Buckner, Dr. Jim: 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 range.

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.

[More recently, I’ve heard Wayne Bergeron say, “The first note I ever played on trumpet was a double C.”  Is that normal????  I don’t think so!!!  To be fair, Wayne had practiced for some time on a marching mellophone and a French horn before he switched to trumpet, but he started his trumpet career on double C!]

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 notes.

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 pressure.

It is usually a good idea to work on high notes only every other day.  The principle is the same as in weight training.  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 tonguing them.

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 playing.

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, either.

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!