Learning How to Make the Conversion to and from Braces: An Opportunity for All Trumpet Players to Improve

 

what-to-eat-after-getting-bracesDuring the very early stages of this blog I wrote about playing the trumpet with braces, but after recently reading how some of the internet trumpet teachers approach this challenge, it seemed time to review            some very important information that is often overlooked, and that needs to be included on this subject.  Clear information on how a trumpeter (not just one with braces) completes the human part of the instrument before playing is usually discussed far less than what he or she should play, and those priorities should apply to someone converting to braces as well.  Acting without that knowledge can have a huge impact on anyone’s ability to grow as a player.  All of my students have actually improved after getting braces, so I would like to share some of the principles that led to their success, and give all trumpeters who are looking to find ways of improving some ideas to consider for their own playing.

This has turned into another lengthy article, partly because successfully playing with braces requires a greater understanding and command of several important skills.  This is a vast subject.  I’ll begin this article with a few thoughts about the requirements for a successful conversion, and then suggest an easy first step for this process.  More details are presented the further you read, so I think there is value in reading this post in its entirety.  I’ve intentionally repeated myself several times…as needed when the context changes, and to underscore key, important points.  Many of the ideas presented here can be found in other articles on this blog, but appear here in a somewhat more condensed version.  Hopefully some of the new wording in this post may provide a few more insights to those who have read some of the earlier articles.

let-go-of-the-steering-wheel1To play a specific note at an exact moment in time (which is one of music’s top priorities), takes control, but the inexperienced player will more than likely gravitate to destructive forms of tension (mainly mouthpiece pressure and upper body tension) in an attempt to achieve that control.  Using misguided tension for control is a normal human instinct (think of the driver who grips the steering  wheel more tightly on an icy road, which has no effect at all on the tires’ traction).  For a trumpeter, that approach can produce a chain reaction of  what I call “knee jerk” responses…a vicious circle of problematic habits that too often lead to the physical abuse and frustration that many players experience during their music making.  However, it’s not just the players with braces who experience this phenomenon…they are just more sensitive to the downsides and side effects of it.  This sensitivity is the very thing that gives the player with braces an opportunity to improve, and show the rest of us trumpeters some important points to remember.

The mouthpiece pressure that causes pain in the lips also inhibits both the vibration of the top lip (the trumpeter’s reed), and the flow of air.  This in turn eventually enlarges the lip aperture (which can then affect efficiency, sound quality, and then invites even more mouthpiece pressure).  This is true whether or not the player has braces.  Excessive mouthpiece pressure is used to compensate for the lack of embouchure structure, and  a relaxed, supporting air column.  The solution to this problem is to create a “frame” that focuses the embouchure, protects its center from the pressure (and the pain), and allows the air to flow and the top lip to freely vibrate.  Relaxed, natural breathing that produces an unstoppable momentum of airflow is also essential, as is the ability to create the proper interface between the embouchure and mouthpiece.

hk-tr101-38-p02This “frame” is much like a mini tramp…the strength and bracing must be on the outside, encircling the center.  If constructed properly, this allows the lip aperture to be more focused, flexible and resilient (or the tramp’s center to be more “springy”).  Placing crossbeams at the center of a mini tramp may make the frame stronger, but then the center becomes useless for its intended purpose.  In the same way, mouthpiece pressure may initially seal the lips with the mouthpiece, and somewhat focus the lip aperture, but in the end the center cannot function properly.  However a great mini-tramp does not guarantee complete success.  The user must learn certain essential skills, foremost being the ability to keep their body weight properly distributed within that frame while they exercise…just as trumpeters learn how to retain the balance and coordination of their own kinds of skills, all the while navigating the challenges of music making.

Other than the very light contact of the mouthpiece as a reference for the seal, you should be able to build this frame without the aid of the mouthpiece.   That close proximity of the mouthpiece will also help to set your horn angle and jaw position before playing (here the lower jaw comes forward to align its teeth with the upper row of teeth, with the two rows 1/4” apart), and aid in making sure that you have the correct weight distribution of the mouthpiece (which should favor the bottom lip and the corners).  More mouthpiece weight on the center of the top lip invites a host of problems, of which pain is but one of the early warning signs.  The eventual “landing “ of the mouthpiece on the lips should be quite uniform in contact all the way around the rim, with just a little less pressure on the top lip and the embouchure’s center.  If the mouthpiece is not placed in this way, its pressure will continue to come in to make up for any lack, which usually then increases the pressure at the points where the contact was first made (most often on that top lip), and therefore doing nothing in the process to correct the lack of uniformity.


SETTING THE EMBOUCHURE

cocktail-drink-strawsBefore going any further, here’s a simple way for a student to get a feel for setting the embouchure, but it still would be best if a qualified teacher can help supervise.  I would recommend getting a skinny straw…the skinniest you can find, with a diameter too small for milk shakes or smoothies (the cocktail straws seen on the right would be perfect for the job).  First set the teeth 1/4” apart, with the lower jaw vertically aligned with the top teeth.  Then place just the tip of this straw at the center of the embouchure, and hold it with the lips (with the straw pointing straight out from the mouth).  Take care not to squeeze the straw at the center of the embouchure, but instead imagine that it is being held by two pairs of scissors, each of which have their “screws” right at the corners of the mouth, and the tips of their blades facing towards each other.  More information on the Scissor Action is presented below, but for now just hold the straw using a slight grip felt at the corners of the mouth.

two-scissorsOnce the embouchure is set and held properly, let go of the straw with the hand and begin blowing air through the straw, making sure the air only goes through the center of the straw, not out the sides, and that the straw does not blow out of the mouth.  Keep the jaw in position, and make sure the straw is still being held in the same way it was first grasped…using the corners of the embouchure with their “Scissor Action.”  The throat, tongue and upper body should be completely relaxed.  A variation of this exercise is to remove the straw and blow in the same way…keeping the Scissor Action engaged, and observing in the mirror to see if the position is still being properly held.  I call the exercise “Focusing Air,” and will refer to it often in this article.

For the next step, you will need to make sure the trumpet’s tuning slide is removable…a good idea, as you will soon see.  Begin bringing the horn in, so as the mouthpiece comes closer to the lips, the straw will go through the center of the mouthpiece.  The mouthpiece will then gently land on the lips, touching the bottom lip first.  When finished, it will look no different than normal trumpet playing, for the straw is now hidden from view, but make sure that the lips are still holding the straw as described above.  Resume blowing air through the straw as before.

Even with light mouthpiece pressure, some players initially let go of the straw when the mouthpiece touches and they begin blowing, so if the straw goes into the leadpipe, you can  easily recover it by taking off the tuning slide.  The muscles that are used to hold the straw are the same ones that made this “frame,” so this pre-playing exercise is a great way to develop not only the concepts of proper muscular coordination and playing with less mouthpiece pressure, but also the mental image that will eventually preside over one’s entire approach to playing.

A downside of this straw approach is that the walls of a skinny straw are pretty rigid, and so themselves do not give any feedback as to whether or not the center of the aperture is being closed during the process of holding the straw (and focusing the embouchure)…or if it is the straw that is keeping the aperture free for the flow of air.  The player must learn to know exactly what is happening.  One way of checking  is to do a soft Free Buzz (no mouthpiece) at the center of the embouchure, and watch in the mirror how this is being accomplished.  There should be no lip eruption or squeezing at the embouchure’s center, but instead, the lips should be hugged up against the teeth and gums in a way that allows the center to remain relaxed and free…evidence that the invisible “scissor action” (that begins at the corners) is engaged.  Don’t worry if the buzz is not produced at first…all that is being done here is to make sure the right muscular coordination is being used.  More on the topic of Free Buzzing is discussed below.

Next, remove the straw from between the lips, and bring in the trumpet again, pretending that the straw is still being held at the corners of the embouchure, and that the lip aperture is still small.  Make sure that the trumpet still “lands” on the set embouchure in the same gentle, manner, with the teeth lined up as before.  As the air is blown through the embouchure and trumpet, listen to the sound, or if there is no sound yet, listen to the sound of the air.  Does it sound free flowing, like a sigh?  If the air does not have this quality, before increasing the airspeed, first make sure that the aperture is not blocked… with either too much mouthpiece pressure, poor weight distribution of that pressure, or if the lips have lost their scissor action and have begun to squeeze at the center.  In other words, take off the brake before adding more gas.  It  may not feel like too much mouthpiece pressure, but remember that the lip aperture is now much smaller, which will make it more sensitive to the air (which will greatly help efficiency), AND mouthpiece pressure.  Too much pressure is not only defined by pain, but also that which inhibits airflow, or what makes the position want to release.

When I tell a student with braces that they are still using too much mouthpiece pressure, they sometimes look at me like I’m crazy…after all, their lips don’t hurt anymore.  But even though they had learned to eliminate enough pressure to avoid the discomfort, the remaining pressure (and it’s distribution) was still enough to cause problems…in most cases provoking the embouchure into releasing too much of  its formation.


TESTING THE NEW SETUP

Do not begin by trying to play any specific note, or trying to get the sound to start immediately.  Attempting that kind of control could invite the body to force things, based on old habits or impatience (which is often how bad habits are formed in the first place).  Instead, just repeat the wind pattern that was used when blowing through the straw, maintain the image of holding the straw with the corners of the embouchure, and see what happens.  Think of yourself as a trumpet or mouthpiece maker at first…more concerned with accurately following the blueprint of the design.  The first attempts at playing should be geared towards testing and observing the mechanics of the setup, and how it performs at this stage with just a natural, relaxed, and consistent flow of air (even if there is no sound produced, or if the sound is bad).   If there is something that was overlooked, it will be much easier to find what was missing with this approach.  Staying relaxed increases both awareness and patience, which are priceless commodities for anyone.  Forcing a note to play will most likely alter the position in some way, which only makes it harder to find out what was initially missing in the setup.  How a note begins (what I call the Genesis of Sound) determines everything else that follows in music making.  The time invested in taking this initial step correctly will pay dividends later, which is why I am always encouraging high degrees of awareness, and strictness of form.

Think more about HOW you are playing the instrument…not WHAT you are playing.  Start with a breath attack (thinking “Ho”…no tonguing) to help preserve the position, and to insure that the embouchure can immediately feel its relationship with the air, and know exactly what to anticipate.  Breathing should be completely relaxed, with a balance and no pause between the inhale and exhale.

It may be surprising to hear what first plays, and how easily a note can be produced.  If enough care was taken in setting up, and with the reduced mouthpiece weight, a trumpeter often comes in higher than what they were expecting.  If these players tried to play a “recommended” note, they might have compromised the playing formation (again, based on their previous habits), and in doing so will lose the advantage of experiencing a better way of playing.  It is better to play any note that is naturally produced with good form and air, than to play a prescribed note with bad form.  The control we are going for here is of the FORM and the AIR, NOT over what note should be played.

The softer and more easily it is for the note to sound, the more you are setting the stage for relaxed, efficient playing….always a good thing, whether or not you play with braces.  Spend a much time as you can playing in this effortless way, in order to become more familiar with the approach, and to begin developing these new habits.

If there still is no sound, there are some other intermediate steps that can be taken.  So often, players overdo the Scissor Action, using far more tension than is required…tightening and even closing, rather than focusing the lip aperture.   Just continue to easily blow air past the position and wait for the tension to release, without relinquishing the basic coordination that made and should continue to hold the position.

Woman reaching for toes

Woman reaching for toes

Think of the proper way to relax a muscle…like learning how to relax the hamstring muscles by gradually moving towards touching the toes.  The legs remain straight while reaching for the toes (the form), all the while relaxing into the stretch by exhaling…releasing both the air and tension at the same time.  This action cannot be forced, and nothing can be done to relax the hamstring muscles if the knees are allowed to bend.

Another thing to try is singing an easy note (like the trumpet’s second line G) with a full, resonant voice, with the syllable “O.”  This is a great way of presetting the air column for playing (but you can choose any note that is easy to sing, as long as you know what the pitch is, so it can be matched on the trumpet).  You don’t have to have a great voice, just makes yours as deep and rich as you can.  You will notice that it takes a certain volume to get the sound to really ring, so don’t be shy about it, and get the note to immediately start with that kind of quality.  After singing a few long tones in this way, then translate that kind of air to the horn.

Sometimes all that is needed is to take off some of the mouthpiece pressure, and making sure that there is less of it on the top lip.  If the embouchure releases its form at this time, then chances are it was being held together with the playing weight, rather than with the embouchure muscles (the equivalent of letting go of the straw).  Practicing Focusing Air with the horn as close to the lips as possible (without actually touching them) is a great way of seeing if the embouchure begins to anticipate the mouthpiece contact by releasing its form, or if it begins to squeeze at its center (which are both really mental errors).  The embouchure should be preparing more for the air, rather than the playing weight.  This “No Weight Blowing” (my term) is another perspective from which to observe how the embouchure and air are working together (and how relaxed the body is), and is also a great way of resetting and rejuvenating an embouchure fatigued by too much mouthpiece pressure.

A soft Free Buzz at the center of the embouchure (with the “Ho” breath attack) could be attempted, even if sound isn’t actually produced.  This requires efficiency (do not force the buzz to start!), where the frame has set the lips in a way that does not produce any tension at the center.  Although some players may be unsuccessful at getting the buzz at first, this process more often brings them closer to the form which will allow a note to play when the trumpet is added.  The resistance of the horn and its associated feedback loop (a topic for another day) may be all that is then needed for sound production.  Just make sure that this exercise is observed in the mirror, to insure the right form is still being adhered to.

Noted teacher James Stamp’s Two Finger Mouthpiece Buzz (where just the mouthpiece is held very lightly between the tips of the index finger and thumb, and is performed with the “Ho” breath attack), is a great way of transitioning to the light playing weight of the mouthpiece.  Again, what makes this effective is how the buzz is achieved (no forcing!).  As with the Free Buzz, even if the buzz does not occur at first, attempting it with good form (no lip eruption or squeezing) brings the player closer to sound production, and that could immediately occur as sound as the horn comes in contact with the lips.  As before, prioritize how this exercise is performed.  Students with braces can easily tell how uninformed or careless mouthpiece buzzing (where the lips erupt outwards) makes things worse, and that they have lost a feeling of cushion in the process.

When ready, long tones (which should be practiced using the entire breath, and without letting the chest collapse) are a great way of learning how to maintain the balance of coordination and relaxation.  It is most important that you listen and feel carefully…that you sharply increase your awareness while performing this seemingly simple exercise. Any fluctuations in pitch, sound quality and continuity, tension and relaxation, etc., signify a loss of control of form and air.  It is easiest to fix problems when they first occurbefore they get worse and become the cause of the knee-jerk reactions, and symptomatic problems most trumpet players have to deal with.  Gradually expand the pitch range higher and lower from where the notes first want to speak, but only if the playing is effortless (remember that you are prioritizing how you play over what you play).  Alternating frequently with Focusing Air, the Free Buzz, No Weight Blowing, the Two Finger Mouthpiece Buzz, or the Straw Exercise are great ways to refresh the new physical habits and your mental image, as long as good form is retained during the process.

Soft tonguing on a single pitch can be introduced once a long tone can be played with the kind of control that produces a long, clear, and steady note.  I recommend tonguing with the “Toe” pattern, which allows the tongue to immediately return to its state of rest position in the mouth, and is the least disruptive to the airflow.  Better yet, first try tonguing with Focusing Air, starting with a “Ho” breath attack…just to see if the balance and coordination is still being retained after adding this one extra skill to the system.  Listen for the clear ”T” of the attack, and the uninterrupted flow of air through the entire breath.  Tonguing practice could also be done with No Weight Blowing, Free Buzzing, or the Two Finger Mouthpiece Buzz before actually playing the horn…still making sure that the form is strictly followed.  The order of these exercises was chosen as a way of gradually moving into playing, all the while maintaining the consistency of good form (which is the best way to develop good habits more quickly).  For that reason, they should be returned to frequently during the practice session.

Once ready to actually play, start with a breath attack (no tongue, just the word “Ho,” with an immediate, full start to the air).  When it sounds and feels like that first note is stable, begin tonguing slowly…observing closely that the form and airflow are following the guidelines listed above.  Listen to make sure that the notes are clear and connected, and that the attack of the tongue is clean…meaning that the air is flowing freely (save for the briefest of interruption by the tongue), and that the lip aperture is focused and free.  Make sure that the tongue isn’t striking between the lips, which is most often the sign of:

  1. Too much mouthpiece pressure (especially on the top lip), which effectively closes the lip aperture, causing the tongue to go between the lips in order to open the lip aperture and facilitate airflow.  Allowing the mouthpiece to come in at playing weight before the embouchure is even set  is a very common problem, and is the root cause of many symptomatic problems.  As with the Straw Exercise, the embouchure should be set before the playing weight of the mouthpiece.
  2. joseph-clayton-clarke-oliver-twist-bill-sykes-sits-at-a-table-with-a-bottle-of-boozeThe body’s anticipation of that excessive, poorly distributed mouthpiece weight,  Think of how a dog can cower at the sight of a stick or hand that has beat it before…an embouchure that has been frequently exposed to abusive weight, will learn to start making adjustments to that weight in advance of the mouthpiece placement.  Regardless of the reason, for a trumpet player, an unfocused lip aperture only increases the dependence on mouthpiece weight.
  3. The lip aperture was never set properly to begin with, either because of  reasons #1, #2, impatience carelessness, or lack of knowledge.  If the aperture is too big, now the tongue has a bigger job, for in order to produce a clear  attack, it first must interrupt the airstream (so when it pulls away, the returning airflow has a clear beginning).  A bigger lip aperture requires a more extreme action from the body to accomplish a clear attack…either by tonguing between the teeth, using more pressure, or both.

Another sign of excessive weight or imbalance is a “ chewing” jaw when tonguing, or one that suddenly recedes or opens.  Use the clues listed above to find the root cause of that improper tonguing action, which will then make it so much easier to address the problem.

These are some of the body’s attempts at freeing up a closed lip aperture, and are among the ‘knee jerk” reactions I mentioned at the beginning of this article.  For a trumpeter (with or without braces), the majority of fundamental problems can be fixed by properly setting the embouchure and exposing it to a flowing airstream before full placement of playing weight.  Learning how to make and maintain an embouchure in this way, one learns the initial feelings of coordination and balance that reduce dependence on excessive mouthpiece pressure, which then effectively sidesteps the spawning of related problems, and moves the player closer to effortless, enjoyable music making.  It is much easier to retain balance than to regain balance.

Tongue slow enough at first to judge if the airflow is consistent, if the position is being held, if the weight amount and distribution is correct, and that the sound quality is both good and consistent.  This continuum of tongued notes should sound as full and connected as the long tones.  If successful, gradually increase the frequency of the attacks, keeping the tongue relaxed and low in the mouth (again, by imaging the word “Toe”).  I strongly recommend resetting the embouchure often, and to continue by alternating with the earlier exercises listed above (with little or no mouthpiece contact) and long tones, either with or without tonguing.


MOVING ON

If successful, gradually progress to more complex actions.  The routine that I am suggesting here is not written in stone, but should illustrate a gradual, methodical process of testing the position, all the while prioritizing how things are being played over what is played.  It is impossible to notate an exact version of this routine.  That is because the final choice of what is played needs to be determined by the current needs of each player, each and every day they play.  What is played should always decided in the moment, based on the success or problems that will be experienced along the way.  Besides, it is more important to listen, feel, watch and judge what’s going on, than to mindlessly succumb to the distraction of staring at a written exercise on a page of paper.

bowling-swingThere are different wind patterns for every musical gesture, but they all require a relaxed, flowing airstream with an unstoppable momentum.  This refined yet natural exhale requires a preceding and matched, relaxed and flowing inhale.  The entire in and out “swing” of air should be uninterrupted (much like a bowling swing), and can be practiced alone first, then with the embouchure formation, and finally with the horn.  If there is a loss in sound quality, form, or the feeling of general relaxation, hold out the pitch where the problem first occurs, in order to more easily determine the root cause of that problem.  More often than not, the problems can be traced to improper breathing and air support, failure to set up properly first, or too much mouthpiece pressure.  Remember that if the root cause is not addressed first, its symptoms can at best only be fixed temporarily.

After long tones, slurred scale fragments could be a good way to continue practicing the connection and balance between the flow of air and the focus of the embouchure.  Think of these scale fragments as more complex long tones…a single phrase, rather than a series of individual notes.  This is where many players drop the ball, so to speak…where the mere act of changing valves is enough of a mental distraction to cause them to let their air support sag.  That drop off naturally occurs for everyone as the air flows out of the body, but for a trumpet player it signifies a loss of balance, and immediately provokes the body into having to find a way to compensate for that lack of air support.  This unconscious “knee jerk” response needs to be avoided, for it usually manifests as tension…either in the form of increased mouthpiece pressure, tension in the throat or upper body, or both.  Even if the player is from the school of using tongue arch or embouchure manipulation for ascending and descending, those actions need to be matched with enough air support to keep up the momentum of the airflow as the resistance at those points change.

While most of us are taught to increase air support when ascending, descending through the range of the horn cannot be associated with a loss of energy.  Unfortunately, most beginners (and many other players), tend to follow this route, and while it may allow the pitch to drop, it is then usually accompanied with a noticeable loss of sound quality.  Going hand in hand with that is another knee-jerk reaction, where the embouchure structure begins to erupt, and the mouthpiece pressure then steps in to hold things together.  This chain reaction then leaves the player at a big disadvantage when moving back to the upper register.

The solution is to make sure that the starting mouthpiece weight is light enough to allow more room for the top lip to vibrate (think of how a sub woofer speaker has a much longer excursion, and requires more power than the mid-range speakers and tweeters).  The pronounced lip eruption often seen when players descend into the lower register is usually a sign of the embouchure trying to make more room for the lips in order to generate the longer wave forms.  Since the lack of air support is accompanied by mouthpiece weight (usually at the middle of the top lip), the only place the lips can go to achieve the necessary freedom of motion is out at the sides of the mouthpiece.

steam_train_corfe_castle_station_1In trumpet playing terms, the Scissor Action needs to remain intact, but the blades are not “cutting “ as much.  This allows the lip aperture to slightly widen, and more air to pass through it.  This alone would actually slow the airspeed, and so the air support must fill the larger aperture…which helps to stimulate the Scissor Action into retaining the form of the embouchure.   Because the “grip” of the scissors is still intact, it can immediately respond in balance to any changes in the quality of air.  The throat should be wide and the tongue low in the mouth, in order to create big resonant chambers for the trumpet to amplify, and to help produce an unstoppable mass of air support (think of how hard it would be to stop even a slow moving train).  Playing in the low register correctly helps to develop many of the skills that are needed throughout the range of the instrument.

Begin anywhere on any scale where it is easiest produce sound with the proper form, and gradually slur (no tonguing yet) in the direction that allows for the most success.  Make sure that the sound is consistent and continuous before moving to the next note,  and that the air has a momentum to it that sounds like even a single pitch is leading somewhere.  Four pitches are usually enough to test how well things are working, while longer scale fragments are more likely to distract the player from maintaining a high enough standard of air, sound and form.  Smaller fragments (2-3 notes) are OK…remember that the priority is the quality of notes, not the quantity.  If successful with the fragment, return in the opposite direction, back towards the starting note.  There could be a gradual and undetected loss of balance, even when playing the shortest of fragments.  A good test to see if this has occurred is to compare the starting note of the fragment to that same pitch when it is eventually returned to (another good reason to play fragments with a low note count at first).   If that note is easier or harder to maintain than when it was initially played, or if it sounds better or worse, then the player (and/or teacher) must discover the reason why, before moving on to playing something more complex.  Remember, that alternating with the more simple exercises performed without the horn (described above), or playing long tones are great ways of refreshing the physical setup and mental image (as long as they are performed consciously).

If all is well, the same fragment can be performed with tonguing, using the same sensibilities.  If successful, begin the scale fragment on the same starting note, but this time slur (up or down) in the opposite direction of the original fragment.  Again, the number of notes to played should be determined by how well the fragment is being played, meaning that awareness should be developing at the same time as the trumpet skills.  Introduce the variations of tonguing and returning to the original note as described above, remembering that the purpose here is to still be building very specific fundamental habits.  Aimless blowing on any series of notes cannot accomplish that purpose.  The relative simplicity of the “What”…merely playing a few notes in a small scale fragment, causes many players to lose concentration.  However, even the best players find the challenge in improving their playing skills at the most fundamental levels.  Their experience has shown them the rewards that come from focusing their attention on “How” they are playing the horn, which also engages and elevates their powers of concentration even more.

Effortless transition through the instrument’s overtone series is at the heart of great trumpet playing (this is sometimes referred to as flexibility).  Slurring on this pattern of harmonic intervals (where all the notes in the slur use the same fingering) is one of the best ways to concentrate on the essential skills of coordination that need to be developed.  Having said that, it is also important to know that if practiced incorrectly, these slurs can lead to bad habits just as easily.  Most of the intervals in the overtone series are much larger than those that are encountered in the major and minor scales, and so the margin of error allowed to retain the playing system’s balance decreases as the intervals and range of the slur increase.  This means that awareness must also increase…you have to pay more attention to how you are performing these exercises.  Scales have hidden slot (overtone) shifts (where the scale is ascending, yet the accompanying valve change is lengthening the horn…or the scale is descending, but the valve change is making the trumpet shorter), which requires that the slot change happens precisely as the valve change is made (see the blog post “Critical Points to Consider when Practicing Scales and Arpeggios on the Trumpet” for more information).  For this reason, there is an advantage to practicing these slot changes on the overtone series first.

One way around that approach’s challenge is to remove any rhythmic constraints for the slot change…not making the jump happen at an exact moment in time until the proper coordination is learned.  I have my students first practice the correct wind pattern for ascending or descending…making sure they are always relaxed during the acceleration process, and that when descending, the air retains a healthy mass and momentum.  We also watch what the embouchure looks like (the horn is not up at the moment)…making sure that the position does not ever squeeze at the center or release its basic form.  It should be mentioned that there are a lot more variables involved when moving through the range of the horn.  Explaining more of the possibilities would be best saved for another article (although some are dealt with in other blog posts).  Here, the focus is on a few of the concepts that will help the player with braces with the first steps of their transition.

The aforementioned Two Finger Mouthpiece Buzz is a great way to begin learning the fundamental skills required of these kinds of slurs, since the basic tube of the mouthpiece is too short to have an overtone series by itself.  With the mouthpiece alone, slurs sound more like a siren, and with the very light mouthpiece pressure, it is easier to hear and feel the immediate relationship between the air and embouchure.  There is still a challenge to do this without the instrument attached, since some of the efficiency is lost.  However, we are only looking to develop a discernible relationship between airspeed and pitch…the interval of the slurs does not need to be dramatic.  Even though a little more effort may be involved, it tends to bring out how the balance of form could be lost (for the weightlifters, imagine how easy it is to learn the body’s tendencies to “cheat” as the muscle becomes more fatigued at the end of the set).  I should mention that although words like effort and fatigue have been used here, the priority is to remain as relaxed as possible during any of these exercises.  The “cheating” to be avoided here is lip eruption, squeezing the embouchure at its center, more mouthpiece pressure, tightening the throat, etc.  Instead, listen for and feel the sound of free flowing air, and its relationship to an embouchure that remains both focused and relaxed at its center.

Whether the slur is practiced with the mouthpiece alone, or with the horn on the overtone series, the approach is the same as when playing the scale fragments….start in the range where the form is best, use a breath attack, choose the direction which promises the greatest success, play small intervals at first, and then return to the starting note.  If successful on all counts, explore slurring in the opposite direction, and then returning to the starting note, all performed with the same level of excellence.  Also, freely alternate with the wind pattern, first with Focusing Air and No Weight Blowing, to make sure the working relationship with the air and the embouchure has not been disturbed by the mouthpiece.

At this point, the player is ready for some music, although it would be best to begin with small excerpts that are at the level of the preceding exercises.  Oftentimes reading music can be a distraction to a player who is still developing the good habits of air and form.  The mere act of staring at a page, discerning the fingerings, rhythms, articulations, dynamics, etc., can take one’s mind off of the underlying physical fundamentals needed to support the music.  Start with small phrases at first, that can be easily be played without the music, in order to increase awareness of sound quality, the relaxed “swing” of the breathing and continuity of the phrase, the clarity of the tongue, the amount mouthpiece pressure and its distribution, etc.,…all of the fundamental aspects of form and air that had been previously worked on.

Gradually progress to phrases with more difficulty, but only if things are  going well, and be wise in the selection of music.  Continue to alternate with Focusing Air and No Weight Blowing, to keep the chops fresh, and the mental image clear.  If these do not refresh the form and make playing easier, then rest is prescribed…take a break.  With all of the details described in this article, you can see that a young player would greatly benefit from the guidance of an experienced teacher, but hopefully players without braces can also see the merits of this approach.


MORE INFORMATION

Most of the ideas in this section have been mentioned earlier in this article, but bear repeating in this context.  It should also be interesting to note that the same kind of care used to initially set up the embouchure and get a sound carry over when trying to solve other performance issues.   The fundamentals of good trumpet playing are called fundamental for a reason!

Some students that may first enjoy an easier production of the higher notes then find that they cannot play as well in the lower range.  This can be due to several things:

  • The quality of their airstream.  It’s common to find that students let their air sag as they go lower, losing the energy of support.  This actually provokes the lips to follow suit, losing their seal and shape, and therefore encouraging the use of mouthpiece pressure to hold things together.  Try singing a resonant sounding low note with the vowel “O,” and notice how wide the throat is, how the tongue is relaxed and low, and the kind of momentum required of the airstream.  It helps some players to imagine the warm breath that will fog up glass.  The trumpet requires the same kind of mechanics from the body (use “Ho” for the breath attack).  This does not mean that the throat will narrow as you return to the middle and upper registers (!), but instead is a good example of how playing correctly in the low register can help you learn some of the skills required to play throughout the range of the horn.
  • The amount and distribution of the mouthpiece pressure.  A lot of players drop their head as they go lower, which usually shifts the weight of the mouthpiece to the top lip, which is the reed of our instrument.  It might be an unconscious way of trying to keep the top lip down below the top teeth…both exposed to air, and in closer contact with the bottom lip, but this action has more harmful side effects than benefits.  If the top lip is receiving more weight, it is harder to keep it vibrating (especially if the airstream is sagging), which then encourages the bottom lip to lose its Hugging action…part of what sustains the underlying shape of the embouchure.  Dropping the head also constricts the air passage at the throat, which affects the momentum of the air, and the resonance of the sound.
  • Too much tension at the center of the embouchure.  The concept of an “M” shaped embouchure is often misunderstood.  The slight feeling of inversion that occurs is what helps “catch” the air and aid in the resiliency of the top lip, but it is only part of the Scissor Action,  which also keeps the top lip relaxed and exposed to air (down below the top teeth).  This also keeps the corners sealed with the mouthpiece, the mouthpiece pressure seated more on the sides than the center, and the point of least resistance (for the airstream) at the center.  Trying to create the gentle contact and inversion of “M” by squeezing the bottom lip up at the center, will close the center, not focus it.  A closed embouchure will react by releasing it’s shape…inviting the return of mouthpiece pressure.

Again, learning how to play the lower register correctly will help the player in so many ways…not only how to avoid the discomfort of playing with braces, but also how to improve one’s sound, efficiency, flexibility and even upper range.  However, it still comes down to How one approaches that range of the horn.  Many players become careless when playing the pitches they may have first played as beginners (like low C), succumbing to the temptation to overly open the lip aperture and erupt the lips…and in doing so, only perpetuate the same problems they inherited from that way of playing.


More Thoughts About Braces

The hardest part of this transition has nothing to do with trumpet playing, but are the kinds of things everyone goes through with braces.  The initial pains people feel are related to the tension in the mouth as teeth are forced to begin moving to their new positions.  Also, the inside of the lips and cheeks will be tender from the friction against the braces created by normal activities like talking and eating, until the inside of the mouth begins to toughen up.

I don’t recommend playing with wax, or any of the lip guard products that are out there, unless you have an immediate playing commitment that does not allow you any time to address a better way of playing the instrument.  Those kind of solutions mainly address the symptoms (the pain), rather than the causes.  Reduce the pain by improving your playing habits, then use any remaining discomfort as a little reminder of how well you are progressing, and if adjustments still need to be made.

When finally playing more efficiently, most of the pain comes from the wires that stick out into the back of the cheeks, so be sure to tell the orthodontist that you are a trumpet player.  They have a tool that can trim those wires in the back so they are flush with the braces.   If  you forget to mention this at the time the braces are first installed, here would be a good place to make use of the wax the orthodontist will first give you, placing it over the ends of those wires until the next visit, when you can have those wires trimmed.

wheel_torqueSome students find that the braces inhibit their ability to bring the top lip down, so it is 1/8” below the top teeth edges…placing the lip line (where the lips touch) halfway between the top and bottom teeth.  In those cases I found that they had begun the Hugging action…too much too soon, which was already holding and immobilizing the top lip against the teeth and gums (and of course the braces).  Because the top lip coming down is only a part of the Scissor Action, remember that it should occur at the same time as the hugging action, the sealing at the corners, the focusing toward the center, and the improvement of weight distribution.  This is much like following the “star pattern” when uniformly tightening a car’s wheel after changing a flat tire, except that with the Scissor Action, all of its actions occur simultaneously.  However, the analogy still holds true…if one lug bolt (or action) is screwed all the way down before the others, the wheel will be askew, and the other lug bolts will be effectively locked out from their needed role in properly aligning and securing the wheel.

Sometimes braces are placed on one set of teeth first, either the top or bottom.  Whatever the program the orthodontist is following, the trumpet player’s jaw position must be adjusted to insure that the distribution of the mouthpiece weight favors the bottom (55-60%), and the lips themselves are aligned with each other.  I’ve had students who have had to change their jaw position several times while they had braces, and always making this adjustment greatly helped them to maintain a consistency in both their comfort and playing.

When the braces come off  there will be a different challenge…the additional space between the teeth (and gums) and the inner cheeks, where the braces used to be.  The solution is simple…take up the “slack” with the Hugging action.  This of course begins with the initial setup, which will set the example for what you will continue to do while playing.  Going hand in hand with this change is the need to make sure that it occurs in a way that does not disrupt the balance of the entire playing system, which should still allow the throat and upper body to remain completely relaxed.

The early warning sign of too much pressure…pain, will be missing, so it is helpful to find other symptoms to alert you to this problem.  As mentioned before, a good way of judging the amount of pressure is your ability to hold your “frame” in place.  This ability is not only based on strength, but also balance.  If the embouchure is feeling the mouthpiece weight (either the amount, it’s distribution, or both) more than the supporting air column, the set will feel the urge to release.  Also listen to the sound…does it “wobble” or lose its continuity?  The balance between air support and playing weight could now be favoring  the weight.

Some students report a “slimey” feeling on their teeth after the braces come off.  This is nothing to worry about, and that sensation will soon pass.


MORE INFORMATION ABOUT THE SCISSOR ACTION

 

two-scissorsThere are three things that occur simultaneously with the “Scissor Action”:

  1. The top lip comes down (and continues to be held down) at a point 1/8” lower than the top teeth as part of a Hugging Action (described below).  This keeps the top lip below the top teeth edges (and therefore exposed to air), and in contact with the bottom lip.  The initial downward motion should first begin through the act of relaxation.  This contact is first felt at the corners (just like where the blades of our imaginary scissors first start to cut…closest to their lever’s fulcrum, at the screws).  This action replaces the misguided effort to keep the lips in contact with each other by dropping the head, or raising the bell angle (or both), which usually puts more mouthpiece pressure on the top lip.
  2. The bottom lip does not come up any more than 1/8” above the bottom teeth (which is related to the squeezing action at the center of the lips), but instead “hugs” towards the bottom teeth and gums (all around the arc of the mouth, but is anchored at the corners).  This action is the one most involved in replacing the mouthpiece pressure, and “catching” or compressing the air.
  3. The lip aperture begins to narrow from the sides toward the center, effectively focusing it, and keeping the center of the embouchure as the point of least resistance.

Sometimes I have students perform this action with their teeth lightly touching.  Even though the trumpet is not normally played in such a position, it has a few of advantages that help with the set up:

  • It is easier to see if the teeth are aligned.
  • You can more clearly observe where the lips first come into contact with each other in relation to the teeth (remember that this should be 1/8” below the top teeth), and if they touch each other first at their center or their corners (they should meet at the corners first).6916f8ef90d81241e5aecc80fd804638
  • It helps to learn the difference between the proper Hugging-inverting action and the misguided “sucking in” of the lips (where they go over the teeth edges and into the mouth).  All of the Hugging-inversion should happen in front of the teeth.
  • By eliminating the 1/4” gap between the teeth that will be eventually used during playing, the facial muscles get a better sense of the form they need to take (imagine how a latex mask is made by allowing the material to dry while it is hugging against the face, and how there should be no air pockets to distort the final form).  With the gap gone, there is something more substantial to hug against.  Once the jaw returns to the 1/4” gap, the embouchure muscles remember their proper form (this is much like how temporary forms are used when making the foundation for a house…helping to hold the concrete in place until it dries).dsc4745
  • It makes it easier to tell if the top lip is coming down due to muscular (correct) or jaw action (incorrect).  If the jaw is dropping to pull the top lip down, you would feel that the teeth are no longer in contact.

 

Once their position is set, I often have the student then blow air through it…a test and see if the embouchure is relaxed enough to allow the air to pass through its center, and if the embouchure muscles are strong and coordinated enough to maintain its basic form with varying degrees of air support.  Attempting a soft Free Buzz in this way could also be very informative.

No one action predominates here…they all act in a balanced, coordinated unison, which allows everything to occur with only the minimum amount of tension needed for the moment.  The more relaxed you can be, the more malleable your face will be…making it easier to make the setup.  This approach can be easily overdone, which can produce problems of its own, so concentrate more on relaxation and coordination than strength.   big_thumb_b8304cb07b01385dc02bcc4a2e829355Think about the blueprint for a high performance race car.  A powerful engine might be thought of as a top priority, but more important is the power to weight ratio…a lighter car does not need as much power as a heavy one, and will be much more nimble.  Either way, the weight of the engine must be properly distributed.  There will be major problems if there is a high center of gravity, and there must be adjustments made if the entire weight of the car is not balanced, but favors either its front or the back (can you imagine how the car seen above would perform on a track with all kinds of twists and turns?).  The geometry of the suspension is also critical, as are the brake and tire choices, and the gearing ratios of the transmission.  Of course there are more variables, but you get the idea…this is a system that requires that you consider its every component, and their relationships to all the others.

If properly coordinated, the lips should first contact each other (sometimes called the “lip line”) at the halfway point of the 1/4” teeth aperture (1/8th of an inch below the top teeth edges, and 1/8th of an inch above the bottom teeth edges) in one step.  A common mistake is first bringing the bottom lip up above the top teeth edges (part of a squeeze), and then trying to bring this point of contact back down to where it is centered between the teeth (obviously two steps).  The problem here is that this initial, go-to action of the embouchure muscles remains ingrained in the mental software…a mini ticking time bomb that can lead to a closed center and the bottom lip’s loss of hug (which can be just as destructive as excessive mouthpiece pressure or poor weight distribution).  Remember that you will hold the position with the same muscle combination that made it, so be careful that you are very aware during this process.

Not only do the lips meet from corner to corner at this midway point, but their hugging should equally align them, where no lip inverts more than the other.  This aids in the stability of the position, without adding unnecessary tension.

flexing-bicepsThe lips will begin to seal with the mouthpiece at the corners in a way that also creates a platform for the mouthpiece to better contact there, thereby protecting the center vibrating top lip even more.  Think of how a muscle changes its shape when it contracts, and you will get the idea of how the Scissor Action can help to create this advantageous shape.  Once the embouchure is set, any increase in tension below the corners becomes more isometric (with the exception of the narrowing of the lip aperture), where the position only locks in place more (rather than moving the embouchure in any direction).  It is the corners of the lip aperture which focus towards the center…the corners of the mouth remain at their natural width, neither smiling back nor pooching forward.

Remember that although you are making a sturdy frame, it houses a very relaxed yet resilient reed at its center…one that allows air to freely pass through, as it leaves its sometime compressed state in the oral cavity.  The throat, tongue and upper body should also be completely relaxed.

Lockheed SR-71 landing with drag chute (S/N 61-7972). (U.S. Air Force photo)

Lockheed SR-71 landing with drag chute (S/N 61-7972). (U.S. Air Force photo)

This setup is much like the design of a drag chute…it must catch air in order to achieve its intended purpose, but requires a hole at its center to take some of the stress off  (and to keep the position from coming apart).  If the center hole enlarges too much, the chute loses its effectiveness.  Our embouchure can catch, focus and compress this flowing air.  The better we can catch and compress, the less we have to blow, plus the free center allows the air to pass and the top to vibrate at a very specific (and therefore controllable) point.  Imagine what happens to the shape of the chute as the airspeed decreases.  At first there is less tension on the cords, but below a certain speed the chute loses its shape entirely.  Similarly, the best designed embouchure will lose its effectiveness below a certain speed, underscoring the fundamental need to keep the air flowing!

There is a certain amount of embouchure strength involved here to start with, but it should always be minimal…just enough to get the job done.  If you are having trouble  maintaining the position, first make sure you are not under or overblowing, are not closing the center with excessive weight or poor weight distribution, and then, are not squeezing the position’s center.  All of these actions can trigger a response in the body to release the position.


FINAL THOUGHTS

What works for the student transitioning to braces works as well for the player who is looking for ways to improve.  The process of upgrading the design of the human part of the instrument not only aids with the performance aspects of trumpet playing, but music making as well.  Results go hand in hand with one’s ability to follow the blueprint described here, which should give the player positive feedback for not only the time they have invested, but also for the value of acquiring more knowledge, and elevating their awareness.

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