Marching Band Survival Skills for Trumpet Players

During this time of the year, most trumpet players in marching bands are spending a majority of their time playing fortissimo, and using a higher than average amount of mouthpiece pressure (especially on the top lip).  This can lead to damaged lips and an embouchure with an unfocused lip aperture, which can hurt performance factors such as sound quality, response, endurance, flexibility, intonation, efficiency and projection.  I’ve also seen some questionable band warm up routines that do more harm than good, so there is a need for a base of knowledge, remedies, and some common sense alternatives to help promote solid fundamentals, and better music making.

This blog is filled with details on the finer points of embouchure design and the physics behind it.  What this post concentrates on will be quick ways to:

  • focus the embouchure
  • alleviate mouthpiece pressure
  • reset and rejuvenate tired lips
  • improve the warmup

The first problem occurs when the mouthpiece is placed on the lips before the embouchure is formed.  This simple act causes the lips to react to the weight of the mouthpiece in ways that make the lip aperture bigger (erupting, smiling or stretching lips, receding jaw, etc.), and then more dependent on mouthpiece pressure to make and maintain a seal with the mouthpiece.  A bigger lip aperture is much like driving your car in first gear…it might get the car (or the note) started, but it is not suited for the majority of the driving (or playing) experience.

Every trumpet player knows that before he can play he must first put the mouthpiece in the horn.  The embouchure is one of the human components of the instrument, and its proper assembly before playing is just as fundamental.  To avoid the initial problems described above, the embouchure formation should be made before the mouthpiece placement, preferably in front of a mirror when first learning these critical points, and also when trying to tweak them to a finer degree.  The closer we can come to the ideal set, the less we have to rely on mouthpiece pressure (and its many disruptive side effects) to do the job.  Also, the set becomes a home base we can knowingly return to if the embouchure becomes compromised during playing.

While watching in a mirror, gently form your lips as though saying “M” (no horn yet), using the muscles directly below the corners of your mouth with a minimum degree of tension (only what you need to get the job done).  Lips should be evenly matched and inverted, with the corners at their natural width (no puckering out, smiling or stretching).  While this inversion will hide the lips, the action takes place in front of the teeth…the lips do not roll over the teeth, so do not suck them into the mouth.  Make sure your lower jaw comes forward so it is ever so slightly ahead of the top teeth, and that there is a 1/4” space between the teeth. The lips should meet at the center of that vertical space (top lip 1/8” below top teeth, bottom lip 1/8” above bottom teeth).  The precision required here is just as important as the attention to detail a clarinet player has when lining up the reed to the facing of the mouthpiece.  Throat and body should be completely relaxed.  To experience a better, more tactile sense of the size, shape and location of the lip aperture, get the skinniest coffee straw you can find (Quiznos has great ones), and place it right at the center of your embouchure.  Hold just the tip of the straw with your lips, but not by squeezing it at the center.  Instead, feel how the inversion process brings your top lip down and stabilizes the bottom lip, so the lips are “hugging” against the teeth and gums from corner to corner.  This action will be felt first at the corners of the embouchure as an isometric grip (the corners will not move), but the aperture size will decrease and narrow.  In this way the lip aperture gets smaller by focusing towards the center, not closing at the center.

Still without the horn, begin blowing air through the center of the straw (do not let the chest sag downward as you run out).  Imagine aiming the air in an upward direction, even though the straw will constrain its path (this mental image will help maintain the jaw position, keep the muscles below the corners engaged, and free up the throat). Continue to feel the inverting top lip bearing down on that stable, inverted bottom lip, locking  the corners against the 1/4″ gap between the teeth.  This has been called the “Scissor Action“…as though there is a pair of scissors at each corner (see at right, where only one pair is shown).  As the top blade (lip) comes down, and the bottom blade (lip) remains stationary, the “cutting” action brings the lips together, focusing the lip aperture more and more, all while the sides are sealed and the center is focused, yet free.   The muscles below the corners of the lips that correctly made the position are the same and the ONLY muscles used to hold this position.  Do not squeeze the bottom lip up at the center or release the “M“ position (like saying “ooh”).  Keep your throat open and your tongue down low in the mouth.  Always use your entire breath and at first maintain a constant airspeed.

If everything looks good, gradually increase the airspeed while maintaining the embouchure formation and keeping the throat and upper body completely relaxed.  The idea here is to pre-train the body to react correctly to air…not only building up the strength and coordination in the proper muscle groups, but also solidifying the clear mental image that will maintain those habits.  This is a great way to reset and rejuvenate the embouchure formation, whether you use the straw or not.  Without the straw, it can be done during a pause in the rehearsal or performance, or even in as brief a time as few beats.

Also try holding the horn up as close to the lips as possible without touching them, training your arms and head to maintain a position that will allow a perfect “landing” (even contact all around the rim) when the mouthpiece finally does touch.  This can be done with the straw if you carefully bring in the mouthpiece so it fits over the straw.  Most that try this notice there is less mouthpiece pressure, a greater sense of the size, shape and location of the lip aperture, and a better ability to hold the correct formation when the air and mouthpiece are added.  You can even practice your music this way (with or without the straw), using the proper fingerings, rhythms and articulations, although if you are pushing the air properly you will probably be out of air much sooner.  Maintain the focus of the lip aperture and keep the body completely relaxed.  With the mouthpiece weight off, the blood returns to the lips, but just as important, the embouchure is now reacting to air, not the weight of the mouthpiece…the destructive actions are not only stopped, but are reversed.

Excessive mouthpiece pressure can slow the necessary flow of air and kill the needed vibration in the top lip, so developing the ability to focus the air at the embouchure without relying on the mouthpiece is a positive step.  However, careless mouthpiece placement and weight distribution can undermine the best of starting positions.  I’ve discussed this topic in greater detail in the “Landing” series of posts listed below, but as a general rule of thumb that protects the vibrating top lip, the weight of the mouthpiece should favor the bottom lip, and the sides of the rim rather than the center.

I’ve seen this slur used for many band warm ups, where it progressively continues on down to 1, 2 & 3  (the longest valve combination). While it is a good, classic slur pattern, my problem with this kind of warmup is the way it encourages younger players to concentrate on what they’re playing, rather than how they are playing.  Without making this important distinction, this slur pattern (and others like it) tends to promote loose, unfocused lips, especially when the pattern is played too fast. Imagine a hamstring stretch where you are forced to quickly touch your toes before the muscles have had a chance to relax properly. To avoid injury most people will forego the form and bend their legs at the knees…the toes are touched, but the hamstrings are no longer given the chance to gradually release their tension.  Without the time to learn and practice the proper technique and form, the body is forced to find a compromised solution.  For trumpet players, this compromise in form is usually lip eruption, then accompanied by an increase in mouthpiece pressure…not a combination that promotes efficient playing.  A better band warm up would precede these type of slurs with gradually descending long tones, with enough time in between them to allow the player to reset the embouchure, and be more aware of establishing a better setup before placing the mouthpiece.  Players would help their situation by beginning their own private warmup in advance of the rehearsal, where they can take the time to approach the low register with more care.  More importantly, they should devote more time to this type of strict practice in their daily routine, independent of band rehearsal.  If done correctly, low register practice will enhance all aspects of performance, so learning the proper skill set is worth the investment of time.

One more method to counteract all the time spent playing loud and unfocused:  “Cat” Anderson, one of Duke Ellington’s most famous lead trumpet players, had a warmup that included twenty minutes of pianissmo playing…in the form of long tones on a middle G.  This well known exercise is another great way of focusing the embouchure, especially if you keep in mind the points of form mentioned above.  Start as soft as possible, even if the note does not speak at first (do not force a note to play), and keep the body completely relaxed…it should not feel like you are holding your breath.  As the focus increases, higher notes may want to speak.  If and when that happens, try to remain on the G by widening the throat and lessening the mouthpiece pressure.  The sound should get fuller with no increase in volume and no loss of focus…which should leave the chops even more prepared for the upper register, or even lower notes as well.  The same good advice still applies though…keep your attention not on what you are playing, but how you are playing.

Some Related Posts:

This entry was posted in Trumpet Lessons. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Marching Band Survival Skills for Trumpet Players

  1. Trumpet says:

    Wow, big help with my embouchure in getting it back where it needs too be!! Tone and range, increased and were easy, thank you!!!

  2. Steve says:

    Thanks for the helpful article!
    My son uses this handy clip on mirror to see his mouthpiece position:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.