Common Problems and Solutions with Beginning Trumpeters

1. Breathing and use of air

It has been said that in a masterclass setting, when the guest artist asks a question of the participants, the correct answer is always, “more air”. This is true! Air is the most important part of playing the trumpet and students should keep it as their primary focus. They should always be focused on trying to get the air to do more work.

Young students often do not take in enough air or blow enough air. Refer to the breathing exercise under “Initial Lesson”. The student should practice this exercise, trying to maximize inhale and exhale, all the while staying relaxed. This is very important. The student then needs to apply the exercise to his/her playing.

Often, a young trumpeter’s posture suffers when breathing (particularly head/neck position). Establish correct posture, and without holding the trumpet, have the student practice breathing in and out without changing his/her posture. The student should shape their mouth as if fogging a mirror when inhaling. When exhaling, have the student approximate an embouchure but do not buzz. The air should not stop or slow down when changing directions. Make sure the student is blowing air with intensity and direction, as if trying to get rid of it. But, the air should not be forced. Inform the student that air is what plays the trumpet and is therefore the most important aspect of trumpet playing. Have the student reestablish good posture with the trumpet in his/her lap. Then have the student slowly bring the trumpet to playing position, maintaining the exact same posture. Have the student breathe in slowly and deeply and blow air through the trumpet as above, maintaining good posture the entire time. The slowness of action will allow the student to concentrate on maintaining posture. Repeat this process. Encourage the student to involve this process when playing anything. Now, have the student play a second line G, continuing to concentrate on proper posture and breathing. As the student begins to play notes in succession, he/she must increase air and crescendo as he/she ascends.

2. Sound

Sound may be the most important aspect of trumpet playing. Model a good sound for your students and encourage them to listen to recordings of famous trumpet players to get a model of a good sound. The sound should be open, relaxed, warm, and resonant. The sound should not be stuffy, bright, strained, thin, or have a “laser tone” quality. A good trumpet sound is produced by maintaining a relaxed body and an open, relaxed oral cavity. The analogy of “fogging a mirror” is good to help students create the correct mouth shape. Have them raise their right hand close to their mouth, palm facing the mouth, pretending it is a mirror. Ask them to fog it. Then, have them describe what happened in their mouth. The jaw lowered, the tongue is low in the mouth, the shape of the mouth is round, and the throat is round and open. The air is warm and the oral cavity is relaxed and open. Students should practice long tones everyday (play each note between any two open notes in the staff, ascending or descending chromatically, until the student runs out of air, resting in between each note) and focus on improving sound with every beat by opening, rounding, and relaxing the oral cavity.  Unless a student is lipping a note up or down for intonation, he/she should blow through the center of the horn, as opposed to angling the air up or down in relation to the lead pipe.  

3. Bad posture and improper holding of trumpet

For good posture, feet should be flat on the floor, butt should be close to the edge of the seat, back should be straight (or leaning slightly forward-position should be such that one can stand up with almost no adjustment to position), and shoulders should be down and relaxed. The student should be relaxed.

The left hand holds the trumpet, the right hand plays the trumpet. The left hand ring finger should be in the ring on the third valve slide. The other fingers should be curled around the slide and the third valve casing. The wrist should be as straight as possible and the ring finger should be as far out of the ring as possible. The thumb should go in the first valve “crook” or in front of the first valve, at the bottom. The trumpet should rest on the left hand; it is not a “grip”. The right hand should form the shape of a backwards “C” or a Big Mac. The right hand pinky should rest on top of the pinky hook. The right wrist should be as straight as possible. The right hand thumb should go in front of the first valve at the top. Arms should be at a 90° angle.

Good posture is important so that the air is as free-flowing, in and out, as possible. Proper holding of the trumpet is important for staying relaxed and for long-term physical health and comfort.

4. Managing the trumpet physically

Sometimes the trumpet is just too big for a young student. In general, only time and therefore physical maturity will help with this issue. The student should try his/her best to still use proper posture and properly hold the instrument. If accessible, using a cornet instead of a trumpet can help. Also, for those with small hands, wrap a pipe cleaner or two around the third valve slide ring at the back to help with its use. And, using plyers and a cloth to avoid damage, bend the front part of the first valve slide crook closer to the first valve to help with its use.

5. Forcing

Sometimes I meet young trumpet players and watch them play, and am shocked at how much force they use to play the trumpet. Their shoulders are up to their ears, their necks and heads are contorted, and they grip the trumpet with tremendous force and jam it into their faces. There is no way anyone can play the trumpet well when playing in this manner.

Of course there are benchmarks for you as a band director that you and your students must meet. But, try not to impose unreasonable goals on your trumpet students in relation to developing range. Sometimes they are not developing range because they are not practicing. But trumpet requires a lot of muscular strength, and a lot of this comes with time and age because it depends on physical maturity. Don’t give your trumpeters range requirements. Instead let them develop naturally. Most of them will impose some sort of goals or pressure on themselves, as their classmate might have an easier time and they want to play as high as him/her. But forcing will only impede their progress. They must be relaxed to develop range and strength; they must play the trumpet with ease. Establish this in the first lesson and do not move on to new material unless they can play the current material with ease. If they have been forcing, they will need to practice not forcing. This will need to be the priority for awhile, above all else. If they have been forcing for awhile, they will probably get worse before they get better as they start to play in a more relaxed manner. They may lose some range, their sound may become worse at first, and things may become more awkward and uncomfortable for them. But they will adjust to the new approach and eventually will develop strength (that they couldn’t develop before) which will allow them to surpass their past level of ability. Have them concentrate on using their air to make progress with range while maintaining form and keeping the body’s muscles relaxed. Forcing may also be connected with their body size in relation to the trumpet (see #4). If students can play a relaxed G above the staff by the time they leave eighth grade, this is a great place to be. Beginners might have a hard time reaching fourth space C and it may be two years or more before they can play top space E comfortably. Students should also get plenty of rest when practicing the trumpet, resting often and in general as much as they play.

6. Lip slurs

When playing a lip slur exercise, young students will sometimes tongue the notes instead (especially on an ascending slur) or they will interrupt the air stream. Again, relate the air back to whole note air. With an ascending lip slur, not only does the air need to be continuous, but the air will need to increase in speed and quantity as ascending. This requires effort, and either consciously or subconsciously, some students avoid it. Sound should be continuous through any slur. Lip slurs are imperative for developing strength; if they are “cheating”, they will never develop the strength. They will also never be able to execute the lip slurs!

7. Low D’s and C#’s

The D and C# right below the staff are sharp on the trumpet. The C# is sharper than the D. Players need to extend the third valve slide for these notes. It depends on the trumpet and the player, but typically the slide needs to be extended all the way for the C# and a little less for the D. The earlier this becomes a habit, the better. Make sure this slide is lubricated and very easy to move. If not, it should be assessed by a repair person.

8. Initiating sound with the tongue

The tongue does not make a sound. Try moving just your tongue and you’ll see! Some students become too dependent on the tongue. It is often audible that a student is trying to use the tongue to move the air or start the sound. Sound, however, comes from air, as is demonstrated in the first lesson. Many young students use too hard of a tongue. The tongue should be very light and should not strike until the moment the air changes directions. Have the student say these two syllables-“hut” and “tah”. When saying “hut”, keep the tongue against the rough of the mouth. Hold it there for a second or two before saying “tah”. This is where the tongue should hit the inside of the mouth when tonguing. The tongue should be moving towards the strike location at the end of the inhale. If a student is using too hard of a tongue, return to using a “ha” attack. Let this remind them that it is the air that must initiate the sound, not the tongue. Then reintroduce the tongue as only a minor assistant.

9. Ending sound with the tongue

I hear many young players end their sound by bringing the tongue to the teeth. I call this a “tut” articulation. This is not good. Have the student think of saying “ah” as he/she releases a note. Some students also exhibit this problem with repetitive staccato tonguing. Encourage the student to keep the tongue back in the mouth until the next note begins. The tongue should not simultaneously end one not and start another. It should only start notes. I have my students play scales, 8 eighth notes per pitch, at a tempo at which the student can eliminate tongue stopping, with four counts rest in between each pitch. Play several scales a day this way. After one week, increase the tempo by 10 clicks or so. Once the tempo reaches around 160, slow it down to the original tempo and try 4 eighths per pitch, putting the 4 counts rest after every two pitches. When the speed of 160 is reached, move to 2 eighths per pitch, and so on, until you are at 1 eighth per pitch without any rest. Increased speeds can also be attained.

10. Huffing

This is when someone is not using a continuous air stream, but is exhaling for each individual note. It is visually clear as the person tends to actually physically move up and down slightly or his/her abdomen contracts for each note. Have the student play a couple of whole notes or long notes and have him/her observe the constant flow of air. Then have the student play the same note, sustaining at first, then legato tonguing, keeping the air just as steady. An analogy I like to use is that of a faucet. If you turn on a faucet, and run your finger through the water, the water does not stop. Your finger only interrupts it. This should be the same relationship between your air and tongue. The air should be constant; the tongue only interrupts it. In fact, because the tongue is an obstacle to, and thus compromises, the air stream, one must be more purposeful about steady air and use more air when tonguing. The air is what is making the sound; I like to think of the air being in front of the tongue, or the tongue riding the air stream. Next, have the student sustain a note, followed by legato tonguing, then staccato tonguing at a moderate speed, trying to keep the air constantly moving. In reality, the air is not constantly moving, but it should feel like it is (tongue stopping may play a role in this issue as well). It should still feel as though one is constantly blowing air even in staccato tonguing. Sometimes, huffing is the result when a student tries to eliminate tongue stopping from his/her articulation. Keep referring back to what I call “whole note air” and have the student play a whole note and/or legato tongue followed by staccato tonguing. Executing these two approaches back to back will help the student transfer his/her use of constant air to staccato tonguing.