How to Develop Speed and Accuracy in Your Brass Playing

by Chris O'Hara

Faster, Higher, Louder

The trumpet player’s creed.  Let’s look at the first of these: faster.  When it comes to playing faster, there are a few things that we can do – some easier than others.  One of the first things that we need to do in order to help ourselves play faster is to make sure that we have good hand technique.  This is something that is often overlooked, especially by younger players.  You want to make sure that both of your wrists are straight (not bent in any way to avoid issues like carpal tunnel).  For the purposes of playing faster, the focus should be on your right hand.  Make sure that your fingers are curled, as though holding a ball, and then place your fingertips (not the pads, but the tips) on the valve buttons.  When you use your finger pads, you push your valves down and to the side which causes odd wear on your valves and valve-casings.  This can cause even well-oiled valves to stick.  The main reason that you want to use your fingertips, however, is for efficiency and ease of movement.  If the last phalange of your finger is in-line with the valve-stem, you will have maximum efficiency.  Flat fingers stretch the tendons slightly in the fingers and makes them harder to move.  When going for speed, you want everything to move as easily as possible.  The last aspect of proper finger technique is the little finger.  Many people are taught as beginners to put your little finger IN the hook.  A better way is to think of your “hook” as a “shelf.”  Put your little finger on the shelf instead of the hook. Why?  Well, do a little experiment.  Make a fist.  Now, without moving any other fingers, extend your index finger all the way up.  Pretty easy, right?  The middle finger is a little harder.  Now, try and move your ring finger all the way up.  Not going, is it?  Now release your middle and little finger.  Ah, now it works better.  By locking up your little finger in the hook, you make movement of the ring finger harder.  Placing your little finger on the shelf makes movement more efficient, and therefore, faster!

Now that we have our hand technique sorted out, the next step is practice.  Of course, we all want to just jump into the tempo that we would like to play.  However, this is often not the best way to go about building quality performance.  Start slow, and use a metronome.  Once in a master class setting, I asked Hakan Hardenberger how he approached a new piece of music.  His response was (and I’m paraphrasing), “Slow. So slow that you wouldn’t believe how slow I play it.”  I recommend starting out by breaking down your passage into small sections.  Then play one note at a time, so you can hear each note and how they relate to each other, and make sure that you are getting a solid sound on each note.  Once you can play the passage in this fashion without mistakes, three times in a row, then you can add rhythm and tempo.  My general rule is to not play any faster than you can play something without mistakes.  Keep to the three times in a row rule. 


Everyone can do something once, most people can do it twice.  Three times shows that you have control of the technique.  If you play it correctly twice and make an error on the third attempt, your count goes back to zero.  The great Adolf “Bud” Herseth was known to do ten times in a row!  Now that you have done three repetitions without mistakes, you can change the tempo, but don’t jump ten clicks after your success, maybe three to five.  When you can play the passage at the new tempo three times in a row without mistakes, you can move the tempo again.  Repeat the process until you achieve your desired tempo.  An important thing to note here is that you may not achieve your goal tempo in one practice session.  Make sure to record the last tempo you reach at the end of your practice session.  When you come back to that passage in the next session, start five to ten clicks slower than your best time to insure that you are able to continue your progress with quality.  Quality is always preferable over speed.  

With proper hand technique and thoughtful, consistent practice, the goal of “faster” is well within reach.  

For an exclusive video on faster slide technique, 

check out Denis Wick Artist Paul Nowell aka "Paul the Trombonist."

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