It’s been a while since I wrote, so I decided to start off with something simple and right in line with what I do. High notes!
I’m a professional trumpet player in the Northeast Ohio area, and high notes are every trumpeter’s love/hate relationship. I happen to be fortunate enough to have some strong chops and a relatively significant range. I often get asked, “how do you play those high notes and make it look so easy?” The simple answer, AIR! But in reality it’s a bit more complicated than that. Let’s dig a little deeper, shall we?
When I began playing at the age of 10, I already was able to play above the staff. Little did I know, that was actually because I had a bad embouchure which worked well for high notes, but not so well for endurance or tone. For those that don’t know, an embouchure is basically the way your lips are placed on/in the mouthpiece. For a trumpet player, you typically want the ratio of lips in the mouthpiece to be between 1/2 upper and 1/2 lower to 1/3 upper and 2/3 lower. Of course everyone is different and something else may work for you, but this is a general guidepost. What is really important is that all of the red fatty tissue be in the mouthpiece as well as the line of muscles on the edge of the red.
As you can see in the pictures below (sorry about all the fuzzy read hair in the way haha), my upper lip is actually larger than my lower, and so I naturally ended up with my upper lip leaking out over the top of the mouthpiece. I made it through high school with this embouchure, but when I got to college, it just wasn’t cutting it anymore. With professor Scott Johnston’s guidance, I went through an extensive embouchure change that lasted well over 6 months. It was grueling and I spent sometimes 8 hours playing every day to push myself through the change of rolling my upper lip to thin it out and get the actual muscle into the mouthpiece. In the end it was definitely worthwhile. My tone improved dramatically, as well did my endurance and of course, the high notes. Fortunately, I had built other good habits with my breathing and other aspects that allowed me to continue playing well. Now the coveted high Gs are there with consistency and I can play a 3-hour gig without straining to pop the last zinger to cap off the night.
My natural lips.
Upper lip curled for better embouchure.
Old embouchure with red above the mouthpiece.
New embouchure with lip curled so that muscles are in the mouthpiece.
So you might still be saying, “Zack, I have an embouchure like you said, but I still struggle with those high notes. What’s wrong?” Well it could be a number of things, but more than likely, it comes down to two things. The way you breath and your practice routine.
Who am I kidding? This is the real secret! Thrust as necessary!
Okay for real though, breathing properly is absolutely key to playing any wind instrument, especially lead trumpet. You may think to squeeze out those high notes you need to squeeze out the air. That is absolutely the opposite of what you want to do. A relaxed breath and letting the air flow out with an open throat is far more effective. Contrary to popular belief, the diaphragm is not the muscle that pushes the air out. It in fact can only expand down to open up the chest cavity to let air in. The intercostal muscles, which are the interlocking muscles surrounding your rib cage area, are the ones that squeeze the air out of your lungs. You should work on exercising those muscles off the horn as well. Not only does it help tremendously with playing high, but with singing, speaking, and general health as well. Practice taking deep slow breaths, letting the stomach and rib cage expand, not the shoulders, and then blowing a steady stream of air out over a specified amount of time. Watch my video at the link below for an example.
As the cliche goes, practice makes perfect! But it needs to be a good practice designed to give you a chance at success. A practice routine will be your best friend when it comes to building up your chops. Make sure to get a session in every day, preferably 2 or 3 if you can manage it. I tend to go for one hour with 10 minutes on either end for warming up and down. The real key is repetition….repetition…repetition. Doing those long tones, lip slurs, and other exercises…every…time. It can become tiresome and monotonous, so make sure each session has something fun and different to help keep your sanity. It is also important to never overdo it. Feeling the burn is okay and helpful for pushing your boundaries, but taking it too far can cause irreparable damage, so be cognizant of your limits. I have a few favorite exercises for building muscle and stamina, a couple of which you can see at the links below. A lot of those exercises come from Hessions Sessions, a book by Maynard Ferguson’s last lead player, Patrick Hession. A lot of what he teaches in that book is gold for a lead player, so I highly encourage checking it out.
The final tip I have for learning to play those high notes is… listen! Find players that you like and want to emulate and listen to them, live, on record, whatever you can. Try playing along with them. You may not be able to get it exact, or even anywhere close, but your ear is a remarkable thing. Some of my favorite high note players include Maynard Ferguson, Arturo Sandoval, Doc Severinsen, Jim Manley, Al Vizzutti, and Jon Faddis. Each has a very different sound, style, and approach, but they all have one thing in common. They make the high notes look easy and sound amazing! So give them a try and search for more. There are a lot out there! You’ll be amazed at what your body discovers as it tries to recreate the sounds it hears. Have fun!
And of course check out my website zackrichards.com for other helpful tips, videos, or even to sign up for a trial lesson and learn some more! Thanks for reading!