Pencil Exercise-Trumpet Isometric Exercises -HELL or HEAVEN?

Trumpet isometrics. A poweful tool indeed, but with great power comes great responsibility. Do them right and get massive rewards…misuse them, and get messed up for months!

The pencil exercise for trumpet

The Pencil Exercise For Trumpet And Other Trumpet Isometric Exercises

Let’s talk about the pencil exercise for trumpet. Not only the pencil trick, but we’ll take a look at a few other trumpet isometric exercises as well…

Some questions we will dive into are…

  • Are trumpet isometrics good or bad?
  • What are some good trumpet isometric exercises?
  • Who should be doing them?
  • Can you mess up your embouchure using the pencil trick?
  • Can doing trumpet isometrics help your high notes?
  • How much can I expect to improve my trumpet endurance by doing them?



What Does Trumpet Isometrics Mean?

Trumpet isometrics simply means that you are doing some form of exercise, without using your trumpet, in a way that puts stress on your lip muscles (the embouchure muscles) with the intention of making them stronger over time.

They are a topic of controversy in the trumpet world and I think that’s understandable because they are so easy to get wrong. While on the other hand, they can be a phenomenal tool to develop strong embouchure muscles.

Who Should Be Doing Trumpet Isometrics?

In my opinion everyone who has been playing the trumpet for a few years can benefit from doing trumpet isometric exercises. If doing them the right way AND at the right time.

I never recommend them to beginners who are going on their first or second years because, for them, it’s all about developing the mind-embouchure connection…

…and throwing in some other, non trumpet related muscle exercises, would only risk confusing them and thus hinder their development.

Examples Of Some Good Trumpet Isometrics – And How To Do Them

Let’s take a look at a few different embouchure isometrics.

You might want to consider trying all of them, however, don’t try them all at the same time. It’s better to try them one by one and then monitor the progress in order to learn which one that suits you the best.

The first one is the most common one…

…enter:

Trumpet Isometric Exercise #1
-The Pencil Exercise-

The pencil exercise for trumpetThe pencil trick is very easy to do. Just put the end of a pencil between your lips and hold it horizontally (parallel to the ground)

Don’t use your teeth to hold up the pen. The lips should not have any help from the teeth at all.

Take a look at exactly how to put place the lips as Eric Bolvin explains it very well in this video:

Eric explains how to do the pencil exercise for trumpet, by closing the lips around the pen, like a camera eye. He explains it very well and I agree with him on most points.

One thing to remember though, is that we are all different, and that there is certainly no “one and only” right way of doing it.

It’s a great video and I like Eric’s explaining vey much. I’m also sure that Eric, and a lot of other trumpet players, get great results doing it like this, however, I feel I need to point out a few things…

Important note…

Eric says to do 3 sets and slowly build up the amount of time we can hold the pen until we can hold the pen for 4 minutes and then do that for 3 sets, with a few minutes of rest between sets. The problem is that this is too much for a lot of trumpet players, myself included.

Now to his defense, he does point out that it can be too much for some people and, if so, we should take longer rests and see how it goes. So don’t get me wrong, I think the video is great, and again, I like Eric very much.

Here’s the deal…

There Are Two Ways of Building Strength!

As a lifelong gym trainer with a big interest in how the body and muscles work, I need to point out that there are two main ways of building muscle strength…

  • Option 1

-We work a muscle until it gets very tired. Rest for a while and repeat the process for a few sets, and then we are done for the day.

  • Option 2

-We push a muscle until it “almost gets tired” and then stop. So we stop BEFORE the muscles tires and we do just enough to trigger a strength building signal from the brain / nervoussystem. It’s a MED. (minimum effective dose),  but instead we repeat it more often. .

So let’s talk about them. Starting with…

Option #1

Both methods works for building strength, however, option 1 is better suitable for gym training than trumpet isometrics…

…Why?

Well, you see with option 1 the muscles get worked hard, and by taxing muscles until they are very tired, we create micro tears in the muscle fibers. This is the whole point, as when they recover they repair and come back stronger than before…

…if they get enough time to recover!!!

This is how most bodybuilders do it. They completely tear down a body part, until they are exhausted, and then they give that muscle several days to recover. I repeat…

…several days to recover!!!

If they do not give the muscle enough time to recover, they will not get stronger and in the worst case, they can damage the muscles or even get weaker. This is very important to understand as it’s highly applicable to trumpet playing as well.

Depending on how fatigued they became, the optimal recovery is anywhere from 24-78 hours…

…starting to see the potential problems with this?



It’s not a bad way, IF we can afford a couple of days rest

This is all fine and dandy if we are talking about training different body parts like the biceps or chest muscles, as we do not train those every day, but when it comes to playing the trumpet we have to be using the embouchure muscles on a daily basis.

By going too hard with method #1 there is a very big risk that the embouchure muscles do not recover fully before starting the next days practice session.


playing trumpet wihout pressure“As a lifelong gym trainer, I have learned that most people should not build the embouchure muscles the same way we build our biceps.

It would be possible if we incorporated a lot of rest days, but when it comes to trumpet playing, that’s a luxury most of us can not afford”


Option #2

Option 2 is more suitable if we need to be functioning on a high level with as few ups and dips, in our trumpet form, as possible. By taxing our lip muscles just enough to trigger a strength building signal, there is no need to go to “failure” or complete exhaustion.

Believe it or not, this strength building signal is released even if we just go to about 70-80% of what we can.  AND, by doing so we do NOT create micro tears in the muscle fibers…

…and thus, we don’t need so much time to recover. In fact, by choosing option 2 we can even do more sets if we spread them out during the day, because the recovery is surprisinlgy fast this way.

More sets = more strength, up to a point (There is always a point of diminishing returns)

Of course the same goes for playing the trumpet as well. If we never go above 70-80% we can get a lot more practice time in a day…

more practice = better results.

Here’s some food for thought…

If you were never to go beyond 75%, when it comes to taxing your embouchure muscles, when playing the trumpet, your trumpet form would be much more consistent, meaning you would have less bad days and less super good days.

I’m not saying we have to do it like this, in fact it is almost impossible to be this strict, however, I’m writing it just an example to drive home the point from what I just talked about.

I will talk more about EXACTLY how to take advantage of option 2 and the triggering of the strength building signal, in the smartest and most effective way,  later in this article, but for now lets move on to the next trumpet isometric exercise…



Trumpet Isometric Exercise #2
-The P.E.T.E Embouchure Trainer-

The P.E.T.E embouchure trainer is a sweet little thing made by the Warburton company and it looks like this…

(click image to check price on Amazon)

As you can see, looking at the picture, using the right end will be very similar to using a normal pen. The other end, however, is more interesting as you can use the disc to exercise your embouchure muscles in a different way, by closing your lips around it and pulling…

…resisting the pull with your embouchure muscles.

For more instructions, take look at this video:

The P.E.T.E vs The Pencil Exercise Which One is Better?

The disc end of the P.E.T.E embouchure training device is a smart idea and it works the corner muscles in an effective manner.

You see, the center of our embouchure really does not need a whole lot of strength. In fact too much will only make it stiff and unresponsive, however, we do have to have A LOT of strength in the corners of our embouchure.

The P.E.T.E. is better for most people because it allows for a combination of both the pencil exercise and the “pull” exercise. In fact, I don’t really like doing the pencil exercise so often, as it tends to work the CENTER of the embouchure too much, in relation to the corner muscles.

This is what “corners” mean, when talking about the embouchure.

The corner muscles simply means where the upper and lover lips meet (see the picture on the left)

Sure the pencil exercise works the corners as well, but again, it works the center even more. So the “corner to center” strength ratio becomes unfavorable, in my opinion.

This is why the P.E.T.E is better.

(I apologize for the spelling error in the picture)

The P.E.T.E wins over the penicl exercise

So the disc end, of the P.E.T.E embouchure training device makes it better suitable for building embouchure strength than just using a normal pen however, there is a way to modify the pencil exercise in order to not overwork the center of the embouchure…

…which leads me to the next subheading…

An alternative to the pencil exercise – Use TWO pencils

Sine putting a pencil between our lips and squeezing it with the center of our chops tends to overwork those muscles and make our aperture stiff and unresponsive, here’s an alternative if using pencils…

Use TWO pencils!

By using two pencils, and moving them more away from the middle, towards the corners of the embouchure, you avoid overworking the center.

This way you get more strength training for your corner muscles…

…which is what we want!

Now, to be honest it is a bit more difficult to do the “two pencil exercise” than the normal pencil exercise and you might want to use pencils that are a bit shorter…

…and even though using two pencils are better for the embouchure than using just one, I still prefer the P.E.T.E, using the disc end with the pulling motion.



Trumpet Isometrics #3
Lip-Ups For Embouchure Strength

Another way to strengthen your lips away from the trumpet is by doing “lip-ups”. This is done by putting a finger in the center of your chops, like when shushing someone…

…and then you simply push your finger forward, using only your lips. At the same time create some resistance with your finger, pressing back against your lips, as in preventing them to go forward.

Here is a good way to go about it:

  • Push forward and hold for 5 seconds
  • Relax for 5 seconds (the finger comes back in)
  • Push forward again for 5 seconds

…And repeat!

I recommend doing it for 6-8 reps, but you have to find your own optimal number of reps. Just remember that there is no need to go to exhaustion to build muscles.

How Much Isometrics Should We Do?
WARNING!

When trumpet players start experimenting with isometric exercises to build the embouchure, they often do way too much. Of course, doing too much will not build your strength, and it will make your playing worse because you have now developed stiffness…

…and in addition to that “the feel” is different.

Doing too much can totally mess you up!

If you do too much in the beginning and keep going, without backing off, you are heading for disaster.

Do NOT start by doing lots of sets and going to failure (meaning to the point of total exhaustion) in every set.

Example: if you try the pencil exercise for the first time by doing 5 sets in the evening, holding the pen as long as you can then THAT IS WAY TOO MUCH!

Remember what I wrote earlier in this article, there are two ways of building strength…

  • By going to failure and resting for a long time (option 1)
  • By only going far enough to trigger a strength building signal (option 2)

…and, option 2 is always to prefer when it comes to building lip strength, your embouchure and playing the trumpet.

Start slowly and build slowly. Just do a few seconds 2-3 times a day your first couple of days. The slowly start adding seconds. As a general rule I don’t like to recommend a specific amount of seconds as we are all different…

…instead what I say is:

Hold the muscles for a while and then stop BEFORE you get too tired. As soon as you can sense a feeling of tiredness, STOP! 

Especially in the beginning, when starting out, it is better to stop too soon than too late and as a rough estimate I would say to stop at 60% the first few days. Then gradually increase the lenght until you go to about 70-80% of your “max”…

…and you will notice that your 80% will become longer and longer.

Should You Do Them Before Or After Your Trumpet Session?

Well, if you go with option 1, then you should NOT do them in the morning before playing. The only way to have a chance with option 1 is to do them after all you playing is done for the day…

…and then rest the whole night until playing again the next day. This works for some but, again, for a lot of people the recovery time is just too short. This is why I recommend option 2 for most people…

…and doing option 2, you can do them pretty much anytime you want during the day as it won’t kill your chops. If you only go to about 75% you sill recover in a matter of minutes, if you are in decent shape.

When NOT to do them…

Never ever do trumpet isometrics before a gig. This goes for option 2 as well IF you are a novice and have not spent a lot of time with isometrics. If you are used to doing them then option 2 is safe to do, even before a gig if you make sure to get a few minutes of res before your solo.

What Can I Expect From Doing Them?

If using your brain and doing them in a smart way they can significantly increase your embouchure strength. As a result it is possible to double, or even triple your endurance…

…and I’ll tell you my own recipe of doing this in just a moment.

Can doing trumpet isometrics help high notes?

A little, but don’t expect miracles. High notes are more a result of the right air compression in combination with a focused air stream, hitting the chops in an optimal way. (optimal for YOUR face and dental structure)…

…so, high notes are not so much about raw strength, as many trumpet players would think. That said, sure, strenght does help and will indeed expand the upper register, at least a bit….

…for some more than others, but speaking of the upper register, using isometrics to get a strong embouchure can definitely help with how much power you can deliver in the upper register.

This is because playing loud high notes, in a screaming lead playing way, does indeed take a lot more strength than playing them softly.

My Ultimate Isometric Routine For Strongest Chops

I have done A LOT of experimenting until I figured out how much and how to optimally build my own embouchure, using isometrics. I could write a whole article about this in and of itself, but to make along story short…

….I have found that less is more…

…and I DEFINITELY use option 2. I never ever go to failure. I always stop before getting to fatigued, stopping at 70-80% of what I am capable of…

…here’s how I personally do my isometrics…

  • I do them many times a day
  • I only do ONE set at a time (to 70-80%)
  • I spread them out during the whole day, with lot’s of rest between
  • I use the P.E.T.E and not the pencil
I Always Carry The P.E.T.E Training Device in My Pocket
And here’s the secret…

This might sound funny, but here’s how I get the optimal training frequency, and never ever forget to do them:

I always have the P.E.T.E in my pocket and whenever I go to the bathroom to urinate, I use the P.E.T.E at the same time. This makes me naturally get a good amount of rest between training sessions, and they are sprinkled out over the entire day.
It’s PERFECT!

This has more than tripled my endurance!

…and I do this every single day! I mostly use the disc end on the P.E.T.E, but sometimes I throw in a set with the other end as well.

For example,  if I go to the bathroom about 8 times a day, then perhaps 6 of those will be a training session with the disc end, and I will do two of them with the other end (which is more like the pencil exercise) roughly speaking. Sometimes a bit more or less, but roughly speaking…

…the point being I always use the DISC end more than the other end.

This has more than tripled my endurance and I highly recommend you give it a try yourself. Just remember to START SLOWLY!!!

I talk in more detail about this in my article Warburton P.E.T.E. review.

You can click  the image to read other real user reviews about the P.E.T.E. (on Amazon)

So there you have it. You can try these trumpet isometrics out to find which one is best for you. Just don’t do all of them at the same time.

Personally I like the P.E.T.E the best as the disc end trains the embouchure in a perfect way for me, and, because it easier to always carry it with me, for my toilet breaks, than it would be to always be carryng around a long pencil in my pocket 🙂

If you want to try the P.E.T.E yourself you can click here to check the price over at Amazon, as well as read other real user reviews.

So Are Trumpet Isometrics Good Or Bad? Conclusion

Trumpet isometric exercises can, and should, never be a substitute for practicing the trumpet, but I don’t even have to say that right? I think everyone is in agreement there…

…they are tools you can use in addition to your normal practice routine.

Tools that, If you do too much of,  can be the worst thing you ever do to your trumpet playing and some trumpeters have almost ruined themselves by doing them…

…however, using your brain and doing them in a smart way, they can take your trumpet playing to the next level, for sure. Some people can even double, triple or quadruple their endurance this way. And that, let me tell you, is pretty darn amazing!

Ok, so there you have it. I hope you found this article informative, and if you did, please share it with your trumpet playing friends because that will help me keep this website going.

Thank you so much!

LASTLY: If you feel that you would want some more personal advice focused on YOUR specific playing situation, check out my coaching page and see what kind of online coaching packages I offer.

I’d be more than happy to help you out on your trumpet journey 🙂

You can find the coaching page here >> Online trumpet lessons!

2 thoughts on “Pencil Exercise-Trumpet Isometric Exercises -HELL or HEAVEN?”

  1. Thank you for your work, this article helped me a lot. I kept wondering why my embouchure got worse everytime I started to work on isometrics. I really like your site and the way you talk about different trumpet topics like stiff lips and airy sound that are not brought up oft. Practincing harder when you have troubles isn‘t always the answer!

    1. Thanks for the nice comment. Yes, the words “less is more” rings true, when it comes to trumpet playing. That and “relax relax relax” 🙂

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