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The trumpet is a brass musical wind instrument capable of play at ear-piercing volume, or in the hands of a good player at a more pleasant level. It has been used since time immemorial for fanfares of the 'shut up, someone's going to say something important' variety. In more recent years, some seriously good music has been played on the trumpet, ranging from the classical Bach and Handel to the jazz varieties of Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie. The trumpet is one of the oldest musical instruments in the world; a trumpet was found in the tomb of Tutankhamen, which dates from about 1320 BC. It was still just about playable.
The basic principle of trumpet playing, and all brass instruments, is lip buzz. This is known as 'blowing a raspberry' in the UK and 'the Bronx cheer' in the USA. It means putting your lips together and blowing a farting sound. You do this in one end of the trumpet and music comes out the other end. What's happening is that your lips act as a noise generator. The tube of the trumpet filters out the unwanted noise and reinforces the musical bits by resonating, so that a musical note comes out.
Playing the Harmonics
The lowest note that a trumpet produces is called its fundamental. You get it by playing with very loose lips. The pitch of the fundamental depends on the length of the trumpet; a short pipe will produce a higher note than a long pipe.
The most important way of changing the note you get from the trumpet is by tightening your lips. As you tighten your lips and blow harder, the note switches to higher notes known as harmonics. These are a series of notes which the trumpet naturally plays. The tighter your lips and the harder you blow, the higher up the harmonic series you go.
For a trumpet pitched in C, the series of harmonics is as follows: C C G C E G Bb C D E F# G ... The series continues, but the harmonics get harder and harder to reach as you go up. If you play out these notes on a piano, you will find that they get closer together as you go up.
The Natural Trumpet
The trumpet in Tutankhamen's tomb and all other trumpets up to about 1815 were of a type known as the natural trumpet. They were basically a cylindrical pipe which narrowed down a bit at one end with a cup-shaped mouthpiece for your lips and which widened out a bit at the other end, known as a bell. You could stretch the pipe out straight to make a heraldic trumpet, the sort you hang flags out of, or you could bend it round into a curve to make it more compact, but this didn't affect the sound. Because the notes available were limited, you were very restricted in what you could play. If you wanted to play proper tunes, you had to do this very high up where the harmonics are close enough together to make a scale. This is the way the trumpet was played in the time of Handel and Bach, and both composers wrote some wonderful music for the natural trumpet. Handel wrote The Trumpet Shall Sound in his oratorio Messiah; this is a duet between bass singer and trumpeter. His Water Music also has some wonderful trumpet playing. Bach used trumpets in the Mass in B Minor to great effect, and in one of his Brandenburg Concertos. Nevertheless, the natural trumpet was a very difficult instrument to play good music on.
The Valve Trumpet
Around 1815, a new type of trumpet was invented; the valve trumpet. This has three or four pistons. When you push down the pistons, the air in the trumpet is diverted into different sections of pipe, making the pipe longer, so the note produced is lowered in pitch. Normal trumpets have three valves. These lower the pitch by one, two and three semitones. They can be used in combination so you can lower the pitch by anything up to six semitones, with all the notes in between. Using the valves along with playing the different harmonics, you can play any note in a range of about two and a half octaves.
The Trumpet Today
The introduction of the valve trumpet meant that trumpet playing became much easier. Nowadays, valve trumpets in B flat are the standard and almost no-one knows how to play the natural trumpet. Among other musical genres, trumpets became very popular in Jazz music and the styles that grew out of it such as Swing and Bebop, with world famous trumpeters such as Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong. It is also alive and well in the classical world with such notables as Wynton Marsalis and Hakon Hardenberger.
Owning a Trumpet
Playing a trumpet can provide years of entertainment. It is especially pleasing to play with others, in a quartet, brass band or even an orchestra.
There are many variances in mouthpieces; if you are a first time player, your trumpet will more than likely have a 7C mouthpiece. The 7 describes the width of the mouthpiece (with 7 being narrow and 2 being wide) and the C describes the depth.
If you are planning to upgrade your trumpet, start with a new mouthpiece. It is a good idea to start with a 3C mouthpiece, and Bach produces a sturdy example of this. It will help your tone, due to the fact that the wider the mouthpiece, the more air can flow through, and the louder you can play. 3C mouthpieces range in the area of $45 - $50 in the USA (at the time of writing).
Normal varieties of trumpets are made of brass covered with a clear coating, or silver. If you think you want to change from a brass trumpet to a silver, think hard. Silver trumpets only have a slight tone difference from regular trumpets, and require far more maintenance to keep them from tarnishing. A silver trumpet is an instrument meant for dedicated players, so don't buy one unless you are going to be playing for quite a while. A few recommended brands would be Bach, King, and Benge. Talk to your local music store or band director for more information. Expect a price range (again relevant at time of writing) from $1,100 to $2,100 for a silver trumpet in the USA.