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Lately I've been reading about how trombonists (or any other brass instrumentalists) tend to develop tension in their neck or torso when playing in the higher register. In working to decrease mouthpiece pressure, I've noticed that I've started to tense in my throat to control the immense air pressure needed to get the lips to vibrate fast enough. What techniques might I use to feel fast air without resorting to throat tension or mouthpiece pressure? What exercises might I use to preserve that feeling without resorting to bad habits?

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I play tuba, and I have learned (and practiced) that when you go up in the registers, firm-up the lips in from the corner of your mouth, not the center. This will reduce the length of the vibrating part of the lips, and like a guitar string, this will naturally generate a higher pitch. It will also make it easier to get a clean sound as you don't strain the air flow at the middle of your lips. When using this technique, you need to be careful not to smile - your mouth should not broaden in a smile, just firm-up at the ends.

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  • #awe Thanks! I already firm-up my corners throughout my range (I say "firm-up" because in my experience, children/students are inclined to smile if you say "tighten"). Even so I think this is a good answer for others to read as well, nice work.
    – SRiss
    May 13 '11 at 16:06
  • @SRiss Make sure you upvote answers you like even if they're not the one you accept.
    – NReilingh
    May 13 '11 at 16:25
  • @NReilingh I needed the terminology altered before I could like it.
    – SRiss
    May 13 '11 at 17:07
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    @SRiss: Thanks. I am not native English, so I don't know the best terminology on everything. I actually struggled a bit with this answer to make myself clear on what I meant. I appreciate the correction to get it right.
    – awe
    May 16 '11 at 6:49
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I play the trumpet, but this may be relevant to trombone.

You need faster air flow to access to the higher register. A good way to do that is with your tongue. Think of it as whistling: the higher you whistle, the closer your tongue comes to the roof of your mouth. See images there.

Doing that, you restrict the air way. In order not to lose too much air quantity you need to compensate by increasing the pressure before your tongue, with your belly.

So: tongue like when whistling high, then higher air pressure from your lungs.

Try no to press your lips to close together, you'd restrict the air too much. The tongue makes a smaller way, not you lips. Same for your throat. It is hard to restrain from tensing your throat, especially if you're doing weird things with your tongue. Make sure you use support and tongue, and you will have the possibility to relax your throat.

I also have a feeling that the stiffness of the lips matter a lot for playing in the double high register (trumpet), but I'll let someone who can play there talk about this.

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  • One problem is to articulate with your tongue in this position...
    – Gauthier
    May 5 '11 at 8:56
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    Most trombonists will advise against using the tongue until you get to the extreme high register (like F5). Realize that the pitch of a whistle is being changed by the size of the aural cavity, not the speed of the air, though compression will obviously occur in both cases.
    – NReilingh
    May 5 '11 at 14:06
  • I see, sorry if my answer is not applicable to trombone. I am curious to how faster air is usually achieved for trombone players, if it's only with support maybe? Thanks for pointing out the physical difference with whistling, the analogy helped and still helps me though. Even the "joints" between registers feel the same as when whistling.
    – Gauthier
    May 6 '11 at 7:03
  • I'm afraid I have to go with NReilingh on this one. The same author who was discouraging tension in the throat was discouraging tension in the tongue. However, I really like your thoughts as you relate to whistling. I'll have to think about how your answer intersects with trombone playing.
    – SRiss
    May 7 '11 at 1:51
  • If nothing else, whistling a lot exercises the orbicular oris.
    – NReilingh
    May 13 '11 at 13:11
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The things that most dramatically impacted my (trumpet) range:

  1. Practicing my low register to get the fattest possible sound. That put the sound ideal in my ear and the corresponding feeling in my body. Tension is the enemy of the low range, so developing the feel there helped me recreate that feeling in my upper range.
  2. Alexander technique: I've had experience with both "table work" and "integrative work", and by far the table work was the more effective (with allowance, of course, the difference could be the practitioner rather than the style). This helped release tension in my body that otherwise felt completely normal to me, so I would not have been able to release it through trumpet practice.
  3. Consciously relaxing my upper chest. This proved to me how much of my effort was coming from the upper part of my breathing apparatus (including throat tension). This helped me lower my breath support so that now I primarily feel it in my lower back and sides.
  4. PLAYING A LOT! My range was absolutely plateaued until I started doing three- and four-hour rehearsals and gigs on a regular basis. Obviously this required the physical strengthening of every physical aspect of playing. That was the ultimate key to building my range, but would have been impossible without the three preceding steps. (As a side note, it has been some years since I gigged, but the range is still there.)

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