More Thoughts on Trumpet Scale Practice

The previous post, “Critical Points to Consider When Practicing Scales and Arpeggios on the Trumpet“, prioritized “how you are playing” over “what you are playing,” along with a few basic, fundamental mechanics to be aware of and evaluate during the process.  Here is one possible scenario for practicing a scale (in this case F Major) based on this approach, along with some more ideas to keep in mind.  The written notes here were “composed” in a way that would mimic the spontaneous, yet fully conscious choices a player could make based on the results he was or was not having during the practice session.  Your choices as to what specific notes you are playing should be based on the priorities of good fundamentals, and the feedback you are getting through your honest observations…not by merely playing through a written set of scale patterns.  This is then creative and dynamic practice, where you are in the moment, and acutely aware of why and how you are playing every note. Notice there are no rhythmic values assigned to the notes.  At first your tempo is determined by your ability to play in form and with a great sound.  To get in the habit of keeping up the momentum of that airflow, always use your entire breath.  If the phrase of notes is too long for the breath, simply breathe again.  Never conserve your breath by holding back the support.

  • Example 1- First identify where the slot changes are.  Here they are marked with brackets, but see if you can validate them by using the fingering chart in the previous post, which will open a new page.
  • Example 2- Find and hold the note in the scale that will play with your best form, air, and sound quality, and that can be played with a sense of complete relaxation (this example uses 3rd space C, but that may or may not be the best note for you).  This is where you set the standard for the entire scale, so set the bar high.  Keep in mind that this starting position must have the potential for ascending or descending through the entire scale and more, so you should ask yourself questions like, “am I also set to play a fifth or an octave higher?…am I relaxed enough to play lower?…am I prepared to single or double tongue?…am I prepared to play loud or soft?”
  • Example 3- Choose the direction you will take from that starting note…where you will have the best success in maintaining the ideal established on the first note, and slur to the next note (in this example I chose to ascend), keeping the sound full and connected.  Carefully observe…listen and feel, and even watch.
  • Example 4- If there is a problem negotiating the slot change from C to D the problem is most likely the starting position (including the aperture size), the starting mouthpiece weight and/or weight distribution, and/or the air support (a tightening throat is a classic symptom of these underlying causes).  Slurring from C up to E is a good way to observe how you are negotiating the slot change, since the valves are taken out of the equation.  This is the heart of your trumpet playing skills.  If the size of the lip aperture is focused and small enough using the muscles below the corners of the mouth, with both lips equally aligned and inverted, and centered between a 1/4″ gap between the top and bottom teeth edges with the lower jaw slightly forward, and if the top lip is free from tension (from both muscular tightness and from excessive mouthpiece pressure), and if this position can be held as the airspeed gradually increases, the pitch will ascend to the next slot in the overtone series.  If there is a problem you must catch yourself in the act, in order to truly recognize the root cause and then make the proper adjustments.  Alternate with Focusing Air and No Weight Blowing to make sure the embouchure is being formed and held correctly without any help from the mouthpiece.
  • Example 5- Once you have a sense of what it takes to make the slot change, try playing C to D, coordinating the elements and actions discussed above with the valve change, and then hold the D…while checking to see how well you maintained your form, relaxation and sound.  If all is well, continue up to E, hold it and check your work as before.  One success does not mean that you have mastered anything, so repeat any segment you have been working on to see if you are consistent before moving on.
  • Example 6- Next move up to the next note in the scale, being aware of the sound, the feel, and if necessary, the look…holding any note that may be suspect.  If you make it to the top with no problems, hold that note for the remainder of the breath, supporting from the bottom of the ribcage, and not allowing the chest to collapse. This will leave a small amount of air left in the upper chest, signaling that it is relaxed and open.  Although not written here, you could also try repeating C-D-C-D, etc., to test your ability to consistently make that slot change through your entire breath.
  • Example 7- If you encounter a problem before the F, hold the E before it and observe all the aspects of your form and air.  If you are aware enough, you will spot the problem(s).  If there was no problem while sustaining the E, then something is happening as you move to the next note (and in this case, the next slot).  Take another breath whenever needed and always carefully reset the embouchure and mouthpiece. Never start on the next note in the series after taking a fresh breath…you want to always practice the transition between the notes, so start no higher than the note you just left off on before the breath.
  • Examples 8 through 10-  If the transition from E to F is troublesome, try focusing just on the slot change (like examples 4 and 5) by slurring from E to G (no valve changes), gradually building the air and holding the embouchure in position, waiting for the slot to change when the airspeed is fast enough, making sure you stay relaxed and focused as you accelerate the air.  If you cannot spot the problem(s) then continue slurring up until they are exposed (they will be obvious at some point), then return to the original two note slur and see if you are more sensitive to when the problem first occurred, and if that problem is the root cause of your trouble, or if it is a symptom of something even more basic.
  • Example 11- Periodically, play up and down the portion of the scale you have been working on.  Although you will not be descending lower than your original starting note at first, alternating directions is another way of revealing if the set and system of playing is well balanced or not.
  • Example 12- Tonguing should be introduced into this process as soon as you have a good starting position, mouthpiece placement and weight distribution, and the proper airflow is established.  I plan a future post on tonguing, but until then, know that tonguing will expose any weaknesses in the playing system.  This is a very good thing if we are aware of the weakness and its cause, and learn to make the proper adjustments.  However, practicing unconsciously with poor fundamentals only strengthens bad habits.  Clear attacks when tonguing requires great air support, an excellent seal with the mouthpiece, a well focused yet free embouchure, and the proper weight distribution of the mouthpiece.  When these elements are not in place the body will react to the imbalance(s) with its own solutions, which tend to spawn side effects that create more problems than they solve.  Alternate with slurring to help retain the sense of good airflow, sound and feel when returning to tonguing.
  • Examples 13 and 14- these are similar to examples 5 and 6 as far as gradually ascending in a way that would allow you to carefully check sound and form, but instead of merely sustaining a note, that note is repeatedly tongued, in order to check how the entire system is operating.

Never go too far in one direction (up or down) without balancing your practice with work in the opposite direction.  There is a singular way of playing the horn where the techniques used apply for the entire range of the instrument.  By constantly checking the opposite direction (or alternating between other “opposites,” like slurring and tonguing, loud and soft, etc.) you will keep your playing based on the best fundamental approaches that will have you prepared for anything.

It may not seem that the range of the horn seen at the right presents much of a challenge, and it doesn’t, if that’s the only register of the instrument you plan to play in, and if your standards for sound are not great. However, when the demands of the music become greater, and/or if your own desire to improve leaves you dissatisfied with your current level of playing, then finding and beginning your scale practice with a starting position that offers far greater potential will most likely make what I call the No Respect Range more challenging.  The reason for this is because the first attempts at making a well focused embouchure usually are done with too much tension at its center, which at first often produces much higher notes.  When this is the case, in order to play lower, the instinct is to release the position (along with the focus and the seal), rather than only releasing the excess tension (which could be in the throat, upper body, or the embouchure’s center, due to the mouthpiece pressure or the distribution of it’s weight).

Learning how to release this tension at the embouchure’s center while still maintaining its proper formation is similar to learning how to increase the flexibility of the hamstring muscles (those in back of the leg).  You cannot force these, or any muscles to relax.  Instead, you assume the proper position (seen at the left) and wait for the tension to release, taking deep breaths and then relaxing into the stretch with every exhale.  I’m describing this process more as releasing tension, for we are not actually stretching the top lip, but using the technique of taking deep breaths, followed by a relaxing exhale suits our purpose as a trumpet player perfectly.   There is a term my father’s physical therapist calls transference, where the person performing the exercise forgets about the real goal and the proper form (in this case, stretching the hamstring in this way) and instead transfers the goal to that of being able to touch the toes, (which would be one of the by products of a relaxed hamstring). However, if we abandon good form (in this case, keeping the legs straight and flat on the ground) and allow the knees to bend, we may be able to touch our toes, but would no longer be in a position to help make the hamstrings more limber.  Similarly, if  we let the lips erupt out when descending, it is harder to learn and localize the areas of the body that need to be more relaxed.

Scales and arpeggios are also a great way of methodically approaching the lower register of the horn, but again, this is done with more than changing the valves.  Most players let the airstream sag and the lips flare out the lower they descend.  As this strategy continues it becomes harder to get the notes to speak, and the sound becomes more more airy. These players then often unconsciously transfer the weight of the mouthpiece to the top lip to help keep that lip down and in contact with the bottom lip, which action then stifles the vibration in the top lip (the embouchure’s reed) even more, requiring the bottom lip to assume that role…and provoking it to erupt out even more.  This series of “solutions” leaves the player more dependent on the weight of the mouthpiece, and in no position to return to the upper register, unless they take another physical step to regain the lost form.


A useful analogy for playing in the low register would be to think of a bass speaker (also known as as a woofer). It is much larger than a tweeter (the speaker for the higher frequencies), and moves a greater distance in order to help generate the longer waveforms of the low register…meaning that it takes more electricity to drive.  Woofers are suspended in a “basket” at their outer most edge (seen in the diaphragm), which allows their center diaphragm the freedom to pump out and back like a piston.  If the screws (circled in red) that attach the woofer to its basket become loose, the controlled motion of the diaphragm (circled with  a red, dotted line) becomes compromised, which affects performance aspects like sound quality and response.  Also, any object (like your hand) that comes in contact with the diaphragm will also compromise its motion and performance.

Here are some ways this analogy transfers back to the horn:

  • Lower notes require more airflow to keep the lips vibrating.  Although the vibration of the lips (and the resulting pitch, which is measured in cycles per second) is slower for lower  notes, that does not mean there is less energy.  Think of a train coming into the station at one mile per hour as the engineer shuts off the engine and lets the train coast.  Can you step in front of it and stop it?  Of course not…there is too much mass in even a slow moving train.  Create more mass to your airstream by widening your throat and keeping your tongue low in your mouth (like saying “Ho”), all while keeping that air flowing.  This does not mean that you would do the opposite when ascending, by closing your throat.  Instead, using this technique is one example of how learning to play correctly in the low register will improve the upper register, for the open throat should be retained throughout the range of the instrument.
  • The top lip needs more room to vibrate when playing in the low register, but letting the lips erupt out is not the best way to make that room.  Instead, use less mouthpiece pressure and use the embouchure muscles below the corners to keep the seal with the mouthpiece.  Again, this technique will also help the upper register.  Also, if the lips erupt and protrude into the mouthpiece, the resonant chamber of the mouthpiece’s cup is diminished, which will adversely effect the sound quality.
  • Although the center of the embouchure should be relaxed, it still must retain its shape (with both lips inverted and equally aligned with each other) for optimal performance.  In order to do this, the tension is in the muscles below the corners, which keep the corners locked in position, hugging against the 1/4″ gap between the teeth.  The alignment and inversion between the lips is seen from corner to corner, but the point of least resistance is the center of the embouchure.
  • Using excessive mouthpiece pressure to hold the position only limits the required freedom at the center, and by excessive I don’t only mean the kind of weight that causes cutting, bruising or other lip injuries.  Too much mouthpiece pressure at the center of the top lip (the embouchure’s reed) is another form of vibration inhibiting tension.  Even if the weight is relatively light, if it favors the top and center of the embouchure it will throw the system out of balance…and the body will begin looking for a way to find balance (in this case letting go of the embouchure formation in some way).  In other words, too much weight, or poorly distributed weight can be what provokes the embouchure to release at the corners to the point that the lips separate and erupt.  The boundaries of the vibrating reed must be kept inside the inner rim of the mouthpiece, and held with the embouchure muscles more than the weight of the mouthpiece.

Here are a few thoughts to go with a possible scenario for descending:

  • Examples 15 through 25 (seen below) could be a way of gradually descending, using the F (or also C) major scale, much in the same way as the earlier examples of ascending a scale.  In this case I chose G as the starting note as an example of a choice based on form, rather than the root of the scale.  You can see that a lot of time is spent holding notes, although this written music has no way conveying the careful listening, judging and adjusting that would go hand in hand with this approach.  Always use your entire breath, being aware of the quality of airflow at all times.
  • Examples  17 and 18 have rhythms, but without a specific tempo, so only move to the next note when warranted by your success.  Example 19 brackets the slot change between low C and D, which as mentioned before, will not seem too difficult on a loose, unfocused embouchure that may not be prepared for any sudden excursions into the upper register.  However, if you strictly hold that ideal embouchure formation you may be challenged to find other ways to descend…which is a good thing!
  • Examples 20 through 23 expose that slot change even more, giving the player a chance to listen, feel and see what mechanics are (or are not) being utilized.  Be picky…and be honest with yourself.  Does the sound stay full and connected?  Does the embouchure retain its shape, or does it gradually come undone?
  • Examples 23 and 24 show the descending routine beginning again, but this time adding the tongue.  Learn how to release tension in the position, not the position itself, and do nothing to add tension at the center.

My first teacher in college advocated that I drop my jaw for the low register.  I remembering marveling at the results when I employed that technique, but now have an entirely different view of that process.  Although there was no doubt that approach worked, I now see it as akin to the earlier example of bending the knees to release the tension in the hamstrings.  It is certainly not the way to play in the upper register, so the transition between high and low is harder, especially as that distance increases…that amount of jaw motion effects accuracy and consistency in a negative way.  Roy Stevens only allowed opening the jaw 1/16th of an inch (from the standard 1/4″ aperture) for louder low notes.  By adhering to that guideline (along with maintaining the “M” formation) the other methods listed above must be employed in order to achieve a great sound in the low register…and incorporating them enhances all aspects of performance, not just the low register.

I’m making such a big deal out of starting and maintaining an ideal position because how you play in the low and middle registers has a huge impact on the upper register.  Just like a long distance marksman, the smallest problems at the beginning are magnified more the greater the range becomes.  Remember, you are not just working on one note, or even one scale…you are working on elevating the way you play the instrument, which affects every aspect of performance.

Because of its greater intervallic structure, the arpeggio is usually best practiced after the scale is mastered, when the proper balance of ingredients is learned for every note.  The arpeggio’s wider intervals can be more challenging, but they will be easier to play once the fundamentals for the scale are in place.

As this post was being written I could not help but think about the hours I spent in my younger years (or even some recent days), practicing scales and arpeggios without this degree of thoroughness.   Yes, it is tedious work, but you must remember that you are learning much more than a scale or arpeggio.  You are improving the way you play your instrument, and increasing your knowledge and awareness.  As an experiment, try playing the scale below as written first, judging the results based on your sound and ease of playing.  Then try following the guidelines in this and the previous post, and then play the written scale again and compare.  If you are really doing the work, the second time should be noticeably better!

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4 Responses to More Thoughts on Trumpet Scale Practice

  1. stephen says:

    How can i play high pitch with my trumpet

    • bobgillis says:

      Hi Stephen,

      This blog is filled with many informative articles that will tell you how to do that and more. Your body (especially the embouchure and breathing system) must be considered as part of your instrument, and should be assembled and trained to operate with a high degree of precision. You will most likely need a smaller lip aperture that is both relaxed and focused, a stable jaw position, light and well distributed mouthpiece pressure, and a relaxed and constantly flowing airstream. You will have to acquire a large base of knowledge about how all of these elements work, and work together. It will also take a high degree of awareness and coordination from you, along with a large commitment of your time.

      Good luck!

  2. samesunny says:

    Thanks for your article, it was really helpful and concise, I want to start playing the trumpet, but I’m seriously confused on the type to buy and the way to go about getting resource materials.

    • bobgillis says:

      Hi Samesunny,

      I’m glad you got something useful from the article, and to hear that you are interested in pursuing the trumpet. Without knowing anything about your proximity to a good music store or an experienced trumpet teacher, I would begin by looking for your answers there. Music stores often have a rent to own program, and may be able to recommend a teacher for you as well. You could also look into the used horn market, but that could be problematic without the guidance of someone knowledgable. There are some pretty bad, cheap horns out there, but good ones as well. Don’t settle for any instrument without working valves and slides, and removable bottom valve caps, so you can clean the horn regularly. The mouthpiece should have no nicks, and complete silver plating where it would come in contact with your lips, and be perfectly round on the receiver end. A look down the mouthpiece, lead pipe, and on the inside of the valve caps can tell you a lot about how well cared for the trumpet was. Also make sure that the spit valves are in good working order, and that they provide a complete seal when closed. The mouthpiece shouldn’t be too big or small. The Bach 7C or equivalent is a good place to start.

      Forums like trumpet master.com, and tpin.org can give you a chance to hear what players think of various trumpets and mouthpieces, but it will be hard for you to really judge a horn until your playing skills are off the ground. In the end, it will be your opinion that counts the most.

      I wish you all the best!

      Bob

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