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What’s It Like to Play a Brass Instrument?

Daniel Grabois

1. What is a brass instrument?
All of the brass instruments are built on the same general model: the instrument itself is a hollow metal tube, flaring out at the back end into what is
called the bell. On the front end, the player inserts a mouthpiece into the hollow tube. The mouthpiece is itself a hollow tube, composed of a short
length of pipe that fits into the end of the instrument, and then flaring up into a cup that goes over the player’s mouth.

The entire instrument, therefore, is nothing but a length of pipe. We create the sound by making our lips vibrate against each other (this is called
“buzzing”). The lips are in contact with the mouthpiece (the actual opening of the first pipe of the instrument is much too small to fit around anyone’s
mouth), and the entire mechanism fuctions as an amplifier.

2. What do the valves do?
Except for the trombone, the brass instruments have valves: devices worked by the fingers which add length of piping to the total length of the instrument.
An instrument which is longer plays lower (the double bass plays lower than the violin because the strings are longer), so the valves lower the pitch. The
standard valve design on all brass instruments consists of three valves, and by convention, the first valve (operated by the index finger) adds enough
tubing to lower the pitch by a whole step. The second valve lowers the pitch by a half step and the third by a step and a half. Think of playing an “open”
(no valves) note; you can lower the pitch by a half step with the second valve, down a whole step with the first valve, down a step and a half with one
plus two. One plus two is the same length of tubing as using the third valve, so you can go a further half step down by using the third valve plus the second
valve, and so on until you are using all three valves. It turns out that there are seven possible valve combinations. There are also seven slide positions on the
trombone. So the world is an ordered place after all!

When a non-brass player tries to play a brass instrument, he sounds like an elephant braying. It can be hard to learn to play one pure note. Without using any
valves, you can play all the notes of what is called the “harmonic series” (this is a sequence of rising pitches dictated by fairly complicated rules of physics,
starting with the note being sounded, then the note one octave up, then the note a fifth (five steps) above that, then a note four steps up, and so on, with the
spaces between the notes always getting smaller and smaller). Did I lose you? The horn, for example, is pitched in the key of F, which means that, with no
valves, you can play all the notes of the harmonic series above the note F (if you made the horn a little longer, it would be pitched in E instead of F). The
trombone is pitched in the key of Bb (“B-flat”). There are trumpets in many different keys, though Bb and C are the most typically used. Tubas tend to be
in Bb or C. If you push the second valve down, you can play all the notes of the harmonic series one half step down from the key the instrument is pitched in.
For example, playing a horn, pitched in F, if you push the second valve down, you can play all the notes of the E harmonic series. Push the first valve instead,
and you’ve got the notes of the Eb series. And so on.

Here’s the key question, then: if you can play all the notes in a particular series using the same fingering, how do you know how to hit one of those notes in
particular? And herein lies the art and the science of playing a brass instrument.

3. Finding a note (preferably the right one)
You are playing the horn part. It is the opening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and it starts with two horns playing an interval of a fifth (notes five steps apart
from each other, like do and sol). The second horn plays an E and the first horn plays a B above it (actually, these notes don’t sound like E and B, they sound like
A and E. See the section on transposition to understand what’s going on here). You are playing first horn, so you have to hit the B. You know that you have to use
the second valve, because that B appears on the E harmonic series. The conductor comes onto the stage, steps onto the podium, waits for dead silence from the a
udience, lifts his baton, and starts the piece (this is YOU and your second horn player!) very quietly. You’ve got your second valve down, you breathe, and you
begin to blow when the baton reaches the bottom of its stroke. What note comes out? Well, since you’ve got the second valve down, you know that you’ll hit one
of the following notes: low B, the F# (“F-sharp”) above it, the B above that, or continuing up, D#, F#, A, B (this is the one you want), C#, D#, E#, F#, G#, and
then basically any note above that. You need to find that middle B!

How do you do it? Well, luckily, it feels different to play that B than to play any of the other notes. Your lips feel different, your mouth inside feels different, your
tongue is where it needs to be to play a B, your throat is just right, and so on. Your lips are a certain tightness that isn’t only right for that B, it is right for this quiet
version of B. If you blow the air too hard, it will blow your lips apart from each other; blow too softly and the lips won’t get any vibration started. Or maybe you
blow a little too hard, and you still get a B, but it’s loud, and you’ve spoiled the mood. You only get the right note with the right sound when your entire body is in
balance for the task at hand. Learning to get the balances right is what we do.

4. Getting the balances right
Imagine a theater piece. You are the actor. The play calls for you to come out on stage, stand right in the middle of the stage, don’t move a muscle for 11 minutes,
then exit (to thunderous applause). Do you need “acting technique” to master this role? Not really. You need to master your twitchy body. Our bodies are amazingly
complex, and they can react at lightning speed to, say, a crack in the sidewalk or an oncoming ball or a tight curve while skating. But it can be very difficult to achieve
calmness and stillness. To play the B that opens Beethoven’s Ninth, you need to make your body feel like B, but within that, you must be calm and still. If, while
playing, you change the position of your tongue, or the strength of your blow, or the angle of your elbow, or the tension in your lips, your B will wobble or go out of
tune or move to another note (disaster in all three cases!). It is not about holding your body in place, however, but about achieving stillness. So a big part of the answer
to the question “What does it feel like to play a brass instrument?” is that it feels extremely calm when everything is going well, and extremely jittery when things are not
going well. When you are really playing, your body moves from note to note with maximum efficiency, no wasted energy. Your muscles don’t feel like they are working, t
hey just go as if on their own. Anybody who has watched Roger Federer play tennis, Bobby Orr play hockey, or Pele play soccer can conjure up a beautifully analogous
picture for this.

5. But you have a piece of metal on your mouth
As you get better at your instrument, it starts feeling good having your lips against the mouthpiece. The horn mouthpiece is very small (the opening is about the size of a
penny), the trumpet mouthpiece is next (a nickel), then trombone (quarter) and tuba (half dollar). After about 10 seconds of playing, the mouthpiece becomes very warm,
and feels like it is right where it is supposed to be, like it was molded to fit on your lips (Jon Nelson, trumpeter in the Meridian Arts Ensemble, describes getting warmed
up as “finding the dent”). As you play, your lips loosen and begin to move fluidly. When you are ready to go, you think about your lips about as much as you think of y
our legs when you walk: you observe their motion without really having to control it. You are able to focus on how the music should sound, and the sound just comes out.

6. Do you get tired playing?
Playing a brass instrument can be tiring. The lip muscles are very fine (think of all the expressions your mouth can assume – these are done with many small delicate
muscles) and we sometimes put a lot of strain on them. Playing loud and playing high can be quite taxing. Playing low can present problems, too. Suppose you’ve been
playing a piece that is high for a while, so your muscles have been working hard. Now the music drops down to a much lower range. You need to let go of your lips,
keeping them in balance with the air that is passing through them but not letting go altogether. If you have ever gone for a long jog, and then stood under the shower as
your legs tremble, you know that stopping using a muscle that has been working hard can have interesting, uncontrollable results. “Uncontrollable” is a word that makes
a brass player nervous.

7. An explanation of “transposition” (complicated, but I’ll do my best)
Earlier, I alluded to transposition. Let me try to explain this so that absolutely anyone can understand it. Imagine that I am writing an article about the Meridian Arts
Ensemble, and I find myself typing the name of the group over and over. I soon wish that we had named the group “mmm” (for easy typing) and I create a shortcut
on the computer so that whenever I type mmm the computer replaces it with Meridian Arts Ensemble. In musical parlance, I have “transposed” the name of the group
into the name mmm. In musical notation, there are two basic “clefs” that are used: treble clef and bass clef. The clef is like the key on a map. The key of the map says,
“For this map, one inch equals fifty miles.” The clef says, “On this line of music, a note written in this space is a C.” But for some instruments, the range (how high and
low you play) is such that it might not be so convenient to use treble clef or bass clef. Think of the map again. Imagine that there are two basic map sizes:
one inch = 10 miles, and one inch = 50 miles. Perhaps, for the area you are mapping, your ideal size would be one inch = 25 miles. One way to handle this would be
to stretch your map so that one inch would equal 10 miles, but then you would explain in the map’s key that a small arithmetic calculation would be needed to compute
actual distances (in this case, measure the distance in inches and then multiply by 2.5). Again, you have created a transposition formula.

The range of the horn is very big (about half the range of the piano). But the most typically used part of the range lies right in between the treble and bass clefs. It is a
little too high to be comfortably written in bass clef, but a little too low for treble clef. So we make a transposition. When we want to play middle C, we agree to call it
the G above. When we want D, we call it A. When we want E, we call it B. We label everything five notes higher than it really is, and then we write it, perfectly
comfortably, in treble clef.

8. Some history, and this gets technical so skip it if you want
Valves for brass instruments were invented in the 19th Century and perfected (sort of) in the 20th. Before then, you could only (a note on this “only” in the section 10)
play the notes of the harmonic series of the instrument. What? If you had a horn that was 8 feet long, it would play the notes of the F harmonic series (low F, then up
to C, then F-A-C-Eb-F-G-A…). A horn a little longer than 8 feet would play the E series. A little shorter, you’d have a G horn. Horn players used to carry little
extensions, called “crooks,” around with them. Instead of having to carry around lots of horns, you could bring one fairly short horn, and extend it with these crooks.
You could play whatever piece was put in front of you as long as you had the right crook.

Think about the game “pin the tail on the donkey.” After you have been blindfolded and spun around a few times, you don’t know which direction is which. Now
imagine that your instrument is a different length for each piece. You start getting very confused about which note you are playing. The F horn plays F-C-F-A-C-Eb-F-G-A
and so on, while the E horn plays E-B-E-G#-B-D-E-F# and so on. The important thing here, though, is that while the pitches are different in each series, the distances
between the pitches is the same for every series. So, by convention, horn players agreed to call the first note of any series “C,” the second note “G,” and on up the series.
Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven wrote all their horn parts in C, and then told the horn player which crook to put on the horn. Note that the same principle applied to the
trumpet but not to the trombone, since the trombone uses a slide, a technology that has been around much longer than the valve, so the trombone never had the pitch
limitations of the trumpet or the horn. Note further that the tuba didn’t yet exist, so we can leave it out of the discussion.

Classical music is extremely tradition bound (some orchestras still perform in tails, after all, which nobody else has worn for 75 years or more). Even after the valve was
invented and horn and trumpet players could play every note and not just the notes of the harmonic series, composers continued to transpose their brass parts. Eventually,
horn parts by convention became written in F and trumpet parts in Bb, largely for the reasons outlined in section 7.

9. Another fun bit of history and technology
Remember that the first valve lowers the pitch by a whole step, the second valve by a half step, and so on? So, if the horn with no valves is pitched in the key of F, then,
when you push the second valve, you basically have an E horn. When you push the first valve, you have an Eb horn. There are seven valve combinations. We have
basically figured out a way, through technology, to play seven different horns at once, while only carrying around one horn.

10. Why do horn players put their right hand in the bell?
In section 8, I wrote that, before valves were invented, brass players could only play the notes of the harmonic series. That statement is, while not an outright lie, certainly
a gross oversimplification. Horn players discovered that, by putting their right hand in the bell and moving it around in a few basic ways, they could play other notes
outside the harmonic series. How does it work? Remember the principle that a longer tube produces a longer note. Say you are playing on an old horn, pitched in the key
of F. You are playing the note F. Well, first off, we have agreed that, in old music, the main note that the instrument is pitched in will be called C (we agreed to that in the
technical section on transposition). So, playing on a horn in F, we will call an F a C. Go with me on this if you don’t understand. We’re playing on a length of tubing
that is 8 feet long. We put our hand in the bell and effectively use our hand to become a part of the tubing, so that the horn is now 8 feet and a few inches long. Now,
we’re playing a B instead of a C. Every note on the F horn can be lowered a half step in this way – we’ve bought ourselves an E series on our F horn. Next, instead of
using our hand to lengthen the tubing, we stuff our hand into the bell as far as it will go and cover the opening completely, in effect shortening the tubing by just enough
to give us … an F# series, one half step up from our original F series. The harmonic series, which is predetermined by the laws of physics, starts down low with widely
spaced notes, but as the range rises, the notes get closer together. So, especially in the high range, using the right hand in the bell, horn players could play just about
every single note – a full “chromatic scale” (all the black notes and all the white notes).

11. Another fun bit of history and technology
I just explained that, the higher up you are in the harmonic series, the closer together the notes are. Listen to your favorite Baroque music with brass. You like Bach’s
Brandenburg Concerto #2, with that amazing trumpet part, or the first Brandenburg Concerto, with two horns, or the Christmas Oratorio, or Handel’s Messiah? Why
are those wonderful brass parts always so high? Because, up high, the composer had many more notes to choose from, since the notes of the harmonic series are
much closer together the higher you go in a series.

12. Why are Mozart’s horn concertos so amazing?
At the time Mozart was writing, the valve wasn’t even a glimmer in its inventor’s eye. Horn players lugged around their “natural” horn with a set of crooks to play
in different keys, and they kept their right hand in the bell, using “handhorn technique” to get all the chromatic notes. Still, solo horn concertos from before Mozart’s
time were fairly simple affairs. They had a lot of arpeggios (chordal leaps in the key of the piece), but not even that many scales. When the piece “modulated”
(changed keys, which just about every piece of music from the 17th Century to the 20th does even though you probably never notice it), the soloist simply had
nothing to play until the music modulated back to the home key. But Mozart figured out how to use both the open notes and the notes made with the hand in much
more sophisticated ways. The Mozart concertos were for horn players what antibiotics were for the medical profession – not just a welcome advance, but a revolution
in how the art was practiced.

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