How To Play More Musically

When I was little I listened to a bunch of trumpet music, particularly Rafael Mendez, and that was my first lesson on how to play more musically.

I loved the fun music he played, his virtuosic trumpet playing was mesmerizing. I knew all his music really well, and still to this day, can hum most of his pieces. Due to the large amount of time I spent listening to him, I started to imitate his playing. My vibrato got faster, and my articulation got a bit more “pecky.” So what does this have to do with playing musically?

Well, I also started phrasing music like Rafael. Long, long, long phrases, connecting notes and understanding the musical conversation. I do believe that being musical comes from somewhere deep inside [this is where you can picture me dramatically putting my hand on my chest and saying “it comes from here”].

Some people show a remarkable aptitude for musicality at a very early age, while others have to learn it. I don’t think there is a problem with learning it at all. You can absolutely learn to play the trumpet (or any instrument) musically, beautifully and with real heart. You just have to be open to being emotionally vulnerable in your music, and of course, you have to develop a beautiful tone through diligent practice. Start by following these 3 simple tips.

Tip #1 Listen to music…the right music

Every time I get a new trumpet student I ask “do you listen to music?” They almost always say yes. Then I clarify, “to trumpet music?” Most respond with no, others say they like Trombone Shorty.

If you want to be able to play musically then you have to listen to musicians who are experts at it. By listen I mean put on your headphones, lie down, be still and try to notice everything. You must be a proactive listener. 

Listening to singers is particularly helpful because we as instrumentalists face the challenge of singing through our instruments. I have learned a great deal from icons like Whitney Houston, Celine Dion and classical superstars like Sarah Brightman.

Once you start listening you will see how vocalists shape music in a way that it transcends beyond your ears and into your heart. Only then will you be able to begin the learning process to do it yourself. If you don’t know where to start check out my list of essential trumpet albums and get grooving.

Tip #2 Expand your lung capacity

Nothing says musicality like a nice long phrase that takes you seamlessly from one idea to the next. However, this is as hard as refusing french fries when your lungs don’t have enough gas in the tank. This could be simply because you are not taking in enough air, a very common problem, but it could also be that your lung capacity needs some attention. You can absolutely train your lungs to hold more air and learn to control it with simple exercises like slow long tones, slow flexibilities, slow playing. 

Slow playing.

More often than not, trumpet students rush through everything they play. Long tones? fast. Lip slurs? fast. Lyrical etudes? fast. Its no wonder that playing long phrases is such a challenge! If you are used to rushing through your practice, your first goal is to develop patience and play slowly. It will help you expand your lung capacity and it will bring into light other issues you might be having, like intonation.

There are also breathing exercises you can do, some of which I teach and demonstrate in my trumpet lessons online program right here at THQ. You can also find breathing aid devices you can purchase to help you expand that lung capacity.

Tip #3 Always know where you’re going

Although you may rely on your GPS to get your places, it certainly won’t do much for your music making. When it comes to music, you have to be the GPS. You have to know where the phrase begins, where its going and where it ends. 

There are 3 general types of notes in music: notes that are going, arriving or coming from. “Going” notes have a certain drive that says “here, hold my hand, I will take you where you need to go.” For the listener, this is a necessity as it will keep them engaged and interested in what you’re playing. “Arriving” notes should be played with certainty that you have arrived at the correct location, making it clear that that is exactly where you want the listener to feel at “home.” Finally, “coming from” notes sound like you are saying goodbye, which you can interpret through softer playing and a delicate touch.

The excerpt below is from the Oskar Böhme Trumpet Concerto. There is one phrase here, beginning at the first measure with the D and ending on the last note, the B. That much is pretty clear. Now let’s look at it more closely…which note is the “big” note? The climatic note? It’s actually the highest note, the G. Every note before it is going to that G and every note after it is coming from it. Nothing before or after the G should over shadow it in volume or expression, save it for the G. That’s the big picture. 

How to play more musically, Excerpt from Oskar Böhme Trumpet Concerto
How to phrase this excerpt from the Oskar Böhme Trumpet Concerto.

But things can get much deeper.

Within the first half alone there are many more notes that are going, arriving and coming from. The very first note for example is going to the second one, which goes to the 3rd and the 4th. Once at the C# (the note of arrival) you can begin to play the coming from notes. The C# can diminuendo into the D, and the D diminuendo again into the B flat. This push and pull keeps going and it is what makes music pleasing.

A lot of the time you will see dynamic markings and symbols that will show you where the phrases are, which is great, but when that help isn’t there it is up to you to find the phrases and carry the listener all the way to the end. 

Through proactive listening, lung expansion and attentive practice you can play beautifully and begin learning the music language. For further discussion please comment below, and have a wonderful, music-filled day.

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Download the THQ Warmup Guide to learn eye-opening tips and lessons that will take your playing to the next level.