12 Things I Can Do to Improve My School Band Trumpet Section

This is a copy of the Post: 12 Things I Can Do to Improve My Trumpet Playing which is directed at young Trumpet players. This version, however, has been edited for Band teachers. Some of the information here is presented differently but is essentially the same. If you’re an experienced brass player there might be the odd thing you disagree with – no big deal – just take it with a pound of salt. The points appear in no particular order, just the way they came to mind.The bold purple text is only on this teacher post.

12 Things that can make a big difference to how well the Trumpets in your Band play. These are the things that I see and hear in schools all of the time and most of them are easy to fix if you want your Trumpet section to play well. In most Band classes there just isn’t the opportunity for the teacher to spend much one-on-one time with each player, so some things just slide. These are mostly things that kids can work on themselves.

1 Listen Critically to Yourself

This might be the single hardest thing to do, but you can make it the easiest just by doing it all of the time. Every time you pick up the horn listen to all of it – every characteristic of every note. Before long you will hear things that you know you should fix. You’ll probably be able to fix them yourself, but if you can’t your teacher or conductor will love you for asking them for help. “Excuse me Ms. Goodband, is there a way I can play that note better in tune with the clarinets?” You just got an “A” for asking the best question of the year.

Every note you play has a bunch of different traits, or characteristics and all of them are things that good musicians care about. It really matters that you hear them, that you care, and that you try to do something about them. Several of these traits are listed below.

The idea with this point is that a lot of young players lack the feedback loop that you and I have. They provide lots of input information and simply don’t listen to the sounds they’re making. They don’t hear the things you and I do because they’re not listening for them. The more we encourage that critical listening the better.

2 Make a Better Sound

If you’ve been playing for a while but haven’t worked at improving your Tone then you should probably pop over to this page and do a little work on that. You can never really stop working on Tone Quality or Timbre and it’s a good idea to have some idea of what a good Trumpet sound really is. There isn’t just one “great” Trumpet Tone that we can all work towards. Listen to some great Trumpet players and set your your goals. There’s an album by Arturo Sandoval on which he makes himself sound like a bunch of the big Trumpet Heroes of the 20th Century. There are jazz players, classical players commercial players, mariachi … you name it. Start by trying to make a pleasant, full sound. There are some tips for that on the post I mentioned above.

Some of the issues with your Trumpet section will solve themselves as individual skills develop. On the other hand, it’s pretty much impossible for that section to sound good until they’re all making some sort of real Trumpet sound. While tone quality, tuning, mispitching, etc are discreet concepts they are interdependent. Work on tone quality, like studying Music, is self-rewarding and it will help improve air flow, phrasing, tuning, intonation, mispitching, articulation and more.

3 Improve Your Posture

This one sounds like something your Band teacher might have mentioned, but gravity has a way of making Trumpets and players droop. Your instrument (like most) was designed to be played with good posture. What that looks like for us is bell and elbows up and away from the body. In a serious Marching Band the bells have to be out perfectly horizontal. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but maybe too much work for some of us. You want to point the bell at your intended victim – oops – I meant your Band Teacher. When your Band Teacher is at their music stand where they conduct, your music and that teacher should be in the same line of sight. You might have to look through your hands and slides to see the notes but you’ll manage. If you’re not tall enough to get the bell over the stand the move the stand a little to one side. Don’t play straight into it and don’t even think about playing under it.

You should be sitting upright with your chin up so that the massive amounts of air that you’ll be taking can flow freely through your airway and throat. If you can’t sit up and hold the bell up because you have some weird grip on the Trumpet it’s time to change that grip.

Not all Band teachers appear to care about posture, and given the tens of thousands of things we could work on in a given class it’s an easy one to let slide. Miles Davis was an anomaly. Unless you’re teaching about improvisation, don’t even let those beginners see a photo of him. Show them Wynton Marsalis, Sean Jones, Rashawn Ross. (While you’re at it make sure that the girls see famous players like Tine Thing Helseth, Alison Balsom and less famous ones like Theresa May, Chloe Swindler, Andrea Motis.)

I watched Peter Boonshaft (Sound Innovations, Teaching with Passion etc.) give a couple of talks at a conference and he does this hilarious thing where he stares, stamps his foot, slaps his back pocket at tells kids to sit up. After a while he backs things off to the point where he doesn’t seem to do anything; they just sit up. He proves that if you’re insistent for a while, you can make good posture automatic. Let’s face it … hassling kids about posture is no fun. It also matters too much to leave it alone. Consider it a starting point for playing their instruments well and make it happen.

4 Pull Your Main Tuning Slide

Your Trumpet was built too short – all of the good ones are. The idea with the main tuning slide is that you should be able to adjust it in either direction to accommodate any fluctuations in pitch that might occur in your Band. Most beginning bands sounds bad that it doesn’t matter, so Band Teachers sometimes don’t get around to dealing with this little detail. Most beginning Trumpet players are struggling enough to find the right notes without adding another issue to the mix – the fact that they are painfully sharp. Pull that slide out about a half an inch (that’s 1.3 cm for some of us) and leave it there for a few days – or months.

That slide should actually be pulled out the right amount, but what is the right amount? If you have access to a tuner or a tuning app try tuning to your G (Concert F) and see where the tuner says you should be. If the tuner says you’re sharp pull it out a little more. If it says you’re flat push in a little. What that tuner is telling you is useful information but that’s all it is. Use it as a setup guide, but don’t trust it. There’s a bunch of factors that can change from note to note, minute to minute, etc etc etc. Use it, but don’t rely on it. Learn to listen and adjust if you must.

The most frustrating thing for beginning Trumpet players is not knowing what’s coming out of the bell. If the Trumpet’s main tuning slide is pushed all of the way in it’s going to play sharp – really sharp. On average it’ll be close to 50 cents sharp, which puts them about halfway between the right note and the nearest wrong note. That means that a kid who is doing everything else right is always going to sound terrible. That kid might not know what “out of tune” is, but they know they sound bad. My suggestion that they pull the main tuning slide a half an inch is intended to get them in the ball park. You and I know that an arbitrary placement of that slide isn’t going to get them perfectly in tune. It will get them closer and ensure that they don’t suffer under the misapprehension that the slide should always (or ever) be all the way in.

btw – I see just as many other young brass players who would benefit from pulling their main tuning slides as well. Same logic.

5 Stop Writing in Note Names and/or Fingerings

Relax … I didn’t say that you have to become fluent in a whole new language before you’ll be any good at this. Here are some ideas to help you learn to read you music so that you can be a better Trumpet player. (Ok, so maybe I actually mean that you have to become fluent in a whole new language before you’ll be any good at this.) It’s not that hard. You probably only know a handful of notes and you can read them – sort of. 

Yesterday I fought this fight in a Grade 7 Band class. Here’s how it went … Kid wants time to write in the fingerings before we play something … we play it … we play it again for the kid to catch up … I tell them to close their eyes and play it again … they do. Sure, it was an easy tune but not one kid needed to look at their note names or fingerings or slide positions. They just played it, and pretty well. You don’t really need those note names/fingerings. Not only are they unnecessary, they’re getting in your way. While you only have a few different pitches to play it’s time to force yourself to read the notes. 

If you already have them pencilled in all over the place try erasing them on the easy tunes. Then erase the ones on the repeated notes – those ones are really unnecessary. When you get a new line in the book or a new piece of music only write in the ones you really, really need. Don’t write in any repeated notes. If there’s a part of the piece that is like an earlier part don’t write in anything. You can do this. If I was your teacher I’d rather hear the odd mistake than have you writing all of that stuff in. Think of the time you’ll save!

Because you’re a brass player, the number one reason that writing in fingerings is a problem should have already occurred to you. The more notes you can play, the less useful that information is to you. That’s because as your range increases you are able to hit more and more notes in the same fingering. If you’re reading the fingerings, which of the several available notes should you play? If you think it’s easier you’re wrong. what’s next is that because you’re always making that kind of mistake (see below) your teacher is gong to put you on 2nd or 3rd Trumpet parts which often don’t play the tune. Because it’s not the tune you can’t “hear” it in your head as well and you’ll screw up even more. This is the death spiral of the fingering-writer-inner. Pull up, pull up!

Having said all that, it’s a really good idea to write in the odd fingering here and there if there’s a good reason: a spot where you keep playing a wrong note; a spot where you run into a C# for the first time halfway through a piece; a note where you’ve figured out an alternate fingering that helps somehow. The pencil is a strategic tool not a crutch.

Okay, if you really want to disagree with me on this one go ahead. It’s your life. Some of us just don’t like this fight. Some of us who’d like to think we’re getting it right are shocked when we collect parts just to see fingerings all over the place. Brass players absolutely need to see how high or low a note is and there’s no better system for that than written music. Fight this battle early and often and your Trumpet players might never thank you. They will also not be the section that is dragging down your band because they can’t read their parts. Unless they’re making an anemic sound (see above) you’re going to hear every mispitched note and approximated rhythm until they give up in frustration. It’s worth the fight.

Of course you could let them write in the fingerings and teach them everything by rote for the next handful of years. Have fun with that.

6 Hit More Right Notes

This is not as obvious as it sounds. If you have diligently learned your fingerings you might think you sound great. Chances are that you play plenty of wrong notes, but you play them with the correct fingering. We call that mispitching and all brass players do it. As we get better at playing we mispitch fewer notes but it’s a thing that all Trumpet players work on. This might be the most important reason for us to read the notes in the music, not the fingerings that we’ve pencilled on. As the noteheads rise on the staff, the notes in the music are higher – it seems so simple. Try this quick test to see if you’re playing mostly right notes.

If you’re only working with several notes then you’re odds of hitting right notes aren’t too bad if you’re listening. As your range increases you have to get better at predicting what the next note should sound like and setting yourself up to hit it correctly. That means that as you become a stronger player you need to strengthen your ability to separate right from wrong as well. The more notes you can play, the better you have to be at finding them (listening). Learning to sing through your parts doesn’t sound like a lot of fun to some players but it is a really important skill in finding right notes. Relax, you don’t have to be a good singer; just a good note finder.

This point is clearly related to the one before it, but even good readers are guilty of mispitching occasionally. It is the cause of most of the wrong notes in your section if they otherwise know their parts. Right notes are self-rewarding, but lots of mispitched notes don’t sound bad enough for a kid to bother fixing. Encouraging your players to listen critically to their playing is what we’re onto here, and that might be the most important skill you can teach them.

7 Tongue Notes Cleanly

A surprising number of young players manage to learn a bunch of notes and a few pieces of music that their band played without ever learning to tongue properly. Almost all good Trumpet players tongue with the “Tip of the Tongue at the Top of the Teeth”. Say that a few times. That’s where and how you want most notes to start. Try not to let your entire tongue get involved – just the tip. It should be a slight enough movement that it can be done quickly and without sounding like a gun going off. Practise this skill on an easy note or two very day until it lightens up and starts to sound crisp and clean. 

Lots of young players try tonguing with their tongue actually sticking out between the teeth into the mouthpiece. This is a bad thing and needs to be corrected. It can result in a loud “thwack” on each note or in notes sounding early of late or just sloppy. Get that tongue out of there. TTTT (Tip of the Tongue at the Top of the Teeth.) 

Above I said “almost”. There are some players who employ a technique called “anchor tonguing”. I’ve tried it and gone back to the tried and true TTTT. However, some of the players who use anchor tonguing are seriously good. Jens Lindemann played a series of concerts with our orchestra last season – he’s a modern-day Trumpet Hero and an anchor tonguing enthusiast. If the tip of your tongue is comfortable staying on the bottom of your mouth and you are tonguing clearly with the next part of your tongue, the “dorsal” if you like, then keep doing it and research anchor or dorsal or KTM tonguing. I’m no expert on that subject. Try the Trumpet Herald forums.

If this issue is rampant in your Trumpet section it might be a problem elsewhere in your band. For simplicity sake I suggest that you teach the TTTT approach but be aware that there are occasionally kids who are more comfortable anchor tonguing. If you come across one don’t try to change it unless it sounds really clumsy.

8 Tongue When You Should

What this means is be deliberate about when you’re tonguing and when you’re slurring. That information is in your music in the form of printed (or pencilled) slurs. Otherwise everything gets tongued. If you want to be really clever you can think about whether to tongue notes hard with a clean T or a little more gently with a D or even an L, but let’s not get carried away. If I had a dollar for every wrong articulation (that’s the fancy word for tonguing) I’ve heard I’d have a different motorcycle for every day of the week. 

Why does it matter? Try saying anything out loud right now with your tongue stuck in one place. That’s what your playing sounds like if you’re not using your tongue deliberately. If you get this right and there is someone beside you in Band class that doesn’t, you’ll hear it loud and clear, Because they’re 15 feet away, your teacher might just hear everyone messing it up, so share your newfound care for articulation with your section mates.

As above, this tends to be a class wide issue. Addressing articulation can make a huge difference in how a band sounds. Assuming that they are all able to tongue, getting a group to articulate as printed is like flicking on a light switch. It can take very ordinary playing and make it suddenly seen much cleaner and more expressive.

9 Crack Your 3rd Valve Slide for Low D and C#

Alright, if you somehow got here without hearing about this little detail, today is the day to fix it. Your low D and the C# right below it sound really bad if you don’t push your 3rd valve slide out. They are so sharp that they make you sound like you’re playing a wrong note every single time you play one. That slide – the one with the ring on it – needs to be in for some other notes. For the D it should be out about 5/8″ (1.6cm). For the C# go even further, around one inch (2.5cm). If you’re hearing this for the first time, just do it. If you’ve been playing successfully without bothering, then you’re not as good as you think you are. Don’t trust those measurements – they are just to get you doing this. As you get good at it try using a tuner and get a more accurate picture of exactly where that slide needs to be in the musical contexts where you need it.

If your slide doesn’t move easily it needs some slide grease. If it’s really sticky you might have to clean it up a little, then grease it. If it simply won’t move at all your Trumpet might need a visit to a repair shop. If you want to play well this matters that much. If you’re in a beginning band class it’s going to be a while before you need one of the notes that requires that slide to be all the way in. So … you could just pull it out for the D’s and leave it there for a month or two.

This point is a deal-breaker for me. I won’t let complete beginners play a single low D without at least attempting to crack that 3rd valve slide. Make it a part of the fingering. If there’s a kid with a slide that won’t move, get it going. Dig into your toolbox or junk drawer to find a slide ring or screw for the kid who doesn’t have one. (I’ve even used a ligature screw of the correct thread to hold that ring in.)

The low D and C# really need this every single time. It’s the same as the tuning slide point above. If the slide isn’t out the note won’t even be close. Compounding this is that the low D is a really important note in a lot of early band music. If your Trumpets are consistently playing terribly out of tune that will become an accepted sound in your band. Consider it musical gangrene.

10 Don’t Hurt Yourself Trying to Play High Notes

Here’s the thing with high notes. You can hurt yourself trying too hard to play high notes. You’ll never get them if you don’t try, just don’t overdo it. There is no scale or measuring device for how hard is too hard, so you are going to have to pay close attention to what you’re doing and stop when you feel like something is going wrong. Pain is a sure sign that something is wrong. If your lips or gums hurt or bleed it’s time to put down the horn. If you feel like your head is going to explode from the pressure, stop before it does. That kind of exertion is not healthy. If anything you’re doing causes pain or what you think is damage stop, rest, recover and ask around for some guidance. If you have access to an adult who knows more than you do about playing the Trumpet, French Horn, Trombone, Baritone or Tuba ask them for help. If your Band teacher isn’t a brass player ask anyway – either they’ll have some suggestions or they’ll know someone who should. See #12

Here’s the thing with high notes. You can hurt yourself trying too hard to play high notes. You’ll never get them if you don’t try, just don’t overdo it. There is no scale or measuring device for how hard is too hard, so you are going to have to pay close attention to what you’re doing and stop when you feel like something is going wrong. Pain is a sure sign that something is wrong. If your lips or gums hurt or bleed it’s time to put down the horn. If you feel like your head is going to explode from the pressure, stop before it does. That kind of exertion is not healthy. If anything you’re doing causes pain or what you think is damage stop, rest, recover and ask around for some guidance. If you have access to an adult who knows more than you do about playing the Trumpet, French Horn, Trombone, Baritone or Tuba ask them for help. If your Band teacher isn’t a brass player ask anyway – either they’ll have some suggestions or they’ll know someone who should. See #12

GUILTY! Almost all of us are guilty of this one at some point in our careers. There are kids who just seem to be able to play high and that’s great. There are lots of kids for whom it just not that easy. Those kids, and we’re talking about the vast majority here, need to approach high playing with care. They need good fundamentals, regular directed practise and lots of time. Choose appropriate repertoire for their skill level and if you really must programme that arrangement that takes the first Trumpet up too high, get out your pencil. You can have a clarinet, alto sax or flute play the high stuff. Your 1st Trumpet can play down an octave – a real-world survival skill they should learn from you. Play it yourself if you must. If it hurts maybe you’ll choose wisely next time.

11 Improve Your Flexibility 

Strength and flexibility are traits that should be kept in balance. People who do Yoga know about this, Dancers know about this, Athletes know about this. What matters about this for Trumpet players is that it’s of no use to be able to play all day long and scream away on high notes unless you can actually hit the particular notes you want, when you want them. That’s what flexibility amounts to, or gives us. It’s such an important thing to Trumpet players that there are new books full of flexibility exercises coming out all the time. This has been happening for at least a hundred years. There are some common themes in those books. The general idea is a bit like stretching and it always starts easy. There might be a section or a couple of lines in your band method book that has the word “Flexibility” on or around it. It should be easy, slurred, not fast and not particularly high (at first). I first came across this kind of thing when we called them “lip slurs”. They were long easy lines of slurred notes that expanded to include a player’s entire range, high and low.

Without stepping on someone’s copyright I can’t really show you what I do every day, but I can tell you. I start with some favourite lines out of Knud Hovaldt’s booklet called “Trumpet Technique – Lip Flexibility” then some of Vince Chichowicz’s Flow Studies. Nothing happens before I do these two things and feel ready. Here’s a sample of the Flow Studies that you can read and play along with.

Trumpet players working on flexibility is like athletes working on flexibility. It’s easy to get fixed on playing higher and louder and often kids can figure out how to make those happen. They usually end up playing inefficiently and pulling their horn onto their chops too hard. Developing flexibility works towards efficiency and against excess pressure. Most method books have a line or two in the sporting the word “flexibility” and sometimes they are similar to real flexibility exercises. Encourage your players to incorporate lip slur and flexibility exercise into their daily warm-up. That might start will encouraging a daily warm-up.

12 Get Private Lessons

As much fun as we’re having here on the inner tube there is no substitute for having private lessons with a good Trumpet teacher. Know that getting these lessons is the best way to improve your playing. Most teachers value their time and charge accordingly, so it won’t be cheap. Know also that no teacher is going to drop by your house every day to see that you’re practising, so you could waste a bunch of money if you’re not going to work at it. This is not like those YouTube videos where you spend half an hour waiting for the big idea and then you get presented with a Special, Time-Limited Offer where someone wants your money. I don’t want your money and I don’t want to give you lessons. Relax.

If you live in a moderate sized town or any self-respecting city there should be some professional Trumpet players kicking around. Most of them teach Trumpet students in addition to playing and some of them are really good at teaching. There are even some really good trumpet Teachers whose playing days are behind them. Ask your music teacher if there’s anyone they recommend, have a parent do a little research as well and see if you can “test drive” a teacher for a lesson or two and see if it’s going to work. If there’s a symphony orchestra around its Trumpet players would be a good place to start. If there’s a university or college nearby with a Music Department give them a call. First (and most expensive) choice would be their Trumpet professor but chances are that person is too busy. The real goldmine is the hungry Trumpet students in that department. It’s possible that the prof would recommend one or two for you to choose from. 

If you’re a real beginner that is just keen to get better you could offer your lunch money to a good high school Trumpet player. That would probably get you the kickstart that you need. You (and hopefully your parent and band teacher) have to be aware that there are plenty of “good” high school players that just aren’t that good. Hopefully you’ll find one that is a good musician, a thoughtful, decent person and a good listener. If that person is getting lessons from someone else, then you’ll benefit.

This point is here because private lessons are still the Gold Standard for instrumentalist who want to get better. The existence of this blog owes itself to the fact that not many young Trumpet players are going to get such lessons. Don’t be afraid to encourage your students to get help from someone else. You might be the best Trumpet player you know, but if you’re doing the job the way most good teachers do, you don’t have much time give private lessons. If you have a family then you’re too busy. On the other hand, if you’re not the best Trumpet teacher you know then you owe it to your students to encourage them to look outside the band room for help. You’re going to teach them and their classmates a whole lot of other stuff and you are their expert. Most kids won’t want lessons until later, when they’ve started to make career decisions but it’s a good idea to let them know that there is a whole world of music education out there in the world.

13 … You know its coming …

I’m saving this spot for the next rant.

Oh Yeah, Somewhere on this site it says that I’m an orchestral Trumpet player and retired high school Band teacher. That’s true, but somewhat simplified. I’ve been playing professionally since the late 70’s- the vast majority of that in professional symphony orchestras and brass groups. I’m no Maurice André but I can play. More to the point I’ve been teaching Band since the mid-80’s and spent several years as a school district Music Supervisor before “retiring”. Now I consult, guest conduct, adjudicate and even substitute teach occasionally if it’s just Music and I can walk there. My daughter makes me do all of this writing – I think she’s hoping it’ll help unwind decades of getting wound-up.

Jim

Jim is an orchestral Trumpet player and retired high school Music teacher.

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