Many people find themselves thrown into the world of musical instruments they know nothing about when their children first begin music at school. Knowing the basics of good instrument construction, materials, and choosing a good store in which to rent or buy these instruments is extremely important. So what process should a parent follow to make the best choices for their child?
Clearly the first step is to choose an instrument. Let your child have their choice. Kids don’t make very many big decisions about their life, and this is a big one that can be very empowering. I can also say from personal experience that kids have a natural intuition about what is good for them. Ultimately, my strongest advice is to put a child into a room to try no more than 3-5 different choices, and let them make their choice based on the sound they like best.
This information is intended to broaden your horizons, not to create a preference, or to put you in a position to nit-pick in the store! Most instruments are extremely well made these days, and choosing a respected retailer will allow you to trust recommendations. Ask your school and/or private music teacher where to shop.
Brass instruments are made all over the world, but primarily in the USA, Germany, France, and China. When we talk about brass instruments, we are referring to members of the Trumpet, Horn, Trombone, and Tuba families.
There are two basic kinds of materials used in brass instrument construction. The first is clearly brass, and the second is nickel-silver.
Brass used for instruments is available in three types:
Yellow Brass (70% Copper, 30% Zinc)
Gold Brass (85% Copper, 15% Zinc)
Red Brass (90% Copper, 10% Zinc)
These types of brass are all used for instrument construction. Each also carries a certain tendency towards a particular quality of sound – but this is a very subtle distinction, and should not be used as an exclusive gauge for choosing your instrument.
Yellow brass is most common and can be used for most parts of your instrument. It has a very pure quality of sound, projects best of the three alloys, and holds up very well at high volumes.
Gold brass is also extremely popular, mainly due to its slightly more complex quality of sound, and personal feedback. Usually a player hears themselves a little better using gold brass, but the trade off is a very slight loss in projection. This more ‘complex’ quality is very attractive to the ear, but can get harsh at high volumes if the player is not in control of all of their technique. It is like the transition to screaming from singing – there is a point at which you can easily go too far. Gold Brass is not used for the whole instrument (in North America, but a lot in Europe). We primarily use it for the bell (where the sound comes out), and the leadpipe (the first stretch of tubing in your instrument). The leadpipe usage is becoming common for student instruments, as it resists corrosion well, which is a concern for teenagers whose body chemistry is volatile, and for students who rarely clean their instruments.
The same is true of Red brass. This is a very complex sound, usually not used in student instruments. Red brass appears almost exclusively in the bell of an instrument. This is due to its less stable nature in sound production at loud volumes. Having said that, it can produce a marvelous sound when well balanced against the rest of a well designed instrument. A good example is the famous 88H Symphonic Trombone, which has been a staple of the north american market for over 60 years.
The other material that is used to make brass instruments is nickel-silver. Interestingly, there is no actual silver in this material. Most often it is a combination of Copper, Nickel, and Zinc, in varying combinations. I like to think of it as brass with nickel added. Its name is derived from its physical resemblance to silver, which makes it ideal for things like brass instruments, and the coins you probably have in your pocket.
This is a very important part of your instrument. Unlike brass, it tends to be very hard. This makes it ideal for use on instruments to:
- Protect moving parts
- Join two tubes together with a ring (called a ferrule)
- Put on parts of the instrument that come into a lot of contact with the hands to protect against friction wear from the hands.
Companies use nickel silver in various ways, and on various parts of the instrument. These construction details are minimal, but here are some suggestions to look for which can help the stability and strength of student instruments:
- The outsides of tuning slides. This is good, because it protects parts that regularly need to be moved from damage.
- The inside tubes of tuning slides. Ideal for student instruments (and common on european instruments), this protects against corrosion.
- Joint between tubes. When used as a ferrule, this can be a variety of shapes and sizes, at the discretion of the designer. Sometimes the inside of the ferrule is regulated to change shape (taper) through to a larger consecutive tube. Some very basic student instruments just fit expanded ends of brass tubing together.
- Parts that the hands touch. Brass is easily eaten away, albeit slowly, by normal body chemistry, so a student instrument that has these areas in nickel-silver is an asset for longevity. There are exceptions to this rule, particularly for Trumpets, whose valve casings are generally made of brass alone.
Mouthpieces for brass are generally referred to as ‘cup’ mouthpieces, and are also made of brass, but plated in silver. Brass on its own can cause irritation, and is mildly toxic to be in such close proximity to the lips, whereas silver is mostly neutral. There are cases in which some people are allergic to silver, but most often the allergy is caused by a dirty mouthpiece. The recommended test for this is to use an alcohol based spray cleaner, from your music retailer that is specifically intended for mouthpieces, and to clean the mouthpiece before and after each use. This is a good idea, anyway. If the irritation persists, consider a gold-plated mouthpiece, or as a last resort, plastic. Note also that not all companies include a good quality mouthpiece with their instruments. Be sure to check with your retailer to make sure what you are getting is what you should be using for your student.
As with instruments, mouthpieces can come in a dizzying array of shapes and specifications. Things that you have never heard of, such as Rim, Throat, inner diametre, Backbore, etc., may confuse you.
To make matters more complex, there is no standard system for identifying sizing in mouthpieces. This can be difficult for the parent to digest, and even frustrating. How big or small should the various parts be?
Most often, schools start kids on small mouthpieces for the reason that it is easy to get a response out of them. The downside of this is that small mouthpieces can translate to a very bright sound, and can actually hold a student back from developing the free blowing of air that is essential to developing a good sound. There is a generally accepted order of progression from bare beginner to solid student. I recommend getting the second mouthpiece right off the bat. This will produce a bigger/fuller sound, and will encourage more air to be used right from the start. Don’t let the numbers throw you here, the second mouthpiece is the bigger one. The bracket indicating numerology is the company that makes the mouthpiece, suggested here only for comparison.
Trumpet: 7C, 5C (Bach numerology – for strong players consider also 3C)
Horn: 30C4, 32C4 (Schilke or Yamaha numerology)
Trombone: 12C, 6½AL (Bach numerology – for strong players consider also 5GS)
We have left Tuba off the suggested list because there are many factors that come into play for the student. Physical size plays a part, and often the condition of the instrument being used, as well as the size of the instrument. These vary so greatly from one student to the next that a personal consultation with your qualified music retailer is strongly recommended. Kids generally start on the small mouthpiece (24AW is one in the Bach numerology), but don’t get off that even though they should. There are a number of really excellent mouthpieces available, but it is hard to beat the Perantucci Mouthpieces. A PT48 or PT50 works well for the advancing student, as well as the professional, but remember that as students grow and change, so may their mouthpiece needs.
As with instruments, it is a very good idea to try 3-5 at your local retailer.
When or for what reason should I not buy a new mouthpiece?
Kids often look for the short-cut. Not being able to play high or low enough is a challenge and often the kid looks for a quick answer, or has seen a colleague playing something different. Often, when your child approaches you about a new mouthpiece, it may very well be the time for it. Be sure you ask lots of questions about what they do and do not like about their mouthpieces so you can find out from your retailer if this is a good request. Be sure you know what they already have. The best changes to make are the subtle ones. Small differences in a mouthpiece design can help get the desired result, and not sacrifice some or all other areas of playing. The students that make the big changes just to get high notes often pay the biggest price in their tone, tuning, and technique.
For Trumpet, I recommend having 1st and 3rd valve slides with rings or saddles for fast moving. These are helpful for tuning.
For Trombone, for early beginners, a nickel-silver slide is a good idea, as slide repairs are costly.
For Horn, get a double horn. This has 4 valves, and offers way more choice to the player for good tuning, and development down the road. Horn is tricky, so helping with this is a good endorsement of your child’s chances.
For Tuba, try to get one that fits your child, and on which all parts – including tuning slides – are in a state of good repair. Push the school if it is a good school instrument. If your child can handle a big instrument, get one.
Brass instruments need consistent maintenance to function well. Be sure you know what lubricants to use on what parts of your instrument. Trumpet, a relatively simple instrument, needs 3 different lubricants; tuning slide, 1st/3rd valve slide, and pistons. I strongly recommend synthetic lubricants. They will hold up slightly better against forgetful students who do not do the regular maintenance.
Cleaning. Once every 12-18 months have a professional cleaning. Otherwise clean at home once a month using mild soap and lukewarm water (hot water will cause your lacquer to peel of your horn), and a flexible brush from your retailer.
Avoid cheap instruments. With musical instruments you get what you pay for. There are a lot of instruments coming from India and China now. Many are excellent, while many others should not even have been made. Your local, respected dealer should have those that are reliable, and will stand behind them. Your big-box Costco, Wal-Mart, BestBuy, and e-Bay has no expertise in these matters, and functions for their bottom line only. Avoid these places. They cannot possibly offer you the continued assistance, service, or repair that a developing and interested student will need. If you choose this route, ask for american-made instruments (and Japan). This will be a major separator of good from bad. People who make brass in the USA are generally very well trained and part of a history of excellent brass making, particularly those in the Conn-Selmer family of companies. Your local, trusted retailer will help to guide you in the choices available, and remember that just because it says USA, or Paris on it, does not mean it was made in these places. Manufacturers are now sometimes making these things part of the ‘name’ of the instrument.
How much should I spend?
That is the big question. Be aware that popular instruments, like Trumpet, are less expensive because they are made in greater quantities. Some instruments, like Horn and Tuba, are challenging and time-consuming to make, making them more expensive. Below is a list of acceptable pricing (at the time that this is being written) for new student instruments that works for both American and Canadian currency.
Horn: $1600 and up (Get a double horn, or you will be back to buy another, soon!)
Tuba: $2300 and up
When should I buy a better instrument, and Why?
60 years ago, there were no ‘student’ and ‘intermediate’ instruments. Manufacturers were just coming to the realization that there was an emerging, post-war market that was changing to support a more commercial model of instrument making. Today, instruments are engineered to get you to buy three times. First as a beginner, then as an advancing student, and finally as a professional. Clearly, this is a model that makes a lot of money for manufacturers.
For the right reasons, I often encourage parents to start with the better instrument, or even a good used intermediate or professional instrument. Starting on better equipment is like starting on that slightly larger mouthpiece; getting a bigger, better sound is encouraging. The better construction and materials combination of these better instruments will also leave more room to grow. So what are the right reasons? Here is a list that works not only as guide for helping to choose the right instrument, but for what you should watch for to help musical growth:
- Going to a school with a strong music program.
- Getting private lessons, or has asked for some. (Check with private teacher for recommendations before buying, this will help.)
- Practicing without parental encouragement
- Has at least 4 years of playing ahead of them.
These factors are good indicators of whether to buy, and whether to buy intermediate or professional. If the bulk of these are unclear, consider a rental for a year to see if they get any clearer, and supplement with regular (weekly) private lessons.
Music is an investment that requires attention from a variety of angles, and the instrument itself is just a small step. Being armed with the knowledge of how to get the instrument is just part of a process that a parent can – and should – be actively involved in. Many parents don’t know anything about all of this, but now you do! Ask the questions you need to know, and you’ll be just fine getting your new instrument.