Upward Spiral

All the greatest trumpet players I know, in one way or another, devote tremendous time, energy, and care to working on fundamentals. Of the skills I classify as fundamental to trumpet playing, there is one without which all others are meaningless. I refer here to sound production, in its simplest form. The slightest hesitation in response, the merest hint of rasp in the tone, and everything else built upon this foundation is prone to crumbling, given a significant enough stress or challenge. Play as high as you like, tongue faster than anyone else, and have the greatest dexterity on the planet. If you can’t do these things with a beautiful and free sound, it will be hard for me to summon up any interest in hearing them. Moreover, it is nearly impossible to cultivate any reliable technique without the essence of and prerequisite to all technique, efficient production of a pleasing trumpet sound, securely in place.

It is human nature to be impatient. It is certainly my nature to be impatient. Unfortunately, progress in trumpet playing tends to go at its own pace. We can practice faithfully and thoughtfully and still go for long stretches without perceptible gains in ability. Perception itself can be an enemy in these situations, as we may go unaware of our gradual progress if our expectations grow at the same rate or faster than our ability to meet them. (By the way - they should. The danger is in allowing our necessarily perpetual dissatisfaction with aspects of our playing to take over our minds and lives and make us sad and angry at ourselves. “You are not your trumpet playing.”) This is why having a qualified private teacher and recording oneself regularly are so indispensable if we wish to improve as quickly as possible. Along this path of slow but real improvement lie many traps baited with the illusion of instantaneous leaps in ability and the promise of musical miracles. If you find yourself unable to immediately produce a clear sound in a comfortable register without having to strain or resort to playing loudly, then something is wrong. If what you do next is not aimed at addressing this problem, more will likely be wrong soon.

When teaching trumpet lessons, regardless of the level of the student, the following scenario plays out so frequently that I think it might be the greatest example of a teachable moment I know:

The student begins to play a passage, or takes a breath before continuing one. Immediately, I notice an imperfection in the sound. It might be obvious, like a secondary vibration of some kind, or a harshness, or the most classic example of forcing, where the sound doesn’t come out at first and then a violent expulsion of air into the mouthpiece finally catapults it into being. It might be very slight, like the brittle or tubby quality associated with playing high or low on the pitch. Depending on the severity of the imperfection, the student will get through more or less of the passage before eventually stopping because something has gone too far wrong to keep going. This final straw will often be something like a wide leap or a loud, articulated pitch in the lower or upper register that fails to come out.

I will ask the student, “Where did the problem first creep in?” The student will almost inevitably point to a spot very shortly before the crisis zone. I will reply, “I think something was already not quite right here,” and point to the first note. As I have the student focus on producing a beautiful, unforced sound at the start of the passage, the subsequent problems begin to evaporate.

Some other comments that I tend to offer in such interchanges include these:

  • Every note is the first note of the rest of the piece.

  • Set yourself up for success each time you begin to play.

  • If you can’t produce that pitch at all with a quiet breath attack, you can’t expect to control it with a loud tongue.

  • Take a moment to imagine exactly what the music you are about to play should sound like. Only when you are sure your imagination contains the most detailed rendering possible should you try to play it again.

There are sound production problems that are chronic and are truly matters of faulty coordination and physical execution. Rarely, these are due to having been dealt a lousy physical hand for trumpet playing. Most often, these are a result of having an incompetent teacher or no teacher at all, not listening to great trumpet playing live or on record, and practicing ineffectively. We have to know what we want to sound like to be able to rely on skill to sound that way. Otherwise we are relying on luck. Only a fool would be content to sound good occasionally and by accident.

The type of problem I see more often past the beginning level is with inconsistency of sound production, and the causes are largely psychological. Seeing a “high note” or “hard part” lurking ahead, the player begins the passage with a certain amount of added tension, usually not consciously, and spends the time leading up to the source of concern playing with a relatively bad sound and not paying attention to the music that is supposed to be going on, instead anticipating an approaching failure. As the initial problem becomes magnified, the student eventually notices and becomes less focused and less confident. Unsurprisingly, by the time the scary technical challenge comes along, the student’s form and mental state are so degraded that the only option is to stop playing.

I will leave this here for now, but in an upcoming series of blogs, I plan to present some ideas toward practicing more efficiently and creatively and overcoming many types of challenges, including the type discussed above.

As always, I welcome your comments and questions below. Thank you for reading!

Nikola TomicComment