Sunday, January 15, 2006

On Learning a New Instrument

Getting my new cornetto has reinvigorated my practice routine, which was dormant for the last year or so. I've always been attracted to new things: a new trumpet, a new piece to play, a new group to play in, etc. So it has been great to have a very new thing to spark my performing interest again.

The frustrating thing is, I'm starting back at almost square one with this thing. While the chops, air, and tonguing are all analogous to the trumpet, the fingering and even the holding of the instrument are incredibly foreign. No valves to slam down, so I have to retrain my fingers to be more efficient and accurate in finding the holes. Six fingers and a thumb to use, as opposed to three fingers (and two slides). I was worried that my left hand would be the anchor holding me back, but it is the right hand that is causing me the most trouble. As the left hand has to be able to completely release the instrument to uncover the three fingers and thumb hole, the right hand has to take all the weight. But the right hand also has to be able to wiggle the first three fingers freely, so the weight is taken by the thumb, pinky, and the knuckle of the index finger. And the holes of the right hand are spread rather far apart, so the hand position is somewhat awkward. I find that my pinky gets incredibly tense, and I have difficulty keeping my ring finger in position.

Thus, I'm working on very basic scales and melodic patterns. And it isn't just my hands that need to relearn, but my brain as well. I think in trumpet fingerings, to the extent that I will subconsciously finger melodies that I'm only vaguely thinking about. I can play very fast passages in any key, and don't bother with basic scales and patterns anymore unless I'm working on a new sound. I just hope I get to the fun music before the novelty of the cornetto wears off.

One novel thing about the cornetto – something it shares with other 17th century instruments – is the interesting changes in timbre with different notes. Our 21st century ears are used to a basic consistency in timbre within an instrument, across dynamics, pitches, and registers. But Renaissance and Baroque performance practice did not emphasize this consistency. They used tuning schemes that make tonal key areas sound very different. The fortepiano sounds drastically different in the different registers, unlike the modern pianoforte. The natural horn has a very different sound with stopped notes, a requirement to play any interesting melodic passages. The cornetto has a change of timbre whenever cross fingerings are required. I'm not used to these changes, and it has made me think about the whole aesthetics of timbre from a different perspective.


John Salmon said...

What kind of mp do you use? Did it come with one or can you just use a trumpet mp?

Scott said...

It came with three different types of "acorn" mouthpieces. You can get cornetti made to fit trumpet mouthpieces, though.

John Salmon said...

When you say an "acorn piece"-you mean a super shallow one?

I wonder if the instrument you're talking about is the same as one I heard a few years ago at a Renasisance (sic) event. Down low it sounded remarkably like a French horn but higher it was fairly close to a trumpet sound. I wanted one!

Daniel Wolf said...

Good luck -- Cornetto is great fun to play and when played well, one of the most beautiful instruments.

I find, personally, that I have to put all of my modern brass thinking away -- I use a completely different embrochure (to the side of the mouth) and begin my practice sessions in the 2nd octave, only gradually introducing the lower octave, and the tones above g".

When I first started, before picking up the cornetto, I would sometimes scan through the music with a G-alto recorder, this helped lock in the fingering, the pitches, and sllowed me to try ornaments at the right speed straight away.

As for the timbre of the instrument, I think you can really achieve a smooth transition through all of the registers. The task is very much like that of a vocalist moving from chest to head registers. Again, I think that the key is practicing in the second octave, producing a brilliant, vocal, sound at both piano and forte and then extending this sound down and up. While g', g#', and a' can be somewhat hoarse(not unlike the tones around the break on the clarinet), and the low g is possible but rarely optimal, forked fingerings on the cornetto should not change the timbre much unless you are simultaneously changing the embouchure.

Scott said...

Campagna, yes the acorn mouthpiece is smaller than a trumpet mouthpiece. It is about the same diameter as a french horn mouthpiece, but not as deep. It sounds like you are thinking of the correct instrument.

Daniel, that is good advice. I find I am playing with the same embouchure I use for shofar, which is closer to my French Horn embouchure than my trumpet embouchure. It is only certain forked notes that have different timbres now, probably because I am getting used to the instrument.

Paul Howland said...

I just got my mute cornetto from Moeck 2 days ago. As a recorder, oboe and clarinet player I find the fingering very natural but am having a hell of a time getting conrolled notes! Its going to be a long haul ... any tips on embouchure?

Scott said...

There are two schools of thought on embouchure for cornetto. One is to use the corner of the mouth, which is historically accurate, but doesn't allow much control. The other is to use the center of the mouth. In this case, think of using tight corners, keeping the center more relaxed. Keep the air flow constant, and experiment with the shape of your mouth to get the right centering of the note on the instrument.

Thanks for reading the blog!