Pedal Tones- A Foundation for Correct Trumpet Playing or a Waste of Time?

organ pedalsYears ago when I was in college, many of the school’s trumpet players began to follow the Claude Gordon Method, which started with a series of long tones chromatically descending into the pedal register of the instrument (named after the lowest pitches of the organ, which are played with the feet).  All of this was done independently of their trumpet lessons at the university, but once one player heard that the routine was great for developing the upper register, many others followed suite.  Of course I wanted to be able to play those high notes too, especially since I’d lost much of that range when I began trying to play with less mouthpiece pressure.

Learning of all of the great musicians who endorsed the Claude Gordon method increased my dedication, and inspired me to develop pedal notes below double pedal C.  However, there was no change whatsoever in my upper range.  Over the years I have heard of other players who have had the same lack of success, but have always wondered why this method worked for some and not for others.

A few years later I began studies with Roy Stevens in New York City.  Roy was not a fan of pedal tones at all, saying that playing in that range would only encourage a lack of embouchure focus, leading to problems in the upper range.  Everything else he taught was based in a solid grounding of the physical laws that govern trumpet playing, so I had a lot of faith in his logic from first hand experience.  Still, what was it about those pedal tones that had created such a loyal camp of followers?

Flash forward years later, when I was working with students on their downward slurs. Inexperienced players tend to approach the lower register by letting the airspeed sag, and by letting their lips erupt out…which always produces a compromise in the sound (becoming airy, blatty, and less focused), and hindered their ability to suddenly return to the middle and upper registers.  As they learned a better approach to their low range, not only did their sound improve on the low notes, but so it did in the middle and upper range as well.

The constant reminders of the positive results achieved with good fundamental technique (both with my students and in my own playing), eventually made me wonder…if that pedal C (or any other of the lower fundamental notes in that slot of the horn using the other six fingering positions), is a “real” note on the horn (after all, it IS the instrument’s fundamental pitch), why shouldn’t we be able to play that note with a good sound, and in good form too?  And not just be able to play the note, but to slur to and from it, to tongue it, etc.,…all the things we expect to do with any other note within the playing range of the instrument.  Besides, those fundamental tones are not the same as the induced notes, the pitches between (but not including) the low F# below the staff and the Pedal C (see the example below), which are not reinforced by an overtone series above.  Those induced tones are not easy to play, especially in good form, and rarely sound good.

Pedal TonesI began to experiment with trying to play a pedal C with the same strict form I aspire to use throughout the rest of the range of the instrument…no compromises, avoiding actions like lip eruption, tilting head down, putting more mouthpiece pressure on the top lip, opening and/or receding the lower jaw, etc.  During that process I noticed that the urge to let go of the form and erupt the lips was related to (and often provoked by) poor mouthpiece weight distribution (with too much on the center of the top lip, inhibiting its vibration), and the lack of mouthpiece seal at the corners, which left the lips too far apart to produce any sound without having to resort to sloppy technique.  I found that the Pedal C began to play softly when I backed off the mouthpiece weight, made sure it favored the bottom lip, and sealed at the sides of the mouthpiece by using the scissor action (described in an earlier post, “The Final Seal and Focus“).  I also made sure that my throat was very wide, and that the air was “hot” and steady .  As the lips (the top lip’s reed and the bottom lip’s facing) came into gentle contact, the Pedal C began to play, and surprisingly with a lot less effort.

Another twist on my approach to playing the pedal C, was to actually blow less, which goes against most of the common practice of playing in this range.  More air certainly helps to get loose, flabby libs vibrating, and can make up for deficiencies in the seal, but it can also contribute to a large, unfocused embouchure and lip aperture, and so I didn’t want to settle for an approach that merely played the note (I had already tried that years ago, and knew it did not offer the benefits I had hoped for).  But as the sound began to speak, it was more clear to me that the note would play with a more efficient set, and using less air made me more sensitive to that process of refinement (for more information on this approach, you can read the earlier post, “Using Weber’s Law to Improve the Focus of  a Trumpet Embouchure“).  One more thought:  Roy Stevens described several physical laws related to playing a brass instrument…one stating that increasing airspeed into fixed lip and jaw apertures will produce a climb with a corresponding crescendo.  Loud, unfocused pedal tones are also subject to this law, and therefore that playing formation at best could only beget an inefficient, limited climb, and at a volume (and sound quality) that would be inappropriate for most musical situations. Conversely, a pedal C played with the exact same sized lip aperture as a Low C, will be softer than the Low C.

Playing the Pedal C in good form was only the first step, though.  Although the sound was somewhat improved, it was still  airy, which revealed that the work was not yet done.  In the past, the next step would have been to just go lower…to the Pedal B and below (at that point, they were certainly playable).  However, I believe that it’s best to fix problems when they first occur (or at least when you are first clearly aware of them), so in this case I stuck with the Pedal C, and began to tweak the form…improving the alignment and contact between the lips, focusing the lip aperture even more (being careful not to add tension at it center), and making sure I was not depending too much on the mouthpiece weight to seal at the corners.  The sound not only continued to improve, but I noticed that I could begin to slur up to the low C with some success, and also have some semblance of an attack when tonguing.

It was still not pretty though, and since it was still clear to me where the deficiencies were, I continued to refine the embouchure’s form…going for even less tension at the center, without allowing the lips to release their “M” position.  Improvements in those areas continued to yield better results…the better the “M” formation was retained, the more the Pedal C sounded like a regular trumpet sound.  The slurring was able to ascend up past the low C, and I was also able to slur back down to the Pedal C.  I’m not saying the sound and control was at the level I had in the instrument’s regular range, but it became obvious that my playing in that more common range was beginning to show marked improvements.  The sound was broader, yet at the same time more focused.  Now I was starting to see the value of pedal tones!

Although I often include written musical examples in this blog, it was a conscious choice not to write out the kinds of notes and patterns I was playing during this kind of practice, in an effort to discourage interested readers from following my exact routine.  My progress to more demanding slurs, tonguing, etc., was based on the success I was having with the sound and control, not because it was the next step of written notes in a routine or book.  I spent most of my time setting up the embouchure properly…and not just repeating that process, but instead, refining it a little more each time.  6-exercises-you-are-doing-wrong-bicepsThe long tones, slurs, tonguing, etc. were performed to give me feedback on my work, or to provide me with the challenge of maintaining the improved position. What and when you play should be determined by your ability to play in form, and with a good soundnot by your ability to merely play a note or a series of notes.  It’s no different than performing an exercise in the gym (like the dumbbell curls shown here).  Proper form insures that the right muscles will be exercised and developed.  Bad form takes the load off the muscles you are trying to develop, and could lead to injury as well.  It’s a waste of time.  Good form will produce good results in sound, control, and other areas of performance.

As I continued having success with this approach, the ascending slurs began to move past High C, which I never thought would have been possible starting from a Pedal C.  The climbs would ascend easily, and as quickly as the airstream accelerated, and all with no changes in the embouchure.  Although I could play the High C, the embouchure’s aperture size was still too big for efficient sound production (in accordance of the physical law described above)…I simply ran out of air sooner.  When I started the Pedal C with a more focused aperture, the sound quality and efficiency improved, and extended the slur past high D.  Those high notes were already in my range, but what impressed me was the more uniform feeling and sound I was experiencing throughout my range.  High notes didn’t sound high, for there was less strain…they played with a lot more ease.  The sound was warmer, tonguing was easier, and accuracy was much improved…more of what I was used to in the middle register.

Addressing the Pedal C with the same sensibilities used in the normal range of the instrument helped to clarify the coordinated muscular action that needs to prevail throughout the range of the horn.  The challenges of compromise we encounter in this extreme range are more obvious, which makes them easier to identify, and therefore clarifies the work that is needed, in order to replace those compromises with fundamentally sound alternatives.  “Shutting the door” on all of the compromised ways we are tempted to use when  playing in the trumpet’s lower register helps the body discover and learn the techniques I’ve described here.  Even by foregoing the common practice of dropping the jaw in the low range, the body must find other ways to free up the embouchure’s center, like reducing unnecessary weight and tension even more.  Also of note, Roy Stevens reserved the action of opening the jaw only for playing loud in the extreme low register, not for getting the note to merely play.

bench-press-negativesHere’s another weight room analogy:  there is an exercise in this kind of training, (in my experience, with the bench presses) known as Negatives.  Here the bar is loaded with more weight than you can possibly lift off your chest (a good spotter is required).  The spotter helps get the bar in place, and then slowly turns the entire weight over to the lifter.  Of course the weight will begin to overpower you, but you must resist with all of your might, all while keeping the strictest of form.  Once the bar has reached the chest, the spotter (or two), then lifts the bar back to the starting position, and the steps are repeated.  In this way the muscles are subjected to a very intense workout (interestingly when the bar is moving in the opposite direction achieved when these specific muscles contract), which can lead to increased strength and muscle development.  In a similar way, playing a Pedal C with great sound and form can seem like an insurmountable goal, but by at least moving towards that goal with an increased awareness of how you are playing…correcting your technique as you go to the best of your ability, you will be making major fundamental changes in the ways you approach playing the instrument.  In this range, the lips will instinctively want to release any kind of formation, so the player will first be challenged to clarify their mental image of what the proper form should be, and then to follow through with the correct, coordinated muscular action that supports that mental image.  During Negatives, if the athlete does not keep strict form and balance, the exercise loses its effectiveness, and increases the risk of injury.  In the same way, careless, uninformed practice in the pedal register is not only a waste of time, but can also be harmful to our work in developing a better way of playing the trumpet.

144040-004-EB694DD2There is yet another analogy that works here.  If you have ever watched competitive bobsledding (also known as bob sleighing), you know how important it is for the pilot to keep the sled in the middle of the half pipe track.  There is a little wiggle room, but any contact with the walls, will slow the sled’s speed and efficiency. Also, the chance of damaging the sled increases with this contact, and if the sled continues to stray further from the center path, there can be a serious crash.

There is a similar, optimal center path when playing the trumpet, although many players only become aware of it when they deviate from this ideal in the extremes of their ranges (coincidentally, what I’ve called “hitting the wall” in previous posts).  For example, one might notice that as they ascend into the upper register, they are using more and more mouthpiece pressure on the top lip, or tightening their throat and upper body…eventually leading to a ceiling in their range.  Or, that as they descend, their sound becomes airier, and less focused.  Often players feel the need to change embouchures when they change ranges.  As discussed in other articles in this blog,  these problems are most often symptoms of a greater causal problem that has already occurred.  Unless you are perceptive enough, the symptoms will appear to be the problem, and if so, attempts at finding a solution will most likely be frustrating.

Balance and AlignmentThe crude diagram on the left illustrates some of my thinking about this center path, as it relates to playing the trumpet. Example A would be the ideal, where the relationship between the various aspects of airflow, embouchure formation and mouthpiece pressure, is in balance through most of the range of the instrument (represented here as the fundamental Pedal C and its overtone series).  There is an ease and resonance to the sound. Example B shows the lack of balance stemming from the usual fundamental problems many players experience within a normal range of the horn.  You can see that although the player appears to be in the center path within the most common range of the trumpet, there is a lack of true, fundamental balance.  If the player continues to ascend or descend with this unbalanced approach, it becomes more and more of a struggle (represented by the red arrows) just to get the pitch to speak.  These attempts at control are usually the body’s knee jerk reactions to this loss of balance (e.g. excessive mouthpiece pressure in the upper register, or progressively more eruption of the lips in the lower register).

Imagine driving a car that inherently pulls to the right.  wheel-alignment-image-3Driving under those conditions will not improve the problem, no matter how much you adjust the steering wheel to the left, or how many miles you drive. Instead, the car needs to be taken into the repair shop for alignment. Repeatedly practicing range extension exercises (either higher or low) without an awareness of the basic, proper balance of ingredients will be unproductive, and only introduce or reinforce bad habits.  Also, if you have started with a good balance, it is then much easier to maintain your balance.

The orange arrows of Example C show that if a player can improve his or her balance while transitioning between two “slots” (overtones), or even on a single pitch, they can effectively align their playing with the entire range of the trumpet…being prepared for any sudden leap the music requires.  Establishing and maintaining the correct form and balance is more important than merely playing notes, patterns or exercises without this awareness and goal in mind.  In short, when trying to improve as a player, HOW you play is more important than WHAT you play.  Any genuine improvement in form, in any range of the instrument, should help produce an improvement in sound and form in the other ranges.

Uan RaseyThere are examples of great trumpet players who have concentrated on establishing this kind of balanced in a very limited and easy range of the trumpet, and making it the cornerstone of their warmups.  Duke Ellington’s famous lead trumpet player, Cat Anderson was known for playing very soft, middle G long tones for twenty minutes.  There is a great story of Hollywood studio great Uan Rasey (seen at left) carefully warming up by playing a slur back and forth between low C and middle G.  This impressed the composer of the film score (who was listening in the next room), so much that he changed the theme of the movie to those very notes…and then had Uan perform them when recording the film’s soundtrack!

As simple as these warmups sound, again there is much more to them than merely playing the note(s).  Example B above shows that one can seem to be quite centered, or at least be within the bounds of controlled playing, but still headed for trouble when playing outside of those warmups’ humble boundaries.   I imagine that those great players were trying to warmup in a position that would have them prepared for anything…being able depart from those notes to any other…high or low, loud or soft, tongued or slurred.  A simple way for the player in Example B to test his balance without having to go to the extremes of his range (where the problems are harder to fix) would be to quickly jump back and forth between second line G, the high G an octave higher.  The amount of “wobble” is a good indicator of the degree of balance in one’s playing.  How much does the  embouchure move?…the head and horn angle?…the distribution of the mouthpiece pressure?  Does the sound quality change?  Is the tonguing still clear and consistent?

The most important point to make here, is that How you play, determines your success or failure more than What you play (have I repeated this idea enough times by now?). Pedal tones can be helpful when approached with strict form, but so can concentrated work in the horn’s easy, middle register.  My early work with pedal tones was quite uninformed…I had no idea what kind of embouchure formation would work throughout the entire range of the horn, or even for the suggested, simple, one octave C major arpeggio in that same Claude Gordon routine.  That arpeggio was asked to be repeated several times, but I had no idea of the opportunity the exercise was offering.  That lack of knowledge made the rest of my fundamental work less effective too.  Once I gained more detailed knowledge of How things worked, and of the ideal playing position’s detailed blueprint, returning to the fundamental exercises (the What) I had practiced for years began to be more and more productive.

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6 Responses to Pedal Tones- A Foundation for Correct Trumpet Playing or a Waste of Time?

  1. eve says:

    So your conclusion is?

    • bobgillis says:

      Hi Eve,

      Like I said in the article, it’s HOW you practice Pedal Tones that determines their value. Because they exist at the bottom of the horn’s range, problems with form and sound tend to be much more pronounced, making them easier to spot and then addressed. If your refinements are done correctly, then the positive effects should be noticeable throughout the rest of trumpet’s range. A lot of great players don’t practice pedal tones at all, and have achieved a balance in their playing without them by refining their fundamentals in the instrument’s normal ranges. Does this sound like a politician’s answer?…not a clear yes or no? Again, it’s HOW you practice Pedal Tones that determines their value. There is no magic in just being able to play those pitches. If you choose to practice them, your purpose should be to improve your fundamentals.

      I hope that helps!


  2. mograph says:

    Terrific post: much to think about, reflect upon … and practice!

    I don’t think that your answer is a “politician’s answer” at all, and it could be used for just about any activity, where the activity has little to no value if it is not done well.
    (Should we eat apples? Well, only eat fresh ones!)

    We (in the urbanized west, at least) are too invested in the idea of solving problems by buying something or by making a simple choice. (“Which martial art should I choose?” Well, it’s more important to do one well, and that takes time and practice.)

    I think your ideas are well-founded, well-grounded, and very useful. Now I just have to put them into practice … 🙂


  3. bobgillis says:

    Thanks for providing your supportive input, mograph. I wish you all the best as you learn to apply these ideas in your own practice, and think that you will receive positive feedback as you implement the concepts.

  4. JackT says:

    Hi, Maybe I missed it, but was your pedal C flat by a whole step or more when you started? I took a week of lessons form Claude Gordon decades ago and he said that particular range of notes is flat for almost everyone when they begin playing them. He also said not to try and raise it but just leave it flat and, over time, it will come up by itself. Does any of this sound familiar? Thanks for your great blog! Big thanks, Jack

    • bobgillis says:

      Hi Jack,

      That was a long time ago for me, so I can’t recall with any accuracy what those initial pitches were like. My guess is that they were flat, since I was playing those pedal tones with a different embouchure…doing anything I could to get the note to play. With a lack of air support for a lip aperture that big and flabby, of course the pitch would have been flat.

      Nowadays, played with the same embouchure as the normal range, the correct pitch is approached from the top…more like lip bends. So I guess you could say that Claude Gordon was right…”over time” the pitch came up! :0)

      Take care,


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