Musicians are familiar with the technique of slowing down a difficult piece of music until it is mastered, and then gradually speeding up the phrase until it can be played flawlessly at the desired tempo. Here’s another approach I call “Add-ons,” which give the student another way of mastering a challenging piece, all while maintaining the correct tempo and enforcing their fundamentals.
Long ago I learned that there is more than one way to play the trumpet, and that playing the right notes, articulation, dynamics, tempo, etc. did not insure that the fundamentals were in place. If the music was practiced without strict adherence to these fundamentals it often meant that attributes like sound quality, endurance, and consistency were at risk, that limitations were around the corner, and that bad habits would be ingrained even more.
Here is an example of how to use “Add-ons.” Example #1 is the phrase needing the attention…an excerpt from the Colorado All State Band audition requirements. The first step (and the most critical) is example #2, which is the foundation of the “Add-on” approach. Too often players are so worried about the task at hand that they do not get a good start. By getting a good “swing” with the breath (see the previous post) the first note should start exactly in time, and sound full, clear and relaxed throughout the entire hold. If you can’t manage that first step how can we expect the following phrase to sound great? If the note sputters, cracks, wavers, etc., then there are fundamental issues (breathing, posture, embouchure, mouthpiece placement, weight and weight distribution, etc.) that need to be addressed first before going on to example #3.
Once that first note is sounding great from beginning to end, it is time to “add-on” the next note, this time giving the first note its correct rhythmic value, and transferring the hold to the second note (example #3). The first note should maintain the high standard of sound while the second note comes under close scrutiny. Oftentimes the mere act of changing the valves is distracting enough that the airstream immediately begins to sag (see the earlier post about the “Next Step“). By holding out the second note the player gets the chance to hear the current state of control, diagnose the cause of any problem, and then make the necessary corrections.
The valves should be “punched” down so there is an audible “click.” If more than one valve is going up and/or down, all of the resulting motion(s) should still be heard as one, synchronous click. No matter what the tempo, the valves must be instantaneously down or up. This definitive action not only insures the best response from the horn, but also helps to focus and coordinate any other actions, like tonguing and airspeed (much like the karate master’s yell at the point of impact with the target). Fingers should be slightly curved, with no “double jointed” bending (which only wastes energy), with the little finger lightly resting on top of its ring (see photo).
Each subsequent “adding-on” will expose any deficiencies in the fundamentals. Example #5 presents a challenge to the airstream, which must coordinate with the lifting of the valve for the final note. If the air support (and possibly the tongue) are late in fulfilling their roles, the body will try to create control with tension (in the form of mouthpiece pressure, tightening of the throat and/or upper body, etc). The top note may crack or sound smaller. By holding out each final note of the sequence, that note is spotlighted and evaluated. Problems are fixed when they first occur, insuring that the system remains relaxed and balanced…and ready for the next note. No matter how many notes are played, the feeling of “one swing…one phrase” should be emphasized and experienced.
A “Human Nature” failing is to gradually withdraw attention from the initial step of supporting the first note(s) with the airstream, so occasionally it might be a good idea to return to the earlier steps in the sequence in order to revitalize the fundamentals. Examples # 6, 7, and 8 could reveal a lack of air support during the hold, or a gradual loss of focus in the embouchure as the notes descend. As the corrections are made, not only will the musical line sound better, but the correct fundamentals are being constantly updated, leading to an overall improvement in consistency. I’ve heard remarkable improvements with “Add-ons,” and highly recommend that they become a regular part of every student’s (and teacher’s) problem solving toolkit!