Thomas Stevens

Why Trumpeters Transpose-Part II

  • For Trumpeters Only

Another Reason for Transposition Skills

Trumpeter’s transposition issues are not solely related to orchestral performance situations and the music of antiquity. Another important reason for possessing such skills is to provide players with the flexibility of choice with respect to the instruments they use for the music they play, with such choices being based on musical/technical considerations or personal convenience*. Further, since much trumpet music these days is technically more challenging (i.e. more fully chromatic) than the trumpet parts in standard orchestral repertoire, transposition issues are similarly more complex.

Today’s players have trumpets of various sizes and pitches at their disposal, and there will always be performance situations where certain music might be more appropriately or efficiently performed on one particular (pitched) trumpet than another, a situation analogous to the game of golf where the choice of clubs is determined by the player’s assessment of personal challenges and specific game circumstances. And just as in the game of golf, players are not in the position of determining which ordnance to use until participating in real-time circumstances when there might not be sufficient time to startup a computer program, hook-up a midi keyboard, and generate a new part in the chosen trumpet’s key. This type of flexibility can be extremely significant in workplace environments like commercial (business) studio recording work where there is very little, and sometimes no rehearsal time**. But, beyond workaday issues, the sense of freedom derived from having modern-day instruments and the ability to play them (e.g.transpose) has clearly opened up new musical possibilities for trumpet players. Of course, there are those who view performing on anything but a "Bb" trumpet as a cop-out for technically-challenged players who could otherwise not play the music in question, an assertion that has a certain validity. In the final analysis, however it is the musical result that counts. We are (hopefully) making music, not participating in the Olympics, and as one of my old conductor friends used to say, offered here as an anonymous Quotable (for obvious reasons): "I don't care if you have to stand on your ear and piss on the music, if it works, do it!"

Summary: In the final analysis, there are many technical/musical circumstances, including those mentioned in these two postings, for modern day trumpeters to possess real-time transposition skills. Indeed, it would be reasonable to posit that such acquired abilities are every bit as important to today’s trumpeters as they were for previous generations, although for not altogether the same reasons.

All of which has been mentioned to prepare the following three posts on transposition à la Vacchiano.

*It should be noted that there have been/are composers/conductors with very specific opinions and wishes regarding which pitches of trumpets should be used in particular musical situations. It should also be noted that there are legendary stories in the trumpet fraternity about players who have tricked such people by agreeing to use one particular type/pitch of instrument but actually playing another one and getting away with it. The issue here is not about fooling composers and conductors or testing their cognitive skills as they relate to trumpet sounds; it is to point out that today’s trumpeters are capable of producing a variety of trumpet sounds as needed, and that the old axioms regarding such sounds no longer apply, something about which even many well-schooled orchestrators are unaware. (i.e. If one were to believe standard orchestration textbooks, a “Bb” trumpet produces a larger and heavier sound than a “C” trumpet. We trumpeters have all seen/heard that assertion reversed in actual practice.) Perhaps a better approach to such situations would be for composers/arrangers/conductors to simply articulate (verbally) what type of sound they preferred and then get the hell out of the way and leave the implementation of those preferences to trumpet players’ discretion and expertise.

**During the 1970s I worked regularly as the lone trumpet player on the soundtrack of the TV series, Holvak, for the composer Dick DeBenedictis. There were many “cues” (musical segments) Dick wrote that were in very awkward keys for the "Bb" trumpet because of the string-oriented bluegrass/guitar/banjo writing in the film underscoring-stringed instruments do love their sharp keys, to which two sharps are added for “Bb” instruments. Because of those crazy key signatures, the orchestration textures/balances, and the impeccable intonation of the legendary Hollywood woodwind doublers during those years, the “Bb” trumpet was the proverbial bull in the china shop. So, I used an “F” trumpet, pitched in “E” with a large “C” type bell that Ren Schilke had made for me, and every time one of those crazy cues surfaced, usually one with a banjo, I used it in a brilliant display of disaster avoidance. The comprehensive transposing skills I had been required to learn during my student days were of great practical value in circumstances like that, just as I am certain they are for players doing that type of work today.