Your Voice

While the question of your voice is almost inextricably linked with your identity I will focus mainly on the aspects of playing, sound, gigging and leave the issue of personal identity for another time. It is indeed a tough subject to focus on, as a lot of the aesthetic aspects are subjective, and variable from person to person; this is an area that I will try to avoid in the interests of a concise article.

As musicians the sound that you produce on the instrument must do one important thing; it must please us, in some way or form. Therefore in practice we must listen to those aspects of our sound which please us, as this will help us develop a personal sound, a voice. If we stay focused on the aspects of our sound which we enjoy hearing we will develop a positive experience when we see this develop and the way to put this sound into perspective is to use our ears. It is our absolute responsibility to listen to the best musicians that we can in order to improve what we do; we will subconsciously hear what makes them sound great, or indeed adopt a sound model for ourselves. We will also learn to hear musical phrasing and a voice which is very personal to that artist. What we must not do is to believe that we can develop our voice by emulating the lifestyle, or attitude or even diet of this artist; these things are all part of a whole person who is absolutely not us. What they did, besides practice, is entirely foreign to what we should do because we are separate people. A very real situation that a young player will face, especially in the jazz music scene where substance abuse was rife amongst the best of players, will be to get caught up in the idea that you need drugs to create music; to play like Charlie Parker you will need to do a lot of…emm.. Charlie. Cocaine. Heroin. Pot. Alcohol. There are a lot of huge “endorsers” of these drugs, especially in the bebop era. I say “endorsers” because it is only their status and notoriety which placed them in such a position; the exact same is true of any stars, it is not at all unique to jazz musicians but the emphasis here is on music so I don’t need to mention actors, or jocks, or artists, or commercial pilots who have done jail time for drugs. What I am saying is that their drug did nothing towards helping them producing their voice on the instrument; without doubt it influenced the sound, especially when you find a recording where the artist was too drunk to stand and had to be held up at the microphone, but the voice and the vision IE the artistry was always present in the player, and this wasn’t developed through addiction to a drug, it was developed through an addiction to music, a love of playing and a desire to play better. In short; your voice is not found by emulating any bad habits of a favorite player, rather through critical listening, frequent listening and the practice of your instrument, always striving to hear and produce more of that element you like in your tone and in your playing.

In certain situations your sound must match a certain general sound model and you may indeed find this contradictory to your voice on the instrument, but I don’t believe this to be the case. If we prepare for each possible playing situation we can adapt our voice to suit the music; ultimately this gives a better performance, even if we are deviating from our favorite sound concept. An example, as a trumpeter; jazz VS classical music. Ok, I chose a deliberately obtuse area of focus to outline the fact that there is in fact no explicit subscribed sound change between the two, it is only in the “sub-genres” where we need to be specific or not. The devil is in the detail. I will therefore try to define my personal concepts within the two genres. Caveat: these are my concepts, they seem to suit how I play. I often prefer a dark sound, a sound which has an emphasis on the fundamental pitch rather than a bright sound emphasising the overtones within the sound. Without deviating from my intention, a dark sound, in my opinion, must still be rich in overtone content in order to project, rather than producing a dead sound, which may be dark, but is lifeless. This is becoming too specifically focused on the tone production on trumpet, so I am going to offer what I promised to a hundred words back!

Here are some of the typical gigs that a trumpeter will pick up, and besides practicing all of these styles in order to help best produce that sound, I have a mental picture of what I want to achieve. Sometimes I will change my mouthpiece or trumpet to best suit the music. Refer to my article on trumpet mouthpieces for just a little more information on this. I will start with what I love, and indeed my favorite, or primary sound concept.

Small group jazz – combo playing; from duo to quintet.

Bb trumpet is the standard horn for this, however a flugel horn is also fun to play, especially for a softer touch, this is totally up to the performer, unless written music specifies anything else.

I like the sound that Wynton Marsalis, Chet Baker, Clifford Brown, Freddie Hubbard, Scott Wendholt, Woody Shaw, Seamus Blake, Will Vinson, Chris Potter etc… make. I therefore listen to a lot of that music, and try to produce that darker tone. The players mentioned are not all trumpeters (diversify your listening) and also have a fabulous time feel. This is an enormous part of playing jazz music which moves you and elicits emotion.

In combo jazz the importance lies in sympathetically playing with the rhythm section; calling tunes at tempos that everyone is comfortable with, playing at suitable volume and with good time.

Dynamics are so very often overlooked in combo playing; use the full spectrum of dynamics to the musical advantage at the time, in the same way that you can change the timbrel spectrum to suit a ballad or an up tempo bebop tune.

Big band jazz

Bb trumpet with a shallower mouthpiece to aid in emphasising the overtones, aiding in producing a more projecting tone which cuts and can lead the band without having to play at fffff as the high overtones will cut through the band and do the work. The shallow mouthpiece is not for reaching to higher notes; if you are reaching for a higher note on a shallow mouthpiece, then you can’t properly play the note, and like me you will be shedding it. Flugel horn is called for as well, as are a variety of mutes.

The main idea in big band is to follow the lead player; copy his sound and time feel. If you are leading you are to give the section confidence, and to confidently lead the band. Bobby Shew has a fantastic article on this:

Sound wise, leading confidently will come across well, playing apologetically will also come across. Less well. While time feel is paramount, clarity and articulation are equally important. A bright, clear and projecting sound is ideal. Note that a projecting sound isn’t a sound where you hammer away at fff, it is a focused, rich, energetic tone. Listen to the best: Wayne Bergeron, Charley Davis, Roger Ingram, Bobby Shew, Mike Lovatt.

Pop gig

Bb trumpet and flugel horn. Like big band playing, the pop horns will be brighter than most combo players and brighter than most orchestral playing.

Often you play the cool lick that people remember, fill in parts and punctuation. The playing will vary, from chop busting Tower of Power charts to the suicide inducing country music charts. Play them all well, and focus on consistency. You won’t be playing country for ever (unless you like that… really?)

Consistency in timing with the section and confidence in soloing in a pop context will help the overall sound. Jazz lines will rarely work on the pop tunes and harmony, so shed your pentatonics and blues scales. Work on the clichés that you hear guitarists, saxophonists and trumpets playing on albums – these will be life savers. Your diminished jazz lines will not be appreciated.

Listen to the masters of this style, emulate this sound. Every Tower of Power horn player is incredible, if you can sound a tenth this good you are on the way to a good gig! “Iron” Mike Bogart, Adolfo Acosta and Steve Reid would be a good start.

Now for a few classical gigs. Caveat: I have experience in amateur and pro pit orchestras and amateur ensembles from orchestras to baroque groups. More of my playing is commercial or jazz, so temper what I write with your own knowledge. Like all information, it it sounds rubbish, it probably is rubbish. Zebra/stripey horse scenario.

Pit orchestra

Often requiring Bb trumpet, flugel horn and piccolo trumpet. Depending on the demands and ensemble line up, I will adapt to suit both gear and sound wise. The pop-esque ones such as most Lloyd Webber will be a prime candidate for a slightly shallower mouthpiece and a brighter sound. These often suit the brighter sound and the command akin to that in big band playing. It is important to be as flexible as possible in these situations.

Becoming familiar with your part, and listening to good recordings will help you decide how to play, but one thing is for sure; there is no award for running a marathon in boots IE if the show is demanding, a shallower mouthpiece can help you work a little less hard producing the overtones necessary to project and can help solidify the upper register. As before these pieces give you no notes that you don’t already have.

Classical orchestra

Requiring every trumpet you can possibly name. The ideal gig for someone needing to validate buying a new Schilke E trumpet. Yes, as well as the Eb. Generally the mouthpiece choice is larger than that of jazz or pop players. Certainly deeper to help emphasise the fundamental tone present and to help produce an enormous volume and power when necessary.

Playing wise I feel that this demands a focused air stream and the mental image of a compact round tone suits me. It is a more delicate art than big band playing.

Listen to the great players to learn the necessary sound concept. Also listen to the different sounds across the eras and composers. Playing Haydn as you would Mahler would be a disaster, and vice versa!

There are both bright and dark tonal concepts within this music, neither is necessarily correct. Maurice Murphy’s incredible tone and phrasing on all of his recordings with the LSO (Star Wars for one) is one of the reasons he tried several times to retire only to be brought back. His tone is so pure, but to my ears a brighter orchestral tone, yet he adapts when he plays solo or different styles. Musically and sensibly adapting to the circumstance is the name of the game. Incredibly worth the listen is his recording of the LSO with Valery Gergiev playing Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.

Listen! Maurice Murphy, Hans Gansch, Phil Smith, Bud Herseth, Malcolm McNab.

Baroque ensemble

Usually D/Eb trumpets, piccolo trumpet and Bb trumpet.

A compact blending sound Often you must balance with oboes and various woodwinds who have very little power by comparison; you have to play with a compact tone which does not over power the small group. This is difficult given the propensity for composers to write in the upper tessiatura of the instrument.

I strive for a warm tone in these groups, which is sometimes difficult on the smaller trumpets, but ultimately this works better for me. The oboes hate me less!

Listen! Hakan Hardenberger, Maurice Andre, Jens Lindemann, Rolf Smedvig, Wynton Marsalis.

Classical soloist

All the trumpets in the world!

Have a good teacher to guide you through this. You should find a tone which you can call yours, yet suits the music. You should focus on the musical interpretation of the solo, as this, along with your sound, is how you can define your playing. Sloppy phrasing with excellent tone is still sloppy phrasing.

Listen to the greats. Dissect their playing and determine what makes them unique for you.

Sergei Nakariakov, Matthias Hoefs, Hakan Hardenberger, Wynton Marsalis, Malcolm McNab, Urban Agnas, Tine Thing Helseth, Alison Balsom.

Brass bander

Often amateur organisations, and therefore the advice will vary slightly, depending on how seriously you take the instrument. If this is for fun, keep it that way. Don’t torture yourself by thinking you have to play a Denis Wick 2 mouthpiece on a large bore Sovereign 928. Make life easier, play the Wick B cup on a horn you like and blow with a relaxed “warm” air stream to help produce a relaxed cornet tone.
It is not a trumpet, nor is it a flugel horn. The tone should be light and round, warm. This again is partly down to the design of the instrument and mouthpiece, but given a standard setup you can make it sound terrible if you don’t pay attention. Learning easy solos should be on the list, such as: “The Last Rose of Summer” “Cherry Pink” “Love is Like a Red Red Rose” “Misty” “Autumn Leaves” etc… it can’t be much fun jumping in with the heavy ones, especially if trying to discern what a cornet tone is.

Listen. Roger Webster, Phil McCann, Alan Morrison, etc… All the championship section bands have phenomenal players in every chair.

Now to try and bring this to a conclusion. I will have missed out on some situations, but for the sake of brevity, I will call this enough.

You will always have your sound, you don’t need to copy drug habbits, lifestyles etc… this is some strange attempt to be someone else; why would you do that? You can be a second rate Wynton Marsalis, but you can be a first rate Mr/s Boddington-Smythe II (or whatever name you have). Work hard on your tone, and set your goals! Have the courage of your convictions and believe that what you do is valid; it is! Make your art mean something. Make your practice mean something. Make your performance and composition meaningful. Have the guts not to copy, but to explore, always keeping the history of your instrument and the music that you play in perspective.

About Michael Barkley

Trumpet player/tutor, luthier, jazz enthusiast, coffee addict.
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