Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Air Temperature in Brass Pedagogy

All brass musicians seem to invoke temperature in their playing and teaching in some way or another. Whether it is a performer wanting to “warm-up,” or a teacher telling their student to blow “hot” air into their instrument for some pedagogical purpose, or a conductor confronting their ensemble’s intonation issues due to temperature of the rehearsal room, temperature is an important element of instrumental music. In spite of the ubiquitous usage of temperature terminology among musicians, there seems to be little actual research on temperature as it pertains to brass performance and pedagogy.

I recently searched the International Trumpet Guild (ITG) index of ITG Journal and ITG Newsletter articles, and found that in the nearly 50-year history of ITG, there have only been two articles ever published on the topic of air temperature. In both cases, the article was narrowly focused on the effect of air temperature on intonation. I have found zero articles discussing the pedagogy of air temperature. This article will attempt to explain and demystify temperature as it relates to playing brass instruments.

What is Temperature?

Temperature is important to brass players because, ultimately, temperature is a measurement of speed. Temperature measures the speed, or kinetic energy, of molecules within the air.

According to the authors of The Science of Brass Instruments, “The speed of sound in air is proportional to the square root of the absolute temperature.” (p. 277, cited below)

There are two basic temperatures that every reader should already know: body temperature and room temperature. Human body temperature is usually 98.6°F (or 37°C) and “normal” room temperature is usually somewhere around 70°F (around 21°C). Note that there is a difference of 28.6 degrees Fahrenheit of these two temperatures. We will soon see why this disparity is important to brass players.

Temperature and Range

Many brass players use air temperature as a pedagogical tool. For example, some teachers want students to make the air hotter in the belief that changing the air temperature to “hot” will result in a better tone quality. Some teachers are more specific than that, and instruct students to blow “warmer” air for lower notes, and “colder” air for higher notes. Some teachers use illustrations to achieve what they perceive as the optimal air temperature, such as “fog up a mirror” for low notes or “blow out a candle” for higher notes.

On the surface, these instructions seem to make a lot of sense. Certainly, if we open our oral cavity as if playing a low note, and blow on our hand through a wide mouth opening, the air probably seems warm. And, if blow through a smaller opening and/or arch our tongue, we seem to feel colder air. However, there are at least two problems with this way of thinking. First, one law of science is that compressed air gets hotter. Remember, temperature is a measure of speed-- Compressing air molecules makes them move faster, raising the temperature.

In other words, it sounds like we are exactly backwards in our reasoning about air temperature and range—but there’s actually more to the story.

In truth, the temperature of the exhaled breath changes very little—exhaled air is generally very close to human body temperature; what changes is actually just our perception of the exhaled air temperature.

When we exhale in a manner that feels “cold’ on our hand, it’s because the faster moving air mixes more quickly with the room air, and so what we feel on our hand feels colder since the room temperature is (usually) colder than our body temperature. In other words, we are feeling a temperature on our hand closer to room temperature. As mentioned above, normal human body temperature is around 98.6°F, whereas room temperature is usually much cooler, more like 70°F.

The Bernoulli Effect is a more scientifically specific explanation for why air blown on the hand can feel cold. Brass players who have studied the embouchure may be familiar with Daniel Bernoulli principle; said succinctly, Bernoulli proved that an increase in the speed of a fluid occurs simultaneously with a decrease in pressure. The decrease in pressure caused by the increase in speed causes the blown air to mix more quickly with the room air.

Another explanation is that fast moving air enhances the rate of convective heat transfer, which means we feel cooler. Just like a fan is blowing on you during a hot summer day… the moving air feels cooler than it actually is.

If you are not yet convinced, here is a simple experiment to confirm this phenomenon:

Fold a sheet of paper into a cylinder. Blow in one end, and feel the air coming out the other end with your hand. (Make sure hand is positioned close to the end of the cylinder so you can feel the air directly as it exits, before it mixes with the room air.) What you will feel coming out the end of the paper is hot air. This is because the paper prevents the hot air from mixing with the cold air in the room, even though it travels many inches away from your body.

You will discover that no matter how much you try to manipulate the air temperature, if you feel the air before it mixes with the room air, it will always feel hot to the touch of the hand.

The temperature of the exhaled breath is right around body temperature—although the beginning of the exhale tends to be a bit colder (because it hasn’t been warmed up by the body as much yet) and the end of the exhale tends to be a little bit warmer.

You will probably remember from your elementary school science courses that we inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. Plants make oxygen for us and we make carbon dioxide for the plants. As a side note (and to be as precise as possible for readers who want to dive deeper) while it’s true that air that we inhale will take on the temperature of our body, it’s possible that it does not heat quite all the way up to 98.6°F (or 37°C).  It’s also true that not 100% of our expired air is carbon dioxide. The authors of The Science of Brass Instruments write,  “The breath from the mouth of the player enters the instrument at a temperature of around 35°C (95°F)  and includes significant proportions of water vapour and carbon dioxide as well as oxygen and nitrogen” (Science of Brass Instruments, p 312, reference found below)

As a whimsical side note, when I was researching this topic, I did find some writing in an unexpected place: websites for people who want to beat an alcohol breathalyzer test! Apparently the slight variation in exhaled air temperature that results from how long you hold the inhaled hair is a part of a strategy for ‘beating the test.’

In summary, a major problem with using air temperature as a pedagogical tool is that, in truth, the temperature of the exhaled breath changes very little. Moreover, since we do not really have a mechanism to actually adjust the temperature of the exhaled air, any effort to control air temperature may result in unwanted physical tension.

Warming Up

Air temperature is also a factor in warming up musical instruments.

A “cold” instrument – one that is sitting and unplayed – takes on the temperature of the room. In other words, the air inside that instrument would be room temperature – likely around 70°F. If a player immediately began performing on that instrument without first warming it up, the player would be flat—as the player would be blowing 98.6°F air into a 70°F instrument, and since temperature is a measurement of speed, this would cause the notes (frequencies) produced to be lower in pitch than expected.

If a musician were to tune a “cold” instrument, in other words, set the position of the tuning slide so that the instrument is in tune when it’s still close to 70°F, after the player has blown body temperature air in the instrument for a few minutes, the instrument would then tend to play sharp, because the temperature of the instrument will increase after the player blows warm body air in it for a period of time. (Remember, ultimately temperature is a measure of speed.)

Two conclusions can be drawn from these observations:

(1) Before an instrument will play in tune, the instrument itself needs to be warmed up--in other words, the player needs to blow body-temperature air into it for a period of time

(2) Proper placement of the tuning slide position should only be established after a brass instrument has been properly warmed up.

As a sidebar, some players feel that it is not necessary to warm up. While it may be true that their lips feel satisfactory despite not warming up, there is no denying that the instrument will not play properly, or at last will not play in tune, until it is warmed up properly.

Warm-Up Alternative: Hug Your Instrument

Once in a lesson Charlie Geyer told me his alternative to blowing warm air into a cold instrument to warm it up. He instead preferred to hold the instrument close to his body, both hands around the trumpet and as much of the surface of the instrument touching the body possible, allowing human body heat to transfer to the instrument. He felt this was preferable to blowing air into a cold instrument, since all the warm air may result in the gurgle of unwanted condensation. Geyer’s instructions to “hug your instrument” are backed up by science; recent thermal imaging has shown that the contact points—where we hold the instrument—are among the hottest parts of the instrument. (Science of Brass Instruments, p. 47)

It’s Not Spit, It’s Condensation

When water vapor in the exhaled breath reaches the surface of your instrument, water vapor droplets come together and gather on the inside of the instrument. This is called condensation, and it’s why we need a water key. (or spit valve, or condensation valve)


I have always been interested in this topic, but my interest was piqued recently when one of my students got a lesson from a teacher who gave my student many instructions with regard to changing air temperature for pedagogical purposes. My student felt that his efforts to change the air temperature resulted in much physical tension in his body and came to me with serious concerns. In this article, we have established we really don't have the ability to change the actual temperature of the exhaled air, therefore it stands to reason that any physical effort to adjust this temperature is misguided, and could result in improper use of the respiratory muscles. Thinking about this prompted me to dive deeper into my research in this area, resulting in this blog article and corresponding video.

In summary, here are seven main conclusions one can draw about air temperature in brass pedagogy:

1.      The exhaled air leaving the body is always near body temperature (around 98°F)

2.      An unplayed instrument will take on the temperature of the room, which is often much colder than human body temperature. Such an instrument should be warmed up prior to performance.

3.      Cold instruments tend to play flat, hot instruments tend to play sharp.

4.      Perceived changes in exhaled air temperature are a mistaken example of perception being different than reality, and can be explained via the Bernouli principle, convective heat transfer, and other factors.

5.      Students do not have the ability to actively change the temperature of the exhaled air.

6.      Teachers who instruct the students to make changes to the exhaled air temperature for pedagogical reasons are saying something that is scientifically impossible/incorrect.

7.      Physical efforts to change the temperature of the exhaled air may result in unwanted tension in the body.

 The following video is meant as a summary/companion to this blog article. Additional references and resources for further exploration follow below. 

YouTube Video: Air Temperature in Brass Pedagogy

References / Sources For Further Reading

Journal Articles:

Moore, Thomas. “The Effect of Temperature on Pitch,” The International Trumpet Guild Journal, March 2001 (one-page only—page 62 of that journal issue) Available on the ITG website:

Within the “Vivace” column of the September 1988 International Trumpet Guild Journal¸ the editor briefly responds to the question, “What is the Effect of Temperature on Pitch” pages 35-37 of that journal issue. Available on the ITG website:

Breathe journal article: “Measurement of exhaled breath temperature in science and clinical practice”


Campbell, Glibert, and Myers, The Science of Brass Instruments. ASA Press, 2021.


Physics Message Board Discussion on the Subject of Blowing Hot/Cold Air From Mouth

Website explaining slight variation in exhaled air temperature; The longer air is in the body, the hotter it may become. The longer you hold your breath, the hotter it will become (in this case, a principle that some folks use to manipulate a breath test),it%20will%20go%20even%20higher.

Other Videos:

Physics behind air being hot or cold

Ask Science: “Why is my breath hot when I breathe and cold when I blow?”

Temperature of the Breath


Jason Dovel is associate professor of trumpet at the University of Kentucky and a Yamaha Performing Artist. He is host of the annual UK Summer Trumpet Institute held every June in Lexington, KY (USA).

Monday, September 26, 2022

The LipCam: Videographic Analysis of the Trumpet Player's Embouchure

    In 2017, I purchased a LipCam -- a trumpet mouthpiece with a digital video camera inserted into its cup, which is connected to a computer via USB interface. This technology allows the researcher to observe the oscillation of a brass player's lips in real time, under essentially normal performance conditions. Over the past five years, I have had many students, colleagues, and friends play on this device, and have formed new ideas about how the trumpet embouchure works.

            While trumpet players' embouchures vary greatly (and I do not believe there is only one way to play the trumpet), the LipCam has certainly made it possible to observe common patterns and hypothesize a number of possible cause-and-effect relationships.  I do believe we have learned more and can establish a probable sequence of events for various types of embouchures. These observations may help us develop actionable pedagogical instructions that may be helpful to all players, especially those suffering from a particular embouchure-related performance limitation.

            What follows below are actual videos of trumpet players' lips in the LipCam, as well as some observations about those players' embouchure function.

The Aperture

            One area of the embouchure that can be studied in the LipCam is the aperture. The aperture is the hole, or opening, through which air passes. Participants in the LipCam study exhibited a wide variety of aperture types. Some candidates had a "wide" aperture that appeared to span the entire diameter of the mouthpiece, and other players had a "narrow hole" concentric to the mouthpiece circumference. In general, players could be lumped into one of these two large umbrella categories -- wide or narrow apertures.


            With regard to dynamics, the LipCam did reinforce the common perception that the aperture increases in size at louder volumes and decreases in size at softer volumes. This was the case with essentially every participant in the study.

Examples of trumpet players doing a crescendo followed by a diminuendo on a single note


            With regard to range, the LipCam yielded both expected and unexpected findings. In general, the aperture did have a tendency to become smaller as players ascended, and had a tendency to become larger as players descended. But these were not universal truths, and in fact some players exhibited little to no change in aperture size when making changes in range. (This was especially true of participants who had "wide yet small" apertures.) Indeed, more than one player seem to maintain the same aperture size when ascending from high C to double C. Players who had a smaller apertures generally had better range than players who had larger apertures. This tended to be true across all ages and ability levels.

            A common trend was for the aperture to ascend or descend when the player changed register. For some players, as they ascended, they appeared to put more top lip into the mouthpiece, and the aperture accordingly traveled downward, as seen below in "Aperture Travels Down." For other players, as they ascended, they appeared to put more bottom lip into the mouthpiece, and the aperture accordingly traveled upward, as seen below in "Aperture Travels Up." Across, the board, "Aperture Travels Down" players exhibited a much stronger and easier upper register, whereas "Aperture Travels Up" players universally had significant struggles in the upper register. One could perhaps conclude from these observations that, while ascending, it is better to increase the amount of top lip into the mouthpiece than it is to withdraw the top lip. (More on this in "Pedagogical Applications, below)

"Aperture Travels Up" 

"Aperture Travels Down"

Pre-Flight Tongue Check

            Many players who participated discovered aspects of their playing of which they were previously unaware. One common element was the "Pre-Flight Tongue Check," whereas the player places the tongue between the lips prior to blowing air into the mouthpiece. While some players may lick their lips to make them wet before players, participants in this study usually confessed they were not trying to make their lips wet, and moreover, the amount of tongue action seemed insufficient for significant moistening of the lips. This seems to be just a bad habit -- or a comforting mechanism -- that a significant number of participants did without realizing.

"Pre-Flight Tongue Check" 


            Across the board, the embouchure behaved more violently when articulating than when slurring. This was another "universal truth" that seemed to be the case across all ages and ability levels.

Articulation Examples 

Asymmetrical Embouchures

            Earlier in this post I described "narrow" vs." wide" apertures, but another observed phenomena was the "asymmetrical" aperture. The asymmetrical aperture is essentially a hole that is located more to one side than the other. In most cases, an asymmetrical aperture was also accompanied by asymmetrical mouthpiece placement on the lips. In other words, asymmetrical mouthpiece placement on the lips did tend to result in an asymmetrical aperture appearance inside the mouthpiece.

Slightly Asymmetrical Embouchure

Very Asymmetrical Embouchure
(Note: The strange fishbowl quality of this video was the result of of the difficulty in seeing this embouchure; We needed turn the mouthpiece and shoot the aperture at an odd angle, and then flip the video back around in the computer software.)

Musical Example: Stravinsky

The following video shows six different players (of varying embouchures, ages, and abilities) playing the "Ballerina's Dance" from Stravinsky's  ballet Petrushka.

"Ballerina's Dance" from Stravinsky's Petrushka

Size of Aperture

            As a general rule, the smaller the aperture, the easier the response, the better the sound, and the better the range. Participants who exhibited larger apertures tended to have poor response, fuzzier sounds, and a more limited range. This was true and consistent across all age and experience levels.

The student in the video below demonstrates poor range, a larger aperture (of the 'wide' variety) as well as top lip recession indicative of an "Aperture Travels Up" variety:

General Pedagogical Applications

In general, my goal of using the LipCam has been to simply "observe the phenomenon."  In other words, while I'm fascinated to see what really happens within the darkness of the mouthpiece, I cannot guarantee these observations will provide "the answer" to a student's particular playing problems. That being said, there area few general pedagogical suggestions I can provide to accompany the videos above:

1. The smaller the aperture, the better.  In general, it was easy to note the ease of response and range in subjects who had smaller apertures. To develop a smaller (and more efficient) aperture, I encourage students to practice soft attacks, three notes per sequence, using "hoo, poo, too" as their initial articulation. Practice these with the softest pianissimos and strive for immediacy of response with the softest puff of air.

2. Effect of aperture travel direction on range. As noted above, players who had an aperture which traveled downward while ascending in range tended to have much better range than players who had an aperture which traveled up. First, I should caution any teacher about directly discussing "aperture travel direction" in a lesson, which could be confusing to the student. I believe the travel direction is the effect, and the teacher could focus on possible causes. The pedagogical advice is twofold: First, players may want to play scales and flow studies and be mindful of not pulling out the top lip while ascending, and second, one should observe the direction of their bell pivot when changing registers. In general, players who exhibited the "Aperture Travels Down" embouchure where those who had a traditional pivot, in other words, the bell angle went downward while ascending and upward while descending.  Players who had an "Aperture Travels Up" embouchure tended to have a "reverse pivot," in other words, the angle of the bell went up while ascending and down while descending. In some ways, this LipCam study would tend to provide evidence on the merits of a traditional pivot.

3. Importance of practicing dynamic shifts. I always encourage my students to practice their full range of dynamics in their daily routines. I personally practice a crescendo-diminuendo on every note of the instrument every day! This study would tend to support this kind of practice to develop focus of the aperture. (In addition to the physical benefits of such practice, the musical benefit of having broad dynamic control is obvious as well.)

4. Eliminate pre-flight checks. As shown above in the "pre-flight tongue check," the LipCam sometimes revealed little habits players have that may not be necessary. I tell students, "Just blow and go." The LipCam has been helpful in showing students those little extra things they do that really do not contribute in a positive way to their performance.

Limitations and Self-Criticism of this Study

            In this study I have used terms such as "poor response," "limited range," and the like. Often I, as the researcher, am making these statements based on my pre-existing knowledge of the players being studied. Often these players were my students and professional colleagues and I knew their playing very well, including their strengths and weakness. In other cases, when the players were out-of-town participants I did not know well, they self-identified their weakness. Indeed, in many cases these qualities are easily noticeable on the video itself (such as a student struggling to produce high notes or producing an immediately recognizable fuzzy sound), but, these terms and qualities are indeed subjective observations. Certainly, this study is not immune from the presence of observer bias. Future studies utilizing videographic observation of the trumpet player's embouchure may wish to create more objective measurements for identifying exactly what "poor response" and "limited range" are.

Future studies may also want to simultaneously have the LipCam on the lips and a second  video camera on the trumpeter, so the external playing conditions (outside the mouthpiece) could be observed. Particularly when observing asymmetrical embouchures and apertures that "travel" up and down, a second camera on the player itself would have been really helpful. 


If you have question, you are more than welcome to reach out to me via the Contact Page on my website.

Jason Dovel is associate professor of trumpet at the University of Kentucky and a Yamaha Performing Artist. He is host of the annual UK Summer Trumpet Institute held every June in Lexington, KY (USA).

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Sabbatical Story, Part 2: France

The second week of November, I flew from Corfu, Greece, to France, for a week of recitals and residencies at three French conservatories, in Lyon, Tours, and Montluçon.

Historic Montluçon, France

On November 8, 2021, I was in residence at the Lyon Conservatory, as a guest of Arnaud Schotte, Professor of Trumpet at the Lyon Conservatory. The day before my residency at the conservatory, Arnaud took me to coffee, and I enjoyed catching up with him about our many mutual friends and contacts. (As it turns out, Arnaud went to school in the United States at the Purchase Conservatory in New York, where he was a classmate of my recent University of Kentucky student Jeff Barrington.)

In the French system, students of all ages can enroll in conservatory, and the Lyon Conservatory has a total of around 70 trumpet students! I began the day with a 9:30am master class. About an hour into the class, I asked Professor Schotte how much time we had left, to which he replied, "We should stop by 12:45pm." While at first that sounded like a very long class, this turned out to be the shortest teaching day I had in France!

Jason Dovel with Arnaud Schotte in Lyon, France

After the three-hour master class, we walked to a nearby restaurant for a delightful French lunch, where we were joined by Lyon trumpet artist Thierry Seneau and the conservatory's wonderful collaborative pianist. We then headed back to the conservatory for my afternoon recital. I played the same recital I had previously played in Greece in the United States.

Trumpet Recital at the Lyon Conservatory
View of Lyon, France, as seen from the hilltop Lyon Conservatory

On November 9, I was a guest artist at the Francis Poulenc Conservatoire in Tours, France, as a guest of professor Arnaud Juchault. (In planning this tour I had to be careful keeping straight my emails with Arnaud Schotte in Lyon and Arnaud Juchault in Tours!) I enjoyed meeting Professor's Juchault dear family as well as staying in their beautiful country home during my visit.

I started the day in Tours by teaching a warm-up class and then taught an afternoon master class in which most of the conservatory's students played a solo piece or etude for me for feedback. I was especially honored that many of the Tours students had prepared my original compositions to play for me! At the end of the day I coached a trumpet ensemble made up of some of the conservatory's youngest students.

Presenting a master class to students at the Poulenc Conservatory
With students at the Poulenc Conservatory
Arnaud Juchault with Jason Dovel

On November 10, I visited the Conservatoire André Messager in Montluçon, France, as a guest of professor Andre Bonnici. I had more free time in Montluçon, and Andre was kind enough to give me a wonderful tour of his charming town. Montluçon could be a Hollywood backlot for a movie set in the 1200s - only it's the real thing! In addition to enjoying the historic town, I also really enjoyed having meals in Andre's home with his dear family.

Andre really organized my visit well and a number of local educators and students from other conservatories attended the day's events, which was organized along the lines of an American "Trumpet Day" type festival.  I gave a master class from around 1pm - 6pm and then played a recital at 6:30pm.    It was a wonderful day!

View of Montluçon, France

Posing by Louie Armstrong at the Montluçon Music Museum (Museum of the Musiques Populaires)
Andre Bonnici and Jason Dovel

With some of the Montluçon students after my recital

A trumpet student performs during the day's festivities in the conservatory recital hall

It has been such a wonderful opportunity to live, perform, and teach in Europe for this sabbatical. In the upcoming blog post(s), I hope to share some tourist-y things I did apart from the trumpet, as well as share some insights on things I learned on this sabbatical.

Jason Dovel is associate professor of trumpet at the University of Kentucky and a Yamaha Performing Artist. He is host of the annual UK Summer Trumpet Institute held every June in Lexington, KY (USA).

Monday, November 22, 2021

Sabbatical Story, Part 1: Corfu and First Tour

In Fall 2021, I was granted sabbatical leave from the University of Kentucky to serve as Visiting Professor of Trumpet at Ionian University in Corfu, Greece. I am so grateful for this opportunity and thankful for UK administrators who support important professional development projects. (Thank you Dr. Pelkey and Dean Shanda.)

Corfu is a Greek island that lies west of mainland Greece and east of Italy. Ionian University is located in "Old Town" Corfu, and the Department of Music Studies itself is located on the historical Old Fortress grounds. I can not imagine a more scenic place for music study!

View of the Old Fortress in Old Town Corfu, with the Ionian University music building circled in red
Restaurants along Old Town Corfu's famous Spianáda Square

Harbor just a short walk northwest of the Old Fortress. Sea is the Ionian Sea, mountains in background are mountains of mainland Greece

Standing on the south side of the Old Fortress (music building on opposite site)

Ionian University did not begin courses until the first week of October. So, prior to departing for Greece, I played four solo recitals in the United States: at the University of Kentucky, Western Kentucky University, Arkansas State University, and University of North Texas. (If you'd like to take a listen, the livestream capture from the WKU recital is still available online here)

With my friend Dr. Sarah Herbert, Professor of Trumpet at Western Kentucky University (Bowling Green, KY)
With University of North Texas professor Dr. Raquel Samayoa and UNT students (Denton, Texas)
With students at Arkansas State University (Jonesboro, Arkansas)

After my recital tour, I flew from Lexington to Athens, Greece. Prior to starting my service at Ionian University, I had a wonderful time catching up with my Greek friends that I had met in previous trips to Greece.
Lunch near Athens with Gerassimos Ioannidis, George & Mirto Babarakos

After a brief visit in Athens, I flew to the island of Corfu and got settled in my apartment, which is located near the New Fortress. (The music department is about a 10-minute walk away, by the Old Fortress)
View of Old Town Corfu from the perspective of the New Fortress

At Ionian University, I have enjoyed teaching weekly trumpet lessons to the ten trumpet students, weekly studio classes, and also guest lectures in other courses, especially music composition courses. In these other courses, have taught about extended techniques, early music, and how to compose and arrange for trumpet and other brass instruments.

Jason Dovel with trumpet students at Ionian University

Standing by the entrance to the Ionian University Department of Music Studies
Inside the Ionian University Music Dept
Ionian University trumpet studio class

Students Prodromos Vourliotis and Xristina Livana perform during studio class (by coincidence, they both in high school studied with George Babarakos, my longtime Greek friend who I met for lunch in Athens in the earlier picture above)
Dinner with the Ionian University trumpet studio

The students at Ionian University are very eager to learn and have been great to interact with.  The repertoire they bring to their lessons is largely the same materials you would find in an American trumpet studio: Long tones by Vincent Cichowicz and Bai Lin, Charlier etudes, Concerti by Haydn and Hummel, as well as sonatas by Hansen, Kennan, etc.

On Wednesday, November 3, 2021, at 7:30pm, I played a faculty trumpet recital at Ionian University. The university press release for this event can be found here. This was the first live concert in the Ionian Academy's Ceremonial Hall in 18 months!

With students following my IU trumpet recital.

I am really enjoying my sabbatical so far and plan to share "the rest of the story" on this blog in the near future. More coming soon, stay tuned!

Jason Dovel is associate professor of trumpet at the University of Kentucky and a Yamaha Performing Artist. He is host of the annual UK Summer Trumpet Institute held every June in Lexington, KY (USA).

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Vocal Phonation Modes for the Brass Player


Singers have a well-codified system of vocal phonation modes that may parallel sound production for the brass player. Study of these modes may help brass players produce sounds that are more resonant and more colorful.


Brass players and singers have much in common. For both groups, an actual part of the human body produces the sound. For the brass player, it is the lips; for the singer, the vocal cords. In both cases, flesh is activated by the flow of air, and the faster the oscillation of that tissue, the higher the pitch. In both cases, the diaphragm, thoracic, and abdominal muscles modify the respiratory system's natural process. The sound of a singer's vocal cords vibrating prior to passing through the oral cavity sounds quite a bit like a brass player buzzing their mouthpiece. (Steenstrup, 18)

Singers have a long and robust tradition in exploring the science of sound production, a tradition that in some ways is superior to what we know about sound production in brass instruments. For today's blog article, I would like to focus on some basic ideas of vocal sound production, and how they might inform our thoughts about brass playing. In particular, I would like for brass players to explore how they may be able to develop and explore new tone colors, in a similar manner to how singers do this with vocal phonation modes.

For starters, four principles regarding sound production for singers should be noted:

 1. The vocal cords are a singer's reed, and they consist of the thyroarytenoid muscle and a membrane that covers it.

2. Adduction is the "closing" movement of the vocal folds, coming together.

3. Abduction is the "opening" movement of the vocal folds, separating apart.

4. The sound quality (timbre) is largely derived from the balance of opening and closing phases.  If the closing phase is longer than the opening phase, the sound will be brighter (richer in upper harmonics). If the opening phase is longer than the closing phase, the sound will be darker (lacking in upper harmonics). (For a more in-depth explanation of harmonics and tone color, check out the video I made last year on this subject.)

Process of Phonation

The phonation process involves the opening and closing phases of the vocal cords in response to the air, in a manner quite similar to that of the brass player’s lips. Since I am not a singer, allow me to directly reference a well-respected vocal pedagogy source: Agostoni writes:

“During the expiration the vocal cords are drawn together by the adductor muscles; the subglottic pressure pushes them apart, while their elastic recoil and the decrease of the lateral pressure due to the increase in kinetic pressure (Bernoulli principle) close them again, thus generating a periodic flow.” (Agostini, 105106)

Types of Phonation

Vocal phonation is the process by which the vocal folds produce sound. Vocal pedagogues know that the timbre of a singer’s voice is determined by the type of phonation they employ. In the standard voice pedagogy textbook, The Science of the Singing Voice (1987), Johan Sundberg introduced four types of phonation: breathy, pressed, flow, and neutral. Since that time, other modes have been described, such as creak phonation and falsetto phonation.

Breathy Phonation

Breathy phonation is when there is a higher airflow (and according to Boyle’s law, inversely, lower air pressure)  and a low adduction force. A great deal of air passing between the vocal folds that are held together by a smaller adduction force means that the vocal folds likely do not come completely together. This causes air to pass over the vocal folds that is not used for vibration, but rather, is heard as noise. Therefore, the unvibrated “noise” is perceptible in the sound quality, leading to a “breathy” timbre. This timbre of breathing phonation has a lower intensity of the upper harmonics.

Substituting "lips" for "vocal cords," and keeping the air in common, we can conjecture a brass playing equivalent of breathy phonation. Indeed, brass players get an airy sound, lacking in upper harmonics, when lips do not come completely together. Said another way, an airy sound may be the result of a lack of muscular contraction of the lip muscles and/or an aperture that is too large.

My friend and former University of Kentucky trumpet professor Vince DiMartino sometimes uses the term "blow-by" to describe this phenomenon for trumpet players -- Air that passes between the lips unvibrated and is heard as noise. It would seem to me that the “DiMartino Blow-by” and traditional vocal breathy phonation have much in common.

Pressed Phonation

Another vocal phonation mode is pressed phonation. If the vocal cords are pressed together with a high adduction force, combined with a higher air pressure, the closing phase is longer than the opening phase, which would result in a stronger intensity of the upper harmonics, which may be perceived as a "strident" or "bright" sound.

The brass playing equivalent of pressed phonation could be considered to be the strident sound, strong in upper harmonics, that results from the combination of lips that are pressed very tightly together, with high air pressure.

Flow Phonation (also called Resonant Phonation)

Flow phonation is the most resonant method of vocal phonation. Characteristics of flow phonation include high airflow, and a high but balanced subglottal pressure. Flow phonation is the most desirable method of singing and results in a balanced spectrum of harmonics.

The brass playing equivalent to flow phonation could be when airflow and lips are working together, perfectly in balance, to produce the most resonant sound quality.

Other Modes of Phonation

Vocal pedagogues also describe other modes of vocal phonation. Creak phonation is when there is a strong adduction force but at a very low frequency; this is the result of irregular oscillation. This is also known as “vocal fry.” Falsetto phonation is where the vocal folds are stretched and the vibrating surface is quite thin; this results in much higher pitches. (I’m not sure if there would be a direct equivalent of this phonation for brass players, but it sure would be nice if there was a quick way to pop up the octave!)

Changing Colors

While “flow phonation” may be the most ideal method for producing a resonant sound, singers may intentionally use other modes of phonation to change their vocal color, for expressive purposes. A singer may use breathy phonation for a breathy, intimate timbre. A singer may use a pressed phonation to achieve a tense, strident sound to convey anger.

Similarly, while brass players should also strive for physical efficiency and their most resonant sound production, they should also explore methods for producing a variety of tone colors. Changes in airflow, air pressure, and adduction force can also yield changes in a brass player’s timbre. For example, a jazz trumpet player may purposely allow some air to enter their sound to obtain a more diffused timbre. Conversely, a brass player may press their lips together with a high adduction force in order to create more upper harmonics in their timbre.

Changing to Stay The Same

Another important thing brass players can learn from singers is the importance of changing to stay the same. Since the amount of air remaining in the lungs is constantly decreasing over the course of a musical phrase, the relationship between airflow and the vocal cord tension is constantly changing. Agostini writes,

“To produce a pitch of constant loudness and pitch the subglottic pressure must increase, while the vocal cord tension must decrease in order to keep the pitch constant.”

For brass players, a takeaway is that maintaining a note of the same volume and pitch is not a static process, but rather one in which we must change in order to stay the same.

Focus on the Music, Not on the Muscles

One conclusion that could be drawn from this information is that more focus should be put on the musician's specific control of their musculature -- but nothing could be further from the truth. Singers should not attempt to directly and mechanically control the stiffness and tension of their vocal cords. In the same book that codifies vocal phonation modes, Sundberg writes,

"We do not need to bother about the extremely complicated maneuvers we perform. We just perform them unconsciously, and what catches our attention is the end result, the sound." (Sundberg, The Science of Singing Voice, 18)

In a similar way, brass musicians need not worry about the specific musculature involved when they are performing. Rather, this information can be used as a diagnostic tool to address and correct problems.

Good Playing is Easy

My teacher Keith Johnson would often say, “Good playing is easy,” and I believe the singer’s concept of flow phonation reinforces this notion. Since vocal flow phonation is achieved through less contraction of the laryngeal muscles and less air pressure, it could also be described as the type of sound production that requires the least physical effort. Said another way, the most resonant sound quality may best be achieved through a method that is also the easiest from a physiological and aerodynamic basis.

For Future Researchers

While these phonation modes have been well researched by vocal pedagogues, more work is needed in the area of brass pedagogy. I believe there are many parallels between singing and trumpet playing, and this is a golden opportunity for future researchers. Ambitious and creative doctoral students who may be reading this blog may find this an area not yet adequately explored by brass researchers, and quite possibly a great topic for future dissertation and scholarly article work.

The author would like to extend a special thank you to Dr. Elizabeth Arnold, Associate Professor of Voice in the University of Kentucky School of Music, for her contribution to and feedback on this article. 

Jason Dovel is associate professor of trumpet at the University of Kentucky and a Yamaha Performing Artist. He is host of the annual UK Summer Trumpet Institute held every June in Lexington, KY (USA).

Sources/For Future Research

If you'd like to take a look at what vocal cords look like "in action," check out this YouTube video:

Modes of Phonation Website:

Types of Phonation (With cool sound files for examples):

Dovel, Jason, Exploring Trumpet Tone Color,

Agostini, E and Ambrogio, G. Sant, The Respiratory Muscles, Mechanics, and Neural Control, 1970.

Proutskova, Rhodes, Crawford, and Wiggins, "Breathy, Resonant, Pressed - Automatic Detection of Phonation Mode from Audio Recordings of Singing,"  Journal of New Music Research (2013)

 Steenstrup, Kristian, Teaching Brass (2nd revised edition), Royal Academy of Music, Aarhus, 2007.

 Sundberg, Johan, The Science of the Singing Voice, 1987.