Tuesday, July 17, 2018
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Staying in Balance


Trumpet playing may be described as a balancing act. We speak of balancing air and tongue to produce a variety of desired articulations and sounds. While practicing, we monitor the balance between practice and rest. During practice we must also balance the exercises that will enhance our athletic ability on the trumpet (basics like long tones and lip slurs) with musical material that will improve our artistry and musicianship.

The conductor I play for in the Knoxville Symphony once commented to me, “What you do is such a tightrope act.” I believe he was referring to the act of balancing a variety of high pressure demands, high piccolo trumpet on a Bach Suite and screaming Pops music one day, followed by a chamber concert full of soft entrances the next. While I prefer not to think of my principal trumpet job as a high-wire act, his comment did make me think about how important it is to keep good balance in our playing.

Visualize a tightrope artist on a high wire, intent on maintaining his or her center of gravity. Now visualize a trumpet player maintaining efficient healthy playing habits while playing varied and demanding repertoire. There are some parallels! Trumpet players resemble tightrope artists in that we train for years and use courage, lots of work, and “good old-fashioned physics” to enable ourselves to do what we do. Granted, those on the high wire usually have a safety net, and we do not. Fortunately—if we miss a note, no one gets hurt! Like the high wire artist, however, if we lose our balance (good playing habits) we, and our playing, may suffer.

It is very important, for example, to balance necessary tension with relaxation of the body in our playing. Though the word “tension” has scary connotations; we all know some tension is necessary to play the trumpet. Specifically that needed to form the embouchure, and that needed occasionally in the abdominal muscles for very loud playing, or for playing toward the end of our air supply. Tension in areas other than the appropriate embouchure muscles and the abdominal muscles is usually not necessary and is very often detrimental to playing. I spend much time in lessons with college, high school and amateur players encouraging relaxation of the body, working toward a healthy balance between the tension we want (embouchure muscles and abdominal muscles) and relaxation everywhere else.

In describing the tension desired in an efficient embouchure in The Art of Brass Playing Philip Farkas wrote “in order to produce a sound on a brass instrument we must vibrate the lips into the mouthpiece by means of the air-stream. In order to create this vibration, certain muscles must be tensed.”(Italics mine.) Farkas goes on to describe that necessary tension as being in the cheek and chin muscles simultaneously; “Smile and pucker balance each other, resulting in puckered smile.”

Photo from Philip Farkas, The Art of Brass Playing, used by permission.

The other necessary tension area involves the abdominal muscles. While there are differing theories on how much abdominal tension is needed in trumpet playing, it is generally agreed that in healthy trumpet playing there will be tension during exhalation in the abdominal muscles, although this will happen as a natural part of the blowing process.

Students may have been told to “tighten the diaphragm” in an effort to effect this firming of the abdominal muscle. Recent research has led to the discovery that it is not actually the diaphragm that tightens on exhalation; that in fact, the diaphragm relaxes during exhalation. It is actually the abdominal and intercostal muscles that push air out of the lungs as they empty. (See “Strength and Endurance in Horn Playing, Part I: Whole Body” by Glenn V. Dalrymple, M.D., Series Editor, The Horn Call, October 2006, for an excellent description of the muscles involved in the “forced respiration” used in brass performance.) At any rate, to experience how the abdominal muscles can help us, do a long “hiss” (make sure your throat remains open) and note the feeling of “work” happening in the abdomen. Our balance of free-flowing air to “tensed” embouchure, however, may be disrupted by tense torsos, necks, shoulders, and throats that can impede the air flow.

One very common location for excess tension is the throat. We produce sound on the trumpet by bringing air to the lips. Some students, however, will attempt to control the air at some point behind the lips, often in the throat. This tendency to close or tighten the throat while attempting to play, often in the high register, has a name. It is called the Valsalva maneuver and is defined by the medical community as a natural bodily function in which "...the throat closes simultaneously with respiratory muscle contraction" (Breathing for Musicians, Scott A. Nelson, DMA). Nelson goes on to say, “The point is that the Valsalva maneuver is a natural part of respiratory muscle function but it is devastatingly disastrous to speaking, singing, and wind instrument play.” (Italics mine.)

If you want to experience what the Valsalva maneuver feels like, try lifting a car, or a piano, or a house. As you tense up to try the lift, you may hear yourself grunt, and if you pay attention to your throat, you will see that it closes. It feels like you are working very, very hard, and indeed you are. However, little or no air can get through your throat to your aperture if you go into Valsalva. More air gets through if you just blow easily through your embouchure.

Encouraging Free Air-Flow

Because bringing air to the lips is so important, it is well worth our time to open and relax our throats. How do we do that?

1. Become AWARE of any tension in the throat area. Symptoms may include throat noise or pain while playing.

2. If you discover throat tension or closing, find out what triggers it. Is it range related? Play soft easy scales and discover what note is the first where you feel tension creeping in. Take your horn away and blow and finger the scale (without playing); note how the blowing is like a whistle. After blowing the pattern several times feeling the air going past your lips, and noting that your throat is open and relaxed while you blow, go back to the trumpet and play the scale using the same relaxed approach. These between-playing blowing sessions are often known as “wind patterns” and are extremely helpful in reducing throat tension. Do a lot of wind patterns!

3. Do breathing exercises to encourage body relaxation. The Breathing Gym DVD and book and the breathing aids available from WindSong Press are excellent tools to encourage free air flow and body relaxation. For additional very helpful exercises see Nelson, Breathing for Musicians, and “Breathing and the Valsalva Maneuver” by Brad Howland (August 1999) at http://www.musicforbrass.com/articles/breathin.html.

4. Make sure that the “good” tension (in the corners of the embouchure, cheeks, and chin—the half-smile/half pucker) and the air are working well. In other words make sure that your embouchure and your air are doing their jobs.

5. Check your grip on the horn. Hold it loosely and watch for any change toward tension in your grip.

6. Practice while looking in the mirror. You can sometimes see tension and dissolve it just by looking.


Another place where tension can be very obvious is in players’ arms. This can be caused by tension in the throat, neck, and shoulders that “travels” down the arm. Likewise, arm tension can begin in the hands or arms and travel “up” the body to the throat. One way to know if arm tension is troubling you is to play scales and pay attention to your arms. Notice at which pitch your arms or hands begin to tense. Stop and blow the pattern of the scales (wind patterns) using vigorous air flow and notice that when simply blowing the pattern, you most likely do NOT tense your arms. Blow and finger the scale pattern two or three times and then go back to the trumpet. Usually your playing is much easier because you have shown your body exactly what you want it to do—just blow the pattern. This is a type of self-bio feedback in which you discover that you can control and diminish body tension in your playing; you just have to be patient to discover how that is done. In extreme cases I have sent players to work with an actual bio-feedback specialist, who then trains students to monitor and reduce their own body tension.

What causes us to resort to tension in the throat, neck, shoulders, or arms? Many things can. Often it is repertoire that is too hard too soon. According to Paul Bhasin in a recent ITG Journal article the prime causes for tension are:


1. fear

2. constant high pressure playing, and

3. “bad” practicing (too much playing, not enough rest)


Certainly it is best never to resort to excess tension. It is much easier to learn good habits than it is to unlearn bad ones like the Valsalva maneuver or arm tension. However, if you are prone to excess body tension during demanding playing, you CAN work through it with vigilance and ideally with the help of a good teacher.

How to work through tension in the throat and arms and play with a free, open air flow?


General Practice Strategies

What you are doing is described by Paul Bhasin (ITG Journal Jan. 2007) as “habit-shifting.” He suggests the following practice guidelines when you are changing any habit.

1. Two 15- or 20-minute sessions, ideally in the morning, but whenever your schedule allows. “Short and good” practice sessions are better than “long and bad” practice sessions.

2. Play softly and easily. Playing too loudly when working on relaxing unwanted tension may send you back into bad habits.

3. Practice range while you are fresh. Practicing range when tired may only lead players back into throat closing or other bad habits.

In conclusion, practicing a healthy balance between necessary tension (in the corners of the embouchure, cheeks and chin, and when needed in the abdominal muscles when exhaling) and relaxation in the arms, shoulders, neck, and especially throat, will help you stay in balance and play efficiently during all kinds of playing. The importance of body relaxation cannot be over-emphasized in allowing air to reach the lips, and the awareness of any tension that creeps in is crucial to stop its spread. It is indeed best to develop our playing without excess body tension the first time around, but for any players who tend to close their throats or develop body tension in response to high register or high pressure playing, it is possible to work through the tendency.

There are many wonderful sources that help us promote a healthy balance between the necessary tension and body relaxation that allow for efficient trumpet playing. Some of my favorites include:

Bhasin, Paul. “Efficient Playing Part II: Application/Exercises and Examples.”

International Trumpet Guild Journal Vol. 31, No. 2 (Jan. 2007), 64-66, 68.

Farkas, Philip. The Art of Brass Playing. Rochester, NY: Wind Music, 1989. Available at


Frederiksen, Brian. Arnold Jacobs: Song and Wind. Ed. John Taylor. WindSong Press, 1996.

Howland, Brad. “Breathing and the Valsalva Maneuver.” (August 1999).

Available at http://www.musicforbrass.com/articles/breathin.html

Johnson, Keith. The Art of Trumpet Playing. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1981.

Nelson, Scott A. Breathing for Musicians. Ed. Bill Still, Winchester, VA: Reinhardt &

Still Publishers, 1999.

Pilafian, Sam and Patrick Sheridan. The Breathing Gym. Fort Wayne, IN.: Focus on Excellence. Available in book and DVD format.

Dalrymple, Glenn, M.D. “Strength and Endurance in Horn Playing, Part I: Whole Body”

Series Editor, The Horn Call, (October 2006), 63-4.

Dr. Cathy Leach has been Professor of Trumpet at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville for 26 years. She plays Principal Trumpet with the Knoxville Symphony and Knoxville Symphony Chamber Orchestras, the Brasswind Quintet, and has been a member of the Toledo Symphony, the New Mexico Symphony, the New Mexico Brass Quintet, and the Galliard Brass Ensemble. Dr. Leach holds degrees from the University of Michigan, the University of New Mexico, and Northwestern University, and is currently serving a two-year term on the ITG Board of Directors. Her university trumpet ensembles have performed at ITG Conferences in 1990, 1992, 1999, and 2006.


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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