Summer Sessions: High{ER}

an conversation with Kirk Garrison by Mary Galime

If you have been keeping up with all the SummER Sessions tips, you should be getting the idea that in every performance area, your desire to improve, a systematic approach to practice with focused intention are the keys to success. When we approach high notes, it is much the same. Many trumpet players have heard the advice, “Use faster air,” “Make it look effortless,” and “If you can play low, you can play high.” What does that mean exactly? While all good advice, these are very subjective descriptions that are only truly understood until you yourself learn how to navigate the higher range of your instrument.

                Denis Wick artist, Kirk Garrison, is the trumpet player for the internationally touring rock group, Gary Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band, and one of Chicago’s most in demand lead trumpet players. High range is a daily task for him, so doing it correctly is imperative. In a recent interview we discussed some of the game changer moments in his high range studies, and he provides some high-range insight that will help make a lot of subjective advice out there become a reality for you.

“Use Faster air”

While higher air velocity is a must for high notes, it is worthless without the proper breath. “One of the main things I work on is being as relaxed as I possibly can be when I take a breath.” Kirk went on to explain that breathing is frequently overlooked when we move into the high register. Though many focus on their air and moving it faster, the breath they take to support that air becomes shallower the higher in the range they move. Taking the same deep breath in every part of the range is imperative to navigating into the higher range.

“Sit up straight so your weight moves down into your butt if you’re sitting, feet if you’re standing. I focus on breathing low in my body - almost as if my air were filling a brandy snifter (with a bowl shaped container) from the base up. With your intake of air, always keep your arms and shoulders relaxed. Especially when breathing for a high note, many players tense up their arms and shoulders to brace themselves for the higher note, but this paralyzes the lower half of their body where they should be focusing their breath.”

We also focus a lot on muscular strength to aid us in the higher register, but Kirk says, “When you are in shape, it is very easy to use your muscles compensate for bad air intake. Strong muscles will help you play in the higher register, but without the proper air support you will fatigue and possibly injure yourself a lot faster. When you are out of shape, you tend to breathe and support the best because without developed muscles you really depend on your air working correctly, but when you are in shape, your chops can overcompensate without you realizing it. This is why it is really important to practice breathing correctly every day in each register.

“Make it look effortless”

Some of Kirk’s early inspirations were Bobby Shew and Jon Faddis. He recalled watching them play with seemingly no strain or effort. They were completely relaxed. This is something we should aspire to as well. Kirk will be the first one to tell you playing lead trumpet is anything but effortless. Internally, it does take a lot of muscle and control to focus the air stream and sustain a high velocity of air. However, that support is provided by two places: your diaphragm (pointing to the belly button area) and where you buzz, your embouchure.” Your diaphragm supports and sustains the release of a good breath, and your embouchure muscles will react to support the velocity of air releasing. When this happens, the rest of the body can relax. “The opposite, and incorrect way of doing this is when you get going into the higher register, the arms come in, the shoulders raise cutting off the airflow and all the pressure is now put on the embouchure.”

When you are supporting as you should, you then are flexible in your body to adjust the angle of your horn in reaction to your muscles adjusting to the air velocity. “You must stay relaxed so that you are flexible enough to allow the angle of your horn to change. As I move into higher registers, my horn slightly angles down. Some great players tilt up, like Wayne Bergeron and Roger Ingram, but the point is, they remain flexible enough to be able to follow the changing muscles in their embouchure as their air velocity changes. A lot of folks use the mouthpiece pressure to create the embouchure, as opposed to their muscles. I’ve had students come who can’t buzz their lips without the use of their mouthpiece! If the rim is holding the embouchure, there is really nothing to channel the air correctly into the mouthpiece, and that is a huge problem.”

"If you can play low, you can play high"

“You really need to learn how to play the rest of the horn before you try to start to play in that register,” was the piece of advice Kirk was given by Charles Schluter, while in college. “I was playing to a high C or something and I was working so hard to get to that note,” Kirk recalled. “I have seen so many high school trumpet players that can play high in the marching band in the fall, but they can’t play any of their scales, no etudes, they have the shallowest mouthpiece they can get so their sound is very strained, they can’t articulate, and play out of tune. But they can play high notes! In this case, they made an equipment change to play a really high note, but the rest of their playing suffers because of it.”

While there are many tools we can use to support our high range, they are all worthless until we know how to play in the high range correctly. Daily practice that starts in the middle range, and systematically works into the higher and lower ranges of your horn will slowly train your body to prepare and support correctly all the time. Using all the advice you’ve received so far, Kirk provides some tips for your daily practice to expand your high range:

  • Start your sessions with practicing good air intake. If you need some help on breathing correctly, Bobby Shew and many of the great lead players practice yoga breathing. Check out Bobby Shew’s advice here: Bobby Shew

  •  Practice in front of a mirror. Be sensitive to your neck, shoulders, arms, and legs. As you expand your range, do any of these areas appear to tense, stiffen, or grow ridged? When tension happens, stop and practice releasing the tension before you move forward.

  • Use flow studies. The Cichowicz flow studies are perfect for expanding your range. They make tension in your body and disruptions in your air flow obvious.

  •  Expanding your range should be a part of your daily practice, but it should only be a small percentage of your daily practice. It takes time to build good habits as you expand, and if you rush things you will memorize bad habits that can lead to injury.

  • When you are comfortable in your higher range, and look to find a mouthpiece to help support this range, remember that a shallow mouthpiece is a tool to be used just in this range. When you are going to use this tool, start to incorporate using this mouthpiece into your daily practice so your body has time to learn how to adjust switching to a new cup depth.  

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