Air and the Trumpet
Because air is an invisible substance and breathing an internal process, optimal wind technique is one of the most confusing and challenging aspects of trumpet pedagogy. Trumpet players have to concern themselves with three variables respective to air: volume (amount), speed, and a mysterious sensation often referred to as “support.”
Scientific studies have made it possible to measure the first two variables. These tests have proven that for brass instruments of all types:
- Using more air makes the sound louder. Using less air makes the sound softer.
- Using faster air makes the sound higher. Using slower air makes the sound lower.
It is worth pausing to clearly state the unavoidable truth implied by these principles:
Using more air will not result in a higher note.
The third variable, support, has undergone informal testing in my High Brass Techniques classes. These experiments have uncovered an additional important truth:
No consensus exists as to what is meant by “air support.” It is a term that is often used, rarely defined, and impossible to quantify. Most people think it has something to do with the diaphragm.
Any pedagogy of wind usage must account for the principles listed above.
What Is Air Support?
To understand what “air support” can and cannot mean, we must understand how respiration works. The diaphragm is an involuntary muscle situated just below the lungs. When it contracts, it moves downward, creating space into which the lungs expand. This expansion leads to inhalation. As we exhale, the diaphragm relaxes, moving back to its original position.
Because the diaphragm functions without our conscious control, no amount of effort on the part of a trumpet player can convince this muscle to do anything other than relax during exhalation. It is possible to tense all sorts of muscles that are in the same region, under the assumption that one is “supporting from the diaphragm,” but the fact remains that the diaphragm relaxes when we exhale and therefore it also relaxes when we play.
I believe that when most teachers refer to “support” they are in fact talking about “flow,” which is a term with a preexisting definition (the movement of air from one area to another). Insofar as it relates to the trumpet, air flow refers to the movement of air from the lungs to the embouchure.
Efficient air flow (“support”) requires that all of the air is moving out of the lungs. Practically speaking, this means that the player should not be attempting to “conserve” any air and it also means that the player’s inhale should flow immediately into the exhale.
How Much Air is Enough?
Just as a golfer’s swing will match the distance the ball must travel, the trumpet player’s inhale should match the upcoming phrase. If the music needs to be loud, we need a large breath. If a phrase needs to be long, we need a slow breath (meaning we would ideally inhale for an extra count or half-count, not for four or five beats). Many players who have a problem with air flow (exhalation) believe they have a problem with air volume (inhalation). Put differently, these players think they need more air when in fact what they need is moving air.
This misunderstanding has led many trumpet players to practice breathing exercises, which are counterproductive in the hands of a student who does not understand the distinction between these two concepts. Many students subconsciously associate a “big breath” with tension in the stomach, chest, back, or throat; this is particularly true for students who are using breathing exercises to “improve” upon an inhale that was sufficient to begin with. A full breath in its most natural sense is the breath the body takes once the lungs are empty, the same breath you would use while swimming. It doesn’t require special training or thought. Its only prerequisite is that the body must be out of air, and the best way to achieve this state within the context of trumpet playing is to empty the lungs before breathing in.
In my experience, most trumpet students don’t need to use more air when they play; they need to use less tension. Although more air does produce more sound, volume ultimately comes from resonance and resonance requires the air to flow freely from the lungs to the aperture. Thus, the best breath is a breath that (1) occurs when the body is in need of air; (2) mirrors the phrase it is meant to enable; and (3) proceeds immediately into the exhale with no additional pushing from muscles along the air column.
How Air Affects Range
The frequency at which the lips will vibrate is largely influenced by the speed of the air as it hits them. Faster air will produce higher frequencies, which in trumpet language translates to (among other things) C above the staff. As a general rule, classical trumpet players prefer to influence air speed by adjusting the shape of the oral cavity.
Students do not instinctively adopt this method. If a teacher tells a group of beginners to “use faster air,” most students will attempt to expel the air more forcefully by pushing with the muscles of the abdomen. This method has a tremendous effect on the flow of air because it adds tension to the exhale, but it is an inefficient means of controlling speed because it can’t be fine-tuned. The student who can only play lip slurs by “thrusting” for the upper notes is using this approach.
Air speed can be manipulated more effectively by thinking in terms of vowel shapes. In general, higher notes require a shape that is comparable to the shape made for the vowel “Eeee,” and lower notes require a more open oral cavity, like the vowel “Aaaaw.” I have needed to experiment with the way I phrase this concept, since shape can be a function of the tongue, the jaw, or the soft palate. I usually find it helpful to have students experiment with making wind sounds of differing pitches, since the resulting shapes are often comparable to what we would use for the trumpet. (Students who can whistle usually grasp this concept more quickly.) As players develop stronger embouchures, the degree to which they must change vowel shapes from note to note often becomes less extreme.
A Word About Tension and Air
The throat of a trumpet mouthpiece will only accommodate so much air at one time, as will the aperture between the lips. Trumpet playing thus involves a natural back-pressure that is similar to what an oboist experiences, but this pressure is created by the disparity between the amount of moving air and the size of the openings through which it must pass. Classical trumpet players do not deliberately introduce tension into the body as a means of moving the air.