am not trying to recapture the feel of the slot. I’m trying to recapture the sound quality of this optimal tone from the lip bending exercise.

Tomorrow, we will look at another axis of tone: the vowel.


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