Choosing the right, or best, brass instrument for a beginner that has expressed an interest in learning to play a brass instrument can sometimes be a tricky situation. Which instrument is best for the complete beginner and how do you know if you are getting things right before spending lots of money?
There are a number of choices regarding the instrument that is chosen and it is possible to consider a number of things that may help make the decision easier. My personal feeling is that it is very important to always go for the instrument that makes the sound that you really enjoy and want to hear, and these factors can really help choose an instrument that will be best over a longer time.
The brass instruments available to choose from include the following:
The trumpet is a very common instrument and is quite affordable. The trumpet is the highest member of the brass family and due to its cylindrical bore it is often associated with a bright sound. The instrument is normally pitched in B flat and is used in a wide variety of ensembles from brass quintet, ten pieces, jazz groups and orchestras. If you play the trumpet, it means that you can also play the cornet or the flugel horn (or even the pocket trumpet!) as they use similar sized mouthpieces. The trumpet will normally only have three valves and in the UK these are piston valves. (It is possible to buy a trumpet with four rotary valves, but beginners in the UK do not normally use these).
The cornet is just like the trumpet only a bit shorter! The cornet is mainly used in brass banding, chamber ensembles or wind band due to its conical bore (tube) it generally has a more mellow sound. Very often you hear the cornet being played with vibrato. The cornet is in B flat and has three valves, just like the trumpet, and it has a similar range. The mouthpieces are slightly different in terms of the shape, but once you have learned to play the cornet, it is possible to transfer those skills straight over to the trumpet with a different approach to the sound that you aim to produce.
Pocket Trumpet/Flugel Horn:
The pocket trumpet and the flugel horn are not usually instruments that a beginner would normally learn to play at the very beginning. The pocket trumpet does have its uses but is a little gimmicky, and the flugel horn has a warm, rich tone and is only really used in the brass band as well as being popular with jazz players as it gives an alternative sound to the brighter sounding trumpet. The sound mixes well with other horns and saxophones.
The tenor horn is only really used in brass bands; brass band based chamber ensembles or wind bands and is pitched in E flat. The instrument is slightly lower in pitch than the cornet or trumpet and can have a mellow sound. The tenor horn will normally only have three piston valves. Although this instrument can play in a similar range to the French horn, it is not always easy to swap between the two different instruments.
The French horn is used in chamber groups (such as the brass quintet or woodwind quintet) and the orchestra. This instrument uses rotary valves and will often have four of them that are played using the left hand. The players’ right hand sits in the bell of the instrument and can be used for muting or adapting the sound the instrument makes. The French horn is a very versatile instrument and it has a very long cylindrical tube with a small funnel shaped mouthpiece. It is often said that the French horn is the most difficult brass instrument to play, but I fundamentally disagree with this. Due to the way that it is made, some of the pitches of the notes may feel closer together than on any of the other brass instruments, but with good teaching and time spent developing listening skills, this poses no real additional difficulties than any other instrument.
The baritone is very similar to the euphonium and the student instruments normally have three valves. The instrument is pitched in B flat and is used mainly in brass bands and wind bands. Mid range and professional instruments will sometimes include a fourth valve and this will help to extend the lower range of the instrument as well as assisting with better intonation (or fine tuning of individual notes).
The euphonium is pitched in B flat and works in a similar range to the baritone. It is used in brass bands; wind bands and is a popular instrument for soloists. Cheaper euphoniums can often have three valves, but if you are learning to play this instrument it is worth looking in to buying an instrument with four valves. Euphoniums in the UK are normally made using the compensating system (3 valves played with one hand and the fourth played by the other hand), although it is possible to get a four-valve euphonium with 4 in-line valves. These models are not usually made with the compensating system and although they may produce a richer and warmer sound, there may well be more issues with intonation. For the beginner player I would advise getting a compensating euphonium initially.
The trombone, or tenor trombone, is an extremely versatile instrument and is used in brass bands, jazz bands, chamber groups and wind bands. It has a cylindrical bore, which provides a bright sound, but the instrument is capable of producing a mellow tone when required.
The instrument uses a slide instead of valves and a good quality instrument is relatively affordable. The tenor trombone is in concert pitch, but within the brass band the instrument is in B flat and you will read treble clef instead of bass clef!
The bass trombone is a large trombone that usually plays in the lower register. It is unusual for beginners to start with bass trombone and normally you would begin with tenor trombone and move onto the bass trombone at a later date. The bass trombone is heavier and it is useful to build up stamina/strength in the left hand before moving onto this instrument.
(Eb Bass, Bb Bass, CC Tuba or F Tuba)
The tuba is the lowest of the brass instruments and is the largest in size. There are three-valve beginner instruments available and the instrument is generally pitched in E flat or B flat in the UK, or in B flat, C or F in Europe and the United States. Most tubas will have four (or more) valves that allow it to access the lower register more easily. Tubas are used in orchestras, wind bands, brass quintets or ten-pieces, tuba quartets (2 euphoniums and 2 tubas), brass bands (2 E flat and 2 B flat) and jazz ensembles. Although this instrument is often associated with oompah-pah music and simple bass lines, it is an extremely melodious and versatile instrument.
Hopefully this information will provide you with a little food for thought with which instrument you could choose to learn, but the best advice is to listen to the instruments being played and to then follow the sound that you enjoy the most. Local brass bands will often offer the opportunity for you to find out more, provide some basic (or more advanced) tuition and may even be willing to lend you an instrument. Visit http://www.ibew.org.uk/link01g.htm to find a geographical list of brass bands in the UK and beyond.