Pay the Piper

So you want to play a musical instrument?

You think you'd like to learn the trumpet or cornet? We tell you the advantages and pitfalls, where to buy one, how to get lessons, what it will cost - everything you need to know

Why play an instrument?
What instrument to play
How to buy an instrument
Other costs
Where to get lessons
How much progress will I make?
Doing your practice
Music exams
Upgrading your instrument
Finding opportunities to play
Switching instruments
Violin & Viola
Double Bass
French Horn
Other brass instruments
Your questions answered
What's copyright?
Links to other sites


The Trumpet & the Cornet

Family: Brass
Cost: from £169 (the lowest price we could find, VAT included)
Best age to start: 10 years upwards
Easy to start? Yes, quite easy

The Trumpet consists of a narrow tube of brass coiled round on itself to save space. The sound comes out of the flared bell, and is made by blowing a "raspberry" with your lips into the cup-shaped mouthpiece. In effect, your lips are vibrating like the reed of a clarinet, and this vibration becomes musical sound in its passage through the specially-shaped bore of the trumpet. You can obtain a number of different "open" notes in this way by varying the tension of your lips (try blowing a raspberry and smiling at the same time), and can then produce the notes in between by pressing different combinations of valves. The valves divert the air through little extra lengths of tubing, thus making the instrument temporarily a bit longer and therefore deeper. There are three valves.
Trumpets are essentially orchestral instruments, although they are much used in jazz bands as well. The Cornet is very similar to the trumpet, but is an instrument mostly used in brass bands. The difference between them is that the trumpet has a cylindrical bore (the tube is much the same width for most of its length) while the cornet has a conical bore (it gets gradually fatter the further you get from the mouthpiece). In theory, the cornet is a miniature tuba, and the trumpet is ... well, a trumpet! In practice the difference is that the cornet has a softer, sweeter sound and is a little more agile, while the trumpet has that hard, bright sound orchestral composers love. For you as a beginner, the two instruments are indistinguishable except that cornets might cost a little more as they don't sell so many of them. Trumpets and cornets are carried in one piece, in rigid protective cases. The modern ones are quite small and light.
Cornets and trumpets are transposing instruments, usually described as "Trumpet/Cornet in B flat". This means that when you play Middle C on the trumpet, the sound that comes out is actually the B flat below it so all your music is modified to suit. Therefore you won't be able to play the same music as your friend who plays the flute (well, you can, but it won't sound too good!). The system of "transposing" instruments is a bit of a nonsense, and has its roots way back in musical history. It would be far more sensible to do away with it so that all instruments could play from the same music, but this would mean (a) re-educating all the trumpeters in the world, and (b) re-printing all the music - so instead we carry on perpetuating this out-of-date and ridiculous system!
There are other types of trumpet and cornet, especially very small ones like the "Bach Trumpet" that play in different keys and are used for specific purposes. These don't concern you as a beginner, though - you need an instrument in B flat. A relatively new development is something called the "pocket trumpet" offered by some dealers. This may be suitable for beginners, but we haven't had the chance to look at one yet.
You hold the trumpet in front of you with the mouthpiece to your lips (obviously!) and the bell directly forward. Your right hand operates the valves, while the left supports the instrument. Both trumpet and cornet are easy instruments to start, but the amount of puff required is considerable, and it is rare for players to begin before they are 10 or 11 years old. It is not unknown for pupils to start on the trumpet and transfer to the more difficult French Horn later - a shrewd move as there are lots of trumpeters and not many horn players.
The trumpet can play in orchestras, wind bands, jazz bands, brass bands and sometimes pop groups. The cornet is used in brass bands principally, but can also be seen in jazz and wind bands. However, there are quite a lot of young trumpeters around, and it could be hard to get a place in such ensembles so from this point of view the opportunities for group music-making are not as good as we would like.
There is little to go wrong with a trumpet as it has few moving parts. It is easily dented, of course, and this can be expensive to repair especially if the damage is so severe the lacquer which protects the brass surface has to be renewed. The few moving parts are in the valves, and these do give trouble but not too often. Do not be tempted to take them to pieces until you are absolutely certain you know what you're doing - they look simple but it's easy to put them back wrong and damage them. There is little maintenance to do on a trumpet, but the tuning slides need to be moved and greased from time to time, and the valves will need a very little special "valve oil".
Trumpets are cheap to buy - from roughly £170, while cornets are a little more expensive. They are all the same size. Yamaha trumpets and cornets are considered to be very good for beginners but are a little pricy. Other popular makes are Besson and Conn. If you fancy trying the cornet, contact your local brass or silver band (silver bands are just brass bands with silver-coloured instruments!). Some of them have excellent schemes where you can get the loan of an instrument and some tuition thrown in. Of course, you'll have to join the band when you are good enough - but you'd probably want to do that anyway, wouldn't you?
You might want to consider buying a trumpet online - you can often access some of the cheapest prices this way. Click on the picture at the foot of this page to go to the website of SigNetMusic, a reputable British supplier who supply all over the world and offer a good range of reasonably-priced trumpets.
One last thought - you can get sexy black trumpets these days. Very cool-looking, but beware - the paint'll chip.
To learn more about the trumpet, get "The Rough Guide to the Trumpet and Trombone" - you can buy it online at a discounted price by clicking here. Two of the most popular tutors for beginners are Learn as you play trumpet and cornet and Abracadabra Trumpet. While it's always best to have a teacher, many people do try to learn the trumpet by themselves. A Tune a Day for Trumpet is fairly old and may no longer be the best trumpet tutor book around, but we still think it's particularly suitable for lone students.
We also searched for a CD that would show you the trumpet being played in a variety of styles, and we think one of the best is by the American virtuoso Wynton Marsalis.
• Cheapish instrument
• Easy to start
• Not too hard to find a teacher
• Opportunities for group music-making are not always good because the instrument is popular
• Not particularly prone to damage
• Easy to transport
• Avoid instruments with a painted finish
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Copyright © David Bramhall 2005