Close this search box.

Tips from Trumpet Teachers

Editor | November 2014

    We recently surveyed a group of college and university trumpet teachers. The two questions we asked are: what are the most common weaknesses they have noticed in the playing of incoming freshmen, and how should directors and teachers try to address these weaknesses? Here are the responses we received.

Thomas Muehlenbeck-Pfotenhauer
University of Minnesota-Duluth

    The most common playing deficiencies in freshman trumpet students boil down to two basic things: first, poor rhythm reading skills, and second, lack of proper air flow (and this leads to all kinds of problems – playing with too much tension, funky embouchures, tight range, poor tone, etc.).
    In addressing these problems, building rhythm reading skills is easy and usually does not require major amounts of time. As a band director, I think it is important to invest in developing this skill in your students. Work on rhythm drills, such as counting and clapping, at every single rehearsal. This is especially important with middle school musicians. When I was in junior high, we did clapping and counting drills out of 101 Rhythmic Rest Patterns before playing at every rehearsal. I am forever grateful to my director (Linda Becker at Merrill Junior High in Merrill, Wisconsin) for doing this. It makes such a fantastic difference. There are many other resources for these types of exercises, like SmartMusic, but you can also develop your own based on troublesome passages in the pieces you are working on. Just a few minutes per rehearsal goes a long way.
    Emphasizing proper use of air should also be a straightforward endeavor. One quick trick I use with my students is to have them exhale before taking in the initial breath. It is a lot easier to inhale in a relaxed way if you create the space in your lungs to do so. Then, as students play in rehearsal, they should look for opportunities (such as multi-measure rests) to release the horn from the face, exhale any built up air, and take a few beats or so to inhale in preparation for the next entrance.
    I recognize the importance of teaching students to inhale in tempo when starting a piece, but I find that this often promotes breathing that is too fast, too tense, and too shallow. Students need to know what a good, relaxed, and open inhalation feels like. To get that experience, they should learn to inhale over the space of an entire measure or longer, depending on the tempo, and then work toward taking a quick breath while retaining the same feel as the longer one. This takes practice and perhaps not all students will buy into it, but the dividends are huge. There are many breathing exercises out there – the Breathing Gym series is excellent, for example – and doing one or two exercises per rehearsal is worth the time. The air drives every thing we do on the trumpet, and young players need to know that. Along these lines, I would suggest teaching your trumpet students the importance of warming up properly. A good warmup is not time consuming and will promote the use of proper air flow. It may be a challenge to convince all of your trumpet students to take the time to do a good warmup, but try to promote the idea as consistently as you can and seek out sample warmups to show them. If private trumpet instruction is unavailable for your students, then supplying them with a solid warmup that encourages great breathing habits is a must.

Michael Anderson
Oklahoma City University

    The most common problems are poor time and an uncharacteristic tone quality. Students need individual work to improve their time. They must develop an internal sense of pulse, and most students never learn to provide their own time. Instead, they rely on a conductor, a metronome, or a drummer. To avoid this, students should practice recording themselves to check their time until they develop natural time and are able to subdivide internally by themselves. To attain a characteristic tone quality, lessons with a good-quality trumpet player or teacher will help. Students also must have good ears to succeed.

Todd Kelly
Bradley University

    Two common deficiencies that I find in freshman trumpet students, particularly those who have not studied privately, are a lack of a developed sound concept, and a misunderstanding of breathing as it applies to the trumpet.
    Listening to fine musicians is an often overlooked aspect of a young musician’s musical development. A clear sound concept gives students a goal when they are practicing and performing. This is akin to putting a dartboard on the wall for them. I require all of my trumpet student to do a minimum of fifteen minutes of prescribed listening each day before they practice. It is important for students to listen to great players in all styles, including jazz, classical, and commercial. An added benefit is that students will find players they love, which will motivate them to work more diligently.
    With breathing, I find that when I ask new students to explain breathing to me, they often are unable to talk in detail about the process. I explain the following to them: First, breathing on the trumpet is an extension of the way that we normally breathe, but in a more purposeful, extended manner. The diaphragm is an involuntary muscle that controls our breathing. When it contracts (shortens), it creates a vacuum that pulls the air into the lungs. When it returns to its resting position, it pushes the air out. With this in mind, it should be recognized that exhalation is actually an act of relaxation, not work.
    I also advise students to keep thinking simple thoughts about breathing, such as the following:
    • Inhale: Let the air fall into the lungs.
    • Exhale: Release the air through the trumpet.
    • Air volume vs. air speed. It is important that students understand the relationship between volume and air speed. First, lower notes use more air, while higher notes use less air. Second, lower notes use slower air, while higher notes use faster air.
    Most incoming students have the misconception that they need to use more air and blow the air harder to play higher notes, when what they really need to do is move a small amount of fast air. Once we clear up that misconception, the student’s range develops quickly.
    To band directors who want to address these problems with sound concept and breathing, I would recommend the following: Create listening assignments for your students that are designed to expose them to the great players of the instrument (this applies not just to trumpet). Bring in as many guest artists and clinicians as possible to work with and perform with your students. Try to teach sound as you would teach a language – immerse your students in great sounds. I also would advise all band directors to take a few trumpet lessons from a nearby expert in order to better understand the mechanics of sound production on the trumpet, particularly as it relates to breathing.

Steve Leisring
University of Kansas

    By far, the greatest weakness among young trumpet players is the ability to hear what is on the page and have a strong concept of what they should sound like in recreating the sounds on the page. Students tend to be connected to what fingerings they must put down for any given notes, but there is one major step often missing: clearly hearing the desired pitch with the correct fingering.
    Technique can be learned, but all kinds of problems arise when students cannot hear the pitches on the page. The inability to hear the pitch leads to a lot of extra effort and tension in getting the notes out. Once the brain has the product correct inside, efficient use of all of mechanics, such as breathing and embouchure, come much more quickly.
    It is no surprise to me that the playing level of my incoming students is directly related to the level of their ability to hear away from the horn, and that ability seems to be increasingly rare with the average younger players. The good news is that if young players work on these skills away from the horn, their ultimate ability to improve can be exponential. Relaxation can occur.
    If I could do one thing to help my young students, it would be to feed them information about what a great player sounds like. Band directors have an incredibly tough job, trying to be specialists on every instrument and to demonstrate everything from oboe to euphonium. The problem is that being good enough to be the best possible influence on all instruments is basically impossible. When a child wants to be a great basketball player, he watches and pretends to be LeBron or Kevin Durant, not the 13th guy on the bench, even though that guy is a pro too. The greatest influence is the absolute best example that can be found. In that sense, we live in a very exciting time. Never before in history has so much information been available to so many. Young trumpet players almost anywhere can look up players like Alison Balsom, Doc Severinsen, Bud Herseth, Maurice André, or anyone else on YouTube. The best of the best is available online, and we can find examples to be given in every style and every type of sound. There is enough out there to keep the interested kid mesmerized with the possibilities of their instrument and the not-so-interested kid at least exposed to the greatness that is and has been. Of course, it would be ideal if the online material would lead students to seek out live performances, but that is not always possible. So my best advice is find exciting material and feed your students examples of excellence. It is out there.

Dale Engstrom
Fresno City College

    The deficiencies I see in my freshman trumpet students usually relate to a lack of understanding of the basics of correct playing that many of us older players take for granted. Students often worry about the wrong things, like playing fast and high. Instead, they need to concentrate on using air and focus on the quality of sound. Many of my students do not own or know about the basic method books and solo literature.
    My main piece of advice to freshman trumpet players is this: Use more air. Listen to great players to develop a correct concept of a quality sound. Listen to what’s coming out the end of that horn! Record yourself. Playing in small groups (duets, trios, and quartets) can be helpful. In such settings students can more easily gain an awareness of nuances such as matching pitch, sound quality, articulation, and phrasing. This forces students to really listen.
    I also encourage students to develop a schedule for each practice session. I provide my students a template of things that should be covered each time they practice, including lip slurs, long tones, tonguing, flexibility, and range. I always make sure to include method books, solos, and something that is really fun to end the practice session. The specifics are filled in according to each student’s deficiencies.

Robert Feller
Biola Conservatory of Music

    Probably the most glaring deficiency is the lack of knowledge of a good trumpet sound. Problems with a good sound could stem from an inefficient embouchure or just plain ignorance. If the students have never heard a good trumpet sound, how would they know how the instrument should sound?
    Listening to great soloists (there are many out there) can especially help. Adding orchestral and jazz players certainly can help too, but having someone demonstrate what a good sound sounds like right there in their presence will provide something concrete.
    In lieu of an accomplished private lesson teacher, I would tell trumpet players to listen to Sergei Nakariakov’s CD No Limit (or check out any of his performances on YouTube or Spotify) and get prepared to have their minds blown. He has conquered the trumpet repertoire, and now he is out conquering the string repertoire as well. Not only does he possess the technical wherewithal that far surpasses the needed abilities to perform those impossible violin and cello pieces on trumpet (or flugelhorn), but his sound is absolutely gorgeous throughout – no matter how difficult the music is. His approach is so darned beautiful and musical, but he makes it sound so easy. Nakariakov’s beautiful sound and command of the trumpet is something to which even seasoned professionals can aspire.

Jonathan Swygert
Mercer University

    The biggest and most common deficiencies include poorly developed and placed embouchures, lack of individual practice, and lack of sensitivity to soft or lyrical playing. To fix problems with em-bouchure, the director (who may not be a trumpet player) should make sure that the mouthpiece is above the red part of the upper lip early on. The upper lip is the catalyst for vibration, and without its presence, elements like sound, range, and flexibility are much tougher, if not impossible, to get right.
    To address the lack of individual practice, directors should help students to understand that individual practice is a required matter of routine and maintenance. Students should understand that band playing is not practice. The Concone Lyrical Studies are great for developing lyrical playing, which can counter the rough playing of marching band.

David Hickman
Arizona State University

    The biggest deficiencies I see are with transpositions and ear training. The vast majority of music major applicants cannot transpose at all, and this is a skill that should be required of all trumpet and horn players. Also, when given a basic ear training exam where single notes are played on the piano (student facing away from the keyboard), most freshman applicants cannot play back the notes correctly on their instrument. Students typically are learning prepared audition materials only, but they tend to lack basic skills needed to sightread and play by ear.
    If private lessons are unavailable, students could learn to transpose by learning to play melodic sections of their band parts in different keys. Students could be asked to play these sections in different keys individually, or as a group in unison.
    For ear training practice, the band director might devote one minute of each rehearsal’s warm-up to having the entire band play back random pitches played on the piano (or another instrument), starting with easy intervals in a given key. As the band progresses with the exercise, the pitches could be more atonal. For advanced training, two or three notes could be played on the piano at the same time, and the band may be asked to play either the top, middle, or bottom one.

Dale Orris
Bucknell University

    Generally I find that students are coming in with serious technique problems. This also tends to cause problems with sightreading skills.
    Good solutions would be to have trumpet students working from Clarke Technical Studies, Arban (technique section) for basic skills, scales, and other aspects of technique. Many high school students work on solos for district events, but they do not know their scales or other matters of basic technique.

Frank Gabriel Campos
Ithaca College

    One of the most common problems I encounter is the habit of stopping the air support between notes. Young players who see four quarter notes typically play Ta>, Ta>, Ta>, Ta>, with spaces between the notes where they are stopping or stalling the air flow slightly. In other words, they are not blowing through. Even in relatively fast passages, players tend to stop
the air slightly right before each attack. It is like tapping on the brakes between tongued notes. This bad habit is a primary cause of accuracy problems and poor sound, and it adversely affects high range, endurance, and all other aspects of trumpet performance.
    On the other hand, if a student approaches a scale more like a singer and plays Da_ Da_ Da_ Da_, it immediately sounds much better. We need to blow though and keep the air moving. A D attack is usually used for legato or smooth articulation, so we must develop a more percussive D for staccato and marcato situations. This is easily done by adding a quick attack like a bell tone. In essence, the beginning of the note should be louder than the rest of the note, just like all accented notes are. I call this approach “bells on a long tone” because in this articulation we are blowing through like a long tone and articulating using a bellish D. This is not a new articulation style, just another way to describe what the great players are doing. It is possible to use a D articulation and have it sound like staccato or marcato. Listen closely to the world’s great brass players, and you will hear them articulating this way.
    In order to play staccato with a D articulation, the important thing is that the attack must sound like a staccato attack. To produce a staccato effect, the attack is more important than the space between the notes. At fast tempos, for example, there is no space between running staccato notes, so it is the attack that makes the notes sound staccato. Staccato notes should also be open ended, not closed off with the tongue (tut) or by stopping the air between notes. To know how an open ended staccato should sound, listen to a classical singer perform. Classical singers do not completely close off between short notes, but rather suspend the air and stay well-supported.
    If there is one thing I would ask of music teachers and band directors, it is to instruct trumpet students to blow completely through articulated passages and experiment with more of a firm D rather than a T attack. Have the students play a scale as if it is a long tone, instead of a T attack, and ask the students to imagine they are denting the tone with a bell tone D attack. It will require some practice to learn how to produce a hard, firm, popping attack with the D articulation, but it is worth it.
    If students are truly blowing through and not stopping the air even slightly between notes when articulating, then everyone can hear the difference immediately. They will play more consistently, with fewer chips and clams, and they will have better overall sound, endurance, and strength because they are using their bodies more efficiently. Put the “bells on a long tone” approach to the test – you will hear the difference.