Does a better trumpet make you play trumpet better?

This is a topic that I’ve found myself discussing with people a few times recently. I think that instinctively people already know the answer but there is a lot of confusion out there over the definition of “better”, which is (of course) subjective. There is such a thing as a better trumpet for playing one style of music or another, but this post is more about better and worse quality instruments overall. In my opinion, unlike confusion about playing techniques, this confusion is caused by the marketing of instrument makers rather than by our traditions and misinformed knowledge-of-the-crowd.

A simple answer

When approaching this topic I am always reminded of a conversation I had with Trevor Head whilst on one of his instrument repair courses some years ago. When asked about how different things like the weight of an instrument or whether it is silver plated affect how it sounds, he responded by  proposing the following experiment: If you were to take a professional player and a novice player and give each of them two instruments, ask them to stand behind a screen and play you the same excerpt of music on both instruments then a listener would always be able to tell which person was playing, but not always which instrument was being played. You would also find that some listeners may prefer the sound of one instrument or another but couldn’t tell you for certain which instrument it was.

A little about instruments

I was recently having a conversation with a friend of mine who plays the bass. We were talking about how the pitch of a note produced by a string is basically influenced by three factors: the thickness or weight of the string, its length and its tension. He was explaining to me how it is possible to get such a deep sound from a bass ukulele, which is a tiny instrument compared to a double bass. He then asked me how this compares to trumpets. Some people imagine that the lips of the player are equivalent to the strings on string instruments because they vibrate to make sound, though whilst the tension and thickness of the lips certainly do have an effect on resonance and tone, the comparison is a misunderstanding. The equivalent to the string is the column of air inside the trumpet.
Modern instrument designers understand very well that it is the shape of this air column that is the primary influence on the intonation of a trumpet, i.e. how the various harmonics relate to each other and how well tempered these intervals are. Interesting people to research on this topic would be Bill Cardwell, Richard Smith, Renold Schilke and Jerome Callet.
So what would happen if you were to simply increase the size of this air column? Comparatively if you imagine the sound of an old “pea-shooter” trumpet from the 1930s-40s and the sound of a flugel horn then essentially the result would be that you gradually move from sounding like one to the other… but this is an observation of tone and not so much about pitch. The pitch would also drop as the instrument increases in size, but I don’t think that this is the important thing to take note of. When you increase the size of the air column you may end up with an instrument that’s freer blowing, that makes a bigger sound, but the compromise is that it may not slot notes so well and intonation may suffer too.
In looking for recordings to illustrate the point in the previous paragraph I watched a number of videos that showed what I describe next. Have a watch of this great clip with Trent Austin demonstrating a Buescher trumpet and I’ll continue: ACB Buescher Demo.
In all of the videos that I watched about the tone of older tightly-wrapped trumpets the player ended up switching mouthpieces to show different tonal qualities. This is because small differences in mouthpiece design make a much bigger difference to how an instrument performs and sounds than the whole trumpet. I demonstrated to my friend how my Stomvi Master trumpet sounds with my own TCE-RC mouthpiece, which is small, and an RPS 18C4, which is a large classical mouthpiece design. He could hear a distinct change in the number of overtones present in my sound between the two mouthpieces, and he also observed that I needed to push my tuning slide in to play in tune on the bigger mouthpiece. The thing that was less obvious in this demonstration is that it isn’t simply the position of one note that changes when you pick a bigger mouthpiece, but also the relative pitch-centre of the harmonics as well. I would argue that most traditional mouthpieces that people use today are too old-fashioned and as a result not designed to play in tune in certain pitch ranges.
What I’ve established so far in this section is little more than the fact that the size and shape of an instrument and mouthpiece combination can affect the player’s ability to play with good intonation. The important point is that if you have a low-cost or vintage instrument that does not play well in tune then every note you play could be a drain on your technique. This is very tiring and can have a pretty detrimental effect on stamina. In this case I would argue that all players could play better on an instrument that is well designed to play in tune, compared to one that does not. It’s also important to choose a mouthpiece that doesn’t compromise the intonation of your instrument, even for the sake of a “nice” tone. But is that everything?

a matter of philosophy?

Before I get into this next part I will start by saying that it is not my place to criticise the hard work and research of others. I don’t doubt that anyone who devotes their life to making and selling brass instruments has done plenty of their own research and development and that they honestly believe that their work is the best solution to trumpet-players’ problems. The interesting thing is that when two people look at the same problem and conclude that the solution is the exact opposite to each other then there’s an interesting discussion to be had.
The example that I’ll use here refers specifically to AR Resonance and Callet Trumpets, their marketing approach and opposing design solutions. There are other companies worth a mention; such as Harrelson Trumpets, Lotus Trumpets and Monette; and they’ll get it in due course.
On their website AR Resonance state about their mouthpieces:

We DON’T want the player to acclimate to our mouthpiece, we want to serve the player with the best solution they feel to be the right one. We’ve been through all that crazy stuff and we concluded that we must not be told what to think, do or feel, we want to be in control.

Contrary to this, Jerome Callet’s promotional material says:

[These mouthpieces] were specifically designed by Jerry to help players struggling with chop problems. [They] are small and unforgiving so they work like a bold ‘stop signal’ to close down as soon as your proper embouchure starts to lose its grip […] chop problems are immediately identified and avoided!

These statements represent opposing attitudes towards the way that people play. Callet says “if you don’t play properly then you won’t be able to make this equipment work. It is your responsibility to play correctly and you will be rewarded”; AR on the other hand basically say “play however you want and our equipment will make you sound better”. Obviously these are just my knee-jerk interpretations and my opinion is biased, but there is an element of dishonesty in the AR Resonance statement. Players will acclimatise to their equipment and if they’re already over-blowing a collapsed embouchure then it will make their problems worse, not better.
What’s really interesting as well is that AR Resonance mouthpieces are designed around a very large throat and feature a shortened backbore/shank to compensate for the intonation consequences of this design. Jerome Callet’s backbores, as described on the website linked above, were known to have a longer throat and backbore to solve intonation issues and to aid projection. His latest line of mouthpieces also featured a smaller than standard throat (#29 drill size). It seems that if you don’t wish to work on your technique then you should use a short backbore with a large throat and if you care enough to learn to play better then you should use a smaller, longer throat and backbore!
Jerome Callet was well known for saying that most manufacturers were not actually capable of testing their own instruments because they could not play well over the whole six-octave range of the trumpet. Let’s say for a moment that you’re a good professional player and you make a trumpet that enables you to improve your current range by a fifth. Does this mean that it’s helping you to play better? What if you could have learnt to play more efficiently and had the same result? Maybe you would find that this new instrument doesn’t sound as good overall when compared to you playing better on your original instrument. The real question is whether or not this matters. To me it does.

Telling lies to make money

Like I said in my mini disclaimer above – it’s not my place to criticise someone’s beliefs or hard work, but in the case of the following video this famous trumpeter is unashamedly grandstanding in his attempt to sell his trumpets. He does not demonstrate how he would actually sound when trying to play his best on the “lower quality” instrument: Lotus Trumpets Promo.
Ironically in this next video you can hear that his trumpet is not better than others when played by a good trumpet player. The comments also reveal that the Lotus trumpet is not rated highly by those who’ve left their thoughts: Trent Austin Superhorn Showdown. Trent Austin does state that he loves this trumpet, and I’m sure it’s fine as they are built by Andy Taylor, but the marketing is very disingenuous and not to mention disrespectful.

All about efficiency

When discussing the topics of good instruments and good playing then inevitably the subject of efficiency arises. In the simplest of terms I usually define efficiency as “putting less in but getting more out”, but apparently this isn’t universal. To some trumpet players it can mean “how efficiently can I put as much air as possible through the trumpet?”. I don’t want to argue the matter of right and wrong here, but it’s so easy to see that we still have a lot of ideas to unravel before the general standard of trumpet playing and teaching can improve.
Jason Harrelson talks a lot about what he refers to as “Standing Wave Efficiency” in the design of his components and custom kit-trumpets. Jason has put a lot of time into improving the efficiency of his instruments through damping and preventing loss of energy through the walls of their tubing. You can learn more about that in this video: K.O. on Heavy Bracing. Funnily the only comment on this video at the time of writing is Harrelson trying to refute what K.O. has to say. In the interest of fairness, here’s is his definition: SWE Explained.
These two videos demonstrate the same points of contention mentioned above in reference to mouthpieces. Whilst one is talking about accurately playing in pitch centre to create a resonant sound, the other is saying that if you buy his instrument then it’ll do that work for you. I think it’d be easy to go round and round in circles on this issue for quite some time, also discussing how the same opposing views exist in pedagogy: Is it the player’s responsibility to learn techniques to improve their playing, or should they focus purely on music or breathing and allow the rest of the system to figure itself out? Which of these is a more efficient way of learning?

A conclusion?

My opinion is that it is common for people to seek the path of least resistance. There are plenty of people out there who are willing to take your money in exchange for an instrument or mouthpiece that is easier to play, but won’t make you play better.
Changing how you play is difficult and it takes time, but it is the only way you will improve as a player in the long term. Both equipment and ideas that result in you playing more accurately will also result in you playing more efficiently but it’s also easy to take any one idea too far. A brilliant projecting sound is good in the right musical contexts, but when you’re in an ensemble that puts a premium on blending and not standing out then you could come unstuck fast.
To answer the question in the title: Playing well on an average instrument will always sound better than playing badly on a good instrument. When looking to buy a trumpet judgements should be made based upon sound and intonation first. Just like with a mouthpiece, doing the same thing and expecting different results will only get you so far. Sometimes a drastic change that results in you learning how to play differently can teach you more than years of routines that promise longer-term gains …and sometimes not.

Trumpet vs Cornet, and why it’s important

Introduction – My Story

Being a professional high-brass specialist and growing up in England with our brass band tradition I have been juggling performing on the cornet and the trumpet for my whole playing life. The first brass instrument I played was a cornet and I was extremely excited to take this beaten-up, smelly heap of metal home from school and try to make sounds come out of it. I played in the Wells City Band and it wasn’t for a few years that I even saw a trumpet. My first real exposure to a trumpet was when I joined a big band at the age of twelve. They looked weird! Too long, and sounded harsh. It wasn’t long before I got a trumpet of my own, but it wasn’t until the age of sixteen that I switched from being a cornet player who owns a trumpet into a trumpet player who also plays the cornet. I had recently begun some lessons with Wells Cathedral School head of brass Paul Denegri because I was planning on auditioning for a place at the music school. On his advice I had been to the local trumpet dealer and bought a Vincent Bach Stradivarius trumpet.

I always had this idea in my head that switching between the two instruments was a problem because they felt different and like many people I followed the advice of the local dealer and bought a mouthpiece for my trumpet that was the same as the one I use on my cornet. That was a big mistake. Firstly, the two instruments feel different because they are different; secondly, by using a mouthpiece on one that was designed for the other you are going to achieve the effect of neither; and thirdly, the difference is a good thing! It would be so much more confusing for them to feel the same but behave differently. I think that the problem lies in the expectation of being able to do the same thing with tools that were designed for different purposes. More on this later.

I showed up to my trumpet lesson, proud of my new trumpet, and the only thing I can remember is my teacher looking at me and saying “that doesn’t sound like a trumpet”. Those words still echo in my mind to this day and I had no idea what he was talking about!

So, here’s a blog post that will hopefully provide the information you need to understand and appreciate the difference between these two instruments and aid you in related decision-making to make your musical life easier. Knowing these things really does make my job easier.

A Bit of History

Putting these two instruments into context requires that we look back in time and understand why they were created, and what they were used for.

The history of the trumpet is a long story. Ed Tarr spends this first seven chapters (about 150 pages) of his book The Trumpet just getting up to the point that I’m starting at. But there are only a few important points that we need to take from all of that to help us get to grips with the instrument’s purpose. In culture the trumpet has always had somewhat of a split personality. The primary role of trumpet-like instruments is that of a signal. Usually this is imagined in a military setting and can basically be thought of as performing fanfares. To be played loudly and heard over a long distance (quality of tone is not an issue!). The secondary role of the trumpet is its place in art music. Performing high-pitched florid melodies, akin to the human voice in timbre and demanding a very delicate control of the high register.

Whilst you continue reading, listen to this music in the background and really soak up the sound of the baroque trumpet. This music is performed by my teacher and friend Robert J. Civilietti, an American trumpet player. He was the first, and to date only, person to make recordings of this repertoire on the baroque trumpet. Joseph Riepel Concerto in D performed by Bahb Civiletti

Whilst the trumpet during the 18th Century was undoubtedly a beautiful instrument it had one big flaw – there were huge gaps in the available notes in the low and middle registers meaning that you could not play chromatically, or even diatonically over most of the instrument.

A major distinction between the trumpet and the cornet is that the trumpet evolved over time whereas the cornet was invented. In the first quarter of the 19th Century there were various instruments developed using different types of valves or keys that finally enabled a high brass instrument that could play melodically in its lower register with a consistent sound quality. This is something that composers wanted and players, who by this point had lost the upper register skills of their predecessors, jumped at the chance of playing lyrical melodies on these instruments. This loss of ability is something that happened because composers in the classical period had been treating the trumpet very differently to the past and there was no-longer any need to develop such skills. It was also not popular to perform period music in those days.

With the development of tonguing techniques and popularity of Theme and Variation Solos the cornet became a very popular soloist’s instrument. Cornets found their place in wind bands and with the advent of saxhorns in the 1840s the brass band was then possible too. There was some use of cornets in the symphony orchestra as well, but that’s a story I’m saving for later.

Physical Differences and Similarities

Physically speaking the modern cornet and piston-valve trumpet are very similar. The text-book differences are these:

The taper of a cornet should be at least 2/3rds conical and 1/3rd cylindrical. The conical section from the mouthpiece to tuning slide is longer on a cornet, which should give it better intonation. The valves for adjusting the length of tubing are farther along the overall length, which can affect how smooth their action feels when they’re pressed. By comparison the opposite end of the design scale would be a rotary-valve trumpet, which has about six inches of tubing from mouthpiece to the valve-entrance, meaning that the effect of pushing the valves feels more immediate.
Because of this the tubing has four 180 degree bends in it, whereas a trumpet only has two. This is a major factor in creating the characteristic sound of the cornet. The bell on a cornet is shorter, usually has “shepherd’s crook” shape to its curve and generally has less of an exponential-curve-style flare to its shape.

It is generally said that in comparison a trumpet should be 2/3rds to 3/4ths cylindrical over its length but this is residual knowledge of the crowd and relates more to the dimensions of the baroque trumpet than to a modern trumpet. In the first half of the 20th Century short trumpets in B-flat (modern piston-valve trumpets) and the cornet evolved quite rapidly, taking aspects of each other’s design to improve their own. By the 1960s there were instruments available that on first glance were physically indistinguishable from each other apart from the mouthpiece. This chart shows that for the most part neither the cornet or the modern trumpet is more conical than the other and in some cases the reverse is true (it would be unfair to include a link to that chart without a link to the brilliant article that accompanies it by Robb Stewart. The link for that is here). The trumpet is straighter in appearance and often has more dramatic flare to the bell. These things contribute to its “more free blowing feel”, focused sound and livelier overtone series.

The most significant development for the piston-valved trumpet (and difference from its rotary-valved cousin) was the addition of a leadpipe.

The first section of tapered tubing between the mouthpiece-receiver and tuning slide vastly improves intonation on the modern trumpet, and also contributes greatly to the resistance profile of an instrument, allowing for much better control (slotting of harmonics) in all registers. Renold Schilke used leadpipe design to vastly improve the intonation of smaller, higher pitched trumpets and Schilke is still the best-known brand for D/E-flat and piccolo trumpets today. Various instrument makers such as Rudy Mück, Schilke and Callet Trumpets, experimented with conical sections or varying bore sizes of trumpets to further improve their response and intonation. This is sometimes marketed as “Step Bore”, but is little more than a nod to the fact that modern trumpets aren’t, and never have been, mostly cylindrical in design.

The next most obvious difference, and one of the most important, is the mouthpiece. There’s a lot of chatter about mouthpieces so I’m just going to give some general rules without a lot of explanation.

Firstly let’s state this: The trumpet is the only brass instrument that uses a bowl shaped cup in its mouthpiece design. The original trumpet mouthpieces had a defined angle at the point that the bottom of the cup meets the throat, this point is called a shoulder. That hard shoulder is something that gave the baroque trumpet its characteristic sound, and also assisted with note production on a simpler instrument. The cornet, which was designed to be a little horn (that’s what the word means!) should be played with a small, deep mouthpiece with a V-shaped cup. This is something that gives the cornet its characteristic sound – but also creates the limitations that many players of both instruments find disturbing.

I am going to go into more detail about sound concept in the final and most important section of this article. Before I do so, however, I need to write about two mouthpiece manufactures that have, in my opinion at least, gone against the traditional design of cornet mouthpieces to the detriment of the instrument’s use in modern times.

The first of these is Vincent Bach. I have a long article titled What to know about the Vincent Bach mouthpiece that you may wish to read. In that article I mention how Vincent Bach began making very popular cornet mouthpieces with trumpet-shaped cups and longer shanks. This may have made the instrument more comfortable to play and assist some people with the upper register, but it also served to lead people into making a sound that was not characteristic of the instrument they were playing and I would speculate that this would lead those same people to switch to trumpet playing in the long term if that were an option. This opinion is in part influenced by articles that I link to in the blog post above. Part of me believes that using a traditional “cookie cutter” cornet mouthpiece forces the player to learn to play with proper technique whereas a trumpet-style mouthpiece allows for someone to have some degree of success with poor technique and a brute force approach.

The second manufacturer is more recent than Vincent Bach and is worthy of a long critical article of its own. It is Denis Wick. I once attended a talk given by the famous Denis Wick. He was a professional trombone player who, out of necessity, designed his own trombone mouthpiece because the sort of design he wanted was not available on the British market at the time. Denis Wick mouthpieces are very good for the trombone and at the time were probably the best available. Later on the company he created went on to design mouthpieces for all brass instruments. As far as some instruments like the Euphonium, Baritone and Tenor Horn are concerned they may well have done a good job, I don’t actually know. And like Vincent Bach it was a huge step towards standardisation of mouthpiece design.
For Trumpet and Cornet, however, these mouthpieces are some of the worst I’ve played. For the cornet the less popular, deeper, mouthpieces are similar to the original shape of cornet cup, but the throat is far too big and the internal diameter at the top of the cup is also far larger than you would ever find in an old cornet mouthpiece. The larger throat would serve to deaden high overtones in the sound, allow more air to play, and make the instrument much less agile overall. The more popular ‘B’ cup just looks like a scaled-down trombone mouthpiece – something most definitely not suited to a cornet. Because of their low price point for many years these mouthpieces have become the standard in the British Brass Band scene. Only in the last ten years or so are other companies now making “true cornet cup” mouthpieces that are more similar to the older designs. Denis Wick has since jumped on the band wagon by bringing out their Heritage Series, which I’ve been told on more than one occasion by one of their design consultants is just a direct copy of a vintage cornet mouthpiece.

At this point, if you’ve listened to the recording mentioned above then you may wish to try this recording of Philip McCann playing with the Black Dyke Mills Band. If you can tolerate his incessant use of vibrato, which is very common in brass bands, then it’ll give you a good idea of a cornet sound by comparison. (For the record – vibrato is not a bad thing, but when it is a mindless, ever present habit then I see it as a sign of a player putting their personal style above that of musical interpretation. I’m sure many would disagree!)

So what about the sound?

As you’ll know from reading my previous articles and the story above, playing with a correct sound is a very important topic for me. I believe that for developing players it is both a sign of good technique and a limiting factor in terms of development. Quite simply put, the day I stopped trying to make a dark sound on a trumpet my control, projection and general ease of playing improved markedly. It was by college teacher who wanted me to make this dark sound despite him using a C trumpet in the orchestra – go figure… The point I want to make is that when one is learning to play a trumpet or a cornet they need to understand the sound that the instrument was designed to make and its associated limitations as a result of that.

Not taking the context of an instrument’s origin into account, players will often try to use one instrument to create the sound of the other. Understanding that a trumpet is designed to have a focused, clear, projected tone is primary to developing on the instrument and a preoccupation with creating the diffuse sound of a cornet in the middle register will only serve to push the player to tiring their embouchure by working against the nature of the instrument. Trumpet players, especially in classical schools, will devote many hours to practising smooth lyrical playing in the middle and low register. Trumpet players more often than not will also play on large mouthpieces to facilitate this desire and never develop a reasonable high register, let alone a powerful one. This large mouthpiece compensates for a lack of accuracy in the embouchure which is necessary for creating a direct, well-projecting sound. Unlike cornet players it is very common for a trumpeter to switch to a smaller trumpet so that they can maintain control on the cusp of the high register without developing any accuracy up there on their B-flat instrument. These trumpet players are trying to use a trumpet like a cornet – relying heavily on valves and smaller instruments rather than developing a good embouchure. More thoughts about this can be found in this post.

Many cornet players will struggle with their higher register (the sound naturally becomes more diffuse the higher you play) whilst not taking into account that when the cornet was invented it was the normal thing to use a small soprano cornet in E-flat to play the higher notes (there is still one soprano cornet in a standard brass band configuration). In fact according to Jean Baptiste Arban the cornet in C was also very popular in the 19th Century due to its “distinguished sound” and ease of transposition for orchestral playing.

During the 19th Century the cornet began to replace the trumpet in some orchestras. There were many composers who, recognising the value of both instruments, wrote music that included both parts for the trumpet and the cornet but some composers and conductors disliked the cornet greatly. Hector Berlioz described its sound as imparting “platitude and odious vulgarism […] without the nobility of the horn, nor the pride of the trumpet”. The truth is that the low valved trumpet in F was no better an option because of its poor intonation and sound quality. According to Crispian Steele-Perkins the slide trumpet was still being used in British orchestras until the end of that century. In his book La Trompette et le cornet Merri Franquin recalls the following:

The problem occurred for the first time during a rehearsal for [Ernest] Reyer’s Sigurd at the Paris Opera [c. 1884]. In this opera, the cornets today still [c. 1922] play the [valved] trumpet parts. At the work’s read-through, in the orchestra, there was a solo entrance in the [valved] trumpet parts—entrusted to the cornetists—that climbed up to a sustained B-natural (concert pitch). When the note was not reached, Monsieur Reyer asked why, affirming that it had been played successfully elsewhere (he was alluding to the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels where Sigurd had its premiere). So we confessed to him that the cornet was incapable of replacing the trumpet in that situation. At the next rehearsal, the passage was transferred to the trumpet desk, by means of a momentary exchange of parts [where it was played on small C trumpets].

In his book Trumpet Crispian Steele-Perkins tells a story of a Slide Trumpet vs Cornet Battle that took place in New York in 1834. Apparently the limitations and abilities of both instruments prevented the two players from being able to compete by playing the same music, which in itself demonstrates the point that I’m trying to make. The outcome of the initial competition was a draw.

In Summary: What do I need to know when playing?
  1. The cornet was designed with the invention of valves in order to play smoothly and quickly in the middle and low register. It produces a pleasing sound in these registers and is very agile over the range of approximately two octaves.
  2. The trumpet throughout history has been used to perform fanfares and high-pitched melodies. It naturally has a more direct, focused sound than the cornet. It is meant to stand out in an ensemble and often creates a thicker, more brash tone in the lower register.
  3. The cornet is an instrument that creates a more diffuse sound than a trumpet. This means that it is quite pleasant to listen to and blends well with other instruments. However it also means that it lacks the focus and clarity that is expected of a trumpet and required when performing in the upper register.
Why is it important?

Last year a pupil of mine entered a popular UK music competition. Although he performed well and came quite highly in the rankings the comments he received from the adjudicator were nothing short of moronic. My pupil had performed a piece named Fanfare and Berceuse by Arthur Butterworth, a 20th Century composer, on a trumpet. In the remarks it stated “It could have been nicer if you had played with a more veiled tone”. Maybe it should be pointed out that this adjudicator was used to hearing and judging brass band [cornet] players, but despite being in a position of respect in the musical community was seemingly completely unaware of what a trumpeter, performing a fanfare or any piece of 20th Century solo repertoire should sound like. If it is your profession to judge musicians then you should at least understand the characteristic sounds produced by the instruments you are judging. Unfortunately this is just one of many negative experiences that this pupil has had with ill-informed teachers and brass band leaders.

It is paramount as a musician that you develop your ears by listening to music and learning to be critical of what you hear. You’d be surprised how many highly-rated instrumentalists look better than they sound when you focus on the right things.

~iii<0

Trumpet in G Project

Image above: A dismantled Soprano Bugle.

A couple of months ago I decided to dismantle and re-assemble an old Soprano Bugle that had bought on eBay in 2007. At first things were going well. I removed some dents, rebuilt the tuning slide, patched over a hole using a small copper ring and added an Amado water key. When it came to fixing the bell I realised after reshaping it that it was beyond repair. For reasons unknown to me it rings and buzzes in ways that it shouldn’t. As it happened I had a spare old trumpet in the garage and so I took the bell from that and put it onto the body of the bugle. To my surprise this bell made the old instrument sound much better so my project evolved into something else.

After making this trumpet I wrote a long list of reasons why using a lower-pitched trumpet in G is a good idea and I think I may refine and publish that at another date. When I started to write that blog post it turned out that I needed a series of other blog posts to already exist to explain the concepts that I mentioned in the list. That’ll just have to be a work in progress for now.

Since making this instrument I have tried playing a wide variety of music on it. I practised Bach’s B minor mass for a few days. Music written for trumpet in D or C end up in comfortable keys (G or F major respectively) when transposing on a trumpet in G. Upon realising that I needed to build my stamina a bit I began instead to playing from a French horn tutor book. I was transposing in a way such that a written middle C would be played as the 3rd available open note, thus meaning that the fingering would be the same as in the tutor book. Essentially this is how you would read music for a natural trumpet in G (a high key for a natural trumpet and not an instrument that existed historically), except you also have the facility of the valves to add chromaticism. Doing this really helped to develop my ear for this instrument as well as develop some familiarity with the harmonics being closer together at the lower pitch.

Below: some photos of the finished instrument.

UMSV7396In the last few days I have made some recordings of myself playing some orchestral repertoire using this trumpet. I don’t believe it would be appropriate to play music written post-1900, but anything before then is fair game. I chose the Leonore calls by Beethoven, because they are ideal for instantly hearing the different tonal qualities of this trumpet, and I also chose excerpts from Chabrier’s España, which has parts for both  B-flat Cornet and Trumpet in F. I played the trumpet parts on the trumpet in G and the Cornet parts on the trumpet in B-flat (my Rudy Mück). I hope you enjoy listening to them. As always I welcome comments. ~iii<0

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/playlists/173320602″ params=”color=ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false” width=”100%” height=”450″ iframe=”true” /]

I used GarageBand for these recordings and a Shure SM57 microphone.

Further upgrades to my trumpet

This week I decided to upgrade my Rudy Mück trumpet a little more. If you haven’t read about this instrument in the past then take a look here for more info.

A reversed slide is one that is configured so that the smaller internal tubes are reached first along the path that air takes through the instrument. The result of this is that the internal gradient is smooth. If the air passed through a larger outer tube first and then into a smaller inner tube and then out again then, as it does in a non-reversed slide, then this can have a negative effect on the feel and intonation of the instrument. In my experience it tends to be that you feel reversed slides as an improvement in the blow of a trumpet and smoother in transition when you press the valve – but not necessarily something you first notice before the change has been made. Most beginner-model trumpets do not have reversed slides (at least not for the first valve or tuning slide) and professional models do (not always the tuning slide).

On my Rudy Mück trumpet I have reversed the first valve slide and added a hook so that it can be moved whilst playing. I have also shortened the tube by about 3mm because it has always played slightly flat on a couple of notes and I now have better control over that. The process is fairly straight-forward and only required that I had a hook to place on the tube after it was reversed. Everything else is done using pre-existing parts of the instrument. Firstly I needed to remove the top tube from the valve casing and the stay that was in between the two outer tubes. I then had to remove the inner tube from the top of the removable slide. The tricky part of the operation is making sure that the tubes are straight when replaced in the opposing position. I used a digital calliper to measure the gap between the tubes accurately to a few hundredths of a millimetre. This is necessary for the slide to be moveable whilst playing. Its remarkable the things I can now do having learnt to solder brass properly.

On the Schilke Loyalist website there are some very interesting articles, particularly one (link) that highlights why reversed tuning slides are better for over all intonation on a trumpet. At this stage I don’t intend reversing the tuning slide on this trumpet because I would have to remove a brace that I feel helps with the slotting. When this brace was removed in the past the trumpet did not sound as good as it currently does. Seeing as this trumpet is conical from the receiver to the end of the tuning slide anyway I think the change would be of less value than it would on another instrument.

Happy trumpeting! ~iii<0

What To Know About The Vincent Bach Mouthpiece

Please note: It will be helpful to obtain a copy of the Vincent Bach Mouthpiece Manual for reference before reading this article. It is freely available online from here, or a quick google search for “Bach Mouthpiece Manual pdf”.
The version most referenced by this article is labelled AV6001

“What Every Brass Instrumentalist Should Know About Mouthpieces”

A discussion by Richard Colquhoun about Vincent Bach Trumpet Mouthpieces.

Introduction

The subject of trumpet mouthpieces can often be seen as an endless mind-field. There are a lot of brands and types. Many are vastly different and designed for specific purposes (although individuals may use them for other purposes). Many are similar, generic copies or variants of the same designs made and manufactured for making profit and not for facilitating a developing trumpet player.

Until now I have resisted the urge to offer my opinion about mouthpieces on this blog. That is in part due to the fact that although the number of mouthpieces I frequently use is decreasing it is always in a state of flux, and that may not ever change. This article is intended to address factual information that is often missed or over looked in reference to one particular brand of mouthpiece, I will also present further information based upon my experience and research with the hope that people can make better-informed choices about mouthpiece selection.

I will begin by addressing information that is provided in the mouthpiece manual. This section may be most useful for those in search of information regarding Bach mouthpieces; be sure to at least read the sections about internal diameter and cup shape. I will also address some well known inconsistencies that the comparison chart does not mention, changes to the manual over the years, and I will discuss how Vincent Bach’s designs and opinions may have influenced the path of brass playing during the last century.

Vincent Bach is one of the most celebrated brass instrument designers and builders of the twentieth century. His Stradivarius trumpets are a standard of quality in the industry favoured by many of the world’s professional and amateur brass players. An achievement of at least equal importance, though, is his contribution to the design of mouthpieces. The first notable influence that Vincent Bach had was his system for describing the various shapes and sizes of mouthpieces. All major brass mouthpiece manufacturers to this day use a derivative or similar system to describe their products. As I address each part of this system I will explain how it works and then mention interesting things about it that are often overlooked.

Internal Diameter

The internal diameter of the mouthpiece is described with a number. 1 is the largest and 20 is the smallest. For most numbers there are a few half-sizes and even some quarter sizes. Some numbers (4 & 13-16) are missed out. I don’t know the exact reason for this; one could speculate that initially there were spaces left for sizes that were never designed, but that is pure speculation.

When looking at the various sizes of mouthpiece internal diameter it is most people’s habit to consider the 7C as the smallest option and look upwards in the chart from there. The reason for this is at least twofold. Firstly, most new trumpets are supplied with a mouthpiece labelled 7C. When people move on from their 7C wanting a better sound they assume that this requires getting a mouthpiece with a larger internal diameter and look upwards on the chart (For reasons that you’ll discover later, this is usually a mis-informed choice). A possible second reason is one of tradition, though it may be better described as mythology or even superstition. Because of the playing habits of a few big names in orchestral playing (Adolph Herseth, Georges Mager, William Vacchiano), trumpet players have unneccesarily copied their choice of equipment in the hope of recreating their achivements. The mouthpiece manual actually advises against this: “Do not select a certain mouthpiece because another player uses it. […] what is perfect for one may be entirely unsuitable for the other” (page 3).

So here’s the important observation about internal diameters that nearly always gets overlooked when people talk about the various Vincent Bach mouthpieces. The size of a 1 is listed as 17.50mm. The various other 1 sizes, including 1-1/4 and 1-1/2, are listed as 17.00mm. A difference of 0.5mm. This pattern continues; the 2 and 2C both have 16.50mm internal diameters. So which mouthpiece do you suppose would have an internal diameter of 16.00mm? Maybe a 3? No, the answer is 10. What? 10? The difference between a 1C and a 2C, with nothing in between is the same as the difference between a 2C and a 10C with six different sizes in between. Fact. Here’s another thing: sizes 6, 7 and 8 are all listed as having the same rim size. Actually a 5 is apparently only 0.05mm different – that’s approximately the width of a piece of paper. When you consider that your lips will swell more than that whilst you’re playing, just because of extra blood flow, it makes the difference completely insignificant.

I think I owe you an explanation. This information shows that Vincent Bach basically had a small/medium/large idea in mind and you can see now that the various internal diameters are sized in groups. The real reason that there are three or four sizes that are all measured as the same is that the shape of the rim varies quite significantly between these sizes. The bite (the angle between the rim and the cup) on the 7 sizes is much sharper than on the sizes. This means that it actually feels smaller than it is. This “bite” is also so named because it will punish you for using too much pressure, but also give you something for your lips to grip onto in the higher register. This is what the manual has to say about bite:

A sharp rim will not cut the lip if the flat face of the mouthpiece rim is placed on the lips in (or slightly above) a horizontal position, with the mouthpiece at a 90 degree angle against the front teeth. A sharp inner edge against the lip will automatically remind the player that the instrument is not being held correctly.
The use of a mouthpiece without a sharp inner edge is not recommended, as it would not allow sufficient surface to distribute pressure over the lips.

(quote from page 5)
In his mouthpiece guide, Pops McLaughlin speculates that Vincent Bach most-likely intended his 1 mouthpiece for specific but rare occasions – because it is huge. There is a lot of variation in the various rim shapes with Vincent Bach mouthpieces and despite his advice there were quite a few available with much less bite.

Interestingly, I’ve talked with very few people (including teachers and professional players) who realise that there are more mouthpieces on this chart that are smaller than a 7C than bigger. I think this speaks volumes about people’s buying habits in the past verses today, and brings into question the reasons behind it as well.

I advise that when you are choosing a rim size from this range of mouthpieces to choose either small, medium or large, and then go to a supplier and try the various rims shapes in that size range. Feel safe in the knowledge that the variations in tonal colour within any range of mouthpieces will be affected more by the cup shape than the difference in internal diameter.

 Cup shapes

There are six standard cup shapes available for Vincent Bach mouthpieces. These are indicated on the mouthpiece with a letter. This is how it is described in the mouthpiece manual:

Cup depths are notated with letters. “A” cups are the deepest; standard cups have no letter designation; progressively shallower cups are marked B through F.

(quote from page 12)
Without a visual aid this description is really not enough. I would highly recommend popping over to the Kanstul Mouthpiece Comparator and having a look at the various cup shapes. For those with less time, below is a composite that I created with that information. (Click on the image for a much larger version)

VB_composite

Key:

Standard – Black
A – Blue (note that this is bigger than the standard)
B – Green
C – Red (most used)
D – Yellow
E – Purple

There are other cup shapes available, but not across the whole range of diameters. There are also quite a few that come with a wider rim (marked W, e.g. 7EW) but these have the same cup shapes as their non-wide counterparts.

The mouthpiece manual states that a player should match the pitch of the instrument being played with the cup depth of the mouthpiece.

A player using a medium-large bore B♭ or C trumpet or a B♭ cornet should generally use a mouthpiece no shallower than the Bach C cup and preferably, slightly deeper cups such as a B or A. One exception is for musicians who continually play in the extreme high register and desire a brighter sound.

(quote from page 7)
There is an older version (published in 1954, available to view here at time of writing) of the mouthpiece manual that states that the lettering system actually relates directly to the pitch of the trumpet that it should be used with:

VB42VB43

In my opinion these statements show how the tonal concept of the trumpet has changed in the last 60 or so years. The deeper cup on a Standard or A-cup mouthpiece would produce a far more mellow, smoother, cornet-like tone. That sound would less-likely project well and it is unlikely that a player spending much time in the high register would be particularly comfortable (as suggested in the quote above). These ideals have changed over time, probably as a result of the increase of demands that have been put on trumpet players in more recent times in terms of range, dynamic and particularly stamina.

What else is there to know about cup shapes? Well the depth of your mouthpiece cup directly relates to the amount of feedback the player senses with their lips whilst playing. If you double the depth of the cup on your mouthpiece then you feel less than half of the feedback, causing you to work much harder. Basically you work harder for the same result. Shallower mouthpieces are much more efficient than deeper ones because the air is compressed much sooner as it enters the throat – this means that you can play the same thing with less effort. But really the tone/projection/stamina you need depends on the style of music you are playing and is purely subjective. Do you need to blend with others or cut across a loud amplified band? These are probably not things that the average player needed to consider as now when Vincent Bach first designed his mouthpieces.

Inconsistencies

When looking at various B-cupped mouthpieces on the Kanstul Comparator one can see that the only thing that is really changing, even between two extremes such as a 1B and a 10B, is the diameter at the top. All B-cups meet in shape by approximately half-way down the concave part of the cup and the rest is exactly the same. This is not true of the C-cups at all. The Wedge Mouthpiece Blog explains the argument “not C cups are not created equal” in this blog post, which discusses the common but not-so-intelligent mouthpiece size progression that many teachers follow. With a briefer follow-up post here. These articles show and discuss that the 3C has a shallower cup and the 7C has a deeper cup when they are compared proportionally to other C-cupped mouthpieces. This means that switching between a 5C and a 3C is a bigger change than between a 5B and a 3B. This inconsistency in design is quite baffling really and it isn’t helpful for someone wishing to make an informed choice about a change of mouthpiece.

Another way that Vincent Bach mouthpieces are known to be inconsistent is much more general. The previously mentioned inconsistencies were by design, but it is actually well known that over the course of time there were wild inconsistencies in general production. In the interest of avoiding libel I will state now that most of what I write here is hearsay, gleamed from years of trawling through the Trumpet Herald forum and having conversations with other trumpet players. It is said that mouthpieces made in the Mount Vernon factory (between 1953–1964) are noticeably smaller than their modern equivalents. Many players favour these older mouthpieces saying that they produce a more desirable tone. This could actually be a result of imperfections, the sort of vibrational chaos that Jason Harrelson talks about in his description of how a trumpet sound is produced. Famous players known to still use older Mount Vernon mouthpieces include Chris Botti and Arturo Sandoval. Mark Curry of Curry Mouthpieces describes such imperfections nicely in this forum post from 2011. He also suggests that some mouthpieces may be larger than intended simply because they were polished too much! This is an obvious negative side-effect of mass-production.

Influence on the tradition of brass playing

In his article “A brief history of the Cornet, Tom Turner writes of how Vincent Bach’s mouthpiece designs could have acted as a catalyst in the popularisation of the trumpet over the cornet:

In 1924 Vincent Bach began making revolutionary mouthpieces too. These had much wider rims that were more rounded in the lip contact area and with deep but rounded “C” shaped cups that were brilliant and cutting but not harsh! […] most young band players (like today) wanted to be heard above their band and the “C” shaped cornet mouthpieces made the kid’s cornet almost as dominant as if he’d bought one of those newfangled […] trumpets. By the 1960’s […] virtually all cornet mouthpieces sold in America were basically trumpet mouthpiece tops on shorter cornet shanks. Plus, some companies made cornets and trumpets that were basically the same instrument except in the leadpipe area where one would be made for a cornet mouthpiece and the other for trumpet.

This is an argument that is posed in a post on The Trumpet Blog titled Why did the cornet become a second rate citizen?. Alongside this however, I believe that it’s not so much the demise in popularity of the cornet that should be mourned so much as the use of deeper mouthpieces on a trumpet. Whilst I realise that big band and commercial music cannot and should not be attempted on deeper mouthpieces there is a place in the musical soundscape for trumpet players with a rich lyrical sound. Indeed Miles Davis is known for having used a deep V-shaped mouthpiece for his whole career. The popularity of C-cupped mouthpieces has meant that when players wish for a “darker” or “broader” sound they tend to buy a mouthpiece with a larger internal diameter rather than a deeper cup. It is commonly overlooked that a mouthpiece is a three-dimensional shape and that the internal volume of a mouthpiece will be affected more by a deeper cup than a wider diameter.

In the mouthpiece manual there is an introduction that asserts that:

Professional musicians prefer the musical results of large mouthpieces, such as the Bach 1B, 1C, 11⁄4C, 11⁄2B, 11⁄2C, 21⁄2C, 3C, which provide a maximum volume of tone with the least amount of effort. By opening up the lips so that they do not touch, the larger mouthpiece produces a clearer, purer tone.

(quote from page 3)catalog_mp_1938_2
I am curious when this statement was written, by whom, and where they obtained their information. In this image (right), which is a scan from the 1938 manual, it clearly states that the most popular models were in the medium to small sized range.
In fact it says that the 10-1/2C is “Used in many symphony orchestras”.

I am inclined to believe that the statement in the newer manual was written only to perpetuate the large mouthpiece mythology. It is clear when one examines the artist-endorsed mouthpieces from the present and past, that very few of the world’s best trumpet players from the last 70 years favoured mouthpieces with a large internal diameter.

Another issue mentioned by Tom Turner, that I believe to be of utmost importance is that the rim shape of a Vincent Bach mouthpiece was far preferable than those generally available previously. The result of this is that a player could play for longer with poor technique. Use of excess pressure, a crooked embouchure, or an incorrect horn angle were now much less of a problem than before. Whilst this move was inevitable with the improvement in instrument design, and not the fault of Vincent Bach, it meant that a player would not be able to feel as easily when they are relying on a brute force approach to playing and longer term may never develop good playing technique. It is my contention that this, combined with the large mouthpiece mythology, are primary causes for so many struggling brass players today. Players overblowing and using too much lip pressure as a result of their large, comfortable mouthpieces is a direct cause of their inability to develop an easy upper register. In his mouthpiece guide, Pops McLaughlin points out that nobody has ever been offered a gig because their mouthpiece felt good! It appears that in solving one problem, another may have inadvertently been caused in its place.

Finally, to address the whole quote, I have never read from or heard of a trumpet method (including the works of Herbert Clarke, J.B. Arban, Claude Gordon, Louis Maggio, Carmine Caruso, James Stamp, Bill Adams, Roger Ingram, Lynn Nicholson, Jerome Callet, Jeff Smiley, among others… I’ve read a lot of trumpet books!) that a player should be aiming to open the lips so that they do not touch. That statement is categorically incorrect.

Conclusion

Hopefully by reading this discussion you now have enough information to make informed decisions about buying a Vincent Bach trumpet mouthpiece. There are many many more mouthpiece manufacturers in the world today and so you may also benefit from researching Schilke, Curry, Stork, GR or Marcinkiewicz, just to name a very few. However, the most important thing is that you now have a point of reference for comparing other brands and their design ideologies. Some well known makers, for example Monette, produce most of their designs based upon custom designs for famous players and it may be much more difficult to find a mouthpiece that suits you from them.

Vincent Bach as a company owes much of its popularity to the fact that their products were some of the few to be universally available worldwide for quite some time. Using logic and common sense can lead anyone to conclude that under such circumstances “The Bach Sound” has become a universal standard to some because they don’t know anything else.

There are both pros and cons to buying a Vincent Bach mouthpiece, some of which have been mentioned already. But maybe the most important thing to take into account is that technology, understanding and innovation has moved forward quite significantly in the last fifty years. Do you want to be using a modern trumpet with an old design of mouthpiece? Or would your vintage instrument be significantly improved by a modern mouthpiece? Best of luck making a decision, I don’t know if I ever will.

~iii<0

My Rudy Muck Trumpet

I thought it would be nice to post some photos of my Rudy Muck trumpet. It is a 65M Super Six trumpet that I bought last November. And since buying it I have made a few adjustments to it. The real story is that I had some ideas of how to make it play better and lacking the knowledge of how to apply these ideas I managed to break the instrument beyond playability. Since attending a brass instrument repair course with Trevor Head in the summer (link to Trevor’s Website) I have been able to reconstruct and even improve the trumpet. I now use this instrument for the majority of the playing that I do.

Just for you geeks out there: This trumpet has a extra large bore size (0.470″ at the valve section) with a small leadpipe (measuring 0.453″ at the start of the tuning slide) and a conical tuning slide. I would speculate that this is one of the earliest examples of what is now referred to as a step-bore or multi-bore instrument. Rudy Muck may well have been the first trumpet manufacturer to have this idea.

This is one of the later instruments to bear the Rudy Muck name and I believe it could have been constructed in France because of the similarity in appearance to some Buffet Crampon trumpets (including the style of the leadpipe and receiver, the stay on the tuning slide and the engraving).

Update since writing: There was a balanced-model Citation that looked more like a Buffet Crampon than mine, but the similarities are still there.

Rudy Muck is known to have outsourced the construction of some instruments in order to maintain high standards and avoid the pitfalls of mass production. I’ve seen Muck be described as the “Kanstul of his day”, and this goes a long way to explain why various parts of the trumpet resemble various vintage horns but no single instrument in particular. The valve block is (at least externally) quite similar to Olds trumpets and the first valve slide is very much like a NY Bach Stradivarius (pre-thumb hook design).

For more information about Rudy and his trumpets I would recommend visiting www.rudymuck.info. Although this site hasn’t been updated for a while it is still very interesting.

RM65M_original1RM65M_original2

 
Above: The trumpet in the condition that I bought it.
KVZV2032Above: The trumpet as it is now.

  • The first change I made was to remove the stop bars from the tuning slide and 3rd valve-slide. These looked old-fashioned and were completely unnecessary.
  • I have swapped the right-hand finger ring for a circular ring, purely for aesthetic reasons! (Well actually I happened also to put it in a place that fitted my hand much better than before)
  • When I took the trumpet on my repair course the 3rd valve-slide was in nine pieces. I rebuilt it. Notice that there is now only one brace whereas previously there were two. I have also removed the water key and patched over the hole. In order for the slide to function correctly the two tubes had to be perfectly aligned (It is accurate to 0.01″).
  • Also whilst on the course I refitted the stay between the leadpipe and the bell, which had come off in a previous experiment. This really helped to stabilise the sound of the instrument. Although not always the case, it turns out that this trumpet needs it.
  • I have replaced the water key on the tuning slide with an Amado water key. For more info about water keys read this interesting blog post that I found.

Thanks for reading! ~iii<o

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.