How’s the Air Up There?

This month’s column is about that most mysterious of subjects, the high register. Everybody wants a good high register but the question is, how to get it? First of all, let’s make one thing clear, high register is mostly air and less importantly, body. A simple but frequently overlooked fact is that it takes more air to vibrate taut lips than relaxed lips. Since we need to have firm corners in order to produce high notes, we must increase air flow to make those lips vibrate. I have heard many people actually decrease air flow when going up because of the fear that the embouchure will not hold the amount of air needed to produce that note. This becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. Since not enough air was blown across the embouchure to vibrate the lips the pitch wasn’t produced and fear determined the result. Imagine a weight pressing down on your embouchure when playing a high note, trying to push you off of that note. Since you have already set your embouchure to produce that frequency, the only thing you have to keep that weight from pushing you off that note is the air stream. Think of the air stream as a bridge between notes. It is your job to keep the bridge strong and stable, in order to hold the traffic above on a smooth and steady plane.

You should learn to articulate on a constant air stream as if the air was in the slur mode, whether tonguing or slurring. It should feel like the notes are riding on top of the air stream. You should set your embouchure once for every passage and then rely on the air to drive up to a higher register. The partials being closer together in the high register allows you to glissando with the air stream without it being heard. I like to think of my embouchure like an elevator. I sent it up to the right floor and then I have to blow the doors open, whether soft or loud. I set my corners so that the air can be blown across a level surface.

Take the high Db passage in the Bolero solo. The crucial thing is to have a fanatically steady air stream as if you were playing one long note and the intrusion of the tongue to articulate had no effect on the steadiness of the air stream. Incidentally, I slur the notes leading up to the Db’s and only start articulating when the triplets start. Before that, I am using breath accents and legato tongue in order to keep the air steady and moving forward on the Db floor. If the most difficult note in a passage is a low note such as the end of the Bolero, then I will set my embouchure for that note before I start the passage and play the higher notes on that embouchure using my air stream to take me up there.

In a passage like the Rhenish excerpt, once I hit the high Ab after a breath, it is all glissando with the air, a still embouchure and a smooth moving slide so as not to disturb the flow of the air. Since the partials are so close together all I get is a smooth legato and no glissando. However, my air is swooping up and down. It is like my air is pushing my corners back when I slur upwards. and not vice-versa.

When playing short high notes such as in Beethoven 5, it is important that the player mentally visualize a continuing air stream even though the embouchure closes to stop the sound. That mental image of a steady air stream will keep the corners firm and still so that the air has a smooth, firm and level surface to travel across.

By now you have probably noticed that it is much easier to slur up to the high register than to articulate. This gives us a clue to the importance of the continuity of the air stream in the production of high notes. Keeping the mental image of the air stream always in the slur mode no matter what the articulation will go a long way toward gaining a solid upper register.

I want to tell you about a new publication for trombonists that was written by a student of mine, Ben Coy. I suggested to Ben that he write out a few chord progressions for 3 trombones for use in my trombone studio class at the Chicago College of Performing Arts. Lo and behold Ben came up with a whole book of sequences encompassing every chord progression a player will likely encounter. Part of each example is annotated using the theory of just intonation so that players would know their function in each chord. There are also orchestral excerpts annotated in the same way. I cannot stress the value of this book enough. It should be in every players library. I wish I’d had a book like this when I started playing as it would have saved me many years of searching for that dream of every trombone player: the perfectly tuned chord. This publication can be obtained online through Kagarice Brass Editions.