Playing High on the Trumpet
It was after watching a video on YouTube, about playing high notes on the trumpet, that I felt compelled to write this article. The man in the video spoke convincingly, and with sincerity, about how to play high notes, the only trouble was, I knew what he was saying was completely wrong!
Whereas I don't profess to know everything about trumpet playing, I did study at the Royal College of Music in London for four years with distinguished trumpet and piano professors. Having gained professional qualifications for both trumpet and piano teaching, I feel the advice and observations I have to offer are at least of some worth. I hope that you will find this article useful, and that it will assist you in 'reaching those highs'!
The Non-Pressure System Myth
The name ‘non-pressure system’ is misleading, as it implies no pressure between the lips and the mouthpiece. Common sense tells us that a certain amount of pressure is needed in order to make an airtight seal with the mouthpiece. It’s therefore better to think in terms of ‘minimum pressure’ as opposed to ‘non-pressure’. I have seen, and admired, many players playing high and loud on minimum pressure, but I’ve yet to see a convincing display of so-called 'non-pressure'.
Playing high on the trumpet requires dedication, determination, and consistent intelligent practice. What do I mean by ‘intelligent’ practice? Intelligent practice is using practice time wisely. Pianists and string player are able to practise for hours without any detrimental effect to their muscles, but brass players can’t, as lip muscles become tired long before our arms and fingers. It is therefore important to make every single note you play premium quality. In other words, aim to get things right the first time, every time. This should be your goal, and nothing less. Intelligent practice is also knowing when to give up for the day. Straining your lip muscles on one day can deprive you of two or three day’s useful practice, as your lip muscles take time to recover.
Changing mouthpiece is not a magic formula to being able to play high and loud. This is one of the first lessons I learnt at the Royal College of Music. Like many new students I changed my mouthpiece to one which I thought was ‘better’, and more comfortable. My trumpet professor quickly pointed out that almost any new mouthpiece is going to feel better, as part of it will fall on fresh lip muscle.
The bottom line is if you can’t play high on the mouthpiece you are using now, then changing it isn’t going to help much. Granted, a smaller mouthpiece might help you to hit the high notes in the centre, and stay at the top longer (at the expense of tone quality in the lower register) but if you need a smaller mouthpiece in order to get the high notes in the first place, then something is wrong.
YouTube Super C’s
There’s no shortage of videos on YouTube of people demonstrating their ability to play high. They’re very impressive, but it’s important to remember that there’s much more to trumpet playing than getting that super C. Control, tone quality, musicality, flexibility, and precision spring to mind, not to mention the ability to read music, transpose at sight, and improvise from chords. Also, it’s worth bearing in mind that there’s a big difference between playing high when you feel like it, and playing high on demand. When jazz soloists play high, they decide not only when they’re going to go high, but how they’re going to get there. Lead players in a big band, for example, don’t have this luxury. If the score demands that high note at the end of a long passage, in the fourth set, at two o’clock in the morning, then it has to be there, or the band leader will be looking for a new lead player the following day. Similarly, an orchestral trumpet player is expected to be able to enter a piece in the right place, at the right time, with a perfect note (high or low) after having sat through many bars rest.
The Secret to Playing High
Work on developing your lip muscles, just as athletes develop the muscles needed for their chosen sport. There are many books on the market to help you do this. My personal recommendation would be ‘Advanced Lip Flexibilities’ by Charles Colin. Also, one very good exercise I came across on YouTube I’ve reproduced below.
Even with the right book, and consistent practice, don’t expect things to happen overnight. It will take time to build up strength and stamina in your lips.
There’s a right and a wrong way to breath. Make sure you fill your lungs up from the bottom (imagine filling a bottle with water), then use your diaphragm to push the air out. Don't raise your shoulders, as this is unnecessary and creates tension. Learning to breath correctly is essential to being able to play high and loud.
Sit up straight or stand straight, holding your trumpet up at all times. The idea behind this is to give the airflow the easiest passage from the lungs to the mouthpiece. Of course, some famous jazz trumpet players appear to break all the rules, but the key word here is 'some'. The vast majority of players rely on tried and trusted methods in order to reach their full potential.
The position of the tongue is important. Lowering the tongue (in the position when we say 'ah') increases the volume of air, but to play high, speed is more important than volume. Arching the tongue (in the position when we say 'ee') helps to increase the speed of the air. This is very easy to put into writing, but much harder to put into practice!
The Bottom Line
It will probably hurt to read this, but if you are serious about becoming a top class player, and being able to play high, then you have to work at it, and work hard. Two or three days practice a week is not going to do it. You must aim to practise every day. Finding a good teacher will help keep you on track. And finally, always remember that being able to play a super C isn’t a prerequisite to being a good trumpet player.