March 12, 2015

Last week I wrote:

It’s not all about strength.

It’s about coordination.

I keep reading what “the secret” to playing is.  So far the highlights are:

  • Air!- Whatever the question is, the answer is MORE AIR!
  • Tongue- The amount of physical manipulation of the tongue discussed on a regular basis is staggering.
  • Lips- 50/50, 2/3 up 1/3 down, 1/3 up 2/3 down, roll in/roll out….

Let’s take a quick look at each:


Air is certainly needed to play trumpet.  But how much?  Ah, that’s the question.  If you’re a regular visitor here, you know I consider myself a Radical Moderate.  Too often people seem to think every trumpet problem is a nail, and air is the hammer.  Here’s how much air to use- enough air to meet the resistance of the trumpet, but not more.  When you hear a trumpet sound that rings a room, that fullness is, in part, because of the air meeting the resistance.  Here’s a picture to give you an idea of what I’m talking about if what I’ve written so far is too vague, Goldilocks style:

  1. Stand facing a wall.  Reach out your hand so that your fingers barely touch it.  That’s not enough air.
  2. Stand facing a wall.  Punch the wall.  That’s too much air.
  3. Stand facing a wall.  Put your hand against the wall and lean forward.  That’s just right.


Your tongue is certainly necessary to playing the trumpet.  So- what is the tongue’s job in trumpet playing?  I ask this question in clinics and get all kinds of crazy answers.  As I like to make things simple, here’s the tongue’s job description:

  • When wanted, give notes a clear beginning.

That’s it.  For those of you wanting to tell me how much more the tongue does, please keep reading.


Lips are certainly an integral part of trumpet playing.  Before we get to the job description for the lips, let’s address some common concerns about placement.  Because there are so many different shapes and sizes, there are no absolutes here.  These are general guidelines:

  • Put both lips inside the mouthpiece
  • Put the mouthpiece centered on the lips (not necessarily exactly center, as everyone’s face is different)

So what do the lips do?

  • Vibrate.

That’s it.  The reason to put both lips inside the mouthpiece and center the mouthpiece on your lips is to allow the vibration to happen.


As you can see, we can’t play trumpet without Air, Tongue, or Lips.  So the secret can’t be just one of them.  The secret is getting them all to work together.

Let’s start with Air.  Trumpet players can be so crazy as to make breathing difficult.  Breathing is so easy that babies can do it.  Breathing is so easy that you can do it in your sleep.  Let’s not make it complicated.  You take air in; you blow air out.  That’s it.

Let’s add the tongue.  Take a nice easy breath, and coordinate the tongue as you blow out so that it gives a clear beginning to the outward blow without stopping the airstream.  If you’re worried about tongue placement, generally speaking, the tongue will work the same way as when you’re speaking.  If it helps, you can say “Ta” or “Too” to get started.

Now let’s get the lips vibrating.  I like to use the trumpet, but others like to start on just the mouthpiece or leadpipe.  There’s no wrong answer here.  With the corners of your lips firm, take a nice easy breath, tongue the beginning of the outward blow as the middle of your lips start vibrating.

Anyone can do this is no time at all.

The hard part is taking the time to keep it this simple when difficulties arise.  Often problem-solving involves focusing on one of the above subjects.  And this is where it gets difficult.  Sometimes the problem can be solved with more air.  But when students here “more air,” they often overcompensate by overblowing.  Teachers have telling students to arch their tongues since the dawn of time.  At times, that can be (at least) part of the solution.  But everyone’s mouth, tongue, and teeth are different sizes and shapes.  So students overdo it.  If a student’s tongue is arched as high as possible with no air, there’s more frustration on the horizon.  There are teachers that want to make sure everyone’s embouchure is exactly right.  And there are students who need help in this way.  But there is no “exactly right.”  That’s why it’s important to work with the student in front of you, from wherever that student is.

It all comes back to coordination.  We need to keep practicing these simple concepts to get everything working together for the best possible result.



  1. Just like a mainstream trumpet teacher, preaching the merits of hard and sustained work. No one is talking about my method, ten seconds and I’ll have you playing triple As

  2. Thanks for the great post Joey!

    I have never really understood the idea that there is one and ONLY one “right” way to have your mouthpiece on your lips, i.e. the 50/50, 1/3 upper, etc you mention here.

    Maybe in the past this was a claim a person could get away with making, and nobody would call them on it because well….it was hard to check this yourself. Polaroid camera carrier pigeon maybe? Hold still Mr. Herseth…..

    Nowadays, we have Youtube. Anyone can pick their 20 favorite “famous” trumpet players and go watch them play on a video. They will see a wild variety of different embouchures and physical habits from player to player, and yet somehow they all work and everyone sounds great.

    I would say that this isn’t really even a debatable point anymore. Objective reality clearly demonstrates that many different physical setups work extremely well, and that no “magic bullet” exists. The real question is, does it sound good……

  3. You reminded me of what Jim Maxwell says in his warm-up approach and “Systemless System”:

    “Place the mouthpiece where it feels good and don’t move it from that spot. Tilt up or down at will, alter the degree of pucker or thinness, the shape of the opening, round or oval, open or close the teeth, constantly search…

    “Each person must find his own way of playing! All systems, rules or theories must be forgotten in this search.”

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