What I Know About: Teaching Trumpet to a Beginning Player
Teaching is something I’m quite passionate about. Maybe it’s thanks to the passionate educators who mentored me when I was a young trumpeter but I find great reward in passing on not only what I know about music, but more importantly the wisdom passed down from my teachers past to me.
Most private students I teach come to me after having already played the trumpet for at least a couple of months and for the most part have a sound grasp of the basic mechanical skills it takes to produce a sound. Every so often though I take on a new student whose first time playing the trumpet is in front of me. I consider it a daunting task giving a young and impressionable child their first taste of the trumpet. For a lot of musicians, our first instrumental lesson mark the beginning of our musical timeline; the outcome of that music lesson is crucial to the longevity of our relationship with our instrument and music itself. A poor first lesson could mean a short lived musical affair.
Unlike the rhythm section instruments such as piano, guitar, bass and drums, which are visual-orientated instruments, teaching the mechanics of trumpet is a more conceptual base…
To make sure I was conveying the right messages to first time players, I asked some of my trumpeting superiors what they thought were the most important messages and ideas to introduce to first time players were. I also scoured online an among other things found this insightful article called Basic For Brass Beginners by the otherwise uninspiring Allen Vizzutti. Vizzutti, who although lacking of the seemingly fundamental element of musicianship is both a master technician and a respected educator, make some great points that mixed with advice from my teachers and my own experiences teaching, I thought I’d share below.
For me the lesson starts before the student even enters the room. As my teaching room is located in the front of the house, I like practise before the student arrives up until he rings the door bell. The reasons for this are two-fold: Firstly, it’s a modest setting for both student and parent can hear the capabilities of the teacher, which I think is essential to forming a healthy and respectful teacher/student relationship. More importantly though, the student straight away is subjected to- most probably for the first time- the capabilities of the trumpet. It is quintessential for a beginning student to know what his instrument should sound like. With wind and brass instrument, the demonstration of a clear and open tone is paramount. I continue this theme in the lesson where I will write a short list of trumpeters I recommend they youtube before next lesson, including both jazz and classical trumpahs.
As tone is a more conceptual paradigm then duration and volume, I use an exercise where I play two notes of the same pitch and volume, but one has a less than ideal tone, while the other is an example of what we as trumpets should aim for. I ask the student to tell me which one they like better, and then ask them to describe each one in their own words. I write these words down in their book as a sort of right/wrong list, so they can go back and hopefully attach the sound to these words.
I also stress to new students- with absolute sincerity- that a ‘professional’ tone [a buzz word that seems to cut through with beginners] can be achieved almost instantaneously if you follow the teacher’s instructions. Although so many facets of brass playing are achieved over the course of months and years, a quality tone can be made from a first time player. But what ideas do you have to convey to a first time player to achieve a desirable tone. Well, Vizzutti sums it up well by saying:
“The most important sensation to teach beginning trumpet is that blowing smooth, aggressive air through the horn and feeling the resistance in sending air through the tubing.”
Of course, the one idea I want plant into to every budding brass student’s head is that air is quintessential element to playing the trumpet. I tell them that trumpet playing is 90% air/breath and a mere 10% embouchure/mouth- a dilution of brass methodologist Bill Adam’s statistic where he considers trumpeting playing 90% mental, 9% breath and 1% embouchure, something that I keep coming back to.
Vizzutti believes you should avoid conveying the idea of ‘pulling in’ a breath as it will create tension- something I saw frequently and have since incorporated into my teaching. He prefers to teach a relaxed breath where you open the throat and let the air fill in more naturally. A tip I was given from a classical trombonist last year was to breath past the lips, allowing the air to enter deep into the lungs without tension forming in the torso or upper body. I’ve since used this method to breath myself and find it a happy medium between Vizzutti’s opening of the throat and the classic aggressive inhale so many students revert to when told to take a deep breath.
Another point Vizzutti made that resonated with me was to introduce the concept of the tongue and tonguing soon after the first note. He suggests this in an effort to avoid a choked sound that may arise if student’s form an embouchure that don’t compensate for the tongue’s movement.
The use of syllables are the tried and tested way of conveying the feeling of the tongue when it is articulating. I have had success with ‘de’ but have also read that ‘tee’ and ‘too’ are good to use. Consider avoiding ‘tah’ as students can over-emphasis the syllable leading to overt movement of the chin, which should be as still as possible while tonguing.
As far as the 1% of trumpet playing- that is, the embouchure, I find myself still slightly tentative to give concrete directions and usually will draws lips on a page and a circle around the middle to suggest mouthpiece placement. In discussion with Sydney trumpet guru Simon Sweeney, who has been very helpful when answering questions about teaching, mentioned something particularly interesting in that he only sees ‘unorthodox’ embouchures when he inherits students and not when he teaches first time players; an interesting thought…
I read somewhere- possibly on wilktone.com, or possibly not… that one way to form the embouchure is to say the consonant ‘M’, then with your lips together and mouth neutral say a soft ‘pooh’, which will form a sort of aperture. If students are having trouble forming an embouchure I will try this- and in fact have had some success with it in the past.
Although before you discuss the formation of the embouchure you should let your student know that you do not buzz your lips to play the trumpet, or as Vizzutti worded it more succinctly: Don’t buzz lips. An exercise I was taught by a past teacher that conveys this idea well is to blow air through the mouthpiece so you hear a sort of white-noise and not a buzzing sound. Then whilst still blowing air through the MP, slot it into the leadpipe, and without blowing any harder a tone should emerge from the trumpet. This shows students that it is the blowing of air, not buzzing, that produce a tone. I will then make a point of doing the same exercise but buzzing into the mouthpiece, which naturally progressed a choked, tight, resonation-less sound.
The one rule that nearly all students seem to know even before they play the instrument is that puffing the cheeks is wrong-which it is. Even so, my most recent student, a new player, puffed his cheeks each time he went to produce a sound. One way to counteract this problem is to discuss the production of hot and cold air and how warm air equals a deep breath and is superior to the shallowed-breath, cold-aired, cheek-puffing combo they were previously using.
All in all, I believe the best mantra for teaching beginner players is that of leading by example. Allowing students to hear and see how the trumpet should be played is, for the most part, far more effective than any sentence we can string together.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter or any tips and trick you use.