For many of you out there, talking about your high register leads to lying on a couch talking to a therapist, its not always an easy topic to chat about. I think if I polled 100 brass players on which aspect of their playing they wish would improve overnight, most would say high register.
The problem with developing our high register, is that we want it done yesterday. We dont have the patience to do it slowly and correctly. So the common method is by using force and pressure, which leads to poor technique and bad habits.
One of the finest exponents of high playing on the trombone is Joe Alessi - the Principal Trombone of the New York Philharmonic. All trombonists should own every album Joe has made, but I think all brass players could learn from the way he sings in the upper register. One of the misconceptions with playing high is that the smaller the mouthpiece, the higher we can play. Now, of course a trumpet can play higher than a trombone, but thats not what I am talking about. As a trombonist, you dont need smaller equipment to play high - you need correct technique and time. Joe probably plays on the biggest ‘tenor’ trombone anyone plays on, so that theory is out the window.
The way I think about high register is simple, if I cant make my best sound up there, then its not in my register yet. There are a million opinions out there on the web about high register, and like most of these blogs I want to start by saying that I am just writing what has worked for me - it might not work for you, but why not give it a go.
The key to unlocking your high register is all to do with pressure and tension - ie the less tension you use, the higher you soar. We joke about the little hook at the end of the valves on a trumpet being the ‘octave key’, because you get that pinky in there and pull that instrument back towards your chops to get the high notes - but it doesn’t need to be that way.
Firstly - always think back to the air. The air is the key to everything we do, so my starting point in developing the high register is relate it back to the foundation of our playing - good air. So as we move our practice towards the upper part of our range, always think about a relaxed airstream. Try and do all your upper register work in front of a mirror, to make sure you are staying relaxed without your face looking like you are having a coronary.
Firstly, we need to do a quick assessment of our range to work out what we are working on, and where to start. So, speaking in brass band pitch (Bb) - I want you to think about the highest note you can play absolutely comfortably with no problems, and with your best sound. Then lets assume you have 4 notes above that that are not particularly comfortable, but you can get them (on a good day). Right, this is the start of our process.
Lets say that our comfortable note is a G on the top of the stave, and the 4 notes above go up to a top C. Great! It’s important to have this worked out, as that 4th interval is the area we need to work on, not above the C - thats not in our range yet. Squeaking out a top D 2 times out of 20 doesn’t count....
So, we want to concentrate our practice in that G to C range (or whatever the 4th is for you). Starting one octave below your note (G), do the major scale of that note at mp. Put the metronome on at crotchet = 80, and spend 2 beats on each note, slurring each connection. Remember to do this in front of the mirror, concentrating on not changing the air or pressure as we get higher. As we get to our top G, we turn around and come back down. Easy as! Now do it again, exactly the same, and one more for good measure.
Great, so now we have done the G major scale 3 times up and back - 2 beats on each note - slurring each connection, and not using any extra pressure. Make sure your face is not getting red, or your neck is bulging. Stay comfortable, and make it look easy.
Next, we go up to Ab Major, and do the same thing, and then A Major, then Bb Major, B Major and you guessed it, C Major. Each one of these 3 times, at mp dynamic. If you get to a point where on any of the scales you cant get the note without using pressure and force, then go back one scale and do that one again.
Concentrate on making your best sound for every note - as soon as you are squeezing then stop, and go back down. As you get more and more comfortable with these exercises, because you are going to do them everyday... then you can start adding a semi tone to the starting note.
Try and do this exercise for 3 months before moving the notes. We are playing the long game here. The key to this is keeping the sound even, quiet and not forcing it. Focus on constant relaxed air up there, not pushing hard with the air, that causes tension. Relax, Relax, Relax.
The next step for me, is to do etudes or melodies up the octave. When you get tired, stop and take 30 seconds break, before going again from where you left off. Keep the sound warm, and within your range. The longer you can spend in that 4th range without forcing, without tension, and with your best sound, the more ease you will play up there with.
This is not a quick fix, its a slow monotonous process, but the gains at the end are enormous. Imagine a world where you have complete faith in your high register, where you sleep well at night not having nightmares about that top C in the bands test piece. Its possible, but it takes time and patience.
The final bit of advice about this, is take the pressure off yourself when it comes to high register. Work slowly and confidently, it wont happen over night, but it will happen.. Dont play Russian roulette anymore with your high notes, take control and be realistic about where your high register is at. Rather than picking pieces that might not come off, pick pieces that you can show off the work you have done.
Please email me with any questions or for more exercises at firstname.lastname@example.org