Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Trumpet Malfunctions: Stuffy or Airy Sounds on a Trumpet or other Brass Instrument

A band director friend of mine recently e-mailed me and asked me about a problem that one of his students was having with their trumpet. I decided to post that response to him here, because I thought that other trumpet players and band directors might also find this information helpful when trying to solve problems with trumpets, cornets, and other valved brass instruments that are not working right and are getting a bad sound.

My friend's original e-mail about this was:

One of my trumpet students came to me with a problem with her instrument. I tried it myself, and it sounds like there is something misaligned. The sound is stuffy and fuzzy-sounding. When I play it, I can hear the correct notes, but it sounds like the horn has a mute on it. I am completely mystified. All of the valves seem to be in place, and nothing seems to be broken. It almost sounds like the sound you get when you press down the valves halfway and play. Please help! I don't want to have to send this trumpet to a repair shop for something that might be an easy fix.

My reply to this e-mail was:

Assuming that you have already checked to make sure that each of the valve's valve-guide notches is locked in its place in the groove inside of its corresponding valve casing, there are five other possible causes of this problem:

1. Check the valves to make sure that none of the felts/corks/synthetic-rubber spacer-bumpers on the valves are missing. (These spacer-bumpers are made of different materials on different brands and models of trumpets and other piston-valved brass instruments.) There are two of these on each valve: One on the outside of the instrument that makes the valve quieter when the valve is pressed down, AND one on the inside of the instrument that makes the valve quieter when the valve is released and pops back up.
Check also to make sure that these felts/corks/spacer-bumpers are not worn too thin (a common problem with older instruments.) These bumpers not only make the valves quieter, but also act as spacers that make sure that the ports in the valves line up evenly with the valve slide ports. If the valve is out of alignment due to missing or worn spacer-bumpers, the result will be a stuffy, almost half-valved type of sound. This can be quickly and easily repaired by simply replacing the spacer bumpers.

2. Check for water key leaks. If a water key cork is missing or broken or otherwise not sealing well, then the result will be an airy or stuffy sound. Check also to make sure that the water key spring is not broken or missing, and check to make sure that the water key is not bent, which would also prevent it from sealing completely. At any rate, any of these water key problems are usually easily and quickly fixed.

3. Check to see if the valves have been taken out and mixed up. (Valves 1, 2, and 3 should each be inserted in the correct valve casing. The valve numbers are always stamped somewhere on the vavles, usually near the spring.) Sometimes, when the valves get mixed up and out of place, you can't blow any air through the instrument at all. Other times, you can blow air through the instrument, but it is very stuffy and half-valved sounding. (This depends on the particular valve mix-up that was made.) Valves sometimes mixed up like this after all the valves were taken out at the same time, such as when giving the instrument a bath. Also, while you are at it, make sure that none of the valve guides (the metal or plastic piece under the spring with one or two notches on it) have been taken out and turned upside down or backwards, which could also negatively effect the alignment of the valve ports.

4. Check to make sure that something isn't stuck inside the instrument, blocking the air flow. Sometimes loose items that are kept in the case work their way into the bell and then get stuck in the instrument tubing. Sometimes, younger siblings drop things down the instrument's bell or leadpipe and get these things stuck inside the instrument. To check for this, pull out all of the slides and valves and run a snake through all of the instrument's tubing to check to see if all of the tubing passageways are clear. Some things that I have found stuck inside of students instruments over the years include: valve oil bottle caps, valve oil bottles, mouthpiece brushes, small pencils, hair barrettes, rubber balls and other toys, hard candy, chewing gum........Well, those are just a few items that come quickly to mind.

5. Check to make sure that there isn't a leak somewhere in the instrument.
A broken weld that is allowing air to escape somewhere or a pinpoint-sized hole caused by corrosion on an old instrument can result in air leaks that cause an airy or stuffy sound. This problem is not very common, but can be fixed by either re-welding the instrument back together or by patching holes (Both of these will require a trip to the instrument repair shop.)

The problem that your student is experiencing is almost certain to be the result of one of the above causes, it's just a matter of investigating and solving the mystery. Luckily, most of the above problems can be easily fixed, so your trumpet student should be able to get a clear, beautiful sound again very soon, and will then be able to play "Flight of the Bumblebee" again!


Randy Dunn
Professional Trumpet Soloist
Website: http://www.dunn2music.com
Music Video Demos: http://www.youtube.com/HoustonTrumpet


Tim said...

Great post. I was going to leave a comment and tell about a couple I thought of if you hadn't mentioned them...but, you did. :-) Very well written and helpful content.


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jbanjo said...

Aha! I was missing a valve key cork.
Many thanks.

AK Alilonu said...

If you think that something has fallen in through the bell (where the sound comes out when you blow) or have any other reason to believe that something is lodged in the tube between the first valve and the bell, like it probably is if the lodged object can't be found anywhere else, then take your mouthpiece, a straw, and some duct tape.
Stick the straw inside the mouthpiece and tape the two together with the duct tape. Take out the first valve and the metal cover beneath it and pour water into your trumpet through the bell until it flows out of the hole in your first valve's empty space. There will be some water left inside the trumpet. Take your mouthpiece with the straw attatched to it and stick it down the bell as far as it can go (it shouldn't be too deep). Blow in through the straw.
The pressure will drive the remaining water out of the trumpet through the first valve's space, and take the lodged object with it.

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