“Use more air!”
Every trumpet player has heard this phrase at some point. Unfortunately, it is an overused expression, sometimes aggravating the situation rather than resolving it. A trumpet player can actually control three separate variables that relate to air:
- Air support (“Support your air!”)
- Air volume (“Use more air!”)
- Air “speed” (see below)
What’s the difference?
- Air support affects the consistency of sound. When a player’s sound wavers through a held note or cuts out during the transition from one note to the next, the problem is a lack of air support. The diaphragm is the primary means of air support, and the placement of the ribcage while playing affects the diaphragm’s ability to do its job (see Posture). To develop more consistent air support, a student can hold a single sheet of copy paper to her face and practice releasing the air in a consistent flow, so that the paper flies outward away from the airstream at a steady angle.
- Air volume affects the dynamic level. Louder notes require more air than softer notes, though both require the same amount of air support. However, it is worth mentioning that the throat of the mouthpiece is quite small, and it can only admit so much air to pass through it at one time. Students can obtain maximum volume by taking a full breath (see below) and releasing it with equivalent energy immediately after the inhale. Telling a student to use “more air” can often result in “pushing” the air into the horn, which adversely affects the sound (see below); therefore, teachers may have more success if they speak in terms of the fullness of the breath and fullness of the sound.
- Air “speed” affects the vibrancy of the sound and is an essential component of upper-register playing; however, this concept is easily misunderstood. The trumpet player who plays beautifully up to a high B-flat but who cannot hit high C needs to learn how to release the air differently in order to reach high C. Yet the idea of “fast” air implies that the player must expel it with greater force. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth; if the player tries to move the air “faster”; he or she is likely to end up with a very blasty high B-flat, but not necessarily a high C. A better illustration comes from whistling: when one whistles, one changes the pitch from high to low by altering the shape inside the mouth. In many ways, the shape associated with the higher notes may cause the air to feel as if it is moving faster. But try to actively increase the speed of the exhale, and the whistle ceases to sound! The trumpet works in much the same way: the player will move the air very similarly to the way of the whistle when playing in the upper register, but this action often works best when unconnected to the idea of “fast” or “slow” air. Once my students have grasped this concept, I tell them to “use whistle air” when they work above the staff. (Trumpet players who cannot whistle can still learn to play in the upper register, and may achieve the same insight by experimenting with wind sounds without puckering the lips for a whistle.)
Breathing is a natural process, and should remain so on the trumpet. A few essentials:
- Exhale before inhaling. Unused air becomes dead air once fresh air enters the lungs.
- Inhale without straining. The breath you take when coming up for air after swimming underwater is the same breath needed for a full breath on the trumpet. The neck and shoulders should stay relaxed.
- Exhale immediately. Too many trumpet players hesitate before exhaling, in order to set their embouchures. This is a recipe for cracked notes. A trumpet player must learn to trust his embouchure to find the right note immediately after inhalation, without pausing for thought. In truth, getting the right note has much less to do with the lips than with the air.
- Experiment. If taking a slow, deep breath causes you to hold onto the air before the release, try taking a more rhythmic breath. If you have a soft, short note, you may prefer a shallow breath. In select instances, I have also been known to breathe through my nose, but I nearly always insist on mouth breaths from my students unless there is a musical reason to do otherwise, because the mouth breath sets up a better exhale.