Lead Trumpet Playing and Musicianship
There’s a lot more to being a real lead trumpet player than just blasting out a few high notes. The lead trumpet player in a jazz ensemble has great responsibilities. He sets the style for the entire band and for that reason he must have an even better command of style than he does of the high notes. The lead trumpet player is also responsible for the band’s musical phrasing and dynamics. In short, the lead trumpet player is the band’s musical leader. His leadership can lift a band up and his lack of leadership can bring it down.
What is style and how does a lead player use it?
Style is mostly associated with note shape. A classical style of trumpet playing, for example, requires entirely different note shapes from jazz. When we hear someone play a classical style in a jazz context, we immediately recognize the inappropriate note shapes and lifted staccatos. The same is true, of course, for someone who plays in a jazz style in a classical setting.
The difficulty in playing lead trumpet comes with the physical challenges of playing high and loud while trying to maintain stylistically appropriate note shapes. Most younger players abandon style, sacrificing appropriate note shapes for range and volume. They sound powerful and even impressive at first, but musically they are lacking. To view their note shapes in a recording package like ProTools, we see rectangular shaped notes, not the rocket and/or Christmas tree shaped notes that we come to expect from a jazz style. This rectangular note shape represents a note that is one volume from the note’s start to it’s end. I like to say that it is like flipping a switch from on to full steam and then back to off again. There is no musical shape to the note because the player is dealing with the physical difficulty of playing high and loud.
A truly accomplished lead player uses appropriate style and appropriately shaped notes even though the music is high and loud. This type of stylistic performance requires far more ability and control over the physical aspects of the trumpet than the less mature full steam approach. The full steam approach often gives the lead player instant access to the notes that he would otherwise be unable to perform, but the tradeoff is in the loss of style. There are techniques for playing the trumpet that utilize physical manipulation of the body to get the high notes. But the subtlety required in higher quality lead playing becomes much more difficult to achieve with those techniques.
Phrasing and Dynamics
The same is true for phrasing and dynamics. The lead trumpet player should regard his musical responsibility as being a higher priority than the physical responsibility of playing high and loud. Music really isn’t music at all if it is not phrased appropriately.
It is ironic that the full steam approach is so popular. The misconception is that it produces a more powerful performance, but the truth is that power comes from contrast. Full steam full volume trumpet playing becomes boring very quickly. It is not the high and loud that excites us as listeners. It is the often subtle use of contrast between low intensity and high intensity that makes for an exciting performance. As lead trumpet players, we cannot afford to sacrifice this contrast in exchange for the ability to play high and loud.
Lead trumpet playing is not just about playing high notes. It’s not about trying to play louder than the rest of the band. Yes, it does require great physical skill, but the idea that this skill comes in a brute strength package is a common misconception. While there is a need for great strength, lead trumpet playing demands so much more than just power. It requires a degree of musical control that most younger players overlook.