Endurance is an issue that virtually all brass players have struggled with since they first picked up their instrument, and one that continues to challenge them in their professional careers. One of the most common complaints from trumpeters about contemporary music is an apparent lack of consideration for their physical limitations. In my experience, this usually stems from a misunderstanding of what is possible and realistic for trumpeters. Central to this is the issue of endurance. Despite my own experience as a performer playing a whole lot of great new music for the trumpet, I still find endurance to be one of the more difficult concepts to explain to composers in a useful way. There are, however, a few basic guidelines which make the job of the trumpeter a lot easier.

The embouchure required for trumpet playing requires a set of delicate muscles in the face, lips and tongue. Trumpet players have to train these muscles daily to stay at the top of their game. However, composers should bear in mind that even professional players tire easily, and that their piece might not be the only piece on the program.

  • Firstly, as a general rule, writing shorter phrases with frequent rests gives the performer the physical and mental preparation time they need.
  • Any virtuosic or strenuous material, as well as passages where the trumpet is “featured”, should be preceded and followed by rests.
  • The extreme high register, from c’’’, should be used very sparingly.

Of course, these guidelines are just that – a guide to trumpet writing that keeps within the physical limits of the performer and their instrument, and helps avoid writing that completely exhausts your player. But in no way should these guidelines stifle creativity: new music can and should push boundaries. If there is a compelling reason for pushing these limits, then by all means go for it – and if you have the luxury of knowing a trumpet player who could help test some tricky passages, then all the better!

Levels of “strenuousness”

As a trumpet player, I often categorize repertoire and different kinds of playing in terms of their “strenuousness”. Of course, this is highly subjective, and each player has his or her own limits of endurance. But I find this a useful way of categorizing trumpet techniques and different kinds of playing into how tiring they are for the player.

  • Lower register, from f# – c”
  • Mid-range dynamics, mp – mf
  • Shorter phrases separated with frequent short breaks, as well as occasional longer breaks
  • Extended techniques that do not engage the embouchure, such as tongue slaps and air sounds
  • Pedal tones
  • Mid-register, from c” – g”
  • Louder dynamics, mf – f
  • Quieter dynamics (ppp – p) in the upper register
  • Longer passages with infrequent breaks
  • Extensive use of air sounds (physically tiring, although not for the embouchure)
  • High register, g” and above
  • Extreme dynamics, especially loud dynamics
  • Fast and frequent register changes and large interval jumps
  • Long passages with little or no breaks
  • Extended techniques such as flutter/doodle tongue, double/triple tongue, and split tones
  • Playing with mutes
  • Extreme high register, c”’ and above
  • Very long passages with no break
  • Extreme use of high register and loud dynamics
  • Use of mutes in the high register and with loud dynamics

To help better explain these levels of strenuousness, and their effect on a player’s endurance, I often use examples from existing trumpet literature. Although there are many masterpieces for the trumpet which are extremely strenuous and give the player a real workout, generally speaking the works which have stood the test of time are usually those that are playable for the majority of professional players.

Joseph Haydn, Trumpet Concerto, 1st Movement

This is probably the most iconic trumpet solo work in the repertoire. All classical trumpet students have to learn to master this piece, as it is a standard requirement for virtually all professional auditions. The first movement is manageable (in terms of endurance) by most university-level players. The entire concerto is great example of a work that challenges the trumpeter without killing their chops.

Strenuousness Rating:
Relaxed to Challenging
  • Lower register, from f# – c”
  • Mid-range dynamics, mp – mf
  • Shorter phrases separated with frequent short breaks, as well as occasional longer breaks
  • Extended techniques that do not engage the embouchure, such as tongue slaps and air sounds
  • Pedal tones

Igor Stravinsky, “L’histoire du soldat”, Marche Royale and Petit Concert

Though originally written for the cornet, “L’histoire du soldat” features writing that can be equally easily played on the trumpet. The two movements Marche Royale and Petit Concert are more strenuous than the movements either side, but are nevertheless very trumpet-friendly. Indeed, all of Stravinsky’s orchestral trumpet parts are excellent examples of challenging but playable material.

Strenuousness Rating: Challenging
  • Strenuous material in each movement preceded and followed by less strenuous movements
  • Long passages, yet all in mid-register
  • Passages broken up with frequent short rests
  • Passages where the trumpet is “featured” and plays the theme are almost always preceded and followed by rests or less strenuous playing.

Paul Hindemith, “Sonata for Trumpet”, 1st Movement

This work is frequently played by trumpet students and is certainly considered standard repertoire, though few young players are able to perform the entire movement without great difficulty. Even for professional players, it is a challenging test of stamina!

Strenuousness Rating: Strenuous
  • Long phrases with few rests
  • Frequent use of louder dynamics
  • Frequent use of the upper register
  • Strenuous passages not preceded by rests, but with less strenuous playing (e.g.: the climax point of the movement [bar 67], while strenuous on its own, is made even more difficult by having virtually no rest beforehand. However, the long rest following this section gives the player a chance to recover before continuing.)

Here are a few more examples, this time from the contemporary repertoire:

Stanley Friedman – “SOLUS” for trumpet solo
Strenuousness rating: Challenging

This piece was written for the trumpet by a professional trumpet player and is very trumpet-friendly. It is definitely a test of a player’s endurance but well within the range of possibility and playable by most advanced university-level trumpeters.

Liza Lim – “Wild Winged One” for trumpet solo
Strenuousness rating: Challenging

This is a great example of a virtuosic piece that is still very playable. Most of the piece is written for the mid-range of the trumpet, while the upper register is reserved for musical climaxes. Lim’s transitions between normal playing and extended technique are excellent and the rests are well placed.

Enno Poppe
ZUG” for brass septet;
Brot“ trp, hrn, tbn, pno, perc
Strenuousness rating: Strenuous

Poppe’s trumpet writing is truly exemplary. The parts are strenuous but well paced, technically difficult but never impossible. Any composer interested in writing well for the trumpet should study how Poppe writes for the trumpet.

Luciano Berio – Sequenza X for trumpet and piano resonance
Strenuousness rating: Extreme

For years this famous solo work was considered unplayable. The complete lack of rests makes this piece a challenge for most professional players. The fact that Berio writes predominantly for the trumpet’s mid-range somewhat balances out the fact that the player has absolutely no opportunity to stop and recover.

And finally, an example of some next-level strenuous trumpet writing:

Iannis Xenakis – Eonta
Strenuousness rating: Extreme / Impossible

Xenakis’ brass parts are notorious for being total chop killers and “Eonta” is no exception. Even for professional players in top condition, this work is a huge challenge. When I performed this piece I could only manage it by “cheating” – in other words, leaving out material. If you write your brass parts like Xenakis, you better have a convincing musical reason or face the wrath of the brass section.

  • Very long passages with little to no break
  • Extensive use of extreme dynamics
  • Extensive use of double tongue and flutter tongue
  • Extensive use of the high register
  • Did I mention the brutally long passages with little to no break?

Postscript: Endurance and the Piccolo Trumpet

The techniques and repertoire I referenced in this post are explicitly related to the Bb or C trumpets, but it’s worth quickly mentioning the piccolo trumpet. In principle, most of the principles in this post are equally valid for the piccolo trumpet. However, piccolo playing tends to be even more strenuous for the embouchure than the Bb or C trumpets. So, although the piccolo trumpet facilitates playing in a higher register, it is still better to treat the extreme high register with caution.

Some references for good writing for the piccolo trumpet can be found in the Baroque repertoire. Many players use the piccolo trumpet for Baroque trumpet literature, especially in modern orchestras – although it has become increasingly popular to use the natural trumpet. In particular, the cantatas and orchestral works by Bach and Handel are (mostly) good references for friendly piccolo trumpet writing.

Here are a few diverse examples of piccolo trumpet repertoire that tests the performer’s endurance in different ways:

Stockhausen – Oberlippentanz
Strenuoussness rating: Strenuous

Stockhausen’s trumpet writing is difficult yet is always well handled and playable, and Oberlippentanz is no exception. Longer passages contain many smaller rests and the extreme high register is treated with great care. The most difficult and tiring section, the cadenza (bar 153), begins with a long section of pitched air sounds, which allows the player plenty of rest to prepare for the strenuous material which follows.

Wolfgang Rihm – Sine Nomine for brass quintet
Strenuousness rating: Strenuous

The piccolo trumpet part in this piece is quite a challenge but not at all impossible. Rihm doesn’t shy away from the extreme high register but is very generous with small rests. The longer passages are also punctuated with frequent rests.

Bach – Brandenburg Concerto No. 2
Strenuousness rating: Extreme

Even after a few centuries of trumpet development, this remains one of the most extreme pieces of the repertoire. This is mostly due to the extreme register of the piece, which is mostly in the second and third octaves, from f’’ to f’’’. In addition, the passages are quite long with very few rests. Only a few professional players can manage this baroque masterpiece.

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