The trumpet of the Greek games

It’s important to remember during the Tokyo Olympic games this summer, that in ancient games, starting in the 96th Olympiad (396 BC), the trumpet was introduced as a competitive discipline.

The trumpet, called the salpinx in Greek, had already been used to announce the winners of the various athletic categories in prior games, but starting in the 96th Olympiad, the games began with a trumpet competition, so that the winner(s) of this contest would be the official trumpeters during this latter part of the games. I can imagine that this helped to remove any bad trumpeters from the important winners’ ceremony!

We don’t know exactly what the criteria were for judging trumpeters back then, but among the most important factors were the rhythmic patterns of the trumpet calls and the clarity and loudness of sound. Also a possible factor was how long a contestant could hold a tone.

In his excellent ITG Journal article from October of 2006, Nikos Xanthoulis gives us a lot of interesting research into The Salpinx in Greek Antiquity. He writes that Archias from Yvla, an Olympic trumpet contest winner, also won in the Pythian games where an image of him stood with the epigram:

Accept this statue with certainty benevolent Phoebus,
The state of Archias from Yvla son of Eucles,
Who proclaimed thrice the Olympic competition
Without any volume accessory attached to his salpinx

So, from this we can surmise that volume was a premium quality expected of an Olympic trumpeter, although I would like to know what sort of accessories could have been attached to a trumpet!

Xanthoulis theorizes that, from the original Greek, an emphasis is on “the strength of breath to support the duration of sound.”

He goes on to mention a few more specific Olympic trumpet medal-winners: Herodorus of Megara, a very tall man (more than 7 feet tall) who could eat five pound of bread (about 6,000 calories) and 20 liters of meat (about 27 lbs.)! He could also play two trumpets at once. Herodorus won ten consecutive games (40 years!) and he helped win an actual battle with his playing.

Xanthoulis also mentions a female salpinx player, Aglaisi Megakleous, who also was a good eater (apparently this was an important trait for trumpeters) and played with a mask and helmet. I wonder if this was to conceal her identity?

This small sliver of Greek trumpet history will hopefully inspire you to play strong, long and clear during these Olympic games happening in Tokyo!

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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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