Professor Reyman's Fundamentals of Trumpet Playing

Not all “fundamentals of trumpet playing” are universally accepted as “fundamental.”  One would think that by now we would know exactly (in scientifically proven terms) how to produce the most efficient sound on the trumpet.  The truth of the matter is that no scientific study has adequately measured all the variables involved in brass playing.  That leaves a lot of room for divergent kinds of pedagogies, some of which can potentially confuse (and ruin) trumpet players.

You must understand that trumpet teachers tend to base their trumpet teaching principles on their personal experiences playing the trumpet, and/or principles “revealed” to them by their teachers.  These pedagogical approaches may be very successful for many students, but if the instruction is not based on solid natural laws and logic, the results will be far less desirable than hoped for.

I am not saying that you should question each and every thing your teacher says, but you should constantly be making assessments of the techniques you are using, and prove to yourself (over a sufficient time period) that they are working or are not working for you.  Don’t just follow blindly.  Instead, constantly seek those techniques that work best for you, asking yourself if they are logical and natural, and above all, effective.  Become your own teacher!

I believe that there are two basic fundamentals of trumpet playing:

  1. The lips must be free (supple) to vibrate, not restricted by excessive lip tension or excessive mouthpiece pressure.
  2. The airflow must be of sufficient quantity and energy to enable the lips to vibrate efficiently, energetically, and at the proper pitch.

These two basic fundamentals seem obvious don't they?  But how many trumpeters violate these two principles on a regular basis, especially in the upper register?  I've seen hundreds of trumpet players who would agree with these principles in theory, but in practice let themselves introduce tension and pressure to the embouchure and at the same time restrict airflow.  Remember, if you keep these two fundamental principles in mind as you practice, most other obstacles will fall away.  

The great trumpet pedagogue Pierre Thibaud and many others believe that pedal tones help establish one’s best lip position.  After years and years of experimentation, I tend to agree.  If you can play a full sound on a pedal F (one half step below your low F#), this should become your default embouchure setting. Once that note is established, begin working your way up with that same setting.  There will be some very minor changes as you ascend, but try to keep that basic forward (slightly puckered) position as you ascend to the high register, without any attempt to press the lips together or use excessive mouthpiece pressure.  Try to maintain a relaxed and open aperture in all registers.

You may wonder how you can play your entire range with the same setting.  The answer is “with increased air speed.”  In other words, hold the embouchure setting in place and blow faster air as you go higher.  If you blow faster air but only get a louder pitch (not higher), it is because you are letting the increased airflow make the aperture larger.  Concentrate on holding the embouchure/aperture setting in place as you ascend.  This will take some getting used to, and will require some time for your embouchure muscles to adapt. 

It is important to realize that this approach also requires a deep relaxed inhalation followed by an energized compressed exhalation (especially in the high register).  My basic approach to breathing is to take a full breath, allowing the shoulders to rise a bit and the abdomen to protrude slightly, but then immediately bring shoulders down and the abdomen muscles inward to “grip” or compress the air in the lungs.  Imagine a “wedge” (to use Bobby Shew’s term) pushing inward just above your belly button.  This feeling should be maintained and increases as you ascend. This is “active” blowing, as opposed to “passive” blowing.  It is quite natural; the same kind of blowing that one uses to blow out candles on a cake or to shout or sneeze.  When done correctly, the energy is directed upward (not downward) through the airway, pushing the air out in a compressed (fast moving) fashion.

Be patient as you work on these concepts.  Your playing will not improve immediately, but work diligently and you will soon see remarkable results.  Good luck!

Recommended Practice Activities

If you want to become a better trumpeter, make sure you include the following in your practice routine:

  • Warm Up Routine: A series of simple melodic phrases or slurring exercises that will help you establish your best sound for the day. 
  • Technical Exercises: For work on fingering and flexibility.  (Technical Studies by Herbert L. Clarke)
  • Additional Lip Slurs: For embouchure strength and flexibility. (27 Groups of Exercises by Earl Irons)
  • Scales and Arpeggios: All major and minor scales and arpeggios should be covered.  Pick several keys each day. Play some tongued, some slurred, some mf volume, some pp volume.
  • Lyrical Studies: This is where you put it all together, and play as beautifully and musically as you can.  (Bordogni Studies or any book of easy lyrical etudes)

If you are a really serious trumpeter and want to become a better overall musician, add the following to your practice:

  • Etudes: Challenging etudes will help you improve both technically and musically. (Preparatory Melodies to Solo Work by Pottag, 27 Melodious and Rhythmical Exercises by Small)
  • Articulation Exercises: Single tongue, double tongue, triple tongue. (Arban Conservatory Method)
  • Embouchure Studies: For improving embouchure control. (Schlossberg Technical Studies)
  • Transposition: This is a skill required of all orchestral and commercial players.  Start with simple melodies out of the Arban Conservatory Method, playing them up a step or down a step.  Gradually move on to more distant transpositions.
  • Playing by Ear: This will develop your ear, which will help your overall playing, and prepare you for improvisation work if you so choose.  Pick simple tunes (folk or pop) and play them in different keys by ear.  Or turn on the radio or a recording and try to play along. This is fun, and very beneficial.
  • Solo works and orchestral excerpts: Prepare solos works to perform in public.  Also, study orchestral trumpet excerpts if you aspire to perform in an orchestra.
  • Improvisation: Practice scales, chords, patterns, etc.  Seek out a teacher who will get you started.