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High note mania!
Range on the trumpet is widely known to be a hot topic and a difficult, for most, skill to master. But why is it so elusive? Why do some new players “just know how to how to do it”? More often than not, new players simply get “lucky” with an embouchure formation that works well for the upper register. However, this skill is usually at the expense of a clean low range. It is always a give and take!
For the rest of us mortals it is a skill we master over time. Those who take lessons will find it much easier to navigate higher notes, and those who jump in solo will likely take longer and experience more frustration.
The trumpet, as others in the brass family, is not a tact instrument. It is not like the piano, or guitar, or violin, where as long as the player places the finger on the correct spot and strums, bows or strikes, the pitch will inevitably happen. Oh no, no, no. The trumpet is somewhat of a wild animal. You can press the correct valves, you can blow air through it and know the pitch you want…yet, the notes simply won’t happen.
If this resonates with you, stick with me through these tips and hopefully you will find a way to tame the beast. Should you want more guidance, I cover this and many more topics in my trumpet lessons online course.
1. Stop comparing yourself
This is true for everything in life. The more time you spend comparing yourself to others, the less time you will have to improve yourself. So my friends, focus on your range and your skills, and don’t worry about the player who has an octave on you. No, that player hasn’t found the elixir of high notes, they likely figured it out by working on themselves and being patient.
Your “high notes” are not everyone’s else’s either. Maybe you just started and C in the third space seems miles away, and that’s okay! Or maybe you’ve been playing a while and you’re trying to unlock that high C.
Whatever your “high notes” are, just remember to focus on yourself.
2. Don’t try to run before you can walk
Trying to run a marathon while being out of shape would be a sure way to end up on the sidelines, jelly-legged and seeing a halo of birds above your head.
Trumpet works exactly the same way! You have to be in shape to work on your range. There is not way around it, no magical potion, no shortcuts. Work hard on your fundamentals for two weeks to build a strong foundation for your range development.
3. Stop blowing your face off and let the air flow
You know all those YouTube videos of red-faced trumpet players leaning back into a Matrix-style bullet dodge position?
Don’t do that.
High notes don’t require tanks and tanks of air, or strenuous effort. But they do require pressurized air like the air that comes out of a car tire. It’s fast, it flows freely and uninterrupted. That’s the type of air you want for those stubborn high notes.
The problem is that the air flow often gets blocked by several different things that may be going on in your embouchure. Let’s keep going to talk about some of these issues, but just remember to let the air flow smoothly…always.
4. Use your tongue arch
If you had no tongue, you wouldn’t be able to play the trumpet. Well…you’d have a few notes, but not a whole lot. The tongue plays an important role in trumpet playing, as has been observed and taught by some of the world’s best teachers.
When expanding your upper range raise your tongue to an “eeee” position to propel the air forward. Be careful though that you don’t overdo it, which will result in partial or complete obstruction of the air.
Why does it work? Because when you raise your tongue it decreases the amount of space in your oral cavity and as long as you keep up the volume of air, the air will become more pressurized and move faster. Think of a hose with a flowing stream of water that comes out for a few inches, curves downward, and falls to the ground. Now put your thumb over the hole and watch as the water flows for many inches or feet before it falls. You don’t have to turn up the water, you just have to decrease the area of flow.
This sounds simple, but it took me four months to figure out how exactly to place my tongue and I had already been playing for 13 years at the time. So be patient and if possible, take some private lessons.
5. Keep the corners where they are
Make sure that as you play higher you do not stretch your lips making the corners go outward. This is the classic “smile” method, and although you may find immediate results, you will inevitably run out of luck when the lips can’t stretch anymore and you still have many more notes to go.
Instead, keep your corners where they are, but flex them.
As you flex those muscles you will feel them pressing against your teeth, but without stretching outward. Remember, always do things gently with the trumpet…you are not trying to channel your inner bodybuilder!
6. All that pressure is not good
ding ding! The fight begins between the heavyweight bicep and the lightweight lip!
Oh! The fight is over. ding ding!
This is a very big issue with trumpet layers shoving that metal into their lips. I know that it feels like it helps in a way, but it really doesn’t. When we use excessive pressure the lip will be smushed down and it will no longer vibrate.
No vibration, no notes.
If you’ve ever tried to play high and gotten just air, you’re probably using too much pressure. Instead, try to pull the horn away from your lips a bit and see how that helps.
7. Pinched high notes come from pinched lips
I know you’ve heard some squeaky high notes that sound like the notes are trying to escape the grip of a boa constrictor.
That sound is the tell tale sign of pinched lips. When you pinch your lips you tighten the tissue through which the air flows and causes vibration, and so yes, the note may come out but it’s highly dampened. It doesn’t have resonance or projection.
Players usually resort to pinching their lips because they haven’t found another way to play higher. To avoid this try to use other methods such as tongue arch and proper air flow.
Remember, the corners are flexed, but the center of the lips is relaxed.
I hope these tips on how to improve your upper range on the trumpet helped you realize where you may be going wrong. As always, I recommend the guidance of a teacher with such a physical instrument as the trumpet.
If you are looking for affordable, self-paced lessons, try my trumpet lessons online course right here at THQ.
Please leave comments and questions below.
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