So you’re working summer band. You’re a recent grad with your first real job, you’re the new GA for marching program, you’re a college student trying to scrape up some summer cash. Either way, someone is about to stick you in front of a trumpet section and ask you to perform magic. Here’s a quick-start guide to the problems you’re likely to face:
“The Trumpets Aren’t Loud Enough”
Most students know they need more air to play loudly but don’t understand how this process works. (You can find a detailed explanation of air mechanics here.) As they crescendo, your students need maximum air coming into contact with the lips, but they’re likely to associate “more air” with a feeling in the chest. You need to find ways to get them to let go of chest tension so the exhale can proceed freely. You could try:
- Asking them to think of sending the sound behind them or to the sides (anywhere but straight ahead!) so they aren’t tempted to try to push the air forward.
- Having them transfer the tension to another part of the body. I’ve been known to ask students to play while doing squats because it’s hard to maintain that posture while forcing the airstream.
- Making sure the problem isn’t actually a symptom of horn angle, endurance, or pitch. (See below.)
“We’ve Got a Kid Who Can’t Keep His Horn Angle Up”
In concert band, horn angle is a function of jaw structure (provided the student is sitting with correct posture). In marching band, horn angle becomes a function of the press box. Asking a student with a severe overbite to keep his or her horn at an extreme angle can cause the student to develop habits such as excessive upper-lip pressure or neck tension because the change may be up to 90º different from what feels comfortable. You could mitigate this problem by:
- Re-defining expectations for the entire section (with the director’s permission). Struggling students look even worse by comparison with peers who are over-doing bell angle in an attempt to impress the directors.
- Making sure that your students are bending from the waist to whatever extent is possible, rather than using the chin or shoulders to elevate the instrument. For a student with an extreme overbite, this is the safest way to hold up a trumpet in marching band, in terms of long-term implications for the embouchure.
- Working with struggling students on lip bends by asking them to play three Gs (for example) in a row, but with the middle one fingered like an A-flat (0-23-0). This exercise (fingering the middle note a half-step higher) will work in any register and will probably require the student’s jaw to come forward. In the long run, students with severe overbites will be best served by a more forward thrust of the jaw. (If your student(s) can handle the exercise listed above, ask for G-F#-F-F#-G with all notes fingered open.)
- Suggesting that the trumpet section wear shakos on the field during one rehearsal. This variable can affect horn angle if the brim of the hat interferes with a student’s vision. It’s better not to discover this problem on the day of an exhibition.
“The Section Sounds Shrill” (Or Bright, or Sharp)
Shrill trumpet sections could be caused by any of the following:
- The students need to keep their molars further apart, creating a darker overall tone concept. If this is the problem, the students will sound bright in all registers regardless of key. You can address it with the lip bends mentioned in bullet point no. 3 of the horn angle section or by playing back and forth with them to demonstrate the sound you want.
- One or more students has decided to switch mouthpieces for marching band. Shallower mouthpieces emphasize high overtones and add more zip to the sound, which is one reason many students turn to them when playing first part. If you have a student attempting to resolve range issues in this manner, listen to the student play a few relevant passages on both mouthpieces (the shallow one and the student’s normal mouthpiece) with your back turned, so you don’t know which is which. Pick the one with the best overall result and make sure the student isn’t switching back surreptitiously.
- Certain keys are not conducive to trumpet intonation. The worst offenders are G (concert F), F (concert E-flat), and D (concert C). These keys are at odds with the tuning tendencies of the trumpet’s overtone series. If your students are playing a piece in one of these keys, use drones (not a tuner) to help them find their way. (Remember that F on top of the staff, low E, and all As need a first-valve slide extension!) I like to have students improvise chorales, which means that they make up melodies based on the notes of the scale and play those melodies simultaneously. Students usually enjoy tuning chorales but they work best if someone conducts time.
- Timbre may be suffering from a misguided attempt to play loudly. See the first section of this post for suggestions.
- Students struggling with range will get brighter and sharper as they grow tired. See the next section for advice.
“They’re Having Trouble Hitting the High Notes” (or, “They’re Worn Out After the First Hour”)
As a general rule, this problem must ultimately be resolved by the director (see this page for my thoughts about range development in trumpet players),* but as a tech you can’t voice that opinion. Therefore, you should:
- Bear in mind that students will not voluntarily take things down an octave. If you want them to do this, you must ask.
- Teach them to play lip slurs (especially slurs across octaves, like low C to third-space C) so they understand the critical role of vowel shape in hitting upper register notes (see also the “air speed” passage at the bottom of this page).
- Take the time to incorporate rest in the students’ warmup, even if it means you don’t get to other music. Swollen lips are caused almost exclusively by sudden mouthpiece pressure, which doesn’t necessarily mean that a student tried to use pressure to get a high note. Sometimes it means that the student went from no playing at all to many sustained notes in a row. Marching band warmups are often based on chorales, which exhaust the trumpet section for this reason. I like to warm up sections by having them play slurred sixteenth notes back and forth across half-steps or whole-steps (i.e. G-F-G-F-G-F-G-F or C-B-C-B-C-B-C-B) because I can take that exercise into any register without worrying that some students won’t know the fingerings.
“They Need to Multiple-Tongue”
Unfortunately, multiple-tonguing is one of those skills that the students MUST practice on their own for 5-10 minutes per day in order to progress, and in a perfect world they should have started in January. You can find an overview of some common issues and solutions on this page, but if you’re working with a section, the best things you can do are:
- Incorporate plenty of fundamentals exercises using only the “K” stroke of the tongue (you could also have the trumpets play a stand tune with all Ks at some point, to give them a change of pace).
- Try to hear every student individually on a comfortable pitch so you can judge whether the issues are the result of the skill or the music.
- Make sure any group double- or triple-tonguing exercises have a direct relationship to the music but aren’t always the music itself. You don’t want to ingrain bad habits into the lick that needs to sound good! Instead, you can ask them to play the same rhythm a half-step higher or lower or skeletonize the lick in some way.
- Make sure you are using a metronome. Multiple-tonguing needs to speed up by 4-5 clicks at a time but humans can’t usually dictate tempo variations on such a small scale.
- Remember that upper-register multiple-tonguing has as much to do with embouchure as articulation. If your students can perform the necessary tonguing but not in the register where they need it, work them chromatically upwards.
“They’re Just Plain Lazy”
Psychology is as important on the marching field as anywhere else. If your issue is a matter of motivation, you might try:
- Enlisting the section leaders by asking what they think the problem might be and what the section might perceive as a worthwhile reward for a job well done.
- Making sure that everyone is hydrated and sufficiently fed.
- Holding students and especially section leaders to high standards in areas within their control (showing up on time, laying out their horns properly during breaks, listening during instructions) and making a point of rewarding them.
- Bribery. You may want to save it for a last resort, but some sections are motivated by the promise of getting out five minutes early, being “better” than another section, having you paint your face/hair/shirt on Friday, or whatever else. Make sure you follow through on any promised reward (especially the promise to let them out early!) or they’ll stop caring.
- Most people are motivated by success. Find ways for your students to have “wins” whenever possible.
A Few General Reminders
In summer band situations, you’ll do yourself the most favors if you keep the following in mind:
- Respect is earned but authority is bestowed. You don’t have to prove your authority to the students because the director (or principal) has already given it to you. The fastest way to lose students’ respect is to seem to need it. You don’t have to be afraid to tell them that you aren’t sure of the answer to a question, and you don’t have to demonstrate anything on your own instrument unless you feel comfortable. If they’re talking during your sectional, don’t take it personally–but do bring the sectional to a halt until they stop.
- Go for long-term solutions whenever possible. If you teach the students to count the rhythms in their music by rote (for instance) you’re just going to have to cover the same material again next summer.
- Style covers a multitude of other sins. If you take time up front to establish how the section is going to handle repeating motives or particular kinds of releases, you’ll save time for both yourself and the director, who will be happy to say, “do it like the trumpets” in rehearsals rather than fixing every spot individually. This will motivate your trumpets!
Good luck and have fun! 🙂
* Let’s take a moment to acknowledge that band directors are often under tremendous pressure from principals, boosters, and even the students to program “cool” music that garners high ratings at contest. Many have inherited students with range problems, don’t have enough trumpets to round out the section, or simply can’t find an arrangement that suits the trumpets’ needs. I like band directors, and those are real problems! (College professors usually have to face the same challenges.) Still, if the note isn’t happening in July then it’s not likely to happen by October, not in any way that reinforces the habits you’d probably like to implement. The long-term solution here is a hard reset at the junior high level, but problems of range and endurance can also be mitigated by judicious programming of stand tunes and perhaps a few strategic rewrites from the arranger in the case of a custom show.