Wanna Play High Notes? How to Keep From Losing Your Footing
Printed in the July 1993 issue of Downbeat.
An article by Maynard Ferguson.
It seems that all beginning trumpeters, as soon as they can get a sound, have the irresistible urge to see how high they can play. When you apply the upper register to jazz improvisation, the goal is not to lose any of your articulation. The sound, attack, and release are very different if you are predominantly a lead player in a physically demanding situation. It is difficult for a great power lead player to also develop into a great jazz player-but some do.
What we excel at is closely knit to what we spend our time at. If most of your performance and practice time is in the middle and lower registers, that is predominantly the type of player you will be, because, artistically, that is where you enjoy the instrument the most. But for those of you who yearn to improve your upper register, you need to extend it in the same way that a great opera singer extends his or her upper register. Screech opera singers are not much in demand. Do not allow yourself to get tagged as being the "screech" trumpeter.
Something I did in the beginning to improve my range was to play beautiful melodies that I was familiar with and liked. I would advise that the ballad you choose should have an elongated melody. In doing so you are getting rid of some of those boring, long-tone exercises this trumpet player always hated.
Then practice playing that same melody a minor third higher - sometimes with vibrato, sometimes without. Stop playing as soon as you lose any of the beauty that you had in the lower key. The minute it sounds strained, stop and rest. Then play it again, still up the minor third, until this feels totally natural and lyrical. Eventually, take it up a fifth, always without increasing the intensity. A very important thing happens: as you begin to think of this new key as normal, you have elevated the center of your range both mentally and physically.
Miles Davis once asked me what he was doing wrong in the upper register. "Your legs," I told him.
"Shit," he said, walking away. He asked me again later, and I explained what I meant. Watch a great weightlifter or Pavarotti doing his big numbers - both are exerting great energy. Their legs are firmly planted, and they are balanced equally on each one. To keep the energy flowing, one should be standing and sitting properly.
As soon as you use the expression, "I have to warm my lip up," you've already made a mistake. It's body-and-mind coordination you get going first, and then breath control. I suggest simple Hatha yoga breathing exercises. The exercises both relax and warm you up. Coordination is no good when it is attached to nervousness. Choose only the exercises that are comfortable to you and, most importantly, that you learn from a Hatha yoga teacher.
After a certain amount of knowledge and technique has been achieved, the artist in you takes control, and at that point you become a musician. But this instrument that you play is really you. You study, practice, listen, and devote most of your waking hours to improving your performance. The important thing to ask yourself is: "What do I want to sound like?" not "Who do I want to sound like?" The sounds that are in your heart and your head are the sounds that will come out of your instrument.