Historic Trumpet Dogma (and Friendships)

For the non-early-music crowd: Explanation for the terms "vented" (holes) and Ventless (no-holes): https://norwichnaturaltrumpets.wordpress.com/natural-or-baroque-trumpet/

I work in the music industry as a performer, maker, and scholar... but mostly as a performer.

Most of that time is spent behind a trumpet mouthpiece: I split my time between modern instruments and historic instruments. I pay the bills behind the trumpet, so I generally play whatever comes along as long as the pay is worth the time commitment. On some nights, it's Tower of Power or Motown charts in a horn band.

Or section trumpet in a regional orchestra. Wedding ceremonies. Brass Quintet. Mardi Gras Krewe Balls. Musicals.

On other nights (like last night), I play early music. Bach. Handel. Vivaldi. Bieber Biber. Last night happened to be Handel's operatic take on the the story of Partenope. I played on a Egger MDC baroque trumpet with Egger's take on an 18th century mouthpiece by (or not, probably) William Bull.

To support my career, it generally takes a lot of gear to survive. A generic gear list for a freelance "do-it-all" trumpeter might look like:

  • Modern piston trumpets in varying keys (Bb, C, Eb/D, Piccolo)
  • Modern rotary instruments in varying keys (Bb/C)
  • Period Instruments (Baroque trumpet in D/C at "modern" and "low" pitch)
  • Mutes
  • Mouthpieces
  • Cases (Single and multi-instrument)
  • iPad/Laptop
  • Accessories (lubricants, stand lights, metronome, etc...)

Whether one talks of trumpets, mutes, stands, mouthpieces, leadpipes, horn mods, music editions (you name it)... everything seems subject to a rigorous amount of discussion about what is "best". Even within these categories... take harmon mutes for example... debates rage about the relative advantages of one material (or brand... or shape... or... or...) over another.

These discussions, specifically online, are seemingly released from the civility required during face-to-face encounters. Their tone often borders on the political.

This is an old topic. The old "Would you say that to my face?" discussion. This post isn't THAT discussion. This post is about general perceptions and ramifications with regards to early music gear... and, at some level... about how musical tastes/decisions sometimes can interfere with friendships and professional relationships.

The early music world for trumpeters is a relatively small one. In the USA, there are a handful of individuals each in the Northeast, Pacific Northwest, West Coast, Deep South, and Southern East Coast that have gigging territories of sorts. I use the phrase "territory" kindly. It's mostly a reflection of where we work most often, not generally a boundary erected to keep other trumpeters out. We all cross in and out of the other territories from time to time... but there certainly are fairly entrenched regional professionals. I'm in the deep south, playing in Houston and Austin a lot while also crossing into Nashville and Kansas City with some regularity. I play less regularly, though, in New England. Maybe 4 or 5 times a year. This week I'm in San Diego (which generally only happens once a year). Other cities come along as I'm needed.

In each of these regions, the trumpeters tend to have a fairly noticeable professional "personality". I think, maybe more than any of the other regions, those of us in the deep south are "doublers" on both modern and historic instruments. There just isn't enough early music work in our region to support full-time historic trumpet playing. All of my early music employment is on the road. For a few folks in other regions, this isn't the case.

Musically, individuals in these regions can differ as well. Sometimes wildly. If I were interviewed and asked to describe my artistic intent as an early trumpeter in a few sentences, I'd probably say something like: "I aim to be as historically informed as possible from a musicological standpoint (articulation, tuning, etc...) and, from an equipment standpoint, I attempt to play equipment that keeps me as close to the original equipment without compromising my standards for musiciality, technique, and listenability".

Translated: I learn as much as possible about my repertoire/instruments from a scholarship standpoint and then choose performance equipment that gets the job done and sounds as good as possible.

Other folks in other regions might say something completely different.

Where the early trumpet world sometimes struggles is in the acceptance of the idea that there are currently multiple ways to approach the performance of our repertoire... even from an equipment standpoint... and that there are very real ramifications to choosing differing approaches. At one level, there just isn't a "safe space" for experimentation in our field. The public has modern sensibilities when it comes to performance expectations. Perfection is (unfortunately) the standard and there just isn't enough horsepower in the early trumpet field (nor ensembles willing to create a safe space for experimentation with truly old instruments) to currently overcome this. This is unfortunate, IMHO.

Some will read this as vents (holes) versus ventless (no-holes) post. It's not. This post could apply to 3-hole system versus 4-hole system. It could apply to the decision to use a historic mouthpiece or a modern one. It could apply to seamed tubes versus seamless tubes. The list could be a mile long. I actually prefer no-holes but never get to do it professionally. I'd get fired.

(But isn't this early music?)

Let's face it. Ignoring listener expectations can be dangerous in such a stable and established repertoire. We all do it at our own peril. I've played one performance of a truly major work (B Minor Mass) in a trumpet section utilizing period instruments without the aid of modern vents. I was the lowly third trumpet... but it was truly a revelation and I learned more prepping for that performance than just about any other. I'd love to do it again.

Yet, years later, I still run across folks who still volunteer some rather pointed commentary about the trumpets on that performance. At our own peril, we did not meet folks' modern sensibilities.

By itself, that might not be a bad thing.

Where it continues to cause me troubles to this day is in trumpeters' lack of willingness to see different modes of performance and/or equipment choices as valid. The "venters" talk trash on the lack of musical finesse and out-of-tuneness of the ventless folks. The ventless folks treat the venters like they have no interest in truly connecting with the old music in an "authentic" manner. This ignores the sometime realities of being a professional performer of early music in the modern era. People's ears are attuned to in-tuneness. They are inundated with perfection. These old instruments are late to the game and, after a few centuries of listening to brass instruments capable of performing with a huge range of expression and dynamics (and a greatly expanded repertoire), the adjustment of the HIP movement to truly "period" performance on trumpet is going to need much more time... if it is even possible.

The truth is this: only a tiny, tiny fraction of the trumpet world, much less the larger musical world (or the world at large), understands what it means to stage a historic performance of baroque music on a truly historic trumpet. Most won't notice the difference between 3-holer and 4-holer. Or mouthpieces. Or whatever. In a world where period strings and other winds will continue to be able to play with the utmost musicality, especially with regards to intonation and tone quality, there will be precious little space for truly historic trumpets that can't match them.

I still think we should go for it. How we do that is another post though.

Yet, for me this is most important:

The choice of gear isn't a reflection of moral character. (Dammit!)

And, just as importantly:

We exist to bring an experience to the listener.

There is a place for all types of early trumpets currently... but the listener should be to whom we look for advice. As it currently stands, I can't think of anyone stateside (maybe anywhere) that can pull off "Eternal Source" with no vents and have it sound truly beautiful to modern ears (someone PLEASE prove me wrong). Vents are generally in order. At the same time, there is a lot of battaglia repertoire that would be well within the reach of me and my contemporaries. It's this attention to detail when deciding which repertoire we decide to tackle with authentic means that is sorely needed today. Instead, folks stick one way or the other... and a chance to grow a larger, more inclusive, early trumpet community is stifled. Folks get pushed out of work on both sides. Feelings get hurt.

All over a partisan attitude towards gear.

Dogma.

Ensembles could do a lot to help by staging smaller, less "critical" performances that aim to create a safe space for trumpeters to experiment with truly historic gear... and be very explicit that they are doing it. Choosing accessible repertoire and flattering acoustics. La Petite Bande really pushed this at first, giving the Madeuf brothers a place to give it a go. From that, they grew into quite a force in the early trumpet world.

How do we go about working towards this goal of more inclusiveness in the early trumpet community? Is it even worth it? I think the answer is a resounding yes. I'd appreciate your comments and messages. Fire away!

Cheers, Shelby