Trumpet Topics


Vibrato is an important expressive device - essentially one of only three elements (along with dynamics and tempo) that trumpet players have available to change the tension level which outlines the shape of a musical phrase.

On some instruments, vibrato is the fluctuation of loudness or intensity, affected by changes in the air stream. However, on the trumpet it is primarily a fluctuation of pitch, not loudness, created primarily by either the hand or lip. Hand vibrato pulls the mouthpiece away from the embouchure, causing the pitch to drop. Lip vibrato (which might be more accurately called "lip-jaw-tongue" vibrato) is much more commonly used and involves a combination of a loosening of the embouchure, opening the jaws, and lowering the tongue. Thinking the syllable "yaw" (as in yawn) is useful and produces the correct effect without having to think about each physical element. Thus the syllable for a tone with vibrato would be "yaw-yaw-yaw-yaw-yaw".

For a brass player, it is a simple matter to lip a note down below the pitch center as much as a quarter tone or more, but it is difficult to lip a note even a slight amount upward. Furthermore, the physical aspects of lipping a note down generally open up the tone quality, whereas lipping a note up tends to produce a pinched sound. Thus, the trumpeter's vibrato will basically be a lowering of the pitch. Because the vibrato will flatten the overall intonation center (the median between the highest and lowest points of pitch fluctuation) the trumpeter's instrument will need to be tuned slightly sharp as a compensation. Note that I differentiate between the player's tone center (the pitch where the trumpeter is blowing straight through the tone, without favoring up or down) and intonation center. The following example diagrams the median intonation center of a trumpet vibrato.

1. Trumpet's tone center, without favoring high or low 2. Sine wave vibrato shape 3. Median intonation center

The shape of the vibrato should resemble a smooth sine wave as in the above example. The speed will be 5-6 vibrations per second. Any slower will seem wobbly, and faster will sound like a quiver in the tone.

I suggest that trumpet students practice exercises specifically designed for developing vibrato habits, so physical actions become a part of the individual's subconscious musical reflexes. (I give some of my vibrato exercises on a separate Trumpet Topic page). To include 10-15 minutes of vibrato exercises in the daily warm-up routine would fulfill a painless double-duty. If done on a daily basis, a student could probably expect a nice vibrato to develop within 3-4 months.

The most common vibrato problem I see in young college students is when the tone is held primarily at the upper pitch level, dipping only briefly to the lower level as illustrated in the following example. This give a jerky quality to the vibrato and sounds like "eeeeee-aw-eeeeee-aw-eeeeee-aw-eeeeee".

The second most common problem is when the player's vibrato commences on each individual note rather than being a continual expressive device culminating in the climax of a phrase. Some students tend to swell louder as well as widening the vibrato on every note.

Both of these problems are caused by the natural musical instincts of students subconsciously trying to match a vibrato they have heard in professional players. For that reason it is very helpful if the student has a teacher giving them private attention to provide a good vibrato model and to be certain they are developing good vibrato habits.

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