Claude Gordon said it best – Lift fingers high (and) strike (the) valves hard.
To most (and certainly me, not long ago), this advice may sound redundant or not even needed. “How much can this affect one’s playing?” is something I myself have uttered literally every single time I heard someone say this. Well, I’m here now to tell you that this advice is very important. Here’s why;
1. Lifting the fingers high and striking the valves hard improves your accuracy and will make your sight-reading/improvising better and more fluid.
From a logistics standpoint, the faster the valve goes down in a succession of notes, the better your chances are of playing said notes more accurately. Seems obvious, but I for one would always blame my chops for missing notes in a phrase instead of blaming what I know now to be the real culprit – slow fingers. This was particularly a problem above the staff, when improvising or sight reading. My right hand was literally “clamming up”, preventing me from executing a musical idea or passage. With the valves struck down, my odds of success are much greater.
2. Lifting the fingers high and striking the valves hard will also make your range much more reliable.
How you say? Grab your horn and play a concert F scale (starting in the staff). Now, really hammer those valves down.
Do it a couple of times.
Now, notice what your left hand is doing. It’s firm isn’t it? That firmness is what you want, and you want it every time you play, no matter the tempo, the range or the type of music you’re playing.
Dr. Donald S. Reinhardt (whose teachings literally saved my playing career) always said that “the left hand grip is the guardian of the inner embouchure.” What he means by this is that you need to have a firm left hand grip on the horn to ensure that the contact between your chops and the mouthpiece is consistent. Consistency in this regard improves your day to day playing level, as well as improves your endurance, stability, etc. In short, introducing this type of thinking into your playing can help you if you’re struggling or have hit a plateau.
3. Lifting the fingers high and striking the valves hard can actually add notes to your high range.
If you’ve been playing for a few years, most likely you’ve taught lessons. If you’ve ever taught lessons to young people or people who are really struggling with their chops, certain similarities can be noticed about how people play exercises. Relating to the topic at hand, LOADS of people start tensing up their right hand when either a) ascending b) playing something that they’re not familiar with and c) playing something outside of their capabilities. The simplest example of this is to ask these types of students to play an arpeggio up to a note that is just outside of their comfortable playing range. Without fail, as they ascend, they start to slow down, tightening up and slowing down for each note as they approach the note that they know deep down that they will miss until the tempo is likely half the original starting tempo.
Why do they do this? They do it because they’re afraid they’re going to biff the top note. They’re not even thinking about the notes before it, because they’re scared of air balling the top note.
Now, what if you told that same student that they could not slow down while ascending, and that they must strike those valves down hard? Well, I can tell you from my own experience that this instruction takes away a lot of the problems that we all see in our students and our own playing.
Try it yourself. Pick the note just outside of your comfortable playing range and practice arpgeggios with a metronome. My bet is that that top note will be all over the place, but you’re going to most likely miss it high, then miss all the notes coming back down. DO NOT SLOW DOWN – Miss them all at first. Keep doing it and you’re going to find that your accuracy is much improved.
And if what I wrote doesn’t convince you, check out Doc hammering those valves down. He’s not playing around!