Methods and Mouthpieces – are you a hacker?

Here I present to you what may be the two most loaded topics in trumpet playing and pedagogy.

It is often said that the instrument we chose to play says a lot about our personality. Another way of expressing this is that your instrument chooses you, not the other way around. This is the reason for the ample supply of jokes about violists, french horn players and operatic sopranos; or indeed comments such as “you’re such a typical brass player” or “aren’t classical guitarists weird?”. Well I don’t know about the last one…

Over the last 15 years as I have ventured down the path of being a professional trumpet player I have found that, regardless of an individual’s actual personality, some things appear true in all of us. Trumpet players, despite being the hippest and most necessary part of any ensemble, are complete geeks. Other more appropriate terms may be tweakers or hackers (in the lifehacking sense – see wikipedia definition here, no reference to computer security intended). Although there may be those who disagree, I will state here that this stems from the fact that the trumpet is one of the most difficult instruments to master and maintain a high level of playing on. Equally I believe that this is why it is also one of the most rewarding.

Question: So what is it that you “hack”?

Answer: Methods and mouthpieces (and lead pipes, tuning slide curve, water key design, weighted valve caps…. the list goes on…)

Question: What is it you are trying to achieve?

Answer: The holy grail? A small change that will make everything easier forever more… OK, seriously, a better tone, easier high notes, increased flexibility, cleaner articulation, better intonation, increased stamina… basically a trumpet that plays itself.

Question: Can you not achieve all of these things through practise?

Answer: Hacking is my practise.

And there is the point of the blog post. This is how after playing the trumpet for 22 years I make practising scales, flexibility, articulation, range builders and long notes interesting. On top of this endless game of moving the goal posts I constantly find that reading method books and trying different equipment reveals to me all of the preconceptions that I have about playing and how to break them down. It helps me to make massive leaps forward when I find something that works and I  have safe places to go back to when something isn’t working as it should. This is also why I am a multi-genre player. If I stick to any one style of music for too long then I stop learning from it and begin to lose interest. I love the fact that one day I’ll be playing on a dub record and the next day I’ll be in a chamber orchestra, or wedding band.

And yes, there are trumpet players who aren’t like this. Often you’ll find those who are interested in various methods, but not in changing their equipment and vice-versa and sadly those who never change a thing. It is my opinion that they are missing out. They are missing out on being the best player they can be. I don’t believe there is any such thing as “good enough”.

I’ll end this with a quote. This comes from an article that the great Bobby Shew wrote in 1997. It is currently available on his website:

Don’t be afraid TO TRY!! Better to explore and discover than to keep your head and mind buried in the sand of tradition (and misinformation).

An analysis of tone

Playing the trumpet with an appropriate tone is something that has arisen more than other topics in my trumpet-playing life. There have been a variety of reasons for this. Some of them are related directly to choices or changes in equipment and others are related to the fact that I could be playing in a salsa band one night and a chamber orchestra the next, or a brass band: all of which are thought to require vastly different tonal qualities.

When I first began playing the trumpet at the age of thirteen I had been playing a cornet for a few years already and like many young people who play both I bought a mouthpiece for the trumpet that was similar to my cornet mouthpiece. Not appreciating the difference between the two instruments at the time I had made a mistake – my trumpet now had a dull, spread tone. Years later when I was studying at music college I bought a mouthpiece with a shallower cup than my standard-issue Vincent Bach 1-1/2 C because I could play in the high register for a little longer. My teacher was not at all pleased, saying that I now had a thin/bright sound.

I do not intend this article to be about equipment and those who know me also know that I do have quite unorthodox views on equipment anyway, so I shall now steer things in a different direction. The important question to address is which words we should use to describe the tone of a brass instrument, and what those terms mean. I will also state my opinions about which are desirable qualities and give examples. I am going to present a series of terms in opposing pairs. As with colours, we cannot recognise black (no colour) without the opposing white (all of the colours combined).

Bright/Dark vs Brilliant/Dull

This is probably the easiest place to start and maybe the most loaded aspect of tone that we need to deal with. I feel that it is important and most effective to talk about the sound of a trumpet using the terms brilliant or dull rather than bright or dark because the terms brilliant/dull describe resonance whereas bright/dark actually relate more to pitch. The definition of a brilliant tone is one that is rich with high overtones and is very resonant. In a large room it would echo well as there is a lot of energy in the vibrations. In my opinion this is a desirable quality. A dull tone is one that lacks vibrancy – it is often referred to as mellow but I disagree: a flugelhorn has a mellow tone, but it must still be vibrant, not flat in sound. A dull sound is in technical terms off-centre or out of tune with the resonance of the instrument and is often the result of over-blowing – ironic really because people over-blow in order to make their sound carry.
Here are some examples:

A “dark” sound: http://youtu.be/a53s4jyCqqU?t=1m40s

This music begins with the low-pitched brass instruments. Wagner’s music is often described as needing a dark tonal quality. I think that in performing each part with the intended instrument will result in this quite sufficiently. When the trumpet has a solo at 2:21 you will notice that it does not have a dark sound at all (because that is not the trumpet’s role in the ensemble!!).

A “bright” sound: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mSHxFybELNY

This is a soprano cornet player called Peter Roberts who has a beautiful and vibrant tone. This, particularly when he plays softly, is the kind of sound that is often described as bright, when people just mean high in pitch. Again, I would argue that people use the word bright because he is playing a small instrument. Were he to play lower notes on a B-flat cornet then I’m sure he would not sound bright at all.

A brilliant sound: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TGi3Mlh4esk

Here is a clip of Sergei Nakariakov playing the Arutunian Trumpet Concerto and displaying what I would refer to a brilliantvibrant tone.

My final argument on this topic comes in the form of logic, and a two quotes from Jerome Callet. The trumpet is the highest pitched instrument in the brass family. It is therefore not it’s job to produce a dark or dull sound. The position of the trumpet in graphic equalisation terms is to occupy the upper frequencies.

“Herbert Clarke said in 1920 that there’s no such thing as a dark sound on a soprano cornet or trumpet and if you try to make that then you’re actually gonna make things harder for yourself.”

“If you listen to a good violinist the tone is sharp and clear and brilliant; the violin doesn’t sound like a bass fiddle.”

Focused vs Spread

The definition of a focused sound is one that has a very distinct pitch. Just as with the brilliant/dull description this is a term best learned by example. You can hear in the previous clip of Sergei Nakariakov, because of the strengths of his attacks in the fast notes, that he has a very focused sound. Strong attacks are an important factor in hitting the tonal centre of a note, especially when playing fast music.
Here are some further examples of a focused sound:

Example 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Fo4TKMknzg

This is a trumpet solo played by Wayne Bergeron, I urge you to listen to this guy as much as you can for a real experience of how every note he plays has an even tone quality right across the range of the instrument.

Example 2: http://youtu.be/Gd3DMG0lXto?t=1h32s
Here is a clip of trumpet player Jon Faddis discussing trumpet sound. If you have the time to watch this whole interview then I believe the knowledge and experience of Jon Faddis to be completely invaluable.

Example 3: http://youtu.be/7qiRWgqNhac

This is a recording of Maurice Andre. It is a perfect example of a clean, compact sound. I firmly believe that these three examples clearly demonstrate the correct trumpet sound. Coupled with a greater understanding of the terms above you can vastly improve your playing in any genre by striving to sound this way (and stop using the wrong terminology whilst you’re at it!!).

As a general rule brass players will try to spread their sound for two reasons. Firstly so that they can blend with other players – they do not realise that instruments blend as a result of good intonation and centred pitch; rather, they spread their tone in an effort not to stand out in an ensemble which ruins intonation by playing off centre. Secondly it’s a matter of power. Players do not understand that being powerful and being loud are two different things. Power comes from a compact core sound – something that is ruined by hard blowing.

Pure vs Brassy/Sizzle/Razz/Airy

The definition of a pure tone is one without any distortions and should be one of the primary goals in terms of desired sound on a trumpet. All other sounds are a direct result of deficiencies in technique or equipment. Deficiencies can also mean inefficiencies – that is wasted energy, which will result in loss of stamina, poor intonation, reduced range and often damage to the player in one form or another. I think it is important to note that learning to add to your tone for the purpose of expression is important and I wouldn’t discourage it; but these are performance techniques and should not be the only way you can play.

The thing that many people call a brassy (or even rasp-like) sound; which is much more of a feature of a trombone due to its cylindrical design; is actually a distortion caused by over-blowing. There are times when it is used to sound exciting, but quickly becomes tiresome to listen to.

My final musical example is actually of a natural trumpet played by Bahb Civiletti and demonstrates a pure tone. http://youtu.be/xyCgghWWLCw

Full/Round vs Thin

I believe the terms FullRound and Thin all to be misnomers. They are words that are frequently used in place of more descriptive terms and it is essential to notice that they are also quite contradictory in nature.
I would define a full sound as meaning one that is both dark and rich in overtones – this is a contradiction.
I would define a round sound as being one that is brassy (over-blown), focused (distinct pitch) and broad (aka spread, i.e. not focused). That is another contradiction. Generally both full and round just mean loud. Have you ever heard of a soft yet full tone? It doesn’t make sense.
The word thin just equates to weakness. Often used to describe a tone that is high in pitch yet unsupported or airy; not a resonant tone.

Finale

I hope that you have found this article to be useful and informative. By adjusting my understanding of the role of a trumpet in an ensemble and by listening to great players, combined with the expert teachings of Jerome Callet, I have greatly improved my tone and ease of playing. For further information about Jerome Callet visit the Superchops website at http://super-chops.com/

Often the greatest knowledge lies in simple logic but as musicians we are fed an awful lot of mis-information during our learning that leads to confusion that can have detrimental effects on our playing for many years. The most valuable tool you have for your development as a musician is your own ears.