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)