Starting the trumpet is not always as easy as picking up an instrument and playing it. We are often asked questions about how to play, and how to start learning.
Chris Fower, our Director of Creativity and Innovation, currently focuses his time on product development and improvement but has an extensive 25 years of experience behind him where he combined a busy freelance performing career on the trombone alongside working in music education, primarily as a leading deliverer and trainer in informal, large group practice.
Here Chris shares his thoughts on some frequently asked questions about how to play the trumpet.
Q: Is it hard to learn to play the trumpet?
“All musical instruments take time, effort, resilience and patience to master and trumpet is no different, however, these are some of the factors that make playing so beneficial and rewarding!
To be honest the trumpet can be a bit of a slow starter, mainly because the player has to create all of the sound themselves - the trumpet is in essence, simply an empty tube. A good teacher can really help with getting the right set-up and understanding how to create a great sound. However, once this initial sound creation stage is overcome then progress is rapid, learners often rush ahead, overtaking other instruments.
So be patient and get the foundations right at the outset and later progress can be quick, rewarding and fun; one of the joys of learning a musical instrument is that you never finish the journey of learning so embrace the life-long mission!”
Q: Can you learn how to play the trumpet by ear?
“You can learn any musical instrument ‘by ear’ or in other words, without learning to read music. Many fine players outside of the classical music world spend much of their time playing and creating music in this way and trumpet players are no different.
One of the great things about the trumpet is that it is used in a vast array of different musical settings and genres, and so many of these do require the ability to read specialised, printed or hand-written trumpet music.
I would always recommend a blended learning scheme that includes both ‘playing by ear” and ‘reading the dots’ (learning to read music).”
Q: I cannot take any classes in real life, how do I start learning to play the trumpet?
“I would always recommend that you have lessons from a good teacher, especially at the outset of taking up the trumpet - there is something about being in the same room as a really good trumpet player, hearing and feeling what a great trumpet sound is like in “real life”!
However, if life makes this impossible for whatever reason, as technology expands so do the opportunities - from courses online to having video lessons from a remote teacher. It is important to get some feedback about your playing, whether that is from a person via recordings, live video or from sophisticated software that can detect the notes you play.
As soon as you can I would suggest you join a band or ensemble or attend a course or festival. Brass playing is very much about playing together, making music; sometimes those around you can be as good a guide as a more formal teacher.”
Q: How can I best get back into playing the trumpet?
“I would always recommend that you find a good teacher to give you a great “reset”. Don’t forget that those playing muscles and your ears have probably got unused to playing, so a good technical workout regime is going to be just as important as playing pieces and band parts to your revival!
If you learnt as a child your initial teacher probably hid lots of technical work into the set of tunes they chose for you to play so don’t underestimate the power of a bit of “brass gym” to get your playing back into shape. Of course, join a band or ensemble ASAP and most importantly of all enjoy!”
Q: What is the difference between a professional trumpet and an intermediate trumpet?
“Most professional and intermediate trumpets will look very similar from the outside: a variety of metals, first and third tuning slide triggers and three water keys, a nice case and a decent mouthpiece will be included along with oils and grease and maybe a cleaning cloth.
So, what’s the difference? There are a host of differences: hand-finished bells, lead pipe construction, hand-lapped valves, hand-finished mouthpiece receiver, and so on. Just like buying a car or a mobile phone, the devil’s in the detail! However, in my opinion, it is the big target for the instrument that differs. Often intermediate brass instruments are designed to help the player – i.e give them a leg up from beginner to intermediate level! Therefore, a good intermediate instrument encourages a good, solid sound, it is not so flexible, encouraging the player into good habits.
With an intermediate trumpet, the harmonics or partials change smoothly and predictably, and the intonation is also predictable and secure; the instrument speaks easily without being too ‘shouty’. The good intermediate trumpet tends to fit into any musical setting or genre, it’s in no way a specialist but can have a good go at anything!
A professional model is probably a specialist instrument or has options that allow the buyer to customise the way it plays to lean towards a certain sound, pitch or response. This instrument may have been specifically designed as an orchestral instrument, a jazz trumpet, or a commercial trumpet. It might be a lighter instrument for playing in smaller ensembles or a heavy instrument for a unique sound at the mic or to dominate a whole orchestra from the principal trumpet chair (when needed!).
The professional player will be looking for an instrument that is flexible so they can bend the way the instrument sounds to fit with other players, ensembles or genres … by definition some instability in the system but a pro both needs and can handle this.
Of course, the market has so many intermediate and professional trumpets available that there are many instruments that fall outside of this, but in general: a good intermediate instrument is stable and predictable with a fixed, good sound and the professional instrument is more specialised, or customised and has flexibility in sound, attack and intonation.”
Q: What distinguishes good trumpet players from excellent — the best — trumpet players?
“Well, in a word musicianship! Truly great trumpet players are wonderful and complete musicians in their genre, irrelevant to the instrument they chose to play. Often in brass playing there can be an emphasis on technique, especially playing fast, loud and high on the trumpet. In reality, most great players who have a deep yet subtle grasp of the technique of their instrument have this knowledge through experience with musical and creative challenges that require remarkable technique rather than a simple hunger to ‘operate’ the instrument better.
Hopefully, all good trumpet players are on a personal journey towards greatness, some will get there, some won’t, but becoming a complete, creative, rounded and collaborative musician in your genre is most likely the goal of all musicians – that and having fun!”
Q: How can someone improve their tone (sound) on the trumpet?
“Many in the brass playing world have the opinion that in order to create a good tone, sound or timbre on a brass instrument then first of all the player must hold a good ‘concept of sound’ in their imagination.
So - listen to great trumpet players, especially live and as close up as possible (this is one of the reasons that lessons with really great players/teachers are so useful). Develop a clear idea about what you think an amazing trumpet sound, in your genre, is. When we play, only a portion of what we hear is live, external sound from our instrument. There is a lot of resonance inside our body and the buzzing of our lips that adds up to what we actually hear.
An external pair of ears, in the shape of a good teacher or trusted musical friend, is invaluable here but modern technology has brought high-quality audio recording to our pockets via smartphones, so use this to get a realistic take on how you really sound. Be honest!”
Q: How do you tune a trumpet?
“The first thing that needs to be in place before tuning is that the player is warmed-up and relaxed, using a good air supply.
Broadly speaking this is mainly a task for the ears, listening to the music you are playing and working on the general pitch (how high or low a note is) of the players around you. It’s helpful to know the difference between tuning and intonation:
Tuning - mainly refers to your instrument’s general pitch in comparison to the music or players you are playing with.
Intonation - usually refers to localised pitch differences of specific notes or intervals (the distance, in pitch, between two notes) that might occur due to technical reasons unique to your instrument family or a specific musical issue.
There are two main things that need attention:
a) Make your trumpet in tune with the other people you are playing with.
This is broadly to do with the main tuning slide. Basically, if you are sharper, higher in pitch than your colleagues you must make your instrument longer to lower or flatten the pitch, so you need to pull your main tuning slide out. If you are flatter or lower in pitch than the other players’ then you need to make your trumpet shorter to raise or sharpen your pitch, so move your main tuning slide in.
If you feel you are out of tune do something! Make a large adjustment and a loud note so you can hear the difference. Things will get better or worse, either way, it’s good information about what to do next. Once you’re going in the correct direction make smaller adjustments to hunt down the perfect position.
In reality, when you reach a reasonable playing standard and you have done some tuning in a few bands you’ll rarely have to do a lot of tuning work unless the temperature is very hot or cold, you haven’t had a warm-up or practised much!
b) Making sure the trumpet is in tune with itself.
This means that the first and third tuning slides are in the correct places. Most trumpets have some way to change the length of these slides during playing (triggers or rings). Make sure your slides are free and moving easily. If you are a beginner or intermediate player these charts give you a list of how to deal with the most common notes that need adjustment."
Q: I'm struggling to play the trumpet. Should I give up?
“NO NO NO!
Go and hear some brilliant trumpet playing, preferably live to boost up your inspiration and then try to find a really good teacher or a trumpet buddy who’s just a little bit better than you for some team support.”
Here are just a few videos that may inspire you!
For more information that may help you to start your musical journey on the trumpet, you may find our how-to-play trumpet page useful – we’ve included some basic terminology, a tuner app, and even some free sheet music!
As an undergraduate Chris studied Jazz at Leeds College of Music and then became a member of the Advanced Studies, post-graduate performers course at the Royal Academy of Music and Principal Bass Trombone with the European Community Youth Orchestra under Claudio Abbado. He then spent 25 years as a busy freelance performer based in both London and the North of England working with a wide variety of ensembles and artists, including being a member of Grimethorpe Colliery Band, The British Philharmonic Orchestra, Dame Shirley Bassey’s Orchestra and the Creative Jazz Orchestra.
Alongside this Chris has worked extensively in all areas of music education, latterly as a leading deliverer and trainer in informal, large group practice. This included roles as Leader in Wider Opportunities at Hertfordshire Music Service, Leader of Instrumental Development for Derbyshire City and County Music Partnership and as a face to face trainer on the Trinity Guildhall/Open University “Whole Class Instrumental Learning” national training program.
He became a key member of the team that created pBone, the plastic trombone in 2011/12 and has been involved with Warwick Music Group in various roles since then. Chris is currently Director of Creativity and Innovation for the company, a role which includes overseeing product development and improvement, quality and education.