If you are learning a brass instrument, someone has probably told you to “relax.” Relax your shoulders. Relax your neck muscles. Take a relaxed breath. Play with a relaxed sound. Relax while you play that double-C.
There are three problems with constantly being told to relax. First, a lot of the muscles we use to play trumpet are not ones we are used to controlling. Many students simply don’t know how to relax those muscles while playing. Second, by being told to relax and concentrating on the thing you’re trying to relax, odds are you are actually becoming more tense! Many students, including myself, have stressed ourselves out trying to relax! Finally, if you have never played with a relaxed sound, how are you supposed to know how that feels?
Even if we don’t know how to relax some muscles, we can remove tension by controlling other things while playing, such as posture. That doesn’t mean you should be leaning back, slouched in your chair, feet on the table, playing the trumpet! You will still breathe the most air by sitting up straight with your feet flat on the floor. While that doesn’t sound relaxed, a good posture lets your chest and diaphragm move in the ways they need to in order for you to take in the most air. By keeping your feet flat, it relaxes your legs, which helps to relax the muscles connected to your legs, which helps to relax the muscles connected to those muscles, and so on.
Relaxing the Arms for Relaxed Sound
The place I most often see tension is in the arms. If your arms are shaking as you struggle to reach that high note, you’re not playing with a relaxed sound! The good news is, this is something you can control. To relax your arms, use a lighter grip on your instrument, and make sure you’re not pressing your horn into your mouth harder as you go higher. Focus on your hands to make sure your grip does not tighten as you play up the scale. It will take some practice to completely reverse the habit of squeezing in the upper range, but most students see improvement almost immediately. (Note: this may make those high notes seem harder to hit at first, but if you practice proper range building, those notes will soon be bigger and fuller than they’ve ever been!)
Relaxing the Shoulders for Relaxed Sound
Likewise, shoulders are another visible and correctable source of tension. When you are playing, keep your shoulders low and back. If your shoulders start shrugging as you play, you have tension. Play slowly, and focus on holding your shoulders back and down. At first, like any new habit, it will feel awkward and maybe even a little tense as you “force” your shoulders to stay low. Once this becomes habit, though, it will help you play more freely. Both the arms and the shoulders connect directly to the chest and neck muscles. By getting rid of tension in those two places, you should achieve a more relaxed sound.
In part 2, we’ll introduce a few techniques to help relieve tension in those places that are harder to control.