by Bruce Silva, John Byre & Don Ryer

Top level, consistent trumpet playing requires understanding of many factors and concepts. These can be grouped into two general categories. The first deals with physical strength and development while the second involves the mental attitude and approach of the player.

Physical Strength and Development

A trumpet player should maintain his physical condition at all times. Jogging, swimming, bicycling, or even good, brisk walking will help keep up the total body strength and stamina necessary for the demanding workload put on a trumpet player today. This general physical maintenance will enable you to develop greater stamina and endurance as well as making you less susceptible to short-windedness, overwork of stomach muscles, and possible physical injury.

In addition to the general physical conditioning, there are several specific areas of the body that require special development and maintenance. These must be initially developed and then regularly maintained in order to keep the total machinery of the trumpet player operating at an optimum level.

The abdomen is the most strenuously used area of the body when playing trumpet. Isometric exercise and any type of stomach exercises are keys to proper abdomen development. This development additionally provides for greater stamina and endurance.

The muscles in the embouchure must also be exercised and developed. Dr. Donald Reinhardt, one of the world’s foremost brass teachers, suggests an exercise that can be done while driving, walking, or relaxing at home. It is known as the “Pencil Exercise”.

Pencil Exercise

  1. Put your bottom lip in front of your bottom teeth.
  2. Place the tip of an unsharpened pencil on your bottom lip (use the end with the eraser.)
  3. Close your mouth touching only the top lip to the top of the pencil.
  4. Hold the pencil in a horizontal position for 15 to 20 seconds.
  5. Rest
  6. Repeat process three or four times.

Embouchure placement on the mouthpiece is dependent on the shape of your jaw, teeth, and facial muscles, and the way the air stream hits the inside of the mouthpiece. The aid of a competent teacher is needed for defining how your embouchure should be set.

The left hand grip is very important to the trumpet player. The grip of the left hand should be firm and should be relaxed only when you are resting. When the left hand begins to tire, the horn will drop causing a misalignment of the embouchure with the mouthpiece, thereby causing inefficiency of the embouchure muscles and constriction of the air stream.

  1. For effective breathing and playing, posture must be good. When standing, the knees should be slightly flexed, not locked into position. The back should be straight, and the neck properly aligned with the spine so that there is a straight unobstructed passage for the air to pass from the lungs through the throat. While sitting, sit up straight with the back slightly arched.
  2. Jogging will help to increase your lung capacity, which will make for greater ease in breathing. It will also help increase your playing power and finishing long phrases.
  3. Breathe through the corners of the mouth while keeping the center of the lips “set” in playing position. This will prevent the embouchure from shifting.
  4. Try not to over-fill with air when playing in the upper register. Only take in as much air as you will need for the upcoming passage.
  5. First place the mouthpiece, then breath, then play.

If you breathe and then set your embouchure, you run the risk of constricting the embouchure and the neck muscles and choking off the air stream.

Mental Approach and Attitude

A positive mental approach to playing is very important. Never try to exceed your capabilities, especially in playing high notes. Trying to do the impossible will lead to lots of “clams” and a creeping unsureness of your abilities.

Try to attain complete control of your horn in a comfortable register (for example, “C” below the staff to “C” two ledger lines above the staff). When you become comfortable and proficient in that register it is time to extend to the next comfortable note. You should ascend in range development only when you feel comfortable with all of the notes in that range, and feel that you can play them any time, even after many hours of playing.

Only after attaining a double “G” or “A” consistently will you be able to extend your register with confidence. The amount of compression needed to play a double “G” is so close to that needed for a double “C” that your main concern at that point will be your abdomen and breathing.

When asked to play a double”G”, do not think about anything except what you have done in the past to play that G. If you have extended your range one note at a time, and have confidence, you should have no problem.

One of the most important things to remember is that not everyone is a Maynard Ferguson, Conrad Gazzo or Doc Severinsen. Those lucky enough to have attained this level of competence have done so gradually over many years.

As Applied to Advanced Lead Playing

To be recognized as an effective lead player you must be consistent and dependable in style and concept as well as being able to lead a total brass section or band night after night, performance after performance. To do this you will be called on to play one double “Bb” or “C” as well as many other notes within your playing register. That “Bb” or “C” may also go unnoticed if missed, but I guarantee that the lack of a good lead sound, concept, and good intonation throughout the rest of the register will cost you your job.

Intonation, concept, sound, and style are much more important than an inconsistent double “C”.

Remember that you must work to stay in good physical condition, always approach the horn in the same positive manner, and think about what you’re working toward when you practice.

The Section Player

Playing an inner part within the trumpet section of a jazz band is as important and sometimes as demanding as playing lead. It is because of this fact that inner parts should have the same amount of accuracy and drive as the lead. In the following material, you will find suggestions and concepts that will make your contribution to your jazz band more effective and at the same time make your efforts more personally satisfying.

When someone listens to a jazz band trumpet section, what they will predominantly hear is the lead trumpet. We learn by listening that the lead trumpet is the “most important”. This to a great degree is true, inasmuch as the lead part is the one that is heard most clearly, and the lead player is the person setting the style for the entire section.

The importance of the inner and lower trumpet parts, however, can be brought into view more easily by using the example of a puzzle. If a jigsaw puzzle is complete with the exception of one piece, the hole that is left (even though it may be small) will mar the picture and detract greatly from the intended effect of the picture. When the missing piece is added, the picture takes on its intended form. At this point, however, the replaced piece is not specifically noticed. Likewise, in the trumpet section, if a part is missing. or improperly played, an obvious hole or flaw may be heard. When the part is then replaced or played properly, the whole sound of the band will be heard even though the inner part will not be heard individually. From this we can see the importance of every part in the section.

The Volume Pyramid Concept

The volume pyramid concept simply involves the air volume relationships within the trumpet section between higher and lower parts. The higher the note being played, the more compression of air pressure is used; and conversely, the lower the note, the less compression. This draws us to the conclusion that while playing at the same approximate volume, a higher note will require less air that is more compressed, and the lower note will use more air that is less compressed. The compression used in higher notes combined with the faster vibration is what causes the lead part to “cut through” above the rest of the section. Lower parts must compensate somewhat for this inherent lack of compression by playing a bit louder than would seem to be a matching section volume. This adds power, fullness, and balance to a section that is frequently missing, particularly in younger or less experienced bands. Remember that because of less compression on lower parts, it is possible for lower parts to be played actually louder than a lead or upper part without drowning the upper part out. This follows through the entire section in a pyramid-type breakdown, where as each part gets lower, more air must be used in order to produce a certain section volume and fullness. The extent of benefit realized by this concept hinges on each individual’s ability to listen and be acutely aware of what is going on around him in relation to section volume. The goal here is to achieve a good special sensitivity; because it is here that the possibility exists that one of the lower parts will come out louder than the lead, the effects of which are most damaging to the section sound. In unison passages, the lead should play out a little louder than the rest of the section for the reason that intonation at this point becomes critical. The section needs to have one pitch to go by that can be heard and matched. In the case where the lead player is laying out during a unison passage, arrangements should be made as to who will assume the temporary unison lead. It is also important that NO player in the section should use vibrato on unison passages. This makes the section sound “out of tune”.

Functions of Individual Parts

Lead: The lead player generally has the responsibility of establishing the style, articulation and phrasing for the section. The lead player must also listen closely to the other section leaders in the band to insure that the band as a whole is playing together. Consistency in interpretation is extremely important for a lead player so that he can be easily followed by others in the section.

Second: The person playing the second part has the task of supporting the lead player, especially when harmony gets close. Volume-wise, the lead must be “pushed from directly below” by the second player. Care must be taken not to surpass the lead player in volume and one must know when to back off. The second part player should also be prepared to play lead sections that occasionally will appear in his part. The second player faces a very demanding workload and must possess great stamina.

Third and Fourth: These inner parts must stabilize the volume of the section by producing adequate volume without overblowing. In midrange and lower playing it is easy to overblow a horn or mouthpiece while still not achieving adequate volume. Be sure that your mouthpiece is large enough to accommodate the larger volumes of air that must pass through. It is also important to note that in these lower parts the degree of dynamic contrast must be the greatest. Dynamics and their contrasts must be exaggerated particularly in the lower part. Due to the higher volume and lower range, it is more difficult to properly execute articulations without distorting the sound. Individual practice is necessary in order to maintain these technical functions.

Fifth: The fifth part commonly will double the lead part down an octave. Intonation is sometimes difficult because of this low part needing the added projection. For a player regularly playing fifth parts, a larger mouthpiece is helpful. The problem discussed for loud low playing for the third and fourth parts also apply to the fifth part.

Section Volume

Section balance and blend must be maintained at all volume levels. The best way to begin to get a good section blend is to assure adequate warm-up time for every player, and adequate time for tuning up. It is impossible to hear blend and balance in a section unless the pitches are accurate. Balance can be obtained by application of the principles of the Volume Pyramid Concept discussed earlier, and in applying those principles, a general rule of thumb should be followed: The higher or louder the section is playing, the more the Volume Pyramid Concept should be used. There will of course be exceptions, but this generally should insure a good solid section sound. As the section volume increases, intonation becomes more elusive and particular attention must be given to changes in intonation with change in volume. It is wise to check your horn with an electronic tuning strobe at different volume levels in order to locate problem notes on your horn.

Following the Lead Player

It is important that the trumpet section function as a cohesive unit. This can be done only if the section players follow the lead player tenaciously. If there is a departure from the usual way of doing things, it should be clearly marked on every player’s part. The standard articulation markings that are found on music today have just about as many interpretations as there are jazz bands. It is necessary in any band to come to a meeting of the minds on definitions of these markings by coordinating with the director. Within the section, the lead player should make these definitions known to everyone. Once again, if there is a change that needs to be made, don’t rely on your memory, but rather mark it on your part.

Releases and phrases need to be marked when full note values written on the page are changed, or when there is any question as to where to breathe between phrases. Accuracy of “time” is the only way to realize full volume potential. If there is a loud downbeat for the section and the attack is staggered and unclean or just not together, the intended impact of sound will be lost.

What we are striving for within the section is consistency of sound. The lead player plays a certain passage as it should be played and the sound in the articulation, for example, is what is to be imitated. A lead player might get a particular sound in the upper register by using a series of breath accents, when the fifth player might have to use a legato tongue to get the same sound. Go for the same sound, not necessarily the same technique.

Preparation for Rehearsal

Warm Up, Then Tune Up: Hours have been wasted in rehearsals because someone didn’t learn his part. In jazz bands there are certain concepts that often need to be developed; and when we are still struggling with the notes, the concentration necessary for playing proper style is wasted on reading. It is very important that if your director does not post a list of tunes for the next rehearsal, that you ask him to do so. Then take the parts home and practice!

A good player of any style will know his or her limitations. Much of today’s jazz band literature calls for extremely high range trumpet work from one or more players in the section. I have seen many good young players frustrated to the point of giving up the horn because they were faced with literature that for one reason or another was out of their grasp. Also, the possibility of physical injury exists when players are seriously overtaxed. Don’t be afraid to mention a problem of this kind to your director. There is a difference between playing a demanding chart, and playing one that is clearly over your head. If you know that you are going to be expected to do a type of playing that you have trouble with, take steps to improve that area of your playing. A competent trumpet teacher is your best bet.

As Part of the Entire Band

The success of any jazz band begins with each individual player. You need first to develop a solid musical foundation and a technical proficiency on your instrument that will enable you to adapt your playing to many different styles. You need to know your parts and understand how they should be played. In a jazz band you are the only one on your part and responsibility lies with you alone. Next, you need to be able to fit in with the other section sound. Finally, your lead player must fit your section in with the other sections in the band much like you must fit into the trumpet section. After all this, you should have a band that has a good sound you can be proud of.

Trumpet Improvisation Introduction:

Knowledge of styles and getting a feel for what you’re playing is by far the most important aspect of improvisation. “Using the ear” or hearing something to play over a progression will develop out of listening, imitation and doing. The actual “reading of changes” or what I refer to as the “Academic aspect” of improvisation grew out of the analysis of the Masters – people like Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Clifford Brown and the like. Through the study of their improvised solos, we find out specifically what scales and patterns work over what chords.

Reading Changes: “Academic Aspect”

Linear concept vs. vertical concept: To begin reading changes, we as brass players have to overcome the linear concept of reading. That is, as brass players we are used to reading one note at a time in a written line. But now we are required to do what rhythm players have always done. That is to think “vertically” or several notes at one time (a chord).

Good basic knowledge of chords (with extensions):

In order to read changes you obviously have to know what notes are in the chord. For example, you should know that a C7 chord contains C, E, G, Bb. This knowledge has to come almost instantly, like the fingering on your horn. The change might only last for one or two beats, so if you are caught up in trying to think about what notes are in the change, chances are it will have already gone by. The way to achieve this is by studying chords and basic theory. Get with rhythm section players and ask questions. You’ll usually find them to be knowledgeable and happy to help.

What fits over what chord:

Begin to study what lines fit over what chords. Jerry Coker’s “Patterns for Jazz” is a very good place to start. This book begins with triads, progresses through 7th chords with extensions, to patterns to be practiced over chords. Another good book, although somewhat more advanced, is Dan Heerle’s “Scales for Improvisation”. This book covers numerous scales and modes and ends with a “Guide to Scale Choice.” The book covers all these various scales in detail with explanations. Combining the ear with the academic: I want to emphasize again the importance of the ear and feel in improvisation. All the academic knowledge in the world will sound mechanical and tasteless without the “Feel” and the use of the “ear”.

Bridging the Gap:

The answer of course is to incorporate the two – the “ear” and the “academic” during improvisation. This comes through disciplined practice. An aid which is a must for a beginning improviser is the Jamey Aebersold albums. These albums “A New Approach to Jazz Improvisation”, range in difficulty from elementary to advanced. They contain a booklet of tunes (with the chord changes) to play along with the album. This is an excellent way to learn in the privacy of your living room rather than on stage. The albums should be played through while just using your ear. Then try to follow the changes by playing just roots at first to get the eye accustomed to following changes. In time, then begin to use 3rds, 5ths, 7ths, and extensions. When this becomes fairly easy, begin using the ear while following the changes and remaining aware of what you are playing. Practice in this manner, gradually using more and more ear, and soon you will be reading changes tastefully, not just playing a lot of correct notes.