• Nick Drozdoff

Timbre and Slots: Mouthpiece, Horn or Both?


This blog will be largely video. I'll draft a few notes to elaborate on what I say in the video. Also, near the end of the blog I have a reference linked regarding the work of Australian researchers on the matter of oral cavity and trumpet playing.

I got the idea behind this blog from a lecture I promoted for the Chicago Section of the American Association of Physics Teachers sometime ago. I was president that year and part of my duties was to arrange for an interesting lecturer at our big annual meeting. I arranged for Dr. Thomas Moore, professor from Rollins College in Florida and the editor of the Science desk from the International Trumpet Guild Journal at that time.

Dr. Moore gave a wonderful and entertaining talk on everything from terminal velocity in falling to complete discussion of the Bernoulli to laser speckle interferometry and more. The MAIN thrust of his speech was trumpet acoustics.

I was sitting in the front row and had to endure a bit of good natured ribbing. For example, Dr. Moore did make a statement implying that trumpeters were pretty gullible when it comes to shedding an actual understanding of how their horn works in order to justify doing something strange in order to squeeze out a couple more high notes! In the discussion the idea that trumpeters would buy Christmas tree ornaments and hang them off the end of their bell if someone convinced them doing this would give them a DHC.

As an aside here, on this subject, I can remember a funny incident at Fitzgerald's Night Club. I can't remember which big band it was or even who the specific trumpeters were that are involved. That is probably better. In any case, I had a small binder clip attached to my third slide of my Getzen Genesis Bb trumpet. A couple of guys spotted this. They launched into a big discussion about "node and antinodes" and "metallic vibrations" etc. I let them go on a bit, and then they finally asked me, since I was a physicist, why I chose to put the binder clip right there. I kindly and patiently explained that it was to keep the third slide from falling off whenever I played a plunger solo. It had nothing to do with vibrations.

While I am on this subject, it is important to note that the horn DOES vibrate when we play it. This is undeniable. What it does NOT do is RESONATE. This might seem a bit difficult to understand, but it really easy if we simply think on the remark a bit. The WIND COLUMN, or air mass IN the horn most definitely resonates. The METAL in the horn does NOT resonate WHEN WE PLAY IT. Of course the metal CAN resonate, but it does NOT resonate at the frequencies the we produce when we play. So, there is highly unlikely to be any nodes or antinodes in the metal when we play. so where I put the binder clip from an acoustic point of view is meaningless. If you watch my video on "Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me" you'll see that I have an ear plug stuck in the third slide. I had mislaid the binder clip.

Now to the subject at hand. Mouthpieces and horns: which are more important? Here are the items considered in the video: A Getzen 4 valve Eterna Flugelhorn, an Arban replica cornet, a 1971 Getzen Eterna LB Severinsen model Bb trumpet and finally an old Reynolds Bb ERA (Extended Range Altissimo) trumpet. In the video demo, I'll move from most conical to least (the order listed above) using the same mouthpiece on each horn. In this case, I'll use my Wedge Drozdoff series Classical mouthpiece on all horns. The idea will be to compare the timbre as I go through the horns.

In the second demo, I'll start on flugelhorn and play all of my Drozdoff Series mouthpieces ranging from the deepest with very large throats to the smallest. Here is the list: ND Flugel Mouthpiece (EXTREMELY deep with a big 19 throat), ND Classic Cornet Mouthpiece, ND Classical (deep and a bit wider - like a 3B), ND Jazz (shallower and narrower - like a 7C) and ND Lead (VERY shallow and narrow - like a 7E - perhaps even a bit shallower than that). Be sure to pay attention to the way the timber of the flugelhorn changes with the mouthpieces.

In the third demo I'll do exactly the same thing but with my 1971 Getzen Severinsen. Once again, pay particular attention to the way the timbre of the horn changes with the mouthpiece switches.

One of Dr. Moore's contentions was that the most important part, by far, of the mouthpiece/trumpet system was the MOUTHPIECE coupled with the lead pipe. You should be able to hear the impact. As you can hear from the video (I did NOT doctor the audio at all. You'll hear the AGC reacting on my old Zoom Video recorder), the impact is quite subtle, particularly on flugelhorn. The mouthpiece changes didn't result in a clearly dramatic change in timbre, though on the "high notes of flugel" portion, it is more noticeable. There is a much more significant timbre change on the trumpet.

Here is the video.

I would not want to try to play lead trumpet on a gig using only flugelhorn with a scream mouthpiece in it, though I could pull it off. Even with the hot mouthpiece it doesn't sound that much like a trumpet. It sounds like a twangy flugel. I don't like the sound of a flugelhorn with a scream mouthpiece in it for flugelhorn parts. However, I really don't have a lot of trouble using a flugelhorn mouthpiece in my trumpet as an alternative to actually using a flugelhorn if I am dealing with travel issues or something making it difficult to bring two horns.

Now the next demo has to do with resonance. I play a high G and gliss up to a DHC on flugelhorn using the Wedge ND flugelhorn mouthpiece. Then I switch to the Wedge ND Lead mouthpiece and do the same thing. Then I switch to the Getzen Severinsen horn and do the same thing with the flugel and lead mouthpieces, but with on additional wrinkle. I do the last gliss with a Wedge Custom Ring Visualizer.

You should hear a couple of things very clearly. First, it is very easy to do the slide, because the wind column stops resonating somewhere just above the high G. However, you should hear a very noticeable "click" of the DHC as though it is "dropping into a slot." The term "slotting" oft used by trumpeters refers to hitting resonant notes. I.e., if yo are playing "in a slot" you are hitting a resonant frequency.

This is a bit of a conundrum. If the horn stops resonating a bit higher than the high G, WHY IS THERE A CLEAR SLOT AT DHC? This doesn't make sense. I even did this demo for a presentation at a conference of the American Acoustical Society quite a while ago and posed the question, "what is resonating?" Nobody had a clear answer.

Try this: play a DHC and wiggle your valves. They are meaningless. Changing the length of the horn at that point doesn't do anything because the entire wind column is not flashing into resonance. The horn defined wind column is not in play. So what is?

What I am going to offer here is an educated guess. There is some controversy here, but probably mostly with acousticians or physicists as opposed to trumpeters.

In my mind the answer stems from the fact that I can feel a slot on the ring visualizer! It isn't as pronounced as on the horn, but there is definitely something there.The DHC slot is still there. The horn wind column is no longer resonating. The mouthpiece-leadpipe combination is now resonating on its own.

This lends credence to a couple of ideas. Given that the leadpipe-mouthpiece combo are critical, the advocates of tweaking the gap between the end of the mouthpiece and the ridge of the receiver may very will have a solid point. At these shorter wavelengths the waves could "notice the gap rather than just diffract right around it. I have quite a few Bb trumpets and some play the DHC territory easier than others. It would seem that this could be due to different mouthpiece, leadpipe and gap matchups.

The next part of my theory is controversial. The fact that there is a slight, but definite slot at DHC with only the ring, implies that there may be another resonant system having a subtle impact on all of this. Since there is no wind column, there are only two things left: the lips confined by the ring (I can't free buzz a DHC) and the air in the oral cavity.

The controversy stems from an impedance mismatch. In the lower register the vibrating mass of the lips is so much greater than the air mass behind the lips that the size of the oral cavity is unlikely to have much effect. However, I make the argument that this all changes when we get up in the DHC territory. In order to get the lips to vibrate at those frequencies, most trumpeters unconsciously lower the vibrating mass (doing it with tension alone is almost impossible). This usually means reducing the so called "lip aperture size." Well, when this is the case, I argue that since the vibrating lip mass is so much lower that the air mass of the oral cavity is close enough to have an impact. In other words, as I play that register I tend to raise my tongue and adjust the back of the throat (pharynx?? I don't know the physiology here) that we use for circular breathing to cut off the air from the lungs and nose such that there is just enough opening to replenish the air as it leaks of of my mouth driving the notes to continue.

My hypothesis is that the lips, in concert with a reduced oral cavity can find a slot around DHC. This combined with a short wind column of the mouthpiece coupled to a leadpipe constitute a new resonant system that is in play in this territory. Since the valves are useless at this point, this is why it is tricky to learn how to control these notes as it is all by ear and physical control.

Now, I have presented a theory/hypothesis in an attempt to explain my experience as a trumpet player . Here is an interesting paper done by some Australian researchers in 2010. The results are a bit ambiguous and point to other possibilities other than my ideas, but the idea of a "tuned vocal tract" (oral cavity?) is not excluded by their research. If you are really interested in a more technical discussion than mine, check this out:

Do Trumpet Players Tune Resonances of the Vocal Tract? by Chen, Smith and Wolfe

So, in conclusion, I would personally say that I see an important combination of the mouthpiece and the horn is always in play. You cannot attribute more impact of one over the other. So, this might be concluding the obvious, but use the tool for the job. I am not a believer in just using one mouthpiece for everything any more than I would use a hammer to pound in a screw if I had a perfectly good screwdriver in the tool box. I use a lead mouthpiece to play lead, a classical mouthpiece to play legit and a compromise between the two to play jazz. I also use a flugelhorn mouthpiece to play flugelhorn.

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Respectfully submitted:

Nick Drozdoff


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