A few years ago, I was seeing about 40 kids per week. My students
did well in competitions, and 3 or 4 of them could play up to double
high C (real notes, not squeaks). I was considered successful -
especially in helping students improve their upper register - but a
nagging feeling kept bugging me. For years, I had applied
leading-edge, chops-building techniques from influential teachers like
Jerome Callet, Louis Maggio, and Earl Irons, but I still couldn't help
everybody. For instance, some kids, in spite of everything, still
struggled to play above the staff. Something was missing.
Of course, to the average trumpet teacher or band director, the idea
that you can help everybody develop into a powerful player is an
idealistic folly. It runs contrary to a daily band experience which hasn't
varied in generations: Only a certain gifted few can do it. Faced with
this "reality," players and teachers alike rationalize by pointing out that
everyone has a different lip, different body, and so on. Some people
are just not made to play high notes, which is OK since somebody has
to play those second and third parts. End of story.
I've never disagreed that second and third parts are important.
Harmony and inner parts are often more fun than playing lead. But to be
forced to play those parts because of a lack of chops is distasteful to
me and psychological harmful to the student. The hidden reality is,
whether you are an amateur or a pro, no amount of rationalizing can
erase the stigma and lack of fulfillment associated with being strictly a
second part player. This is the truth that nobody talks about because
everybody more or less accepts their apparent range limitations as a
fact of life.
But facts change. As Picard says in Star Trek, "Everything is
impossible until it is not."
My view now is that as human beings we all have the physical abilities
necessary for playing in the upper register. Lips are more similar than
dissimilar, and physical differences are less important than previously
supposed. What's been missing all along - and the real reason for the
obvious lack of success up till now - is HOW TO MAKE THE LIPS
After working with hundreds of trumpet players over the years, it has
become obvious that to play well the lips must move freely in the
mouthpiece. This free movement is complex and cannot be described
in the same way that we describe fingers pushing down valves. It's an
unconscious coordination, a combination of the opposing forces of
relaxation/tension and rolled-in/rolled-out lips, concentrated in a very
small area, that happens spontaneously when a player achieves a
"balance point" in his or her embouchure setting. For some, balance
happens early on without rhyme or reason. They are the lucky ones,
because the majority of players never find it.
The purpose of this web site (and book) is to describe a practical way
to influence the chops through exaggerated range of motion exercises
so that balance is spontaneously achieved (see Exercises page).
Balance means playing longer, stronger, with a better sound and more
And of course, a higher range.
High notes and balanced chops are nothing new. In the early 1900's
cornetists like Bohumir Kryl and Winfred Kemp regularly played solos
which went from double high C to well into the low pedal register. (to
hear an edited recording excerpt from Kemp, click onto the .mp3
button in the menu. Remember, these guys recorded before there was
electricity, so pardon the quality!) Kryl, by the way, like most of the
great players throughout history, didn't have a clue how he did it. Only,
unlike the other players, he admitted it publicly.
NOTE: No audio files were ever posted on the original website. However, on this site,
you will find examples of both players by clicking the Resources/Audio page.
Great players continue to come and go. And yet, even after decades
of observing them and asking them detailed questions, not much has
changed. Trumpet students and teachers still struggle to find "the
secret" of the great players. Unfortunately, this never-ending quest has
produced a series of surface-level embouchure development theories
that have little to do with underlying trumpet mechanics.
Since lip movement is an unconscious coordination and very resistant
to analysis, (my words, not theirs) many well-intentioned teachers,
looking elsewhere for "the secret" have ended up by mistaking cause
for effect. In other words, they observe a natural byproduct of balanced
playing - e.g. very little mouthpiece pressure being used - and create a
method based on the byproduct (e.g. a "no pressure system"). Or, they
hear the great player talk about how much air is used during playing,
and so they decide that "breathing is the secret," and proceed to
devise methods which revolve around exotic breathing exercises.
These are classic examples of putting the cart before the horse, which
further adds to the general confusion by creating even more inefficient
ways of playing the horn.
The Flat Chin
But even more confusing is the mystery of the flat chin. It's the most
common embouchure used today. And the primary cause of most
Here I want to pause and thank Jerome Callet for pointing out some of
the problems with using a flat chin. Jerry is a true pioneer whose
discoveries have changed the trumpet world. For more about him, click
Look into a mirror while buzzing a mouthpiece. Most of you will
observe that your chin becomes flat and pointed. Stop buzzing and
focus on the mid point between your bottom lip and chin. Start buzzing
again. Notice how your muscles go down, stretching away from the
Now, stop and think for a second. Trumpet playing involves a certain
amount of mouthpiece pressure and closing of the lips to play higher.
Logically, what should help you play higher with more cushion -
muscles bunching towards the mouthpiece or stretching away from the
mouthpiece? If you answered "away from", hopefully your mind will
change when you finish the next section on Mechanics.
And yet, some players perform well with a flat chin. The late Philip
Farkas, former principle horn with the Chicago Symphony, even wrote a
book extolling it's virtues after noticing how many of his fellow
professionals were "flat-chinners." The obvious question is, if so many
good players use it, how bad can it be?
The answer is, it's not bad; it's inefficient. It's so difficult that only a
small number of players are physically capable of pulling it off.
First Chair Johnny
The evidence is out in the open for everyone to see, in every teacher's
daily experience. Flat chin trumpet teaching has always been a
numbers game. Given a hypothetical section of ten flat chin players,
only one - Johnny, the first chair - will be outstanding. The next two or
three kids will be average to above average, and the rest will be
frustrated. For most teachers, this waste of human potential is
considered normal and is perpetuated on all levels from teacher to
student, generation after generation.
What keeps this wasteful cycle going? Teachers fail to consider the
idea that only 10% can make the flat chin work. When students at the
middle of the section complain about a lack of progress (or complain
about how hard it is to flatten their chin - believe me, for some it's pure
torture), the teacher always points to first chair and says, "It works for
Johnny. You must not be trying hard enough."
If pressed further, the instructor may fall back on the "not everybody is
created equal" line, or use the infamous "Maybe your lip is not right.
Have you thought about switching to baritone?"
Now, that last one is a low blow - no pun intended - and an insult to
Wastefulness and humiliation aside, what it all comes down to is that
flat chin embouchures are inefficient. Can a player perform with an
inefficient embouchure? Of course. Obviously, there are many different
embouchure types, and some work better than others. But most
players, including professionals - the majority of them flat-chinned,
ex-first chair Johnnys - never find the most efficient balance point. Early
on, they happen upon or are steered into a lip setting which gives them
some (limited) success and stay locked there forever. In concert they
probably sound good, but the audience doesn't know about their
lifelong struggle with upper register, lack of chops confidence, and the
outrageous long hours of practice required to keep the whole thing
from falling apart.
A Different Model
Many of my students occupy first chair in bands throughout Dallas,
Texas. Like all young players, they occasionally struggle with rhythms,
articulation and interpretation.
But they don't have range problems. And, with few exceptions, they
don't have flat chins.
One final story. Several years ago one of my all-state students was
contacted about playing in a national honor band scheduled for a
summer tour in Europe. He accepted, but showed up late for the first
rehearsal, missed the audition for chair positions, and sat in at the
bottom of the section. By the next day, however, he was placed in first
chair and stayed there the whole tour. He later marveled how
interesting it was to look down the row of ten trumpet players and see
that everybody in the section used a flat chin.
Everybody but him.
A full range-of-motion approach to balance not only works better, it
works better for everybody. To understand exactly what that means,
you need to first explore the basic mechanics of trumpet embouchure.
These universal principles are explained in the book. To give you an
outline of what is covered, click to the next page for an excerpt from
the beginning of the chapter on Mechanics.
A complete chapter from
"The Balanced Embouchure"