Just like the comedian Rodney Dangerfield (whose famous line bemoans the fact that he “gets no respect”), there is a certain range of the horn that trumpet players pay very little attention to. This is the range where we first learned how to play…our middle G in the staff and the low C. If there was any struggle to initially play those notes, it has long since been forgotten…for now they play so easily that we take them for granted, as our sights are set on greater challenges. The notes that get our respect and demand our attention are the ones we struggle with…the ones that are hard or impossible to play…the ones that exist in either extreme (high or low) of our current range. These are the areas of the horn we belabor over…buying books that are advertised to improve our range, studying with players who have great range, buying mouthpieces to increase our range, learning about the importance of airflow, relaxation, etc. It’s a very extensive shopping list…and expensive too, for all of the time and respect that is spent.
I believe most of a trumpet player’s deficiencies spring from the way we first learned to make a sound on the horn…which was based on the order in which we assembled the parts of our metal/human instrument. This genesis of sound production then became the basis for everything else that followed, and is so second nature that most do not see it as the underlying cause for many of the fundamental problems that surfaced as the playing demands increased. When preparing to play, what most beginners (and even more experienced players) do first is place the mouthpiece on their embouchure, or really their lips, before the embouchure has been set. Just as with the game “Musical Chairs,” only one body can be in that space at a time. This simple action puts the embouchure at a disadvantage, for its space is now occupied by the weight of the mouthpiece, which not only restricts the embouchure formation, airflow and lip vibration, but which then provokes the facial muscles into actually pulling away from that required formation (with actions like the corners stretching back in a smiling action, bottom lip erupting out, lips “kissing” the mouthpiece in an “ooh” formation, top lip sneering up, jaw receding)…all knee jerk reactions by the body that is unconsciously trying to counteract the imbalance caused by the premature placement of the mouthpiece.
Unfortunately, the body’s initial reaction to this imbalance only creates more imbalance. Think of your instincts when driving on an icy road…the first reaction is to grip the steering wheel more tightly (a misplaced form of tension that does nothing to increase the grip of the tires…this would be the equivalent of using the weight of the mouthpiece to make a secure connection to your face). If the car happened to suddenly skid you turned the wheel in the opposite direction of the skid. But did that immediately solve the problem? Most of the time that correction is overdone, causing yet another adjustment with the wheel in the other direction. This back and forth action with the steering wheel continues until the stability is recovered or the car spins out and/or crashes. Unfortunately, when a player places the mouthpiece on the lips before setting the embouchure properly the body goes into this same type of “correction by reaction” process, which is no way to precisely set an efficient embouchure.
When the mouthpiece is placed in such a careless fashion (which is so easy to do when you are playing in that easy “No Respect Range”), in the blink of an eye the vibration of the top lip (the “reed” of the embouchure) is restricted by the mouthpiece weight, triggering the reactive “retreat” of the embouchure in any of the ways described above, creating a lip aperture that is now too large, and compromising the alignment of the lips. The “skid” has begun, and all before a note is even played! The classic symptoms associated with this scenario are problems in sound production (missed, cracked notes, dull, funky, airy, blatty, unfocused, buzzy, unclear, etc. sound quality), and limitations with range, articulation, flexibility, intonation, accuracy and endurance. The larger lip aperture creates another kind of imbalance, but this time on the opposite side of the scale from the imbalanced position caused by the mouthpiece weight sitting on an unformed embouchure. The body’s knee jerk reactions now try to recover the focus that was lost (or never created) at the embouchure, and this reactive process most likely includes other forms of tension, and in all of the wrong ways or places…more mouthpiece pressure (especially on the top lip), tighter throat and/or upper body, teeth closing, tongue arching to the point of air leaking through the nose (due to the soft palette dropping down), bottom lip squeezing up, etc. And can you guess what the body wants to do when it experiences any of those symptoms? If you thought of the original symptoms that can occur with the initial premature placement of the mouthpiece you would be correct, for the lips are now forced to adjust once again, and that reaction is not the final solution, but is a method of adjustment that is still part of the problem. This is a great example of the classic vicious circle, but it is occurring in the arena of our music making!
You may have noticed the word symptom was just mentioned a couple of times. Trying to eliminate a symptom without recognizing and addressing it’s root cause is not the way to solve the problem. A successful doctor understands this truth, and bases his diagnosis and treatment with that fundamental perspective in mind. Problem solving for trumpet players should be no different, and positive and predictable results will occur with that enlightened approach. Sometimes the symptoms are the most obvious signs that something is amiss, but it is wise to look for the problem behind the problem, and this post on the No Respect Range addresses a root cause for so many common symptoms.
Fundamental problems must be fixed at their most fundamental level. Ideally, the better you set up (before adding the mouthpiece), support the embouchure with air, and control the mouthpiece weight and the distribution of that weight, the more likely you will avoid major fundamental problems, otherwise it is easiest to fix a problem when it first occurs. Even if any of the described symptoms are very slight, they should be addressed immediately, before the body has its chance to come up with its own solutions. If there is any aspect of your playing that you want to improve, this is the time to do it!
Long tones, slurs, scales and arpeggios, technique and tonguing exercises, etc., are thought of as great ways to build the fundamentals, but if they are practiced without regard to a good starting position and then maintaining that proper form, those exercises will not produce any significant gains, and most likely will only reinforce bad habits. I see this kind of dysfunctional approach played out my gym’s weight room all of the time….people throwing the weights around with poor form, starting with too much weight before the proper form is learned, being obsessed with the amount of weight and/or the number of repetitions. Poor form not only takes the load off of the muscles that are trying to be developed, but also increases the likelihood of injury, especially as the amount of weight or the number of repetitions increases. Can you imagine what would happen if you grabbed the bar in anything but the most balanced position and then began exercising? Your body would have to do its best to adjust to that imbalance, but your form would be compromised. Strength might improve a little at first, but the gains would never be as good as when compared to training with a balanced starting position. It’s not that the player won’t see some improvement when practicing fundamentals in this way, but if mouthpiece pressure is the first step in setting up, then it will be the first instinct for all aspects of control.
The better way to practice any fundamental exercise (or musical passage) begins with the proper “respect” given to the starting position. That should be the most fundamental exercise! The No Respect Range is not the only range where players can be careless with their setup, but it was where the bad habits were first learned, and it is where we have one of the greatest opportunities to change things for the better. The priority must be to set up in a singular way that leaves us prepared for any playing situation, in any range. The instinct to place the mouthpiece on unformed lips may have been originally based on the lack of knowledge, but as both experience and playing demands increase that approach becomes the body’s knee jerk method to create a focused embouchure, seal it at the mouthpiece and concentrate the airstream. If the player is not prepared to address those requirements before the mouthpiece placement, he is inviting the body (and the mouthpiece weight) to complete the job.
Here’s one more analogy from the automotive world…what has increased the performance of race cars more over the years…the skill of the drivers or the advances in engineering and design? I think you would agree it has been the later. And where were the greatest numbers of man hours invested?…same answer. No matter how much a driver practiced, he could only do so much within the limitations of the machine. However, that experience could help envision ideas of design improvements. As the design evolved so did the performance…which then demanded more from the driver and therefore improved his skills. Also, the design changes and their implementation occurred while the car was stationary…the car was driven for either testing or racing. Can you see the parallels with this process and the best strategies we can use to improve as a trumpet player?
There will be more to come on this topic in other posts, but in the meantime, do you notice any of the symptoms that were mentioned above in your own playing? If so, can you notice when they first occur and trace their root cause? And what changes can you make in the areas of design and assembly to improve as a player? Do you have any more respect for the No Respect Range?