12/28/18 How Do Our Chops React to the Air-stream?
I thought it might be helpful to occasionally write down some of my thoughts regarding this curious conglomeration of brass and metal that we all hold so dearly. The trumpet. Much of what I write in this blog will be new information to those reading. At the very least, the information will be presented from an original/ unique angle. To my students however, I hope that much of this information has become familiar or even commonplace. Let’s begin!
A Physical Instrument
The trumpet is a PHYSICAL instrument. In more specific terms it’s a physically demanding instrument. There’s no getting around it. Just as the laws of physics dictate that it takes force to push a boulder up a hill, it also takes force to play the trumpet. No amount of Voodoo, well-wishing, or positive thinking will aid us directly in playing higher or louder on the trumpet (or more skillfully for that matter). Sounds daunting doesn’t it! The great fighter Bruce Lee once said, “Do not pray for an easy life, pray for the strength to endure a difficult one.” Such a statement might actually prove exceedingly relevant when attempting to learn an instrument like ours! We can only enhance our playing in a physical capacity by practicing and improving these two areas: strength, and efficiency. Of these attributes the importance of the former is usually overestimated and the later is overlooked all together. There is a technique to playing the trumpet well. Having a highly efficient technique is the best thing we can do for ourselves and our playing in order to play this physically demanding instrument better. Furthermore, we need to master the mechanics of our instrument so that we can then get on to music. We’ll go deeper into that in another blog. On to the specific question for today!
How do our chops react to the air-stream? One of the most important things we can do as trumpeters and musicians in general, is to ask the right questions. At the least, we should be asking good questions. This is a good question. A high school student recently brought it to my attention during a Skype Lesson. I like this question because it has a start point, an end point, it’s specific, and it demonstrates to me that he has learned that the air is the start point of our trumpet playing apparatus. Everything else acts in reaction to the air being pushed out of our stomach region by our abdominal muscles. In a moment, we’ll ask and answer an even better question~ how Should our chops react to the air-stream? But first, let’s ponder and describe how an average beginner player reacts to the air-stream.
In order to play louder a beginning trumpeter will use the one tool he has in his tool-bag- blowing harder! Likewise, in order to play higher, inevitably he will again- blow harder! He doesn’t yet understand that two different actions are necessary in order to bring forth two different results. “More AIR!!” his lofty band director shouts. It’s true that many beginning students simply cannot comprehend that it takes a large volume of air to play the trumpet, but because of this brash demand, Larry is now smashing the mouthpiece into his face cutting his lips on his teeth while attempting to appease his band director’s desperate pleas to use more air. This is not helpful. Let’s assume that Larry Lunchmeat is indeed using a quantifiable and adequate amount of air. The only difference between Larry’s loud note, and his high note is as you may have guessed~ mouthpiece pressure. Larry uses more and more horizontal pressure in order to play higher, smashing his lips between the hard enamel of his teeth and the even more unforgiving metal rim of his mouthpiece. There is a better way…
The aperture. We need to talk about Larry’s aperture. In his current method of playing discussed, the aperture is WIDE open both for loud, and high playing. To say that this is a problem would be a vast understatement. And now we finally get to it: How we tell our chops to react to the air-stream is at the crux of mastering the Physical aspect of trumpet playing. Let’s break it down with the even better question.
How should our chops react to the air-stream?
Assuming that the supply of air exhaled from the lungs is a constant, not a variable, we have 2 events to consider:
Event 1. Allowing the lips to blow open forming a Wide aperture
=a large amount of air passing through the lips at a slow rate of speed which
=lips oscillating against each other at a slower rate which
=a slower vibration which
=a low frequency acoustic wave which
=a Low note
i.e. a Wide aperture= a Low note
Event 2. Using the chop muscles to pull the lips together forming a Closed aperture
=a small amount of air passing through the lips at a fast rate of speed which
=lips oscillating against each other at a faster rate which
=a faster vibration which
=a high frequency acoustic wave which
=a High note
i.e. a Closed aperture= a High note
Now we (non-novice) already knew (if only subconsciously) that in order to play louder we need to relax the chops and allow more air pass through the lips. This is second nature even for many young players. But we’ll dig deeper into dynamics in a moment. Playing higher however, is not near as intuitive for most of us. Really what we need to understand is that instead of using horizontal pressure from horn to teeth, we need to employ Vertical activation/ relaxation of the lips. Using the chop muscles to press the lips together vertically like when saying the letter M, “MMMmmmmm” is the best way to achieve a higher note. Focus on this vertical aspect of the chops in order to speed up the air-steam that exits our lips is key. Yes, we have and always will use horizontal mouthpiece pressure to keep the hermetic seal, but focusing on this pressure and continuing to ask the question, “am I using too much or too little pressure?” will never help solve the problem in the end because it’s exactly the wrong question all together. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised that by focusing on the aperture instead, you’ll inevitably start using less mouthpiece pressure just as a side effect;)
So, a Wide aperture= a Low note
and a Closed aperture= a High note
But what about Dynamics???
Considering the way in which a trumpet naturally works, the overtone series constitutes that the low end of a trumpets range is Loud in comparison to its high register which is Quiet. Don’t believe me? Play a chromatic scale up and down while looking at a Decibel Reader. I have a decibel app on my phone. Otherwise just try to squeak a low note and tell me how that works out… The upper register is naturally a more bright, focused, but quiet in sound. The upper register projects easily, whereas sound in the lower register is naturally louder, darker, broader, and dissipates more easily instead of projecting. Having said that, a wide aperture naturally renders a Loud note, whereas a closed aperture renders a quiet note. In short, while playing the trumpet, our aperture is controlling two different aspects of our playing at any given moment- Volume and Pitch. The first lesson video in my online course presents a diagram to demonstrate the different attribute combinations that a note can have, but in summary, I would say that it is best to lean on the natural tendencies of our instrument. The pyramid of sound is pleasing to our human ears i.e. there is no reason for high notes to be forced or ‘louder than lovely,’ and it’s good for low notes to have a little more substance. Let your low notes be a bit louder in accordance with the pyramid of sound especially when playing in a group. Think tuba.
Understanding how the two different actions of the aperture control the four different types of notes is crucial in bettering ourselves as trumpet players. Test yourself by answering these 4 questions as they pertain to aperture size. Think about these ‘Energy Levels’ in your practice from here forward and be intentional with which Level you are employing within any given exercise. Lip flexibility exercises are a great place to start. Depending on the extent of the spectrum, some answers will be more balanced than extreme (example: a ‘medium wide’ aperture etc.) Answer these 4 questions:
Energy Level 1. How do I get a Quiet, Low note?
E.L. 2. How do I get a Loud, Low note?
E.L. 3. How do I get a Quiet, High note?
E.L. 4. How do I get a Loud, High note?
P.S. ~Most of our daily practicing should be done at Energy Level #s 1 and 3, quiet playing. Quiet playing forces us to focus on the details of our playing apparatus. Anyone can force out an intractable loud noise. Playing with focus and and control is what we should desire ten-fold.
For musics that start low and ascend higher in range, our lips should contract gradually into a closed aperture. (think about squeaking high notes) Inversely, for musics that start high and descend lower in range, our lips should be allowed to blow open into an open aperture as we descend. Ride the air-stream as you go up, activating the chop muscles, realizing that there is a certain/ definitive amount of compression (the human body can’t actually compress air to any measurable extent) needed for each note, and relax the chop muscles on the way down. Our accuracy and control will make strides forward as our bodies commit each of these calculations into our muscle memory. Now the only thing left to do is practice for the rest of our lives!
This should be enough for now!