Preparing for a Première (Part 2)

In this second post, I wanted to give you an insight into the various techniques and sounds effects that Alex has incorporated into the ‘Threads’ flugelhorn concerto.

Quarter-Tone Tuning:

Instead of the usual chromatic scale consisting of semitones, this concerto is based on a scale of quarter tones. To achieve these quarter tone movements, I have found alternative fingerings which all use the 3rd valve, so that I can slightly change the pitch using the 3rd valve slide trigger. If I can’t find an alternative fingering for a note (low C, for example) I have to alter the pitch by just slightly tightening or loosening my lips. 


Pitch Bending:

Similarly to moving in quarter tones, sometimes the music is notated as below and this means I have to move the 3rd valve slide whilst playing, which gradually lowers the pitch of the notes. Thankfully the note E-flat can be played using valves 2 and 3, so I can use my 3rd slide trigger to do this.


Flutter Tongue:

Flutter tonguing is a technique which involves rolling your ‘r’s whilst playing a note. It creates a wild, raspy sound and is a technique used quite often for the trumpet. It gets harder to flutter tongue as you get higher up in the range and more difficult to switch quickly between this technique (flt.) and normal playing (ord.), so the passage below poses quite a challenge..!



This is the term that Alex and I came up with to describe a particular sound that we liked. This quiet and extremely high pitched ‘whistle’ sound is produced by squeezing air through lips which are as tightly pursed as possible. It creates a wailing sound which floats above the orchestral texture.



On a brass instrument, it is possible to play more than one pitch at once by singing or humming whilst playing - this is called multiphonics. It is quite a strange sensation to detach your singing voice from the air which you’re using to blow down the instrument, but the effect can be extraordinary. Alex has used multiphonics mainly in the 3rd movement of this concerto and it is notated as below - I play the bottom line on the flugelhorn and simultaneously sing the top line. The sound can become distorted and fractured if the two notes are only a small interval apart. But, if the tuning is right, you can also produce beautiful chords where the natural harmonics sound and create three or more notes.


Pinched Tone:

Alex was keen to experiment with the spectrum of sound distortion that could be created on the flugelhorn, so he sometimes asks for the sound to have a Pinched Tone. By literally pinching your lips together inside the mouthpiece you can create a gravelly, impure tone and the dotted notation below indicates the changing volumes that Alex wanted. 


Tongue Stops / Valve Clicks

Tongue stopping on the trumpet is where you cut the air off very suddenly and block the sound. You can try this by whispering the word “hut” as fast and short as possible but blocking the “t” at the end so much that it sounds like a “d”. If you then do this into the trumpet you can produce a popping sound and use your tongue to change the speed. Alex also asked me to do some valve clicks alongside the tongue stopping. Since my 2nd and 3rd valves are already down for the tongue stopped D#’s, I can flick the 1st valve down at various points to create another new effect. The slanted lined above the notes in the example indicate speeding up and slowing down at the same rate as the crescendo and diminuendo.


Natural Harmonics:

The trumpet is based on the harmonic series. By pressing one particular combination of valves, you can play many different notes just by changing the tightness of your lips and the speed of your air. At the bottom end of the register, the notes are further apart and can only be played with certain valve combinations. However as you move higher up the scale, you start to be able to play some notes with alternative combinations, and this is even more the case the higher you go. In ‘Threads’, Alex really utilises the alternative fingerings, the reason being that they are naturally a bit out of tune and so they fit with the quarter tone scale that the piece is based on. Alex notates the natural harmonics/alternative fingerings as below:


To make sense of the rapidly changing fingerings (many of which I’m not used to playing), I decided to colour-code my part, giving each valve combination it’s own colour. This meant that eventually I didn’t have to read the numbers but could just see the colour and know which valves I needed to press! 

Threads 6.JPG

It is certainly a challenge to try and master These extended techniques and use them all during one piece, but this is one of the many reasons why I love playing new music. It is interesting and satisfying to work out a way of playing something that seemed uncomfortable or even impossible at first, but to hear the effect once it’s all put together with the orchestra makes it truly worthwhile. 

If you have any questions about these techniques or the processes behind them, please do get in touch! For more information about ‘Threads’, check out:

Project Website:

Getting to know trumpeter Imogen Hancock: