The Trumpet Player's Octave Key

by Bruce Chidester

Originally published to

Have you ever watched enviously as woodwind players sail up and down through their wide range by only depressing their octave key? With the slightest movement of the thumb of their left hand, clarinet players are able to jump octaves with ease and sax players effortlessly negotiate eight and sixteen note intervals with no additional effort while we brass players continue to struggle to perform the same skips. Well fellow tube buzzers, there is hope. We will also soar with the eagles for we now have an octave key and we should use it proudly. It is located just below the little finger of our right hand and it is called “the hook”!

The previous message is an attempt at humor for the hook has been given the name the octave key for a reason and the reason is not good. The hook,  located on your lead pipe, has been given the name octave key because of its misuse when playing in the high register. When we struggle to play our high notes, the hook is many times used to squeeze out more pressure on the lip to get these notes. The excessive pressure applied to the embouchure will increase high notes but at a cost. Excessive mouthpiece pressure will thin the tone quality of these notes as well as limit blood flow to the embouchure which in turn will decrease the player’s endurance. I have seen extreme cases where the player using excessive pressure has literally split the lip open and permanently damaged the nerves of the embouchure.

What is the purpose of the hook on my horn?

There are reasons the hook has been attached to your instrument and here are some of them.

  • The hook is useful when playing with one hand.
  • If you need to insert a mute or turn a page of your music, it is useful.
  • You will find the hook helpful when placing your instrument in its case.

How will I know if I am using the hook to incorrectly get my high notes?

To find out if you are using too much mouthpiece pressure to get your high notes, simply take your little finger out of the hook and play the same high notes. If you are unable to get them to speak, the chance is very good that you are using too much pressure and the cause of the added pressure is coming from your misuse of the hook.

The amount of excessive pressure will vary among the many playing styles of trumpet players but the worst case I have personally witnessed happened while playing the Circus. One of my good friends was playing the third cornet part and used so much pressure that we had to find a mouthpiece puller to get his mouthpiece removed from his horn. In another case, I witnessed another player use so much pressure that he actually pulled the hook off the lead pipe. Obviously the solder joint was defective but it was originally attached with enough strength to pass inspection at the factory.

How can I break the habit of misusing the hook?

If you are convinced that the pressure is being generated from the little finger of your right hand and you are determined to break yourself of this habit, try the following-

  • Tape some Scotch Tape around the hook.
  • Each time you place your finger in the hook, you will be reminded to refrain from using it.
  • After a few days of rewrapping the tape, you will be less dependent on the hook.

I have worked with students at band camps who, after one week, were able to change their habit of using too much mouthpiece pressure because of the tape on the hook trick. One student shared with me the fact that their band director had been yelling at him/her for two years to “get the finger out of the hook”, and in two days with the tape, they had broken the habit.

Don’t go to extremes when trying to break the habit.

One of my students was using too much pressure and when I told him of the tape trick, he understood and left his lesson encouraged that he would solve his pressure problem by the next lesson. When he returned the next week, he had indeed corrected the habit, but when I asked him the reason for the bandage on his right hand, little finger, he told me the reason. After leaving his lesson the week previous, he thought he would improve on my instructions and taped a thumb tack on the inside of the hook to more effectively remind himself of the exercise. You need not go to extremes to get the job done, a simple piece of tape will be enough. You will find that you will be replacing the tape often the first few days for we are creatures of habit and it is surprising how many times we use the hook.

We all use some pressure while playing, but if you are using the minimum amount; you will be a better player.

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