More Thoughts on Range

Here’s another draft that didn’t get finished on the old website.  I wrote Range: How High Is High Enough? in 1989 or 1990.  I’ve learned a LOT since then, so here goes:

Natural Ability

One of my former students at Henderson, Clayton Harris, has wonderful high range.  As an undergrad, he had an excellent, normal range…but shifted up a fifth!  (He struggled to learn to play well below low C, but he put the work in and learned how to do it.)  During one of my lessons with Arnold Jacobs, I asked him if it was easier for some people to play high than others.  (I was thinking about Clayton when I asked him.)  Jacobs replied, “Absolutely.”  Without even taking a breath, he continued, “but anyone can do it, if they have a strong enough musical motivation.”  I knew enough about his teaching to know that “musical motivation” meant actually hearing the pitches in your mind, not “I wish I could play like Maynard.”  You have to hear Maynard in your head and then go to work.

It’s All About Air

A lot of strong high note players will say, “It’s all about air.”  They offer some excellent suggestions to improve your air, like “blow faster” or “think of the notes as farther away.”  These concepts really help.

But, it’s NOT just about air.  To play high requires lip strength able to withstand all that air and to be firm enough to vibrate fast enough to play in the upper range.

Some people have naturally strong faces — if that’s true, for them it really is all about the air.  What’s my proof that some people have natural strength?  The football players in my high school for one — they were big and strong even without lifting weights.  My dad told me about a farmer in the 1930’s that could get beneath a tractor and lift it with his legs…with 4 grown men sitting on it!  And the guy NEVER lifted weights.  He was naturally strong.  I’ve read that only 5% of men have the capacity to develop themselves to the level Arnold Schwarzenegger reached when he was Mr. Universe; he obviously had a physical gift.

So, if some men have naturally strong bodies, why couldn’t some people have naturally strong faces??  It only makes sense.  I’ve also read that not everyone has the same face muscles and sometimes facial muscles are in different places.  Who knows?  Perhaps that’s another part of the explanation.

Then what about the rest of us??  We have to build our embouchures to develop the strength we weren’t born with.  Not fair?  No, it’s not fair, but what else can you do?  Go practice!

I want to mention a technique that Jacobs taught me when I asked him how to work on high range…first, he said the key to a successful high range is a very relaxed middle range.  Every time you go up an octave, the effort and air pressure doubles.  If you’re too tight in the middle range, you’ll be twice too tight in the upper range, and you can forget the extreme high range.  So, you don’t worry about the high range until you are using only minimum effort to play in the middle range.  (FYI, during one of my lessons I told Mr Jacobs that he said I should be relaxed when I play.  He said, “I never said you should be relaxed; I said you should use minimal effort.”  In other words, sometimes you have to put some effort into playing, but only what’s absolutely needed.)

Second, he told me that the high range does not start until high C.  (Most of us think it starts at G at the top of the staff.)  The notes below high C are still middle range.

Then he asked me what the highest note was that  I could buzz on the mouthpiece.  I don’t remember what I told him, but he told me to buzz that note and hold it for 6 seconds.  After doing that, I was supposed to rest for a few moments and do it again, for a total of 6 repetitions.  In time, my muscles would “hypertrophy.”  (Remember, Jacobs studied medicine for a hobby.  Most of us would say the muscles would “build.”)  When that happened, I was to buzz a half-step higher, and so on.

Unfortunately, I did not diligently pursue this, so I can’t describe my success.  The reason I quit was that, in true trumpet player fashion, I used too much left arm to get the notes and hurt my lips.  Nevertheless, I am convinced it would have worked if I had done it correctly.

I must add that it is hard to buzz above high C on the mouthpiece.  The acoustics of the mouthpiece tend to get in the way.  Try this — see how high you can buzz on a trumpet mouthpiece and then try on a cornet mouthpiece.  The cornet mouthpiece is a little shorter, so you can probably buzz a little higher.  I asked Mr. Jacobs about this in a clinic — he said a solution is to take a mouthpiece you no longer want and saw the rim off.  A rim has no acoustical properties, so there is no limit on how high you can buzz.  Another solution is to wrap your hand around the end of the mouthiece;  this messes up the acoustics and you can buzz higher than on an open mouthpiece.  You can control the resistance by how much you open or close your hand.

Strong players, however, can buzz high on a trumpet mouthpiece in spite of the acoustic challenges.

Bud Brisbois had amazing range, all the way up to triple C.  I’ve read that he would bend over and hold a French horn mouthpiece with just his lips.  As he got stronger, he changed to a trumpet mouthpiece, and then a trombone mouthpiece.  He even worked on holding a tuba mouthpiece, but that proved to be too much, even for him.

I want to add one more point about air — I have a theory that our bodies will not blow air into the trumpet at a pressure higher than our embouchure can withstand.  It’s like there’s a little computer in us that measures our embouchure strength and will not let us have a blow out in our chops.  Jacobs said that no embouchure can withstand the full intensity of air our blowing muscles can produce, so it is possible to override the “computer,” but it’s very hard to do.

The Rest of Us

Speaking of the rest of us, I have a sneaky suspicion that most of us over-rate the difficulty of high notes.  There’s a couple reasons for that —

  • We call it the “high” range, which it isn’t.  It’s just fast lip vibrations.  But, most of us are justifiably cautious about high places, so I think we tend to be afraid of “high” notes.
  • Most of us have seen videos of trumpet players whipping the trumpet off their face when they finish a high note.  Or, they’re bent over backwards while they play.  Because of this, we think it must be not be hard to play high, it’s REALLY hard to play high.  What if it’s actually not that difficult and the reasons for their movements are showing off for the audience or maybe they’re just a natural reaction to the music?  Or, maybe because they’ve seen other high note players do it?


If you’re going sharp in the high range, it means that your stomach is too tight and your are building air pressure inside your body instead of in the mouthpiece.  Air pressure in the body is called “squeezing,” but air pressure in the mouthpiece is called “blowing.”  If you’re “squeezing,” things don’t work well, even though you’re putting in tremendous effort and getting really red in the face.  But, when you “blow,” you have success!  (You may still get red in the face, but at least you’re getting results for your effort.)

This probably sounds a little strange, so consider thinking about it in these two ways:

  1. Your body is an air tank; you create tremendous pressure inside it and then bleed air through the lips into the mouthpiece to play high notes.  The problem is that your throat tends to close off, and there isn’t much air moving over the lips to make them vibrate.  There is a great deal of unneeded tension, and you play sharp; the sound is small and generally not very loud…that is, IF you get the note.
  2. Your body is an air pump and the mouthpiece is the air tank that you’re pressurizing by blowing air into it.  The faster you blow the air, the more air pressure you create in the mouthpiece and the more air moves past your lips.  I believe this reduces excess tension and keeps the focus on blowing rather than squeezing.  If you’ve ever seen an air compressor, you know that the compressor really isn’t working all that hard.  It just does its thing, and the pressure goes up in the tank, not the compressor!

Note:  the concept of blowing vs. squeezing comes from Edward Kleinhammer, former bass trombonist with the Chicago Symphony and author of The Art of Trombone Playing.


Think “OH” with your air, not “EE” — “EE” can get the tongue too high which keeps air from flowing. “OH” lets it come through with power, and that’s where you get good, in-tune high notes.

Many people disagree with the preceding paragraph, but it is what I learned from Arnold Jacobs.  What could a TUBA player know about trumpet high range??  Not many people know he started on trumpet and he ended on trumpet.  After “Jake” retired from the Chicago Symphony because of eye problems (they couldn’t enlarge the music enough that he could read it), he went back to the trumpet.  In his own words, “I was doing splendidly,” and I believe it.  After 40+ years in the CSO with Bud Herseth, Jake knew what great trumpet playing sounded like.  Unfortunately, Jacobs had glaucoma, and that’s a dangerous thing for trumpet players.  The combination of high internal pressures and glaucoma can lead to blindness; Jacobs’ ophthalmologist made him give up the trumpet.

Even when Jake was a tuba player, he could play a double C on trumpet.  I think that makes him qualified to enter the discussion, along with the fact that he was undoubtedly the most highly regarded brass teacher that ever lived.  I’ve covered his philosophy on this subject in Arching or Raising the Tongue; it’s well worth reading too understand what he taught.

But, what about all the people that advocate arching the tongue? There are a LOT of famous high-note trumpeters who say they use this approach. Maybe that’s how they play, and maybe it’s only how they THINK they play.  To be honest, I’m not sure.

Final Advice

You need to be pragmatic:  try something; if it works for you, it works for you.  But, realize that it very well may not work for most people.

There is not a single approach to high notes that works for everyone.  If someone can discover that approach, they’ll be rich!  Until then, you have to try different methods and see what works for YOU!