Practice mutes are an extremely useful tool. They offer the ability to play without disturbing others and are great for playing in apartments, hotels, late at night, backstage, or even onstage. Unfortunately, they do have drawbacks.
Anytime you restrict a brass instrument with a mute, dent, bell cover, or other object you change not only the way that the instrument sounds but also how it “feels” to play. The more you restrict an instrument the more its sound and feel will be changed. Practice mutes are one of the most extreme versions of this as they nearly completely close the bell. This can cause significant changes in the resistance, intonation tendencies, and evenness of an instrument.
The most well known issue with using a practice mute is the addition of a substantial amount of resistance due to the mute restricting the air exiting the bell. However, practice mutes also tend to cause the range to contract pulling the low register sharp and pushing the high register flat to varying degrees. This condensing of registers affects the distance between partials and can change the amount of effort needed to move from partial to partial making the instrument feel “uneven.” These effects combine to make muted practice feel substantially different than normal playing.
While any kind of practice (even muted) is better than no practice, practice mutes change your instrument so drastically that it is not advisable to practice in them all the time. Spending too much time practicing using a practice mute develops habits that will adversely affect your unmuted playing. Personally, I try to use a practice mute as little as possible and prefer to limit my time in a practice mute to no more than 1/4 of my total practice in a day. While this isn’t always feasible it is a good rule of thumb to make sure that you don’t develop bad habits. While using a practice mute there are some guidelines you can follow to make your muted practice more effective and less likely to cause bad habits.
- Focus on soft playing as this helps minimize any resistance issues caused by the practice mute. Soft finger dexterity exercises like the Clarke Technical Studies are perfect practice mute material.
- Avoid extreme registers. The edges of your range will likely feel substantially different while playing muted and this difference can easily cause bad habits to form.
- Take lots of rest (more than usual). Since practice mutes lower the volume so effectively it is very easy to overplay. Extra rest can help mitigate this as can practicing in a quiet space so you can hear yourself at the muted volume.
- Response work can be remarkably helpful when done using a practice mute. You can hear Wayne Bergeron talk about this here.
So what practice mute is best?
A very common question that I get from students (or their parents) is: What practice mute is best? Unfortunately there is no easy answer to this question. Since everyone plays differently there is no one “perfect” mute for everyone and different combinations of mutes, horns, mouthpieces, and players will yield different results. While there are some general recommendations that I can make, the best way to find a good practice mute is to try as many as you can and pick your favorite. You may even find your preference changing as your playing changes.
As you try different practice mutes, focus on finding a mute that feels “even” from the top to bottom register. In a perfect world, your practice mute wouldn’t change the relationships between notes. While there is no perfect practice mute finding the one that feels the most comfortable for you will make your muted practice much more effective.
It’s important to get used to the mute you chose and “calibrate” your playing so that you know what changes and adjustments you need to make when you transition between open and muted playing. I have found that the quickest way to do this is to periodically practice an exercise open, muted, and then open again before moving on to the next exercise and repeating the process. This consistent switching and direct comparison lets you very quickly acclimate to the quirks of your chosen mute.
Mutes That I Recommend:
Note: There are no affiliate links here. I preference the manufacturer’s website when there is one but there are multiple retailers who sell each of these products.
Note: This list is by no means exhaustive. These are the mutes that I have used and can confidently recommend to others. In your own experimentation, you may find something different that works better for you.
The General Recommendation: SSSH mute
- This is my go to recommendation for a player’s first practice mute. These mutes are inexpensive, durable, readily available, and play well. Many top players will use this as the “go to” practice mute. The endorsement page on their website is not a short list. In the past, this was my preferred mute.
- Playing characteristics:
- Resistance: 6/10
- Evenness: 6/10
- Lower and higher registers especially get condensed.
- Tone: has a nasal / buzzy quality
- Volume Reduction: 5/10
- This mute will still be audible but reduces the volume and carrying power significantly. However, do not expect to be able to practice at any hour with this mute.
The Quiet but Expensive: Silent Brass (V2)
- This mute is the quietest of the bunch but is also the most expensive. The electronics really change this mute and make it much more comfortable. It really is a “you have to try it to believe it” type scenario. It is also very portable and the mute portion packs in the bell of a trumpet.
- One warning: if your trumpet has a particularly large or small bell this mute may not fit.
- Due to the fact that this mute is so quiet it is very easy to play too loudly and over-blow when not using the electronics.
- This is the mute that I use when I am taking a trip and need to pack light.
- Playing Characteristics:
- Resistance: 8/10
- This rating is without the electronics. Putting in the electronics has a completely different feel. For many players (including myself) it drops the perceived resistance significantly.
- Evenness: 8/10
- Mute is very consistent over the entire range of the horn.
- Tone: has a smoothed over quality
- Volume Reduction: 10/10
- I have used this to practice very late at night with no complaints
- Resistance: 8/10
The Portable (if you have a harmon): Best Brass Nano
- This mute is actually an extra attachment to your existing harmon mute and is a great low cost alternative to a practice mute if you already have a harmon mute. One note of warning, this may not fit perfectly into every harmon mute.
- The Nano is very portable IF you already have a harmon mute anyway.
- I use this in musical pits and on tour when I am taking a harmon anyway.
- Playing Characteristics (general):
- Resistance: add around 3 points of resistance to whatever harmon you are using
- Evenness: tends to slightly exasperate any issues with the harmon mute. With good harmon mutes it can be extremely even
- Tone: removes some “buzz” from the harmon sound
- Volume Reduction: reduces the volume of the harmon by about 2/3
- Playing Characteristics (with TrumCor Zinger Mute)
- Resistance: 4/10
- Evenness: 9/10
- Tone: less buzz in sound than regular harmon
- Volume Reduction: 4/10
- More than quiet enough for general use but don’t expect to get away with late night practice especially in an apartment or hotel room.
My personal favorite: Don Maslet Trumpet Practice Mute
- This mute can be a little difficult to find due to the fact that it is hand made in the UK. One unique feature is the ability to adjust the feel of the mute by using a moveable plug at the bottom of the mute. I have found that after adjusting the plug properly this mute is nearly perfectly even through the entire range of the horn. This is especially useful if you are using multiple horns (Bb, C, Eb) in one setting.
- This is my personal favorite practice mute that I use 80-90% of the time.
- Playing Characteristics:
- Resistance: 5/10 – Variable (3-6) due to the plug feature
- Evenness: 10/10 – if you adjust the mute to the horn you are using using the plug
- Tone: covered sound with a slight “full bodied” buzz similar to a harmon mute
- The buzz seems to come into play when you are playing with a full resonant sound. Similar to a harmon mute.
- Volume Reduction: 8/10 (with Plug) 5/10 (without plug)
The Best for You: ?????????????
- You will need to experiment and try many different mutes to find what will work best for you. The mute you prefer may even change over time.
- Here are some other practice mutes that my professional colleagues prefer:
Practice Mute Alternatives:
There have been a number of attempts at making a resistance free practice tool over the years that won’t affect your playing. Unfortunately, unless you build a custom soundproof room, none of them are going to be perfect however there are some solutions that work well. They all work on a similar principal. Essentially, because the trumpet is a directional instrument if you surround the bell in materials that absorb and block sound you can reduce the volume fairly effectively.
The At Home Option: Mute Tube
- This is not portable and is expensive but their claim of -25db sound attenuation (or more) is accurate. It can be tricky to position the tube in just the right spot for you. If you have a spot where you consistently practice and need to lower the volume significantly without affecting your playing this is a great solution.
- I own one of these and it has been absolutely amazing. It cuts the sound enough to not only protect my own ears during loud practice but also reduces the carrying power of the sound significantly.
- I have heard that some people are homemaking a similar solution using a large bucket, blankets, and acoustic foam. Your milage may vary.
The Portable Option: Marcus Bonna GS Studio
- This is the same idea as the mute tube in a more portable form. It acts as a trumpet case as well as a practice “studio.”
- I have never used this tool before so I can’t attest to its effectiveness.
- If you have one of these please reach out. I would be interested in hearing your experience with it.
The Homemade Option: The Pillow Fort
- You can home-make a version of this idea using pillows, comforters, cushions, and other soft materials. This is actually a common trick that trumpet players use while they are on tour in hotel rooms. (I have even asked for extra pillows at a hotel before just to do this) It does a good job of lowering the sound to a manageable level for daytime practice.
- You can hear players from the NY Phil talk about this (with some humor thrown in) here.
I hope this is helpful and if you have any questions, comments, or any resources you might think would be helpful add them to the comments below!