As an educator and clinician, I am asked this question frequently. Hopefully I can provide some answers for those of you who are interested in helping yourself or others in the quest for a more reliable upper register. I have been a private horn instructor for over forty-five years and have developed some helpful concepts and strategies during that time. In my experience, I have observed that problems in the high range generally result from deficiencies in embouchure, posture, air, and/or tongue position. We’ll take a look at each of these four key areas below:
It is important to maintain firm corners, a flat chin and a “soft” middle.
- Firm corners: When ascending on the horn, the most common problem I encounter is that the student will pull back the corners into a “smile”. Because they are creating a smaller aperture while doing this, the higher notes are likely to be achieved. Unfortunately, the resulting sound is thin and endurance is severely compromised. Resorting to poor methods such as this leads to false success. The corner muscles should remain firm and forward when approaching the high register.
- Flat chin: Just as the corner muscles push forward, the chin muscles should remain flat. These two muscle groups work independently and in conjunction with one another in order to sustain stability in the embouchure. If a student is having difficulty keeping their chin flat, I will often have them rest their right index finger on the cleft of their chin, thereby preventing the chin from bunching up. This is a helpful physical reminder and may be utilized in daily warmup.
- “Soft” middle: As a horn player, the middle part of our embouchure must remain soft and supple in order to allow for maximum vibration and flexibility. Excess pressure can inhibit the vibration, either internally (squeezing the lips too tightly inside the mouthpiece) or externally (pushing the leadpipe/mouthpiece too hard against the lips). Nearly every brass player deals with this pressure issue at some point. Some of you may be aware of Philip Farkas’ famous story of being able to lay his horn on a table and play a lip slur with his hands behind his back. I’ve tried this. Let’s just say that I was unsuccessful and that it’s a good thing I’m married to a repairman! But seriously, there are a few things you can do to help alleviate excess pressure problems:
- Use an adjustable pink-hook or have a repairman re-position the existing hook closer to the valve cluster.
- Practice glissandos on a regular basis. This will help increase flexibility and encourage smoothness through the natural harmonics.
- Consider playing off the leg, thereby removing the anchoring of the bell on the leg.
Poor posture habits can lead to embouchure, range, and sound production problems. Be sure to sit or stand with a straight spine and relaxed body. It is very important to bring the horn to the body and not bend the body to the horn! Many musicians find it helpful to study yoga or Alexander Technique to maintain a healthy posture when playing their instrument. When playing the horn, the leadpipe should be centered to the body and angled slightly down, allowing the top lip to vibrate freely. An angle that is too straight tends to exert excessive pressure on the top lip, which can impede its vibration and kill the sound. Ultimately, the downward leadpipe placement should match the angle of the player’s teeth (bite). I have also found that a very straight right hand position (not too cupped or curved) that sits sufficiently deep in the bell throat helps to stabilize the wobbly notes that can occur at the top of the staff.
Use faster air in the upper range to supply the energy and support necessary to achieve a focused sound. It may help to think in terms of temperature: cold air for high notes and warm air for low notes. As you ascend through the register, your air column should feel progressively colder and faster. Remain relaxed and avoid tension in your shoulders and neck. Think of your air as the primary driver of your technique and approach. If you use your air effectively, you will be less inclined to rely on excess pressure. It’s amazing how many problems can be avoided by the proper and efficient use of air!
Changing to an “ee” vowel sound for higher notes will narrow the oral cavity, aiding in better focus and accuracy. I know many teachers that use slightly different syllables in their teaching but they all agree that there should be some sort of vowel change. If one repeats the syllables, “tee-ah”, it is evident that the shape of the oral cavity is changing between the two syllables. Good high register vowel shapes encourage the back of the tongue to arch, creating healthy resistance and ease of production.
I hope this article has helped in your quest for a better, more reliable and efficient upper register. Thanks for reading, and please leave questions or comments below!