Is There Just One Way to Play Trumpet?

Pedagogical Contradictions in Trumpet Methods

When I first began following trumpet discussions on the internet, in the mid 90′s, I was amazed by how many different approaches there were to playing the trumpet. I grew up thinking that there was a right way to play the trumpet and that it was my responsibility to find that one right way with the help of a few well trained teachers. Reading things online and seeing just how zealous people can be about so many different “one right ways” to play the trumpet was something of a culture shock for me.

After the shock wore off, I started looking into these different and seemingly opposite methods for playing trumpet. My first tendency was to do what so many other players in my same shoes have done, dismiss the differences as being purely semantic. Surely, if there are successful players who use each of these methods, then they must all really be basically the same and the only difference is in the words the teachers use to describe that “one right way” to play the trumpet. But careful exploration revealed that this was an erroneous conclusion. There are indeed many different ways to play the trumpet with as many different methods to teach them.

But how can you explain the contradictions?

How is it that one teacher can say to never raise your tongue while you play – always keep it low in your mouth, while another teacher says to move the tongue according to the intervals and the range to be performed?

How can one teacher be successful telling his students to keep the air constant while another, equally successful teacher tell his students to use changes in the air to play higher or lower?

There are so many of these contradictions that it will make your head spin to consider them all. I knew that these differences were significant but I also knew that the methods the various teachers used were equally successful. For about ten years I just accepted it as an unexplainable phenomenon.

Bob Findley

Then I read a book by Bob Findley and it changed my teaching career forever. Mr. Findley’s book explains the mechanics of brass playing in a way that accounts for these differences. I read the book one night after I got home from a gig. I learned so much from that first reading that my gig at noon the following day (with no warmup or any time to practice what I learned) revealed that I was instantly a better player. I suddenly had a higher understanding of how the trumpet works and it made my playing better as a result.

The Findley book describes the mechanics of trumpet playing in the context of balance. He says that to play the instrument there must be a balance between the air and resistance to that air. Then he breaks the resistance down into seven sources of resistance which each balance the other. So the variety in the number of successful trumpet methods is explained as being different balances of air to resistance and/or different balances of types of resistance.

How Many Methods Are There?

Really, there are just as many methods as there are trumpet players. I believe that none of us utilize exactly the same balances. There are some similarities among categories of different players, but those similarities fall short in trying to establish a common truth that can be heralded as “the one right way to play the trumpet.

This is one of the reasons why my teaching approach works the way it does. If you read my physical books, (The Physical Trumpet Pyramid, Daily Routines and Chops Express) you will notice that there is very little content in those books devoted to what to do with your lips, your tongue, your teeth, etc. I myself have long given up on finding “the one right way to play the trumpet” in favor of seeking “my best way to play the trumpet.” And this is precisely how I approach teaching my students. I am not trying to teach them my method, my teachers’ methods, or the infamous “one right way to play” method. I am using my teaching approach to help them find THEIR OWN METHOD! I want to help my students find what works best for them using what I know of ALL the methods I’ve read about and experimented with.

Eccentric Instruction?

I am certain that sometimes my instructions to the students seem a bit eccentric. It’s true, sometimes I will tell one student to do something a certain way and then tell another student to do it entirely differently. This is because no two students are the same. I wrote about the things that make us different many years ago. I stated in that old essay that we all start off in a different musical place, we all have different strengths and limitations, different physical makeups, and we all have different musical goals, responsibilities and destinations. So I will assign the right exercises to the appropriate students to help them get to where they want to go FROM where they are now. While my teaching philosophy and methodology is somewhat standardized, thanks to over three decades of teaching trumpet lessons, the things I say, prescribe and assign are different from one student to the next.

And in case you were thinking that this makes me some sort of trumpet teacher weirdo, I remember taking a lesson with Armando Ghitalla at Rice University, about a year before he passed away. In that lesson he taught me the importance of pushing the valves down softly on the piece I played for him. I tried it in the lesson and for me, at that time in my life, the difference was phenomenal. Interestingly, a few months later when I spoke about the lesson with a friend, my friend told me that he also took a lesson from Mr. Ghitalla but was told to push the valves down hard. Two different, opposite prescriptions for two different students!

I think the best teachers all probably teach this way.

  1. This is very interesting. Although it has been over three years since I stopped teaching trumpet lessons, I had a basic foundational starting point that was the same for almost everyone I taught, but as things progressed with any given student, then I also took the same approach (I think) and taylored the lessons and goals to match. But one thing that I remember happening, and I’m not even sure it was by my design, but because I was always (and still am) in a learning/growing state myself (be it through other trumpet players, or teachers & books), as I learned something new, I suddenly had another angle, or another approach that I could apply to my teaching skills, or lack of……….
    Rick

    • I believe that’s how it should be. I feel like teachers have a greater responsibility to learn new things and to look into various methods as much as they can in order to pass that wisdom on to the students. The more effort we invest into our own learning and musicianship, the better we can serve our students.

      Great comment!

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