Basics for Beginning Brass By Allen Vizzutti I can hardly believe I've been playing the trumpet for 39 years. Thousands of hours of practice, millions of notes, and multitudes of performances have come and gone. Thirty-two countries and a million air miles later I have come to understand some fundamentals of brass playing proven to me again and again by my experiences. I believe rapid improvement through daily practice is readily achievable when certain basics are in order. Three words have led more brass players astray than any other common misconception. Three frequently used words have strangled the tone quality of brass instrumentalists for decades. Three frequently used words have perpetuated a concept in brass playing that is completely erroneous, a concept that actually inhibits development of tone and therefore constrains growth in all areas of brass technique. These three words of instruction have been taught with sincerity and consistency since the dawn of modern brass instruction; three words whose effect can result in months of work to undo that which was inadvertently established on the first lesson day. In most cases neither the teacher nor the player is even aware of having made a costly misstep. The three little words are: "Buzz your lips." The sound quality created by an instrumentalist is the fundamental on which the technique is based. Tone quality is likewise a key barometer in gauging a player's progress. Great sound is the gateway to great technique. This includes range and endurance. Studying technique as such without having discovered the sensation of producing a beautiful core sound will prove fruitless on any instrument. My seven-year old daughter, when reminded to hold her violin and bow in a relaxed and proper manner, usually plays with better intonation and a decent sound. If I ask her to play with "her biggest and best sound" she not only plays in tune and beautifully, but her hands and arms become relaxed and properly positioned! If we teach our beginning brass students to buzz into the mouthpiece the inevitable result will be that pinched and fuzzy beginner sound we know all too well. As I have discovered in starting my 8 and 10 year old sons, (on cornet and trumpet), the so called "beginner sound" can be avoided all together. A really nice basic sound is possible from the first day. Once a beautiful tone is established no instrumentalist wants to sound the other way again. The most important sensation to teach the beginning trumpet, or brass student, is that of blowing smooth aggressive air through the horn and feeling the resistance in sending the air through the tubing. The first critical prerequisite is a relaxed breath in. Open the throat and let the air fall in. Pulling the air in creates tension. Tension is an enemy. Letting the air rush in to fill the lungs to maximum level can create relaxation as well as give one the fuel to play correctly. Imagine the liquid captured in a drinking straw released as one lifts a finger from its end. Breathe using that imagery. Hold the trumpet in a relaxed and comfortable fashion. The left hand should wrap around the valve casing. Larger hands should balance the horn in such a way that using the first and third valve slides is possible. Smaller hands should do the best they can and the smallest of hands might want to consider using a cornet because it is a little easier to hold. The right thumb should be placed between the first two valve casings and the three long fingers should be fingertips on valve tops. Avoid the right hand little finger ring as much as possible as it promotes excessive mouthpiece on lip pressure which can really inhibit progress. Stand or sit up straight to practice so that breathing is relaxed and easy. Don't be concerned whether or not the trumpet bell points up or as is more common, down. Bell position will be dictated by the over or under bite of teeth and jaw. Ask beginning students to blow air through the mouthpiece without regard to embouchure. They should create a long rush of white noise. Always encourage them to make the white noise sound bigger and longer. Remind the student often to consciously and deeply breathe in as part of the natural playing process. Repeat the process by blowing on the lead pipe of the horn, then through the mouthpiece and horn assembled, still producing white noise without regard to embouchure. Demonstrate as you go along. Deep, relaxed breathing and long sustained airflow are the goals. Establishing an embouchure is the next order of business. If you are a brass player with a reasonably normal setup, demonstrate by example, with a minimum of words. If you are not a brass player remember these basics: 1) the concept of the embouchure is relaxed, 2) the mouthpiece should be placed near the center of the mouth so that the rim is not sitting on the red portion of the lips, and 3) the corners of the mouth should be firm against the teeth and a little bit down. The center of the lips should remain flexible and relaxed. One should be able to speak with the corners held firmly. Do not encourage the student to pull the corners back in a smile. Please use common sense. Embouchures vary from human to human like everything else due to variations in physical makeup such as differences in our teeth, jaws, chins and lips. With the horn in hands, lips moistened and the new embouchure in place, instruct the student to once again create the long sustained air flow through the mouthpiece and horn in an aggressive fashion. You may hear the first note at this point. If not, repeat the routine asking students to put their lips a bit closer together. Remember not to create a pass/fail situation. Any result is OK. Sooner or later the result will be spectacular. You'll be impressed with the quality of sound of the first notes and there is no buzzing involved. Shortly after the successful production of the first notes you will want to teach the student to add a beginning articulation to the notes. Tension and a choked sound can manifest themselves at this step. The feeling of blowing through the syllable "tooo" or "daaah" does not come naturally. You must consciously train the student to blow through the mouthpiece and horn, once again producing the "tooo" syllable for a sharp attack and a "daaah" syllable for a dull attack. Once again establish the sensation of blowing without embouchure and sound. Then transfer the concept to producing a note as before, only this time it will have an articulated beginning. Practicing without any attack is beneficial at any time. Having said all of that, lip buzzing does have its place for more advanced players. It can be a fine exercise for warming up the facial tissue and muscles. Similarly mouthpiece playing is very effective for improving air flow, lip (aperture) control and ear training. Think of lip buzzing, mouthpiece playing and trumpet playing as separate entities. Simply remember that buzzing into a brass instrument creates a lousy sound. Blowing into a brass instrument creates a vibrating air column and a potentially beautiful sound. Once a solid core sound is established, technical development is a matter of manipulating the sound through practice, lessons and experimentation. It's really quite amazing how powerful the pull of music is once we begin to play an instrument. It's equally amazing how challenging learning to play a musical instrument is and how many questions we still have about how to best go about it. After all of these years I'm still trying to figure out many aspects of trumpet performance. Fundamental concepts of trumpet playing and common sense seem to prove themselves to me over and over. As a young frustrated trumpet student I asked my father and teacher, "When will I learn to play the high notes?" I offer his answer to you: "Be patient. They will come." So don't buzz to create your sound. Don't teach buzzing to create a good sound. A good buzz is not all that it's cracked up to be. Equally at home in a multitude of musical idioms, Allen Vizzutti has performed in 32 different countries throughout the world. While growing up in Montana, he was guided by his father, a self taught musician and trumpet player. By the age of 16, Allen had won the concerto competition and was awarded first chair in the World Youth Symphony Orchestra at Interlochen, Michigan. Allen earned a B.M. , M.M. and a Performer's Certificate at The Eastman School of Music. His continued interest in education and the value of music in daily life has led to an extensive schedule of concerts and clinics all over the world.