Axes of tone: vowel

Over the last two days, we looked at how the “slotting” of a note can greatly affect your timbre on the trumpet. The slotting, as we found out, was manipulated mostly by the openness of the jaw and the tension of the embouchure.

Very closely aligned with this notion is the vowel placement we use when playing. Just as the jaw can open up (or make more narrow) the oral cavity, so, too, can vowel placement. However, the vowel placement is more aligned with the tongue.

As you might guess, the higher the vowel (“eee”), the more brilliant the tone. More overtones are engaged with the tone. The lower the vowel (“ahh”), the darker the tone. Less overtones involved.

As with most things in music, there is neither a right or a wrong vowel placement. The vowel placement is dependent upon personal preference, the genre of music you play, and the changing needs of phrasing.

As you are playing a long tone, or perhaps as you stop on a note in a phrase, take a moment to purposely go through the range of vowel placements on that note. What feels and sounds best? Listen for the sound, and when you feel like your sound is optimal for the musical context, then take a mental snapshot of that sound. The sound is what you can, and should, try to reproduce in a performance.

Of course, vowel placement is also closely associated with range. Higher notes are definitely going to benefit from a higher vowel placement, and lower notes from lower vowels. However, for a more even sound throughout your register, consider counteracting this common practice. Play open on high notes for a lovely and smooth sound. Try “pinging” a low note with a bright vowel sound for more punch to that sound. In order to make this work, the trumpeter will have to compensate with airspeed and the diameter of the aperture. Otherwise, open-vowel high notes and high-vowel low notes will never speak. A good time to practice this “contradiction” of vowel placement is with lip slurs–as you go up, think “ahh;” as you go down, think “ee.” I am not sure, but I suspect this is related to Stamp’s maxim, “think up while going down and think down while going up.”

Vowel placement in real life: think about the times that trumpets are in unison with trombones (as in the finale to the overture to Wagner’s Tannhäuser). When I listen to recordings to this, I rarely hear the trumpets coming out of the texture. Why? Because trumpets are usually playing with a low vowel sound in their low register, whereas trombones are in their middle register. Trombones are using a much more present vowel placement. Try to get much more “ping” to the projection here by working with a higher vowel placement. But still….good luck in trying to sound as loud as the bones here!


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