How to practice

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Jeff PurtleBy Jeff Purtle

How often have you heard that someone is a great instrumentalist because they are a “natural” and that “naturals” are rare?

That is not true!

Playing a brass instrument is easy if done correctly. Watch the best players and notice how easy they make it seem.

The “secret”

By contrast, watch the many high school and college students turning red trying to play high notes. They try every gimmick known hoping they will discover “the secret.”

They waste money and time on mouthpieces, instruments and other equipment. Then they become frustrated when these don’t uncover “the secret.”

“The secret” is knowing how to practice. There is no need for experimentation or for guessing if the student is taught how to practice in a manner to address the true basics of brass playing.

Best of intentions

Some well intentioned teachers try to solve their students’ problems by assigning solos and music for which the student is not ready, hoping that this music will cause the talented few to rise to the occasion or that “musical” playing will correct bad technique. The average player becomes frustrated because he can’t make his instrument do what he has heard others do. Some teachers then give up on these “untalented” students.

Listening, and limitations

It is true that our musical thoughts and goals are developed by listening to great musicians and masters of our instrument and then by imitating them until our concept of playing can be communicated.

However, without technical proficiency on our instrument those goals will never be achieved. The virtuosos of all instruments make music sound beautiful and effortless because their skill so far surpasses the music that technique is no longer an issue. We should all strive for that and not be satisfied with mediocrity.

Natures laws

Any brass instrument operates under certain laws of nature that remain constant. Because of this we can trust that by a correct understanding and application of the basics we can play to the highest degree of skill on a consistent basis and continue to progress for years to come.

Some people think that everyone has a plateau they never can surpass. I disagree. By comparison we know that the laws of nature(i.e. gravity, aerodynamics) don’t change and we therefore can fly in an airplane and know that it won’t fall out of the sky.

Age-old concepts

These are not my original ideas but a summary of my ten years of study with Claude Gordon and his ten years of study with Herbert L. Clarke. These concepts have been around for years and explain why all the greatest players play the exact same way.

For verification see the following books:

  • Herbert L. Clarke’s Setting Up Drills copyright 1929 (p. 3)
  • Claude Gordon’s Systematic Approach to Daily Practice copyright 1965 (pp. 5-10)
  • Claude Gordon’s Brass Playing is No Harder Than Deep Breathing copyright 1987 (pp. 1-35).

It was not a coincidence that both Clarke and Gordon produced more great players and teachers than others – it is because of their understanding of the basics and constant focus on them.

The seven physical items

The following are the seven basic physical items that make the trumpet (or any brass instrument) work. These address all the essential physical components of correct playing.

All physical and technical problems can be fixed by correctly addressing the seven items individually and as they function together. This will serve as a grid to understand all elements of practice.

Each item must first be understood, then learned and experienced by the repetitious practice of certain exercises focused on each specific item. This focused practice builds good habits and then eventually all of these items work harmoniously by habit without thinking about it. As we move toward that point playing becomes more of a joy and making music more a matter of being able to do what you are thinking.

The seven items are as follows and are listed in priority order:

1. Wind Power
2. The Tongue
3. Wind Control
4. The Fingers Of The Right Hand
5. The Grip Of The Left Hand
6. The Muscles Of The Face and Lips
7. The Lips


1. Wind Power (This is the strength to blow strong, but not always necessarily loud.)

  • “Big Breath, Chest Up”(ALWAYS) – Claude Gordon
  • “The air does the work.” – Claude Gordon
  • Crescendo when ascending.
  • Air can only go to one place, the lungs.
  • Forget about the diaphragm and stomach.
  • If the chest stays up during breathing everything works correctly.
  • Keep shoulders relaxed and not raised.
  • Don’t confuse leaning back with Chest Up.
  • Play with confidence.
  • “You must drive all fear out of your system.” – Claude Gordon
  • “Hit it hard and wish it well.” (i.e. Don’t be afraid of missing notes.) – Gordon
  • Develop this by practice Breathing Exercises and Isometric Squeeze (“Long Hold”) on final notes.

2. The Tongue

Tongue Level (This is the use of specific vowel shapes to arch the tongue and change the air speed.)

  • “Aww” for lower notes, “Eee” in front area of tongue and blow stronger for higher notes.
  • Every note has a specific level for the tongue.
  • “The tongue channels the pitch.” – Claude Gordon
  • “The tongue rising in the mouth to make the inside of the mouth shallow, is the ‘Knack’ of producing high tones.” – Herbert L. Clarke
  • Forget about the tongue causing a “closed throat.”
  • Think “Eee” in the front of the tongue and not “Ich” in the back.
  • “Tee” or “Taw” not “Tu” (i.e. a bad french transliteration, “Tew” is better)
  • Single Tongue (This was called “K Tongue Modified” by Claude Gordon.)
  • “The tip of the tongue rests slightly against the lower teeth, while the center (front center) of the tongue strikes against the roof of the mouth.” – Herbert L. Clarke (Characteristic Studies, p. 5)
  • “The very tip of the tongue will naturally take a position back of the lower teeth. Never allow it to strike back of the upper teeth.” – Alessandro Liberati (19th century cornet virtuoso, Brass Playing Is No Harder Than Deep Breathing by Gordon, p. 26)
  • Incorrect tonguing results in more movement of the tongue and a disruption of the arched tongue’s air flow, thereby causing slow tonguing speed, inaccuracy and lack of ease in the high register.
  • Practice Models (i.e. various articulations): T, K, TK, KT, TTK, TKT, Slur, Etc.
  • Practice of “K” tonguing develops correct “T” tonguing by
    training the middle of the tongue.
  • “Watch The Tongue” (i.e. visualize the placement and movement) – Gordon
  • The tongue must not be rigid.
  • Everyone uses “Tongue Level” in their playing even if they don’t feel it

3. Wind Control

This is the control to play very softly and very long in one breath with surety.

  • “Willpower is necessary to accomplish what is considered an impossibility by many players.” (Clarke’s Technical Studies, p. 22 original text)
  • Wind Power must be developed before Wind Control can be experienced.
  • “Never play softer than you can get a sure sound.” – Claude Gordon
  • Accuracy must come before speed.
  • Development of The Fingers Of The Right Hand works with Wind Control.
  • “The air does the work.” – Claude Gordon
  • “Kick the air on upper notes.” – Claude Gordon
  • Blow stronger(crescendo) when ascending, lighter when descending.
  • Only after proper development of strength should decrescendos on ascending notes be worked on. (i.e. Schlossberg’s Daily Drills)
  • The coordination of Wind Power and Tongue Level working together results in notes effortlessly clicking into so called “slots.

4. The Fingers Of The Right Hand

  • “Strike The Valves Hard, Lift The Fingers High” – Claude Gordon
  • “Press the fingers down firmly.” – Herbert L. Clarke; Smith’s Top Tones p. 22
  • Strike on the ball of the fingers, not the tip.
  • Right thumb straight, slightly on side of first valve closer to the mouthpiece.
  • When the thumb is between the 2nd and 1st valve the knuckle usually bends, positioning the fingers in a cramped position.
  • Leave small finger out of finger hook to free the movement of the 3rd valve finger.
  • Alternate fingerings must be practiced to develop all fingers equally.
  • Gordon’s “Systematic Approach…” contains some of Clarke’s fingerings never included in his “Technical Studies.”
  • Correct finger position will give the maximum speed and clarity potential.
  • Rotary valve instruments must lift high and strike on the ball of the fingers too.
  • The trombonists wrist must be supple to allow for quick relaxed movement.
  • Ignore those who say this is slower and watch those who really play.
  • “Bang The Valves Down” – Vizzutti, Severinsen, & Sandoval

5. The Grip Of The Left Hand

  • Hold the trumpet firmly, wrist supple. You are in command!
  • This frees the Right Hand to work with less effort.
  • A stable grip will keep the horn from being jarred around as you strike the valves.
  • A supple wrist allows the horn to move in response to jaw movement.
  • The valves should be straight up in order to avoid bad finger position.
  • Don’t hold to look like someone to look cool (i.e. Maynard).
  • The right hand of the French Horn supports the weight and controls pitch and sound.

6. The Muscles Of The Face And Lips

  • Their function is to keep The Lips vibrating.
  • When going higher the lips contract toward the mouthpiece slightly, achieving a “grip” feel over time. This is not for the purpose of changing  the aperture or size of the opening in the lips. Forget about that.
  • The illustration in “Systematic Approach..” (p. 5) by Gordon refers to this contracting motion and in no way a change in the opening of the lips.
  • Don’t smile, pull back, pucker or roll in the lips.
  • “Stay away from mirrors!” – CG
  • Never mind what you look like.
  • “Never hold the lips rigid, but keep them soft and pliable, using only enough pressure to keep the mouthpiece firmly against the lips without the least air escaping outside the mouthpiece.” Clarke.
  • This item develops from correct practice of Tongue Level Studies.

7. The Lips

  • Their only function is to vibrate in response to the air.
  • Mouthpiece 2/3 on Top Lip (See original St. Jacome’s and World’s method)
  • This will improve power, endurance, accuracy and range over time.
  • Correct practice of Pedal Tones will help this develop.
  • Rest the mouthpiece rim on the red of the bottom lip.
  • Low placement tends to shut off vibration. But, moving it up always helps.
  • “Let the air save the lip.” (i.e. blow stronger going up) – Claude Gordon
  • Rest often to avoid getting tired. Rest as much as you play.
  • This builds endurance indirectly by teaching the feel of playing easier and more efficient and avoids abuse of the Lip that hinders a free vibration.
  • Keep the lip moist for flexibility and correct development.
  • “Forget about the lip!” – Claude Gordon
  • “Don’t be lip conscious!” – Claude Gordon
  • “The lips do not play the cornet.” Clarke in Gordon’s Brass Playing… p. 29
  • Don’t practice buzzing – “You play the trumpet not the mouthpiece.” – CG
  • “Under no circumstances…should the lips make noise in the mouthpiece even though many performers appear to think otherwise.”(Arban’s Method, p. 10)


Understanding of the above seven items will help eliminate worry and myths about HOW and WHAT to practice. “Try to derive a common sense idea of everything and use your brains in thinking over all suggestions. Try to get away from tradition and superstition, which has ruined so many players”(H. L. Clarke from Setting Up Drills, p. 4).

“Stop imagining that what is required is hard work, but, that the practicing the student is required to do is merely taking part in the building of a substantial structure for the future”(H. L. Clarke from Setting Up Drills, p. 2).

For a more detailed explanation read Brass Playing is No Harder Than Deep Breathing by Claude Gordon and the first ten pages in Systematic Approach to Daily Practice by Claude Gordon.

As a Calvinist I don’t believe anything involves luck. You can become a great player by diligent, intelligent, correct practice!

By Jeff Purtle

6 Responses to “How to practice”

  1. Andy says:

    I’m surprised that there isn’t anything about using your abs. I use it a lot to save my chops in a crunch, and I’ve heard that good players do it, but it may be a bad habit…any comments on that?

    • Jon says:

      Hi Andy – good point!

      Although Jeff is probably the best one to comment on Claude Gordon’s ideas about the abs, I believe he would say something like: Keeping the chest up allows the system to work naturally, so that you don’t have to worry about what individual muscle groups are doing.

      Another approach is that the abdominal muscles could be consciouslly pulled in to increase the air pressure in the lungs, which would result in more power. There are lots of theories, and it’s good to find out what works best for you! :)

      • Jon,

        Yes, Jeff would say “keep the chest up, and everything will work correctly”, because that’s what both Claude Gordon and Herbert Clarke recommended as the best approach to breathing correctly for brass players. I just attended Jeff’s brass camp last week, and he stressed this over and over. In addition, you have the long holds at the end of the pedal exercises, where you squeeze out all of the air until your thoracic muscles are shaking. This develops the coveted “wind power” necessary to play the instrument with ease. Lastly, you have the regular breathing exercises, which CG taught to all of his students. These are found in “Brass Playing is No Harder Than Deep Breathing”.

        At the camp, Jeff said that sometimes people would call CG during his trumpet lesson to tell CG about problems they having with their playing. Jeff says that the first question CG would ask the person was, “are you doing your breathing exercises?”

        • Jon says:

          Hi David,

          Thanks for confirming that! :) It’s amazing that so many brass playing problems can be traced back to a lack of physical development – and most importantly of all, breathing.

          How was Jeff’s brass camp by the way?

          • I posted this on

            Well, I have to say that for a first effort, Jeff put together a great camp. The facilities were wonderful, the media and sound were well executed, and the performances were top notch. Both Harry Kim and Susan Slaughter were extremely humble and took time to hang with anyone who was around. They both delivered very relevant lectures to commercial (Harry) and orchestral (Susan) players, sharing what they’ve experienced and what it takes to be successful in their fields. Jeff’s lectures were solid, and he used plenty of video and audio excerpts from Claude Gordon’s old lectures.

            There were playing demonstrations by Claude Gordon (video), Jeff and a couple of Jeff’s students. The performances by Harry Kim (Latin Jazz) and the Monarch Brass Quintet were fantastic! You could hear in their playing and their conversations after the concerts that they were so happy to be there and participate in this event.

            I believe Jeff will be making the videos from the event available at a later date. He’s also planning on hosting the camp again next year.

            • Jon says:

              Thanks for the info David – sounds like it was a great camp! I’m really glad to hear that Jeff is planning on a camp for next year too :)

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