What are those unusual trumpets?


Audience members often ask about the distinctive trumpets they see played for Classical era works on our programs. Trumpeter Lynn Erickson shares some of the fascinating history of these instruments and their use at the SPCO.

By Lynn Erickson

Many audience members have been asking about the unusual trumpets we have been playing more frequently in the orchestra this season. These instruments are called “natural trumpets” or “Baroque trumpets,” and were the type of trumpets that were played from around 1400 through the early to mid-1800s. They are quite different from the modern piston trumpet, the kind of instrument most people are familiar with.

The natural trumpet does not have valves and, as a result, can not play the full range of notes available on a modern trumpet. The bugle, a distant cousin of the natural trumpet, also has no valves. Think about the notes that you hear when the bugle plays “Taps” or “Reveille”, and you will know the notes that can be played on the natural trumpet. The way we change pitches on the natural trumpet is with our lip and air.

The natural trumpet is also approximately twice as long as a modern trumpet and is played with a different kind of mouthpiece, giving it its very distinct sound, especially when played at loud dynamics. The sound has a “brassy” edge to it, and even though one might be playing forte or fortissimo, the natural trumpet never drowns out the rest of the orchestra, allowing better balance in a chamber orchestra. The modern trumpet cannot recreate the sound of the natural trumpet due to its very different design.

We change keys on the natural trumpet by adding or subtracting lengths of tubing. The natural trumpet has a main bell section, and the parts that we change are called the lead pipe, the yard and the crook. The longer the tubing is, the lower the instrument plays, and vice versa—the shorter the tubing is, the higher the instrument plays. The longest configuration of tubing is about 9 feet long, and allows the natural trumpet to play in the key of Bb. We also have additional tubing for the following keys: C, D, Eb, E and F. For reference, the modern Bb piston trumpet has about 4½ feet of tubing.


Photo: The natural trumpet’s cord has a practical purpose, while the tassel at the end is purely decorative.

What is that fancy blue cord and tassel that can be seen on the trumpet?

The cord (which wraps around the tubing in the midsection of the bell) helps to keep the tubing in the bell section stable and lined up properly. The tassel is purely decorative (and has inspired a lot of jokes from our colleagues).

You may also notice that when we play the natural trumpet, our timpanist plays on smaller drums called “Wiener Pauken.” These smaller drums are the size that would have been used in Classical repertoire (music written between 1750-1825). In addition to being smaller than modern timpani, they have calfskin heads that are different from the modern drums that use plastic heads. The sound of the Wiener Pauken is a good match for the sound of the natural trumpet. The larger modern drums would be too loud to balance with the lighter sound of the natural trumpet.

How is it that you came to play the natural trumpet in the SPCO?

In the spring of 2006, Maestro Roberto Abbado approached former principal trumpet Gary Bordner and me about playing natural trumpets on Classical repertoire in the orchestra (mainly music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven). His uncle Claudio Abbado had used natural trumpets in a European chamber orchestra that he conducted and, after hearing this orchestra play, Maestro Abbado found that he really liked the sound. Gary and I said we would look into this possibility, and that summer went to Oberlin College’s Baroque Institute where we met and worked with Baroque trumpet expert Barry Bauguess. He introduced us to several kinds of natural trumpets that he thought would work well on Classical repertoire. After spending several days playing these instruments and studying with Barry we felt that, with some work, we would be able to learn to play these ”new” instruments at a level that would meet the expectations of the SPCO. The kind of instruments we chose were hand-made by Egger in Basel, Switzerland, and are exact replicas of instruments that would have been played during the Classical Period. We first played them in the orchestra on November 2, 2006 on Beethoven Symphony No. 3, with Maestro Abbado conducting.

The way they play is quite different from the modern trumpet: the mouthpiece is totally different and has a very wide, flat rim, a very large bowl or cup, and a sharp angle where the throat of the mouthpiece begins. This design helps create the characteristic sound, and also helps with accuracy (which is a challenge on the natural trumpet). One must also blow the air in a different way on this instrument—if you play it like a modern trumpet, you will over blow the notes, so the way you set up your airstream is different.


Photo: A natural trumpet is considerably longer than a modern trumpet.

How does one learn to play the natural trumpet?

It helped us to have Barry Bauguess give us lessons and after that we worked from Edward Tarr’s method book The Art of Baroque Trumpet Playing. The range of the natural trumpet is divided into high and low, also called the clarino and principale registers. As the second trumpet player, I play the lower parts, so I have focused my work on the principale exercises. This means I play on a much larger mouthpiece than one would play in the clarino register.

If you want to see more about natural trumpets up close, check out the website for The Baroque Trumpet Shop.


Curious about the instruments played by SPCO musicians? Send us your questions we’ll share answers in future posts.