Range: How High Is High Enough?One of the most exciting aspects of trumpet playing is hearing someone perform really well in the high range. There is nothing quite like hearing a high trumpet played in tune, with good tone, and musically expressive. Names like Doc Severinsen, Maynard Ferguson, Cat Anderson, Bud Brisbois, Bill Chase, and Jon Faddis immediately come to mind – some of the greatest trumpeters who have ever played.
In our desire to reach our potential it is
easy to single out a single aspect of playing and focus all of our attention and
effort on just one area. There is probably no aspect of trumpet playing where
this is more true than the upper range.
High notes provides an easy comparison of
playing abilities – Player One is better than Player Two because Player One can
hit F above high C while Player Two can hardly reach the D. No matter that the
first player can't play in tune, has limited technique and musicianship, and
can't play below low C. Too often Player One is considered better because of
this one aspect of playing. Considered in this perspective it, is easy to see
the lack of logic in such judgements.
Of all the instruments, the upper range is
probably the greatest problem on the trumpet. It takes physical strength,
skill, coordination, practice, and natural gifts to play in the extreme
upper range. It is most easily produced by musicians who are blessed with a lip
that vibrates easily at high frequencies, have the ability to move large amounts
of air very fast, have a great deal of natural lip strength, and have lips that
are not sensitive to the abuse of pressure that frequently accompanies the upper
range. Such players are born, not made. For them to hit a double high C is no
more difficult than it is for most trumpeters to play high C.
I don't expect you to accept this without
proof. Maynard Ferguson started playing trumpet when he was thirteen. Within
one year he was playing double high C's. Many consider him to be the greatest
brass player of the century because of the ease with which he plays in the upper
Cat Anderson, who performed with Duke
Ellington, discovered only by chance that he could play extremely high. As a
young man Cat was once in a jam session with a number of other trumpeters. They
were trading solos, and the other trumpeters began to get very angry at him. It
wasn't until later that he discovered they were mad because he was playing
everything an octave higher than they were. He didn't even know that he was
playing high! I have seen high school saxophone players pick up a trumpet for
the first time and play notes way above high C. This is obviously a gift, not
something that takes years to develop.
This is not to say that a trumpeter cannot
develop a good range. Almost every trumpeter can learn to play high C and D
with strength and good tone quality. With proper development and practice, many
can learn to play even higher. The higher you play, however, the more critical
it becomes to do everything correctly, both physically and mentally. This
process just seems easier for some people than for others.
It is important to keep the high range in
perspective. It is a very exciting, but narrow, aspect of trumpet playing. Doc
Severinsen has said that over 90% of his playing is below high C, and he is one
of the most gifted high trumpeters around. Jon Faddis, who has tremendous upper
range, has told me that it is of primary importance that a young trumpet player
develop all of the skills needed in playing and not focus exclusively on high
Work in the upper range is a necessary part
of trumpet playing, whether it is classical or jazz. What must be avoided is
emphasizing this to the detriment of all other aspects. A good rule of thumb is
that only ten percent (e.g., about six minutes per hour of practice) should be
spent extending the high range. This is sufficient to promote good muscle
development without danger of injury to the muscles from excessive mouthpiece
It is usually a good idea to work on high
notes only every other day. The principle is the same as in weight lifting.
Muscles tear down when we work them hard. When they rebuild, they build back
stronger than before. Practicing the extreme range every other day allows this
normal development to occur. Daily practice in the very high range frequently
causes excessive tearing of the muscles and prevents them from rebuilding
properly. We often get carried away and use excessive mouthpiece pressure,
forcing out notes that we aren't quite ready to play. Alternating days of
extreme high range practice with normal practice also helps minimize the
likelihood of damage to the lips.
It might seem logical, then, to practice
only on odd days of the month and not practice at all on the even days. This
might help build range, but only at the loss of flexibility (the ability to move
around the instrument freely). Daily practice is required to master all of the
aspects of playing.
What do we practice to extend our range? The
key to a good upper range is a relaxed middle range. Think of it this way: high
C takes twice as much effort as tuning C. If a tuning note takes too much
effort, high C will take twice too much effort. At a certain point a trumpeter
is using all his or her strength to play a high note, and there is simply no
place left to go.
The upper range should be an extension of
the middle range. The goal is to move air with great speed, but not great
pressure. When we think of air pressure, or air "support," almost all of us
tend to tighten the stomach muscles – so much so that we lock these muscles. In
reaction to this, the throat also tightens. In doing this, we tire more
quickly; cause the high range to go sharp; make the tone smaller, more forced,
and brighter; and generally limit how high we can play.
High notes do require more air pressure than
lower notes. It is important to know that air pressure is generated by a change
in the body's shape. The blowing muscles must be free to move so that we can
compress air. A simple analogy may be of help. Imagine a basketball full of
air. If we want to change the air pressure inside the basketball, we must
squeeze it and make it smaller. If we instead surround it with six inches of
concrete, the basketball doesn't change shape, and there is no air pressure
change. Locking our stomach muscles is the same as putting concrete around the
basketball – there is no change in air pressure.
When you play with great tension in the
stomach and then relax, you frequently will get a "head rush." A trumpeter
playing with too much tension blocks the blood supply to the brain. When the
tension is released, the blood flow suddenly increases, bringing more oxygen to
the brain. The effect is similar to hyperventilating. (Trumpeters have been
known to faint as a result of this, sometimes falling off risers many feet in
the air. Obviously, playing this way poses certain hazards that are best
avoided by proper technique.)
Okay, so we aren't going to get too tight in the stomach – how are we going to get the high notes to come out? The player must think of air speed. The higher the note is, the faster the air must move. Think of the air as having more momentum when it is fast. Which has a greater impact, a car hitting a wall at 1 mile per hour or the same car hitting it at 100 miles per hour? Speed makes a difference. By thinking of air speed you will generate the needed air pressure without excessive tension in the stomach muscles.
A time-honored aid in the upper range is to
think of high notes as farther away. Try to blow out a candle that is ten feet
away. You will instinctively blow very fast. Hold your stomach really tight
and try to blow out the candle – it will not even flicker!
There are several types of musical exercises
that are particularly good for the proper development of the upper range. Lip
slurs are very helpful. They force the proper development of the embouchure and
air flow and they prevent the use of too much mouthpiece pressure. The lips
cannot move when they are pinned in place by excessive pressure.
Slurred scales are quite good, provided they
start from the middle register. Remember, the upper range should be an
extension of the middle range, and it should be as relaxed as possible. Start
in the mid-range (between second-line G and fourth-space E) and hold the
starting note for a second or two. Ask yourself, am I relaxed and blowing
freely, or am I too tight and anticipating the high notes to follow? It is very
important to descend back into the middle range after playing the high note.
This ensures that the embouchure is not distorted to play high and that it is
possible to descend afterwards. Arpeggios, or broken chords, are also very
good, but they are somewhat more difficult than scales because of the skips
between notes. When slurred scales and arpeggios can be played very well, try
Play melodies up an octave. This helps to
keep playing musical in the high range. And remember, only ten percent of the
practice session should be spent extending the high range. More than that and
the lips are likely to be bruised from using too much pressure. The trumpeter
can also get used to blowing too hard and forcing. If this manner of playing
carries back into the middle register, the player will become too tight, making
the upper range more difficult.
Be patient; do not be in a hurry to build
range. It will develop only as fast as it can – it cannot be rushed.
Consistent, daily practice is the key. Adding a half-step every two or three
months is excellent progress.
Now, to answer the question posed by the
title of this article: how high is high enough? There as many answers to this as
there are trumpeters. A trumpeter can only experiment and see what he or she is
capable of playing. It is important is to constantly monitor all aspects of
trumpet playing. By focusing excessively on the high range, a musician may lose
ground in the other aspects of playing. Low range is frequently lost because it
is ignored. (A good low range is not incompatible with a good upper range – it
is a different set of muscles. Just listen to Doc Severinsen!) Lip slurs may
become sluggish because the lip muscles are strained. Tone quality can become
thin and strident – the sound won't blend with that of other trumpeters,
either. Frequently the lips are bruised or cut by excessive pressure. This
only shortens playing life and delays the development of range.
Understanding is required of band directors
as well, especially those who are not trumpet players. You have to play trumpet
to know the pain and frustration that come from trying to play notes that are
beyond your range or that are no longer possible because the lips are tired. It
is tempting to program professional jazz arrangements, with all of the high
notes in the lead trumpet part, especially if competitors are fortunate to have
trumpet players who can hit those high notes. It is very important to remember
that this type of part was written for professional players who specialize in
the upper range and have spent years developing it. Putting a young musician up
against this type of music before they are ready is the equivalent of putting a
high school football team against professional players. There will be some who
can hold their own, but they will be in the minority. Young trumpeters should
not be held to professional standards of range until they are ready.
Please remember that ease in the extreme
upper range seems to be a physical gift. How do you turn an alto into a soprano
or a bass into a tenor? You can't. Trumpet players cannot be forced to develop
range that is not within their potential. If it important to play a piece with
very high parts, frequently the trumpet chords can be restructured to place them
in a more reasonable range.
A director must not take undue advantage of
someone with very good upper range. It is the teacher's responsibility to be
sure that their students aren't pressing too hard and to listen to them play in
the middle range. Be certain that they are not hurting other aspects of their
It is wise to avoid the use of shallow cup
mouthpieces. These mouthpieces are frequently employed by professional
musicians who have learned how to overcome the deficiencies inherent in them in
order to have an easier upper range and a brighter sound. Shallow cup
mouthpieces do not play as well in tune as standard mouthpieces, they make the
low range very difficult (if not impossible), and they have a very bright tone.
I have heard high school trumpeters use these mouthpieces in concert band. To
say that they do not blend well is something of an understatement.
A good, standard mouthpiece will enable a
trumpet player who is playing properly to play a solid high C and higher when
necessary. Once a trumpeter is able to do this, it would be possible to
consider using a shallow cup mouthpiece, but its use should be restricted to
jazz playing, not concert band. The rims of the two mouthpieces should be as
similar as possible to help the trumpeter's accuracy. Until the trumpeter can
play well in the upper range on a regular mouthpiece, the shallow cup mouthpiece
should be regarded as a "cheater" mouthpiece which gives notes that aren't
really there. They do not help everyone, either. "Cheater" mouthpieces have
never extended my range more than a half-step, and not for any length of time,
I hope this article on the trumpet's high range in jazz is of some benefit. Trying to write about developing the upper register is very difficult ‑‑ a young trumpeter must find a good teacher, listen carefully, and practice intelligently. It is of utmost importance to develop all of the skills necessary to be a good musician. Who will hire a trumpeter with a double high C who can't sightread, slur, tongue, or play in tune,? Be a well‑rounded musician. Work on range and try to improve it, but don't be dominated by it!