So, you’ve chosen brass. Congratulations!
We are a fun family and we get to do a lot of cool things.
There are 5 main instruments in the brass family, (excluding variants and oddities such as cornet or chimbasso) these are trumpet, trombone, french horn, baritone/euphonium, and tuba.
Now, let’s talk about each instrument so you can decide which best fits your own or your student’s musical desires!
- Versatility: now, undoubtedly, the trumpet is one of the most versatile instruments you could choose. It plays easily and naturally in almost all genres of music, including wind band, jazz band, brass band, orchestra, mariachi, marching band, and small ensembles such as brass quintets or jazz combos. If every single one of those musical styles sounds like you might want to play them, great! The trumpet will serve you well.
- Stability: the other great thing about the trumpet is it’s stability. Unlike the french horn, or even its counterpart the flugelhorn, the trumpet’s partials are easy to hold, once reached. This really aids in effortless, soaring, open playing.
- Solos: if you are a person who loves the spotlight, the trumpet might be for you! Due to its bright sound that can easily pierce through an ensemble, solos are often given to trumpets, so that the solos can be heard. This is especially true of jazz bands.
- Variants: The cornet and flugelhorn are close relatives of the trumpet, and sometimes get pulled out in fun pieces! In jazz in particular, the flugelhorn is an incredibly enjoyable staple.
- Mutes: Do you love mutes? Do you like shoving something in your bell to make your instrument sound strange and different? Well, you can do that on trumpet! There are 4 ‘staple’ mutes: the straight mute, harmon mute, cup mute, and plunger mute. Most of these won’t be used regularly until at least middle school.
- Range: the really difficult thing about trumpet, is the range. It often takes 5 or more years to develop what a professional would call a ‘functional’ range, and it is neither easy nor fun to develop said range. Due to this, and also where it sits in its harmonic series, the trumpet also has one of the smallest ranges of almost any instrument, functionally being about 2.5 octaves.
- Tone: The other disappointing thing about the trumpet is that it also takes multiple years to develop a good tone on the instrument. Unlike saxophone, for example, it probably takes between 2 and 3 years to develop good tone quality on the trumpet. This makes the first few years of trumpet playing rather frustrating, so get ready for the long haul with this instrument!
- Sound: arguably, the french horn has the smoothest sound of the brass family. Descended from the noble 16th century hunting horn, this horn is rich and powerful, beloved by many a composer. Not as exposed as the trumpet, this instrument gives an ensemble that richness, and depth, as well as that ‘je ne sais quoi’.
- Orchestra: If your greatest love is the orchestra, and orchestral music, the french horn might be for you! Though it is also used in wind bands, the french horn really thrives in an orchestral setting, fitting in seamlessly with the strings, and often having solos.
- Range: Opposed to the trumpet, the french horn’s more advanced model, the double horn, is actually two horns in one, which means it has the biggest range of any brass instrument. Going up, going down, soaring or rumbling, the french horn has got your back.
- Instability: Now, do you remember when I said the trumpet was really stable? Well, think of the french horn as the trumpet’s evil cousin in that regard. While the trumpet is a cylindrical instrument, the french horn is conical, which is what gives it that instability. You can slide ALL OVER this horn. All over it. What partial are you on? Not even the universe knows! It takes extensive training of the listening ear and muscle memory of the embouchure to reel that in.
- Inversatile: Unlike the trumpet, the french horn really only thrives in a few styles of music, such as wind bands or orchestra. It is not commonly used in other styles, such as jazz or mariachi. There is however the marching mellophone, if you’re determined to do marching band.
- Where’s the spit?: Ok, for other brass instruments there is a spit valve, or ‘water key’ if you’re being polite. Not so for the french horn. The tubing is so long and so curly, that you must actually remove tuning slides to get all the water out of your instrument. It also involves a lot of turning the instrument in circles.
- Slide: We can all admit it, the slide is a great time! It’s fun! It’s funky! It’s particularly well suited to smooth and gradual glissandos! It also makes it easier to actually understand the physics of the instrument, and how the changing tube length changes the vibrational frequencies of the instrument. Just whatever you do, don’t bend it or dent it!
- Power: The trombone is definitely one of the loudest instruments in the ensemble, rivalled only by percussion in sheer decibels. It’s often used in low displays of strong emotion in an ensemble setting, such as Mars by Gustav Holst, though it can also be high and relatively gentle.
- Versatility: Trombones join trumpets in the benefit of being accepted into many musical styles, including wind band, orchestra, jazz band, brass band, and brass quintets.
- Range: Like the trumpet, it can take 4 or more years to develop a range that is relatively small, in comparison to the french horn. It has about 3 octaves of range, so it’s a little bigger than the trumpet.
- Tone: Again similar to the trumpet, it also takes 2-3 years to develop a good sound quality on the trombone. The first few years are hard, but certainly worth the reward!
Ok, so why do I have two names for the same instrument? Trick question, they’re not actually the same instrument, just very similar, and used identically in a wind ensemble setting. The one you get depends on where you are coming from, as well as what’s available.
For example, people sometimes get put on baritone if they are a trumpet player who is needed in the low register. The baritone has 3 valves, and can read in treble clef, making the transition from trumpet very smooth and easy, aside from the obvious embouchure difference.
The euphonium has the exact same register and range as the baritone, but is conical, and has a mellower sound. It can sometimes have 3 or 4 valves, and reads in either treble clef or bass clef.
- Obscurity: If you don’t really enjoy the spotlight, but really like listening and participating in an ensemble, the euphonium might be for you! Though not often heard above the ensemble unless in a solo setting, (which isn’t very often) the euphonium’s unique tone provides richness to the low register, and provides a certain warmth and gentleness in contrast to the brashness of the trombone. Though an invaluable ensemble member, the pressure doesn’t rest on this instrument.
- Tone: As I mentioned, the warm tone of the euphonium is a joy to hear, and is second only to the french horn in terms of sheer smoothness.
- Relaxation: In comparison to the other brass instruments, a more relaxed embouchure! Since the euphonium thrives in the low register, your face won’t tire as quickly as a trumpet or french horn player’s will.
- Reading: Now, depending on whether you are reading in treble or bass clef, these instruments can be transposing or not. This is pretty much solely for ease of a trumpet player moving to baritone, but when reading in treble, it’s in Bb, and when in bass clef, it’s concert pitch. So, depending on where you’re coming from, you read in different keys. I know this might be a bit complicated if you’re a parent with no musical background, but that’s ok! Your student is fully capable of mastering the reading and playing of this instrument.
- Transportation: Due to the low register of the instrument, it has a lot of tubing, and is therefore pretty heavy! Although not as heavy as the tuba, it can be inconvenient if your student walks to and from school. However, it will fit relatively easily in an empty trunk or backseat of most vehicles.
- Relaxation: The tuba requires the most relaxed embouchure of all the brass family. Playing time without tiring rivals that of string players! Tuba players can play exponentially longer than high brass players without tiring. Also, the instrument rests on your legs or the chair beneath them, so no work for your arms either during your playing.
- Fewer fast notes: Do 8th notes or 16th notes scare you? If that’s the case, the tuba might be for you! While of course different pieces have different tempos, the tuba is often the chordal root of the entire ensemble, and so simply moves less in those melodic, faster lines.
- Versatility: The tuba is not really an instrument one might think of as versatile, but it actually is! The counterpart to the tuba is the sousaphone, and while tubas are used in sitting ensembles such as wind bands and orchestras, the sousaphone is often used in things like brass bands, marching bands, and even occasionally in jazz ensembles!
- Rarely get the melody: the downside of the ‘fewer fast notes’ thing is that this means tuba players don’t often get to play the melody. If you don’t want to be in the spotlight, that’s great! If you do, that’s a bit harder.
- Size: Simply, it’s difficult to transport a tuba. It’s the lowest register of any commonly used instrument, so simply it has the most tubing. It’s incredibly heavy, and therefore difficult to carry, and if your family has a really small car that is often filled with people and things, it might not fit.
Ok, those are the members of the brass family, I hope one of them caught your eye! They all have their own strengths and weaknesses, their own places where they thrive and their own difficulties, just like any instrument.
Whatever instrument you choose, time as an ensemble member is an important part of your life as a brass player. I hope you have as much fun as I did! Good luck!