Sound and tone quality - a vocal approach.

Seminar with James Thompson

Thompson plays Bordogni using a buzz-aid, Oddbjørn Lund watches
(click to see a larger image)

The 5th, 6th and 7th of April 2002, Norwegian State Academy of Music and Norwegian Trumpet Forum hosted a seminar with James Thompson. Thompson is today professor of trumpet at Eastman School of Music

In this report we will only cover the first part of Friday 5th where Thompson held a lecture and a class about warm up and daily practice. In the warmp up he played from the CD (the first 4 exercises) in his book Buzzing Basics: Volume One

Later this year (in June) a revised version of this book will be published by Edition BIM.

For more information about the seminar, see Vera Hørvens report

Warm up - daily practice - exercises to do.
Let me start by saying that there are lot of different schools of playing. I find that everyone of them have validity.

The idea of warm up is an interesting concept.

Warm up - well, I just came off the plane and I can play - so, warm up in terms of the muscles is not the point. Warm up in terms of making the connections between the brain and the muscles is the point.

What do I do for a warm up, and what do I recommend for a warm up?

I do buzzing exercises. On the mouthpiece to start with.

The quality of the sound
Before we start the thing, what I want you to keep in mind is the idea of the mental and physical connections. If you can hear it in your head, you can play it - with a little practice. You got to be able to hear it - not only the pitch, but the quality of the sound.

Let me ask you a question: When you hear somebody play, what is the first things that impresses you?

What makes a good sound?

Describe a good sound?

Rich in what ways? What is a warm sound? Ok - let us just agree that sound is what the listeners think it is. A sound can be German, Russian. It can sound like a D-trumpet, or a Rotary trumpet or a cornet (demonstrates on his C-trumpet). It can be Mexican.

The sound
A sound is made up of different components:

My point here is that tone is what we really have been talking about when we have been talking about sound.

Once when I was young, we had a well known violinist as soloist. When he tuned his violin, I thought - Wow, is this a 2 million dollar Stradivarius? The sound was rather scratchy.

Then he started playing, using the vibrato and the sound came out and filled the whole hall. What he had done was that he had modified the tone with the vibrato, the pressure of the bow, the speed of the bow. It changed into something very personal - so everybody can have their own personal sound.

The first thing we try to achieve when warming up is to get a tone that is rich in harmonics, but has also a warmth to it. The balance or mixture of overtones create the tone that you can use.

Playing "in the center"
Tell me when the tone is right (asks a student, and then play a tone that he bends up and down). What was right about it?

Let me do that again and listen to the ring. Now it has the right balance of the fundamental and the overtones. It is also the most efficient and projecting sound. Overtones by the way, that is really what projects. In an orchestra you can blow as hard as you can, but if you are not getting overtones you are not going to be heard. I'm very pleased that someone said bright. When we say dark tone in the U.S., what we mean is warm and that it sounds relaxed.

If you want to play the trumpet, play the trumpet. What I don't like to see, is people trying to sound like a flugelhorn. What we do then is that we take out the overtones (plays dark) - that's gone a go nowhere.

Any questions about that?

Chet Baker was a very intuitive player, and a wonderful player. I'm going to interpret that, as a matter of fact, can I have a volunteer come up? Get your Bb trumpet.

Chet was probably feeling he was playing below center. Ok - just copy what I do (plays a wide vibrato - student do the same) Ok - now I want you to do it like this, and stop in the place where it got the most "ring"! (plays a very slow vibrato or bend down and up and stops the sound on it's "way up" - where it "rings". Then student does the same).

Now, that sounds pretty good. Is that above or below where you normally play?

That is my observation, that 99% play above center. If we can get it down into the center, that's where we can get the most overtones. The interesting thing is that if you relax your lips a little bit and play a bit lower you get more overtones. You are not holding your lips so tight and this will give you more endurance. That's an added benefit.

Thank you - great illustration!

Yes, just look at my slide. I think that when you starts to play correctly, your slides going to come in. I don't think you should force the pitch down - relax the pitch down. That's what we're going to address right now, which is: How can we first of all train our ears and train our body to be in that "spot"? That is where the mouthpiece comes in. Take your mouthpieces out!

The human voice
Every instrument family consider their instruments closest to the human voice.
The cello, closest to the human voice.

But, the brass instruments is the closest to the human voice. There is a very good reason for that. The brass family is the only that uses the human tissues to make the sound. Like the vocal chords. We do it on the air column. We can vocalise and that is what we're going to do.

Give a little kid a trumpet. He immediately goes like this (blows air and fingers the valves - no sound). We tend to think that the trumpet is doing the work, when we have to do the work. The added bones with the mouthpiece is that there are now slotted notes - you have to sing through the mouthpiece

I like everybody to do this!
(sings: A - AAH, a fourth up - the whole audience repeats: A - AAH)

Ok, do it again and observe what happens between the notes!
(audience sings: A - AAH)

What happens?
What happens with the vocal chords?

Exactly - it's a glissando, a very fast one and it's a good one. That's really what makes things sound vocal.

Because we have been using our vocal chords before we knew what we where doing, we are very good at using them. We are not so good at using the mouthpiece. But we should try to copy what we hear.

So! (sings: A - AAH, then play the same on the mouthpiece, with a glissando). Same idea - did you hear that?
(whole audience do the same on their mouthpieces)

Normally we don't put a lot of attention on this, but this is really an important part of playing the instrument.

Now I like to go through these four exercises - the four basic exercises that I do. The way that I want you to do them is a little bit like Caruso in that you breathe through your nose and don't open you embouchure.

Buzzing Basics: Volume One

Exercise 1
(6 notes, chromatic from G up to C in the staff, whole note, whole note rests, with nose breathing, ending with a glissando and crescendo from C down to low C)

Ok - let me hear you do a glissando down (asks a student).

This is a process of discovering what we are actually doing.
(plays an octave glissando from C down to low C with a crescendo - student does the same)

Pretty good - did you notice that the sound kind of changed on the way down? Do it again and see if you can figure out where that is. (student repeats)

What note? (student not sure)

Well, it tends to be around E.
We are not used to go from the middle and down into the low without resetting.

Resetting is not such a good idea, especially if we are playing something fast. I believe we should try to play on the same setting or embouchure for the whole register.

I noticed that when you copied me the third time, you used a crescendo. That's the solution to making that glissando down sound good.
Everybody try that!
Start soft and make a glissando and crescendo!

When we are down in the low register, which I consider are below E, we don't want to have a different setting. Why? Because it becomes difficult to come back up.

It is much better to take a middle of the road setting and try to stay with that. One of the extreme example is (plays opening from Vassily Brandt Concert piece no. 1 in f-minor) from high Bb down to low G flat and back up. Most people stuff some extra lip into the mouthpiece and then they can't get back down. If they open up they can't get back up. The more advanced pieces you play, you are going to go over the whole register anyway.

The other thing is if you move when going down (pivot when he plays big intervals - then plays last variation of Arban Carnival of Venice). You're gone break your nose (laughter) - it's just impossible.

Efficiency and minimal motion are going to aid your technical progress.

Any athlete that is really great at what they do, they do it in such a way that it looks easy.
We think they are naturals.
Not necessarily - they have learned to do something very efficient.
If you can do that, you can think of the musical part, and be musical.

We are not used to letting the muscles stretch inside the mouthpiece. I'm talking about flexibility. To relax and create a large opening from a starting small opening. You make a small opening, a large opening, a small opening.

The purpose of these exercises is to stretch the muscles. It is not just to play the low notes.
Stretching is a more important part of your warm up than you would think.

If you go to a soccer game one hour early - what are the guys doing? They are stretching out their muscles.

The next warm up I do - you make sure you are playing in the middle setting (plays glissando from G down to low C). You play this and makes sure you are not opening too much.

Exercise 2
(low C, two half notes, soft, then two whole notes, crescendo and decrescendo, then whole note rest, half steps down in all 7 positions)

The "breaks"
I call them the breaks.
The E's in the staff are the breaks between our register, middle - low, middle - high. We want to make sure we are really at home in the middle setting.
(start on G, glissando down to C - then start the whole exercise 2)

Good - anybody get any tingling?

That's a good sign - that means that the way you were holding your lips before was a little isometric. Now it is starting to get flexible, getting blood flow. That's a good sign. We don't want too much tension. If we can get rid of it this way, the pitch will come down and we will get more overtones. Again - the perception of the sound.

Loud playing is a matter of relaxation.

The hard part is that your diaphragm has to tense and your lips have to relax at the same time. It's like two opposite things - you don't want to do it. You want to clamp down (plays an octave leap up and closes the sound by clamping)
(whole audience play 2nd part of exercise 2)

Try to let the crescendo make all relax. Keep the pitch down as you make the diminuendo. See how soft you can play. The soft part is even more important than the loud.

The attack
The next exercise incorporates the glissando.

Well, let's discuss that. One of the way you can practice is without the tongue. (buzz without using tongue) That will give you more security where the note starts. When you play, you have to line up the air, the lip tension and the tongue movement. On a click. All of those things have to be precisely together. If you remove one, the tongue, you are only dealing with two things. If it is a concern, you can do it.

Those of you who have orchestral experience know it is really nerve wracking when you are playing the opening of Zarathustra. It's four of you - you all have to come in (plays the opening C-G-C). If you use the low embouchure setting you have trouble getting the highest note. Then there's those that want to get the top note since it's the longest. They set for a high note and looses the low (demonstrates).

That's where this technique pays off.

One of the nastiest note in the business is the first note in Brahms 2nd, last movement on the second trumpet.

The fundamentals
These warm up exercises basically addresses the fundamental things we need to do. Your teacher can teach you to play every piece. That's wonderful! If you want to keep paying those people for your entire life. Or learn how to play the trumpet and read every new piece. I want say that this is neglected because the school of trumpet playing is really progressing.

You only have to learn the Jolivet once, but those notes have to be centered. They have to be played with ease of execution. When you play with the mouthpiece it is really hard to play tense. What you are training is the ease of playing.

Now, this next exercise with the slur is about going up, from one note to a note above.

I have heard lot's of trumpet players in lots of different countries. At a certain age, junior high school, 12 or 13 years old. There is a certain sound they all get over the entire world. It sound like this! (play with a choked sound a simple march like tune). I have tried to figure out what it is. Think about that - when you were playing in your first band, you get those parts going like (play some low notes then an octave leap up - with a glissando). You get the notes in between. The band director stops and say: Don't do that! That sounds terrible! What are you supposed to do? You don't want to get yelled at so you got to figure out something to do to make that not happen. Everybody at that age comes up with the exact same solution. What the solution is, is to play softer on the top note. Do this! (ask a student to play staccato notes loud and slur up to a soft note). It's very easy to do, isn't it? The air pressure that we use to play, keeps the lips spread apart. When you take the air pressure away for that high note, the lips collapse into that nice small opening which it should be. The note just pops out. But you can't play that way for the pieces is not written that way. What you do as a little kid, is back of the pressure, so the lips collapses. It's incorrect but it's easy to do. We all went to that phase.

The idea of the next exercise is, by making a glissando and a crescendo, you train yourself not to back off the air. Let's try. Nice gradual glissando and a crescendo. Here is another important concept: You have to really listen to what you are doing. That's probably the most important part with warming up - listening. In this particular case you can listen on the mouthpiece. The mouthpiece will tell you if you are in balance or not. If this is the gradual application of lip muscles to make a smaller opening, and this is the gradual application of diaphragm to make the air pressure (shows with both hands, one air pressure, the other lip tension, following up in balance.) Often it goes like this (hands in unbalance). In other words we tend to lead with our lips. It sounds like this (a glissando with a choked sound in the glissando) - you hear the glissando, but my lips gripped before the air pressure was there.

(play with an open sound and a crescendo on the glissando) Do you hear the difference?

Try! (one student plays on the mouthpiece G - C) - Too much lip on the A - did you notice that? Start softer! Better. Soft playing is extremely important. We trumpet players have 3 things we want to do. We want to play faster, louder and higher than anybody else.

Is the opening larger or smaller when you play soft? - smaller. What's the difference between playing in the middle and the high register? - air pressure. Soft playing teaches you to play in the high register. That's from where you get a good high register - from soft playing. (play chromatic 3 octaves up, very softly) That's just enough air pressure to keep the same basic set. That was not hard to do.

Soft playing
You have to train the muscles to make a small opening. I can always tell when somebody plays too loud. They are able to go (sings a diatonic scale, stops suddenly) like this and zip, nothing. They go from a loud note to nothing. They have an absolute ceiling in their playing. You must know people like that. They can play really great and then not one note higher. That's because they have never trained their muscles to make a smaller opening. You can't do that unless you practice softly. If you look at Herbert Clarke's book, all his exercises are pianissimo. You know when people was happy with getting a high C he wrote this (plays ending of last exercise in Clarke Tech. No. 5) - that's number 5. He has written crescendos and diminuendos in there. They are not to play louder or softer, as much as they are to keep the balance. What we just were talking about. You see the connection there?

Try it again (plays G-C with glissando and crescendo) - see if you can make a ring all the way up (asks student). G sharp and A was good, B-flat to B you did with your lip. Because we have trained our lips and because they are strong we want to use them, and that's wasteful. Try again - that's much better.

Ok, so that's what this exercise is about. To really get you to balance as you go up. Let's do it

Exercise 3
Nice and slow, keep it on your face. Good - once you hit the note, keep the air flowing.

Good. Now let's do it on the trumpet. Let the note come out where it wants to come out.

Precision is the key here. Everything move exactly at the same time. If the lips are a little bit too early, you get a churp. If the lips are a bit behind the air you get that (a broken slur).

If you play soccer there are lot's of exercises that are not to play the game, but they are ball control. This is exactly the same thing. To get the body to work together precisely so you can focus in on what you really need to focus on - the music.

Let's do it. We don't need the tape (plays, audience repeat).

What you try to discover is the easiest way to do it.

Exercise 4
This is the last one (play G - low C with glissando and crescendo, on mouthpiece).

Playing in the low register
This is the last concept I want to talk about. Whenever we play in the low register we want to play low. Sound like this (play low notes very flat). I hear that in a lot of players. The reason we do that is because if we let the lips relax, then you at least get the notes started and then you can come back up to pitch. I call it scooping. I hear a lot of trumpet players do that. It is not very attractive.

Sing A- AA (down a fifth)!

Do it again and be very aware of how your vocal chords work, how precisely they are!

You notice you don't scoop? That's exactly what we should try to sound like on the mouthpiece (play G - low C with glissando and crescendo, on mouthpiece again). If you do it slowly, you only come down to the note.
(audience do it)

Good - that's a very important point! It does not matter how large the interval is (play an octave down on the mouthpiece). To be precise, going down, that is what this exercise is teaching us - then you'll be able to go back up.

(all play half note, half note, whole note, whole note rest, G, G glissando down to C with a crescendo, then F#, F# glissando down to B, etc. all 7 valve positions )

See if you can make the crescendo help you get the note down!

Same exercise on the trumpet.

This is an exercise that I tell my students not to do in public, because they get a lot of grief.
(play G, G glissando down to C with a crescendo). Put a glissando in there and see if you can come down to the note and not any further. That's the point of the glissando.

Shall we try it? (audience do the same on trumpet)

Now, there's two ways you can go down, you can bend it down or you can let it relax an add more air. Bending it, is tight all the way. Let the lips relax. Now, that's the sound you want in the low register.

Have you heard really great bass singers talk? Even the laugh have such richness in sound quality and overtones. I always think - that's what the low register should sound like.

(play ex. 4 on trumpet, "call/response" - audience repeats).

Covering the basics
Those are the 4 main exercises I like to do every day. It only takes 6 or 7 minutes to do these. If you think about what we did, except for the tonguing, it is everything you do on the trumpet:

That's everything there is to trumpet playing. The only difference is speed, tessitura, size of intervals. But that doesn't matter. It should all be based on the easiest way of playing.

Bordogni Vocalises - "be a mouthpiece virtuoso!"

Do we have a pianist here?
Great - now I would like a volunteer to come up and read something for me. (Oddbjørn Lund volunteer)

Vocalise No. 4 is first played on the trumpet.

Then on the buzzing aid that Thompson give to him. It gets a bit difficult with some of the intervals. After working on the mouthpiece for a while, the playing on the trumpet really improve.

Bravo - very good!
You can put a lot of music into playing it only on the mouthpiece, as you can when you are playing it on the trumpet

Vocalise No. 10
Ok - now let me do number 10, the first half of number 10. This is hard. Extremely good to do this with the accompaniment.

Final remark: Put tone in your technique!

o.j. 2002