Do you become light-headed when playing in the upper register?

Recently, a student of mine asked me this question:

“I sometimes get dizzy when I play in the upper register. What can I do to avoid getting light-headed when I attempt to play long, extended high-note passages?”

My answer:

You may be bringing in too much air when you inhale in preparation to perform in the upper register. Do some experimentation. Start by cutting the amount of air inhaled by half. Then experiment with varying percentages of air inhaled (air that you actually need per musical situation) until you start to get a feel for your minimum lung capacity requirements for that passage. In a nutshell, you may be working yourself too hard in the wrong places.

The higher you ascend, the faster a smaller volume (amount) of air needs to travel. Don’t try to fill up the horn with air. Just sitting alone in its case, your horn is already full of air. Your job is to excite and move the air. A phrase performed in the lower register requires a slower and larger volume of air, as opposed to the same phrase played in the upper register at the same tempo and dynamic level. That same phrase in the upper register requires a faster and smaller amount of air. When I play in the upper register I never think “higher.” I always think “faster.”

A brass player’s physical workload becomes greater as they ascend into the upper register due to the added degree of abdominal compression required to increase air speed. If you’re overloaded with too much inhaled air, you’ll end up working more than you should, due to trying to increase the speed of an overabundance of air. This is also why many players sometimes feel choked off at the throat when they play. That choking off sensation is simply a back-up of too much inhaled air at the throat. Smaller inhalations coupled with increased air speed = easier upper register.

When I was 16 years old, I was fortunate to be able to take a couple of trumpet lessons with Bud Brisbois. Naturally, because of the type of trumpet playing Bud was mostly known for, one of the first things I asked him about was how he approached playing in the upper register. The very first thing he said to me was, “You can’t build skyscrapers on a weak foundation.” Becoming proficient in all aspects of trumpet playing from low F# to high C must occur first. That’s what books such as Arban’s and Clarke are for. Bud told me that if a young student attempts to build an extended register on a weak foundation, they could hurt themselves physically.

Bud picked up his trumpet, and at a distance of roughly 5 feet from me, played several choruses of Bb blues, ending the last chorus up around a triple C. He took his horn down from his lips and asked me point-blank, “Do you have any questions?” I simply inquired, “How do you do that?” He said, “First of all, let’s talk about air speed versus air volume.” (In this instance the word volume refers to the amount of something, not the playing dynamic.) He said, “Roger, when I play a high C, let’s say I use a tablespoon of air. When I play a high G, I use 1/2 tablespoon of air. When I play a double high C, I use a teaspoon of air and when I play G above double high C, I use about a 1/2 a teaspoon of air.”  Bud said to me, “The higher I ascend, the less volume of air I use, but I increase its speed.”

Then I asked “Well, if a trumpet player uses less air as they ascend into the upper register, then why do a lot of trumpet players I’ve observed seem to turn red in the face, or appear as though they’re working harder when they successfully perform in the upper register?” Bud told me the reason they may look as if they’re working harder as they ascend is because they’re increasing the amount tension in the family of muscles that surrounds their abdomen and diaphragm, thus elevating their amount of created internal compression. Thus, they exhibit more indications of controlled, physical stress. This action of increasing compression enables them to speed up a smaller volume of air. Also, he speculated that those players had probably learned how to guide the faster air stream into the mouthpiece cup correctly, through learning how to manipulate their aperture in just the right way, thus creating a faster rate of lip vibrations.

Then Bud demonstrated playing a very short double high C without even taking in a breath, just using the existing air in his lungs without inhaling. I asked Bud, “How do you create that level of compression to move the smaller volume of air as you ascend?” He told me the most efficient way he knew to create that kind of compression, was to employ what is known as the “Yoga Breath.” He told me this breathing technique was the safest way to create the necessary level of compression needed to perform in the upper, and extreme upper registers. The player will have the least chance of straining muscles or rupturing themselves when learning and employing this Yoga technique.

Bud advised me not to completely fill up with air when I inhaled. He said over-breathing can cause a brass player to feel choked off when they play; too much air causes a back-up at the throat. He explained that trying to negotiate an over abundance of inhaled air creates a condition of internal inefficiency, and overworks the player. He said when doing the Yoga Breath, the player could simply visualize that there is a small balloon in the center of their chest and just squeeze that balloon with their muscles as they ascend. He also said, “Whatever you do, don’t overfill that little balloon!”

Bud Brisbois was strong as an ox, at least with regard to the family of muscles that surrounded his abdomen and diaphragm and in his embouchure muscles (corners). Bud could increasingly create higher levels of internal compression as he ascended, for sustained periods of time.

The Yoga Breath works great for creating internal compression. More so than a breath, the Yoga “Breath” is actually a manner in which to “set” one’s muscles as in the holding of a Yoga position. It can be used in conjunction with small, medium, and large (full) inhalations. It shouldn’t be thought of as a means in which to bring in the “biggest breath in the world.” Again, the Yoga Breath is only a means by which to create internal compression, and can be used in all registers.

The amount of air you bring in should only be dependent upon how long you need to sustain a particular note or phrase at varying dynamic levels and tempos. Over-breathing (and attempting to play too loud) can create a situation similar to the result of hyperventilation and, of course, can cause a person to become light-headed and dizzy. Many players fail to recognize just how much a trumpet naturally projects. This is due to the fact that we “live behind our bell.” The truth of the matter is: a high G or double high C, for instance, need only to be played at a medium or medium loud volume. A medium loud high G or double high C will cut through an ensemble like a hot knife through butter. I mean, after all, it’s a TRUMPET. A medium loud high G or double high C “gets on tape” just fine. 😉 Personally, I always default to medium, with regard to dynamic volume and equipment.

My student said “thank you,” and then I proceeded to show him the steps required for learning the Yoga Breath and suggested a practice procedure. I also advised him that anyone attempting to do that type of playing should make efforts to keep active and stay physically fit. I also suggested maintaining complete all-around trumpet performance abilities from low F# to high C. “Owning” low F# to high C, having control over dynamic levels, and having a grasp of the basic physics involved, serve as the gateway to playing in the upper register. Low F# to high C is the “meat” of the instrument. There is an old saying that goes: “90% of the money earned from playing the trumpet happens from high C down.” Also, having a good basic knowledge of the benefits and drawbacks of equipment for different types of playing helps a lot too. 😉

In addition, after realizing the ability to perform successfully in the upper register, if a brass player begins to have a problem or problems up there, most likely, the solution will be found in the middle or lower registers. Something went wrong with a fundamental aspect of brass playing “down there” which will, almost always, affect the upper register. The upper register is merely an extension of the middle and lower registers. Keeping everything “in place” is absolutely essential for successful and consistent upper register playing.

Further information regarding this subject can be found in my textbook, “Clinical Notes On Trumpet Playing”
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