Physics of High Notes continued...
In my last blog, The Physics of High Notes on Trumpet, I asked you to watch this video and answer the following questions. I have provided some feedback without giving you direct answers to provoke more thought on each variable.
1. Describe my use of air throughout the demonstration. Did the air volume change as I played higher and lower? What about air speed?
Air volume defines the physical quantity of air flow. Play a long tone in the staff beginning at pp then crescendo to f and back to pp. Think about air volume and how this changes with audible volume or decibels.
What is air speed? Have you ever stopped to consider how fast or slow the air is being released into the mouthpiece? Think about how air speed changes in relation to air volume. This is the result of our physical design and this is true in almost all of nature.
2. I played most of this clip with one hand to keep my right arm out of the equation. How much mouthpiece pressure was present on my lips? Explain my use of mouthpiece pressure in detail.
I often use the minimum pressure necessary, but mouthpiece pressure does change slightly as I play higher and lower. It is more common for mouthpiece pressure to be a major factor in controlling pitch whereas I rely on other mechanisms to achieve the upper register.
Take a minute to honestly assess your use of mouthpiece pressure as you play high or for long periods of time. How can you explain the mechanics of your specific use of pressure. Compare this to what you believe is true of my demonstration. This is an exercise is discovery so don't expect to find an exact answer.
3. It can be difficult to gauge volume in terms of decibels in an online video. Describe your impressions of volume in this example and how this may apply to brass playing in general.
I bring up volume as this is extremely important in understanding what is realistic when playing in the upper register. Low notes are generated by long waves, which have greater potential to increase in amplitude. In other words, it is generally easier to play low notes loud. And conversely, it is more difficult to play high notes loud. Natural laws state that the higher the note (shorter waves) you produce, the softer the dynamic (lower decibels).
Many trumpet players believe that high notes should be played as loud as possible. But in reality, this is the most difficult and unnatural state of a high pitch. Sure we all think of Maynard or your favorite lead player who can rip out a double high C at ff. But this kind of playing goes against all the rules of physics and it is the exact opposite of how I and many others learned to play in the upper register.
I played this example starting at ff (by accident) and immediately reduced my volume to f. Then I decrescendo as I play higher. My double high C was around mf like many of you suggested. It is natural to reduce audible volume as the pitch increases and great care should be taken to make this a habit in your practice sessions. Creating this one habit in your playing will allow your embouchure and the rest of your body to truly exercise the range of movement necessary to play both low and high.
Forcing out high notes at a high volume prevents most players from ever discovering the entire set of variables necessary to master the mechanics of brass playing. Hopefully, this has given you more to think about rather than direct answers.
4. I mentioned longer and shorter lips in my definitions of range above. What are your thoughts on lip length as it relates to range? Why is there a break between the top and bottom lip as it relates to range?
Again, without giving direct answers, my goal here is to get you thinking. How does the length of a violin string determine pitch? Is there any way your lips, or more specifically one of your lips could be controlling length? This is a key element in mastering the full range of any brass instrument and ironically trombone and tuba players often discover this before the high brass players.
Please leave your comments and I'll pick up where we left off next time.
I have reserved discussions on range, endurance and playing efficiency for master classes and visitors to the HT shops. But today I will make an exception and shed some light on the physics of playing in the upper register. In reality, this is mostly the same as playing in the mid and low registers, but most players like to think playing high notes is different.
So why would anyone expect that producing a big beautiful tone in the upper register is any different than playing low notes? Well, any trumpet player will tell you that the higher the note, the more effort is involved. Right? My answer is a firm, "No".
To understand this better, I first need to define my variables so that we're all on the same page. My definition of low, mid and high notes is probably different than yours so I'll start there. These are an example of one way to define registers and I'm sure you will have your own ideas on this subject.
I am not really a high note player in the sense that I do not strive to play lead in latin, commercial or big bands. Even though I've performed these genres regularly over the years, I prefer to play lyrical, technical and melodic solo trumpet so screaming high notes are not important to me. Performing up to double high C at mf or p within a lyrical melody is more my style. However, to demonstrate the efficiency, control and the potential of my trumpets, I do scream a few high notes now and then.
So what's all this talk of physics and trumpet playing? Well, when I was a teenager in college, I began modeling the mechanics of trumpet playing to better understand my own playing deficiencies. Despite taking lessons from some very reputable trumpet players and professors, I was experiencing problems that my teachers told me to outright ignore. My range and endurance was seriously limited at the time and I truly wanted to become a great musician on trumpet. So I turned to physics since the vast majority of my successes up to that point could be explained by science.
This blog entry is not intended to explain every piece of the physics model I have put together over the past 20+ years. My goal is simply to introduce you to the concept of exploring science as a way of improving your own abilities on a brass instrument. In a world full of books and methods offering solutions through visualization, exercises and abstract thinking to achieve the almighty super C, I challenge you to take a more logical approach. Science holds the answers to your questions if you only take the time to create your own working model of brass playing.
So rather than giving you a list of variables, exercises and solutions, I challenge you to answer the following questions to better define and explore the mechanics of brass playing for yourself. Every player is different so your answers may be slightly or drastically different from other players. And these differences could be the key ingredients that have been holding you back from moving forward in your playing.
Watch my video again and write down your answers to the following questions:
Before building trumpets became my full time job, I taught a brass studio of 80 students. Yes, it was a full time job that I balanced with nightly rehearsals and performances. My approach to teaching all instruments has been to engage the student in a discussion of all aspects of performance including the physical mechanics.
Most of my younger trumpet students played a two octave chromatic scale from low C to high C and back down as part of their warm-up in 4th and 5th grade. Their most difficult notes were often below low C as their lips were not long enough to produce these pitches in a 7c mouthpiece. I never told my students that high C was a difficult note. In reality, we discussed the mechanics of playing trumpet eventually expanding our understanding to notes above the staff and then they simply played those notes.
Each of these kids had a working physics model of how and why the embouchure, air stream, instrument and mind worked together to produce specific results. And those who internalized this model became the most proficient. In fact, many of the kids excelled so quickly that they lost interest in practicing until I gave them much more challenging musical goals.
I no longer offer regular brass lessons as I have more than enough trumpets to build for clients. However, I have considered offering an online course or possibly publishing a real workbook/text designed to create and expand your own physics model of brass playing. Until then, please engage within this blog entry by leaving a message of your answers and additional questions. I will likely post a series of follow-up blog entries for those of you interested in receiving complimentary group lessons within this format.
Remember, the accuracy of your personal understanding of a problem will determine the results. If you do not understand the concept of a computer mouse, you cannot direct the cursor to access the vast potential of a computer. Likewise, a limited understanding of any aspect of brass playing will in turn limit your results as a brass musician.
Read the follow up Physics of High Notes continued after you've answered the questions above.
Inventor, Musician, Educator and Founder of Harrelson Trumpets, Trumpet Momentum and Harrelson Momentum.