Common Problems and Solutions with High School Trumpeters
1. Breathing-stopping the air and timing
Other than the breathing issues mentioned in the beginner section (#1), some students will hold their breath or stop their air between their inhale and exhale. Or, their air will slow down significantly as it is transitioning from inhale to exhale. The air must always be moving, either in or out, and air that slows down before exhale will likely cause one to crack the note or have no response. Try to make the inhale the same speed that is required for the exhale. Practice these things without the trumpet.
Students also need to work on the timing of breathing. A lot of my students will avoid breathing simply because they are not comfortable with breathing while playing music, so they wait until they are completely out of air and are forced to take a breath at a very inopportune time. They also typically must stop playing to take this kind of breath. Students need to plan where they are going to breathe and mark it in their music. They should pick locations according to when they need a breath (they should never get lower than ¼ tank of air), according to the phrasing of the music, and according to where there is enough time or space to take a breath (after a longer note is better than after a shorter note). They must then practice breathing in these spots until it becomes automatic. Again, inhales should be deep.
2. Sound quality and projection
Please refer to #2 under “Beginning Trumpeters” for a discussion about sound quality. Sound is perhaps the most important aspect of trumpet playing.
High school students often don’t project their sound. To me it is as if they are playing to only about one foot beyond their bell. When giving lessons in my office, I tell them to play through the door, for someone in the hallway, or for someone outside. The analogy of being in an end zone on a football field and playing to someone in the other end zone can work too. The student must play “out”. Sometimes, projecting simply requires the student to play louder. But this can result in a forced tone. In this case, the student should think about increasing the resonance of his/her sound. This is achieved by referring back to proper sound production techniques, specifically, keeping the oral cavity round, open, and relaxed, and simply striving for a sound that resonates more. Another good analogy is playing to the person in the cheapest seat in a large concert hall; that person paid for his/her ticket and needs to hear the sound just as well as everyone else. Even the dynamic of piano needs to be heard by everyone in the hall. This is achieved through resonance, not volume.
A warm-up is very important to trumpet playing and not all students do one or enough of one. A warm-up should include simple mouthpiece buzzing exercises, long tones, slow lip slurs, and articulated scale patterns, covering the student’s entire comfortable range in a gradual manner. The purpose of the warm-up should be to establish a relaxed way of playing. Warm-up exercises should not be for strength or range development. They should focus on ease of playing and sound production. Warm-up exercises should be within the current capabilities of the player. One should rest frequently during a warm-up. See my website for my warm-up/daily maintenance routine.
4. Embouchure issues
I have seen some pretty significant embouchure issues that are unnecessary. Part of this is making sure to start a student on trumpet with the correct embouchure and monitoring the student so he/she doesn’t alter it during the initial weeks and months of playing. Sometimes, a student’s physical make-up (teeth and jaw structure) requires a unique embouchure or mouthpiece placement. Strive for traditional embouchure set-up and mouthpiece placement. However, if the student has a unique physical set-up, allow the student to form an embouchure and select a mouthpiece placement that is most comfortable and makes the best sound; let the sound be the guide.
A student’s embouchure can also migrate if he/she uses a forced way of playing, trying to develop range too quickly. This is another reason to not put range demands on your trumpet students, and to discourage them from doing so themselves. Students should never manipulate their embouchure in order to be able to play higher notes or anything else.
If you receive a student who has a strange-looking embouchure, and trumpet is not your primary instrument, I would refer the student to a professional trumpet player and teacher for evaluation. He/she will be best equipped to determine if an embouchure change is necessary and how to change it.
5. Developing range
I include this topic not because I see lack of range as a common problem in high school students, but because students typically pursue range development the wrong way. Please refer to the “forcing” topic in the beginner section. Playing the trumpet with ease should be a priority; this is key to developing strength and range. Yet many high school students are almost obsessed with developing range quickly as a way to show off; this results in an unhealthy, counterproductive approach. To be the most successful trumpet player possible, the student should remove this motivation. This often takes an honest heart-to-heart conversation from the instructor. Developing range should not be a top priority; it should develop naturally through focus on a developing a good sound and on consistent practice. Scales are a good way to develop range. The student should play any scales (major, minor, etc.) up chromatically, remaining relaxed and letting the air do most of the work, until the student begins to strain to reach the highest note of a scale. At this point, the student should stop his/her range practice for the day. He/she should rest at this point and can continue practicing or playing later. The student should continue with this routine on an almost daily basis, and eventually, the student will be able to play the note with ease for which he/she previously strained. The student should then add one more scale and continue with this process. The process of making one’s highest attainable note easier to hit is more beneficial to range development than trying to hit notes one cannot yet hit. It is very important to get plenty of rest (play a scale, rest as long as it took you to play that scale, continue with this pattern) and not overplay while trying to develop range, and to increase air and crescendo as ascending. Concentrating on using the corners of the embouchure is important as well, making them firmer and thinking of moving them towards the center of the embouchure as ascending.
Another good way to increase range is through lip slurs. I would have the student use a text for this, like Little’s Embouchure Builder,Arban’s Complete Conservatory Method,Bai Lin’s Lip Flexibilities, or Charles Colin’s Advanced Lip Flexibilities (listed in order of most basic to most advanced).
This also relates back to the “forcing” topic in the beginners section. A very important aspect of trumpet playing is continuing to work on playing the trumpet with greater ease, or using less effort or energy to achieve a certain result. The less one has to work to play something at a certain level, the more difficult levels that person will be able to achieve. This needs to be practiced. The student should take practice materials and spend time trying to make them easier to play, trying to work less to achieve the same result.