Whisper Tones (featuring the Whisper Penny)

Whisper tones, ghost notes, half-air half-tone, aeolian sound – composers have different ways of describing this in their music. I‘ve received several requests from other trumpet players to cover this topic, as it is one that seems to come up again and again in new pieces. (If you came here looking for pure air sounds, please check out my other post on that topic).

No matter how a composer describes it, the frustration of the players is the same – it doesn’t work well at all! In fact, we spend a lot of time (years!) as young trumpet players trying to get rid of any airiness in our sound, which makes the whole concept of an airy sound almost taboo.

When I first started writing this post, I could basically summarize my point by saying “please just don’t compose for this technique!”. And while I do still feel that way, I think the topic deserves a more nuanced treatment. Whisper tones on the trumpet are definitely a thing. There are jazz players who specialize in making a fluffy, airy sound, so its not fair for me to say “trumpet players can’t really do this”. At the same time, I just don’t know any player in the contemporary scene that can reliably produce a sound that is air and tone mixed. If you write this sound for a trumpet player, you will probably be disappointed.

Having said that, there is a relatively new product for brass players called the Whisper Penny which may offer a helpful solution – I’ll get to that at the end of the post.

Half air, half sound

Whenever I see this notated in a part, I assume the composer is inspired by woodwind instruments, which can produce a beautiful mixture of air and tone. Here is contemporary flute superstar Helen Bledsoe playing around with this technique:

Best heard with headphones!

By controlling the speed and angle of air flow, a flute player can finely control the degree to which a proper tone resonates. Single-reed instruments (clarinet, saxophone) can also control the degree to which the reed vibrates.

With the trumpet embouchure, its not so simple. A very small portion of both lips are actually vibrating, and they need quite a bit of tension and air speed to get going. There is hardly an in-between state, or gradual onset of vibration. Either the lips start vibrating (tone!) or they don’t (just air).

At the beginning I get a tiny bit of airy sound, right before the lips get going.

What about “niente” entrances?

Rebecca Saunders, Either or (2020)
© Copyright 2020 by Henry Litolff’s Verlag.
Nutzung mit freundlicher Genehmigung C.F. Peters Musikverlag, Leipzig.

So what do we trumpet players do about niente entrances? I personally use breath attacks, which means starting the note without articulation (no tongue) and just allowing the tone to start once the air is moving at the right speed. The result is a soft but noticeable entrance, though still not quite “coming from nothing” as the “niente” marking suggests. In an ensemble setting these entrances can be hidden by other instruments which are playing at the same time. Mutes (like a closed wawa) can also support a beautiful niente entrance or decrescendo. So keep writing those little niente circles, composers! We can deal with them, even if its with one or two workarounds.

But Nathan, I saw some videos on YouTube of trumpeters playing with an airy tone!

Yes, its true! I’ve also seen some of these videos. Here are a few I like:

Marquis Hill calls these kind of notes “sub-tones”, and uses the technique to create a fluffy sound that adds some air into the mix. I love his is sound, which is still quite full, with a lot of tone. But even with the professional microphone set-up and listening with headphones, the air is hard to hear. Its really more of an overall sound quality than the flexible mix of sound and air that can be achieved on the flute or saxophone.

In this next video by Connor Johnson, he explains “Its very easy to flicker between silence and whisper…”. First of all, can we please take a moment to appreciate his beautiful quarter-tone double-bell in Bb(!)? Secondly – I’m glad Connor finds it easy, but I have yet to meet another player who says the same. I think its also worth noting that he’s only playing long notes, no melodic passages, and it doesn’t sound like he has complete control over the mix of air and tone. Connor’s video has plenty of other great tips, definitely worth a full watch.

The best video I’ve seen on whisper tones has to be this one from Charlie Porter. He’s so flexible with the whisper tones and although his range with them isn’t huge, its bigger than others I’ve heard. He also can vary his articulation and still get the desired sound. Its interesting that his whisper tones have almost no tone in them at all, really just enough to hear that a pitch is sounding. This is probably the closest I’ve heard anyone come to making a true airy tone with a clearly audible pitch and I wish I could do it too!

After reading all of this, you still want to write whisper tones? Here are some guidelines:

  • Accept that it probably won’t sound as you imagine and have an alternative ready.
  • To actually hear the technique, the trumpet should probably be playing on its own (solo piece or passage).
  • Use a microphone! If you want the air to be heard by those in the back of the hall, amplification is probably necessary.
  • Keep reading, I’m about to talk about an accessory which might help…

The Whisper Penny®

Disclaimer: I am in no way associated with the makers of Whisper Penny or their company. No one asked me to review this product, I’m just doing it for fun.

A colleague recently mentioned this gadget to me and I just had to try it out. It looks like a metal button attached to a thick, unfolded paperclip. The whisper penny fits into the mouthpiece and promises a nice airy sound right out of the box.

So does it work? Indeed! I can clearly hear the rushing air sound while I play and I don’t have to do anything to the embouchure to make it happen. This might be the first accessory I’ve tried that changes the sound in a unique way without the use of a mute.

OMG so jazzy!

This still isn’t the same as the flexible mix of tone and air that the woodwinds can do, but its a decent compromise if you really want an airy sound. I also feel like it works the best in the mid to low dynamic range and the middle or lower register. There are plenty of jazzy demos of this on the company’s homepage if you want to hear more.

Here are the most important things to keep in mind when writing for the Whisper Penny:

  • Quickly switching between whisper penny and ordinario playing isn’t possible. The penny can be quickly inserted into the mouthpiece, but getting it out requires removing the mouthpiece, pushing the penny back out (from the back), and then reinserting the mouthpiece. If I did have to change quickly, I would probably have a second mouthpiece prepared with the penny so that I only need to switch mouthpieces. This also takes a bit of time, but not as much as removing the penny altogether.
  • The penny adds a considerable amount of extra resistance, which means playing with the whisper penny is more strenuous than ordinario playing.
  • The position of the penny in the mouthpiece makes a big difference regarding the amount of air that comes out in the sound, meaning I need insert my prepared mouthpiece a bit more carefully than usual.
  • As with any airy sound, the Whisper Penny is probably best enjoyed with amplification.
  • Lastly, the whisper penny is expensive! To be fair, it does cost around the same as a new mute, but it definitely feels like a lot of money for such a small piece of metal. I wish they would actually send two for that price since its so easy to misplace or lose.

The Gold Star for Whisper Tones definitely has to go to jazz trumpeter Charlie Porter. Before researching for this post I hadn’t heard of him. He sounds great and the whisper tones are just amazing, check him out!

PS – Charlie also has a great video explaining some other trumpet “special effects”

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