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Avoiding "The Hand:"

Developing Fine
Trumpet Tone
Gillian Mackay

ne of the ongoing challenges in young bands is the issue of

trumpet tone. Many times, trumpets seem to be blasting and
conductors raise The Hand to decrease the volume. When
trumpeters see The Hand, they tend to point their bells down or stop
blowing, which temporarily resolves the balance issue but ultimately
creates worse problems.
Many young players resort to pushing and shoving with their bodies
creating isometric tension in their abdomen, chest, or throat to
force the air into the instrument. In actuality, the perceived problem of
trumpet volume is often one of tone. If tone is bright, harsh, inflexible,
uncentered, and brittle, this is perceived as loud. It cannot blend, and
is resistant to tuning.
There are a few things that can help ameliorate this problem. First, the
initial inhalation must be through the mouth, not the nose alone. This
is not a dramatic insight; it is what we were all taught in brass methods
classes. However, many young players struggle to supply air to the
instrument with their nose only. Breaths that occur within or between
phrases are more susceptible to this problem than initial breaths. It is
really something to insist on. Both the amount of air and the way it is
inhaled are compromised by a nose breath.
One way to help encourage mouth breathing is to have the breath be the
last thing that happens before the sound starts. Everything else takes
place to establish the posture, embouchure, hand position, and fingering; then the breath happens, in the tempo of the music. If any other
action hand adjustment, valve pressing, etc. takes place last, then
the breath may not be in the tempo of the music, and the student may
resort to breathing through the nose.
There are many effective ways of describing the nature of the breath for
brass playing. It is similar to a yawn: open, relaxed, and full. Breathing
for trumpet playing needs to be as natural as our regular breathing, just
enhanced and expanded. Saying the syllable ah or aw seems to
help students create the openness required to inhale fully.
An important issue here is to remember that the inhalation is not a
strenuous, aggressive event. Many young players, upon being told to
take in a lot of air, take a little air instead but with a huge amount of
effort and physical strain. This feels like taking a lot of air, but actually
serves only to increase the amount of isometric tension: their shoulders
go up, and abdominal muscles actually move in. Shoulders need to
stay down, and the entire torso should expand including, ultimately,
the back.

A second aspect of the breath is the fact that it needs to be a single,

uninterrupted event. The momentum of the owing air must never
be stopped once the inhalation has begun; it needs to move in and out
without any stoppage. This is why, as conductors, our preparation beat
must be so specic. Any time the air has stopped once inside the body,
to accommodate, for example, a hesitation at the top of the conductors
preparatory upbeat, it must be kick-started again by the body in order
to get it moving. This increases the tension in the body and will affect
the tone.
One of the most useful tools in the development of effective blowing is known as the air pattern. This is a tool used extensively by the
master pedagogue, Vincent Cichowicz (former 2nd Trumpet, Chicago
Symphony Orchestra). With the air pattern, the instrument is taken out
of the equation, and the student works only on inhalation and release
of air.
The student takes a full breath through the mouth, and using the syllable too and a relaxed embouchure (a forward-reaching, kissing,
whistle-type lip placement with a distinct ooo shape), releases the
air in an easy, open stream. The concept is to create a real tooooo
sound, not the teee that will come from blowing through a tightly
formed embouchure. Using this technique, students can gain a sense
of the air flowing in and out without stopping, and what the resistancefree release of air can be like. It is also useful in helping to visualize a
long, fluid stream of air. This technique can be used any time there is a
problem with the flow of air, tone production, rhythm, or articulation.
There is a man-made tool which is also useful in developing great
breathing. Available at any hardware store, 1.25-inch PVC joints can
usually be found in the plumbing department. (See Figure 1.) They
cost less than a dollar each and are indestructible. A great breath can
be taken with these tubes, which are significantly larger than a trumpet
bore. Students place the end of the tube in their mouths, making a seal
with their lips, and take several inhalations. The throat is open, because
the mouth is wide open, and students can take a much bigger breath
than they normally do. It is also nearly impossible to lock at the top
of the breath with a large piece of plastic pipe in the mouth. The students will think this all a little odd at the beginning, but once the initial
strangeness is over, these tubes can become very useful tools.
The final, crucial step in the use of both air pattern and breathing tube
is the transfer of the new, successful breath to the instrument. Often,
students can successfully perform an air pattern or take a tube breath
while away from the instrument, but unthinkingly go back to their old,
ineffective behaviour once the trumpet is in their hands again. Unless
the breath is performed the same way with the trumpet in hand, the air
patterns and the tube are of no use. The transfer of the new type of
breathing to the trumpet is the most important step here, and this connection needs to be made repeatedly.
Figure 1. 1.25-inch/3.3-cm. PVC pipe joint used as a breathing tube.
We also need to encourage our students to think about
blowing through the instrument rather than into it.
The sound is effectively considered to be forming at
a point several feet past the bell rather than right at
the horn. This can encourage the sense that the air
needs to flow. To play higher, trumpet players need
to think of blowing faster and farther in front of them,

Vents canadiens Canadian Winds Fall/automne 2004 21


rather than blowing harder or pushing up more. If the imagined target
of the air stream moves farther away as the pitch goes up, trumpeters
will naturally blow faster air to reach it.

end of a phrase, perhaps saying their own name or telephone number.

If their voice is affected, they are likely playing with tension, and their
throat is interfering with their sound production.

The use of the tongue is another crucial issue in the trumpet sound. One
thing that kills trumpet tone quickly is the insertion of the tongue at the
end of a note. The tongue should be used at the beginning of the sound
only. This is made difficult with the frequent presence of staccato in
music for young bands. Staccato markings can cause young trumpeters to stop the sound with their tongues in a sincere effort to make the
note short. This has two deleterious effects: the air is stopped by the
tongue rather than being merely interrupted, and then must be restarted
to continue the sound, which is usually accomplished only by a kick
from the body. This will cause tension and have a negative impact on
the tone. This also leads to the poot sort of sound that is often heard
in young bands, as the air is parcelled out in squashed bursts rather than
in a stream.

Bell placement is a related issue that affects breathing and blowing. If

the wind pipe is bent, the airway is compromised. The best way to get
students to address this is by getting them to point their bells between
music stands, rather than below, and be sure their stands are in a position where they can see the music and the conductor without having to
move their heads. This can help develop the concept of flow through
the instrument, as well. Getting the bells up a bit will also serve to keep
their elbows away from their ribs, where they will impede the process
of breathing. In addition, consider having students play with their
music folders closed, so that the back of the music stand is no larger
and intrusive than it needs to be.

Staccato needs an interpretation that serves both the music and the
players. Playing lightly with clear articulation will do more for tone
than struggling to achieve dramatic shortness. As conductors, we need
to sacrifice a little shortness for the sake of our young trumpeters
Two other markings that work against trumpet tone are fp crescendo
and the crescendo with an accented release. Although these markings
encourage a variety of dynamics and students love them, they need
to be interpreted sensitively to prevent tone problems. With the fp,
common problems with trumpets are both a change in pitch (sharper)
and a change in tone (brighter) as the body is engaged to push out the
sound. Any crescendo, especially one with a fp preceding it, needs to
be started softly and extended only within the parameters of good tone,
with increased air flow, not air pressure. Once the tone goes bright, it
is no longer a crescendo but a distortion. Even the youngest students,
armed with a strong aural concept of good tone, can monitor their own
crescendo and learn to keep it within the boundaries of good taste.
The accented release, occurring at the end of so many band pieces, is
a favourite of young trumpet players, and generally their instinct is
to dump out any remaining air with a kick of the abdominal muscles,
or insert their tongues to stop the sound. This puts an audible yelp
on the end of the sound, which distorts both tone and pitch. Work to
interpret this accent as something else as a clear point for the release
of the sound if the students stop blowing together, the unified release
will sound clean and full.
Producing good tone takes a lot of concentration, but less physical
effort than many young trumpeters think it should. Part of the problem
is the amount of resistance offered by the instrument. The body has a
way of matching resistance, and students will push back based on
the sensation that the trumpet is resisting their offering of air. It will
become a vicious circle of resistance as the trumpet will feel increasingly small and stuffy as the blowing becomes increasingly isometric
and ineffective.
This is where the air pattern is so useful when resistance builds up
and the tension mounts removing the instrument and reminding your
students about the easy release of air can be extremely useful. If there
is tension in the exhalation, the throat is often involved. One test for
the presence of exhalation tension is to have the students speak at the

22 Fall/automne 2004 Canadian Winds Vents canadiens

Another non-breathing issue in tone production is hand position. Unlike

the woodwinds, which have requisite positions for most ngers, brass
players can seem to survive with individually-invented hand positions.
It is often very difcult to keep watch over trumpeters hand positions,
given their customary location in the room and the placement of music
stands in front of their hands.
There are two issues related to the hands. The first concerns the right
hand. Many young trumpeters jam their right thumb all the way up
underneath the lead pipe and let their fingers press down the valves in
whatever way they land. Instead, they need to put the pad of their right
thumb up against the lead pipe between the first and second valves. The
right wrist needs to lift and help the fingers align themselves over the
valves. The right thumb now becomes a weight-bearing digit.
Most young players will place the pinky of the right hand into the hook.
This hook is designed to facilitate mute insertion and page turns, and to
give the player a way to hold the instrument safely without using both
hands. It is not meant to be used during the normal course of playing,
and the right pinky should float free of the instrument.
The left-hand position is a more serious issue in the production of tone.
The specifics will depend somewhat on the size and shape of each
students hand, but the most important principle is that the hand should
be arranged around the valve casing between the bell and the valve
slides, not below the valve slides in a pistol-like grip. The pistol grip
favoured by many students causes tension in the left hand, which will
impede breathing, and increase the amount of physical pressure applied
inward to the embouchure, inhibiting the buzz. It also makes it impossible to use first- or third-valve slides for tuning.
The fingers should close lightly around the valve casing in as relaxed
a fashion as possible, and either the middle or ring finger (whichever
is most comfortable) should be in the ring of the third-valve slide.
Ultimately, the trumpet needs to be supported by both left and right
hands, and the instrument should rest on the large knuckle of the left
index and the right thumb. Balanced between these two digits, the
instrument can then rest on these hands rather than being gripped or
pulled toward the player.
All good tone is predicated on the items above as well as a strong aural
concept of what great tone really is. Without an effective model, even
the best students will have problems achieving resonant tone, much
less imagining a better sound than the one they are currently producing.


The sooner a strong model exists for the trumpeter, the better. If you do
not have a great sound on the trumpet yourself, and do not have access
to professional trumpeters or university trumpet majors, recordings can
be extremely effective.
Choose recordings of players with resonant, warm tone, and those made
on larger trumpets. Recordings of piccolo trumpet, such as those of
Maurice Andr, although beautiful, tend to have brighter tone and do
not sound in a register young players will readily recognize as theirs.
The recordings of Sergei Nakariakov can be extremely useful here.
His CDs are full of short, beautiful pieces that clearly demonstrate his
effective breathing, wonderful phrasing, and song-like approach to
the instrument. The classical recordings of Wynton Marsalis provide
similarly excellent examples of good trumpet tone. There are many
ne Canadian trumpeters with recordings available: Jens Lindemann,
Daniel Doyon, and Merrie Klazek are just three. The trumpeters of the
Canadian Brass are also superb.
While working toward a fine-sounding trumpet section, remember that
most playing problems are air problems. Many air problems disguise
themselves as something else: tonguing, finger/tongue co-ordination,
or embouchure problems. If the air is flowing well and the student is
playing with minimal isometric tension, many playing problems will
In his lessons and master classes, Vincent Cichowicz is famous for
demonstrating this point. Student after student has stood before him
and enumerated a complex and seemingly hopeless list of playing
problems, only to have them significantly ameliorated as Cichowicz
patiently addresses the issue of breathing and blowing. Trust the fact
that the air is usually the problem, and go there first in your diagnosis

of concerns with trumpet players. The basic issue of tone production

is this: whenever the air is not doing the job it should, the body will
step in to help. If players can feed enough air into their bodies and
out into the instrument, the body can stay out of the way and facilitate
good sound by serving as the vessel for air exchange. As soon as the
muscles want to step in to assist the production of sound, the air is falling down on the job.
The issue of tone production is fundamental to everything we want
students to accomplish on the trumpet. A concept of excellent tone, fed
with a full, easy creation of wind through the instrument, interrupted
by a natural tooo from the tongue, should lead to efficient, beautiful
tone, which will be easier to tune and to blend with the rest of the group.
And, it will prevent conductors from having to use The Hand.

Gillian MacKay is the Director of

the School of Music at the University
of Windsor, where she teaches trumpet
and conducts the Wind Ensemble. She
enjoys a busy career as an orchestral and
recital trumpeter, and as an adjudicator,
clinician, and guest conductor throughout Canada and the United States.

Vents canadiens Canadian Winds Fall/automne 2004 23

Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.