Thought Experiment: The Modern B-flat Trumpet Is A Piccolo?

Come with me on a journey through time and space as we explore the modern trumpet through a different lens. I hope with this short article to present an idea that allows us, as trumpeters, to practise with an altered perspective and to hopefully gain some ability as a result.

The modern trumpet and cornet are usually described, in modern times, as being the same instrument (except for the mouthpiece and the number of 180-degree bends in the tubing). Detailed analysis of modern and old cornets and trumpets has demonstrated this to be fact. Actually, contrary to popular belief, many modern trumpets are more conical than cornets and vice versa.

Personally, having played both instruments for most of my life I tend to see the difference between the instruments as a matter of musical style. Switching from one to the other happens similarly to switching between a classical and commercial style on the trumpet (it’s all in your head). The true innovation of the historical cornet was to make the soprano brass voice fully chromatic. Emphasis in cornet methods is upon the finger technique and the ability to play fluently in the lowest two octaves of the instrument, which makes sense seeing that these are the things the cornet could do that the ancient trumpet could not. On the subject of “trumpet vs cornet” that is all I have to share, but it was important to mention as it paves the way for my opinion about how we could think about playing the trumpet.

The modern trumpet is normally taught just as I describe the cornet above. As a chromatic instrument that people learn to play by changing fingering and slowly growing their range, diatonically, one note at a time. This may make sense when you look at the instrument, but in antiquity this approach was not possible. On the instrument that we commonly refer to as a “natural trumpet” there was only the harmonic series, so people first learned to play a single note and then subsequent notes by manipulating the embouchure. Instantly people studied the embouchure from the start.

Regardless of methods that people follow or ideologies that their teacher follows an aspiring player on the modern trumpet will eventually be given flexibility exercises, or “lip-slur” exercises. For many, these exercises are the only gateway to embouchure development and they may play for many years before they begin practising them. Considering this fact alone makes it obvious that so many modern trumpet players struggle to understand the basic mechanics of embouchure – the topic is pretty much avoided by all teachers (except for those dreaded ones who go around screwing people up with their half-baked theories about flat chins and jaw alignment).

When studying transposition many pupils have asked me why it is that in order to play music written for the trumpet in F we transpose the music up a perfect fifth, rather than down a perfect fourth, considering that the trumpet in F was a longer length of tubing. The trumpet in F doesn’t get talked about very much in current times, but I believe understanding the way it was played could assist us in developing or indeed changing our understanding of the B-flat trumpet and performance of certain classical repertoire. The simple answer to the question, of course, is that the trumpet in F, although it had valves and thus making it fully chromatic, was essentially the highest pitched natural trumpet, plus valves. If you were to play a written middle C on a natural trumpet in C then it would be the fourth available harmonic, and it would sound the same pitch as the same note on the piano. As you shorten the tubing, raising the pitch for the other common natural trumpets (D, E-flat, F, G) the pitch of a written middle C also raises. Hence a middle C written for the trumpet in F would be played as the note G, the second available open harmonic, on a modern B-flat trumpet.

My proposal is not complicated, or in any way clever, but if we were to take the modern B-flat trumpet and compare it to its predecessors (natural trumpets or F-trumpets) rather than its country cousin (the cornet) then what we would have is an instrument that would be thought of as a piccolo. If the fourth harmonic on a natural trumpet is a middle C, then we could read any music in the same way on the modern trumpet too. Of course at this point it just sounds as though I’m suggesting that we just play everything an octave higher than written, so allow me to suggest another idea.

If we were to forget the natural trumpet and focus on the trumpet in F then what we have is an instrument the same length and with the same fingerings as a French Horn, or more specifically, a single horn in F. What I suggest is that anyone playing the modern B-flat trumpet can and should learn to play music from a basic french horn tutor book, which is easier to get hold of than an authentic F-trumpet tutor, but transpose that music such that you are using the same harmonics and fingerings that the book suggests. Thus the relationship between the B-flat trumpet and the F trumpet would be the same as the relationship between an E-flat trumpet and a B-flat trumpet is thought of today.

Practically speaking this is still, in one sense, a transposition exercise. But it shifts the focus of the instrument back a little closer to what it is – a small trumpet. In any case I believe this to be preferable to thinking of the B-flat trumpet as the largest of a set of ridiculously short trumpets/cornets that people use because nobody taught them about embouchure.