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Cornets and Pocket Trumpets for Beginning Players

Jason Dovel | April 2009

    Beginning trumpet students may show up to the first day of band with anything from their great grandfather’s cornet to a new silver-plated professional trumpet. Parents and teachers alike are often confused about which instrument is best for students. Beginning trumpet players should avoid starting on Bb trumpet, which causes numerous physical and musical difficulties for beginners. The two most common substitutes are the pocket trumpet and the cornet.
    The pocket trumpet is the same length as a standard trumpet, but the tighter wraps in the tubing of a pocket trumpet make it easier for young players to hold. For example, the distance from the mouthpiece to the first valve stem is more than 8" on a trumpet. This large distance between hands and mouth can draw the instrument bell downward, causing students to play with a poor embouchure that may use a disproportionately greater amount of bottom lip than top lip. On a pocket trumpet, the distance be-tween mouthpiece and first valve is often less than 4". Because the pocket trumpet can be held closer to the body, students’ arms do not tire quickly, and the instrument can be held more upright.
    Unfortunately, the small proportions of a pocket trumpet also create some problems. The tightly wrapped tubing of a pocket trumpet makes it impossible for the left hand to hold the valve casings, as is done on a standard trumpet. In addition, the third valve slide on a pocket trumpet is controlled by a thumb ring instead of a third finger ring. This is not only physically awkward, it forces students to learn a physical movement that has a different purpose on the standard trumpet; the thumb controls the first valve slide.
    Pocket trumpets are also impractical for long-term use. Although some jazz and commercial musicians have made use of pocket trumpets, these instruments are generally unacceptable for use in high school, college, or professional ensembles. Pocket trumpets are also notorious for intonation problems, and I generally discourage students from using them in beginning bands.
    The more common alternative to the trumpet is the cornet. The distance from the mouthpiece to the first valve stem is often at least 2" shorter on cornet, which would make the instrument easier to hold. In addition, while the left-hand position on pocket trumpet is quite different from that of a standard trumpet, the left-hand position on cornet is virtually identical to the trumpet.
    There are also musical reasons for starting on the cornet. The conical tubing provides less resistance. Free-flowing air is the most important component of good sound production on brass instruments, which gives students
who play cornet an advantage over novice trumpet players because the air flows more easily on cornet. Cornet mouthpieces also help sound production. The trumpet uses a C-shaped cup, but cornet mouthpieces often have a V-shaped cup, which helps produce a fuller, darker sound. Cornet mouthpieces also usually have a larger size, making it easy to use more air.
    In addition, many solo contest pieces for young players are written for cornet. In Oklahoma more than half the pieces on the all-state solo list for trumpet are actually cornet pieces.
    There are also practical reasons why cornet is a better alternative. Most serious trumpet players will eventually replace their beginning instrument with an advanced model. A beginning trumpet will often forgotten or sold, but a beginning cornet can be useful throughout a trumpet player’s career. I used a beginniner model cornet through my doctoral studies, including degree recitals and professional recordings. Having both instruments is a great asset.
Students who start on cornet should choose the short shepherd’s crook model rather than the long model. The shepherd’s crook version of the cornet typically has a larger bore and a more mellow tone, while the long model looks more like a trumpet and tends to have a smaller bore and brighter sound.
    It is also important to purchase a cornet with an adjustable third valve slide ring. Students may have trouble reaching the ring if it is in a fixed position; this strain can create significant discomfort and playing difficulties.
The success of beginning trumpet students is determined by factors that transcend the type of instrument they choose. However, the type and quality of instrument is an important decision, and it is worthwhile to get the facts before choosing one.