Playing Second Trumpet – The Art of the Wingman

The second trumpet player, the wingman, has a special role in any group and there are some things that make it more difficult than playing the first part. The first player usually plays more, higher and more soloistic notes so it’s more physically demanding. The second (and/or third) player isn’t just a passenger, though. Any trumpet player who has been hired to play a fanfare alone will tell you that there’s nothing better than good company.

Playing Second Trumpet: Your Mission

The mission of the inside (second, third, fourth) Trumpet player is to make their section sound great. The first player is in a leadership role for a reason, even if it isn’t a good one. Your job is to follow but that doesn’t mean that you play later, or flatter or quieter. On the contrary, you play on time, in tune and often louder. Match the lead player’s style, breathing, articulation, dynamics and sound as well.

Let’s pick away at that list for starters. This is the way …

Rhythm for Second Trumpet Players

Rhythm – We’re not like orchestral string players who, for the most part, follow their section leaders. We’re typically one player on each part and most of our parts specify some kind of hard (tongued) articulation. If a section player waits until they hear or see something from the first player then they’re already late – late enough to sound behind or miss the lick entirely. That’s not good.

The only good place to be is exactly on time. The way to do that is to do exactly what the first player is doing – know the part, watch the conductor and listen to everyone else. If all of that is going on and you still can’t get it together it’s time to have a conversation with the first player. The goal of that conversation is to figure out how to get it right, not to figure out who is causing the problem. That approach might expand to include the entire brass section in some circumstances.

Last weekend our orchestra performed Dvorak #7 which has some great rhythmic effects within the section that really forced us to work together, listen and watch. Once we did, the result was well worth the effort. Don’t play behind your section leader … play right. (btw Band teachers take note: This is one good reason to ensure that all of your Trumpet players play 1st, 2nd and 3rd (4th etc) parts. There are more.) In the rare case that your section leader misses an entrance and you make it because you were so well prepared, great. It’ll be your turn to make a mistake soon, so don’t gloat.

Intonation for Second Trumpet Players

In Tune –  This one should be simple but can be a little awkward because occasionally your first player will be out of tune with their surroundings. In the end you’ll have to decide for yourself which way to go but the simplest thing is to stay with your wingman.

If the section sounds bad with the rest of the group at least it’ll sound good together. The exception would be any circumstance where the first player might be counting on you to hold the line on pitch. Most often that will occur when they’re playing up high and need you to produce the overtone for them. Depending on the note and the instrument there might be the odd note that just sounds better if you play it a little high or low.

It is possible that a first player’s pitch isn’t as refined as the second player’s, in which case the relationship could work well in reverse but that’s the kind of thing to discuss openly rather than having a tug of war.

Copied from the Intonation page:

Another trick you can work on with another trumpet player is trying to match various tone qualities, or timbres. If I’m playing second and struggling to match pitch with the first player I try to match their timbre. That usually clears up any minor issues. It does require that you be able to change your tone quality somewhat but it works like magic. Without getting too deep into science it makes sense that if the sound waves are similar it would be easier to match their length (frequency, pitch) as well. I believe that’s why its so beautiful to hear families sing together. Famous singing families share timbre – that’s what’s special about them.

Sound Volume for Second Trumpet Players

Play loud – The simple truth is that the lower part has to be louder than the higher part. If you care to think about the matter, read on. There are three ways to consider this.

First, there’s the fact that we’re almost always playing some kind of tonal music so the first player’s note is already present as an overtone of the lower part(s). Since it’s already present it doesn’t need to be played as loud. Simple math.

Second – If I counted up all of the things I’ve ever been told while playing second Trumpet, 80% of them would be some variation on the theme “play louder”. I recall moving some serious air through a big bore C Trumpet in a rehearsal of Tchaik. #4 and having a conductor (who shall remain nameless) tell me that he couldn’t hear me. I was playing loudly enough that a second violin player in front of me complained to the management about potential hearing damage. I like to think that I was playing so amazingly in tune with the first player that our sounds were indistinguishable. The conductor claimed that he simply couldn’t hear me. The truth is probably somewhere in between.

Third – (and this is the most convincing) – I attended a very interesting lecture (ok, that’s an oxymoron) at a conference last year where a professor talked about a study he has done using a bunch of student musicians. The Bottom line was that the louder the lower part was played the better things sounded. He played us some recordings and the results were like day and night. If I can recall who it was I’ll replace this sentence.

Style for Second Trumpet Players

Style is a funny business. Think about a hat. If a mime wears a beret it just looks right. If a Tibetan monk wears a beret it just looks wrong.

The style of your playing needs to match the music but it also ought to match the style of your first player. (Remember that the goal is for the section to sound great.) If there’s much difference it’ll be audible and unsettling for a listener.

If you think, for instance, that there is a big difference between what the first player is doing and what you think the piece calls for it’s time to use your outside voice. The first player gets to make the decision but you should start the conversation if you think there’s one to have.

Breathing for Second Trumpet Players in a Brass Section

Breathing in a brass section requires at least some degree of cooperation. Where you breathe affects the phrasing, and if you’re trying to say the same thing (musically) you should be saying it the same way.

Playing Second Trumpet in a Trumpet Section

There’s another thing. There has to be a respectful relationship between people who work closely together and Trumpet sections are no different. You don’t have to be besties but you have to be able to cooperate effectively so that you sound good together. You need each other to do that, and good musicians understand that. Make sure that you’re “still an effective team“.

Sometimes that understanding leads to respect which eventually turns into friendship. Music hath charms. If there’s a problem in your section start by reading Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. If you’re a student, have a private conversation with your teacher to see what help they can offer.

More often than not people playing beside each other have very different backgrounds, strengths and weaknesses. The best case scenario is that the section takes advantage of all of its strengths and uses them to compensate for any weaknesses. If everyone in the section understands that, the musical result will be immeasurably better than it would in a setting that lacked cooperation. There are some legendary stories about professional musicians who really disliked each other but were able to put that aside and “make beautiful music together”.

Talking to the conductor is usually best left to the first player. If the second part has something prominent or distinctive that the first part doesn’t, or if the conductor is asking for something specific then it just makes sense for the second player to ask. If it’s a minor detail or probable misprint I’ll often wait until a break and consult the score or the conductor.

Working with the Conductor as a Second Trumpet Player

Speaking about the conductor … there are things that we do and just don’t ask them about. They are in charge but they don’t always know how to get what they want. For instance a conductor might ask for “shorter notes” and your First Trumpet player might interpret that as meaning “accented”. Stay with your wingman.

Printed “D” Notes in 2nd Trumpet Parts of Classical Pieces

 The printed “D” for the 2nd Trumpet simply doesn’t belong where it was written and printed in a lot of classical pieces. Your average conductor – and a lot of above average conductors – would tell you (if you asked, which you won’t) to play the notes right where that great composer wrote them.

That great composer, on the other hand, would thank you for making sense in the occasional place where the limitations of the Classical period Trumpet forced them to write something that was clearly silly. Mozart would rise up and kiss you on the lips for maintaining your place at an octave from the first player instead of jumping up to play a unison D in an otherwise parallel figure. I scanned some parts like that last weekend but probably shouldn’t post them since they’re copyrighted so I’ll do a little composing instead:

If the Trumpet parts in a legit piece look like this:

Fixed Frère

they should likely be played like this:

Frère Jacques

This minor adjustment will take some of the lumps out of the texture and meet our primary goal – to make the section sound great! It also applies when playing off a part printed for a trumpet in a different key from the one you’re playing. If you’re transposing and come across a lick like the one above you should play the printed D and octave below where its printed, but in the right key. So … if the example above was printed for C Trumpet but you’re playing it on Bb Trumpets, you’d play these notes:

Transposed Frère

Simple, right? The bottom line is that when you’re playing those Classical era pieces where the Trumpet parts are almost entirely printed Cs and Gs, any D is suspect. Look over onto the first player’s stand and you’ll see what’s happening. If it looks like the example above just fix it. Don’t ask.

More often than not your part won’t make as much sense as the more lyrical line of the first part, so mispitching is more likely on an inside part. That issue makes it important that you play through your parts even though they don’t make musical sense. Pay special attention to the possibility that you’re mispitching notes here and there. When your part isn’t melodic that’s easier to do.

More About Playing Second Trumpet

It’s also more likely that inside parts will have “knuckle busters” in them – bits that are tricky to finger correctly. Try out the ending of the fourth Trumpet part to the Glenn Miller Band’s version of In The Mood and you’ll get my drift. Thanks to Joe Garland for arranging those knuckle busters.

There’ll be more random thoughts here as they occur …


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

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