Developing the Middle School Lead Trumpet Player

Chris Clark at DTW Clinic

There are many aspects of playing lead trumpet in the jazz ensemble aside from playing in the upper register. Frequently, a student is pushed into the role of lead trumpet only due to the fact that he/she can play high notes. A good lead trumpet player is able to really lead the band in style, feel, time, precision, and volume, in addition to playing the high notes. Developing these skills in your young trumpet players will benefit your entire jazz band.

Range and Endurance

It is important to understand how jazz ensemble music is graded and how to decide what piece is best for your young lead player. When perusing the literature for young jazz ensemble, it is important to note that there is an unofficial standard for grading. Grades 1-2 (Very Easy – Easy) pieces will generally have the top range of your trumpet player at a G5. This range is perfectly acceptable for middle school jazz ensemble. It is important to note that although a Grade 2 piece may have the same top range, the piece may utilize that note more than a Grade 1. You will generally not find A5 and higher until you venture into the Grade 2 ½ to 3 difficulty.

It will behoove the jazz ensemble director to not just note the range of the trumpet 1 part, but also the endurance needed for successful execution. Keep in mind, that although a middle school trumpet player may be able to play G or A, he may not be able to play a dozen G’s or A’s in one piece with accuracy. Work on endurance with your lead player by encouraging him/her to practice long tones in all registers. Strengthening the core muscles of the embouchure, even at the middle and low registers, will aid overall embouchure strength.

IMPORTANT: A trumpet student should not work on strengthening his/her upper register on a daily basis! Much like a gym workout, you do not want to tax the same muscles the same way on back-to-back days. Muscles need time to rest and recuperate. In order to work on expanding range, the student needs to practice expanding lip slurs and expanding scales. It is crucial for the trumpet student to increase and expand their range slowly – not just go straight for playing high notes – to ensure that the exercise starts with correct fundamentals. Young players play with their  best fundamentals in the “bread and butter” register: having them start there will help keep the focus on good fundamental playing as opposed to “squeezing” out the high notes.

Here are a few simple exercises that your students can do to work on range:

Fluid Scale Exercise

Fluid Scale Exercise

Advanced Lip Slur

Advanced Lip Slur

Power/Strengthening Exercise

Power Strengthening Exercise


The lead trumpet player should be able to demonstrate the correct releases and attacks for your ensemble. With young players, you may want to sit down together and mark in the hard releases you want them to nail. For instance, notate if you want a note to be off on beat four or off on beat one in the next measure, etc. After you have discussed these releases with your lead player, you can then instruct the band that they need to listen back to him/her for releases. Your lead player should also be able to demonstrate the appropriate attacks to notes, such as the correct attack and length of a staccato quarter note versus a “vertical,” “tee-pee,” or “housetop” quarter note.

Precision/Accuracy Exercise

Precision Accuracy Exercise


All young jazzers will struggle with feel in the beginning, especially with the swing style. This is why many jazz bands resort to playing only funk/rock/pop tunes! However, if your lead player can grasp the style, he/she can help lead the others. Bottom line, the most obvious way to get your lead player to play the correct style is by encouraging him/her to listen to great jazz musicians, lead players, and big bands.

Aside from generally “swinging,” your lead player can help lead the band in style by accurately adhering to articulation markings. Many charts written for young jazz ensemble will have more articulation markings than usual to help teach the style. A rule of thumb for helping young musicians swing is asking them to slur 8th note passages. In many cases, the young jazz musician will sound “square” when playing 8th note lines. If you ask them to slur parts of the phrase, the result is instantly “hipper” and has more swing to the feel. Eventually, you can teach them to tongue much lighter in certain parts of phrases while emphasizing others to help the swing feel. In any given swing phrase, the player may accent the first note, highest note, and last night to help achieve “swing.”


In full tutti sections, your lead player also determines the volume of the band. Young players will not have the dynamic range of more experienced players, but you can help them develop this with a simple exercise.

[Note: It will be much more difficult for your lead player to play soft in the upper register, and Grade 1 and 2 pieces will generally not ask them to do so.]

The following long tone exercise can help them develop their dynamic range:

Dynamic Range Exercise

Middle school jazz ensembles are constantly a “work in progress,” but developing your lead trumpet player can make all the difference for your ensemble, and your HS feeder jazz ensemble will benefit immensely from the work that you put in.

In closing, remind your lead trumpet player that when working on power and the upper register, it is important to rest as much as you play, not go past the point of straining, and to be patient. When I was frustrated with building range my jazz trumpet teacher always told me, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire! Patience!” The upper range will come with time; don’t rush it.

And keep working on volume, precision, and style, too, because playing high isn’t all it takes.

Chris Clark

Chris Clark is a composer/clinician/performer/educator in the Dallas area, and is the associate band director at Renner Middle School in Plano, TX. He performs with the Dallas Jazz Orchestra, Crosswinds Jazz Band, Celebration Jazz Orchestra, as well as various Top-40 groups. He also leads and composes for the C3 Big Band.

Chris’ publishing company, C3 Compositions, offers works ranging from grade 1 jazz band to concert band and brass ensembles. His charts have been performed by numerous colleges, high schools, and middle schools across the country as well as by several professional bands in the Dallas area. Chris is also a frequent composer of the Texas All-State Jazz Etudes.

Chris holds a Bachelor of Music Education from Baylor University and a Master of Jazz Studies from DePaul University.

Get the best from SmartMusic

Discover practical music education tips, delivered directly to you!

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. By viewing or browsing our site, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. More Information