#1: How to Buy a Brass Instrument That Fits Your Needs!

My name is Wayne Downey. I'm the brass arranger for the Blue Devils D&B Corps and Owner of XtremeBrass.com. I'd like to welcome you to Brass Advantage - "The Land of all things Brass" This column is intended to be a forum where you the reader can inquire about any topic related to playing a brass instrument as well as an opportunity for me to share with you some of my thoughts on brass performance, technique, instruments, accessories as well as some of the secrets that have helped me guide the Blue Devils to an unprecedented 20 Jim Ott awards for "Excellence in Brass Performance."

Please feel free to send any questions or topics you'd like me to discuss to wdbd at xtremebrass dot com

Today's topic: How to Buy a Brass Instrument That Fits Your Needs

If you've ever gone to a music store or done a Google search to purchase "the brass instrument that's right for you" you've probably realized that there are instruments available in all shapes, sizes, colors, bore sizes, bell sizes, tapers and price ranges made by all sorts of manufacturers all guaranteeing that their products are the best in the world. It's quite befuddling to be honest with you, not to mention intimidating. What should I do...? What should I do...? I know...!! I'll pick the brass lacquer plating because it produces a warmer sound... No, the silver plating will give me the brightness I need in the upper register... No, the large bore will give me the volume I'm looking for... Yikes, my head's going to explode!!!!

OK, rather than dealing with splatter, let's take a look at this step by step and see if we can make the selection process easier for you.

First things first, here's a list of some simple decisions you'll need to make before twisting your brain into knots.

Level 1 Decisions

Budget - Before you start looking you've got to know how many rubles you or your parents have to spend.

Comfort and Feel - Is the instrument comfortable to hold in your hands? Can your grasp it comfortably? How is it balanced? Can you make contact with the valves?

Size and Weight - Do you find yourself struggling to hold the instrument up? Does the weight affect how your mouthpiece makes contact with your face? Is it possible for you to grip it correctly? How freely do your fingers depress the valves? Can you extend all slides to there full throw? **Here are some important marching band questions to consider; could you march an 8-minute show holding it? Does the instrument limit your physical motion or ability to march?

Indoor or Outdoor Playing or Both - Does the instrument provide you with the volume or projection that your playing requires? Is the sound as "warm" or as "bright" as it needs to be for the type of playing you do? Is the instrument sturdy and durable?

Level 2 Decisions

Tone & Intonation - Does the instrument allow you to produce the quality of sound appropriate for the style of music you play and does it play well in tune?

Each instrument has it's own unique tone (quality of sound) and pitch (tuning) tendencies that are a direct result of design and manufacturing decisions made by the company who produced it, but rest assured, there are differences galore from one instrument to another. Check each and every instrument you're interested in out carefully.

To ensure that you're selecting an instrument that not only allows you to produce the sound you prefer but also plays in tune. I suggest you play each instrument listening not only to the sound you're able to produce but also monitoring its pitch tendencies with a tuner. That way you can see (as well as hear) any of the inherent tuning problems that might be present and at the same time decide if the tone of the instrument is what you were looking for. Having a friend or teacher with you to help you in this process might be a good idea.

Student or Professional Model - Do you have the financial wherewithal to purchase a professional model horn?

Professional model instruments are much more expensive than student model horns. The price difference is due in part to the quality of the materials used to produce the horn as well as the workmanship (i.e. hand made vs. machine made.) Often the newer the design concepts (additional bells and whistles) and quality of the brass used (composition of the brass) greatly affects not only how the instrument plays but also how much you'll need to pay to play, sort to speak.

Musical Styles Performed - What types of playing will you be doing?

Determine the type of playing you're going to be required to perform in your school ensembles and pick an instrument that best fits the character of sound, tone color, volume and projection that is required of you each and every day. For example, are you looking to produce a dark, warm sound for symphonic band or will you need to produce a brighter quality of sound with a little more sizzle for jazz band?

As you will find, each color of sound (tone) requires a completely different instrument design. In the following paragraphs I'm hoping to demystify why different models of the same instrument type made by the same manufacturer can create very different tone colors, and in doing so, supply you with other information that might help you choose the instrument that's right for you.

Brass Instrument Design Elements

Bells - One of the design features that vary from manufacturer to manufacturer or for that matter from model to model from the same manufacturer is bell design. Generally the two options available are either a one or two-piece bell construction. Both designs provide a great sound but the one-piece construction allows for a freer unrestricted vibration of the bell.

The shape of the bell or the rate of bell flare (the tapered surface), determines the characteristic sound of the instrument. Bells with fast tapers produce dark, warm sounds, while slow tapers produce brighter tones.

The type and thickness of the material used to make the bell also affects the sound that it produces. For example, gold brass, which is available on some Pro Models, will yield a warmer sound than the more commonly used yellow brass due to its higher copper content. In contrast pure silver bells, which are also available on some Pro Models create a full complement of overtones (partials) for a focused sound with greater projection.

The weight of the bell also affects how the horn responds and the color of sound it produces. Lightweight bells for example respond quickly for a lively sound. For performance situations requiring high dynamic levels in which a dark, warm quality of sound is desired a heavyweight bell in either yellow or gold brass would be appropriate.

Mouthpipes & Crooks - The constriction and rate of taper in the mouthpipe will also affect the trumpet's characteristic sound. Like the bell, mouthpipes with fast tapers result in warm tones, while slow tapers produce bright sounds.

Brass players desiring a more open, less resistant instrument should consider Reversed Construction. Reversed Construction is a process in which the manufacturer eliminates a step at the main tuning slide that provides a longer taper length, creating a more open feel with less resistance and improved intonation.

Also optional on some models are rounded main tuning slide crooks that which remove sharp bends, achieving a smooth flow of air for a more open feel and less resistance.

Bores - Many Brass players are under the misconception that the bore size determines an instruments tone quality. While the bore does play a role, the rate of taper in the mouthpipe and bell section primarily influence whether the sound is dark or bright. I think you might find it interesting that the trumpet bore size is measure at the inside diameter of the second valve slide. Dynasty Marching Brass for example, offers three bore sizes for you to choose from: Medium 11.7mm (.460"), Large 11.8mm (.464") and Extra Large 11.8mm (.468") to help you select the tone color that best fits your playing style and requirements.

Please remember while selecting a bore size that while large bore instruments may have greater volume of sound and carrying power they do require much more effort to play so choose wisely.

Well I hope by now your brain doesn't feel like Jell-O after reading all that technical mumbo jumbo on brass instrument design. Most importantly realize that there are many choices that you have to make in selecting "the horn that's right for you". Before you walk into a store be prepared by knowing what you want and what is best for your playing. Don't let the sales person "hype" you into the newest, coolest, hippest (and most expensive) horn that won't fit your playing style or needs.

Well that's about it for this month, don't forget to send your questions or topics to: wdbd at xtremebrass dot com and when you get a chance log onto my website www.XtremeBrass.com for all your brass needs. Truckloads of players are purchasing both "ChopBuilders" for Ultimate range development and "Etude of the Month" yearly subscription. "Don't Let The Chance Pass You By". See Ya Soon.