How to Screw Up Your Students: What (Not) To Do

When I’m not teaching my BSU students, I prefer beginners (the less experienced, the better). Beginners are wonderful–curious, full of enthusiasm, unaware that some techniques are “hard”. They have few, if any, bad habits. So long as they practice, there is no telling what they might achieve.

Then there are high schoolers. If I had to describe what I envision, as a teacher, when I think of high school trumpet students, the words that come to mind are “screwed up.” The average high school student struggles with high notes that aren’t high and mixes up basic rhythms. She plays out of tune with the slide a mile from where it should be. And she has no idea how to practice in a way that actually fixes her problems.

What happened? I would argue that when a student takes a turn for the worse, his or her first year of playing has been affected by one of the following factors:

1. Someone insisted that a high note had to happen. This is probably the single most destructive factor in a young trumpet player’s development. Well-meaning teachers choose music that is simply too high and then assign it for a grade or chair test. The students then contort their faces/air/stomachs/you name it to produce expedient high notes that are not actually efficient. It is not extreme to say that this process actually ruins the future of most of these players. If they attain a high chair placement (which reinforces the bad habits), they usually resist any attempt to change because they are afraid of falling to a lower chair. Others can only force up to a certain point and get so discouraged that they drop out. A trumpet player should be encouraged to play up to his or her highest note every day, stopping when the notes feel too hard. S/he should attempt this feat with the knowledge that the “highest note” may change daily–and this is both normal and acceptable. How high is too high? As a point of reference, I did not learn to hit fourth-space E until my second year.

2. No one noticed that the student’s mouthpiece was too low until it was too late to correct it. This is the second leading cause of problems I encounter, and the leading cause of problems in my college studio (because students in the previous category don’t usually get into college music programs). The upper rim of the mouthpiece should always sit well above the red of the top lip. In almost every case, this is the lip that vibrates, and a low mouthpiece placement will have dramatic (negative) implications for sound quality, high range, and endurance. This problem is easy to correct if you nip it in the bud and simply tell a beginning student to move the mouthpiece higher, but it is extremely difficult to fix later, because it will “feel” like an embouchure change and the student will have to endure the attendant frustration.

3. Someone insisted that the trumpet had to be held at a particular angle. Bell angle is a function of dental structure, and most students’ teeth will be corrected by braces before they reach high school. If your student’s posture is good, with the ribcage elevated for proper air support and the head at a natural angle, let the trumpet rest at whatever angle feels most natural to the student, so long as the mouthpiece is positioned correctly on the mouth. Students who hold their bells at an unnatural angle usually add unnecessary tension in the airstream, which diminishes efficiency and can lead to two scenarios already mentioned.

4. No one explained the proper way to play a lip slur. Lip slurs are training ground for high notes, because a student will learn to regulate the flow of the air by altering the shape of the oral cavity. In general, a student playing a lip slur can whistle the notes of the slur and then mimic the action of the air and tongue when he plays them on his horn (obviously, the lip shape is completely different, for which reason some teachers dislike whistling). The critical thing is to teach the student to make a different vowel shape, rather than pushing the air from the gut and causing a sudden, unmusical burst of sound on the highest note of the slur.

5. No one paid attention to the things that made the student excited about playing. Most beginners like playing an instrument. They ask questions and enjoy certain songs more than others. The most successful teachers will figure out how to harness this enthusiasm so that what the student needs to accomplish can compliment what the student wants to accomplish. What you want, as a teacher, is a student who practices. In the first year, it matters less what he practices than that he practices. The goal is to get him enthusiastic enough about playing that you can start to assign fundamentals in a way that he will see as worthwhile. This in turn will open the door for the type of practicing that will help him to get the most out of the trumpet.

The issues I have listed here are not the only issues that can plague young students, but they are the ones that have the greatest impact and are also, in many ways, the easiest to fix. Good luck!

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