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Playing Trumpet

Article by Dean McNeill

Enlightenment gleaned from slush pump basics

Since the Fifth Grade, I have been a trumpet keener. I intentionally make a distinction here between being keen, and being good, as it was some time before I could claim an association with the latter. My keenness has not diminished in my adult years and as a result I find myself still deeply interested in the trumpet from a variety of perspectives, which primarily include performance and pedagogy. Perhaps not surprisingly then, a Bb slide trumpet (a.k.a. soprano trombone) caught my eye at the local music store recently. When it went on clearance, I bought the instrument for reasons of pure keener self-indulgence.


Click to download Slide Trumpet Exercises

Shortly after the instrument's novelty wore off, I must admit that I began to view the slide trumpet as a culmination of A) the sluggish, inexact technique intrinsic to the slide trombone and B) the difficulties inherent in playing a soprano register brass instrument. In essence, I thought I had purchased an instrument that personified the worst of two worlds. Upon further experimentation however, I discovered some very practical applications for the instrument and some rather substantial revelations pertaining to my trumpet teaching and playing. Although the musical concepts discussed below are certainly common knowledge information for trumpet players, it is the demonstration of these concepts on the slide trumpet, in particular playing in the centre of pitch, which I feel, warrants this article.

I experimented with using the slide trumpet in trumpet lessons when students were having trouble thoroughly understanding the difference between playing in tune (with respect to themselves and/or others) compared with playing in the centre of the pitch. Perhaps some I.T.G. members can relate to a situation I have faced on more than one occasion when, after an explanation and demonstration of the centre of pitch, students are at times still confused. The explanation includes how the student is to find the "sweet spot" intrinsic to each note on the horn in order to create maximum resonance and how, if the student is playing on the high or low side of the pitch, the resultant tone will be compromised. As a teacher, one knows they have failed when upon finishing the explanation, the student looks at his/her horn and moves the tuning slide, thereby completely missing the point at hand. Reasoning that perhaps a substantial derivation in audio frequency would challenge students to remain in the centre of "the" pitch while moving throughout an augmented fourth gliss, my hope was that the slide trumpet would help students gain some conceptual clarity in this area. I was pleased to find that the slide trumpet did in fact help the majority of my students in this regard.

When using the slide trumpet in lessons, I asked students to consider that as one glissandos either up or down (from slide position 1 to 7 or 7 to 1), one should strive to remain in the centre of the pitch; one's tone colour should remain consistent throughout the gliss. In other words, the pitch being buzzed should match the slide length even as the slide length changes. If this is not done, the tone will inevitably be compromised. In these lessons I often noticed an immediate improvement in most students' comprehension of the centre of the pitch. Their ability on the conventional trumpet often improved noticeably after playing the slide trumpet for only a few minutes. More often than not, after playing a few of the following basic exercises on the slide trumpet, students were able to then play a bit more accurately in the centre of the pitch on the conventional Bb trumpet. The following is an example of the types of exercises that worked well with intermediate students.

Play the following exercises a few times on the slide trumpet then repeat immediately on the conventional Bb trumpet using the fingerings corresponding to H.L. Clarke's technical study #1. When ascending or descending, strive for an even tone color. Make a slight crescendo when moving from slide position 7 (fully extended) to slide position 1 (fully retracted).

Note that at no point in the above exercise is the student caught up in virtually any technical aspect of playing (the valves) as required by Clarke's technical study #1. Once the evenness of tone is established on the slide trumpet, the superimposition of the concept onto the valved trumpet can be made very easily. When this is done the student's use of air is more fluid and his/her sound evens out.

In the most basic of terms, the slide trumpet has helped students to understand the concept of getting an even sound, especially while the pitch changes because the instrument made this concept extremely obvious. As well the strangeness of playing the slide trumpet helped students to loosen up their concept of air flow when they were locked into thinking of playing their Clarke technical studies from a "fingers" perspective only. The "fingers only" approach to playing Clarke studies (or anything else) often means that students are not paying adequate attention to their tone quality and therefore their use of air. Furthermore, as I began to incorporate a bit of slide trumpet playing into my daily routine, I began to notice some important refinements in my own fundamental concepts of trumpet playing.

For advanced players I would suggest the following exercise as well:

Play each bar a few times on the slide trumpet, then play the corresponding Clarke first technical study on the conventional trumpet. Do not proceed above a "G" (top of treble clef) until an even tone color in achieved. As one moves into the upper register observe how the various aspects of playing the horn such as air speed, oral cavity shape and lip tension must work in concert with one another to achieve an even sound as the pitch changes. Take special note here that one does not have to do these things but rather simply needs to observe how these components of playing come together to produce the desired result. Again this concept will likely be quite obvious on the slide trumpet.

Like my students, after playing for a few minutes on the slide trumpet I noticed a noticeable improvement in my tacit knowledge pertaining to a few fundamental concepts of playing the conventional trumpet. Given the above, one might argue "Why not simply achieve all this by buzzing the mouth piece?"

I certainly subscribe to the notion that the addition of the buzz aid is a wonderful asset to any trumpet player's arsenal of practice and pedagogical aids. I do take issue however with the adage "if you can buzz it, you can play it," as this does not hold entirely true in all instances. For example, most players can play significantly higher on their mouthpiece/trumpet combination compared to buzzing via a buzz aid. As well, the resonance the trumpet creates when played in the centre of pitch is less obvious when one buzzes on the mouthpiece alone however such resonance is equally is obvious when playing the slide trumpet.

Mouthpiece buzzing is wonderful for developing associative relationships between what one hears and what one buzzes, "kicking" the chops into high gear (as the lips have to work harder when the trumpet is not part of the equation) and so on. In certain instances however I feel there are advantages to working with the slide trumpet over the buzz aid. The most significant advantage the slide trumpet can offer is that it is the same length, and therefore the same basic resistances as the conventional Bb trumpet yet like mouthpiece buzzing, it can be played entirely chromatically (although such playing is limited to the interval of an augmented fourth). As well the trumpet-like tone produced by the slide trumpet combined with the instrument's chromatic capabilities can help students to bridge a potential gap between mouthpiece buzzing and trumpet playing.

It may be of no surprise to learn that when I revealed these exercises to a colleague who plays trombone in the Saskatoon Symphony, he simply smiled and stated I had just explained exercises, which trombone players have been practicing for the past few hundred years.

In this technological age there seems to be a growing number of options out there for trumpet players to experiment with. These of course range from the practical (i.e. the buzz aid) to the absurd (i.e. Arctic coconuts when suspended from the ceiling and held under ones armpits at a 45 degree angle helps to correct for any unwanted overtones when playing a middle 'C' (with both triggers extended 27.35339 millimeters)… I think readers get the point). That being said, I feel the slide trumpet can be used as a valuable teaching tool for students and for one's own personal journey of self-discovery on the trumpet.

This is not a promotional article and I have no affiliation whatsoever with any slide trumpet company. In fact I would like to suggest to any of our readers with an entrepreneurial flair, that should they endeavor to construct an inexpensive quality slide, which could in turn attach (perhaps via the 2nd valve port) to a valved trumpet, yet another trumpet related cottage industry might be born. If even a crude slide trumpet could be inexpensively manufactured, my feeling is that such a device, when viewed in the same light as the mouthpiece visualizer, buzz aid, breath builder, breathing tub, mirror, and so on, could make a sound addition to any trumpet teacher's arsenal of pedagogical aids. Please, be my guest and make a million.

Dean McNeill is Head of the Department of Music at the University of Saskatchewan. Canadian trumpeter/composer Dean McNeill holds degrees in jazz studies from the University of North Texas (Masters), McGill University (Undergraduate), and Grant McEwan College (Music Diploma). Currently he plays with the Metro Jazz Ensemble, The Saskatchewan Brass Quintet, and the Saskatoon Symphony. His trumpet teachers include, Bill Dimmer (Edmonton Symphony), Kevin Dean (McGill University), Real Mathew (McGill University), Garry Guthman (British Columbia), and Keith Johnson (University of North Texas).


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