When I first became a trumpet player, I heard pro trumpet players screaming and thought, wow. I would love to do that ! Like me, I’ll bet reaching the upper register effortlessly is your goal too. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore a range of exercises and techniques specifically designed to expand your trumpet range to unlock the elusive upper register.
Table of Contents
- The Anatomy of the Upper Register
- Breathe for Success
- What is tongue arch?
- Can I buy trumpet range?
- Exercises and tips for trumpet range
The Anatomy of the Upper Register
It is said that the highest note of our b-flat trumpets is a C above the staff. Also known as high C. But we’ve all heard players go way higher than the standard range. So how do they do that? Yes, there’s the gifted brass player that has an insane dynamic range. But even us mere mortals can player higher. Let’s take a moment to understand the physical aspects involved. The upper register of your trumpet requires precise control of embouchure, breath support, and tongue placement. It’s a delicate balance of muscular coordination and airflow management that allows us to scream those higher notes with confidence. Is there an upper limit? Everyday on YouTube there’s yet another screamer hitting new highs, so who knows?
Proper Embouchure and Mouthpiece Placement: One of the key factors in reaching higher notes is correct embouchure and mouthpiece placement for brass instruments. Remember, the trumpet is an extension of your body, and a solid foundation begins with a well-formed embouchure. Everyone is different. Some have the mouthpiece slightly to one side, others have more upper lip, other’s more lower, etc. Some have their lower lip behind their upper (like Maurice Andre), some equal. Most modern trumpet players have their mouthpiece roughly centered on their lips. One common thing I’ve noticed about famous modern trumpet players like Wynton Marsalis, Wayne Bergeron, Louis Dowdeswell and Alex Vizzutti is how relaxed their faces are. Even when they are screaming notes that only dogs can hear (kidding), they are relaxed. They aren’t, but it looks that way. Their tone color is also full and deep. This is important because too much tension can prevent your lips from vibrating fully to give you that solid core of warm sound we all want. Think about Doc Severinsen’s richer tone, just incredible.
The other thing that I tried when first trying to play higher, was way too much mouthpiece pressure. What is “too much”? If after playing in the upper register, look in a mirror. Are your lips white from lack of blood flow? Are they red from the pressure? Is there a “dent” from the mouthpiece rim? In any case, the less pressure you can use, the better. Why? Like too much tension in your embouchure, excessive mouthpiece pressure will hurt your tone quality and restrict your lips flexibility and thus, your range. On the extreme end of things, you could actually hurt yourself. In high school, a fellow bandmate had to quit. He always looked like he was going to pop something every time he went higher. Turns out he had what’s known as embouchure collapse. The doctor told him he had injured his lips from trumpet playing. His lips were swollen and he was in a bit of pain all the time. He couldn’t even play notes within the staff. He tried to lay off for a month and when that didn’t work, he stopped playing. Unfortunately he quit band the next class year.
Breathe for Success
Breathing is the life force behind trumpet playing, especially in the upper register. But look at the hole at the bottom of the cup of your trumpet mouthpiece. Pretty small huh? So how do we send a ton of air through there? Well, we don’t. Physics says only so much can go through that little hole. But what does make a difference is the speed of the air we send past our lips. The velocity of our airstream is what makes our embouchure vibrate slower or faster. Try this to prove it to yourself. Play a C below the staff and note how fast the air you are sending. Feel where your tongue is. The airflow is probably very relaxed and your tongue is at the bottom of your mouth. You are probably saying “Awww” and your tongue positions itself accordingly. The air going out is like you are exhaling gently right? Now try a G above the staff. Different? What are the differences you felt? First, you probably noticed you aren’t saying “Awww” but maybe something like “Eeee”. Your tongue is probably closer to the roof of your mouth. Try the same thing but without your horn. Blow against your hand. Did you feel how much faster the air flow is hitting your hand from low C to that G? That’s the key. Moving the air faster to play higher is the key.
So air velocity is the key to the upper register. So how do we increase the air speed? First by using breathing techniques that support playing in this challenging range. Techniques you probably are already using are diaphragmatic breathing and doing breath control exercises. With proper breath management, you’ll have the air pressure, power, and stamina to conquer those high notes with ease.
We’ll get to your tongue next.
What is tongue arch?
This is a technique where you touch your lower teeth with the tip of your tongue and arch up the middle towards the roof of your mouth. I didn’t think I did this, but in reality, I kind of did. I just had no idea until I played a high note, opened my mouth, and looked in a mirror. I didn’t know that the tip of my tongue was touching my lower front teeth and my tongue was arched. It’s like whistling. Try whistle a low note then a high note while blowing the same. It’s your tongue that changes the pitch. That’s the difference between saying “Awww” and “Eeee”. By arching your tongue where the middle is closer to the roof of your mouth, you’ve reduce the amount of space in your oral cavity (fancy shmancy way of saying, mouth). The one thing that I actually remember from physics class applies here. Bernoulli’s principle says that as area decreases, velocity increases. Here’s an example, have you ever used a garden hose and needed to send the stream further? By placing your thumb over part of the opening, the water stream went further right? The hose is a cylindrical tube and you reduced the size of it by placing your thumb over part of it. Thus, the area that the water could travel through decreased so the velocity increased and sent the water further. By moving your tongue to reduce the area that your air stream goes through to your trumpet, the velocity or speed increases which is what causes your embouchure to vibrate faster. Huh, physics class came in handy after all.
If you are brave enough (or stupid enough like I was) and ask in the trumpet forums about this, put on your kevlar as it’s a very emotionally charged subject. Or at least the forum I asked about this was. I wanted to see what people thought. Was this the universal truth that I was the last to uncover? Some believe it’s the only way to play higher. Others say no. But the physics says that we have to use our tongue is some way to reduce the space in our oral cavity. Maybe we don’t anchor the tip to the lower teeth. Maybe we use a forward tongue arch where the arch is more towards the top teeth. Some believe a rear tongue arch where the arch is a bit further back from the teeth works. Given all the various opinions, I think everyone is right. Meaning, what works for one player, may not work for another. So play around with this. I’m a fan of “Pops” McLaughlin‘s teachings and he believes in relaxing as much as possible. I used his courses to fix my “smile” embouchure. He believes in a forward tongue arch. While that feels weird to me, I realized I actually do it, it’s just hard for me to know what shape my tongue is without seeing it.
Can I buy trumpet range?
In a word, yes. A shallower cupped mouthpiece and a trumpet designed for the upper register can help. But it isn’t that simple. You still need to have the embouchure, air, and technique to perform well up in the stratosphere. For example, Bobby Shew worked with Yamaha to create 2 mouthpieces. The Bobby Shew Lead and the Bobby Shew Jazz. I’ve spent a lot of face time with both of these. The Jazz has a deeper cup and a slightly wider rim diameter than the Lead. It produces a wonderful dark sound and can still get up there. The Lead has a much smaller backbore that adds support when going higher. It’s very similar to Yamaha’s 14A4A (which is similar in name, but plays very differently than a Schilke 14A4A, they are very different mouthpieces) with the noticeable difference being the smaller backbore. The shallow cup of the Lead provides a much brighter tone and adds confidence when going higher. I found 1-2 notes higher with the Lead but they were a bit more sharp. I found I had to extend my main tuning slide a bit more when I play the Lead verses the warmer Jazz. There are also lightweight mouthpieces that have a brighter tone. So a Lead trumpet mouthpiece with a shallow cup can help, but it likely won’t give you an octave over your current high note.
There are trumpets designed to project better in the upper register. For example, Bach Stradivarius trumpets are usually found with the #37 bell. They also make the #43 bell which has a slightly larger taper which produces a brighter, more open sound. Also some trumpets have different shaped lead pipes and round tuning slides instead of a letter D shape. Other trumpets are lightweight which help the horn vibrate more freely. All Lead trumpets are meant to provide a lead trumpet player a more responsive trumpet.
Is it worth it to buy a new mouthpiece and trumpet just for the upper range? Maybe. But I’d recommend getting as good as possible on the trumpet and mouthpiece you have first. Then work with your teacher on what may help. Remember it’s the artist, not the paintbrush. A great artist can create masterpieces with a Home Depot brush. But that same artist can do even better with a paintbrush suited to them.
Exercises and tips for trumpet range
Warm-Up Exercises: Just as a car engine needs time to warm up before hitting the road, your b-flat trumpet playing muscles require a warm-up routine. Especially when you want to expand your trumpet range. Warm-up with long tones in the middle register. Focus on a mellower tone, something rich and loose feeling. Rest as much as you play when warming up. Make sure you are fully warmed up before starting exercises that target the upper register, gradually awakening and loosening those vital muscles for optimal performance. Depress your piston valves crisply as you move through your warm-up. If you are old school and have a trumpet with rotary valves, same thing. In case you’ve never heard of these, rotary valves are like those on a french horn and aren’t used in our modern instruments.
Lip Slurs: Flexibility is Key: Ah, lip slurs—the secret weapon for developing range and flexibility. These exercises involve smoothly transitioning between different notes without the aid of the piston valves. It’s like a gymnastics routine for your embouchure, training your lips to glide effortlessly from thirds, firths, and more. The farther your reach, the more you’ll notice you are using your tongue rather than your lips. Imagine saying “Awww, Eeee, Awww” to go from low to high to low. A key to these are keeping your air column consistent which will force you to use your tongue. That’s far easier than trying jam your horn against your face and blowing as hard as possible. Trust me, I’ve tried that and it doesn’t work.
Scales and Arpeggios: Scales and arpeggios are the foundational building blocks of range exercises for trumpet playing. These rhythmic patterns serve as a powerful tool for range expansion. Scale patterns and arpeggio exercises specifically that target the upper register will enable you to play higher with confidence. Louis Maggio’s trumpet method has a lot of these trumpet range exercises. One tip I will always remember is to focus on controlled sound production technique. Always. I didn’t understand that at first, but to me it means focus on making the best sound I can at all times. Upper register notes often start as squeaks, but they do eventually grow into notes as you get better. Purposeful practice, means playing difficult exercises with good tone and articulation.
Tonguing Techniques: When it comes to playing in the upper register, precise tonguing is essential. Make sure you work through exercises that focus on developing speed, agility, and accuracy in your tonguing. Triple tonguing a high F is not something you may see in orchestral music, but you may want to if you are a jazz soloist. Practice crisp attacks on higher notes and then move to double tonguing. Trumpet method books like Clarke Studies have some excellent exercises for these as does the famous common method book, the Arban’s method.
Pedal Tones and Low Register Foundation: As backwards as it may seem, expanding your upper register often begins with strengthening your low register and playing the lowest note of the trumpet’s range. Why? Pedal tones and low register playing help you relax. I use a didgeridoo to improve my embouchure. It’s like playing on a tuba mouthpiece, but makes me totally relax my face and blow to make that droning sound. When I get too tense, I get a brighter sound. I pick up my didgeridoo (which is a piece of white PVC pipe) and it helps me relax.
Consistency and Gradual Progression: Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither is a soaring upper register. It’s import to have a consistent and gradual practice routine. Squeeks turn into notes eventually as you learn to relax more and your embouchure develops. I knew guys that the upper register came super easy. I had to work at it. You will likely hit sticking points, just keep at it. Some days will feel better than others. Remember that in the upper register, the notes are closer together than in the middle register. Meaning, above C, we are beyond the entire range of the trumpet (supposedly). So the distance between notes gets closer so it takes more practice to hit them crisply. But it also makes doing trills up there easier like the famous Maynard Ferguson. By setting small, achievable goals and gradually increasing to difficult trumpet pieces, you’ll see your range expand steadily over time.
Rest and Recovery: Just like any well-oiled machine, your trumpet playing muscles require proper rest and recovery. Like any strength building of the human body, rest days, relaxation techniques, and self-care practices are as important as practice and playing. I know it’s hard, but after every attempt up high, play some low soft notes to relax. Then rest. Rest as much as you play. I had to use the timer on my phone to keep me honest. A healthy and balanced approach will help ensure longevity in your playing career.
Finding Inspiration from the Masters: Sometimes, all we need is a little inspiration from the trumpet greats. Spend time listening to YouTube videos of legendary trumpet players, drawing inspiration from their mastery of the upper register. For a distinct sound like no other, I love the legendary Doc Severinsen. His darker tone when screaming is amazing to hear. For amazing articulation up there, Arturo Sandoval. And for modern players, Louis Dowdeswell and Wayne Bergeron are my favorites. Who’s yours?
Incorporating Range Exercises into Musical Repertoire: Range exercises shouldn’t exist in isolation but rather seamlessly blend into your musical repertoire. Hitting a note and playing a note are different things. I didn’t understand that at first. But I learned that being able to hit a note when everything goes just right is vastly different than playing a note with good sound during a performance. I started playing ballads up high like Doc and Maynard did (like Birdland, McArthur Park, etc.). Or at least I tried to play them like those legends. These gave me the confidence to play those notes when needed and went a long way when called on to play them under pressure.
Seeking Guidance: A knowledgeable trumpet teacher or coach can provide invaluable guidance and personalized instruction. Thankfully you don’t have to live next door to them. With video calls you can take lessons from trumpet teachers around the world. Even the great Bobby Shew gives video lessons. The one tip that makes this work is, finding a teacher that you “click” with. One that understands where you are and is able to show you a path to becoming better. But you have to do the work. Just taking a lesson won’t help. But practicing what you were taught is where the magic happens. There are many great teachers out there so do what I did. Take one from different ones and land on the teacher that you get along best with. Oh and you’ll likely do better than I did by actually completing the work they give before the next lesson. That’s kinda important. Well, actually it’s what makes the difference between a good trumpet player and a great trumpet player.
Conclusion: Congratulations! You’ve gotten through this long tirade on trumpet range. Hopefully it’ll help you on your adventure to unlock the upper register on your trumpet. By implementing the exercises and techniques discussed in this guide, you’re well on your way to expanding your range and reaching new heights in your playing. Remember to approach each practice session with enthusiasm, patience, and a touch of playfulness. So, trumpet players, it’s time to scream and let your music touch the heavens! Or at least blow away the flute players up in the front of the band.
Frequently Asked Questions about Trumpet Range Expansion
Question: How long does it take to expand my range on the trumpet?
Answer: The timeline for range expansion varies from person to person. It depends on factors such as your current skill level, practice consistency, and individual physiology. With dedicated practice and patience, you can expect to see noticeable progress within a few months to a year.
Question: Are there any shortcuts or quick fixes to expand my range overnight?
Answer: Sorry, no. Trumpet range expansion requires consistent practice and gradual progression. Be wary of any claims promising quick fixes or overnight success. Remember, sustainable growth comes from disciplined practice and a focus on proper technique.
Question: I feel strain or discomfort when playing in the upper register. What should I do?
Answer: It’s essential to prioritize your physical well-being. If you experience strain or discomfort, take a break and assess your playing technique. Talk to your trumpet teacher or band teacher to ensure you’re using a proper embouchure and breath support. Sometimes, small adjustments can alleviate strain and promote healthy range expansion.
Question: I’ve hit a plateau in my range expansion progress. How can I overcome it?
Answer: Plateaus are common in any musical journey. To overcome them, try incorporating new exercises, exploring different practice approaches, or talk to your trumpet teacher. Also, take a break from playing. You’ll be surprised how much that helps. Experiment with various strategies and remember to stay persistent and patient.
Question: Can I expand my range even if I started playing the trumpet later in life?
Answer: Yes! Age shouldn’t hinder your ability to expand your range. While it’s true that younger players may have certain advantages, such as increased flexibility, diligent practice and proper technique can help trumpeters of any age achieve range expansion goals. Many “come-back” players are reaching new heights with the knowledge available today.
Question: Should I practice trumpet range exercises every day?
Answer: No. Consistency is crucial for range expansion, but it’s also important to listen to your body. Balancing practice and rest is essential. Combine regular practice with range expansion days. More often than not, you’ll be playing within the range of the horn up to high C, so make sure you sound awesome there. Make sure to incorporate rest days to allow your muscles time to recover and rebuild. Consult with your trumpet teacher to establish a practice routine that suits your specific needs.