What age is realistic for a child to begin the trumpet? There is no clear answer to this, of course, and it will depend on the student. My own advice to parents is that eight or nine years old is a minimum age to start to expect any serious study of the instrument. Because the production of the sound is largely a function of the body, the student must have sufficient muscle and lung development to deal with the demands of sound production.
If a parent wants to start their child on music earlier, I always suggest piano. A child can get a sound right away. (For that matter, a cat can get a sound on a piano. Now and then our cat plays something interesting, usually while jumping out of the reach of the dog.) The knowledge of the piano keyboard is almost essential to all music study, and any experience with the piano will benefit the study of other instruments.
I have found that teaching most eight-year-olds demands more expertise at dealing with the psyche of that age group than expertise with the subject matter. They have a limited attention span, and are highly unlikely to think of their trumpet practice as the most important thing in their life. The most important aspect at this age is emphasizing the fun aspects of playing. Make the trumpet something they want to pick up and play, not something that has to be practiced. (Groan) Some of the activities I have found to be 'fun' are:
How Long Should They Practice?
A beginner on a brass instrument at any age is unlikely to have chops that will last longer than 15-30 minutes at a time. Like all players, they should stop playing before the lips feel completely wasted, so that they feel reasonably good when they return to the horn.
I always recommend that students keep the horn out of the case at home. (In a secure location, please!). This encourages them to pick up the horn at various times throughout the day. There should be one dedicated practice time each day, but picking up the horn for a couple of minutes at a time can really help the lip muscles get used to the sensation of playing. I tell students that it is more important how long it has been since they last practiced, than how long they practiced the last time. While not forgetting the 'fun' rule, they need to be made aware of the importance of daily playing.
For complete beginners, one 15-minute practice session, and two to four 'pick-up sessions' is reasonable. This should increase to a half-hour fairly quickly as the embouchure starts to develop some strength. For some students, a half-hour practice is an eternity, but I call it a minimum to justify the time and expense of lessons. Interjecting a short listening session (recommend or lend some recordings) into the practice routine can lengthen the time spent with the trumpet, provide a rest period, and focus the student on the reason they are doing this: music.
I've started a number of adults on trumpet. My first question is always "Why the trumpet?" I am interested in what draws an adult to this instrument. Usually they are a fan of some kind of music that features trumpet playing (jazz, classical, Latin, etc.) This sometimes puts them at a disadvantage compared to kids. They have more of an idea of the end goal. They want to play like Miles or Wynton and it can be depressing when they start to get an idea of how long the road is that awaits them. I try to make it fun for them as well, incorporating more listening into the lessons, or maybe introducing some basic jazz concepts that can be performed with their limited ability on the instrument. This is a tough activity to learn late in life, but it can be done!
Some players who gave up the instrument suffered with bad habits, which likely contributed to a sense of frustration, and eventually defeat. Many were self-taught, or had non-brass instructors. For these players, it is probably best to start right at the beginning, and learn the correct way to play. You will likely progress faster than somebody who has never played, and some aspects may still be clearly recalled, such as fingering and reading. Put the time in working on clear controlled sound, and don't be in a hurry. It is more satisfying for the listener and the performer to hear one note played well, than ten (or a thousand) notes played in a mediocre fashion.
You Call That A Big Breath?
Before attempting to get a sound on the instrument, a discussion on the importance of air and the control of it is in order. They don't call it a wind instrument for nothing. Trying to get a sound out of a brass instrument without an abundance of air is like learning to drive a car with almost no gas in it. You keep stopping and interrupting the driving lesson while you are towed to the gas station, only to put in another twenty-five cents.
Work with the student to develop the concepts of really deep breaths. Use breathing exercises like the ones found in Brass Tactics. Make them take long slow breaths before attempting any playing on the horn. If you catch them taking a shallow breath before an attack, call them out on it. Make them exhale all their air, and take a full inhalation. Get them in the habit of really using their air right from the first note. The difference in the sound produced and the ease of playing will be huge.
Sit Up Straight!
Now a brief discussion of posture and how it affects breathing. One technique I use is quite effective. I have the student sit down, and put their hands up in front of them. I hand them a pair of dumbbells or heavy books. I then tell them to stand up, sit down, stand up, sit down, stand up, sit down etc. Once the player has figured out the pattern (takes longer with some than others), they will not sit back into the chair, but will sit up on the front of it, to help them deal with this annoying activity.
This is the seated posture that I want. The player should be able to stand right up from a seated position without leaning forward. The added weight of the dumbbells forces them to tense their abdominal muscles when standing, mimicking the air support that is required when playing. Whenever I see them start to slouch I issue the command Stand Up! They get the idea.
How Do You Hold This Thing?
Explain how to hold the trumpet. The left hand has several possible grip positions, discussed at length in Brass Tactics. The size of the player's hand obviously impacts on the choice of position. The important considerations are this: the hand must have a solid grip on the valve casing, with the ability to extend the third slide (tough for kids, especially with slides that don't move easily), and all the weight of the instrument must be carried by the left hand.
The right hand should be curved as if holding a baseball, fingertips on the valves, thumb under the leadpipe, and little finger out of the ring. The sole job of the right hand is to manipulate the valves.
I advise students not to try and play anything if they are unsure of the fingering. Rehearse the fingering by itself first. They should hear the snap of the valves going down and coming back up. During rest periods in the routine, they should finger scales and patterns to increase finger dexterity, maintain mental focus, and accomplish something during otherwise 'down time'.
I give minimal instruction to a beginner regarding the embouchure. I suggest they whisper the letter 'M', which closes the lips and rolls them slightly inward. I then have them tighten the mouthcorners, which provides the compression necessary to produce vibrations when air is blown through the lips, and prepares the lips to accept (grudgingly) the mouthpiece.
The mouthpiece is placed on this tensed embouchure. It should initially be placed dead center on the lips, but the player should feel free to move it slightly to a position that feels the most comfortable. Mouthpiece position varies a lot amongst players because of the different teeth and lip structures. The ultimate placement for the mouthpiece will be determined by the sound, and that may well change over time. But to begin, the player must first get a sound, any sound.
Now the player takes a breath through the nose and blows through the lips and Voila, out comes a double C! Well..maybe a G in the staff. By varying the lip tension and intensity of the air, the player should be able to get at least two different open pitches, probably low C and the G above. Some can easily get 3rd line C as well. Examples of the desired pitch and sound played by the teacher are invaluable at this stage. The student must have some idea of what they are trying to do, if the body is to have any chance of accomplishing it.
Some time is now spent on those open notes. Hold them out as long as possible. Try to crescendo and decrescendo. Try to bend the pitch down and back again. With nothing but demonstrations by the teacher, the student should be able to instinctively copy.
At this point, I undertake a basic explanation of how the instrument works. Using the chart found in Brass Tactics, I demonstrate all of the open tones that can be played on the instrument, the overtone series. I play some bugle calls, to give an example of the limited melodic possibilities available in a trumpet with out valves. I discuss how trumpet players used to have natural trumpets in different keys, and how that led to the development of valves, which essentially combines 7 bugles into one instrument.
I then point out that each valve has a slide attached to it, in three different lengths. When the valve is depressed, the air is channeled into it, effectively lengthening the instrument. The student then holds an open tone and then depresses the second valve. The tone drops by a half step, the smallest interval used in Western music. We try this on each open tone. On the chart once again I show how this creates an entire overtone series one half step below the open series. We now extend this to all the other descending valve combinations:
The chart shows that when
all of the overtone series are combined, we achieve a complete chromatic
scale, and in fact overlap on certain notes. It answers two common questions:
"How can we play so many notes with only three valves?"
"Why can some notes be played with more than one valve combination?"
From each open tone the student can play, she descends chromatically using this series of valve combinations and ascends back to the open note. In the following lessons it is explained that because the open notes get closer together as they go higher, there are fewer chromatic tones that will be played between them before reaching the next open tone, where the series begins again.
Through this exercise the student learns a bit about the physics of the trumpet. (It is amazing how many relatively advanced students still don't understand exactly what happens when a valve is depressed.) They also expand their repertoire of notes dramatically, even if they don't know what note they are playing yet, and the fingers start to get a workout.
To The Mouthpiece! Tally-Ho!
The best way to establish proper playing mechanics is to focus on the mouthpiece alone. This is true for beginners and advanced players alike. Playing on the mouthpiece alone focuses on the essential elements of producing the sound. Some teachers don't even introduce the instrument at all for the first few lessons, but I think the student should have the fun of blatting out a note on the trumpet first. It may also initially be easier get a sound on the trumpet than on the mouthpiece. Once the student understands the concept of vibrating the lips to produce a sound, he should be able to buzz a note on the mouthpiece as well.
After a pitch is produced on the mouthpiece, encourage the student to experiment with tightening and loosening the mouthcorners and blowing faster and slower to change the pitch. Try to play as low as possible and as high as possible. Connect the notes with a siren. Then try to play a simple tune, like a nursery rhyme or national anthem. It will probably sound nothing like the actual tune, but the student will be making an attempt at changing the pitch, and will unconsciously start to use the tongue to articulate notes.
Playing on the mouthpiece should begin every playing session. The more mouthpiece buzzing the better. The mouthpiece is unforgiving; if you don't play correctly, you don't get a sound. It encourages proper embouchure development, develops the ear, and instils a pitch/lip-sensation relationship. A large part of learning to play is to remember what the lips feel like when they sound good, and to try to re-capture that sensation the rest of the time.
When playing on the mouthpiece, maintain proper playing posture and breathing. Use two hands on the mouthpiece to place the body in the correct position. The use of a buzz-aid is recommended, so that the mouthpiece can be placed in the horn while buzzing. (see Buzz-Aids)
Once the student can successfully play several notes on the mouthpiece and on the instrument, I explain the role of the tongue in articulating notes. The tip of the tongue contacts the gum above the upper teeth and snaps back, as when pronouncing the syllable 'T'. Have the student practice this several times, whispering 'T' into the air.
This is a very natural practice, of course, since we use that syllable to start many words. It is good to focus on the action: the syllable is pronounced when the tongue snaps back, releasing the flow of air. Feel the puff of air that results by blowing on the back of the hand. Try forceful attacks and light attacks. Do some repetitive articulation: 'tu-tu-tu-tu'.
Now try it on the mouthpiece and then the horn. Attack one note at a time. Focus on the action of the tongue, and on the sound of the attack. Try to make successive attacks identical. Play loud attacks and soft attacks. Play different pitches, but keep repetitive attacks on one note at a time. Create a simple exercise such as:
I make tonguing a part of every practice routine from day one, and try to change it each week. You can incorporate other notes being learned in that lesson, or a scale when development permits. Teach the student how to create their own tonguing exercises, so that they are constantly changing and becoming more challenging.
Next I use simple flexibility exercises to teach slurring, such as Phase1of the flexibility routines in Brass Tactics. This starts on an F#, played with all three valves (false fingering). The note is slurred down to a C# and back up again. As range permits, this is moved up a half step at a time, utilizing the seven ascending valve combinations. (123, 13, 23, 12, 1, 2, 0)
At first I just demonstrate, and see if the student can do it. Often they can. If they cannot get the pitch to slur back up, I will have them slowly bend a note sharper, 'pushing up' on the note until it flips up to the next partial. If I must give physical instructions, I tell them to tighten the mouthcorners and blow harder. Trying to consciously control the muscular actions that govern playing sometimes seems to hinder rather than help, and I have greater success generally by demonstrating and letting them figure out how to imitate the sound they hear.
As soon as range permits, a C major scale should be introduced and memorized. I suggest slurring the scale, and tonguing the arpeggio. (1-3-5) I always teach the related minor scale at the same time. (Use the key signature of the major scale but play from the 6th note to the 6th note. This produces an aeolian minor scale.) Two scales for the price of one!
Next I suggest that the scale be practiced starting and ending on all the other notes as well. (D-D, E-E etc.) Once a student has played a C scale starting on each note, they are usually delighted and amazed when I tell them they have just learned D dorian, E phrygian, F lydian, G mixolydian, A aeolian, and B locrian scales! (They don't have a clue as to what that means, but it sure sounds impressive and didn't involve that much work!) Thus the introduction to modes, quite early in the educational period.
As the lessons progress, I introduce two more major scales at a time, F and G, Bb and D, Eb and A etc., adding one sharp and flat at a time. Each scale is practiced with all the modes, subject to range. Chromatic scales are also introduced, breaking them down into groups of 3 and 4 notes, then running them together.
The scale pattern of Clarke's Technical Studies #2 can also be introduced. I show how the exercise is composed of two patterns. (see Clarke's Technical Studies) This lets them construct the exercise based on any scale they have learned. I have seen people play Clarke #2 for years, reading it each time, never recognizing the basic pattern. Getting students to use their brains can be tough, but is well worth the effort.
At this point, it is time to introduce a beginning trumpet book. A book will take the first few notes that the student can produce, and create simple melodies out of them. They will show the student what those notes look like on paper, and begin the process of understanding that the notes on the page merely represent sounds in your ear. A good beginner book should not only teach trumpet playing, but all the other aspects of music as well, e.g. note and rest values, key signatures, time signatures, accidentals, clefs, dynamics, phrasing, tempo, repeat signs, etc. The student needs to be reminded that they are not just learning to play the trumpet, but learning to play music as well.
There are many very good books on the market for beginning players. I use a book called 'Learn to Play the Trumpet', by Charles Gouse. I have found that this book is very clear as it introduces new musical concepts, and uses many small pieces culled from well-known repertoire. It is very accessible to young students, but is not insulting to an adult frame of mind. Other beginning books I have used in specific situations include 'Elementary Studies' by Herbert Clarke, and 'Physical Approach to Elementary Brass Playing', by Claude Gordon. These two books can be daunting to the beginning player, but certainly encourage embouchure development.
Because a good beginner book is progressive, all the teacher needs to do is work through page by page, making sure the student understands everything that is being introduced. Most books include plenty of simple duets. These are essential in order for the student to hear the teacher and to experience the sensation of blending with another player.
By using well-designed exercises in conjunction with a book, the sound production capabilities of the beginning player can be developed much faster. Combining the two approaches develops trumpet players and musicians, two terms that are not always synonymous.
Giant Steps In 12 Keys
OK, maybe there are a few more steps to go before the beginner tackles this one. I have outlined the basic information a beginner needs to know in order to start the study of a brass instrument, plus formulated a basic practice routine to start with. The assignment sheet might look something like this:
Could You Play It For Me?
By far, the most valuable thing a teacher can do for a student is to let them hear what the instrument should sound like, hopefully by playing for them. Using recordings is another option. Although I play a lot in my lessons, if I can let a student hear Clifford Brown or Phil Smith play something they are working on, I do it. Heck, it's good for me too. Keep the highest standards fresh in your mind at all times.
If a student has the desired sound in their head, it will eventually come out of the horn, if they work hard enough. Without a clear idea of the desired end result, they are literally flying blind. So play for them, play them recordings, get them out to live concerts. Put the sound in their heads. They'll do the rest.