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.

 

 

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