Saturday, June 24, 2017
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The Quest for Tone

The Quest for Tone
By Richard Illman

One of the hardest things for young players to do is to create the best possible sound with their trumpet. This article will give some tips for finding that early on in the learning process. The first step is to listen to many great trumpet players to hear what they sound like, realizing that different sounds are expected (and acceptable) in different styles of music. In other words, jazz players aren’t necessarily going to sound the same as “classical” players and vice versa. There are even differences within the styles. A classical orchestra player might sound different from a classical solo player. A lead trumpet player in a big band or a Broadway show might sound different from a jazz trumpet player in a small group. There are even differences from country to country. It’s important for young players to listen (or watch on YouTube) to lots of players to learn these differences in sound so that they can be imitated. (It’s also important for educators to provide a list of good examples for the student so that they’re not imitating a bad one.)

Once the sound concept is in the student’s ear, there are ways of helping reproduce that effectively. With few exceptions, players with the best sound are usually playing “in the center of the pitch.” There are several ways to tell if you’re playing “in the center of the pitch.” Probably the easiest is to put a good, metal straight mute into the trumpet and play a G on the staff. When the note is in the center, it will make the mute buzz the most. To find that spot, the student should lip the note slowly up and down, listening for the changes in sound, and stopping at the pitch that produces the most buzz in the mute. To lip the note up, the student will bring the lips closer together by raising the jaw slightly. This speeds up the air and makes the pitch go up. It should be noted that most young players who don’t play in the center of the pitch tend to play above center so it may be hard to push the note up further if it’s already above center. It may just pop up to the next open note above it (the third space C). If that happens, start dropping the jaw to bring the lips farther apart. This will slow down the air and bring the pitch down. As it goes down, listen to the change in the sound of the mute. It will start to buzz more as the pitch goes lower. However, once the student goes below the center of pitch, the mute will buzz less and less. The goal is to stop when the buzzing is the most, as that will be the center of the pitch. (The buzzing is caused by having more and more of the very high notes of the trumpet present in the sound. They start to go away when the sound is off center.)

The second way of finding the center of the pitch is related to the first way and can be done with or without the mute. This has to do with how loud the trumpet plays. It will play the loudest with the least amount of effort when it’s in the center of the pitch. To explore that, the student should lip the note up and down in the same way as described above. Since most players who play off center play above it, it’s usually best to lip the note down first by dropping the jaw, slowing down the air, and dropping the pitch. The trumpet will naturally get louder as the pitch goes down, if the student was playing above center to begin with. Once they go below the center, it will start to get softer again. The goal is to stop at the loudest point. (It should be noted that the amount of air the student uses doesn’t change in this process. It just goes faster or slower, depending on whether the note is being lipped up or down.) This will be easiest to hear at relatively loud volume levels. As the student gets better at finding the center, it’s good practice to play a long note with a crescendo and decrescendo with a tuner. If the note goes flatter as it gets louder, it was probably above center to begin with. It’s very difficult to play loud when the trumpet is off center. It will tend to push the note to the center as it gets louder. The goal is to have the note be in tune and in the center the whole time as it gets louder and softer.

The third way is also related to the two ways above, but has to do with the resistance of the trumpet. By that, I mean the back pressure that the trumpet creates when someone blows into it. If someone forms a trumpet embouchure (with your lips set as they would be to play a particular note), and just blows air out into the room, there is little or no resistance. However, as soon as the student puts their lips onto the trumpet and blows the air, resistance can be felt. The student can explore that in the same ways that are mentioned above. In other words, if you play any note and lip it up and down, you can feel changes in the resistance of the trumpet. When playing in the center of the pitch, the resistance is the least amount. The trumpet plays the loudest with the least amount of effort when it’s in the center of the pitch. We are literally trying to find the path of least resistance when we play the trumpet.

Once the path of least resistance has been found for a particular note, the player will be able to play that note as easy as it possibly can be played on that trumpet. Therefore, one of the main goals of any player should be to find the center of pitch of every note on their trumpet. This is best done during the warmup at the beginning of the playing day. If players take the time to center each note in a systematic way when they first start playing each day, many things will be improved. It will be less work to play the trumpet, so endurance will be better. It will take less air to produce the same volume, so the air will last longer when playing. With less resistance, the trumpet responds better and more quickly so fewer notes will be missed. In short, there are many reasons to learn to play in the center of the pitch, all of which are good.

In summary, the three ways of finding the center of the pitch are as follows: 1) use a mute while lipping a note up and down and listen for the pitch that makes the mute buzz the most; 2) lip a note up and down and listen for the pitch that is the loudest;  and 3) lip a note up and down and find the pitch that has the least resistance in the trumpet. Daily practice on this will result in greater efficiency over the whole range of the trumpet.

About the author:
Richard Illman has been associate professor of trumpet at Michigan State University since 1990. He and Vince DiMartino are the two trumpets in the Millennium Brass Quintet, ( He is also First Trumpet in the Beaumont Brass Quintet, and Principal Trumpet with the Lansing Symphony Orchestra. As Professor of Trumpet at Michigan State University, Mr. Illman has been featured soloist with the MSU Alumni Band on four European tours.  

He has also presented programs entitled 'Yoga for Trumpet Players' with his wife, Jo Martinie, at eight International Trumpet Guild Conferences as well as venues in Germany and Greece.

About the Editor: Lisa Blackmore is Adjunct Professor of Trumpet at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and Adjunct Professor of Trumpet and Horn at East Central College in Union, Missouri where she also teaches Music History and World Music. She is a member of “Cadre” at Missouri Baptist University, teaching trumpet and assisting with the concert band. Lisa earned a Doctorate of Musical Arts (D.M.A.) in Trumpet with a minor in Music History at the University of Illinois-Urbana/Champaign, where she received the Graduate College Dissertation Award in Musicology. Dr. Blackmore also holds degrees from the University of Missouri-Columbia and SUNY-Stony Brook. She previously served on the faculty at Lindenwood University and under her direction, the Lindenwood Trumpet Ensemble performed at the 2007 ITG conference at the University of Massachusetts―Amherst. Her private studio teaching has resulted in students performing in the St. Louis Youth Symphony and various Missouri All-State ensembles.

Lisa is a member of the Stonehenge Brass Trio and Confluence Brass. She was a bugler with the Missouri Military Funeral Honors Program from 2008-2013 and performed Taps at over 350 military services for Missouri Veterans. She performs with the Compton Heights Concert Band, and she is principal trumpet in the St. Louis Wind Symphony. She serves as a trumpet adjudicator for the Missouri All-State groups.

Lisa lives in Wright City, MO with her husband, Mark (also a trumpeter!) and their two cats, Chet and Ella. In her spare time she makes practice mutes and also enjoys reading and traveling.

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