What drew you to the trumpet? Was it a trumpet intro like Tower of Power’s “You’re Still a Young Man”? Or the Beatles “Penny Lane” piccolo trumpet solo? Maybe you had a parent or relative that played the trumpet. Whatever it was, for some reason, once you started playing, there is interest in playing above the staff. For some, it’s an obsession. For some, of no interest. If you want to play lead trumpet parts, you’ll need to develop your trumpet range. Why? It’s no secret that the upper register is a requirement in modern trumpet playing. But what is the “upper register of a trumpet” you ask. The real question you may be asking is, “How high can I play the trumpet?”. Great question, let’s explore the answer and you will learn the secret to playing high on the trumpet too.
What’s the trumpet written range?
The first thing to clarify is, “what is the written range of the B-flat trumpet”. In other words, what is harmonic range of the B-flat trumpet? What was it designed to do? It’s been commonly written that the highest note is a “D” above the staff as the highest trumpet note and the lowest, F-sharp below the staff. On the “high side”, Yamaha for example writes:
What is “high C” on Trumpet?
In my early days, I found most music written for the first trumpet part had the occasional “C” and the rare “D” above the staff. The goal for many of us was to hit “High C” or the “C” above the staff. Beyond that, it just seemed to get exponentially harder to control the notes. The reason is that the harmonic range compress at the upper limit of the trumpet. You know the feeling of “slotting” a note? Feels great right? Well, the “slot” for each note is closer together the higher you go. That makes hitting a “C” above the staff cleanly takes more control than a “G” above the staff for example. This “harmonic compression” makes slurring up there easier as demonstrated by the late great Maynard Ferguson who was known for his “lip trills” or “Shakes”. When you watch videos of players doing this, they aren’t shaking the trumpet like you have to when playing inside the staff (where the space between notes is very clear). This closeness of notes is one of the challenges of hitting them cleanly. I painfully recall having to hit a “high C” in middle school and making a short stop at B-flat on the way there. Now I understand why, the notes were “close together”. But I was only in the 7th grade, and the sun was in my eyes, and it was windy (excuses, excuses, excuses). Yea, even though I practiced that note perfectly many times before, at concert time it sounded just awful.
What’s the highest note on the trumpet?
Okay, we know what the “written range” is and that it’s the effective range of the B-flat trumpet. What about the highest notes professional trumpet players play? It seems like they have no limit. There’s a big difference in the highest note that can be “hit” verses the highest trumpet note that can be “played”. Sound familiar? Welcome to the club. The simple difference is, ones a squeak, and ones a note. The difference being due to the “harmonic convergence” of the frequencies above “high C”. What is the difference between the trumpet player that can scream like it’s nothing and those that are still learning? The reality is that those players have the right combination of embouchure, development, and air flow. They can play effortlessly in the upper register. And their “upper register” can be an octave (and more) above “High C”. Some call it “Double High C”, “Super C”, etc. One such player is Louis Dowdeswell. He is in his early 20’s and had a mastery of the upper register from a young age. His playing looks effortless. I think it’s safe to say, the highest note on the trumpet is beyond what has ever been written and is still growing. As trumpet players are starting earlier in life with great instruction, I believe we will see amazing players do things never imagined with the trumpet. And isn’t that part of the fun?
Why can’t I hit high notes on my trumpet? What’s the secret?
Was what I said after that 7th grade concert. I could hit notes on my trumpet in practice but couldn’t during the concert. The problem was that I could play that note but didn’t practice notes above it. I only practiced that note and not any higher. Because I had not practiced playing at least two or three notes higher (like the F above that), that “high C” was my upper limit. Just like the harmonic frequency range of the trumpet itself, I was at the limit of my range. So, expecting to be able to play it well, under pressure, wasn’t the best plan. Playing high notes on a trumpet can be helped by a bunch of different things, but there is a secret. The secret to playing high notes is this. First, develop solid fundamentals such as air production, volume control throughout the register, and endurance. Practice solid fundamentals. How do you get those? A trumpet teacher. Someone who can help you make the most of the gifts you have. A trumpet teacher that can evaluate what you are doing and what you need to get better. That’s the secret, the combination of a teacher and purposeful practice. For example, mine had me practice intervals and arpeggios that start at “C” below the staff and go up incrementally higher, stretching my range. Wait, how is that a secret? Isn’t that what the First Studies in the Arban method book are, starting on the 2nd page? Yes, this is the secret to playing high notes on the trumpet. Combine instruction with purposeful practice. Practicing with purpose – practice what your teacher tells you. Practicing to develop your range on your trumpet. With that secret, the question is now “What exercises should I practice to play high notes?” We’ll get to that in a bit.
How do you play high on the trumpet?
The right mouthpiece and trumpet, right? Okay, we gotta cover the “equipment” questions. Extensive studies have been conducted, and many papers written on this very subject. Will a different mouthpiece help me play higher? Will a different trumpet help me play higher? The short answer is,”they can help”. But they may not help you as much as you may want or hope.
- A shallower cup.
- A tighter throat and back bore
- Flatter rim
Yes, there are many other specifications for mouthpieces such as alpha angle, rim contour, etc.. Why are these 3 things most common in a “lead” trumpet mouthpiece? A shallower cup helps a bit with the upper register while a deeper cup produces a deeper sound. So, pick the shallowest cup right? Not so fast. You will spend time playing below the staff too which means you want to find a good compromise of cup depth. Cup sizes in the “A or B” range are typical in this class of mouthpiece. But, and this is a very big BUT, a shallower mouthpiece can also hide fundamental issues with your playing technique. Another issue is your lips might not work well on a shallower cup. Some players I know bottom out on shallow cups and don’t use them. Make sure your fundamentals are super solid first. Make sure you can still play your improvisation riffs across the staff as solidly as before. Okay, back to the mouthpiece.
The throat and back bore of the mouthpiece are how your sound passes from the cup into the leadpipe. Having a tighter throat (the hole at the back of the cup) provides resistance to help with control. So many lead trumpet mouthpieces have this characteristic.
A flatter rim is often used to help with endurance and flexibility. A thinner rim width helps with lip flexibility. These are the theories behind mouthpiece designs and even though one player made great strides with a new mouthpiece, it doesn’t mean it will do the same for you. Why? You a different player. The best approach is to try different mouthpieces after you’ve developed solid fundamentals (the secret, remember). Play low, medium, and high (whatever that is for you). There is no “magic” in a mouthpiece so making sure you can play comfortably throughout the staff with good intonation and endurance. That last part is important when picking a “lead” trumpet mouthpiece. My teacher warned me when I first asked about changing from my 5C by saying, “Don’t die after a few squeaks. You gotta be able to finish”. What? He explained that while I might be able to hit a few high notes higher but being able to play a full performance well is more important. Click here if you were reading the Mouthpiece Guide to go back to where you were reading. And thanks for taking this important detour.
Bore size is discussed in our Professional Trumpets post and it has been found to be less influential than the leadpipe and bell taper of a trumpet on upper register playing. Some players find a free blowing horn more beneficial to them, but a large bore trumpet isn’t for everyone. The leadpipe and main tuning slide can help by offering the perfect balance of blowing resistance and intonation. Too little blowing resistance for a given player can may make slotting notes a bit harder. Again, your mileage may vary. Lastly, the bell will affect the your timbre. A slower taper (opening) bell will be a bit brighter which fits with lead trumpet playing. Back to the original question, “How do you play high on the trumpet?” All I need is the right equipment, right? Sorry. Like the old saying “It’s the archer, not the arrow”. The right equipment will support your playing but won’t magically transform it if you are playing decent gear to begin with. Having been on and gone along, with many a “mouthpiece safari”, a mouthpiece can only do so much. A mouthpiece safari is a journey that can be taken if you (and your teacher) think your current mouthpiece is holding you back. Now that you are armed with an understanding of what to look for, you can make a well-informed decision.
How do you build a range on a trumpet?
Higher notes are your lips vibrating at a higher frequency. Simple, right? Simple in theory. There are many trumpet methods on developing range on the trumpet. There are also lots of ideas of the role of your tongue in increasing the air pressure in the mouth. What almost all have in common is purposeful practice, embouchure strengthening, and incremental development. The most common approach teaches you to reach incrementally up, then play low. This approach teaches you to relax your embouchure after the stress of playing high. You learn how your tongue (and jaw) move differently to change the velocity of the air in your mouth from high to low. Faster air supports faster lip vibration. But it’s not just faster air that produces higher tones. It’s a combination of a strong embouchure and pressurized air. The other important aspect is your ability to hold your lips in position against this faster air. This is similar to stretching a guitar string. The tighter it is, the higher the sound. Yes, this is a super oversimplification, but you get the idea. Another highly regarded recommendation is to practice drills softly. This develops your airstream control and embouchure endurance.
Here’s a detailed explanation of how to form an embouchure . Charlie Porter is a professional Trumpet Player and Teacher. He shows how the steps he outlines are the same things that famous trumpet players like Doc Severinsen and Wynton Marsalis take when they play to form their embouchure. Charlie really helped me think differently and adjust my embouchure to play with less effort. He gets into a bit of playing higher notes after the 50 minute mark. He’s also playing a deep mouthpiece, not a “lead” mouthpiece. Will this video help you? Watch the whole thing, try it, and then decide. Remember we are all different. What is talked about below is an approach. It is in no way the only approach. If there is something that helps you, great.
Trumpet range exercises
Developing range takes purposeful practice. By incrementally reaching higher, you develop your strength and technique. Arbans will take you through the development of strong fundamentals such as intervals, arpeggios, and most importantly, slurs. Moving onto Clarke Studies, Schlossberg Technical Studies, and then Louis Maggio System for Brass has been recognized as a way to develop trumpet range . Check out our Trumpet Method Books to learn more about these three fundamental trumpet method books in our Accessories post.
The first recommendation after you’ve gone through Arbans and Clarke Studies is the Schlossberg, Daily Drills and Technical Studies for Trumpet. It’s an a amazing trumpet method book that really develops your strength and endurance.
The next trumpet method book is the Louis Maggio System when used together with the above. The main picture on this post is my personal copy that I got in the summer before 8th grade. Boy did it ever make a difference. Caveat: Louis Maggio developed his embouchure as described in the Teaching Aids is because of an injury/accident that he had. It is different than what others teach and it is because Maggio couldn’t play the way he did before his injury. It may help you if you are having trouble with your embouchure. But please, work with your teacher. Even if you don’t adopt the Maggio embouchure, the exercises in the Maggio book are excellent at developing range. I personally didn’t change my embouchure when using the Maggio exercises.
Max Schlossberg, Daily Drills and Technical Studies.
These drills focus on tonguing technique, flexibility, endurance, and upper range development. These require solid airflow through each exercise and register. Some you play softly. Some exercise are slurs from the “place that shall not be named” but boy do they help. Using these will develop your endurance and power.
Louis Maggio System For Brass
Definitely read the Teaching Aids in the beginning. Let me say that again. Really read and apply the Teaching Aids. They will go a long way to making this method help you. One thing I missed when I first started was 12. The Tongue. That frustrated me for weeks until I went back and found that gem. All my teacher said was “I told you to read the Teaching Aids”. This trumpet method has helped countless trumpet players to become stronger and more dynamic players.
Hope this helps you in your trumpet playing. Please let us know what you’ve done to develop your range. As always, thanks for playing along.