This post is intended for students in their early years of Trumpet playing who want to make a better sound on their Trumpet. You might be here because your school music teacher said something about your tone or because you’re hearing something about the sound you make that isn’t as good as you’d like it to be. Here are some suggestions that have worked for my students over the years … hopefully one or more of them will help you.
Let’s get a few things straight right off the top …
- We’ll assume that you’re playing on a decent, working Trumpet with a decent mouthpiece – nothing fancy, just ok should be fine.
- Let’s also assume that you’re able to play a handful of notes, they just don’t sound great.
- Making a better sound can take a long time. Lots of really good, experienced players work on this continuously throughout their careers.
- Pursuing a better sound is almost pointless without having some idea of what “better” sounds like. Listen to some players whose sound you like and try to work towards that kind of sound.
- Warm up every day that you play. If you don’t already do that, start. If you’re not sure what a warm-up looks like click here and start with this other post.
- Tone, Sound, Timbre, Quality – All the same thing
Open your throat:
If your sound is strained, weak, brittle or some similar description the most likely culprit is that the back of your tongue is closing off your throat and not letting much air flow through to the mouthpiece. This happens quite naturally when you take a big breath. If you take a really big breath your throat wants to close off even more. It’s is a survival reflex that keeps our lungs from filling up with water if we fall in a lake. Like singers, we have to train our throats to stay open, passive while we take and use our breaths. It sounds easy but you’re here because it isn’t.
As you’re reading this be aware of what’s happening as you breath normally. You do this somewhere between 17,000 and 50,000 times every day, so it is clearly happening all on its own. When you take control of that otherwise automatic (autonomic is the fancy word) system your body wonders why and closes your throat before you’ve had time to tell it not to. You can control your breathing so go ahead and do it. Start by stopping and starting each in-breath and each out-breath. The result is that you’re holding your breath now and then. That’s the opposite of what we want. What we want is to imagine that there is no stopping between breathing in and breathing out, or at the other end of the breath.* It’s as though there is an instantaneous change of direction without stopping. The rise and fall of the breath is like the rise and fall of a rollercoaster, not an elevator. So, practise taking some bigger breaths without the stops and starts. What you’re up to is training yourself to take deep breaths without stopping them by closing your throat. That closed throat is the enemy of good Trumpet tone and it’s the back of your tongue that’s doing it. Your tongue isn’t pretty. It’s a big organ that goes well down your throat. Like an iceberg we only see its tip.
Blow – But With an Open Throat
Now, rather than exercising the power of your mind on simple breathing, try blowing the air out instead of just breathing. One of the things we need to do as Trumpet players is to be in charge of how much air we’re blowing out and how fast that air is going. That’s how we change loudness and what notes we’re playing (in any given valve combination). Form a Trumpet embouchure with your lips and experiment with different air speeds. You can feel them if you place the palm of your hand in front of the opening. Try for slow, warm air and fast, cool air. If you’re doing this for a while you should probably sit down – it’s possible to hyperventilate (breathe too much) which can make you dizzy enough to fall down. If you get dizzy it’s time to stop this nonsense for a while.
If things are going well, get ready to play your Trumpet. Plan to play the most comfortable, easy note you know. That could be an open G or a low C or whatever other note you’re most comfortable playing. Take an easy breath and let it go. Take another breath and let it go through the Trumpet. Don’t be concerned if a totally unexpected note happened to come out, just let it go. Do this a few times until it starts to feel normal … the not stopping the breath thing. If you’re playing a really easy note with an open throat you should be hearing a bigger sound than you were making before. It might be louder, it might not, but it will likely be fuller sounding – better sounding. If it isn’t, skip down to the next paragraph. If it is sounding better then try going up or down to the next note that you know. Go through the same process and try to make it sound just as good. Work your way up and down trying to widen the range of that better sound. Keeping the throat relaxed when it wants to close might seem like trying to calm down when someone is yelling at you to calm down. It’s not. You can do this.
Take lots of air:
Sometimes poor tone comes from simply not taking enough air to make a good sound. There doesn’t always have to be a lot of air moving through a Trumpet (as when you’re playing quietly) but there does always have to be a lot of air behind the sound. Think of the air supply in your lungs as jet fuel for the sound and treat it as a most vital resource. It’s better to have more than you need than to run out. Ask a pilot. What we’re really doing is exciting the air inside our Trumpets to vibrate and make a nice sound. Our lip flaps in the breeze inside the mouthpiece to make that happen. Nothing happens without that breeze.
A lot of school band teachers tell all of their brass players to play loud all of the time. They do that so that their brass players won’t allow their throats to close. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. If you’re exerting yourself, moving lots of air and still sounding constricted your throat is not yet relaxed enough to allow a free flow of air. It’s possible that your exertion is resulting in tension in your throat that is helping to close it off. Go back to practising smooth, deep breathing and really focus on allowing air to come and go without tension in the throat.
If you don’t think you’re taking big enough breaths to support the sound then you may have to practise that on its own. When you draw a big breath imagine that the diaphragm below your lungs is dropping into your abdomen allowing your lungs to fill from the bottom up. There isn’t a big empty space in your abdomen so your guts are going to have to get out of the way. It’s a good thing your skin is stretchy. Try sticking out your belly to make space for the diaphragm and lungs to drop down and fill up. (Some players find that they expand more on their sides and back than in front.)That’s the sort of air supply you want to fuel a big Trumpet sound.This filling up shouldn’t result in the air being stuck in the throat by a closed-off back of the tongue or it’s all wasted. Big breath, free flowing air. Practise this without the horn a few times then try it on an easy note.
Once you have their air flowing freely through yourself into the Trumpet your sound hold become more full and pleasant. You may find that it’s only pleasant on a couple of notes. Don’t worry. Focus on this every day as you practise and slowly but surely the “sweet spot” in your sound will widen to include higher and lower notes until you sound good across most or all of your range.
Playing long, relaxed, easy, beautiful notes on the Trumpet is so good for your playing that it’s a thing all on its own. Search “Trumpet Long Tones” and you’ll find tons of exercises and discussions about them. (Like most good things, do them in moderation. It is possible to get too much of a good thing.)
The fact that you even care about the quality of your Trumpet tone is a really good thing. It’s probably the single most important thing in improving your sound. Listen to other players – like these Trumpet Heroes – and close the gap between their sound and yours!
* If you know someone who is into Yoga or Meditation they might be able to help you with the whole breathing thing.