Setting the Air, Initial Attacks, and the Importance of Attacks

I was taught that 50% of missed notes are initial attacks:  the first note played when putting the horn to your face.  There are three main reasons for this — not hearing the correct pitch, not moving the air quickly enough, and the tongue moving out of the way too slowly.  Well, there is actually a fourth reason — not paying attention to the problem or simply ignoring it because it’s not that big a deal.

If you hear the wrong pitch, it makes it hard for the trumpet to produce the note and that results in a missed note.  To be accurate, the trumpeter must first hear the pitch in his or her mind — before you start playing.

The air needs to instantly move into the horn at full speed; things don’t work well if the air starts too slowly and then speeds up.  The speed needed depends on pitch and volume but it is not something that is consciously controlled; the subconscious learns to produce what’s needed through a process of trial and error.  So if it’s unconsciously learned, why am I bringing it up?  Because sometimes you have to point the subconscious in the right direction.  Once you do that, get out of the way…focus on the results you want and let the subconscious and body figure out how to produce the results you want.

Brass players should avoid stopping the air before playing; stopping the air provides the chance to tense the muscles too much resulting in an attack that is either too explosive or the blowing muscles lock up and absolutely nothing comes out of the horn. The idea is that the air should go into the body and immediately turn around — there is no pause between inhaling and blowing.

A good phrase to improve this is “Oh, too.” Inhale on “Oh” and immediately blow on “too.” The way I teach this is:

  1. Say “Oh, too”
  2. Whisper “Oh, too” – this shuts the vocal cords off, avoiding the grunting sound that some players get
  3. Inhale and blow “Oh, too” – this gets the air going at a much faster speed
  4. On the trumpet — play “Oh, too” on a single pitch
  5. Repeat step 4 until you get a consistently good attack.

Here’s another good technique:  buzz the mouthpiece to see what pitch you are hearing. When you consistently buzz the correct pitch, add the trumpet, but start without the tongue. This makes you rely on the air to make the sound; be sure to keep the lips focused on the correct pitch. After this begins to sound pretty good, add the tongue while still blowing the air like you’re not using the tongue and continue to insist on hearing the correct pitch.  This should produce a good attack.

To have a great attack, you must listen to professional trumpeters and imitate what you hear.  Attacks change with the style of the music, and many trumpet players do not listen carefully to make this distinction.  As a result, they sound pretty good, but they never sound great on a consistent basis.  Often, classical players sound bad playing jazz because their articulation is too sharp, and just as often, jazz trumpeters sound bad playing classical music because the attacks are too soft or fuzzy.

How important are attacks??  I was told that many years ago (probably in the 1960’s) someone recorded beginning trumpet players and superb professionals.  This would have been done with reel-to-reel tape recorders; using razor blades, the attacks and releases were cut out of the tape, which was spliced back together with special splicing tape.  The result was the pure tone quality of the trumpeters without the attack or release to color the listener’s perception.

After this was done, the spliced tape was played for extremely knowledgeable musicians including university brass teachers and band directors and professional brass players and conductors.  The result?  It was very, very difficult for these great musicians to tell who was the beginner and who was the professional player.

What????  That doesn’t make sense…you can tell who’s the pro and who’s the beginner in an instant!  That’s right, and that instant is the attack…how you start a note colors the perception of what follows.  That old saying about first impressions being so important is exactly why you need great attacks.