The Lip Trill Sermon


None of these blogs so far have concentrated on pedagogical matters of horn playing; however, indulge me while I preach about an obvious, ordinary, and yet often neglected aspect of practice.  

While giving master classes, students around the world often ask me for a quick fix or for something concrete they can do which will make a dramatic difference in their playing.  Those who have worked with me know that “practice lip trills 5 minutes a day!” always makes an emphatic appearance in my advice, delivered with missionary zeal.  The students nod politely and repeat, “Okay, 5 minutes of lip trills a day.”  I can almost hear them thinking, “Yeah, right, like who’s got time for that?  I hate doing lip trills / they never get any better / how is that going to give me a high C / take the fuzz out of my tone / win an audition /etc. etc.”  

Well, I’ll tell you. :->

First, here are two suggestions on how to practice lip trills effectively and efficiently.  You might find it helpful at first to get a metronome clicking, at a comfortable tempo (try quarter note = 104 or so.)  Each pattern lasts 8 beats.  Start on written C in the middle of the staff & slur quarter notes up a whole step to D & back down, C-D-C-D-C etc.  Then do 8th notes on the same pattern (twice as fast), then triplet 8ths, then 16ths, then sextuplets, then 32nd notes, finishing off with a beautifully held out C (all in one breath if you can manage it.)  Repeat this pattern in descending and ascending half-steps, striving always for evenness of rhythm and purity of sound, remembering to finish each pattern with a held note.  When you play trills in “real” life, you will finesse them into a phrase ending anyway.  So you’d might as well practice that.

Once you’ve got this down, you can do a shorter exercise, like the one I do every day after my scales.  I start on the written Eb at the bottom of the (treble clef) staff (fingering: F 2&3.)  Its a bit wider than a whole step.  As you go up by half-steps, the overtones will gradually get closer and closer together.  I trill evenly for a full breath on each note, looking always for a lovely tone and rapid, clean, smooth trills.  Also, don’t be afraid to go higher than is initially comfortable.  I usually ascend at least to the G or Ab above the staff while doing this exercise.  IMPORTANT:  Play around with the dynamics. Try trilling softly, loudly, with crescendo, diminuendo, as well as trying out passages in the horn repertoire with trills in them (for example, the 1st movement of Mozart 4, the bit with the Eb trills.)

I tell students that if you do this every day for two weeks, your trills will automatically get better.  Some people trill with more conscious tongue movement, others feel the shake in the throat, lips, or even abdomen.  The most important aspect is keeping the air flow steady and alive throughout the trill and focusing on the sound you are producing.  Always go for the sound and don’t obsess with any one physical point of resistance, such as the embouchure or tongue.  In my 30 years’ experience with the instrument, I’ve usually found this to be a recipe for disaster, creating a scapegoat for any technical or artistic issues (example:  I can’t do ______  because my stupid embouchure is _____.)  Don’t get stuck in this victim-oriented thinking.  Become a pragmatist and find what works best for you.  Keep experimenting, and when you find the magic formula, practice it and make it really great.

So, what benefits can you gain from daily, correct lip trill practice?  Here are just a few, in no particular order:

– The need to focus on air flow gets your breathing apparatus functioning properly.  You need a lot of well-directed air to get the trill turning.

– You develop much greater endurance, as the subtle motion of the embouchure muscles strengthens and vitalizes them.

– If you can make a beautiful sound on a lip trill, you can definitely find this sound on non-trilled notes, i.e. the rest of the time.

– This practice is good for slurs and legato playing by increasing your flexibility and awareness of what happens between one note and the next.

– When you come to a passage with a lip trill in the repertoire, it won’t throw you for a loop.  Geoffrey Winter of the American Horn Quartet often uses the analogy of the “tool box” – making sure you have all the technical tools in your “box” you will need to play anything that may occur in your score at any given time.  Excellent lip trills belong in the top shelf of this kit!

– Trilling gives your lips a pleasant little tickle.

Five minutes a day, initially for 2 weeks… then 2 more weeks… then 2 more… and so on!  Make it a lifelong habit.  Some people were blessed with naturally fast trills.  I was not.  But practice really does bring enduring results.  Just do it!

Sermon over.

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