Firm But Flexible

As trumpet players, we tend to occupy our minds and lives with a search for balance. We find materials to practice and approaches to working on them that are complementary to our performing and teaching schedules. We seek ways to grow as people and enjoy living while maintaining and improving our skill on our unforgiving instruments. We experiment in order to find a path that allows us to remain aimed resolutely at our goals, while we navigate the complex terrain of day-to-day life as musicians and human beings. Not unlike a responsive and functional embouchure, we must be firm, but flexible. In virtually every case I have ever seen of a student struggling to make the trumpet work, the problems can be boiled down to inflexibility. I’m not talking about the inability to play slurs and glissandi with elegance and ease. The inflexibility to which I refer is inflexibility of thought, generally as a result of indoctrination by teachers, peers, or other sources that have left these students, consciously or otherwise, trying to play the trumpet in a way that is simply wrong, at least for them. Black-and-white thinking feels convenient for many young people (and older people, too), though it does little to help with trumpet playing or musicianship.

In the interest of promoting a greater balance between firmness and flexibility among students and teachers alike, I would like to suggest the following principles, in no particular order:

  • Mouthpiece placement should be based on audible evidence. A perfectly centered mouthpiece placement is, and should be, as rare among expert players as a perfectly symmetrical face with perfectly aligned teeth. Imposing an arbitrary visual standard on a student’s setup is vastly more likely to cause harm than good, and yet people in our profession do it every day. In addition to carefully listening to the results of different placements, a solid understanding of Dr. Donald S. Reinhardt’s Pivot System can be very helpful. Perhaps as helpful is the simple recognition that we are all different, and that there is a tremendous amount of diversity possible among great players when it comes to the functioning and appearance of the embouchure.

  • Teach/learn from the individual. In order for a student/teacher relationship to be of the greatest benefit, both parties must embrace each other’s individuality.

    Any idiot can take a hyper-motivated and extremely focused student with no obvious physical problems, do almost anything in lessons, and have a strong player at the end of four years, or however long the term of study is. What separates great teachers, in my opinion, is the ability to begin with a student who is lacking in motivation, focus, or physical advantage, and turn out a player with all of the above, and who has become a real player. This requires working with the individual in front of us, not some idealized archetype. We must listen, and choose how we communicate carefully. If our words are being misinterpreted, we should clarify, or perhaps simply stop talking and just play more. After all, if describing how to play the trumpet was really effective, we could all just read a book and then play our asses off.

    Of course, the student can’t be completely checked out. Ultimately, by being patient and asking any pertinent questions that arise, a student can learn how to properly interpret what a teacher says, does, and requests, and can practice and study accordingly. I would be remiss not to admit that some students are very stubborn and seem hellbent on misinterpreting everything or constantly finding excuses for their errors or inadequacies. This can be a sign of personality or psychological flaws that have broad implications outside of trumpet playing, and are deeply problematic. That said, an inflexible teacher can misidentify honest confusion or uncertainty or even healthy skepticism as evidence that a student is not interested in learning. It is best not to jump to conclusions too quickly. Students: If it seems that people are jumping to such conclusions about you, you might wish to investigate your facial expressions, tone of voice, and how you present yourself during conversation. It is possible that you are inadvertently sending undesirable messages. For example, I noticed a few years ago from a video recording that I have a tendency to roll my eyes when laughing and making certain facial expressions. I am sure that this must have been misinterpreted as derision on more than one occasion in my life.

  • Base equipment choices on reality. It blows my mind that there are still teachers and band directors out there telling students, “Okay, now it’s time for you to go and buy a Bach 3C.” Aside from some widely-held misconceptions about Bach’s illogical and non-sequential sizing system, the presumption that one person can know the ideal mouthpiece for another person is patently ridiculous. Equally ridiculous, though with less potential for cataclysmic harm to a student’s development, is the notion of specifying exactly what brand and model of trumpet a student needs. As with mouthpiece placement, these are decisions that require experimentation. They should be based on ease and quality of sound production, and the absence of obvious disadvantages such as persistent discomfort, less consistent intonation, loss of access to the upper or lower register, decreased dynamic range, etc. I could spend considerable time on this topic, and probably will in a future blog entry, but I will leave it at this: I’ve heard players on identical equipment fail to blend in a section; I’ve heard a searing double high C played on a Bach 1 mouthpiece; I’ve heard Couesnon flugelhorns played perfectly in tune, and Timofei Dokschitzer has always sounded just fine to me on a Bach 7E mouthpiece. There are no rules. Play what sounds best.

The last few items on today’s list will hopefully be self-explanatory:

  • Insufficient mouthpiece pressure is at least as big a problem as excessive mouthpiece pressure.

  • There is such thing as too big a breath.

  • Playing the mouthpiece might help some people, but nothing works for everyone.

  • Pedal tones are useful, unless they are not.

  • Sometimes the best place to start learning a new skill, such as lip trilling or multiple tonguing, is at no particular tempo, without a metronome, and without imposing any control or expectations whatsoever. Many a brick wall has appeared while I’ve tried to learn something the “right” way, and crumbled as soon as I let myself explore, uninhibited.

  • Hand position matters.

Thank you for reading. If you have thoughts related to this topic, please feel free to leave a comment below.

Nikola TomicComment