Critical Points to Consider When Practicing Scales and Arpeggios on the Trumpet

Scales and arpeggios have always been an essential part of a fundamental practice routine.  They are some of the building blocks of music, so the fingering patterns that are learned have an immediate, practical application for the musical contexts that will be encountered.  But you are learning much more than the proper fingerings when you practice scales and arpeggios.  The mechanics of the entire playing system are brought into play, and so each element of that system must be considered and coordinated into the whole.  The purpose of this post is to raise your awareness in order to help you make the most out of this part of your practice time, while avoiding the bad habits that can actually undermine your efforts.

The partial fingering chart seen below illustrates two ways we must learn to navigate through the range of the instrument.  By arranging all of the notes in vertical columns that are each based on a common fingering, you can see two patterns emerge:

  • the overtone series (reading vertically), which is the same intervallic pattern of contracting or expanding intervals for every basic fingering (seen at the top of each column), depending on if you are ascending (where the intervals gradually become smaller), or descending (where the intervals gradually become larger).
  • fingering patterns (reading horizontally) based on the length of the instrument (open being the shortest path the air will travel through the horn, and 1, 2 and 3 being the longest).  These are equivalent to the seven positions a trombone player learns, but are achieved by using various valve combinations (which access the three different valve slides of the trumpet), rather than the trombone’s single slide to change the length of the instrument.  The chromatic scale repeatedly uses parts of this fingering pattern, omitting the alternate fingerings (shaded areas) that occur more frequently the higher you go, as there is more overlap when the intervals of these seven ascending overtone series become progressively smaller.

Acoustics tell us that longer vibrating bodies play lower pitches…tubas, string basses, baritone saxophones, etc. all play lower pitches than their smaller siblings (e.g., trumpets, violins, and soprano saxes, respectively), and so if all else is equal, the longer positions of the trumpet will sound lower than the shorter positions in the same “slot” of the overtone series (the group of notes in the same horizontal plane). However, accessing the entire range of the trumpet depends more on the ability to move freely up and down the overtone series, than by relying on varying the length of the instrument using the valves, for each slot of seven positions only spans the interval of a diminished 5th-augmented 4th…half an octave.

The fingering chart above shows the 3rd space middle C (circled in red) as the first note of a highlighted ascending scale fragment (C-D-E-F-G) created by following the red arrows.  Playing these notes in this order will encounter two upward shifts in the overtone series…C ascending to D, and E ascending to F (represented by the solid red arrows).  If while on that C we only pushed the first valve down for the D, a Bb would be more likely to play, and if we started on the 4th space E and only pushed the first valve down it would be the D rather than the F that would play, for in each case no techniques were employed to ascend to the next higher slot as the horn was getting longer.

Try playing these two patterns (above) rapidly on your horn to see which one is easier, and you’ll discover it is the one that alternates between C and Bb.  Although the easy fingering pattern is exactly the same for both, successfully alternating between C and D requires much more than finger technique.  The low C to D (also marked in red on the fingering chart above) can be a tricky transition, especially with the same rapidly alternating pattern, or when first learning how to descend without erupting the lips, since the horn length changes (in this case, shortens) even more.

What this tells us is that a player must learn how to change slots at precisely the moment the valve change is made, and in order to develop solid fundamentals, he must know exactly how that feat is accomplished.  The most common scenario is that there is usually some type of compromise in fundamentals the farther the player ascends or descends, and that the player is not aware of the problem until well after that first point of departure from good form.   Problems are harder to fix the longer they go undiagnosed. While there are a lot of ways to control the trumpet, you have to know how you do what you do.  This requires both a great base of knowledge and a keen sense of awareness.  You may think you are practicing scales and arpeggios, but you can also be engaging in a very methodical way of observing and refining your way of playing the instrument.

To practice effectively, we must rely on our senses of hearing, feeling and seeing…and we never know which sense will be the most acute at any given time.  Whichever sense it is, in order to develop one’s awareness the most acute sense must inform the other senses.  For example, if you can hear your sound become more airy as you descend, can you see and feel the lips gradually lose their contact and alignment with each other?   If you are not sure, go lower until the problem is obvious…until you can see and feel what your ears are telling you.  Then try descending again and see if it is not only easier to spot the problem earlier, but to also apply the proper fundamentals before the problem first occurs.  Or if you can feel the mouthpiece pressure increasing on the top lip as you ascend, can you also see the lower jaw gradually recede and hear the sound become more restricted?  Finding the place in the scale or arpeggio where the problem first occurs will help you accurately judge which of those symptoms was a cause and which were symptoms of a cause, making it easier to apply the proper solution in a proactive way.

  • The starting position is paramount, and that includes not only the embouchure formation, but also the mouthpiece placement, the mouthpiece weight distribution, posture, hand positions, and beginning within a state of complete relaxation.  It is much easier to maintain balance than regain balance (especially if it is never established in the first place).  See the links to the four part “Landing” series below, for more information.  At first, it may take you longer to set up than to play the scale, but if that’s what it takes then you must take the time to do it right.  Before takeoff, experienced pilots go down an extensive checklist for safety reasons.  How extensive is your pre-playing list, and do you check it carefully every time you set up?
  • Instead of prioritizing what you are going to play, start off by concentrating on how you are playing.  Depending on the stage of the warmup or the level of the player, the starting note should be where the form is the best.  We are looking for a singular way of playing the horn…an embouchure set that works in all registers, and so for example, starting a scale on a low note with an erupted lip formation, or on a high note with a tight, constricted throat only works contrary to that goal.  Besides, even though scales and arpeggios are the most common ways of traveling from Point A to Point B in a musical context, they do not always begin on the root of the key.  We should be able to encounter any key from any entry point of the scale or arpeggio.
  • After deciding on what your starting pitch will be, then choose the direction (ascending or descending) that you will have the most success….you want to retain the balance and form you began with, gradually adding more complexity as warranted by your ability to keep sound and form together.  If you are successful, playing the scale or arpeggio in the opposite direction should be more successful as well.
  • Learning the proper air support is essential.  No matter how good your starting position is, if it is not supported properly with air the body will find another way to play (or attempt to play), but nothing will work as well as a great starting position, supported with a relaxed and flowing airstream.  If the embouchure is not set efficiently, you will have to rely even more on the air.
  • Practice out of tempo first, slow enough to judge by sound, feel (and even sight) if the form and fundamentals are still in place, to determine what may be lacking or working, and to be able to make the necessary changes before going on to the next note.
  • Breathe (always have enough air) and carefully reset whenever needed, also making sure the mouthpiece comes off the face during the inhale so the blood has a chance to circulate.  There are methods that advocate leaving the mouthpiece on, which places a greater load on the playing system (like weight lifting), but that should come much later in the player’s development, once a balanced, relaxed, and focused way of playing is in place.
  • “Punch and lift” the valves, listening for an audible “click”, even at slower tempos, to ensure a complete stroke.  No matter how many valves are moving (up and/or down), all of the corresponding “clicks” should sound as one.  This action defines the exact time the next note should begin, and helps to precisely coordinate the fingers and valves with the tongue and air.  The fingers will also become stronger, will function better at higher speeds, and then will more easily remember all of the common fingering patterns.  Like the picture on the left, the fingers are arched (like holding a baseball), pushing the valves straight down from the top, for the most efficient stroke.  Valves are also less likely to stick this way.  The tip of the little finger rests on the top of the finger ring, and the right hand thumb is below the lead pipe, between the 1st and 2nd valves, giving a little more leverage to the weakest 3rd valve finger.  This means the left hand’s index finger is supporting the weight of the trumpet, leaving the right hand free to concentrate on the valves.  Have all of the fingerings figured out before you play the scale, so you can concentrate on how you are playing.

Although scales and arpeggios should be practiced both tongued and slurred, I like to begin with slurring in order to prioritize the airflow, and because it is less complex than tonguing.  Also, players sometimes hold back the airstream at the tongue (and often the throat too) until the air pressure builds up, and then suddenly release the air by pulling the tongue away.  This technique may aid in producing the next higher pitch in the series, but it leaves virtually no air support for the remainder of the note.  Slurring takes this poor approach out of the picture, and demands a good “front” to the airstream.  Scales and arpeggios should be practiced tongued, but get that airstream moving first.

Practicing scales and arpeggios are much like sawing wood (with a very long blade), for the accuracy of the starting position is critical, and how close you came to that ideal is revealed more the further along you go.  And the deeper your cut goes into the wood, the more important it is that your progressively longer stroke is smooth and straight, to avoid the binding that can occur if the blade is not centered in the gap.  The higher or lower you go on the horn demands a freer flowing airstream with great momentum and follow through, while the alignment and coordination of all of the embouchure components becomes more and more critical.

The next post will take you through what a possible practice session of scales and arpeggios would be like.

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5 Responses to Critical Points to Consider When Practicing Scales and Arpeggios on the Trumpet

  1. J. Fink says:

    I had never seen a fingering chart composed like this before. It makes so much more sense and really helps to illustrate how the trumpet works with natural acoustics. Fantastic!

  2. Lukasz says:

    Hi this is very very usefull and instantly pushed my playing forward, but i got a question, should i think as much about technique when improvising with my bandmates? At the moment i am concentrating more on music and how it sounds when playing live and i think my tone and endurance is sufering a litle when i do that.

    • bobgillis says:

      Hi Lukasz,

      I’m glad to hear that you are seeing improvements in your playing, and I can definitely relate to how our fundamentals can break down when we are improvising. That creative act demands our complete attention…listening to what is happening around us, negotiating a chord progression and the form of the tune, developing an idea, etc., all of which can distract us from the coordinated physical acts of playing the horn that allow us to play efficiently. The fact that you are now practicing your scales, arpeggios, slurs, etc. with a higher degree of awareness over time will create new habits that will solve a lot of the problems you are experiencing. If you are spending the majority of your time with the horn playing this way, then the new habits will assimilate into your playing more quickly. Conversely, if most of your time during the day is spent playing the trumpet unconsciously, then the body will follow that direction when you are improvising.

      The spontaneous nature of jazz amplifies this problem, since we sometimes change our musical train of thought in an instant, whereas a classical musician knows far in advance what they will be performing, and can practice the challenging sections of their music in a very slow, and methodical way. I would begin by practicing all of the known material of your group’s repertoire…the melodies, and all of the chord arpeggios and applied scales with the same degree of awareness, making sure you are holding yourself to the same high standards. Practicing chord and scale patterns that follow the form of the tune (where if the applied scale or chord only lasts for two beats, you can only play four 8th notes, or two quarter notes, or one half note from the scale or chord before the next chord in the progression begins). You are not practicing these patterns so they can be regurgitated in a solo, but instead are practicing them to improve your mental agility, your sense of time, your ear, AND your trumpet fundamentals.

      If you could only think of one fundamental skill while improvising, I would choose breathing. Oftentimes when we are distracted with music making, the air’s momentum drops off significantly, creating a host of predictable problems. Breathe more (correctly), and think FLOW, NOT force as you exhale. I would also recommend reading two of my other articles…”Rhythmic Scales” and “Mapping Out a New Jazz Tune,” for ways of gradually adding more complexity to your jazz practice, that will still prioritize HOW you are playing over WHAT you are playing.

      I hope that helps, and all the best to you,


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