This is another area which I have touched upon in the previous posts. In this entry I hope to offer exercises, mental approaches and physical conditions which enable the production of a relaxed sound. I choose the word “relaxed” as it is probably one of the only uniform aspects of a sound; most aspects of tone colouration are subjective qualities and therefore striving for a “clear” tone is no more valid than striving for an “airy” tone, the commonality in good players with either quality (or indeed any) as previously stated is a relaxed approach to playing and sound production.

Some modifiers, if you will, are the circumstances under which we play, and this I have covered somewhat in Your Voice but I will re-state in much abridged format. Your tone must suit the music that you play, but you need not loose your voice in this adaption; you will always sound like yourself. In an orchestra it is expected that you produce something equating to the sound model created by the best players in the world; this is the paradigm which we measure to. In jazz and solo spots there is more room for freedom and expression, especially in the jazz soloist context where an airy, light trumpet tone can sound beautiful – imagine this in an orchestral context. Unsuitable. These modifiers should be taken as positive aspects of playing, helping you play to the best of your ability in a given situation.

One example before I elucidate upon the main goals of this entry:

As a younger player I had developed this love with a dark sound, and so I did everything to help me achieve this with gear and listening. I played a Taylor trumpet which is a very heavy, very open blowing, custom built horn. (I got mine 2nd hand with a trade-in). I played this with a deep-C Taylor flumpet mouthpiece (about a 1 1/2C rim). Now, as an experiment I tried to play lead on a youth jazz orchestra gig which I recorded, and though I was giving it stacks and covering most of the notes written my sound didn’t project; it stopped at about the music stand. The microphone was in the hall. I was so devastated, but learned a very valuable (gear) lesson that no teacher had taught me. There is certain gear for certain situations for a reason, and your sound must suit your situation. Since that night I have never done anything as silly. Big band playing requires a brighter tone so that your sound will project and cut through and lead the band if necessary. I don’t necessarily advocate getting a 14a4a and tying to peel paint, again just read my mouthpiece article, but I do advise making your life easier by using suitable equipment. For gear-heads, when I mention shallow, I play what is basically a 3D (Curry 3M) for big band pop and a 3B for other playing. From time to time I use a 3TC (trumpet/cornet cup) which mellows the tone and helps me to blend in quintet. Mainly using my ear to decide. Now, the equipment is not so important once you find something that you are comfortable on, so here is the more important advice.

Without replicating information that I have previously divulged, there are a couple of important precepts to lay down.

1.Dark tone is very different to a dead tone, and some of us cannot hear the difference. A dark tone is rich, a dead tone can sound dark, but is hideous and lackluster. It is not mouthpiece and gear dependent, however that can be part of the recipe.
2.A bright tone is not necessarily for jazz, you can have a good bright orchestral tone which is very satisfying to hear, especially on film scores! It is not mouthpiece and gear dependent, however that can be part of the recipe.

The most important thing that you can do as a player is to develop a tone, regardless of the tonal quality. Producing a relaxed sound with correct technique is the first step to the manipulation of tonal variety. It is like working with a good plaster mix, it is spreadable, sticks to the drywall and needs little effort to smooth and form, unlike a dry or a wet mix, or indeed an uneven mix. To explain that: a dry mix will be hell to spread; it will leave a very uneven finish and you will lash sweat when you are finished with it. You also may want to hit whoever made the mix; I have been there. As the mixer. Too wet and the plaster has no cohesion and poor adhesion and it will run, and lead to a very thin uneven finish which will crack. Uneven mixing will leave lumps in the plaster and is perhaps the worst that can happen, if grit is present it will leave enormous streaks in the wall and you may despair. Long analogy for tone to be honest, but if you aim too bright, too dark or too I don’t know what to play like then you will leave a poor finished product. Like mouthpieces, it is about accepting something comfortable, and not extreme which can then be shaped however you like. Build on good foundations.

So in order to find this relaxed tone, we must do some exercises. We must also be active in listening to music without prejudice.

“Long tones, baby!” – Wynton Marsalis

Long tones are fabulous, but only if done correctly. You can do this incorrectly, believe me! Plugging away at long tones with no focus on the breathing is tantamount to spending time in limbo. Doing nothing. Take up paint drying watching as a hobby instead of meaningless long tone practice with no mental focus, you will probably learn more about the trumpet this way!

Wynton, in one of his books (Moving to Higher Ground perhaps), says how people are too self-conscious to play long notes, how the ego feels damaged when it hears weakness and imperfection. It is the same reason we are afraid to slow down that double-tonguing passage that we can’t yet play. We will hear our flaws. Well that is good. Show them to me, I want to improve! Let me break down what has been working for me recently.


Claude Gordon nailed it. Big breath, chest up. He advocated keeping the chest up during the exhale to promote the use of abdominal muscles, now Gordon pedagogues can set me straight regarding this in practice VS performance, but to me it seems like the chest remains up during the exhale, but what has made a big difference to my breathing and playing is to have the chest held high and proud during the inhale. This seems to promote a large relaxed inhale. It may be my physical build, but it feels like the air is just drawn and dragged into my body when I breathe in doing this, other methods feel more resistive. I also don’t believe that you have to fill up to 100 of 110% capacity in performance. In practice this can help strengthen and expand lung capacity, but in performance this over-filling is not beneficial. On top of not eating for a day, doing this and stressing out led me to pass out in rehearsal and land myself a heavy instrument repair bill and a most of a night in hospital. I wasn’t thinking, I was stressed, I was hungry and I was blowing at 110% capacity. Face plant. Thank God I had a good mate on 2nd who rescued my hooter leaving only the flugel to get squashed. Sorry Zig!!

In point form:
Chest up during inhale and exhale. The distended stomach breathing which is often taught is silly. The stomach moves only by being displaced some by the lungs inflating with air. You have no lungs in your gut, you do not push your belly out when you inhale. You make it harder to use your stomach muscles to compress the air when you distend your belly.
Shoulders down and relaxed. The whole ribcage area expands, back included, but the shoulders remain relaxed. No shrugging!
Use the stomach muscles to compress the air. Dare I advocate situps? I don’t do them… yet!

The notes

Long tones accompanied by long, relaxed breaths are tantamount to successful tone production. How we do this may vary. The Claude Gordon book A Systematic Approach to Daily Practice is superb. You do not need to buy this if you don’t want to. Check out the flow studies on Urban Agnas’ website. These are superb. Watch his videos, see how relaxed he is. Listen to his tone improve from his first notes of the day; we won’t sound our best on our first notes, and as Urban says he “accepts the consequences of these notes” IE he accepts them for what they are, without getting hung up on them. This is is a good mental condition! Chicowicz’s flow studies are superb too, as are hymns. Caruso’s Musical Calisthenics for Brass is another must own!.

Some pointers for long note studies. Flow studies.

Breathing, as before. Relaxed. No stress.
Slow tempi.
Breath starts to notes, let the air start the vibrations. “Hooo”
Light “du” or “tu” tonguing. “taa” was a mistaken transliteration from the French method books.
Don’t force range, these studies are about gentle and musical playing. Stop when it sounds forced.

Let me repeat this: the breathing is essential to get right. Do not stress over this, just raise your chest, sit tall and inhale. If you drop your jaw some and form an “aww” shape in your will probably help this breath. Practice this without the instrument. Practice this with the instrument.

Long gentle tones. Playing hymn tunes at 60bpm at mp – mf with a gentle, steady air flow, hearing every interval will do wonders for your sound.


If you work on tones this slowly you will be able to adjust for intonation and develop your ear. Use those slides (if they move). Use your ear to intonate to the key you are playing in. In major keys, in ensemble playing where this is possible, listen to the major 3rds. They are most displeasing oftentimes; lower them a little and they will sound beautifully rich, for example:- if I am in F major, I find the 3rds are very sharp, listen for the A, lower it until it sounds rich (especially good to try in ensemble playing when you get the chance to play with good players). Listen also for the 7th which is often a little sharp. Know your instrument; I know which notes are wonky on my Selmer. On trumpets, generally low D and C# need your attention as well as 1st ledger A. I know that I must compensate for most of the notes on my horn in some key or other. Use alternate fingerings and experiment with the tunings on these. A in the staff is best on 3 for me, as is the low E (depending on the key), rarely C# is 3 for me, and high B is 1+3 quite often! Trust your ears.

Playing in tune, and hearing this aspect of playing is hugely important. You will become 4x more tired in half the time if you are out of tune and don’t realise that you are constantly fighting your instrument. Your lip will really tire trying to make the corrections. Slides are meant to move. Band members are meant to be confronted about tuning (especially in quintet setting); do this diplomatically!

To help intonation make sure that you are playing on the pitch and watch out for playing low or high on the pitch. It is very easy to do. Often striving too hard for notes which are not in your range will cause you to dodge the note centres and intonation can go either way, but my experience is that you will be forcing your lip onto a high pitch centre. A low pitch centre will be more relaxed, but out of tune and likely to split to a different partial.

Play a C, 3rd space. Relax and let the note fall to G and then to low C. Listen and feel for where it locks in. Repeat this on E, G, Bb, C and above. Listen for where the note resonates best and where it feels the best, then hold these ntoes. Especially in long tone practice where you have the time to hunt for note centres, relax and let the note settle. There is no rush. Remember the breathing!

In conclusion, your tone is part of your musical identity. It does not solely constitute your identity, so be aware of trying to create a musical identity on tone alone; it needs the support of artistic vision. Focus on creating a relaxed sound, follow the exercises and flow studies in order that you will play in a more relaxed manner and therefore better. If you do nothing else, check out Urban Agnas performing his flow studies. Listen, watch, learn, hear! Urban is fabulous sounding, and very relaxed in his performance methods. Finally, play emphasising the sound that you want to hear and enjoy what you do play.

About Michael Barkley

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