Getting a Better Higher Register
There is often a danger when you start talking about playing higher to set a goal for yourself and aim to reach this top note or that top note, and then to push this as though it is a competition! Please note that this is a really bad way of thinking about developing a high register and is one that I would like to ensure I do not promote.
Playing in the higher register is physically demanding, but then playing in any register is physically demanding. Playing a brass instrument is a physical thing and it is the reason for making sure that you warm up before you play.
Changing the way you perceive things
The most important thing to change is the idea that there is a top C, or any other top note. This implies that when you get the note that you have labelled the top note, there is nowhere else to go. With the correct technique, you can play as high as you can hear in your mind’s ear.
Careful listening, and the ability to hear the note that you want to produce, is the key to success when playing in the higher register.
The main things to watch out for when playing in the higher register include:
- Avoid unnecessary pressure – keep the pressure on your lips as minimal as possible and avoid tensing your intercostal muscles.
- Avoid a smiley embouchure – try to keep the overall embouchure shape the same as it should really only need to be the aperture between the lips that needs to adjust.
- Keep the flow of air going – remember that wind=song and the only way to achieve a good sound is to ensure that there is good air flow to support that sound.
Building strength and maintaining sound
Probably the best thing to remember when beginning to extend your range is that it is always best to start from a note that is comfortable. It is then possible to work around this note extending your range little by little.
As you play higher ensure that the air flow is kept consistent and that the temptation to pull the instrument onto the face is avoided. Excessive pressure is always a bad idea. As you press the mouthpiece harder onto the lips, you may notice that it seems a bit easier to get the higher notes initially, however this really is a false economy.
The excessive pressure causes the blood flow in your lips to reduce and can make them turn blue. Without blood flowing freely through the lips, it is not possible to vibrate them fully. This then causes a tired sensation in the embouchure. Continuing to play when the embouchure feels like this is very tiring and uncomfortable, and may lead to bruising. Forming a smiley embouchure, in turn stretching the lips, causes the onset of problems sooner.
Using lip slurs, long notes and scales (in 3rds, 6ths and octaves) allows the embouchure to get stronger across the range, trains the ear to hear intervals accurately and provides a good awareness of tonal centre. All of these things are crucial for extending your playing into the higher registers.
Here is an example of some of these exercises in the key of C. For the best result with these, it is a great idea to transpose them into different keys.
You will see a variety of articulations shown on the score. For the best results it is good to mix this up a little bit. This is shown for illustrative purposes only and the intention is that the same articulation will be used for the whole exercise. To make things a little easier I have included a .pdf of this image in treble clef and bass clef below.
Practice musically, perform musically
When playing these exercises it is important to remember that they are not just a means to an end and the only way to get the most from them is to play with musicality. Often exercises can be seen as a way to train the embouchure, but this is really only focusing on physical elements and leads to a reduction in real listening.
Keep the air moving and always hear each note in your head before you play. Listen to your intonation and take real care with the production of each note. Aim to play each exercise rhythmically focusing on the quality of sound that you make. If it hurts, then it is important to stop and reassess how you are trying to do things. Use a mirror to see what things look like and check this regularly to make sure things are as they should be.
When working on scales it is possible to concentrate on and consider many different things such as note production, breath control, tone, intonation, rhythmic accuracy and so on. All of these issues are key to better playing and really make a difference to what we do whether we are playing exercises to develop technique, melodious studies, scale intervals, lip slurs or pieces of music that we are performing.
Better (and more musical) practice will lead to better (and more musical) performance and playing!