Changing equipment is something that trumpet players think about, talk about, and debate over all the time. The reason for this is obvious: the equipment that you use has a very real consequences in your playing and using the right tool for the job can make your life much easier. Unfortunately, many players do not have a structured way of thinking about their equipment and so the time and effort they put in is often unproductive or even counterproductive. Students very often ask me about why they would need or want to change their equipment or when multiple tools are necessary. Hopefully, this post can help explain not only why equipment matters but also why you might want to change your equipment.
Why Equipment Matters
On a very fundamental level, the equipment that you play influences how an instrument sounds and how it feels to play. This is because sound and feel are the result of interactions between you as a player, your mouthpiece, and your instrument. Any adjustment to these variables will change the underlying physics of how your instrument functions and will change (however slightly) the result that you get. I abbreviate this idea with the following “equation”
Result = Player + Mouthpiece + Horn
The player variable is certainly the most significant of the three. In fact, regular trumpet playing is all about altering the player variable. While we play, we use our technique to create changes in pitch, volume, articulation, and quality of sound among other things. Additionally, the player variable is why different players will sound different even if they play the same equipment. However, in addition to changing our technique, we can also change our mouthpiece, horn, or both in order to change the sound or comfort.
It’s fairly easy to see how changing the horn can change the sound. An extreme example would be changing from a Bb Trumpet to a Flugelhorn to alter the quality of your sound. However, sound quality changes also occur when switching from a “Commercial” Bb Trumpet to a “Classical” Bb Trumpet to better fit the style of music you are playing. Instead of changing the horn, you could instead stay on the same trumpet but change from a “Commercial” mouthpiece to a “Classical” mouthpiece or even a ”Flugelhorn” style trumpet mouthpiece (like the Reeves C2J) and change the sound that way instead.
You can also change how comfortable it is to play by changing your equipment. There are very broad ways of changing comfort like using a different rim on your mouthpiece but there are also ways of changing comfort that are more subtle. By making smart equipment choices you can make a given quality of sound easier to achieve. For instance, I could play a Big Band gig on my “orchestral” mouthpiece on my Chicago Trumpet but it would be a lot of work to blend in the ensemble. If I instead use my Bergeron Trumpet and a “commercial” mouthpiece (that more easily creates the correct sound for the Big Band style) I will be much more comfortable and will be able to do a better job with less effort.
Equipment is not static
One very common misconception is that your equipment (your trumpet and mouthpiece) is perfectly constant and never changes. THIS IS NOT TRUE. There are parts of your instrument and mouthpiece that wear or can get dirty over time and change variables. It is important to understand these variables and control them otherwise the sound and feel of your equipment can change overtime.
For your mouthpiece, wear on the shank can cause changes in the insertion depth. This will affect the space between the end of the mouthpiece and the beginning of the leadpipe (commonly called the gap). The gap is an important variable in how a mouthpiece interacts with a particular instrument and any changes in the gap will change how well a particular mouthpiece and horn combination works for you. In addition, any buildup on the inside of a mouthpiece (especially in the throat and backbore) can have a significant effect on how well a mouthpiece works. Make sure you are cleaning your mouthpiece regularly!
Trumpets have a few places where it is expected that you will replace components as they wear out. Both the valve pads and water key corks will wear over time and will require replacement before they affect how the instrument plays. As the valve pads wear out the valve alignment will change as the ports in the valves shift in relation with the corresponding tube in the body of the trumpet. This affects how the instrument plays especially across different valve combinations. For more information on valve alignment check out Bob Reeves Brass. Water key cork will wear over time and will eventually leak air. Make sure you replace it before this happens as a leaking water key can make a horn unplayable!
There are places on the trumpet where the metal can wear out over time. For example, the mouthpiece receiver can wear and cause the gap to get smaller. Additionally, valves wear over time and this can affect how the instrument plays if the damage is extensive enough to affect valve compression. (The ability of the valve to hold and airtight seal between the valve and casing while oil is applied). While these types of damage can be fixed, repairs are much more difficult and expensive. Buildup of gunk in the instrument also will cause playing problems and can even damage the instrument! Make sure that you throughly clean your instrument regularly.
Finally any portion of your equipment can suffer accidental damage. Dings, dents, and holes in your instrument all can have an effect on how the instrument plays. Physical damage to the mouthpiece shank or trumpet leadpipe is almost guaranteed to cause significant issues and should be repaired immediately. However, any physical damage to your instrument should be inspected by a qualified repair technician as needed.
When is it an Equipment Problem?
Remember, the player is the most important variable and equipment alone will not create a good player. In general, equipment changes help refine your playing but do not fix it. So, you will likely be able to (and will need to) practice your way out of problems. However, equipment can be limiting and knowing when your equipment is getting in the way is an important skill.
From a physical standpoint, any discomfort (especially on your lips) will likely require an equipment change to fix. Additionally, any major issues with resistance / airflow (either the horn needing too much air to respond or so little air you can’t exhale comfortably) will often need an equipment change or adjustment.
From a playing standpoint, the only way you are going to be able to know if something is an equipment issue is to be familiar with the effects of changing your equipment. I recommend regularly trying other instruments and mouthpieces so that you have an idea of what tools are available to you. This allows you to develop an internal database of what trumpet can feel like beyond your current horn / mouthpiece and gives you a point of comparison for feel that is not influenced by your current gear. The more developed this internal concept becomes the more effectively you will be able to tell when an issue is being influenced by your equipment.
Experience is the best teacher here and a player should have a reasonable fundamental basis before experimenting with equipment (especially extreme or specialized equipment). While there is not a “catch all” answer there are a few telltale signs that a problem may be improved by adjusting your equipment. I will go into a few reasons below but ultimately you will need to decide for yourself when a change is necessary
Reasons to Change Your Mouthpiece
Ultimately, the overarching reason to change your mouthpiece is to make playing more comfortable! However, there are many different reasons you may need to do this. The most common are below:
- Your mouthpiece is physically uncomfortable
- Any discomfort on your lips will necessitate a change in the shape and/or diameter of the mouthpiece rim. A previously comfortable mouthpiece can become uncomfortable over time. This is especially common with young players as they grow.
- Your mouthpiece is not suited for the (new) playing you are doing
- As your concept of an ideal sound changes over time you may need to adjust your mouthpiece to help you achieve it. Additionally, different styles of music often require drastically different sound concepts. Switching between these concepts can be helped by changing your mouthpiece for the different styles. For instance, if you start playing in a jazz band for the first time (after only playing in classical ensembles) a different mouthpiece can help you achieve the desired quality of sound and articulation more easily.
- Your mouthpiece was chosen before you made a change in your technique and is no longer interacting with your playing the way you want.
- This can manifest in many ways but often shows up as issues with articulation, intonation, resistance or any other aspect of playing that does not improve with consistent focused practice. I recommend trying as many mouthpieces as you can (within reason) so that you can get a feel for what different equipment can do for you.
- Your mouthpiece was chosen with Horn #1 and does not work well with Horn #2.
- This circumstance is especially common when people transition from a student instrument to a professional one. This also occurs when players use instruments in different keys (Bb trumpet vs C Trumpet) and many players find that using different mouthpieces for different horns is the best option. (Check out #9 – 11 on my Mouthpiece Myths Blog Post)
Reasons to Change Your Horn
Like changing your mouthpiece, the overarching reason to change your horn is to make playing more comfortable! However, there are many different reasons you may need to do this. The most common are below:
- You are upgrading to a higher quality instrument.
- This is the most common reason to change your instrument. Going from a student model instrument to a professional one can make a huge difference in your ability to play. Before you look for a professional level instrument, make sure you can feel a difference between the different models you try. If you can’t tell the difference between your current horn and the ones you are looking at you do not need a new horn yet!
- You are replacing a horn due to mechanical issues.
- Mechanical issues like physical damage or red rot sometimes require that we get a new horn. While you can decide to get the same model as you had previously, it can be a good opportunity to see what is available.
- Your horn is not suited for the (new) playing you are doing
- As your concept of an ideal sound changes over time you may need to adjust your horn to help you get closer. Additionally, while horns do have some malleability in sound concept, different styles of music often require drastically different sound concepts. Switching between these different concepts can be made easier by changing your horn for the different styles. For instance, if you start playing in a jazz band for the first time (after only playing in classical ensembles) a different horn can help you achieve the desired quality of sound and articulation more easily.
- Your horn was chosen before you made a change in your technique and is no longer interacting with your playing the way you want
- This can manifest as an issue with: projection, intonation, resistance, range, or any other aspect of playing that does not improve with consistent focused practice. Additionally, if it feels like you constantly need to “fight” your instrument to achieve the results you want it may be time for a change.
- Changing your mouthpiece can also fix many of these issues and is a much less expensive proposition. Knowing when the horn (instead of the mouthpiece) is an issue is a matter of experience and I recommend trying as many mouthpieces / horns as you can so that you can get a feel for what different equipment can do for you.
I hope this is helpful! Let me know if you have any questions or if anything is unclear.