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What Piano Players Should Know About Brass Musical Instruments by  Duane Shinn

Modern brass instruments include trumpet, trombone, baritone, sousaphone (tuba), and French horn. These instruments create a wide variety of tones by the player forcing air into the instrument causing it to resonate in different ways (at different frequencies).

There are two different types of brass instruments, valved and slide. Valves are used to change the shape and size of the instrument (causing the player's wind to change its path and length, causing the instrument to resonate in different ways). Brass instruments with valves include cornet, trumpet, and French horn. They utilize piston valves (cornet), or rotary valves (French horn). The musician must learn which combinations of valves produce certain tones while using their embouchure (the position and strength of their lips on the mouthpiece of the instrument) to make tones lower or higher in pitch. Slide brass instruments use a slide to change the length of tubing and thus the tone of the instrument. Most common of this type of instrument is the slide trombone.

Some brass instruments need to be transposed for piano. For example, a Bb trumpet or an Eb alto saxophone. When the written note C is played on a trumpet, it is the same note as an Bb on a piano. It's very important for the pianist to be aware of this in order to communicate with the trumpet player. The same holds true for the pianist when playing with other instruments that are tuned differently such as a French horn or alto sax.

Music for brass ensembles (four to six brass instruments) often uses the piano as the accompanying instrument. An experienced pianist will be able to help with the ensemble's performance by helping them rehearse the most challenging passages. The piano, in this case, also helps fill out the arrangement and plays a big part in creating the rhythm of the piece. And, as mentioned above, the pianist must be aware of the different key of each brass instrument in order to communicate effectively with the group. For example, if the group includes a tuba, the pianist must know whether it is a Bb or Eb tuba in order to help rehearse the musician in the most effective way possible.

Big bands (swing, dance, and jazz) contain a number of brass instrument and most, if not all, also include a piano. The pianist helps provides the chord structure, rhythm, and sometimes the melody of the piece. Big band music can be quite complex, particularly when it comes to chord structure and progressions. Quite often, the pianist is playing the same chord as the grouped brass instruments while at the same time contributing to the rhythm and style of the music. A piano is also very common in jazz combos and vocal groups.

Interestingly, many brass instruments are not made of brass at all. Some, like the French horn, are made of nickel silver or other alloys of copper, tin, and nickel. Many brass instruments are silver plated (and they produce a distinctive sound because of this). Although it is rare, some brass instruments are gold plated and are prized for their appearance (more so than the somewhat unique sound they make).

Duane Shinn is the author of a free newsletter on piano chords & chord progressions available at "Piano Lessons"

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