Buying a brass instrument

Choosing the right brass instrument

This certainly ranks among the most important decisions in a musician’s life: choosing a new instrument that caters to one’s preferences and requirements. The most basic criterion is quite obviously that the new instrument should at least be as good as the previous one.

The kind of instrument "”trumpet, trombone, brass or wind instrument"”is of no consequence: first make up your mind about what it is you are looking for. There probably won’t be an instrument that is perfect in every respect, but there certainly will be one offering an excellent compromise of what you request.

Versatile timbre and sound

An instrument with a smooth response in the upper register is of no use when it sound rather thin. Likewise, a powerful sound without fair-to-good intonation (relative tuning of the notes) is like a race car without wheels. I myself also tend to believe that my next instrument needs to be versatile enough to "work" for different genres and settings.

Buying different instruments for different applications is an expensive hobby. The same applies to mouthpieces: a good instrument is an instrument whose timbre and sound can be adapted to the work at hand. I do indeed love my "German trumpet" with rotary valves for orchestra gigs, but I can use my favorite instrument (a Tribune-series Bb trumpet) for both solo and orchestra settings. Taking an informed decision isn’t easy, though.

So here’s my advice: try out potential candidates with a checklist of clearly stated criteria and a tuning device. The latter always tells the truth.

I think we are all aware that the skull vibrations while playing can bias our impression to an almost dangerous degree. What we hear differs seriously from what others hear. Asking a fellow musician to assist you may provide invaluable hints, as long as his/her feedback is objective.

Ignore brands and model names while choosing

For an honest assessment or appreciation, focus on the following elements:
- sound volume
- response across all registers (needs to be smooth)
- workmanship
- safety
- intonation.

Unfortunately, a brand’s quality image is almost always defined through tips and "sound advice" by others. Such impressions are inherently subjective. Never forget that you need to choose what’s best for you, because you will have to live (i.e. play) with your decision.

While developing my "Corno da Caccia" with the brass instrument manufacturer Michael Armbruster at Mister Music in Schramberg (Germany), I had to test countless modifications. That is why we decided upon a feature set and tested for those aspects. Finally, the instrument was tested with the "BIAS" computer system to obtain objective criteria regarding intonation control. This approach has allowed us to gather variable results about the instrument’s intonation and sound spectrum.

In short: Always play the same excerpts, passages and exercise when trying out new instruments. That’s is your only chance to make meaningful comparisons.

Practical tests for choosing the right wind instrument

1. Location
All tests need to be performed in the same location and with a similar posture. Even blowing in a slightly different direction may flaw your impression.

2. Mouthpiece
It probably goes without saying that all tests need to be performed with the same mouthpiece.

3. Short tests
Do not spend too much time with any one instrument"”play it briefly, then move on to the next. This way, your musical memory can judge more objectively.

A new instrument needs to be instantly better than your previous one. Do not allow for a time factor. What counts is the here-and-now. Arguments like "the embouchure will improve over time" are not acceptable. Even musicians can’t predict the future.

4. Scales
Test different scales (pipe length/pipe diameter ratios) for a given model, possibly even several specimen of such models (there may be slight differences).

5. Pipe resistance
Blow some air into the instrument to measure the pipe distance.
Doing so allows you to find out about the air circulation within the instruments you are testing.

6. Smooth response:
Softly blow low and high notes without attack and to test the instruments response. This is very important!

Testing an instrument’s response

7. A good legato
The ability to play wide intervals legato style is a good give-away of the player’s and instrument’s air flow.
Example of the Moon Choral from O. Nicolai’s "Lustige Weiber von Windsor" (3rd act):

Legato test

8. Low register

Vibrant and free?

Testing the low register

9. Balanced sound across al registers

Testing sound balance

10. Test the sound’s adaptability
Is it possible to shape the sound and make it full, direct, soft, romantic, etc.?

11. Test the dynamic response
Fortissimo and piano in rapid succession.
Crescendo/decrescendo: is there enough control?

12. Flexibility high/low
Test note intervals. Pay special attention to a balanced sound across al registers!

  • Test the sound balance in all registers

14. Intonation
With an electronic tuner: close your eyes and blow freely into the instrument. Only then open your eyes and watch the needle/tuning indication. This is important to avoid spontaneous tuning corrections and to pinpoint a basic tendency or dud notes.

Special tests for trumpet/flugelhorn/cornet:
test all notes with the 1st valve, because they are often intrinsically sharp, especially the A2 and F2.

Fingering changes to 2/3 are often bland (flat), usually Ab’.
Do you need a lot of 3rd slide for the D1 (1/3)?

What about the C#1 (1/2/3 + 3rd slide)?
High register: tuning of the C#3, Eb3?

Now there’s some food for thought. I sincerely hope you will find your perfect instrument!