Are Trumpet Players Born That Way or Do They Grow Into It?


Trumpet players have the reputation of being, arrogant, self centered, boisterous, know-it-alls and for this, we are sorry. Some players learn this naturally and some of us did not realize it was happening until it was too late.

This is typical of the view most musicians have of trumpet players-

How many trumpets does it take to change a light bulb?
Five. One to handle the bulb and four to tell him how much better they could’ve done it.

Is it justified? It might be, but I am more interested in the answer to this question-

“Do trumpet players have these characteristics before they start playing trumpet or does playing the trumpet make normal people into these monsters”?

What is it like being a trumpet player?

Playing trumpet is much like sky diving for the first time. You really aren’t sure you will live through the experience. The trumpet is not an instrument that can hide in the back row and hope no one hears you (like a second violin player). It’s not an instrument to play if you are concerned about one or two missed notes (like a piano player). No matter where you sit in the ensemble, you will be heard and every note that you miss will be known to everyone within one hundred miles. Everything you play and every thing you do is on the line any time you have a horn in your hand.

How do trumpet players cope with the pressures?

When you are expected to do anything as exposed as trumpet playing, you learn early in your career to lower the force field around you to ward off criticism and ridicule. I can’t tell you how many times I was told at a very early age, after missing the high C at the end of the Carnival of Venice, “Nobody could tell you missed the last note”. OF COURSE EVERYONE COULD TELL I MISSED THE LAST NOTE! You can’t hide the elephant in the middle of the room! Because of the, in your face character of the trumpet, few can perform without making recognizable mistakes and because of this, we become more and more protective of our honor and consequently build up more of a bravado (blustering, swaggering conduct ) characteristic in our personality.

Are trumpet players secure or insecure with themselves?

To most non trumpet players, we tend to be characterized as very secure, almost to the point of arrogance but I think you may find that down deep, under the surface, we are far from confident in ourselves. So the question persists, “Do we come by this naturally or does the trumpet bring this on”? Another question can be asked, “Do all trumpet players suffer from this condition”? Players who perform within the section but not as lead players do not generally have this attitude. Section players are more relaxed and confident in what they are expected to perform. Know this, we can now make the assumption that lead trumpet players, because of their exposed playing responsibilities as well as section leader pressures, seem to create more of an attitude than their section players.

In conclusion

Lead players, through the added pressure of their exposed parts, coupled with the aggressiveness required to lead their section, and by the nature of their position seem to be the reasons for their slight tendency of a superiority attitude. Is this attitude justified? I can’t say for I have relegated my career to the honorable position of a very fine second chair player. Can we live with this type of player? I know I can for the amount of energy required to perform lead in any situation is more than I wish to exert at my age. I will respect the lead chair players and endure the attitude which sometimes goes with the territory. The attitude does not come from the player just as the attitude does not manifest itself from the trumpet. The overly confident attitude comes from the difficulty of the instrument coupled with the position of leadership in the ensembles.

How to Play in Tune

Before we get to the “How Do I’s”, I need to address a few questions which are seldom asked but are equally important:

Music Tuner
Photo Credit: epospisil on Flickr

Why is it important to play in tune?

Playing “out of tune hurts”. It doesn’t hurt the player but it certainly hurts the listener. If you watch television programs such as “American Idol” or “So You Think You’ve Got Talent” or some equally popular show, you have experienced the horror of amateur singers trying to make it big. When they land on an out of tune note for any length of time, we all seem to have the same reaction which is first forcing our faces into strange contortions as we slip to the floor in disbelief. That is called performing out of tune. To the listener, it hurts.

An ensemble performing in tune will sound fuller than one that is out of tune. The reason for this is that intonation is affected by overtones which affect a notes timbre or tone quality. The more overtones you produce, the bigger the sound. The more people playing with a bigger sound produces an ensemble with a fuller, richer sound. When we get to the section How to Produce a Good Sound I will further explain this condition.

How do I make sure my instrument is in tune?

We need to address two levels of intonation in order to answer this question. First, your instrument needs to be matched with a known pitch. In most cases, this would be an electronic tuner or a fixed pitch instrument such as a piano or electronic keyboard. A fixed pitch instrument will not fluctuate as does the pitch of a trumpet/cornet. The pitch of a trumpet can be affected by the player in several ways, i.e. the players lip, air, mouthpiece pressure, posture, tongue position etc. When you tune to a fixed pitch instrument, it is best to play the note on the trumpet first for if the piano is played first, you will tend to lip your trumpet note up or down in order to match the piano note. Even before the trumpet’s tuning note is played, it is best to play a short scale up to that note in order to center your pitch. For a trumpet/cornet player this would be done this way- Your eventual tuning note would, in most cases be your written C (third space in the staff). To make sure that you center that note, begin on second line G followed by A then B and finally resting on a well centered C (tuning note). Keep that pitch in mind as you now play the same note (in the pianos case, Bb) on the piano. If you are using an electronic tuner, begin in the same manner but instead of playing the note on piano, view the results on the tuner. Don’t look at the tuner until after you have centered your pitch on your instrument, then check.

It is even more accurate to have someone else check your pitch on the tuner for you. If the piano sounds low to your instrument, you need to lower your instrument by pulling out your main tuning slide (the tuning slide is the first movable slide after the mouthpiece). Push your tuning slide in if the piano sounds higher than your instrument. Keep checking until you are satisfied that both instruments match the same pitch.

Is my instrument in tune with itself?

Now that you have matched your tuning note to the same pitch of the piano or tuner, it is time to get into the more difficult issue- “Are all my other notes in tune”? The answer to that question is NO! Even though instrument manufactures claim to have developed instruments which play in tune, there is no such animal. One of the leading trumpet designers once told his audience that he could build a trumpet that was perfectly in tune. After his lecture I challenged him on that statement and he qualified it by saying “I can build a trumpet which is perfectly in tune but you would have to play it exactly the same way every time and the temperature and humidity would have to be the same and the room it was played in would have to be the same. Those conditions could never happen. In theory, Mr. Schilke could be correct but in real life, it is not possible. How does that answer the question as to all of the other notes on your instrument being in tune? They aren’t and you have to make adjustments to play them in tune. I will address this issue in the section Pitch tendencies at a later time.

Once I have tuned, will I have to change?

Intonation can be affected by many internal as well as external elements. The temperature in the room and the temperature of your instrument will affect intonation. If the room or your instrument is cold, your instruments’ pitch will be lower. If the room warms or your instrument warms because of playing, it will raise the pitch. The size of the instrument will also affect the speed at which these pitch changes occur. A tuba is slower to change than is a trumpet/cornet. Also, your physical condition will affect intonation for when you have had a long rehearsal, the pitch will in many cases go down as you lip continues to tire. Good intonation is struggle and the best players are constantly listening in order to play in tune.

The subject of tuning reminded me of a school concert our brass quintet once played and after tuning, we asked for questions from the students. The first question from a young boy was “Can you tune just by listening?” Obviously the students’ band director used the “box” or an electronic tuning device exclusively but the question points out the need for real “listening” in order to play in tune.

How can I improve my intonation?

Practice regulary on the exercise that I have described above and challenge yourself even further by searching out as many pianos as you can to tune to. Every piano will be different in pitch and your ear will be challenged to match these differences. If you are in school, tune to the band room piano, than the choral room. Check your pitch with the electric piano used by the jazz band. Find the corresponding note on apercussion instrument. Work your ears until you are confident that you can match your instrument to another. When you have accomplished this assignment, then you will be ready for something more advanced which will be addressed under the heading Visual tuning.

Are there exercises I could practice to improve my intonation?

I have been asked this question often and for that reason, I have written a simple exercise which will point out intonation problems very quickly.  Download this FREE Intonation Study.

Are some trumpets/cornets more in tune than others?

Definitely!

As an ensemble member, what can I do to improve the intonation in our ensemble?

You will not be able to get everyone to practice good intonation but there are a few things you can do to help. The responsibility of the first chair trumpet player in an ensemble is to play the lead part with confidence and good tone quality. The responsibility of the second chair or second part player is to make the first chair player sound better than they actually are. To do this effectively, the second player must adjust to the out of tune notes performed by the first chair player. Does that mean that you have to play out of tune in order for your band to sound more in tune? Yes. It’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it. This suggestion is directed more toward the more advanced player for they know what I’m talking about. For the younger player, the best thing for you to do is play in tune and tactfully suggest that the first chair player might want to push his/her third slide out on his/her low D. More on that in the section covering Pitch tendencies.

Will an electronic tuner help me and is it worth the cost?

Yes!

We want to hear from you.  Submit a comment below with your tips and techniques you use to play in tune.