Newcastle University - Natural Trumpet Masterclass

At the invitation of Adrian France, Head of Brass, I gave a natural trumpet masterclass to the brass students of Newcastle University on Wednesday 31st January 2019. The class took place between 14:00 and 16:00 in the spacious Robert Boyle Lecture Theatre in the Armstrong Building, on the main University campus. I was glad to be able to deliver a masterclass to higher education students on the subject of the natural trumpet as attending a similar event (with David Staff at the Royal Northern College of Music in 2006) had such a life-changing impact on the course of the rest of my career. I was proud and honoured to be able to offer this opportunity to the brass-playing students of Newcastle University.

I began the masterclass at Newcastle University by playing - demonstrating the harmonic series on the natural trumpet. I spoke a little about Just Intonation and the physical and mathematical relationships between the overtones of the harmonic series. The natural trumpet has its own in-built system of tuning and, as well as being a great instrument in its own right, it can inform the way one approaches playing more modern instruments.

All brass players need an excellent knowledge of the harmonic series and we strive to get the best resonance from brass instruments. The natural trumpet requires an in-depth knowledge of the harmonic series and it is an excellent magnifying glass to general brass-playing technique. It also requires excellent pitching skills, good range and stamina. The fact that it has an inbuilt tendency towards attaining Just Intonation is a great teaching tool as well.

Rather than being purely an academic lecture, I wanted this to be a practical masterclass - so I had brought a number of instruments from my own collection for the students to play. The masterclass involved all the University brass students present: three trumpet players, one trombone player and one tuba player.

We began by playing examples of resultants (difference tones) and I explained why resultants are important for any kind of brass playing, as confirmation of excellent tuning between different players. This acted as a good warm up and a simple, structured way to find the tonic key of the natural trumpet. The students could hear the difference tones quite clearly; they are remarkably clear and it is a fantastic experience to hear three pitches produced by just two players.

I had brought a Renaissance trumpet (replica of Veit 1651), two Baroque trumpets (replicas of Ehe III 1746), an English slide trumpet (original: Cubitt, c.1880), two E-flat duty trumpets crooked down to D-flat (by Keat from 1902 and 1916) and two coiled trumpets with holes (Finke, c.1970). I asked the students to place them in chronological order in terms of use (rather than by year of manufacture of the replicas) which led to interesting discussions. I was also able to show the evolution, advantages and compromises of both the three and four hole systems of finger holes (invented in the 1960/70s). I used the Finke coiled instruments to explain the three hole system and I added a set of finger holes in place of a ventless yard on the replica baroque trumpets by Ehe III to show the four hole system; I played examples on each.

Playing without holes and all together, we played music by Monteverdi and Dauverné. I explained a little about general brass technique and more specifically: the style of each piece, the symbolism of the registers of the natural trumpet, and the differences between the principalé register and the clarino register.

After quite a lot of playing and rehearsing these pieces, we made a recording to send to the Head of Brass at the University, who sadly couldn’t be there with us.

Towards the end of the masterclass we played some short excerpts from Herr Gott, dich loben alle wir [BWV 130] by Bach. I included the Bach as I wanted to show the students an example of some more extreme natural trumpet parts; while Monteverdi and Dauverné are interesting the Bach showed a different, more virtuosic style of writing for the natural trumpet. I wanted the students to know that the natural trumpet had a lot more to offer in terms of repertoire.

Throughout the course of the class, I had explained to the students a little about myself and that I play the natural trumpet the majority of the time in my professional career. I also mentioned a little about my education at the Royal Northern College of Music and later as a principal study Historical Performance student at the Royal College of Music. I told the students that the reason I began playing the natural trumpet is because I went to a masterclass given by David Staff in 2006 at the Royal Northern College of Music. That class inspired me to want to play the natural trumpet. Specialising in that instrument is almost solely the reason I have a career now.

I thoroughly enjoyed presenting the masterclass and it was great to meet the students of Newcastle University. While I was leaving the Armstrong Building I realised that it had been recently refurbished and I walked past the King’s Hall, which I suddenly recognised. I had performed Handel’s Deborah [HWV 51] in The King’s Hall at Newcastle University with the Newcastle Bach Choir under Eric Cross. I had also played Bach’s B Minor Mass [BWV 232] with them at the Sage in Gateshead. I’ve always enjoyed exploring Newcastle and I hope to return again soon!

Russell Gilmour
Russell Gilmour Blog
writing on music, photography, engraving, travel and life as a freelance professional musician.