In With The Old

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As brass musicians, we often lament our short history, and the supposed corresponding deficiency of old music and instruments, particularly when compared to that of strings, piano, and even woodwinds. “They have hundreds of years worth of sonatas,” we cry, “we didn’t even have valves back then!”

I can sympathize with this view. After all, if you majored in music, how many student brass recitals did you attend where you heard the same pieces over and over? (Hovhaness’s Prayer of Saint Gregory is haunting the first time you hear it, beautiful the fifth time, and soporific the twenty-third time.) It gives the impression that we have a severely limited repertoire.

This frustrated me as a student, so I made a point to search out music that was different, that no one else at my university was playing.

Luckily, my professor, Dr. Bill Jones, also has an interest in being a little bit different. To my surprise, he pointed me to the past. I began playing Susato on a cornettino, and Handel on a Baroque trumpet. I was hooked.

At this point, I could give you a list of all the great old (Renaissance and Baroque) music for earlier versions of brass instruments. That’s all just a Google search away, though, why waste time? Instead, let me tell you why, as a trumpet player, I think playing this old music on period-style instruments is worth the time.

1. Skills

Firstly, learning to play period-style instruments can significantly improve certain skills that translate directly to your modern instrument. The cornetto and cornettino are basically hollow tubes with holes in them – you can actually play them at Baroque or modern pitch just by changing your lips and air. With the pitch being so slippery, it forces you to really listen and make changes in an instant, developing your ear and intonation.

In order to play anything like a diatonic scale on the Baroque trumpet, you have to be fairly high in the overtone series. Again, things get slippery. You must develop strong eye/ear/mouth coordination to ensure you play the right partial each time. This also helps build range and endurance. My modern trumpet playing ability increased by leaps and bounds the semester I started playing early music.

2. History

Secondly, I personally feel that you don’t truly know something until you know its history. Learning about how your instrument evolved into what it is today is fascinating. I discovered that we don’t hear many trumpets playing with early music groups because the brassy, clear, carrying tone sounds completely anachronistic when the part was written for the mellow, woody sound of the cornetto.

I found out that so many modern trumpet parts have repetitive fanfare-like sections (even though we can play the whole chromatic scale – honest!) because natural trumpets sounded best when they stuck to the harmonic overtone series. That fanfare sound has gotten stuck in our collective ear as the trumpet sound. Composers still write that way, because it just sounds right.

3. Awesomeness

Finally, playing a piece on the instrument for which it was written is just… cool! Ornaments may come more naturally, or certain phrasing may make more sense. You get to listen to yourself make different sounds than what you’re used to. You start hearing things differently. Your peers envy and admire you (well, maybe). And you most certainly have a greater appreciation for the convenience of valves!

I know that for most of us it is difficult to get our hands on a period instrument without making a sizable financial investment. They don’t just show up on Craigslist or Freecycle. If you’re a student at a university, ask your professors about the possibility of the department purchasing some early instruments – they can’t argue that it wouldn’t be educational! If you live near a university with a good music program, you may be able to borrow or rent an instrument so you can see if you even want to spend money on your own. You may be able to find a used instrument through ebay or brass message boards. By all means though, be open the possibility of learning to play an early style instrument. It will likely push you outside of your comfort zone, and you’ll be glad it did!

Now for some music:

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