Archive for January, 2013


 

I get frequent questions from customers regarding the trumpet mouthpiece gap. By “gap,” trumpeters are referring to the distance from the end of the mouthpiece to the beginning of the leadpipe inside the mouthpiece receiver.  For this post I am relying on a very fine article by Cliff Blackburn that appeared in the May 1979 ITG Journal. According to Cliff, there are two basic measurements that are fairly standard for optimum gap adjustment: 1/8 of an inch and 3/16 of an inch.  1/8 of an inch may be the most standard and encourages good response, a warm sound that is well-centered, and provides nice slurring ability.  3/16 of an inch can produce crisper articulation, a well-centered sound, and more resistance than the 1/8 inch position.  Based on input from other players I would assume a lot of trumpeters are seeking to get notes (especially high range) to lock in better by making these minute adjustments. It can also be assumed that adjusting the gap will have no impact upon the intonation of the instrument.

 

As with any issue regarding the equipment I am using, I think all of the variables have to be considered before getting too consumed with this issue. First, mouthpieces are not created equal. I have 8 mouthpieces from eight different highly respected manufacturers lined up on my desk in front of me as I write this.  None of the mouthpieces are the same length. The actual length of the shank varies from one mouthpiece to the next. These are observations that can be made visually without having to measure. Second, trumpet mouthpiece receivers are not created equal. How a mouthpiece fits in the receiver will vary from manufacturer to manufacturer.  Some manufacturer’s receivers have to be altered to get any brand of mouthpiece to fit properly. Third, the shank of a mouthpiece wears down over time so the fit/gap will change. Finally, if I have to adjust the gap by shortening the shank, the same mouthpiece may not fit so well in my other trumpets; thus, I have to have a different mouthpiece for each instrument or else change/or install alternate receivers on each instrument until the optimum gap is attained with the same mouthpiece.

 

Assuming a gap of less than 1/8 inch or more than 3/16 is probably not going to produce good results, a first step would be to adjust the gap to 1/8 of an inch.  At that point I can remove metal from the end of the shank in increments as little as 1/64 of an inch at a time until I reach what I feel is optimum performance.  Once a measurement has been made, I am left with some irreversible options to adjust the gap (short of buying a new mouthpiece or mouthpiece receiver); shorten the mouthpiece shank, make the shank more narrow, or remove metal from the inside of the receiver.

 

Many of my customers ask me to adjust the gap while I have their trumpet in hand. Even with the player’s mouthpiece in hand this can be problematic.  I can adjust it to suit me or adjust it to a dimension that is requested.  In either case this may not be the best position  for the player.  To get a gap position that you will like, it is best for you to be available to play the instrument as the adjustments are being contemplated/performed.

 

Probably the easiest first step in experimenting with the gap is to first check the fit of the mouthpiece. If it is loose or you can actually move it side to side even though it feels tight otherwise then either the receiver needs adjustment or your shank needs some adjustment. A poorly fitting mouthpiece can cause a lot of performance problems. You can wrap the mouthpiece shank with a thin piece of paper or foil and insert it into the receiver to tighten the fit. By play testing using this method you can set the mouthpiece out different distances (by increasing/reducing the amount of paper/foil utilized) and determine if increasing the gap makes a positive change in the way the trumpet feels and responds.

 

Finally, I highly recommend the above-mentioned article by Cliff Blackburn to players that wish to fully understand this issue. If you are not a member of the International Trumpet Guild you can gain access to the very large database of journal articles by joining.

 

For serious trumpeters one of the early investments that they make is to purchase a C trumpet.  The C trumpet has been very popular in the orchestra for nearly a century and is also utilized frequently for solo and chamber music performance. Many amateur performers also like to have a C instrument for church service melody playing and in some cultures C instruments are utilized for beginning players.

 

In my experience and observation only a few brands of C trumpets are considered to be suitable for orchestral performance. Those that are popular are recognized to have a darker sound than the Bb trumpet with more projection and a bit of “zing.”  Orchestral performers that play in major orchestras have the advantage of auditioning lots of instruments of the same brand and usually further “tweak” the instruments to ensure excellent intonation and response. While there are some custom trumpet builders that assemble instruments much more consistently than factory produced horns, there are still very few orchestra sections that stray from those few brands that are considered to be successful in the orchestra trumpet section. Most trumpeters that plan to audition for orchestras usually feel that they have to have one of the popular brands to be competitive. This logic doesn’t work well in reality simply because the player that wins the audition will be the one that plays the most musical performance, the best in tune, and with the best sound. Once selected for an orchestra position then the section members will make sure the new member gets an instrument that matches the sound that they want the section to have.

 

When first playing a C trumpet most players find that there is a period of time that it takes to master the instrument and to play it as well as their Bb trumpet.  This is true of all higher keyed trumpets and players that can alternate between various keyed trumpets fluently on a concert program usually have at least several years of experience in changing from instrument to instrument. Many players also find that it is necessary to use different mouthpieces on these instruments than they use on their Bb trumpet. The biggest problem that new players encounter is playing the C trumpet in tune.

 

Certain notes are not going to be in tune on all trumpets without making adjustments with the first and/or third valve slides. Low C# (123) and D (1-3) always require adjustment on all trumpets. On most trumpets 1-2 valve combinations are usually sharp and require adjustment with the first slide or the use of the alternate 3rd valve fingering which is permissible in certain musical settings (usually solo or chamber music). On most trumpets the written D (1st valve), Eb (2nd valve), and E (open) can be anywhere from a bit flat to very flat. Seasoned players are used to making adjustments on these notes to correct the intonation of the instrument.

 

It can be expected that a really fine C trumpet will have many of the problems mentioned above. Some players also feel that it is acceptable to use alternate fingerings for the Eb and E at the top of the staff which is not generally acceptable on a Bb trumpet. Alternate fingerings also change the timbre of a note and the performer has to make sure that that timbre is desirable and acceptable within the context of the music. Unfortunately many, if not most C trumpets coming off the assembly line have other problems. Many times the open C in the middle of the staff is very sharp and the only way to lower the pitch is to use the alternate 2-3 fingering combination. This produces a very dark timbre that can be out of context with other notes within a given phrase. Sometimes the G in the middle of the staff is sharp or flat. Sometimes the Bb first valve is sharp and/or can have a strange timbre. These types of problems combined with the fact that usually the D, Eb, and E may be flat can create a real dilemma for players that are new to the instrument.

 

Once we look at all of these potential problems it is no wonder that players get frustrated with C trumpets. Finding a C trumpet that plays really well can take a bit of time and most serious professionals end up owning several C trumpets over a career in the quest to find one that plays better. Professional players understand that you have to audition a lot of instruments to find one off the factory assembly line that will perform well.

 

I have often wondered why it is more difficult to produce a C trumpet that is easy to play in tune than the trumpets that play in higher keys.  I think the issue may be that most models of C trumpets are basically shortened Bb trumpets with a few modifications usually made in the bell design and leadpipe design. In the quest to produce a C trumpet that feels more like a Bb trumpet the more popular instruments are usually a larger bore size than the same manufacturers standard Bb trumpet. Manufacturers also produced some really poor D and Eb trumpets that were based on shortened Bb or C trumpet designs and these fell out of popularity quickly when D and Eb trumpets started being manufactured that had different pipe and bell length ratios. It is rare that a D or Eb trumpet with a standard tuning system (ala Bb/C trumpets) plays very well in tune.

 

Many of the successful C trumpet projects I have been involved with to date are non-standard designs. For my new C trumpet designs I utilize a bell that has what I consider to be a very superb sound for a C trumpet and it also plays well in tune with many different types of pipes/crooks. From my perspective building a new instrument is a more satisfying route to obtain a really fine instrument rather than trying to tweak existing instruments. This is much more cost effective through TDS and has many fewer headaches for a trumpeter that wants to have a really fine instrument.

 

 

 

Recently there has been quite a bit of news about China exporting low cost cars.  These cars are very low cost vehicles that are produced through reverse engineering; that is, Chinese manufacturers copy models of other successful manufacturers and then produce very low cost imitations less many of the frills and features found on the cars they copied.  They are considered to be “good enough” cars in the sense that they will get you where you need to go and back again, hopefully safely, and at a cost that is much less than your average American , Japanese or European manufactured vehicle.

 

Reading this news got me to thinking.  Is there such a thing as a “good enough” trumpet? There are many low cost trumpets currently available to buyers and if one is trying to locate a suitable low cost instrument it is easy to get confused.  What trumpet might be good enough for a beginner, good enough for a high school band, good enough for college studies, and/or good enough for professional performance? As with all cheap merchandise the rule of “Buyer Beware!” certainly applies.

 

Over my years as a professional performer, teacher, and trumpet designer I have had scores of different trumpets from nearly every manufacturer in hand at one time or another. What always amazed me was how certain (otherwise very respected) manufacturers could come up with designs that were not good enough for performance purposes and then replicate those designs and sell them for years on end.  Keep in mind, these instruments are made to high standards as far as quality and construction but because of the design flaws they simply do not play well. The market has been flooded with lots of trumpets that were mistakes from the beginning and many of my customers send these instruments to me to see if they can be redesigned and transformed into playable instruments. To further complicate matters factory production of professional designs that have the potential to play well is so inconsistent that professional performers are left to sort through a lot of instruments in order to find one that plays to a high standard.  Because of this problem there are now many custom trumpet designers that cater to professionals seeking an instrument that is better than “good enough.’

 

When I say that better than “good enough” is the goal, this only indicates that good enough is not really a standard in the music business.  In music “good enough” would indicate that it could have been done much better, that a really high standard had not been attained. As both a performer and teacher I have often witnessed sloppy tuning sessions followed by the comment “I guess that is good enough for jazz.” The truth is poor tuning is not good enough for jazz, classical music or commercial music. No one wants to hear out of tune music. Imagine an orchestral performer playing a concert and the conductor approaches him after the concert and says “Well Phil, I guess that was good enough for now. I guess you can keep your job.”  The translation is “Man, you just barely made it through that performance–that was not very inspired playing.”  Even when a really fine amateur musician owns an instrument that might only be good enough for certain venues this only ensure that a higher degree of excellence will certainly be more elusive because of the limitations of the instrument.

 

Based on my observations I have yet to come across a low cost instrument that is suitable for a beginning trumpeter to play, much less an aspiring professional player.  When I say low cost I am referring mostly to instruments that have flooded the USA market from China, Eastern Europe, and India. When I first noticed a problem with these instruments it was actually a trumpet manufactured for beginning trumpeters that had the brand of a major trumpet manufacturer on the bell. The model that it replaced had formerly been made in the United States and was considered to be an above average instrument for beginning trumpeters. When the new model (whose production had been out-sourced in the quest for cheap labor) hit the market it turned out to be a disaster. The instrument was so short that you had to pull out the tuning slide over two inches to get it down to pitch thus throwing it out of tune with itself. Since that time I have come across a number of cheap trumpets that have similar problems; in fact, I have yet to come across a cheap instrument that would have any chance of playing in tune with its higher priced competitors. This includes instruments that are too long to tune up to A=440 as well as those that are so short that you have to pull the tuning slide out so far that the basic intonation of the instrument is destroyed (assuming it might be ok with the slide all of the way in). Many times the instruments are made with mouthpiece receivers that only fit the same manufacturer’s mouthpieces. To play another mouthpiece the receiver has to be replaced or altered to fit.

 

Even respected and established manufacturers seem to go through periods where their production is faulty and not up to par. A good example is the Vincent Bach Stradivarius trumpet. Vintage models of this horn are highly prized and sell for higher prices than the new models. A number of years ago I realized that I had come across a number of these vintage Bb models that were too short.  The slide had to be pulled out sometimes nearly 2 inches or more to get down to A=440.  In a session with William Vacchiano in the late 1990’s I asked him about this problem and had he come across any of these “short” Strads during his career? Most trumpeters have seen old posters of Vacchiano endorsing the Bach Stradivarius and he was one of the trumpeters whose performance on the instrument made it one of the most popular in American orchestras. In true form, Vacchiano did not directly answer my question but said: “Well, Jones, getting a horn like that would be about the same as going to the bakery to buy a dozen doughnuts and then getting home and finding out there were only eleven doughnuts in the box.”  Vacchiano was famous for his funny statements so I added this one to the list. (Another good example was when a student asked him how often he should take a breath in a certain piece of music, Vacchiano replied, “Does a dog ever pass a fire hydrant?” or, “Mr. Vacchiano, what can you tell us about breathing?” Answer: “If you don’t breathe you will die!”).

 

A problem trumpet buyers have to be aware of is that a lot of manufacturers go through the “eleven doughnut phase” from time to time, outsourcing has added to those phases, and most of the current manufacturers of cheap brands are still in that phase even though they are actually making instruments that are sturdy and repairable if damaged.  In fact, many of the various components are often made to superb standards. However, because of the design flaws, these very fine components assembled together create a trumpet that is not going to be playable in any ensemble or with another instrument.  If the instrument was damaged (which beginners often do!!) most repair shops in music stores do not have access to replacement parts and are usually otherwise overwhelmed servicing the instruments that they sell.  Very few technicians would have the time or the expertise to rebuild the instrument to play well, and by the time the purchaser invested the money to fix the instrument they could have taken the total investment and bought a more suitable instrument.

 

When I began my trumpet design business one of my goals was to offer reasonably priced services to a large variety of trumpet performers.  Many musicians are on limited budgets, and even if not it does not always seem practical to have to invest thousands of dollars in an instrument. Most professional trumpeters own an arsenal of various keyed trumpets and the cost could become astronomical if all of these instruments were the most expensive on the market.  What I offer to customers is a common sense approach.  By assembling and/or modifying existing trumpet components with a large amount of play-testing as I go, a very fine instrument can be created at a reasonable cost.  The true value of an instrument is always in how it plays and “good enough” is never really a satisfactory standard in music.