Archive for April, 2010

For trumpeters, the mouthpiece is a very personal and critical piece of equipment. When I studied at the Juilliard School, one of my teacher’s most common sayings was, “A mouthpiece is like shoes, you have to find one that fits you.” (William Vacchiano). Since my father was in the shoe business, this hit home really fast. Having been raised and trained in a shoe business where my father designed custom shoes to fit individual feet, I knew that no two people were exactly the same when it came to a correct fit.

Trumpeters tend to gravitate toward several common mouthpiece designs (and variations thereof). There are so many variables that I have often felt that it would be nice if serious students and professionals were enabled to try a large number of mouthpieces to ascertain what is best for them. Even more confusing, great performers often promote designs that work for them without consideration to the fact that everyone has different shaped lips, embouchure configuration, dental formation, jaw alignment, etc. A true “custom” mouthpiece would be one that fits the player for which the mouthpiece is designed, and no other.

I have gone through a number of transitions in my approach to playing the trumpet. During these transitions, I designed mouthpieces that met my performance standards and supported what I wanted to produce musically. Interestingly, I now play mouthpieces that are fairly traditional and I am also able to change mouthpieces, if necessary, to match the performance environment and players that are in that environment. I also change mouthpieces to meet the desired sound and style for the period of music that I am playing. From my perspective, I am happy that I had the ability to design “transition” mouthpieces and I feel certain that they helped me move forward in my musical development.

It is important to understand that the player must be on a course to improve their approach to playing and not just looking for a mouthpiece that acts as a

“crutch.” Early in my career I had a difficult time switching back and forth from smaller piccolo trumpet mouthpieces to standard, robust mouthpieces designed for symphonic and classic solo music. At that time, I just thought it was due to my lips and did not realize that my approach to playing was not efficient, and, in fact, my embouchure and aperture were simply incorrect. I usually (and with some success) played my piccolo trumpet music first on a recital/concert program and then played my larger mouthpieces as the program progressed. To further complicate matters, my embouchure looked perfect to my teachers so they never questioned this. Now, because I corrected my playing problems, I am able to switch back and forth with ease. During the course of my studies and experimentations, I played a lot of different mouthpiece sizes that assisted my progress. I think the point here is that players should study with a teacher that really understands mouthpieces in order to progress forward. If we look at finding a really fine mouthpiece as an adventure that could last a number of years, I think we learn more and will ultimately be more successful.

Ideally, we want to avoid a mouthpiece that might hinder our progress. One of the most disastrous mouthpieces on the market is the Bach 3C. I have worked in a number of regions in the USA where band directors insisted that all of their trumpeters play this mouthpiece (especially in marching bands). William Vacchiano told me that this mouthpiece was designed for one performer (by Vincent Bach) to play lead trumpet in a jazz ensemble. For this purpose, and even for some performers to play the piccolo trumpet, this mouthpiece has desirable characteristics. It has a much more shallow cup than a Bach 5C, 2C, 1 ½ C or 1C etc. To play a Bb or C trumpet in-tune in a wind ensemble or an orchestra, this mouthpiece does not work for 99 out of 100 players. I have also seen young trumpeters run into some serious problems when switching to this mouthpiece thinking it might be an improvement over a 5C, 7C etc. First, it makes no sense to force a whole trumpet section to play the same mouthpiece. Would we make all of the members of a band wear the same size marching shoes? Of course not. Second, this mouthpiece is not desirable in concert band/wind ensemble/orchestra sections simply because it does not produce the desired sound and intonation. For most players, they will be flat in the lower register of the trumpet and sharp in the high register on this mouthpiece. I remember one student that played extremely well that refused to change from the Bach 3C to a better mouthpiece. Toward of the end of his studies with me he played in master class with Phil Smith and Phil told him that he would sound better and play better in tune if he selected another mouthpiece. In a lesson shortly after that class, he asked me “Should I change mouthpieces?” My reply was basically, “Well, what did Phil say?” (what I had been telling him for several years). Why argue with the Master?

I am a big fan of the Vincent Bach product, but if you study the line of mouthpieces, there is not a consistency or rational in the sizing. This is because Bach designed each mouthpiece to fit an individual player and then put a size on it. Many of the mouthpieces in the 5-8 range are close to the same size rim diameter. For example, a Bach straight 8 feels much larger than a Bach 7C. In my opinion, out of this confusion comes a great benefit (once you understand the sizing) because there are so many different rim contours and cup shapes from which to select. Other manufacturers generally make the same rim configuration for each line of mouthpieces and the cup depths are standard and consistent.

From my perspective, experimenting with mouthpieces has no benefit unless I am also addressing my weaknesses as a player and playing studies/exercises/etudes that are designed to improve my embouchure/aperture/blow and approach to playing. During transitions, I am able to direct students toward mouthpieces that will assist them with sound and intonation. I also learned from William Vacchiano that certain mouthpieces used over a short term in the practice room can improve sound, intonation, and endurance, with the understanding that we usually move back to a more standard mouthpiece when it is time to perform in public.

Another interesting anomaly is that I have often changed a student’s mouthpiece in a lesson that improved their sound and intonation immediately. The next week, they sound just as bad on the new mouthpiece as they did on the previous mouthpiece. This demonstrates that sound and intonation have to be developed in the “mind’s ear” to really make progress. If we don’t hear sound and intonation, the mouthpiece really doesn’t help much.

There are an infinite number of ways to design a trumpet mouthpiece. This can be frustrating and confusing to serious musicians. This includes rim shape, contour, diameter; cup shape and depth; throat (hole) size and contour; and the design of the backbore. When we experiment, we often can ruin a good mouthpiece by making a change that is not desirable. This can get costly. Often, a successful custom design is difficult to copy by reputable custom mouthpiece businesses. Asymmetrical designs are nearly impossible to copy.

Some really fine performers do not feel comfortable changing rim sizes, so they design screw-rim mouthpieces to change cup size, throat, and backbore while still using the same rim. Other performers seem to be able to change rim/cup sizes at will to match the trumpet that they have in their hands and to assist with high-range considerations or quality of sound.

To further complicate the matter, sometimes we need to play the mouthpiece for several days (even weeks) to see what kind of progress we can make. This is because it can take the lips some time to start vibrating properly with a new rim surface/contour and cup depth.

So, how do we find the right trumpet mouthpiece? First, I think it is important to try a lot of mouthpieces. Have a good musician listen to you to help judge sound and intonation. Be willing to play it a while to see what progress you can make. Second, don’t get consumed with range (high notes). A high range mouthpiece will have drawbacks for standard playing in orchestras, bands, and chamber music. If you are aspiring to play lead in a jazz band or high notes on the marching field, use one mouthpiece for that purpose but practice and play other music on another mouthpiece that encourages good intonation and sound. Finally, be curious and adventurous. Invest in a number of mouthpiece designs and see what they do for your playing. If a mouthpiece doesn’t work for you, you can always sell it to someone else. Match mouthpieces to the instrument you are playing, including your piccolo trumpet, cornet, flugelhorn, and all keys of trumpets. We have to develop our ears by listening to sound and intonation, so learn to listen to the sound and intonation of each individual mouthpiece. I am constantly buying/selling/trading mouthpieces and there has not been a point in my career for the last 30 years where I did not own at least 60-80 mouthpieces. This is a great assistance in the teaching studio and I also have the flexibility to match mouthpieces to my horns and the style of music that I am performing.


I have always been an admirer of Cliff Blackburn and his superb trumpets. Interestingly, if you look at the price of factory (so called “custom made”) “professional” trumpets and the cost of a superb custom trumpet from Blackburn, I am not sure why a trumpeter with the funds available would not engage Cliff to make them a trumpet. Cliff is a great trumpet performer and he has decades of experience in designing trumpets. He understands sound and intonation regarding classic trumpet performance and his product is perfect in every way. He interacts with his customers, many of whom are the world’s greatest trumpet performers.

When we look at the development of the modern trumpet, several designers stand out as true innovators that responded to professional performer’s desires and tastes regarding the instrument. This includes Vincent Bach, Renold Schilke, Donald Getzen and Zigmont Kanstul. In my opinion, Cliff Blackburn has been able to improve upon the work of these great trumpet designers and is on the leading edge of trumpet design.

In the world of expensive custom trumpets there are a lot of strange horns that cost a lot of money. This includes horns that may be better named as “flumpets,” “crumpets,” “monetophones,” “flugelbones,” “cornetaflumpets,” or whatever. The truth is a trumpet should sound like a trumpet. If a person wants a specialty horn for jazz or solo work the previously mentioned horns are fine if you can afford them. For that matter, if you want a really funky horn, I can make you one for a few hundred dollars, instead of thousands or tens of thousands. Bottom line: When Gabriel sounds the final call it will be on a Blackburn TRUMPET, not some funky, weird-assed horn.

To get a really superb Blackburn trumpet, performers have to get over a few obstacles. First, it takes a while to get one (waiting period that can extend to months, year or more). Second, you have to be able and willing to make the investment. Sure, you can get a factory made “professional” trumpet in a matter of days for a few hundred less, but why? “Professional” trumpets are assembled by someone that can’t even play the trumpet in a factory that was out-sourced to save money on production. Quality is inconsistent. Cliff’s horns are made in the USA (Tennessee to be exact, Go Vols!) and are truly custom designed for his customers. Third, if you buy a Blackburn horn your colleagues will not like you because you sound better and play in tune much better than they do. They will be forced to buy a Blackburn trumpet to keep up with you.

Ok, point number three was a bit “tongue in cheek” but I have found that orchestra sections that I have played in really have an easy time when all of the players have a Blackburn instrument. The blend, intonation, and sound—superb! I have also really enjoyed playing chamber music with other trumpeters that have a Blackburn trumpet.

It takes so much time and detail to perfection to make a Blackburn trumpet that I am sure Cliff has a lot of confidence that no one is going to try to copy his designs and cash in on the success of his instruments. Time and attention is donated to each instrument—in my opinion this is something that you do not have to pay for when you buy a Blackburn trumpet. I doubt that he will ever be copied—if a large music company that out-sources production makes the attempt, they will charge thousands of dollars more to deliver an instrument that may be inferior to what they are trying to copy.

I would challenge my colleagues to research the information on trumpet design in the ITG Journals and other publications. The only contributors to this research are Cliff Blackburn, Renold Schilke, and a few other manufacturers that used to take the time to publish information about their product designs. There are an infinite number of ways to design a trumpet. Over the years there have been a lot of successful trumpets in production, many of which are yet to be copied or improved. The problem is that production has always been inconsistent, which means that you never know what you are getting unless you have the time, expertise, contacts, and perseverance to find a really fine instrument.

As a professional trumpeter with over 35 years of experience my goal with the Trumpet Design Studio is to help trumpeters get a horn that meets professional performance standards within a reasonable budget. I have a number of instruments that I play that have been through several modifications to reach the level of performance that I desire. I also own horns that were produced by other technicians that meet my performance desires. I do not compete with other designers/manufacturers. My goal is to help players avoid what I call the “in-between” trumpet that really has no function other than to make sure you want to sell it and get another horn. If you can’t afford a Blackburn trumpet, at least you can have a superb instrument until you can.

Blackburn horns are affordable because no one is being paid to endorse them. They are also affordable because Cliff simply does not try to cash in on his success. He is an honest person that cares about his profession. His instruments speak for themselves through the listener’s ears in public performances. Some of the finest trumpet performances I have heard were played on Blackburn trumpets. This includes performances by Terry Everson, Britt Theurer, Mike Tunnell, David Hickman, etc. These performers would play superbly on any horn, but they chose the Blackburn product. I personally think the Blackburn product is the modern standard when it comes to trumpet design and classic performance.

I think it is very important for players to understand the many variables regarding playing the trumpet in tune. In my opinion, if a trumpet is not built so that it can be played in tune, it has no value whatsoever until it is reconstructed and the problems are corrected. The market is flooded with instruments of varying quality that really do not meet up to an acceptable standard for intonation. I have often wondered why reputable manufacturers will turn out certain models for decades that do not meet a minimum standard for trumpet intonation. To compound these problems, many modern instruments are made with mouthpiece receivers that do not fit most standard mouthpieces, many are either too short or too long (too much, too little tubing), and many are made with incorrect valve slide lengths.

All trumpets are “out-of-tune.” The best instruments available have notes that need encouragement in one direction or the other. Generally speaking, a Bb trumpet is usually somewhat sharp with the 1-2 valve combination, a little flat on the written fourth line D (concert C) and often tends to be flat on the written fourth space Eb and E (concert Db and D). It is a given that 1-3 and 123 combinations have to be lowered in pitch by extending the 3rd valve slide. C trumpets tend to be sharp on the written third space C and flat on the D, Eb, and E. The 1-2 valve combination tends to be high on all instruments. What professional players know is that a really fine instrument will lessen the amount of pitch adjustment necessary and they usually search for horns with controllable intonation that responds to what is in their mind’s ear.
The player is ultimately responsible for playing in tune. We are the instrument; the trumpet only amplifies what we are able to do with our air/embouchure/aperture/lips. The art of listening/hearing pitch comes naturally to some players. For others, this has to be developed. Most of us are trained in ensembles that have a lot of wind instruments with similar pitch tendencies. There often seems to be a level of tolerance for poorer intonation in wind ensembles than is allowed in orchestral, solo, and chamber music performance. A poor approach to the trumpet also compounds intonation problems. Players with inefficient air and/or an improper lip aperture often will play incredibly flat on notes below the staff and incredibly sharp on notes above the staff. Other poor wind/aperture combinations will do just the opposite; the player will be sharp below the staff and flat in the mid to high range. Using a tuner during practice sessions can help develop the ear and also will identify notes that are consistently played out of tune. I frequently practice with the tuner just to make sure that I am practicing at A=440. I do not have perfect pitch and players that do not have perfect pitch can actually get in the habit of consistently playing too sharp or too flat during practice sessions. Because of this our mind’s ear starts hearing the pitch too sharp or too flat and it can sometimes be a struggle to get back in tune when we are playing with fixed instruments such as the organ or piano or with ensembles that tune carefully. Again, wind ensembles will often play so sharp that a piano, organ or fixed pitch percussion instrument will sound like it is tuned too low if it is introduced on a selection in the middle of a concert.

The mouthpiece is also a critical component that must be evaluated. When I studied with William Vacchiano he often reminded me that the wrong mouthpiece will make a good instrument play out of tune. I have designed mouthpieces with a great feel and sound only to discover they are hard to play in tune on the instrument that I have in my hand. Generally speaking, the smaller the instrument, the more critical the mouthpiece selection. However, there are popular sizes of mouthpieces that will force the finest Bb trumpet out of tune. Mouthpieces that are popular with marching band trumpeters are often a disaster for concert band intonation and sound. Another thing to remember that for very small horns, most, if not all of the venturi is actually located in the backbore/shank of the mouthpiece. Imagine the infinite number of ways just to design a mouthpiece for a piccolo trumpet. The finest piccolo trumpet in the world will not play in tune if we select the wrong mouthpiece.
I think a good example to use here is the player that has never played a C trumpet and decides to purchase one. Without proper instruction, frustration will ensue and the player immediately thinks something is wrong with the instrument. The truth is that most players find the adjustment to a higher keyed instrument to take a few days, weeks or months. It is my job as a teacher to hopefully help them shorten this adjustment period. In many cases, the C trumpet will require a different mouthpiece than we have been playing on our Bb trumpet for better intonation/blow. Another common problem–that sharp concert C in the middle of the staff–needs to be evaluated. On a Bb trumpet, if we play the concert C (written D) in tune this usually requires vibrating a pitch inside the mouthpiece that is actually slightly higher than a concert C. We pick up a C trumpet and play the same pitch and it is really sharp. We have to remember that we are used to vibrating a higher pitch on this note. Most C trumpets require that this C be encouraged downward in pitch. Seasoned players switch horns easily but this is because they have trained themselves to make these adjustments quickly, they have selected the correct mouthpiece for the horn, they have spent a good deal of time and money to make sure that have a horn that suits their playing and preferences, and they know their instruments well.
Sound and timbre are, in my opinion, issues that often are addressed without considering intonation. A great player sounds like a great player on any horn they play. They control the sound and the timbre because the sound and timbre they want (and intonation) is what resides in their mind’s ear and they expect this sound to come out of the horn. A trumpet will contribute to what our expectations may be regarding sound and timbre, but a poor player playing a great horn will still sound like a poor player. Sound and timbre are also very personal issues. How we sound will be determined by the style of music we play and it is often dictated by the expectations of the ensemble in which we are playing. For solo music (jazz and classical) and some chamber music players have a great freedom in regard to sound and equipment. Style and period can also dictate the sound that is necessary or desired.
Another one of my philosophies is that we ultimately sound the way that we want to sound. A good example is that I have an Eb trumpet that many players say sounds like a Bb trumpet when I play it. That is because this is what I expect from this horn, because of the mouthpiece I have selected, because of how the horn is designed, and what I have established in my mind’s ear. Other players playing the same horn would sound much different.
A possible stumbling stone in instrument selection is actually what players call the “blow.” Also, “slotting” is another term I hear used frequently. So, we pick a horn that we think “slots” well or “blows” well; it feels really good, but, it plays out of tune. If I play one horn with a great “blow” and another with more resistance, if the one with more resistance is easier to play in tune, this is the better choice. A trumpet that “slots” well is slotting out of tune–we have to remember that all trumpets are out of tune—hopefully, there is a place in that “slot” where we can center up the correct pitch!! Trumpet is not played by feel. It is played using the ear.
Let’s think through another example of a player that is struggling with a C trumpet. The “Promenade” from Pictures at an Exhibition is one of the best know sound pieces for the C trumpet. We want to really sound great on this selection. However, the greatest, richest, most vibrant sound in the world combined with impeccable musicianship and style will not win an audition on this selection if I play it out of tune. As we go through this note for note, we see the problems. First, we will assume that the opening G is played at the pitch to which my trumpet is tuned. (I had a C trumpet in my hands last week where the G was really sharp—not a keeper!) The next note, an F, tends to be somewhat flat on many horns. The next note, a Bb can often be sharp, next note, a C, wants to be sharp, next note F (top of the staff) probably sharp if we are not careful or fail to use the first slide if needed, next note D, flat etc. Of course, if I am worrying about splattering the high Ab later, or if I push too hard on the slurs and destroy the musical context, then playing out of tune is not the only thing I am doing wrong. The “Pictures Tune-up” has always been an excellent way for me to evaluate an instrument and my playing. We have to remember that trumpeters are not the only ones evaluating our performance. Great conductors and musicians hear poor intonation immediately and they don’t want to hear it again in the finals of an audition.
As a performer I have owned scores of trumpets in my lifetime and hundreds of mouthpieces. As a teacher it is rare that I am willing to spend more than a few lessons discussing equipment with a student over four years of undergraduate music studies. There is nothing more frustrating than a student that becomes consumed with equipment selection, expecting something from equipment that really needs to be established in the practice room. My experience does enable me to help a student correct equipment problems quickly so that we can move on to the matter of improving our musicianship. In my opinion, this is always the more exciting part of the adventure to become a better trumpeter.
Common Trumpet Tune-up Modifications
-Changing the mouthpiece
-Replacing defective mouthpiece receivers
-Correcting trumpet length
-Correcting valve slide lengths
-Replacing leadpipe
-Replacing tuning crook
-New mouthpipes and/or mouthpipe receivers (small horns)
-Replacing leadpipe, crook, and all tubing between the receiver and 3rd slide entrance
-Changing/moving braces
-Taking the trumpet completely apart and reassembling (may correct stress issues with bracing/soldering)
-Annealing bell, sections of the bell
-Cleaning the trumpet and/or mouthpiece!!
Common Trumpet Modifications that Do Not Improve Intonation
-Improving valve compression
-Valve alignment
-(In my opinion) some of the above rarely seem to work alone. For example, it is rare that changing only the leadpipe will tune up the horn, adding weight (heavy valve caps/bracing) sometimes adds resistance which in return gives more control, etc. Again, I think sometimes we have to judge between feel, timbre, and the actual pitch.
Common Mouthpiece Modifications
-Make cup shallower or deeper
-Change cup shape/contour
-Change rim contour
-Make throat larger or smaller (larger usually makes high range sharper, smaller—high range more flat)
-Change size/shape of the backbore (area inside shank)

Top: Getzen valves, custom leadpipe by Bill Jones, and Schilke Eb trumpet bell.

Bottom: Yamaha valves, Schilke leadpipe, and vintage bell. Both of these horns have a tunable bell set-up.

This instrument has Getzen valves and a vintage bell. Exceptionally smooth dark sound. Easy to play in tune.

This particular conversion made a superb Eb cornet.

This model has a tunable mouthpipe system and a new bell. This design gives the player flexibility in choosing resistance/feel and there are numerous ways to design mouthpipes to fit this horn.

This trumpet was converted to C and has a custom leadpipe/tuning crook. Super sound, response, and intonation.

This trumpet was fitted with a new leadpipe, tuning slide/crook, and heavy bracing. This conversion improved the intonation, response, and projection of the horn.

Silver plate with gold brass lacquer parts and trim. Four custom mouthpipes. Two for A/Bb with cornet mouthpiece receivers and two for A/Bb with trumpet mouthpiece receivers. This model plays as well as or better than similar models selling for $3500-4500.