Buckner, Dr. Jim: Tuning and Valve Slides

The purpose of the various slides on the trumpet is to allow the instrument to be tuned and to correct intonation problems built into the instrument.  The tuning slide should be greased so that it moves smoothly with only a minimal amount of effort and will normally be pulled about one-half inch.  The precise amount varies from player to player and depends on the tuning of the ensemble as well.

Tuning Slide

It would seem that little needs to be said about the tuning slide, except that it should be kept greased and move with little effort.  Tuning needs to be adjusted to the pitch of the ensemble, and it is often necessary to pull the tuning slide to adjust for the sharpness of most mutes.  There is more, however.

A student with a good ear can match a tuning note even if the tuning slide is in the wrong place.  To be certain the student is tuning the instrument and not just matching pitch, it is a good idea to slur G A B C (written pitches) into the tuning C.  By the time the trumpeter reaches the C they will be playing where the horn is, not where they hear the tuning note.  If the instrument is out of tune, it is necessary to move the slide.

Young students frequently blow above the center of pitch.  For that matter, so do students in marching band.  This is caused by playing louder than they can really handle and also playing beyond their true endurance.  Forcing the sound usually results in blowing the horn sharp.  When the student has recovered, they often continue to blow the pitch sharp.  The director tells the student to pull their tuning slide:  a sharp player with a flat horn gives an in-tune player with a shrill tone quality who gets tired too fast (because they are holding the flat horn up to pitch).

Practice bending the pitch with the lips.  Raise the pitch (it will only go a little ways) and drop the pitch.  In time you can go about halfway down to the next note with the same fingering.  If a student is bending second-line G, they will be able to learn to bend to first-line E, which is halfway to the next open note, low C.  The effect is like a small siren.  If this is difficult, try sirens on the mouthpiece for a while, then sirens on the trumpet with the valves halfway down (it makes the harmonic series very strange with the valves halfway down and sirens become possible).  Then do the pitch bends on the horn with the valves used normally.

As the player bends the pitch, they will notice a certain place where the trumpet blows easiest and it has the best tone quality.  This is the center of the tone, and it is where the trumpeter should play.  If this center is not in tune with the ensemble, is is necessary to move the tuning slide.

Third Valve Slide

The third valve slide needs to be extended about one-half inch to correct intonation for the valve combination 1-3 and about one inch for the valve combination 1-2-3.  The only notes normally fingered 1-3 are low D and low G, and the only notes normally fingered 1-2-3 are low C-sharp and low F-sharp.  On many instruments, however, the low G and low F-sharp are too low, and end up being more in tune with the third valve slide pulled all the way in.  On these instruments only D and C-sharp need to be corrected.  You need to check with a tuner to find out which notes to correct.  It is important that you use your slide to play these notes in tune.

Many trumpeters do not realize that they are playing these notes sharp, and they become brain-washed into hearing them out of tune.   In time they no longer realize these notes are sharp.  Some trumpeters choose to lip the notes in tune and not move the valve slide.  While this produces an in-tune pitch, the tone color suffers because the trumpet is still sharp and the player is bending the note down into tune, which results in a deterioration of tone quality.  If you are practicing lip slurs with either 1-3 or 1-2-3, you should extend your third valve slide as well since all of the overtones of these combinations are also sharp.  These intonation problems are not design flaws, but are the result of acoustics.

First Valve Slide

The first valve slide can be used to lower notes played with the first valve or the 1-2, 1-3, or 1-2-3 combinations.  This is particularly helpful in lowering fifth-line F’s, high A’s and high B-flat’s that are sharp.  (Another way to help an A is to substitute third valve.  This works for any 1-2 combination — just remember that “1 and 2 makes 3” and you’ll know when you can try this substitution.)  Many times the proper choice of valve slide can simply the technique of a given passage.  For example, a trill from low D to low E-flat: using the third valve to correct the low D would require that it be pulled in for the E-flats and pushed out for the D’s, just as fast as the trill.  However, by using the first valve slide to correct for the D’s, the E-flats are still in tune because no air goes through the first valve slide during the E-flats.  (If you find this hard to believe, remove the first valve slide entirely — you can still play the low E-flat, or any other note that doesn’t require the first valve.)

Choice of Slide

For many passages it makes no difference if you use the first or third slide to correct intonation.  However, on some patterns either the first or the third valve slide is easier to use.  For example, a trill from low D to low E:  with only the third slide extended  the D and the E are in tune with no further adjustments.  Simply extend the slide before the trill, and both notes are in tune.  If the first slide is extended for the D, it must be pulled in for every E and pushed out again for each D.

Change the trill from low D to low E-flat.  With only the third valve extended for the D it is necessary to pull the slide back in for the E-flat, extend it again for the D, in for the E-flat, etc.  If only the first valve slide is extended, the D’s are in tune, and so are the E-flats.  Everything is in tune with no additional work.

Teaching Use of the Valve Slides

Trumpeters are normally taught that it only takes three fingers to play their instrument.  This is simply not true if we with to play in tune and have good tone quality.  If the woodwinds can learn to use ten fingers, trumpeters are certainly smart enough to play with five!  Many beginner instruments have valve slides that work quite well.  This is quite a change from when I started in 1960:  there were no thumb saddles for first slides on beginner horns, and even weight lifters would have been challenged to move the third valve slides.  Today there is no excuse for not using these slides.

The price for laziness is a brain-washed student who hears too large an interval between C and D and too small an interval between D and E.  It is no wonder that so many trumpeters don’t play well in tune.  From their earliest days they learn to play out of tune, and it is perfectly acceptable to them.  They do not know better.

It seems an incredible task when an older student first makes the decision to use valve slides.  I simply remind them that as a beginner they thought they would never learn fingerings that are now second nature.  In a relatively short time they will be fairly comfortable, and they will begin to hear the difference in tuning.

If a student wishes to be wonderfully proficient, I recommend the Second and Third Studies from Herbert L. Clarke’s Technical Studies.  When a student plays these at the marked tempo (half note equals 120) and adjusts as necessary for all the D’s and C-sharps, they will be skilled!  At that level, if they cannot adjust for a note, it is doubtful that anyone will be able to hear a problem.

The only time air goes through the third valve slide is when it is depressed.  Take your third slide completely off the horn.  You can still play most of The Carnival of Venice!  With the open, 2, 1, or 1-2 combinations the third valve is unnecessary.  With the 1-3 and 1-2-3 combinations the slide needs to be extended.  Actually, the third valve slide only needs to be pulled in when the 2-3 combination is used (E-flats and A-flats, unless using alternate fingerings).

This means that if a passage has no E-flats or A-flats, you can start with the third slide out, play thousands of D’s in tune and never have to move the slide!  It only takes a split second to look at a piece to see where you need to have the slide in (E-flats and A-flats); the rest of the time it can be extended.

It is my belief that beginning trumpeters should be started with the third slide tuned to low D.  What about all the tuning problems that will cause?  Tuning problems will only occur when the students play E-flats and A-flats.  I studied many beginner books to determine how soon E-flats and A-flats were taught.  Since most books start out in B-flat concert, this is not a problem.  For most books, the 2-3 combination is not needed until near the end of the book.  In fact, the were no E-flats or A-flats at all in one book.  Students start out hearing D’s and the B-flat concert scale in tune, and then they are likely to continue playing in tune.


To excel on the trumpet it is necessary to play in tune with a great tone quality.  This can only be accomplished with the use of the valve slides.  At first it may seem quite awkward to use your valve slides, but in time it becomes very natural.  The great trumpeters use their slides — so should you!