Steve Wright is Professor Emeritus at Gustavus Adolphus college, where he served for 24 years as professor of Jazz Ensembles, Trumpet, and Music Arranging. Read his full biography here.
I'd like to talk to you today about buying a new trumpet. This would particularly apply to middle school and high school students, and also perhaps the comeback player who needs a new horn and doesn't want to buy a student model. This article will address how to set up a testing appointment, how to try trumpets, and what techniques can be used.
First of all, if you have a private teacher or director, or someone who is familiar with you as a musician and with trumpets to see if they have any recommendations for you to try. Call your local music store and see if they can set up two to four new instruments for you to try. You want to make sure they have stock on hand when you visit, so keep in mind the recommendations of your director or private teacher, and also ask the sales personnel if there's any other instruments they feel you should try. Keep in mind as well that even different instruments within the same model will respond differently to the same player.
Before you go to the store for your appointment, I would suggest you do a good warm up at home, including some long tones, the usual routine you might do so that you're warmed up and ready to go when you arrive at the store. Try to also make sure you bring an objective listener along with you, such as a parent or a teacher.
Now, with the horns in front of you, try each horn with some easygoing things. Try each horn with the exact same musical material. So first of all you might decide to do some long tones just to get the feel of each instrument - just something that will let you feel how each horn responds. Does something happen quickly when you put a little air into the horn? Also use this opportunity to tune each horn and make sure the valves are oiled properly.
So, warm-up completed, try some other exercises with it; perhaps a chromatic scale to get a feel for the quality of the pitch on a particular instrument, both up and down. This way you can get a sense of the resistance and range of each instrument, as well as how the instrument lays pitch-wise. Is it in tune with itself? Of course, the trumpet has natural tendencies to be sharp on the low D and C#, and also on the low F# and G. The D, D# and E at the top of the staff will naturally be a little flat. There are some horns that have more issues with these notes than others. Play neutral, try not to adjust immediately: just play as the horn responds. Now go up and down, adjusting for pitches as necessary, and noting how much you need to adjust for those notes, and any other pitch discrepancies. This is a good way to compare horns, especially from different brands, to see which one has the best overall pitch.
Now that you have a sense for the response and intonation of each horn, how is the articulation? Do a test of how it feels when you are tonguing rapidly. Try playing a melody of something you've been working on and see how each horn responds to that. Try various styles: melodic, fanfare-ish, aggressive, loud, soft. And once again, do the same thing with each horn and see which responds the best. Be sure to rest as necessary.
After spending time with each instrument and using these exercises, you can narrow it down to a couple of horns. What it will come down to is which horn responds the best for you, which provides the most pleasing tone to yourself and provides you with a chance to play up to your potential. Each horn will respond to each person in a different way, so pick the horn that feels most natural for you. So, that said, make your way to the music store and give your horn a try!
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