Summer is approaching an end, and it’s time to start planning on what to do with your incoming and returning high brass players. As much as we stress practicing consistently over breaks to our advanced students, let’s face it; they spent much less time on their instruments than we desired this summer. Regarding our beginners, we just hope they haven’t taken their instruments out of their cases and haven’t already developed bad habits. (As a 5th grader, I fell into that last category by trying to teach myself early and inadvertently created an embouchure issue.) Regardless of how much or how little time your students spent at their horns the last few months, here a few tips for getting your high brass beginners started correctly and “dusting the rust off” of your advanced students.
Beginner Trumpet and Horn
It is important with beginners to keep in mind that more information is not better information. This can especially be important when teaching large classes. Keep it simple, and keep the science and terminology to a minimum in the beginning.
In light of keeping it simple, I will focus on three aspects that will set up your beginning high brass for success: posture/hand position, embouchure, and air.
Trumpet Posture/Hand Position
The body should be relaxed with little tension in the upper body. The student should be seated in the front half of his chair with flat feet on the floor. The back should be straight with shoulders relaxed. The trumpet should be brought up to the student’s lips as opposed to the student bringing his head down to the trumpet. The trumpet and student’s head should be at a slight downward angle (not parallel to the floor) to correctly distribute pressure to the lips.
The right hand should be curved as if the student is making a C or gripping a grapefruit. The first three fingers should rest on top of the valve buttons and the pinky should rest on top of the pinky rest. We place the pinky on top of the rest, versus inside, to avoid any unwanted pressure from pressing the instrument into the lips via squeezing the pinky rest. The right thumb will balance the horn under the leadpipe in between the first and second valve casings.
*Watch for flattening of the hand against the leadpipe and valves. This puts the fingers in an incorrect position and will cause trouble later on.
The left hand will do the majority of weight-bearing so that the right hand can stay relaxed and free. The thumb should sit in the thumb saddle with the first and second fingers gripping the valve casing. The ring finger will rest in the pinky ring and needs to be relaxed as that finger will need to easily work the 3rd slide.
French Horn Posture/Hand Position
The body should be relaxed with little tension in the upper body. The student should be seated in the front half of their chair with flat feet on the floor. The back should be straight with shoulders relaxed. The horn should be brought up to the student’s lips as opposed to the student bringing his head down to the horn.
A large difference between trumpet and horn is that the head will stay up and straight as opposed to angling down with the horn.
The leadpipe of the horn should be at a downward angle (not parallel to the floor) to correctly distribute pressure to the lips. The student should be able to look down (with their eyes only) at his left hand as opposed to looking straight at it.
The left hand is the easiest to setup correctly. The thumb will rest on the thumb trigger, while fingers 1, 2, and 3 rest on the rotor paddles. The pinky will rest in the ring and will act as a secure point for holding the instrument. The weight of the horn will then rest in the palm of the left hand.
The right hand will need much more attention and close monitoring. It should be cupped as if holding water and inserted into the bell of the instrument so that the horn is resting on the thumb and index finger. The hand should be placed on the wall of the bell furthest from the player at an approximate “3 o’clock” position. The hand should not go in completely, as that would stop up the horn, but up far enough that the big knuckle of the index finger is hitting around the start of the bell flair. A strip of tape inside the bell can be used to help aid beginners into placing the hand correctly.
When discussing embouchure formation with beginners, it is important to be cognizant of the terminology used. Terms such as firm, stretch, tight, loose, etc. can convey the wrong idea to a beginner and cause undesirable results when applied at the wrong time. Students should:
- Say “emmm” and hold the “m” shape. The lips should be together but not pressed together.
- The corners of the mouth should be firm. The corners of the mouth should be the only part of the embouchure that the students can feel really touching the teeth. If their lips are touching the teeth, than the embouchure is too tight and needs to relax. “Firm on the outside, supple on the inside.”
- The tongue should be relaxed and low in the mouth with the tip of the tongue forward.
- The chin should be down and flat as opposed to “bunchy”.
- Finally, once the embouchure is set, the French horn mouthpiece should be placed even horizontally, with the mouthpiece placed two-thirds on the upper lip and one-third on the lower lip. The trumpet mouthpiece should be placed even horizontally, with the mouthpiece placed half on the upper lip and half on the lower lip.
- Tip: I like to use a coffee stirrer/straw to emulate the correct embouchure (as pictured below). The center of the lips should NOT grip the straw!
The basis of all brass playing comes from use of air. I encourage doing breathing exercises with your brass players before the instrument/mouthpiece is introduced. As the fundamental of brass playing, it is important that new students understand how to correctly breathe for playing their instrument.
The inhale should be relaxed and in an “oh” shape. This enables the breath to fill the lungs completely and causes as little tension as possible. The students should avoid “sipping” the air or taking shallow breaths from the chest.
Sample Breathing Exercise:
At 80 bpm:
- Inhale 4, Exhale 4
- Inhale 2, Exhale 6
- Inhale 1, Exhale 7
- Inhale 1, Exhale 12 or 16
The inhale and exhale should be consistent and even across the beats of a metronome. Do not allow students to hold the breath in when transitioning from inhale to exhale.
After students have become comfortable with the correct use of air, the first notes on the instrument or mouthpiece should be created slowly using “air to sound.” Simply put, the students should blow easily through their mouthpiece/instrument and slowly bring the lips in the center together until sound is created. It is very important to be patient during this process and not rush the results. This allows for a sound to be created with the least amount of unnecessary “muscling” and pressure.
You have finally finished passing out instruments, discussing the band handbook, and covering important school policies like when students can use the restroom, and it’s finally time to play. They sound AWFUL! The good news is that it is totally normal and generally expected. Even though you worked hard to make those summer music packets and push the importance of practicing, some of those brass players just didn’t quite take it to heart, did they?
Here are a couple of tips for the non-brass teacher that is dealing with suspect brass sounds on the first days back:
Remember, your 7th graders were JUST beginners! It will behoove you to start from the beginning a bit. This is especially the case in the lower bands of your program.
One of the first things that young teachers forget to do with their advanced students are breathing exercises. Even professionals perform breathing exercises to remind the brain and lungs what proper instrumental breathing needs to feel like. Always begin your rehearsals with breathing exercises.
If you have the resources and space, split your brass, woodwinds, and percussion into separate rehearsals so that you can work specific fundamentals.
Review ALL fundamentals with your brass that you covered in their beginning year. This includes but is not limited to:
- Long Tones
- Lip Slurs
Time and Patience
In general, most brass players will sound worse the second day than they did the first. Patience will be the key here; they will get better! Just focus on good fundamentals in rehearsal and give them fun music to work on that will encourage them to practice at home. I would recommend spending the majority of your first rehearsals on fundamentals. There can be a fine line between being assertive and firm with your expectations and just being upset at your brass players for not sounding like they did in May of the previous school year.
I hope that you found some of this information helpful as you prepare for the beginning of the year. The overlying idea when dealing with young brass players is patience. One of the most important things I have learned is that it pays to go slow and get it right from the beginning.
Correcting mistakes and bad habits is a much harder task than teaching correct fundamentals from the beginning!
Chris Clark is a composer/clinician/performer/educator in the Dallas area, and is the band director at Hendrick 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.