Publicity pic 2010 (slice)

The following are opinions I have developed (and continue to refine) over several years of teaching and study. I owe a debt of gratitude to all my teachers for helping me to arrive at a musical identity, but here I should make special note of David Hickman, who laid the foundation for much of what I teach; Luis Loubriel, with whom I have not studied but whose books on Vincent Cichowicz have left a lasting impression on me; and my many students, particularly those from Ball State University, who allowed me to test and refine my understanding in their lessons. If your opinions differ from mine, I would be happy to sit down over coffee to discuss the finer points of trumpet pedagogy, but please do not email me to engage in a debate. Email is not my preferred platform for those sorts of discussions.

What I Think About Practicing

The trumpet you own, the mouthpiece you use, and even the teacher you profess to follow are useless unless you are willing to pay your dues on the horn. There is no substitute for consistent, focused practice with a metronome, a pencil, and a recording device.

What I Think About Air

The hole that forms the throat of a trumpet mouthpiece is small: so small, in fact, that it will regulate the passage of air without the help of the trumpet player. It is important to distinguish between an air column that feels pressurized because of the natural resistance created by the inability of all of the air to pass through the mouthpiece at once, versus the pressure that a player may exert on the airstream using the muscles of the neck, chest, or stomach.

When I encounter students whose air is the source of problems in their playing, the problems nearly always result from muscles that should not be engaged. The player who holds in the air before exhaling; the player who deliberately firms the stomach before ascending to high C; and the player who tenses the muscles of the back and chest trying to take in a large breath are all working at cross-purposes to their own playing. The trumpet requires that the inhale be as close to normal life and as free of tension as possible; that it be released into the trumpet immediately; and that it be adjusted, insofar as it needs to be, by factors such as embouchure, placement of the tongue within the oral cavity, and height of the soft palate of the mouth.

Scientific studies have proven that brass instruments of all types require more air to play loudly than softly and faster air to play high than to play low. The volume (amount) of air is regulated by the aperture and by the fullness of the breath itself. Just as it is possible to take a shallow breath or a full breath when standing in the kitchen cooking dinner, so it is possible to do the same while playing a trumpet, without adding unnecessary tension to the air column. The speed of the air is regulated not by the force with which we attempt to squeeze it from our lungs but by the way we shape the tongue, the roof of the mouth, and the embouchure as it passes from our lungs to the instrument.

I believe that the concept of “air support” is little better than a myth, since it is an abstract and ill-defined term that has been coined to describe the motion of an invisible substance (air) through the human body. I suspect that most teachers use the term “air support” to refer to the degree of consistency with which a player maintains the volume and speed of the air, and it is true that most students will respond to a directive to “support with your air” by automatically making a successful adjustment. However, this term probably means something slightly different to everyone, and for this reason I avoid using it. The notion of “supporting from the diaphragm” is outright impossible, since the diaphragm relaxes involuntarily as a person exhales and no amount of squeezing in the abdominal area can prevent it from doing this.

What I Think About Embouchure

The trumpet embouchure properly functions as a balance between two opposing muscle groups. On the one hand, the orbicularis oris is a circular muscle that surrounds the mouth; when we contract this muscle, the lips pucker like those of a goldfish. On the other hand, we have the collection of muscles controlling the cheeks; when we contract this group of muscles, the lips pull back in a smile.

In essence, an efficient embouchure represents a balance between these two sets of muscles, whereby the inward motion of the orbicularis oris works against the outward motion of the other facial muscles to lock the corners of the mouth into place (what brass players refer to as “firming the corners”). Trumpet players struggling with an embouchure deficiency almost always utilize one of these forces to the exclusion of the other, which is clearly in evidence as they ascend in range. A trumpet player whose orbicularis oris is stronger than the other muscles will pull the corners inward and s/he ascends beyond a comfortable range. A trumpet player who “smiles” when s/he plays has facial muscles whose pull is stronger than that of the orbicularis oris.

Although the motion of the player’s corners is one of the most obvious physical symptoms of an inefficient embouchure, this is a case where fixing the symptom will not address the underlying cause. The muscles have learned to work out of balance for a reason; simply strengthening one muscle or the other will not address this reason and can in fact seriously harm a player’s development. Above all, the lips need to be relaxed and supple when the player performs; it is the muscles surrounding the lips that act to flatten or tense them. Many of the training aids that claim to strengthen a player’s embouchure by strengthening the lips will actually work against the player’s ability to let the lips respond naturally to the air, and should be avoided.

More often, the source of a player’s embouchure problems has to do with dental structure. When a trumpet player has a substantial overbite or underbite, it can affect the ability of the mouthpiece to rest upon a flat surface. The same thing is true of crooked teeth, which may make it difficult for the player to place the mouthpiece in the center of the mouth. In general, the mouthpiece should rest on a portion of the embouchure that it basically centralized and basically flat. In other words, the mouthpiece should sit as close to the middle of the mouth as possible, in terms of both its lateral and vertical placement, and the jaw should be brought forward if necessary. Practicing in the pedal register can help with jaw placement; moving the actual mouthpiece itself is a traumatic adjustment for most players because it will require the embouchure to learn to rebalance itself. For this reason I prefer to ask a student to change his or her mouthpiece placement only as a last resort.

What I Think About Mouthpiece Pressure

Mouthpiece pressure becomes problematic both when there is too much of it and also when there is not enough of it.

It is undoubtedly possible to damage the tissues of the embouchure by pressing too hard against the face, and for this reason, excessive mouthpiece pressure should absolutely be avoided. However, it is also true that a trumpet player in a zero-pressure situation is absorbing into his or her body all of the force that is not being permitted to impact the trumpet. The law of equal and opposite reactions matters here; if air needs to pass into the trumpet, something needs to act in opposition to the air in order to prevent the trumpet from flying across the room. I believe that absorbing the opposing force in one’s body is counter-productive at best. I would instead argue that the embouchure is best served neither by the removal of all mouthpiece pressure nor by excessive pressure but rather by consistent pressure. The body will adapt to a force that is consistent, especially if this force is counteracted by the opposing pressure of the air entering the instrument. It will not adapt to the sudden pressure exerted by a player who chooses to press down only when it is time to play above (for instance) high C.
What I Think About Equipment

Equipment has never been an area of special interest for me, and I have no interest in making it so. I have chosen to play Bach trumpets (excepting my piccolos) because I appreciate the range of colors that I can get from these horns, and I appreciate the level of feedback (resistance) that I get from my instruments.

I play Stomvi mouthpieces exclusively because I enjoy the feel of the rim and appreciate that I can use a similar rim on all of my instruments; I believe in the concept of adjustable mouthpiece sleeves; and I think the Stomvi customer service is fantastic.

If you are attempting to purchase a trumpet and you are not my private student, please do not contact me to ask for advice about your equipment (but if you are my private student, I want to play the horn before you buy it!). I do not consider myself to be the most qualified person to answer this question for a stranger whose playing is unfamiliar to me. In general, I would argue that the trumpet you should own is the trumpet you will be most excited about practicing. If you are a college student, you need to consult your professor before purchasing anything.