May 14, 2007

Trompete rides again

I have been a huge fan of the trumpet for as long as I can remember. Of course, I sat next to the greatest orchestral trumpet player ever for forty years. Over that time, I have become a non-playing student of the trumpet and it's repertoire, although I recently played second trumpet with the orchestra I conduct in a concert of Fingals Cave Overture and Beethoven 5th. I can read all transpositions, (as a conductor, you must) but I used a Bb trumpet because a C trumpet is too foreign to me being a trombone player.

First, let me say I think the trumpet is the most difficult of all instruments in the orchestra. The demands placed upon the player are almost super-human. Composers, while writing generally conservatively for trombones and tuba, somehow have no qualms about writing very high, demanding parts for trumpet. Like a great singer, a trumpet player must possess great physical strength as well as several other things that must come together in one person. In addition, it requires an almost perfect embouchure. This is something that a person is born with to a certain extent and then developed. A very small area of the lips must produce a large sound and at the same time play incredibly high. When I was a student I used to think that since the tubing was half as long and half as wide, the trumpet was just a trombone an octave higher, and if you played a middle Bb on trombone and then picked up a trumpet, a high Bb would automatically come out. My teacher, however, correctly pointed out that while the mouthpiece and horn were half the size, the player wasn't, so you actually had to produce those notes; the size of the equipment only being a small aid to that end. I also think the trumpet is the most difficult instrument to play softly. It naturally wants to blare, and it takes a skillful and talented operator to make a beautiful sound in pianissimo.

It is widely thought that rotary valves produce a smoother legato then piston valves. This is a fallacy. The rule is: the longer the throw of a valve the more possibility for legato, because there is more room for sound between notes, which is the essence of legato.

The brass family has different problems inherent to each individual instrument. Starting with the tuba, the problem is basically lack of core in the sound. It is difficult to take such a large, cumbersome instrument and produce a pure center in pitch and sound, in other words a strong fundamental. We want an abundance of overtones, but those are only a result of a strong fundamental; they cannot be produced independently. A mistake often made on tuba is trying to get a big sound because that will happen in any case. What is needed is a tuba sound with a clear, focused core that will have a vocal quality, so that it will be easy to discern the pitch being produced. Tuning to the bottom of a chord will be no problem, if the tuba sound has this quality. However, as we proceed up the family tree of brass instruments, the opposite problem starts to occur. There is a natural tendency of too much core and not enough body in the sound. (Incidentally, a horn with no center will sound like a euphonium.) Using the woodwinds as an example, it would be hard to find a piccolo player with an absence of enough center in the sound. They are or should be looking for more body and mellowness in the sound. How do you get that extra resonance?

Here is a program I guarantee will give you a sound that will be the envy of your peers. This is not a quick fix, but something to use over a lifetime. First, take an old or spare trumpet and put some trombone slide cream on each valve, thick enough so that the valves go up and down very slowly and smoothly. Now start on C in the staff and very slowly play quarter notes, first down to B, then back to C, then down to Bb, then back to C, then to A, chromatically down to low C. The idea is to produce a total portamento ( glissando) where the sound is exactly the same on the note and in between the note to the next note. There should be absolutely no indication of where the note changes. It should sound like a smear on a trombone. Play at a mp-mf dynamic for an easy, relaxed sound. It will be difficult at first to get a true portamento, because most likely you have been relying on the quickness of the valves to change the note. Now that the valves go up and down slowly you must fill in those gaps with air (sound). In order to have a continuous sound it may take several weeks before you can play with a sound that has no break what-so-ever on or between notes. Try visualizing a roller coaster where the highest peak is the upper note, the lowest point is the bottom note, and where the track has no straight or missing sections. Make the tracks as round and gently sloping as possible, with the notes you land on no more prominent than the sound in between them. Try this on the mouthpiece and then don't let the valves or partials change that result. It's easy to imitate a roller coaster on the mouthpiece and difficult on the horn, but that's what we're after.

As in anything you work on in your practice room it is important to exaggerate the particular thing you are trying to improve, so that when you perform you have a margin of safety, whether it is loud playing, soft playing, articulation or any other aspect of playing. You will eventually notice that in order to get the same amount of portamento between notes involving different intervals you will have to move the valves at slightly different speeds once you return to your regular horn. The distance between C and B, a half step lower, requires a slightly slower change than from C to A. Of course we want all slurs to have basically the same amount of sound between notes. After you have a solid sense of what a great slur is you won't have to think about changing the speed of slurs, your brain and body will automatically do that. Remember that the closer the partials are together, as in the upper register, the more time is required for sound between notes to compensate for the reduced space between those partials.

Eventually you will want to cover all registers of the horn, making sure that all slurs have maximum sound (gliss) in between. After you have spent considerable time on the glissando exercise, (which you have exaggerated for research purposes) you are going to notice a change in your sound. It's somehow gotten fatter, wider, mellower, and yet clearer. What we're talking about is not stronger air, but more pervasive air. Air that inhabits every nook and cranny of every bend in every inch of your horn. Now, there is no such thing as on the note. There is one continuous stream of sound where the valves have been taken completely out of the equation, and you are now a singer. Even when you play articulated passages the constant air stream produces a more resonant sound because of pervasive air.

You now have one more crucial aspect to take care of. You must train your fingers to do what the slide cream did and it is going to be a royal battle because your fingers have been used to moving like lightening to cover the fact that probably too little air was used between notes in order to play "cleanly." It's good to keep an old horn with slide cream handy so that you can go back and make sure your air is working. Once it is working well, all those blanks you used to get, because you put a valve down before the air got there, will be eliminated because the note will change because of air, not valve movement. Some players will use the middle joint of the fingers to move the valves and perhaps this is a good way to smooth out the way you depress the valves. Just changing the position of the fingers will help instill a new set of responses over old ones. Once you can think about getting your fingers off automatic pilot and can emulate the valve action with the slide cream, it is time to start playing simple slurs using the amount of legato you would use in a performance situation. First imagine the most beautiful legato slur that anyone has ever conceived. Get a clear picture of what that would sound like. Then have your brain tell your body to go and find it, and don't be satisfied with anything less. Your body will try to talk you out of it. Your body will say "It can't be done, it's impossible, I'll never be able to do it." Be stubborn. I promise it is in the horn. Eventually you will be able to play a melody that flows from note to note without anyone being able to tell where the note changed, because it will sound like you sang it rather than played it. In vocal parlance, this is called bel canto.

Now you have to master the lip slurs, those that don't require any valve change. It's good to practice bending these because it is important that you keep the air stream under a microscope instead of body englishing lip slurs. You should try to glissando between lip slurs when you practice because it takes really pervasive air to play something like those soft C major lip slurs in the 3/4 section of Zarathustra without getting a blank or sticking your tongue in and spoiling the slur. Try to match your natural slur to the smoothest legato valve slur and not vice-versa.

What is described in the proceeding should also be applied to vibrato. One of my favorite (although very different) trumpet sounds is the ridiculously over-the-top Mexican pop style. Do you know how much air it takes to produce a vibrato that big and intense? The Russians have nothing on these guys when it comes to air. My rule is: If you want a small sound use a small, narrow, quivery vibrato. If you want a big sound, use a big, fat, generous (wide, and not too fast) vibrato. Once again, exaggerate at home and develop a margin of safety. Develop the Mexican thing at home, you never know when you might need it in the Mahler 1st Symphony.

I want to spend a few moments talking about trumpets and world-wide trends. C trumpets seem to be gaining wide acceptance throughout the world. The C trumpet is probably the most useful, all-around instrument today. My question is, is it right for everything in the symphonic literature? That is a complicated question. Is there a certain portion of the repertoire that would be better served on a Bb trumpet? Perhaps! It probably depends on the type of sound natural to each player. In my experience few people have a broad enough sound on a C trumpet to play some of the larger F trumpet parts. I don't necessarily mean a Mahler symphony. Something like the Schumann Rhenish symphony or Brahms 3rd and 4th symphonies might sound more idiomatic on a Bb trumpet with a larger mouthpiece. Some of the Bruckner symphonies could benefit from a wider, mellower sound. Just what does "trumpet in F" mean? Is it just a transposition? Or, did the composer have a certain sound in mind? Certainly Mahler did, seeing that the trumpet parts alternate without regard to register between F and Bb. Strauss used transpositions to avoid writing accidentals for trumpets and horns, which was the classical tradition. But, Tchaikovsky? He was anything but a classicist. Did he have a different sound in mind other than Bb or C? Why is the 4th Symphony in F, the 5th in A and the 6th in Bb? Not all of those movements are in the same keys as the trumpet transposition. The point of this being, I think we need more variety in the sound we produce, hopefully to more closely fulfill the composer's intentions.

Incidentally, I would like to see someone build a flugelhorn in C. I think that might work well for the posthorn solo in Mahler 3. And, wouldn't it be nice to try and get a little bit of that sound on a C or Bb trumpet? You wouldn't get very close but it would be a worthwhile experiment.

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