A Follow-up on Tone, Cornets and Mouthpieces

The purpose of this post is a brief follow-up on some previous articles. It’s a bit of a rant, but in this case I feel it’s necessary.

I have recently seen some people discussing one of my posts on an internet forum and there are a couple of things that I would like to address. The post in question is titled Trumpet vs Cornet, and why it’s important. If you haven’t read that then click here to have a quick look. Some people had expressed confusion about a statement I had made in terms of cornet embouchure and because I was happy with the blog post at the time of publishing I don’t want to re-write it. What I’ll do instead is give a less formal summary of the main point in that article to make sure that it is clear.

First of all it is worth me pointing out that this is my opinion, and it is also more of a philosophical point than one describing an instrument’s limitations. I must stress, however, that this is an opinion that I have developed over a period of twenty-five years as a performer on both the trumpet and the cornet, seventeen of which I have been a working professional player in a variety of genres of music. I am also a specialist embouchure and technique teacher who works with people around the world. I write these things because I am trying to help people to improve their understanding of the instruments they play so that they don’t waste decades trying to smack a square peg into a round hole. I genuinely believe that somebody can improve their playing instantly by changing their ideas because I have done exactly that. The vast majority of people out there discussing trumpet playing on the internet are sharing old, dated concepts and they are very defensive of these ideas. I have worked on my playing with really forward-thinking teachers who have decades of experience proving that traditional trumpet teaching simply does not work for the majority. Now that I’ve said this piece I will leave it up to you to decide whether you wish to take notice of what I have to share and good luck to you if you don’t.

In the Trumpet vs Cornet article my main points were these:

  1. Modern trumpets and cornets are more similar than different and one of the main ways to distinguish between them is the mouthpiece. Despite that fact, players love to use the same type of mouthpiece for both and as a result limit their abilities on both instruments.
  2. Taking a historically informed approach to performing on these instruments has lead me to believe that whilst it is the correct decision to switch to a shorter cornet (E-flat soprano being the most common) to facilitate playing with finesse in the high register it is not the correct thing to do on a trumpet.
  3. The tonal qualities of these two instruments should be noticeably different to a non-musician. The cornet was designed for lyrical chromatic playing in the low and middle register and in contrast the trumpet should sound brilliant and strident. It is those qualities that facilitate playing well in the high register on the trumpet but it does require far greater embouchure control. Simply switching to a shorter instrument makes a strong embouchure seem unnecessary, but you’re really just hiding from your problems…
  4. Many players out there make a great cornet sound on the trumpet and wonder why they cannot play well in the high register. This is my answer to that question.

Point 4 on this list brings us full-circle back to the issue of appropriate mouthpiece selection. And that in turn brings up the issue of correct tone concept.

The sound that a brass instrument produces is a composite of the fundamental pitch and a series of overtones above it. When a player makes an effort to play with a “dark tone” they are effectively putting a premium on the fundamental pitch and killing off the overtones. This is making the sound less resonant. Also, if there are no high overtones then they are not available to be excited and therefore producing high pitches on the instrument is much more difficult. Whenever a trumpet player starts chatting with me about blending with trombones I always ask them when they last heard an oboe player talking about making their instrument sound like a bassoon, or a violinist trying to sound like a cello… Even in the homogenous sound of a brass band it wouldn’t work if the soprano cornet was trying to sound like a flugelhorn.

Generally people believe that there is a trade-off to be had between having a pleasing sound and being able to play well in the high register but I believe this to be a misnomer. Something that I mentioned in my article about mouthpieces was that as a general rule those who favour large mouthpieces really struggle to produce a good tone on something smaller, but the opposite is rarely true (In his book The Balanced Embouchure Jeff Smiley writes about this being a byproduct the embouchure’s ability to “focus”). I think that at this point in time there are so few people that use really small equipment to play classical music that there simply aren’t enough use cases for comparison, however there are plenty of experienced professionals out there talking about this idea. There is a pretty widely-discussed article by Jens Lindemann on the topic, and also there have been recent podcast interviews with people such as Mark Gould and Jim Pandolfi when the subject of players not understanding trumpet sound comes up. As a final example, here is a quote from an article by Mark Van Cleave on the same subject:

It is unfortunate that many players and teachers automatically go for the wide/deep cups to produce a big fat orchestral sound. It is interesting to know that some of the players that DEFINED the orchestral sound such as Harry Glanz played a Bach 6C through out his career in New York. and Adolph Herseth won his job in Chicago playing a Bach 7B. Herseth went to a larger cup later in his career in order to accommodate scar tissue that he had developed due to an automobile accident he had in the early 50’s which severely injured his chops. Funny thing… Shortly after Herseth made the switch to a larger mouthpiece (for physical reasons), orchestral players in Boston and New York began to go larger as well. I can’t help wonder what THEIR reasons were.

So anyway… Just to top all of this part off I think I should also point out that all of my statements here are in reference to using an instrument in its most common setting. I am capable of producing the same range of notes on a cornet as I am a trumpet, and I can play the same range of notes on a Schilke 24 as I can on a 6A4a but I wouldn’t be able to practise baroque concertos on a standard B-flat trumpet (which I do) if I were using a Bach 1C for everything (which I don’t) and nor would I be able to produce an appropriate sound in a salsa band. I never need to play above high C or D on a B-flat cornet so I’m going to pick equipment that helps me sound best on a lyrical cornet solo. It’s all about making informed choices and realising where you got your information from.

If a guy in a shop is telling you that something is a “Best Seller“, is that just because he told the same thing to the last fifty people that walked through the door? The biggest brass retailer in the south-west of England only stocks mouthpieces that players traditionally buy – that’s why people only buy those mouthpieces from them… if they want something better they go elsewhere. Never listen to a salesman for specialist equipment advise because their area of expertise is sales, not music. There are great players who also sell equipment, but they can always demonstrate why they’re telling you something. Ask for a demonstration. If somebody cannot show you why their advise is correct then it probably isn’t.

Finally I should be addressing the fact that I was accused of historical inaccuracy. When I make statements on this blog I back them up with quotes and references to books. I go out of my way to find examples of the ideas I share being discussed by those in both the traditional and alternative pedagogical circles. I even pride myself on this fact. I always make a point of inviting people to comment on my blog posts and would welcome questions from the genuinely curious or even those who disagree if they’re willing to engage in rational conversation. If there are errors then I am more than happy to edit or retract statements I’ve made. It was the ability to admit that I didn’t know enough that put me on the path of learning that has resulted in this blog being possible.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. I hope that my thoughts on the subjects addressed are now clearer. If in doubt please comment below, get in touch via contact button.


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