Ain’t no mountain high enough…

Last week, I did a small vacation with my 17-year-old son in Summit County, Colorado. We decided at the last minute to try hiking to the top of Gray’s Peak, a “14-er” (a mountain that is more than 14,000 feet high).

There was one major problem with our plans: the three-mile road leading up to the trail head was too rough for my Prius, so we had to walk this road. In my mind, I thought that three miles wouldn’t be too difficult, but these three miles were mostly at a 5% incline and were starting off at 9,500 ft. in altitude, so they took twice as long as a normal walk (and exhausted us). We didn’t start the actual trail until 10:30. And, unfortunately, we were still a mile away from the summit before we had to turn back–storm clouds were threatening our safety. I think we could have made it to the top if we had started sooner and had a 4-wheel drive that would get us to the trail head.

This scenario reminded me of big trumpet projects. Recitals, major performances, competitions, and auditions all need some amount of competency and preparation. Of course practicing a lot is important, but a trumpeter can only practice so many notes per day. Starting early enough helps tip the scale in your favor. Try to set aside a month or two to really prepare for an audition (even more time for a solo competition).

If you already have prepared in previous lessons the orchestral excerpts that will be asked on an audition, then you have a first layer of preparation. Then it is much easier to spend the month before your audition in polishing the excerpts and working on your mental focus. The same is with solo competitions. You have to already develop some core repertoire before the competitions is announced. Otherwise, you will spend too much time in the initial phases of preparation to be really competitive. Pieces like the Haydn, Hummel, Tomasi, Honegger, Hindemith and Enesco are often required in trumpet competitions.

And remember the advantage to having an SUV to take you to the trail head? Similarly, there are many advantages we can seek out as we prepare for our trumpet “summits.” Lessons with good teachers. Practice buddies can be a real boost. Recording yourself. Good equipment functioning well (do you need to take any trumpets in to be repaired?).

And don’t overlook advantages that are seemingly irrelevant, like your choice of valve oil. Your posture. Clearing up things from your schedule that detract. Or even “clocking” you mouthpiece (yesterday’s post). If we can combine many tiny advantages, then the cumulative impact will be great.

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Let’s talk tone: the mouthpiece according to Bach

In the last two blog posts, I talked about the trumpet itself as a factor in tone production. Today, I want to address the equipment that probably has the most effect on tone. The mouthpiece. It doesn’t seem right, does it? If you sink $4,000 into a trumpet and only $100 in a mouthpiece, the trumpet seems like it should be the biggest factor. That is not the case. There are many aspects of the mouthpiece and all of them have large implications in regard to the tone. In today’s post, I want to focus on Bach mouthpieces, since Vincent Bach put a lot of effort into mouthpiece design and most good mouthpieces made by other makers benefit from his work.

Let’s start with the wonderful and educational mouthpiece manual on the Bach website. Here’s the PDF: Bach mouthpiece manual. There is a wealth of information here, so please take as much time as you’d like. On the first page, Bach says, “Do not select a certain mouthpiece because another player uses it. Because no two players have the same lip or tooth formation, what is perfect for one may be entirely unsuitable for the other. Bach produces many different models so that each player can find the best mouthpiece for their individual embouchure.”

I agree AND disagree with this (for the same reasons I wrote about in yesterday’s post about trumpets). You have to know what basic parameters of music you want to play–solo, lead trumpet, orchestra section, orchestra principal, studio, jazz solo–so that you narrow your search. You’re just not going to get a job in an orchestra if you audition on a 12E-W mouthpiece, no matter how well this mouthpiece suits you. And, to be fair, Bach alludes to this in the previous paragraph by writing that

Professional musicians and advanced students prefer the musical results of
large mouthpieces, such as the Bach 1B, 1C, 1 1/4C, 1 1⁄2B, 1 1⁄2C, 2 1⁄2C, 3C, which provide a maximum volume of tone with the least amount of effort. By opening up the lips so that they do not touch, the larger mouthpiece produces a clearer, purer tone. The large cup diameter also allows a greater portion of the lip to vibrate, producing a larger volume of tone, and keeps a player from forcing high tones by encouraging the correct functioning of the lip muscles. However, a student may find a medium-sized mouthpiece suitable.

So, when thinking about your mouthpiece, try to think about what your abilities and musical needs will be. Blend your ideal sound with your needs.

A note about beginners: if I’m starting out a young trumpeter, I am definitely going to recommend a mouthpiece the size of a 7C. This will work with beginning embouchures. As the student grows and gets better, then I would try a larger mouthpiece, like a 5C, then a 3C. I would generally not introduce a smaller mouthpiece (for commercial/jazz work) until the student has shown mastery of intermediate music materials and has a great, solid high C.

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