The James Stamp Method — A Student’s Perspective

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I studied with Jimmie Stamp in the early 1980s in Los Angeles, California, having been referred to him by Los Angeles Philharmonic principal trumpeter, Thomas Stevens, himself a former student of Stamp. An aspiring symphony musician, I could play well some of the time but was too inconsistent to establish a true professional career. But after working with Stamp for a few months I began subbing with the LA Philharmonic and getting called for Hollywood recording sessions. When ill health compelled Stamp to reduce his teaching load, I took over his large studio at California State University at Fullerton. By the mid-1980s I was winning major symphony positions around the world and for six seasons served as principal with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.

Stamp’s teaching was deceptively simple. Though highly intelligent, he was a man a few words. He didn’t clutter the lessons with a lot of jargon or gimmicks and had surprisingly little to say about embouchure, tongue placement or the mechanics of breath support. His minimalist, philosophical approach confused me at first. It took me a while to catch on to how he was making me play better and how I might best convey his concepts to others.

This is my interpretation of Stamp’s most important ideas:

Stamp Concept #1: Each and every pitch must be perfectly centered

The trumpet is bound to the overtone series, and the lips must buzz/vibrate the air column at the right frequency to match the length of tubing. For instance, on a perfectly tuned C trumpet, to play middle C (open) the lips must vibrate exactly at 256 Hertz. This is the true Center of Pitch. At this frequency the tone will be full and resonant and the instrument will respond easily. But if the air column vibrates too slowly or too quickly, say, at 248 or at 262 Hertz, the tone and response will suffer. Further bending of the pitch will threaten to cause such a deterioration of response that the tone will fail altogether, a product of the physics of acoustics.

Most often, players tend to push the intonation in the direction of the melodic line: playing sharper when ascending and flatter when descending. Players also tend to stretch intervals, playing the upper note sharper and the lower note flatter. Over the course of a lengthy musical passage, missing the true centers of many pitches (in addition to sounding out-of-tune) compels the player to force; i. e., to over-blow, using excessive pressure and stretching the lips and/or bunching up the chin in an ultimately futile effort to keep the tone from failing. Eventually, the lips tire and swell and further playing becomes impossible.

Stamp Concept #2: Tempo must be perfectly maintained at all times and every note must be placed precisely in rhythm

Stamp understood that, in their anxiety to get to the high note (or the low note, or through the challenging passage), players tend to rush ahead of the beat. Rushing, in addition to being unmusical, de-synchronizes the embouchure, tongue, fingers and the control of airflow; the embouchure tends to contract or relax too soon, resulting in generally poor response and missed notes. Thus, rushing goes hand-in-hand with missing pitch centers; almost all missed notes result from playing off the true center of pitch and ahead of the beat.

Stamp Concept #3: Breaths must be taken in-tempo

Stamp insisted that, for the initial attack, the tempo must be set in advance and the initial breath must be taken in-tempo, usually in a single beat before the first note is sounded. If the tempo is especially quick, the breath may be taken over two beats; if the tempo is especially slow, the breath may be taken in a half-beat.

Stamp Concept #4: Abdominal support must be supplied first and maintained throughout short rests and breaths

Stamp maintained that the abdominal muscles that exert pressure on the diaphragm must be contracted before the first breath is taken. Stamp likened this to bracing in anticipation of a fist striking the belly. He also suggested practicing while standing on tiptoes, which firms the muscles in precisely the correct manner. The breath support may be relaxed only during extended rests (of at least a few bars).

Stamp Concept #5: The mouthpiece should be sealed against the lips after the breath is taken

Stamp considered this to be perhaps his most important concept. The pressure of the mouthpiece sealing against the lips must be applied only in the last instant after the breath taken and before the first note has sounded. The precise timing of this sequence (breath-seal-blow) is crucial to achieving clean attacks and effortless response.

Trumpeters traveled from around the world to learn from Stamp and fix long-standing problems. He almost always got good results, with players who ranged from beginners to veteran virtuosi, the latter including commercial lead players, jazz soloists and symphony musicians. Yet, although Stamp was considered to be a great “chops guru,” he never changed an embouchure. Stamp told me that, even for players with the most stretched, stressed lips, once he got them centering the pitch, playing good rhythm and supporting-breathing-sealing-blowing in-time and in proper sequence, the embouchure problems simply disappeared!

Thus, Stamp turned conventional wisdom on its head. To him, bad embouchures resulted from bad playing, not the other way around. Students expecting a more mechanistic approach were disappointed — at least, until Stamp’s gentle insistence broke through their resistance. Since so much of Stamp’s teaching focussed on basic musicianship (intonation, tempo, rhythm), his students naturally became more artistic even while working with him purely on the physicality of trumpet playing.

My lessons with Stamp always began with breathing exercises: breaths taken slowly or quickly and exhaled slowly or quickly, but always timed to a moderate tempo. This helped relax the body and prepare the mind. Next would come buzzing the lips only: simple diatonic patterns, always with piano accompaniment, to keep pitch and rhythm steady and warm up the embouchure. After only a minute or two we would proceed to playing on the mouthpiece alone, again, accompanied by the piano to maintain consistency of pitch and rhythm. Stamp did not make a religion of mouthpiece buzzing. But he did find it very helpful in focussing the student’s attention on precision of pitch and rhythm. He felt that, if the student could learn to synchronize breathing, center the intonation and play in-tempo on the mouthpiece alone, trumpet playing would become much easier. Once I was buzzing the mouthpiece consistently and correctly, I would be allowed to move on to the trumpet.

Many of Stamp’s exercises feature pedal tones: pitches below the trumpet’s normal range. He taught his students to descend to these low notes and then ascend to the middle and high registers cleanly and without pausing to reset the embouchure. The pedal notes served as a test: if the student could play down to the pedals and then back into the higher ranges, that was a clear indication that airflow, pitch and rhythm were in perfect sync. With any slight rushing or missed pitch center on the way down, the pedal note would not sound. With any slight rushing or missed pitch center on the way back up, the high note would be missed.

Similar in some ways to vocal studies, Stamp’s exercises, like the man himself, are both ingenious and deceptively simple. They are highly efficient at identifying inconsistencies in pitch and rhythm. Stamp did not set impossible goals. But he did make it nearly impossible for the student to ignore key musical fundamentals. Unlike many trumpet studies, which simply are difficult for the sake of being difficult, Stamp’s are quite easy to play if one centers every pitch and plays with an absolutely steady beat. But if one misses pitch centers or rushes even slightly, the exercises become unforgiving. In this respect, Stamp’s method is truly unique.

Think about it: if the note is played precisely in-tune and precisely in time, it cannot be missed.

Although Jimmie has been gone for many years, his legacy lives on, in his many students and in the many more students of his students. I also firmly believe that his influence extends far beyond those who are directly connected to him in some way or even to those who practice his exercises. Trumpeters around the world have better intonation and rhythm than did players of previous generations. They play according to the Stamp method even if they never heard of him. An anecdote illustrates this point:

Long ago, the late, great Maurice André, was touring in Los Angeles and asked local trumpeters to introduce him to Stamp. Both dubious and curious, André had heard great things about Stamp’s teaching. After listening to Stamp for a while and playing some of the exercises, André exclaimed, “Of course! This is the way I play all the time!”

Maurice André.

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