Me holding a trumpet

How to play trumpet while staying home – Episode 2

They say the first step in anything is the hardest. Like the old saying:

“It’s not that you had the strength to finish the race.  It’s that you had the courage to start”.

Someone that said this that one time.

Why learn the trumpet?

I’m taking the first steps to learn how to play the trumpet.  While “Staying at home”.   Wait, didn’t do that right.  While #StayingAtHome.  There is so much pain in the world now. Lives forever changed. Rather than just worry, this journey is about putting energy towards something positive, music.

Learning to play an instrument with the time we have now has been, well, interesting.  And frustrating.   The trumpet has only 3 valves. Simple right?  Simple, just not easy.  Even though I played 40 plus years ago, I am changing the way I play. Hopefully this will let me become a better player than I was. Ah, there it is.    Am I going to become a professional trumpet player?  No.  Seriously no. Am I going to play trumpet with a local band?  Highly unlikely.  I want to learn to play the trumpet for one simple reason.  I enjoy it.  I enjoy focusing to get better at something.  That’s it.   I know that I don’t have the “gifts” that real musicians have.    I just like to play and have fun with it.    

How to play trumpet.  A different way.

When I first started, I got the “public school” music education. When I showed up for my first day of band, there were 35 of us kids and 1 band teacher.  That’s just how it was.  The school did the best they could.   He said, “here’s a mouthpiece, buzz it”.    So I tried to make some sounds.  Then when I wanted to learn to play high notes on the trumpet, he said “squeeze”.   Not everyone could get the instruction they needed without private lessons, which are invaluable.    I took a one, but that’s all.   There was no information for free.

Now, there’s SO much.  Too much, I think.   There are so many different “Trumpet Methods”.  Try it.  Search “How to play trumpet”.  I got 133,000,000 results.  Seriously?  There’s also so much information that is contradictory.  Anchor your tongue, play in the red, use tongue arch, frown, pucker, etc.   Okay, here’s my approach.  I’m going to look for the common things people are saying.  Yes, I know I should take lessons. Hopefully I’ll figure out which teacher before I develop too many bad habits.

What music inspires you?

I played classical, Christmas tunes, and marching band songs.   Music that just didn’t inspire me.  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the Christmas music.  What music inspires you?    I got to play first chair trumpet in Jazz band for 2 months in my Junior year of high school (11th grade).   It wasn’t offered when I was a senior.   Those were the 2 best months of my short 5 year trumpet playing “career”.   So the other change I’m going to do is to learn to play jazz music.   I don’t know how to improvise and want to learn.  Is it too late?   One of the things that inspired me to do this was a jazz band in Spain.   I found the Sant Andreu Jazz Band directed by Joan Chamorro.  The first YouTube I saw was a gifted young artist named Andrea Motis

Andrea Motis with her Motis Mallinger Quintet playing Cole Porter’s “Love For Sale”.

She played an entire jazz concert.  She played trumpet, sang, and gracefully danced to a packed Teatro Coliseum in Barcelona of almost 100,000 fans.  I think she was 16 years of age.  This is what I was saying about the “gifts” that real musicians have.  She is a gifted artist. What was amazing to me is that her trumpet playing was flawless.  Her trumpet playing had a warm, rich sound and she played everything from memory.     I’ve learned that she grew up in the San Andreu Jazz band led by Joan.     The Sant Andreu Jazz band is for children ages 7-20.  I’m a tad over the age limit.  But I’m going to try Joan’s approach.  To learn to play the trumpet, the music I’ll learn with will be jazz.  And maybe play the occasional Christmas tune.  What do you think of this approach?

Full disclosure: Joan Chamorro, Andrea Motis, and the San Andreu Jazz Band have no idea who I am, how they inspired me, or that I’m sharing their sites and sounds with you.

Embouchure 2.0?

The first “common” thing people I found when learning to play the trumpet is that my old embouchure “works”. Here’s the “but”. It has its limitations for endurance and range.  Why?  Because there is a limit to how far I can pull my lips back with my cheeks.   That means I could only play so high. And it takes way a lot of effort so endurance will suffer.  I could play classical music, play softly when needed, articulate passages just above the staff, but jazz band was tough.   So it’s not “wrong”, there are just other ways to form an embouchure that don’t have those limitations. Here’s a link to Clint “Pops” McLaughlin’s free Trumpet Players Guide which has some great advice on the embouchure when learning how to play the trumpet.

Here’s a great teacher named Charlie Porter. This is an in depth video on how to form an embouchure. He has other lessons on his YouTube channel.

I am changing my trumpet embouchure to use less tension.  I want to use the muscles around my lips rather than my cheeks. Why?   I found that as I tried to play high notes on the trumpet, my endurance went to crap.    This squeezing of the cheeks is called the “Smile” embouchure.  I’m trying to move to a “frown” trumpet embouchure.   What’s the difference?  The “Smile” embouchure uses cheek muscles to pull the lips muscles apart.   That causes the lips to vibrate at a higher frequency like tightening a guitar string by tightening the tuning peg.  This allowed me to play up to an “F” above the staff.  My endurance when I went upstairs however went down.  With the “Frown” embouchure you say “M” and use the muscles that raise your upper lip and surrounding lower lip muscles.

Andrea Motis holding her Bach trumpet.
Note that Andrea’s cheeks are relaxed. Her embouchure uses the muscles around her lips.

In looking at some of the great trumpet players, they use the muscles around their lips, not cheeks.  Just look at the late great Dizzy Gillespie.  No way was he using his cheeks as they were free to puff out.  My “cheek squeeze” embouchure worked but I feel limited me.  Trying to play with no cheek muscles, relaxed, with a “frown” is new for my face.   Meaning, the muscles that I need to play need to be developed and get used to holding my embouchure.  Like any new skill that requires muscles and coordination, there is much to learn.   

Beginner on a Professional trumpet?

70's Vincent Bach Stradivarius Professional Trumpet
“70’s Bach Strad
Refinished. It used to be lacquer.

My Bach trumpet is amazing and I’m a total beginner now.  When I pick it up, I’m excited as it’s a new day and who knows what will come out the other end.  It’s a professional trumpet and I’m in no way a professional.  Nor do I have the goal of becoming one. Why do I have it?  At the time I got it, in middle school, I wanted to be the best I could be. I saved up and my parents split the cost with me.    I know my “Bach Strad” sounds amazing if I put the right sound into it.  It motivates me to practice.  It motivates me to be better. When I put it away this first week, I feel like I’m making tiny baby steps.  Not sure if they are in the right direction, but at least I’ve practiced every day.

The basics of playing trumpet

One of my friends wrote an article on “How to hold a trumpet“.  I studied it to make sure my hands, arms, and body positions are correct.   I found that playing takes a lot of effort and I’m using muscle that I haven’t in a long time.

The first thing to come back was using my diaphragm.  I found that I was “over blowing” because I still remember how to use my diaphragm to blow.    I’m learning how to fill my diaphragm to play long notes, rather than using it to play loud.   I’m trying to feel the vibrations through my lips rather than my forcing them to make a sound like I used to.  It sounds better too if I put a bit of air behind the note.   The fingering positions felt weird at first, but are slowly starting to come back.   All those drills as a kid built some muscle memory, I guess.

I started with 10 minutes, twice a day for the first week.  That’s all I could do. Serious “Ah ha”. Start slow, play a little, rest a little. Repeat. Gotta build up to it. At the end of my first week, I started working on the Clarke Technical Studies #2. Here’s how they are supposed to sound:

Professional Trumpet Player Andrea Guiffredi playing Clarke Technical Studies #2.

“Play” is a bit of an overstatement.  I’m not playing music.  I’m working on trying to play my first notes.  I started with long, low notes.  Start with pedal tones which using as little tension in my face as possible.   It feels like my lips are just flapping in the wind.   Then I tried to to play the “C” below the staff long with no tension like the pedal tones.  It sounded awful to start.  Like a poor animal in distress.   I close the windows in my room, open the door to my closet, and blow into the clothes to dampen the sound.  I’m trying to make a nice, full sound.   That is a long way away at this point.   Funniest thing this first week.  My fingers kinda remember how to play some things. The notes on the page don’t translate to notes in my head like they used to however.   Well, first step, the fingers are starting to remember where to go.  Like that old saying above, I started.

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