As a Texas band director for over 30 years, I never felt comfortable with beginning my trumpet students on the mouthpiece. Even though it was a traditional aspect of trumpet pedagogy it simply seemed to have too many “traps” for the beginner student. Yet, learning to first “buzz” the trumpet mouthpiece (only) remains the most common starting point for beginning trumpet students today.
And why not? This is the way trumpet students have been taught since the dawn of time. It was the way that I and many others began. Every year I would see a few students who could produce a buzz the very first time. However, many more struggled. Those who struggled soon started experimenting on their own and trying things to “force” a buzz—most of which were not normal and resulted in a tight, constricted, or forced tone.
Often, it was the very smart kids, the “thinkers,” and the athletes who struggled the most because they instantly picked up on the fact that, “this doesn’t sound right,” and they would do anything and everything to make it happen because they simply didn’t like the feeling of not being able to get it!
The “Master Teacher” Influence
Lee South could possibly be considered one of the “legends” in the Texas band world. He had fantastic high school bands during the 1970’s in Irving, Texas. I had been teaching only a few years when Lee was asked to present a professional development session on starting beginner brass students. During a break, he was asked about starting beginners on the mouthpiece. He told us that he started a trumpet class one year with the premise that he was not going to move on until EVERY student in the class was able to produce a beautiful, vibrant buzz on the mouthpiece. I remember his next statement was, “it turned out to be the weakest trumpet class I ever started.” This made a lasting impression on me.
The “Eureka” Moment
At some point, I discovered that it was easier for beginners to actually produce their first tone if they started on the instrument itself. Virtually every student was immediately more successful and able to achieve a characteristic tone either on the very first try or much quicker than when playing on the mouthpiece alone. The problem then was the instrument itself. As a 5th or 6th grader, they had never held anything of that shape and weight up to their face before. I underestimated what I thought was the simple task of holding the instrument in the correct position, without any movement, and returning it to the exact same place on the student’s face every time, while trying to breath and release the air appropriately, with a properly formed embouchure—all at the same time.
I thought, “I wish I could just remove the leadpipe and have them simply hold the leadpipe without having to worry about the instrument. Then, after they have become comfortable with forming an appropriate embouchure, breathing and releasing the air into the instrument, and allowing the air stream to cause the lip vibrations to create a steady even sound on the leadpipe, then teach them correct hand position and slowly and incrementally transfer their knowledge over to the full instrument.
Not Something New
I soon discovered that this was not a new concept. Trumpet Professor John Harbaugh of Central Washington University, citing data provided by the CWU Department of Physics and a 1973 edition of Scientific American, provides us with a visual demonstration proving that the physical length of the trumpet or cornet mouthpiece is simply too short for a beginning student to develop a standing wave from a steady stream of air. If the resonant frequency of a standard Bb trumpet leadpipe with the length of 32 – 33 cm. is approximately 311 hz, or a concert Eb when played on the instrument, the resonant frequency of a trumpet mouthpiece alone would be high enough to be considered impossible for a student to produce. I quickly learned that although it is not necessary to produce the mouthpiece’s precise resonant frequency in order to acquire a lip vibration on the mouthpiece alone, the physical characteristics of the mouthpiece will still require the student to do something that makes (or forces) the lips to vibrate. There’s no other way around acknowledging the fact that this involves a level of excess tension. This concept was a fundamental component in the teaching of William “Bill” Adam (1917-2013), Professor Emeritus at the University of Indiana.
Video 1: https://youtu.be/MVs2G60-ilo
When you place the mouthpiece on the leadpipe, the first issue is that there is now the added element of resistance between the air stream and the wall of the leadpipe, which creates just enough back pressure to help the lips initiate vibrations. The added length of the leadpipe allows the airstream to begin the process of developing an energy wave that travels through the instrument. This energy wave, once reflected back through the instrument by the bell as a standing wave, returns to the mouthpiece and sets the lips into vibrations at a frequency that is sympathetic to that of the standing wave. It is this balance between the lips, air, and the physical characteristics of the instrument that account for the resonant quality of the tone.
This explains why students with what is considered to be a good mouthpiece buzz can ultimately play with a very poor tone quality on the instrument if they have resorted to making the lips vibrate by force or excessive lip tension or air speed.
The leadpipe learning process is aided by the simple fact that, because the instrument is not yet present, the student is allowed to concentrate the entirety of their focus only on breathing, air delivery, and listening for the type or quality of sound they want. They do not have the added job of holding a “cumbersome” shaped object to their face.
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