Brass Tactics: Building Virtuosity in the Brass Section

Brass Tactics

Developing a strong brass section requires individual attention to brass fundamentals. There are five areas of brass study that need to be practiced daily in order to maintain technique as well as further developing technique. These areas of study include tone production, flexibility, dexterity, articulation, and range.

Tone Production

How does one know how to take a good breath if they don’t know what it is supposed to feel like? We can say things like breathe “OH-HO,” keep the oral cavity open as if you were yawning, the breath should be audible and unrestricted, and you should feel a “coolness” in the back of your throat when taking a breath. These analogies are helpful, but I am a visual learner and the type of learner that needs to be allowed to do a particular task in order to learn. The famous Chinese proverb comes to mind:

“Tell me, I’ll forget
Show me, I’ll remember
Involve me, I’ll understand”

Utilizing external breathing exercises give students sensory processing of what a good breath and blow need to feel like. Breathing gym and/or breathing exercises away from the horn can provide the valuable and crucial lessons on what a good breath should feel like. In addition to using breathing gym, one can use other helpful tools like blowing bubbles, using a pinwheel, and other breathing apparatus types (breath builder, etc.).

Initially establishing a good sound in the practice session is critical. Developing a concept of sound goes hand in hand with this. Students must be able to recognize a good sound. Listening to other outstanding instrumentalists and singers can foster this concept. Once they have a good sound in their head, they simply reproduce this sound in their own playing.

In addition to building these listening skills, there are exercises brass students can practice to assist with sound production. Flow studies provide an excellent opportunity to focus on breath, air support, and proper vibration (buzz). Practicing Vincent Cichowicz’s Long Tone Studies can give one freedom from the physical aspects of playing a brass instrument. Ideally, one just needs to listen and create a good sound while playing these exercises. It is helpful and efficient to use a tuner and/or drone while practicing long tones and/or flow studies. Having a basis in which to check tuning is helpful as one develops their ear.

Other helpful exercises for tone production include mouthpiece exercises and lip bends. Mouthpiece work can include just playing simple tunes like Mary had a Little Lamb. Things to consider include focusing on a constant air stream and the quality of sound that is being produced. Lip bend exercises are a great source to strengthen chops and assist in intonation. There are many books devoted to lip bends, but just like mouthpiece work, a little goes a long way!


For some students, flexibility exercises are one of the hardest things to practice. Students hate to practice something they sound terrible on as it lowers their morale.

The definition of a slur is getting from one note to another without the use of the fingers or tongue. So how do we get from one note to another? The air speed needs to change; namely, higher notes require faster air than lower notes. Higher notes do not require more air, if we add more volume/amount of air, we will get louder notes. This is why we are able to play soft high notes.  So, how do we get faster air? Simply put, we engage the intercostal muscles in the tummy, which in turn accelerate the air.

The lips only respond to the air you give it, they do not dictate what the air is going to be! Students get in trouble when they set the embouchure before going for a higher or lower note; if the vibrating membrane of the lips is too tight, the resulting sounds will be tense and airy.

The aperture gets smaller for higher notes and larger for lower notes. What controls the aperture? Basically, the orbicularis oris muscles control the aperture size. We have muscles on the corners and on top/bottom of the lips. We get into trouble when we use one muscle group more than the other; we have to find a balance. Brass players may have a pucker or smile embouchure type. The ideal embouchure is one that uses both of these in harmony. Because we are using opposing forces, pulling and pushing at the same time, this can put players out of balance. The best way to fix this is to practice flexibility exercises.

The oral cavity also plays a role to a certain extent especially in the upper register. The tongue needs to arch (Irons[1]), “Ahhh-EEEEE” as one ascends in the upper register.

Some things to avoid include tensing the lips before moving from one note to another and stopping the air before moving from one note to another.

Time is crucial when practicing slurs; you are teaching the muscles to give you a voluntary response when you want it. What can a muscle do? It can contract and release essentially. You never want to practice slurs with bad time/tempo as this will only result in involuntary responses.

Initially, smooth contour slurs are ideal (Irons[2], Scholssberg[3], Colin[4]). Later, more advanced slurs can increase flexibility. These include those with wider interval switches (Vizzutti Book 1[5], Laurie Frink “Flexus”[6], Bai Lin[7])


With the invention of the valve in c. 1816 (Perinet in 1839), brass players were given a new technique that had to be practiced, namely, finger dexterity. The hand position is important as a poor position can contribute to a myriad of issues. Some good rules of thumb include having the tips of fingers on valves. The right hand should look like a backward C on top of the valves. It is best not to lock the pinky of the 3rd valve ring as this could hamper speed and contribute to tension. Another thing to consider is to not have slow fingers while playing lyrical passages. At times, students try to sounds lyrical with their fingers, but this always contributes to unsatisfactory results. Think about always slamming the fingers down when a valve is depressed as a new passageway opens in the trumpet when a valve is pushed down.


When you bring the tongue into the “mix” it can create many issues. Keep it very simple, just say “TU” and that is where the tongue strikes. The sides of the tongue are already touching the teeth and it is simply the tip of the tongue that moves. One can give the illusion of shortness by adding space. Simply put, the tongue interrupts the air rather than stopping the air. The tongue also doesn’t strike “harder” for shorter notes, but rather, uses more space and compression (if needed).

I am an advocate of starting multiple tonguing (double and triple) as early as possible (middle school) as students don’t know it’s any harder than single tonguing.


A systematic approach is beneficial, be patient! In addition to isolated range exercises, practicing the previous four areas of fundamentals (tone, flexibility, articulation, and finger dexterity) in the whole range of the instrument is ideal and can assist in range development.

[1] Irons, Earl. Twenty-seven Groups of Exercises for Cornet and Trumpet
[2] Ibid.
[3] Schlossberg, Max. Daily Drills and Technical Studies for Trumpet
[4] Colin, Dr. Charles. Advanced Lip Flexibilities for Trumpet (Complete Volumes 1-3)
[5] Vizzutti, Allen. The Allen Vizzutti Trumpet Method – Book 1, Technical Studies
[6] Frink, Laurie and McNeil, John. Flexus: Trumpet Calisthenics for the Modern Improvisor
[7] Lin, Bai. Lip Flexibilities : For All Brass Instruments

Raquel Rodriquez is the associate professor of trumpet at Northern Kentucky University School of the Arts. She holds the DMA in Trumpet Performance from The University of North Texas and a MA and Bachelor’s degree in Music Education from West Texas A&M University. Raquel has appeared as a clinician, soloist, and chamber musician throughout the US, Canada, the UK, and China. The principal cornet with the Lexington Brass Band, she is also a member of the Ohio River Brass Quintet, an associate member with Seraph Brass, and a busy freelancer. Dr. Rodriquez is also a clinician for the Conn-Selmer and Denis Wick Companies, and has been a prize-winner at NABBA, the US Open Brass Band Championships, the National Trumpet Competition, and the International Women’s Brass Conference. Her recording, “Cincinnati Virtuosity – The Cornet Solos of Frank Simon and Herman Bellstedt” is available on iTunes, Amazon, and CD Baby. For more info, visit Dr. Rodriquez’s website.

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