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Natural trumpet – the march forward

Mike Diprose

Published in Early Music Review /105/February 2005

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A trumpet is a cylindrical tube, with a mouthpiece at one end and a flared ‘bell’ section at the other, which resonates when vibrating air column is passed through it. I will discuss three types of trumpet:–

i) the natural trumpet (without holes) – simply a brass tube as above, approximately 2.3 metres long (in D), with two bends; referred to as the ‘holeless nat’.

ii) the natural trumpet with holes – similar to the natural trumpet, with finger holes drilled through tubing to adjust tuning; referred to as the ‘holed nat’.

iii) the modern trumpet – a contemporary chromatic instrument, shorter than a natural trumpet (between approx 0.7-1.4 metres), with valves which change the length of tubing; referred to as the ‘modern trumpet’.

The tessitura of the natural trumpet was divided into two sections:

Principale – the lower two octaves: for a trumpet pitched in D (DD fundamental), d, a, d1, f#1, a1, c2, d2, which can be played quite loud and was the register used for military signals.

Clarino d2 to e3 (or higher, depending on the player) following the harmonic series, sounding like a slightly strange major scale with a c3 and c#3. This register is played quieter, with an inbuilt ‘chirrupping’ but a vocal quality.

Historically informed performance of early music has progressed immensely in the last half a century or so. One of the biggest challenges facing musicians at the beginning of this revival was the natural trumpet – simply a brass tube which resonates to the partials of the harmonic series (God’s scale). The natural trumpet was extremely difficult to play because these partial harmonics are so close together, and the 11th and 13th in particular are out of tune with the temperaments used. Playing these instruments has been compared to trying to play golf on stilts.

This was a problem, especially when encountering the challenging clarino repertoire of JS Bach etc which is difficult enough on the modern ‘piccolo’ trumpet. To facilitate performance, players drilled vent holes into their instruments to adjust tuning and generally tame these characteristics. The first in the twentieth century was a three-holed system by the German maker Helmut Finke in the early ‘60s, followed by a four-holed ‘English’ system developed in a garage in London, SW20 by Michael Laird in 1978. Both systems are in standard use today.


Because of tireless research, experimentation and refinement by players and makers, some players are now able to play these instruments without the holes. It is generally accepted that in the next 20 years, with the adoption by ensembles of friendlier temperaments, many natural trumpeters will be playing without holes. At the moment, however, the only place in the world to learn this art is the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis in Basel, Switzerland, with Jean Francois Madeuf, the only person teaching who has really cracked it so far.

Very few natural trumpeters can rely solely on work in that field and so need to play modern valved trumpets as well. To facilitate transition between instruments, the holed nat is designed to be closer in its playing characteristics to a modern trumpet (often using a modern-sized mouthpiece) than a holeless nat. Most trumpeters who own a holed nat have practised without holes because, despite the soul-destroying beginnings, it helps immensely with accuracy and gives an insight into phrasing, articulation and the possibilities (or limitations) of the instrument. Because of the similarities of the holed nat to modern trumpets, even if it is played without using the holes, the player lacks the freedom to bend notes sufficiently in the upper clarino register. For this, we need a trumpet built for the purpose, with smaller, lighter hand-made tubing and a large mouthpiece, some 10mm bigger (an awful lot when you consider how sensitive the lips are).

The larger mouthpiece gives more freedom of movement and allows more energy into the trumpet, which is absorbed by the stresses in the tubing, creating the frisson required to bend notes and resulting in a richer but quieter sound. With applied vocalisation and breathing techniques, the player creates the desired resonances within the body and head, making the trumpet effectively a glorified megaphone. The holeless nat feels like a very different instrument, requiring a Zen-like concentration on the sound and breath. The more one tries to impose one’s will, the more difficult it gets. Played properly, the sound of the holeless nat has real ‘soul’.

The quieter, chirrupping quality of the holeless nat has a natural balance in ensemble, adding a golden sheen to textures with strings and winds, and it is a magical complement to voices. Skilful scoring and the abundance of overtones in the sound allows separate clarino lines to be heard through more complicated musical textures.