Did you know that Herbert L. Clarke (1867 -1945) was one of the world’s greatest cornet players? If you are a brass player, you will almost certainly have heard of him. His methods for cornet playing, such as his agility in scales and slurs, are now widely regarded as standard for trumpet and many other brass instruments such as the tuba, horn, and trombone. His extraordinary sense of musicality plus his astounding techniques can be heard on this video. It is said that Louis Armstrong possessed this record and may well have been influenced by Clarke’s brilliant playing.
If you are a brass player, you will resonate with the joys and difficulties in playing these challenging instruments. You will also have to face some common misconceptions.
Misconception #1. You always hear that the correct embouchure is important
The embouchure is the so called “correct” application of lips and tongue when playing a wind instrument. Many students copy the embouchure of famous players but it really depends on the anatomy of our lips and facial features. Each brass player has to experiment with what works best for them.
Misconception #2. You are a privileged member of society
You know when people say that brass players, like all musicians, are a privileged minority and live on a different planet. El Sistema with Dudamel: Let The Children Play is an inspiring story of how teenagers were rescued from crime and delinquency in Caracas by being given to chance to learn music. Listen to them playing Shostokovich’s Symphony No.10, 2nd movement conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, where the trumpets and trombones are the protagonists.
Music is a universal right and must never be reserved for an elite. You are proud of the role you are playing in every sense of the word.
Misconception #3. You know that your teacher knows best
There are teachers who insist on the correct position of lips on the mouthpiece. Robert Beauchamp had a teacher who insisted that he should play the French horn with mouthpiece 2/3 upper and 1/3 lower. This limited his playing somewhat and held him back. Forty years later he discovered that a more flexible approach did wonders for his playing. He now plays horn and trumpet in a church orchestra. You can read his story here. So teachers may not always know best and players have to learn by trial and error what lip position and breathing techniques work best for them.
Misconception #4. You are paid a very high salary
If only people knew the reality of brass players’ pay checks. Many top orchestras such as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Philadelphia Orchestra will pay their members up to $140,000 a year. This is for the chosen few and many brass players, like most musicians, have to be content with an average salary of $36,543 a year.
Misconception #5. You are just doing a pretty mundane job entertaining people
Why is entertainment so far down the scale of people’s priorities? Music is actually connecting people at a higher level through ideas and emotions. It is no harm to remember that the British brass bands in Victorian England were often the only way that working class people were given the chance to listen to classical music.
Misconception #6. You hear that it is easy to reach the top
As you practice for hours and even years, you wonder where people get this idea from. The psychologist Dr. Ericsson who is famous for his “10,000 – hour rule” states that 10,000 hours practice will be sufficient to reach expert level. Guess what the exception is? Yes, musicians have to do it for 15 -25 years to reach a level that will bring them international fame.
Misconception #7. You hear that people think the trumpet cannot be very expressive
If you listen to one of Maurice Andre’s recordings, you will see why he is regarded as one of the world’s greatest trumpeters. He was instrumental in making the trumpet a popular instrument through the Baroque repertoire. This is what he says about the trumpet being expressive
“I always tried to profit from the possibilities of my instrument because it can be very soft, virile, technical, and it can be very romantic – it’s an extraordinary instrument.” – Maurice Andre
Sit back and listen to him playing the Haydn trumpet concerto allegro and see what he means.
Misconception #8. You know that it is all a matter of breathing
It is a bit more complicated than that. After all, if you have to play the horn, then you are making music through various feet of twisted metal. Barry Tuckwell is probably the world’s most famous horn player and he knows all about making the horn sound enchanting. Yet he regards it as a treacherous instrument and no doubt he has learned from his mistakes.
“Success comes through rapidly fixing our mistakes rather than getting things right the first time.” – Tim Harford, author of Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure
Misconception #9. You know people who are playing down the importance of music education
Wynton Marsalis is the first composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music with a jazz composition. As one of the world’s greatest trumpeters, he has won no less than nine Grammys. He has very definite views on the importance of music education and how it must be used to make a real difference, to make the world a better place and to encourage people to feel empowered and inspired.
“Music will prepare you to be a better person.” – Wynton Marsalis
Misconception #10. You think that music practice is always hard work
There are long hours of practice but when you get the chance to play in an orchestra, the rewards are truly phenomenal. Alison Balsom is an inspiring trumpeter who started to learn the trumpet at the age of seven. She knows all about the thrill of playing for other people’s pleasure and enrichment while sharing her talent with other musicians and learning from the experience.
Most brass players will tell you that while mastering the technicalities of embouchure and breathing are crucial, your idea of what you want to sound like is an extension of yourself.
“I realised from early on that it wasn’t just a trumpet, it was a voice that could seemingly do anything. One of my very first experiences was hearing a recording of Dizzy Gillespie. It was just so sassy and clever and sort of primal, emotional but hugely cool, and all these things alongside all the glory and splendour the classical trumpet can offer.” – Alison Balsom
Featured photo credit: Duo/Nick McPhee via flickr.com