Trumpet players of all ages seem to have one trait in common: if a note appears on our music, we will try to hit it. We struggle to follow advice such as “just take it down an octave” or “leave that note out.” If it’s there, we know we are supposed to be playing it, and young players in particular will do anything to make that happen.
This tendency can present problems for band directors who are trying to choose music. A developing trumpet player will not always measure range in terms of notes s/he can usually hit (when tired at the end of a two-hour rehearsal; under pressure with hundreds of people looking on; after playing stand tunes for the first half of a football game). A trumpet player with something to prove is more likely to consider the top of the range to be the highest note that s/he has ever hit.
As a point of reference, here is what I expected from my private students when I was teaching beginning trumpet (“hit” in this context implies that the student is able to play a pitch several times per day, regardless of fatigue):
- By the end of the first semester in band, trumpet students should be able to hit a printed A in the staff (concert G).
- By the end of the first year in band, trumpet students should be able to hit third-space C in the staff (concert B-flat).
- Sometime during the second year in band, trumpet students should be able to hit E at the top of the staff (concert D).
- Within the first three years of playing, trumpet students should be able to hit G at the top of the staff (concert F).
- Ascending to anything above G at the top of the staff (concert F) is a gradual process.
If this timeline sounds conservative, consider that:
- Some students will accelerate more quickly than others, particularly those for whom lip slurs come easily.
- If all students in a school district followed this trajectory during middle school, the entire high school trumpet section would be able to hit the G on top of the staff under any circumstances. Many would be able to play higher.
- This timeline is based on my experiences with beginners, but it also mirrors my personal development. I learned to hit high C above the staff (concert B-flat) during the summer after my third full year of playing, while wearing braces. I did not practice very much during my first year of playing and did not start private lessons until my second.
The functionality of a trumpet player’s upper register depends on two factors: first, s/he must learn to manipulate air speed to achieve higher notes, rather than relying on embouchure. Secondly, the player must not ever feel that it is “necessary” to hit a note that is out of reach. Printed notes that are out of a player’s usable range almost always cause the trumpet player to respond in one of two ways:
- The player learns to speed up the air by constricting the muscles of the neck. This approach eliminates resonance in the sound and thereby prevents the player from using vibrato or developing a true dynamic range.
- The player presses the mouthpiece against the embouchure, which forces the top lip to vibrate at a higher frequency. This approach is impossible to replicate beyond a certain point, which means that the player will struggle with range and endurance. The embouchure will remain underdeveloped and the student’s mouthpiece position is likely to slip over time to compensate for the lack of strength. This is the scenario that necessitates most major embouchure changes.
Upper register is one of the most important reasons for teachers to emphasize all twelve major scales from an early age and to instruct trumpet students in low-register fingerings. While it is true that the F-major scale (E-flat concert) contains only one flat, it is also true that it is the second scale that most students learn, because the fingerings are “easy.” The top note of this scale, however, is a note that some students won’t be able to hit until their third year of playing! The more thoroughly that students understand the importance of fundamentals, the more options will be available to their teachers.
In short: if a student uses fundamentals such as lip slurs and chromatically-ascending scales to explore the upper register, then the embouchure will acclimate to higher notes over time, but only if those notes don’t appear in the student’s printed music before the student is ready to play them.