The Dallas Brass: Mental Triggers for High Brass Efficiency

mental triggers

It seems like one advantage of playing a brass instrument is that you can play many different notes with the same fingering, thanks to what is known as the harmonic series. However, this can pose a technical challenge for the player. Quite often one can wind up in the wrong partial of the harmonic series, thus hitting the wrong note.

If you don’t believe me, ask any French horn player!

Scientific studies show that in order to change partials within the harmonic series, certain adjustments should be made while playing. These can include a change of intensity in air flow, a change in size of the oral cavity, a change in intensity of the embouchure, and a change in mouthpiece pressure.

This is explained in detail by David Hickman (Regents’ Professor of Trumpet at Arizona State University) in his “Four Ps Concept” (pages 13-22 of his book Trumpet Pedagogy).

Mental Triggers

Ironically, paying attention to every physical detail while playing may also not be the best strategy. In many cases, it can lead to what many refer to as “paralysis by analysis.” To avoid this, I give my students “mental triggers” that help cue different processes of the body which assist in pitch accuracy no matter the range or register. The result is the reinforcement of healthy, efficient playing habits for high brass instruments.

Below are some “mental triggers” I and my students find useful.

For Efficient Inhalation (Breathing) and Exhalation (Blowing)


Imitating a yawn when inhaling is the most efficient way, I believe, to get the student to breathe properly without too much explanation, since we all know how to yawn! The added benefit is filling your lungs with very little resistance.

If the player imitates a yawn when exhaling, it is easier for that player to maintain open and free airflow; just be sure that the higher the note, the faster the yawn.

Blowing on “hot soup”

I like this example because it helps the student to form a natural embouchure best suited to his or her physique. Keep in mind that the higher the note, the farther away the imaginary soup has to be. This helps the student blow with the right amount of energy for the note they are trying to play.

Blowing out “birthday cake candles”

Just like in the previous examples for help with proper exhalation, the higher the note, the farther away the imaginary candles have to be.

For Tongue Placement

There are many methods which address the oral cavity and its shape for playing the high register, particularly in the books of Claude Gordon (“Tongue Level Exercises”) and Carlton MacBeth (“The Original Louis Maggio System for Brass”). My experience is that students often over-manipulate the size of the oral cavity, causing tension in the throat. An overly shrill and bright tone often results from too small an oral cavity.

Use of the “flutter-tongue” effect

The use of flutter-tongue forces the student to expel the air efficiently and adopt the best oral shape for a specific note. The student should produce this effect with the tongue, not with the back of the throat.

It is difficult for some students to roll the Rs. In that case, I suggest having them learn to roll their Rs by imitating a Russian accent or trying to start the effect with the letter F. Avoid flutter-tongue on notes at the top of the staff and higher because it is very hard to produce.

“Tuning the air”

This is a practice tool that is done without the instrument or mouthpiece, achieved by performing a similar action as whistling while keeping the same embouchure as if playing the instrument. As a result, the player makes a tuneful, “windy” sound or “breathy whistle” with a recognizable pitch center. This can be done on anything as simple as scales, etudes, or any other more advanced piece of music the player is working on.

In order to change pitches, the player has to move the tongue. I like this “trigger” because the movement of the tongue naturally adjusts by “tuning the air” on the piece being worked on.

Thinking of where or how to position the tongue distracts the player from having a clear sound concept, which includes pitch accuracy. Another benefit is that it links the processes of blowing and oral cavity-changing/tongue-positioning into one, streamlined action.

For Embouchure Control

The embouchure needs more energy while maintaining resiliency as we ascend and descend registers. To achieve this, I suggest the following.

Blowing on “hot soup”

The previous example of cooling hot soup is also useful here. The farther the soup is, the more puckered the lips should be in order to reach the soup. In other words, the higher the note, the farther away the soup needs to be. The player then applies the same energy in the embouchure from the exercise when playing different registers on the instrument.

“Milkshake” bubbles

Another good example is pretending that you are blowing bubbles into a smoothie or milkshake through a straw. The higher the note, the thicker the smoothie or milkshake. In both cases, the lips will naturally be in a more rolled-in position as the player blows with more energy.

I hope you find these exercises and tips useful when playing and/or working with your students.

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