Axes of tone: singer’s face

Two days ago, I blogged about forward resonance, borrowing from vocal pedagogy. We saw that it was possible to have more resonance in your trumpet sound by getting the resonance more forward in the head.

Today, I want to explore how to raise the soft palate consistently so that you can take advantage of the extra resonance this offers. I will be heavily quoting from an article on The Complete Singer’s Resource by Michael O’Connor. Before we get going too far, we need to know what the soft palate is.

Put simply, (the soft palate) is the flap of skin designed to lift to block of your nasal passage. This occurs most often when yawning.

After more explanations and a wonderful figure, this article give some exercises for raising the soft palate. Trumpeters can use these almost the same as singers.

First (preparatory) exercise: the backward hiss

  1. Firstly, with your lips open, but teeth close to shut, you will inhale through your mouth. This will create a backwards ‘sssss’ sound.

  2. As you get about 2-4 seconds through the breath, simply drop your jaw and allow the rest of the air to come in.

  3. You will notice a cold sensation at the back roof of your mouth.

Now try playing a note right after doing this exercise.

Second exercise: “the singer’s face”

  1. When you inhale, let your jaw drop easily (do not over-drop the jaw. If you can fit one finger in between your teeth you don’t need to drop it any more).

  2. Let your eyes widen as if you are overly alert (But think smirk, not eyes-popping out manic)

  3. Imagine that you are smiling from inside the face – a little like the ‘Mona Lisa’ (D.J Jones’s often refers to the ‘Mona Lisa Smile’).

  4. Flare your nose slightly and feel that the inner smile is coming from this area at the sides of the nostrils. Imagine you’re inhaling perfume.

For trumpeters, we can’t smile while playing, but we can raise our cheeks a little.

Third exercise: “hot potato”

  1. Imagine you have a spoon full of extremely hot, steamy potato right in front of your mouth.

  2. Blow on it with your lips in an ‘ooh’ shape as if to say “Or”.

  3. This is the best exercize to do right before vocalizing. With your tongue almost in the ‘ng’ position, blow out 3 times, inhale using the same amount of space and then vocalize on an ‘oooooooohhhh’.

  4. You can do various vocalizes with this, but for newcomers, I would stick with 1,2,3,2,1 on an ‘ooh’ vowel or an ‘ihh’ vowel. Before singing through the passagio, first do a series of sirens on an ‘oooh’ vowel from bottom to top so that your voice is used to lifting the soft palate through your range with ease.

This is the best exercise for finding the sensation of the lifted soft palate while exhaling or singing (rather than just inhaling!)

For trumpeters, do the blowing, and then immediately try buzzing or playing, but keep in mind the almost-“ng” position of the back of the tongue.

This is the last post in this series of “axes of tone.” The exercises and ideas that I have offered to you can make a huge difference in your tone. But at first, while you are trying to get used to any of the concepts (especially the “singer’s face”) you might be uncomfortable with slurs and register changes. It’s also okay to, for instance, think about slotting and forget your head position. Don’t worry, just try to keep these ideas in mind from time to time–especially when you are warming up on long tones or playing vocalises (Bordogni and Concone, for example). If you write out each axis, you can put it in a handy place to remind you to consider each idea when possible.

The axes of tone:

  1. Trumpet choice
  2. Mouthpiece choice
  3. Slotting
  4. Head position
  5. Vowel placement
  6. Forward resonance
  7. Pucker
  8. Raising the soft palate (“singer’s face”)

A few more things to keep in mind about tone. You concept of tone is your guide. Make sure you listen to many great brass musicians, singers and other instrumentalists to formulate and solidify your own concepts. Your embouchure fitness is also a huge factor in your tone, but I hadn’t mentioned it in this series, because it is not a quick fix.

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Axes of tone: pucker

Another range-of-motion change that will shape your tone is the amount of pucker in your embouchure. First let’s think about the typical trumpet embouchure muscles for a moment: the muscles that anchor our corners are the buccinators. Our chins are flat because of the depressors labii inferioris. And there are many other muscles which give us our “mmm”-shaped trumpet embouchure.

But don’t forget the pucker. We trumpeters don’t pucker as much as horn players, but we can and we do. The pucker is primarily controlled by the orbicularis oris, that wonderful circular-shaped muscle–the kissing muscle.

Have you ever given your trumpet to a horn player for them to play (maybe before the pandemic)? If they play on your trumpet with your mouthpiece, they still sound much more hornlike than you do. Why? A horn player has spent years trying optimize the sound that works with a conical bore instrument with a funnel-shaped mouthpiece. This means more embouchure pucker. More orbicularis oris forcing the aperture to turn outward, which does not result in the strongest and highest range. It results in a more mellow tone. And if they play your trumpet with your mouthpiece, they bring that mellowness to your equipment because of their embouchure. You can do this, too.

Try playing a middle-range long tone with a normal embouchure. Then try to slowly “pucker up.” Then back to your “unpuckered” embouchure. Try to avoid simply adding tension to the lip tissue inside of the rim. Instead, try to turn the aperture outward ever so slightly while puckering. Repeat this slowly and listen for the change in timbre. What do you think? Is it a pleasant sound? Is it a useable setup? Can you use this slight pucker embouchure for short-term musical gestures? I have, when needing to play lyrically, in a low register and softly.

By the way, as a side benefit, engaging the orbicularis oris helps to prevent cuts that can happen on the inside of your lips when you play high notes. This muscle helps to cushion the pressure between your mouthpiece rim and your teeth.

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