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I'm teaching trumpet, french horn, and trombone this year in a school setting. The students are around 11 years old and have all been playing for about a year. They can read music with some success and have a decent, characteristic tone. But they are seemingly unable to rise above a very narrow range. They are able to match pitch with me when I play along when I play [written] C, D, and E [sounding F, G, and A below middle C].

I've tried having them buzz on the mouthpiece without the horn, focused on good posture and air support, and demonstrated the sound their mouthpiece should make but we're not really getting anywhere. They are musically-aware enough to know that they're not playing the right notes and I don't want them to get frustrated enough to want to quit the program.

What are additional things I can try to support young brass players (or horn players in particular) in gaining that first octave of range?

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  • Is it possible the strength and dexterity of their lip muscles has to improve so they can form the embouchure necessary for higher notes? Commented Oct 15, 2023 at 0:36

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Start with some simple slurs, from written C to E and back, and then from C to G and back. The longterm goal is to explore the entire harmonic series of the horn.

Have them observe their mouth shape as they slur from note to note. What changes?

It might be their vocal shape- from "ah" to "ee" on a low to high slur or from "ee" to "ah" for a high to low slur. Explain that different vocal shapes are a tool they can use to adjust their tone and change notes. The position of the tongue while playing is generally similar to when one whistles, a little higher for the high notes and lower for the low notes.

Another issue you can look into is aperture, the space between lips while playing. Sometimes an aperture that is too wide or small can cause issues in range. An exercise for this is balloon swells- the player plays one long note while going from ppp to fff (soft to loud), trying to keep the pitch consistence.

Sarah Willis has a great video of an MRI of her playing horn exercises. It's an inside view of the mouth while playing and is very informative:

We brass pedagogs have a tricky time, since we can't physically see what's going on inside our students' mouths while they play, but this video gives an idea of a healthy playing setup throughout the entire range.

"Also Sprach Arnold Jacobs" is also a great teaching resource if you want some reading material.

Best of Luck on your pedagogy journey!

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Try this experiment - with the mouthpiece alone on your lips, make sure there a small horizontal slot between your lips and then blow steadily. Make sure your lips don't buzz.

Next, do exactly the same thing but this time, as you're blowing, gently insert the mouthpiece into the horn. The air column in the instrument will vibrate, making your lips buzz.

The common misconception about playing brass instruments is that you buzz your lips - this is wrong - you make sure there's a steady stream of air moving through the gap in your lips and the instrument will make your lips vibrate. The way the mouthpiece behaves when it's detached from the instrument is entirely different to the way it behaves when it's attached to the instrument.

The reason your players can't play high is that they think they have to clamp their lips together to make them buzz. This limits the air flow and sound quality and range suffer.

Get them to try the above experiment and provided they're supplying a steady stream of air through the slot in their lips and deliberately not trying to push the lips together to make them buzz, magically their range and sound quality will improve.

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