The Caruso Way: How to apply calisthenic training to daily brass practice

February 5, 2016

Faculty Author:

Today, I’m going to be talking to you about a very special and often misunderstood corner of brass pedagogy.  Yes, I’m talking about the brass method of Carmine Caruso.  The supposed “high-note” or “chops” method.  In this article I will explain the philosophy behind the Caruso school, talk about the major exercises that it employs, and compare the various ways it is being taught by major pedagogues and artists today.  I will also talk about my own experiences with the method, how it was a part of Laurie Frink’s brass method (whom I studied with), and how it can be a part of your daily routine.



First things first, a bit about Carmine Caruso:

  • Carmine Caruso was born on November 2nd, 1904 and passed on May 26th 1987. 

  • He was a saxophonist by trade 

  • He taught hundreds of player in New York City for over 50 years

  • By studying with Carmine, you would get custom versions and sequences of the exercises, and this is the real value in this system.  The exercises are scalable to every level.

  • I was lucky enough to study with Frink and experience her potent blend of pedagogy. My dissertation was documentation of Laurie Frink’s Method.


When working with the Caruso Method, you will deal with the following topics:




When talking about the Caruso Method, we first talk about the philosophy of this kind of training.  I would stress to not think too much about the quality of your performance (in the beginning) as this can be destructive.  As you develop and play these exercises, you will finally get a “good” sound.  Until that happens, there is no “wrong” sound.  Carmine always would say “Play with Abandon” for this very reason.  In the early stages, distorted notes may be all that your body is capable of doing within the constraints of this method.  It is important to realize that the body is always in a state of change.  Through the direct and repetitive practice of these exercises, we teach our muscles that they can’t remain in this state of flux.  This method is designed to bring about discipline and a coordination between mind and body. 


A few things to keep in mind:

  1. The results of repetitive activity will begin to show gradually, in percentages!

  2. The instrument is just a piece of plumbing, it is muscle that does all of the work.

  3. Nearly 200 muscles must work to produce a sound on a brass instrument.  It is the coordination of these muscles that is directed through this study.

  4. It is improvement we are trying to attain, not perfection!

  5. This method is “clinical” in that it shows you how to work your muscles so that you can use your instrument to make music and give consistent performances.

  6. This is NOT a music method


Synchronization/Coordination is everything


Another important concept for the success of this technique is your coordination. Timing determines when muscles start and stop.  As you practice with precision timing (a steady tempo), you will condition your muscles to be reflexive.  Once your movements are reflexive, they can become more advanced and more efficient.  I recommend that you subdivide to become even more precise with the timing.  The goal is to get all of the muscles to respond on the final 16th note so that you have a more accurate and reflexive movement.


The Rules


The Caruso method also mandates a set of rules for correct form.  Their purpose is to eliminate variables so that the repetitive practice can be as consistent as possible. bringing about the maximum discipline and coordination among the muscles used to play the instrument.

  1. Tap Your Foot

    1. This is to establish the timing to which the muscles must move.  Use a metronome if you have trouble with this.

  2. Keep the mouthpiece in contact with the lips throughout each study (long setting)

    1. Every time you move the mouthpiece you are resetting the embouchure, we wish to eliminate this variable.

    2. The embouchure consists of 5 definite movements, by not resetting we are reducing this to three!

      1. Putting the mouthpiece on the lips

      2. Putting tension on the lips for the note to be played

      3. Positioning the jaw

      4. Angling the instrument

      5. Blowing into the instrument

    3. Contrary to the text, this does NOT mean to hold your lips in playing position during the rests.  This adds tension which is the mortal enemy of brass playing!

  3. Keep the blow steady

    1. The blow is both muscular and physical in nature.  The steadier the blow, the more compact the stream of the air.  The more compact the stream of air, the easier it is for the lips to ride that airstream.  As the lips become more efficient, making music will become easier.

  4. Breathe only through the nose

    1. This is to reduce the amount of muscular activity it takes to produce a note.  This helps to develop the embouchure quicker because we are reducing the variables.


The Exercises


The Caruso method consists of 4 basics exercises.

  1. 6 Notes – A preliminary exercise.

  2. Interval Study – An upper register specific exercise

  3. Harmonics - An exercise that connects the lower and upper registers.

  4. Chord Pedals  - An exercise that connects the upper to the lower register.


Someone just starting with the method might just do 6 notes for a week, and then add 2nds, from the interval study, and so forth.  I also experiment with the ordering after 6 notes, although I find an excellent balance is achieved by doing the first four in a row.  I will provide some sample routines at the end of this article. 


Julie Landsman, horn professor at the Juilliard School of Music, has a full YouTube series covering her take on the Caruso system as used for horn.  She studied with Carmine for a very long time and over-lapped with Laurie Frink. 


6 Notes


6 Notes is a warm-up type exercises that stabilizes the embouchure and allows it to come into focus before adding motion.  It teaches the body the relative positions of each note and makes them feel close together.  It also helps to achieve a good balance between air, lips, and time.  There is no mention of volume in the Caruso book, but most teachers would have you play this MF or PP.  My recommendation is to play it very softly to just grab the core of the note.  Don’t forget to breath attack! This exercise can be further modified as you advance to cover other sequences of notes.




Interval Study


The interval study is for specific upper register training.  It is a strength exercise and should always be played very softly.  Never lurch between notes, instead go for the idea of a glissando between notes.  This can cover any interval; advanced students would do a different interval every day.  All intervals are diatonic but can be chromatic to work over break areas.  Once you get to the top, rest for 15 seconds and pick it up a 4th lower than where you stopped and go higher.  Then recover.  Always breath attack the first note and always slur the intervals!





Harmonics are strength and sound-building drills that help to expand into the upper register through the harmonic series.  This trains the balance of air and aperture needed for this.  More advanced versions also descend, and you typically go as high as you can get in the interval study.  Make sure to keep the blow steady, and hit ALL of the harmonics.  The physical movement is analogous to whistling the exercise.  Pictured below is the version with a hold on top as well as the version with the descending half.  They are not a pair, but just two ways of doing it.



Chord Pedals


Chord pedals are a combination recovery and focus exercise.  You breath attack a high note and then come down the chord into the pedal register.  Start as high as you get with harmonics and interval study.  Moreover, make sure you are breath attacking the note.  Keep the volume soft and create as smooth transition between each note, rather than jumping from slot to slot.  Do this in all 7 descending positions.  This helps to connect the upper and lower register, just as the harmonics connect the lower register to the upper register.  It also trains the body where the high notes are!  Below are 5 variations of this exercise.




Sample Sequence


Below is a typical outline of how you would apply this to your daily practice.  At each line, you would repeat the sequence for a full week and then re-assess.  If you still have trouble doing anything, repeat the week.  Once you have all 4 exercises in your routine, you can continuously re-evaluate the version of 6 notes and the version of harmonics you are using.  Many keep them the same for months or years on end.  Cycle through the intervals on a regular basis and continue to experiment with different pedal exercises and whisper tones plus the chromatic scale.  Through this process, you will achieve the reflex, discipline, range, and consistency promised!

  1. 6 notes

  2. 6 notes, 2nds + pedal recovery

  3. 6 notes (new version), 2nds + pedal recovery + Harmonics

  4. 6 notes, 2nds + pedal recovery + Harmonics + Chord Pedal

  5. 6 notes (new version), 3rds + pedal recovery + Harmonics + Chord Pedal

  6. 6 notes, 4ths + pedal recovery + Harmonics + Chord Pedal

  7. 6 notes, 5ths + pedal recovery + Harmonics + Chord Pedal

  8. 6 notes, 6ths + pedal recovery + Harmonics + Chord Pedal

  9. 6 notes, 7ths + pedal recovery + Harmonics + Chord Pedal

  10. 6 notes, octaves + pedal recovery + Harmonics + Chord Pedal

  11. 6 notes, 2nds + pedal recovery + Harmonics + Chord Pedal

  12. Etc…





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