As musicians and trumpeters, we need to develop a solid concept of sound. This is a highly individualized, multi-faceted process requiring dedicated work, attention to detail, and great sound models. I have decided to write about the specific steps that I took in developing my own sound concept and will post them to this blog in short installments. This first article deals with the most dangerous aspect of playing trumpet, forcing.
An important part of developing your sound concept is remembering to never force the sound on the trumpet. I define forcing by these markers:
1) Hearing a strident, harsh sound.
2) Experiencing extreme backpressure.
3) Muscle rigidity in the throat or tongue.
While forcing mainly pertains to loud, sustained playing, it can occur in any register and at any dynamic level.
Forcing is often an air issue and is related to speed, but can also be caused by volume. When forcing occurs, the air stream is too compressed and “tight,” resulting in a harsh sound and severe backpressure. I prefer to use a “loose,” fast moving air stream when I play. To demonstrate the difference between “tight” and “loose” air, try this simple exercise: (During this exercise, pay attention to how the air feels when passing through your hand and how much tension you place on your throat and chest) Take you right hand and ball it into a loose fist, and bring the thumb and first finger to your lips (make sure your fingers are tight together so that no air escapes from the center of the tunnel). Put your left palm about an inch behind your fist so that you can feel the air flow. First, take a large breath and blow the air through the opening as quickly as possible. This represents forcing the air. By blowing at such a quick velocity, the air becomes compressed and uncontrollable. You may feel turbulence and inconsistency in the air stream on your hand as if the air is bouncing off your fingers instead of traveling freely through the opening. Also, you may feel that your neck and chest muscles tighten in order to move the air at such a quick speed. For the second attempt, take the same breath as before and release the air into the opening like a sigh. This represents an inadequate air speed for playing the trumpet. You will find that the air stream barely has any speed by the time it reaches your left hand. It may even feel diffused inside your hand. For your third attempt, take the same breath, but make a compromise between the two air speeds. This represents the “loose” air stream. The air will likely fill up every crevice between your fingers and it will feel as if the air passes smoothly through your fist and will feel solid against your left hand. You should not feel any significant tension on your body.
Note that when you add the trumpet, you also add much more resistance since you are blowing into a longer pipe and the bore of your mouthpiece is smaller than that of the lead-pipe and that of your fist. This means that you may have to use less air to play the trumpet than in the previous exercise. In addition, your air supply will last longer on the trumpet because of the added resistance. On the trumpet, if you force the air, the backpressure and tension on your body will greatly magnify. This will result in straining and a poor sound quality–forcing leads to straining, straining leads to fatigue, and fatigue leads to injury. Even a small amount of forcing can become habitual and lead to more straining, which will eventually cause serious permanent damage. The key is finding the correct balance between volume and speed. If you have too much volume at a fast speed, the air will back up when it hits the throat of the mouthpiece and cause backpressure. If you reduce the speed and keep the volume the same, the backpressure will lessen. The same is true if you reduce the volume, and keep the speed constant. This is a highly individualized concept and will take much experimentation to find the correct volume and speed, but let the sound guide your decisions.
If you feel yourself forcing, immediately stop playing to avoid injury. Play the passage again at a comfortable dynamic level with “loose” air until it becomes easy. Then, walk up the dynamics while keeping the same timbre. Keep in mind that dynamics are relative and have more to do with changing the color of the trumpet rather than the decibel amount. Remember, you will sound louder if you play in the resonant center of each note. If you relax and use plenty of ‘loose’ air you will soon realize that resonance trumps sheer volume every time. The ultimate goal is to preserve the beauty of sound at all dynamic levels and in all registers.
If you have comments or questions, please contact me or write a comment. Thanks!
This blog will mainly be used to discuss aspects of trumpet playing. Please feel free to comment on any post or email me with questions or topics.