How to start with Balkan brass
January 5, 2009 10:19 AM   Subscribe

Trumpeters: Help me find the right trumpet. Music-lovers: some Balkan music recommendations, please.

Although I've only played trumpet once in my lifetime, I was a fairly accomplished trombonist in high school.

Lately I've taken such an interest in Balkan brass music (from personal listening as well as from concerts at club Barbes during my visits to NY) that I've decided I would love to learn how to play trumpet, specifically in a Balkan style. Depending on how much I get into this hobby, I might attend the Guča brass festival next year.

Before I'd consider forming a group (I live in Minneapolis) I'd like to have some chops (of course).

How much would it cost for a good trumpet? I don't need anything particularly fancy, and I know that in this style of music older, sometimes-shabbier instruments are preferred. Can you recommend any brands? Ideally I'd like to spend under $400. Are there any good "starter" trumpets?

Additionally, any recommendations on further listening would be appreciated. I've listened to some Boban Marković as well as more contemporary groups using Balkan brass (Balkan Beat Box, Shantel, etc.)

posted by mammary16 to Media & Arts (14 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Don't know specifically about Balkan music. but you can often find "student" quality trumpets on Craigslist for $150-$200. These are fine instruments and are probably more than adequate for your needs. If you keep the trumpet in good condition you can probably resell it down the road at close to your purchase price if you decide you really need to upgrade.

This buying guide appears to have a lot of good information.
posted by larsks at 10:44 AM on January 5, 2009

Good brands

Selmer, Conn, King, Bach, Getzen, Holton, Benge, Besson & Yamaha. Personally I play Bach Strads.

Stay away from Jupiter, First Act, and make sure if you are getting a good deal on a Selmer Trumpet, that it is not spelled "Selner." Some brands made in China will literally fall apart in your hands so be careful
posted by bach at 10:53 AM on January 5, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers so far. I should have included this in my main question, but: What should I be on the look-out for when I'm actually looking at the trumpet I'm going to buy (besides dings, of course)?
posted by mammary16 at 10:57 AM on January 5, 2009

Best answer: I don't believe in skimping on musical instruments. There is such a wide gap between cheap student horns and pro horns in terms of quality that I would tend to steer clear of student horns.

Myself, I play a Model 37 Bach Stradivarius. I've had my horn for close to 30 years now and love it to pieces. Some people complain about that the valves are somewhat clunky, but it works well for me.

You can pick them up for about $800 on eBay.

Yamaha makes very good quality band instruments, but their low end starts at $800 for new. I played a student horn of theirs (YTR-232) when I was in junior high school and wore out the valves inside of 3 years. I was leery when I looked at their Eb/D horn in 1994, and while the valves were sticky early on, they've broken in nicely.

The Canadian Brass made a recommendation for a pocket trumpet in December which is well under $400. I would give their recommendation plenty of weight.

Stay away from Bundy - they have some of the most craptastic instruments on the planet.

One of the biggest challenges in trumpet is intonation. The horn makes a big difference, as does some of the little design features. For example, I prefer a horn with a fixed ring on the third slide. It makes it easier to use the third slide to tune low D's and C#'s and a solid ring doesn't slip or rattle. Mine has a stop which I have set to the sweet spot for C# tuning. I prefer having a thumb ring on the first slide (I've never tried a trigger). That way I can get F's and upper D's in tune. I prefer a horn with posts on either side of the tuning slide. It makes the instrument far easier to tune and the posts keep the tubes from bending out of alignment.

For an example of a horn that is lacking all these things, look at the Giardinelli student horn. By comparison, there's the Barrington horn which has all of these things. Now, I've never hoisted either of these horns, so I couldn't say which is better, but each of the these things are fundamental tools that I use every single time I play, so I want them to work and work well.

One of the most invaluable tools I've gotten as an adult is this tuner. It clips on your bell and gives you a constant readout of the your intonation. Since it is a contact tuner, it doesn't pick up other instruments around you. It is worth absolutely every penny and has improved my intonation a great deal. I wish I had it when I was learning the instrument. I rehearse with it to try to get my intonation rock solid.

Your next step is to find a brass shop and hopefully a player to come with you. If the shop doesn't have a practice room that you can walk into and spend an hour on your own, don't give them the time of day. If they demand a deposit to touch the horns, ask them to treat their customers like adults and walk out (I've seen both of these things). You should absolutely heft instruments and get a feel for them. Before you put it up to your face, find out how it feels in your hands. I compared the Yamaha Eb/D horn with the Schilke instrument from which it was ostensibly copied, and I couldn't abide by the Schilke. It felt terrible in my hand. Anything that is a distraction will take away from your playing. Finding a good private teacher or local pro is a good start in finding a good shop.
posted by plinth at 11:00 AM on January 5, 2009

Best answer: I would recommend getting a used horn, not only because you can get a better quality instrument for your money, but also because older trumpets tend to have a darker, deeper tone, which I associate with Balkan music. If you can find a Getzen from the 60s or earlier, it'd be a good bet; they run pretty cheap, and even the beat-up ones still sound fantastic.
posted by Jon_Evil at 12:32 PM on January 5, 2009

Find a good independent music store in Mpls, and see what they have in used trumpets.

Stay away from student grade horns, new or used -- they're generally crap, whoever they're from (even Selmer student horns are crap). They're hard to play, fall out of tune too damn easily, etc. (My kids started on intermediate (trombone) to low-end pro (clarinet) horns when they started playing. Their band directors thought they were getting private lessons because they were so much better than many classmates -- nope, they just weren't fighting the horn.) And if you decide that trumpet's not for you, you won't get back what you paid for it. This is a case where spending a little more now will save you money in the long run. (One reason you find so many student horns on Craigslist, etc is that music stores don't give any trade-in value on them -- a better horn will hold its value much better.)

Some Jupiter horns are fine, others are not, and there's no way to tell without actually getting your hands on the horn. However, realise that Jupiter is aimed at the DCI/marching circuit, and probably won't have the tone you're looking for, even in a good horn.
posted by jlkr at 1:04 PM on January 5, 2009

I expect you already know the Romanian group Fanfare Ciocărlia, but if not definitely check them out, they are as good as Boban Marković. If you like a bit more fusion try the French Slonovski Bal, and less 'authentic' but still very enjoyable are Orchestre International Du Vetex from Belgium who give a somewhat different take on the Balkan brass thing.
posted by amestoy at 1:29 PM on January 5, 2009

Selmer, Conn, King, Bach, Getzen, Holton, Benge, Besson & Yamaha. Personally I play Bach Strads.

Generally true, but with some reservations.

Stay away from Jupiter,

WRONG WRONG WRONG WRONG WRONG! Not only is Jupiter making very fine instruments, but to lump them in Wal-Mart brands like First Act is disingenuous and an insult to those who have pulled one of the most amazing reversals in the Band Instrument biz.

Generally this opinion of Jupiter is held by those who only really had contact with them decades ago, haven't played on recently and who haven't kept up with the industry.

It may do well to think of Jupiter as being akin to Honda or Toyota. When they first arrived in the seventies, they were fairly well derided, yet today are among the most desired cars made.

In addition to Jupiter's amazing ascendancy, most of the brands you named above have pulled a reversal: Particularly those owned by UMI (conn/selmer/bach/holton/king). Plagued by strikes and narrowed margins, the quality of their product has plummeted in recent years. In order to preserve shareholder value many of the current student Bachs (TR500) are made in China, and have more in common with First Act than Jupiter--despite the fact they have "Bach" stamped on the bell--AND PEOPLE CONTINUE TO RECOMMEND THEM BASED OFF OF NAME ALONE ANYWAY! Sigh. Even Yamaha has moved to lower grade Chinese facilities, closing their American plants last year.

I work with many music teachers and band directors. Over the past several years I have been witnessing these educators switch their recommendations from other brands to Jupiter in droves. Why? because these teachers rely on a supply of instruments that hold together, take abuse, perform well, and intonate perfectly. The proof of the pudding is in the tasting, and these band directors taste plenty.

So please, do not compare a quality product sold only through music stores like Jupiter to a Wal-Mart or Toys-R-Us line like First Act. It is unfair to the confused consumer, the beginning musician, and the designers and builders of the instruments, in addition to spotlighting the ignorance of someone who would make such a statement.
posted by sourwookie at 1:40 PM on January 5, 2009

Best answer: Hello and welcome to the wonderful world of trumpets.

Your budget might be a stretch for a decent new trumpet but should be plenty for second hand.

Your best bet for getting off to a good start is to find a trumpet teacher who can get you started right with your embouchure and help you shop for a trumpet. Would you buy a car if you couldn't drive and couldn't get a friend to test drive it for you?

Buying a trumpet that has been played by a great player is always a good bet.

Things to test when I shop for a trumpet are:
- Are the valves quick
- Do all the tuning slides move
- Is the lacquer/plate in good condition
- Check for leaks - pull out the first valve tuning slide and stop the pipe with your thumb, hold down all valves and blow. (You can usually get some air through but there should be no obvious leaks)
- Is the instrument responsive - quick to produce a tone when blowed gently
- Are the open harmonics in tune
- How do awkward scales like c# and f# sound
- Does it make a nice sound
- Are the high notes in tune (high C and above)
- Are the low notes in tune (low C and below)
- Does it play a good tune
- And more...

The difficulty of course, is that if you are able to perform all these tests, you can probably find an old Conn 38B or an Olds Ambassador hidden away in a music shop that is a beautiful player and pay peanuts for it. Failing that I have had good experiences with cheap Yamaha and Jupiter trumpets and I'm sure there are other good brands too.

Remember to buy a mouthpiece. Probably a 7C (Bach/Benge/Conn/any other brand or Kelly plastic) if you have thinish lips and or a 3C if they are thick. There's no harm and potentially a lot of good buying a mouthpiece right now and practicing buzzing for a few weeks or months while you consider your trumpet purchase...
posted by Bigbrowncow at 2:12 PM on January 5, 2009

You might consider going to one of these Balkan music camps to learn how to play your trumpet in a Balkan ensemble. For bands, check out Koçani Orkestar and follow their friend links to many other bands.
posted by PatoPata at 2:31 PM on January 5, 2009

I have an Olds Ambassador in the closet. It was my first trumpet, and I did not play well on it. It steers like a bus and is very argumentative. My current instrument is a Bach Strad, probably about 30 years of age, that I obtained at an auction for about $500.00. It is a nice responsive creature with a sweet tone.

I'd advise visiting a bulletin board in a music school to see what kind of second-hand trumpets you can pick up. Bigbrowncow's checklist is perfect.
posted by Sallyfur at 12:31 AM on January 7, 2009

In addition to Koçani Orkestar, I'd recommend Fanfare Ciocărlia and the Boban Marković Orchestra.
posted by klausness at 3:07 AM on January 7, 2009

OK, should have read more carefully... I see that you mentioned Boban Marković yourself, and amestoy already mentioned Fanfare Ciocărlia. But I'd second the recommendations for Boban Marković, Fanfare Ciocărlia, and Koçani Orkestar. There's also a good compilation called Golden Brass Summit that includes a lot of bands that aren't easily available elsewhere.
posted by klausness at 3:18 AM on January 7, 2009

Best answer: I can't really help with trumpets, but as RE Balkan brass music, you could contact Paul Harding, the DJ for the "Radio K International" show. I listen to it religiously on Sunday mornings (10-12), but you can also listen to archived shows on his website. He plays lots of Balkan brass, and he chose the Balkan Beat Box's lead singer's solo album as his world music record of the year. Plus, he could be very helpful in cluing you into other artists, and/or connecting you with a secret Balkan scene in Mpls. My sister asked him some questions about Iraqi music for a theatre piece she was researching, and he was really nice to her.

I also suspect that an ethnomusicologist acquaintance of mine might have tips (I know she played in some sort of Balkan string ensemble) -- e-mail me for more info.
posted by delayed-reaction android at 1:34 PM on January 7, 2009

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