A Player's Guide to Rotary Valve Trumpets

[The following information is taken from several articles written by ASW director David H. Green and originally published in our customer newsmagazine Chrestologia. This material has been revised and expanded since that time and is presented here in order to provide some basic information and guidance to trumpet players considering the purchase of a rotary valved instrument.]

For over twenty-five years, Antique Sound Workshop has provided a large selection of high quality baroque trumpets and other historical brass instruments to our customers. We have also been importing rotary valve trumpets from several European makers such as Monke and Ganter for professional orchestral players wishing to use these instruments in their work, although we have until recently been somewhat apologetic for the high prices and variable quality which seemed to be characteristic of these instruments. Some ten years ago, however, we introduced an outstanding new line of modern rotary valve Bb trumpets made by the Bavarian workshop of Josef Dotzauer. Professional response to these instruments has been extremely enthusiastic, and we have furnished a large number of these instruments to leading orchestral players and educational institutions.

Modern rotary valve trumpets are still widely used today in Germany and Austrian orchestras in place of the piston valve instruments more commonly used in France and the United States. While rotary valve trumpets are not strictly speaking historical but rather contemporary brass instruments, American trumpet players have in recent years increasingly been using these instruments for all of the Austro-German classical and romantic repertoire from Mozart and Haydn to Bruckner and Mahler, often at the insistence of European-born and trained conductors who prefer the tonal qualities of these trumpets. While the use of rotary valve instruments is certainly not historically accurate for the classical and early romantic natural trumpet orchestral literature, many conductors and players seem to feel that the tapered attack and warmer tone quality of these instruments is better suited to the modern performance of natural trumpet parts than the more brilliant and incisive piston valve instrument. There is no question, however, that the rotary valve trumpet is the stylistically appropriate and historically authentic instrument for the late 19th and early 20th century Germanic repertory. Recordings and American tours by leading European ensembles such as the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestras have clearly demonstrated the superiority of these instruments for that literature.

Response and Tone Quality

American players, accustomed to the rapid and accurate response of the piston valve trumpets on which they have built their technique, frequently have difficulties when first performing on rotary valve instruments. The "feel" is quite different, and the response and tonal properties require some adjustment of one's playing technique and style. These problems are further aggravated by the fact that many of the rotary valve trumpets generally available are poorly designed and/or made. Many orchestras have acquired sets of instruments by leading custom makers such as Monke or Ganter at very high prices and have been disappointed in the quality of these instruments in comparison to the best piston valve trumpets, on which much more research and development has been done in recent years.

The first step in coming to terms with the rotary valve trumpet is to understand that it is a completely different instrument in virtually every respect. The response of a rotary trumpet, by design, is very different than that of a piston valve instrument. The acoustical design of the instrument favors a more tapered attack and decay of each tone and encourages a more fluid, legato, or vocal tonal production which is ideal for romantic music of a lyrical nature. The rounded edges of the beginning and end of each tone allow better blending with the other brass sections of the orchestra in chordal passages such as are found in Bruckner; they also permit natural trumpet parts of the classical and early romantic literature to be played at a full volume without sticking out of the orchestral texture. The German rotary valve trumpet should be considered different than and complementary to the French piston valve instrument. They are by nature two different instruments for two different types of music and styles of playing, each having its own unique properties and strengths, each suited to a particular type of literature.

Bore Size and Volume

Austro-German rotary valve trumpets have in general a much smaller bore than the piston valve instruments commonly in use in the United States. This does not, however, mean that rotary valve trumpets are necessarily less free-blowing. We suspect that many American orchestral players have had experience only with poorly designed or produced instruments which were stuffy or unresponsive. Bach-Selmer Bb piston valve trumpets have bore sizes as follows: medium bore, .453", medium large bore, .459", large bore, .462"; most other American-style piston valve trumpets have similar bore sizes. By comparison, our Dotzauer rotary valve trumpets in Bb have a bore size of .429", which is much smaller. This does not mean, however, that these instruments are small in tone or volume; a comparison of bore size alone is virtually meaningless, since it is only one factor in the overall acoustical design of the instrument. For example, rotary valve trumpets have much larger and heavier bells, have less conical and therefore more cylindrical tuning, have a larger bore mouthpipe, and are often made of gold brass rather than the yellow brass used for most piston trumpets. An American trumpet with a bore of .429" would indeed have a small, thin sound, but the rotary valve instrument provides a much larger tone while affording the advantages in efficiency, response, and accuracy of a smaller bore instrument.

Just recently, a number of European rotary trumpet makers (including Dotzauer) have introduced somewhat larger bore models, typically about .441", in an apparent attempt to accommodate players whose primary performance experience has been with piston trumpets. The mouthpipes are also altered to permit the use of mouthpieces with backbores originally designed for piston trumpet use. Such instruments may well ease the learning curve for piston trumpet players, but they have the disadvantage of sounding less like traditional European rotary trumpets and more like piston trumpets. We are happy to offer such "hybrid" trumpets to those customers who prefer this type of instrument but feel strongly that the original standard-bore rotary trumpets are more authentic and therefore preferable for those players having the patience and persistence to learn how to play them properly.

Mouthpiece Selection

The mouthpiece receiver on a rotary valve trumpet has the same taper as on an American trumpet, so there is usually no problem using a standard or custom American mouthpiece and getting acceptable results immediately. However, the very different acoustical design of the instrument will probably lead the discriminating professional player to experiment with slightly different cup, throat, and/or backbore designs in order to match the instrument to the individual player and obtain optimum results. Most players are better off staying with their standard mouthpiece until they have become familiar with the rotary valve instrument. However, some custom mouthpieces have non-standard backbores designed to compensate for the design problems of specific makes and models of piston trumpets; such mouthpieces can produce less than ideal results on rotary valve trumpets. Futhermore, C trumpets in general, both piston and rotary valve, require different mouthpieces with different backbores than Bb trumpets. Many of the intonation and response problems frequently encountered by players of C trumpets are in fact caused by the use of inappropriate mouthpieces that have been designed for Bb trumpet use. We recommend that purchasers of Dotzauer rotary valve trumpets at least try the mouthpiece supplied with the instrument, which is well-matched to the instrument and guaranteed to provide excellent tone, response, and intonation.

Water Key Function

The water key on the rotary valve trumpet has an acoustical function in addition to its more obvious purpose of eliminating accumulated condensation. The long lever allows the key to be opened by the little finger of the right hand while the rest of the hand is in playing position on the valves. Opening the waterkey improves the response and security of certain notes in the high register, such as written high d''' above the staff, and gives the player additional insurance in getting these notes accurately. This technique is extremely useful in certain exposed passages such as the octave fanfare leap to concert high c''' in the Richard Strauss Sinfonia Domestica, which more than one fine player has nicked in the heat of a performance.

Third Valve Triggers

Some players have remarked that they would prefer their rotary valve trumpets to have third valve slide triggers, such as are common on professional quality American piston valve trumpets to correct the sharpness inherent in valve combinations in the low register. The fact of the matter is, as some more astute players have been quick to point out, that one does not really need the trigger mechanism on these instruments. The acoustical design of rotary valve trumpets is such that the pitch center of the tone on these instruments is broader and more flexible than on a piston valve trumpet, where the notes tend to "lock-in" more rigidly. It is thus possible to simply aim slightly lower for the low register tones such as written g and d' that require combination valve fingerings and still produce a full, well-centered, in-tune note. This is part of the playing technique of the instrument and considerably less trouble than operating a third valve slide. Experienced players quickly pick up the habit so that it becomes second nature and many players trying these instruments for the first time make the occasional slight correction instinctively. We strongly feel, therefore, that the third valve trigger is not really necessary; we can, however, custom order rotary valve trumpets with such a trigger if desired or retrofit an instrument with one if the player decides that he needs one after using the instrument for a while. The Dotzauer professional model goldbrass instruments come equipped with a third valve trigger but can be special-ordered without one if desired.

Rotary Trumpets in C

The C piston trumpet was originally a lighter, brighter, more transparent instrument introduced after the First World War by French and Belgian makers at a time when the Bb trumpet was the tonal standard for virtually all other national schools of playing. Over the past several decades, however, many American players have adopted the C trumpet as their standard orchestral instrument, regardless of the instrument called for by the composer; they prefer the greater accuracy and security of the C instrument, particularly in the extreme high register. Makers of piston valve trumpets have tried, with varying degrees of success, to accommodate the needs of orchestral players by producing C trumpets which attempt to combine the tonal weight and projection of the Bb instrument with the accuracy and security of the C trumpet.

Some of the earliest American C piston trumpets were produced by simply shortening large or medium-large bore Bb trumpets; this design short-cut resulted in instruments which were not optimized for performance at this pitch and had severe intonation and response problems. Typical of these instruments were the Bach Selmer trumpets: although the Bb models were very decent, the C trumpets had all sorts of design problems which could be remedied only by extensive and expensive custom modifications, such as replacing the tuning slide with a Bb slide, replacing the mouthpipe with one of more suitable taper, and often replacing the bell as well. Some recent attempts at C trumpet design by other makers have been more successful, primarily because makers have belatedly realized that it was necessary to design a completely new instrument from scratch, rather than to modify existing Bb designs.

The relatively few German makers who produce C rotary valve trumpets seem to have experienced similar design problems. Not only do their instruments have intonation and response difficulties, they lack the characteristic warmth and depth of tone which, for most American players, is the sole reason for using these instruments in the late 19th Austro-German symphonic repertoire in place of the piston trumpet. Although we have occasionally obtained custom-made C rotary trumpets for those customers who insisted on having one in addition to the Bb instrument, we have not until now been able to endorse the C instruments very enthusiastically. We have felt that the essential tone quality of the rotary trumpet is that of a narrow bore Bb instrument and that the C trumpets lacked the fullness and richness of tone characteristic of the Bb instruments.

A few years ago, we began negotiations with Josef Dotzauer to produce a C rotary valve trumpet to our specifications, one which would parallel the development of the newer American C piston trumpets and address the requirements of the American orchestral player. Specifically, we wanted a C rotary trumpet which would have the dependability of the C instrument without sacrificing the richness of tone, power of projection, and accurate intonation and response of the Dotzauer Bb trumpets. After considerable design experimentation and the building of many prototypes which were tested by leading professional players, we are now proud to announce the general availability of the new Dotzauer rotary valve C trumpet to our customers.

This remarkable new instrument has the exact same .429" bore size as the Bb rotary trumpet. Since, however, the bore size is larger in proportion to the overall length of the instrument as the Bb, this had to be compensated for by a completely different mouthpipe and a bell branch terminating in a smaller flare. Although the bell flare and the remainder of the bell branch are traditionally made in two separate pieces and fused together, it was found that superior response could be obtained in both Bb and C instruments by making the bell in one piece. This procedure is slower and more costly, but it is one of just many reasons why Dotzauer trumpets are superior.

Standard and Heckel Models

Antique Sound Workshop now offers a total of four different standard bore Bb and C rotary valve trumpets by Dotzauer for immediate delivery to our professional customers. The former Standard Model Bb and C trumpets were made in yellow brass, had traditional (non-Uniball) valve linkages, and no waterkey. These models have since been discontinued in favor of the deluxe model, which is also made in yellow brass but has more elaborate nickel silver slide stockings and braces, Unibal valve linkages, and a water key. The top-of-the-line professional model is made of goldbrass, has all of the features of the deluxe model plus solid nickel-silver valve casings, and also has a third valve trigger mechanism.

Each of these models can also be equipped with a engraved nickel-silver Heckel garland on the bell which is not only decorative but also serves to darken the tone and increase the resistance and projection of the instrument. Normally, we stock mostly instruments with the Heckel bell, although we occasionally have instruments without and are happy to special-order these if desired. The Heckel versions are only slightly more expensive than the standard models.

The relative performance characteristics of the standard bore yellow brass and goldbrass models, with and without Heckel bell, may be easily seen from the following table:

Material Model Resistance Tone Quality Response Typical Use
yellow brass deluxe model least



most flexible



most uniform



chamber music & jazz
yellow brass Heckel bell solo work
gold brass professional model small orchestra
gold brass Heckel bell large orchestra

Low F Trumpets

We have also added to our inventory rotary valve orchestral trumpets in low F. These instruments represented the final stage of development of the eight-foot length trumpet of the baroque and classical periods and were the standard trumpet used in the late 19th and early 20th century orchestra before the now-common half-length Bb and C trumpets came into general use. Comment on the then-new short trumpets was not universally favorable, and many conductors and players criticized the lack of authentic trumpet tone quality of the half-length instruments.

Trumpet historians have recently concluded that the low F orchestral trumpet, together with its less-common companion in Eb, was in fact the last true member of the historical trumpet family and that modern half-length trumpets, with their mixture of cylindrical and conical bore tapers (American-style piston valve trumpets have an average of 29% cylindrical tubing exclusive of valve slides, 21% conical tubing exclusive of the bell branch, and 50% in the sharply conical bell branch) are in fact a hybrid of trumpet and cornet design and represent a new type of instrument which is a radical departure from the true trumpet family. As with any type of innovation, there was a trade-off of priorities, both for better and for worse. The newer four-foot instruments provided greater security in the upper register than the older eight-foot pitch instruments for the less-accomplished players of that day, but at a considerable sacrifice in tonal quality and musical properties.

The use of Bb rotary valve trumpets for the late romantic Austro-German repertoire and the earlier natural trumpet literature has become extremely widespread among American orchestral players in the last decade or so. We suspect that the reintroduction of the low F trumpet will be the next logical step in the revival of the authentic performance practice of late 19th and early 20th orchestral trumpet playing. The level of playing technique as well as the design skill and quality control of trumpet makers have increased substantially in the last one hundred years, and present-day players can bring a much greater degree of accuracy and control to the F trumpet than was common in the late nineteenth century.

The low F orchestral trumpet is not the same instrument as a contralto F trumpet; they are two different instruments for two different purposes. The so-called contralto trumpets pitched in low F or Eb, as well as bass trumpets pitched in low D, C, or Bb are of much larger bore sizes. Whereas there are bass trumpet parts in the late Wagner operas and the works of a few later composers, contralto trumpets have never found general acceptance as an orchestral instrument. They do, however, have some utility in trumpet or brass choir music. The true orchestral trumpet in low F, on the other hand, is a narrow bore instrument with the same musical flexibility and solo properties as the shorter trumpets and in addition has a much richer and fuller tone, a more complex, burnished quality. In fact, the Dotzauer low F trumpets have exactly the same .429" bore diameter as their Bb and C rotary valve trumpets! The overall length of the tubing, however, is about half again as long as the Bb trumpet, affording better projection with a darker, richer overtone structure as well as accurate response and greater pitch stability.

Those musicians who have never seen an F trumpet before are always amazed to find that, on first glance, it appears to be a Bb trumpet, having the same bell size and physical length. Only by looking closely at the longer valve slides and extra tubing can one see that it is designed to play at a lower pitch. It bears the same relationship to the Bb trumpet as the F side of a double horn does to the Bb side. A double F/Bb trumpet would be ideal, but the additional size and weight would make it clumsy and tiring to hold, seeing as it is not held in the lap like a double horn. We suspect that some et players might develop a "double horn" technique, playing most passages on the F trumpet and switching to a Bb instrument for occasional high register work.

The full length F trumpet was the preferred instrument of players and composers from the invention of the valve trumpet up until about the time of the First World War. If one looks at the symphonies of both Sibelius and Vaughan-Williams, for example, the earlier works specify F trumpets and the later ones Bb trumpets. Richard Strauss, who used the F trumpet extensively in his scores, notes in his 1904 revision of the Berlioz Treatise on Instrumentation that, at that time, first players were generally using Bb trumpets and second and third players were using F trumpets, regardless of the score notation. Clearly the turn of the century saw a transitional phase during which both types of instruments were in use either interchangeably or simultaneously. Once one has experienced playing the Franck Symphony, the Wagner Parsifal Prelude, Strauss's Tyl Eulenspiegel, or the Sibelius Second Symphony on an F trumpet, the tonal limitations of the short length trumpets for this late romantic literature become readily apparent.

The low F trumpet also can be used as an excellent full-length eight-foot instrument for the performance of natural trumpet parts of the classical and early romantic periods from high F down to Bb. The various valve combinations, which substitute for the tuning crooks of the natural trumpet, allow the modern player to "crook" the instrument from F down to B natural; pulling out the tuning and valve slides easily allow playing in Bb as well. This technique recreates the tonal properties and playing technique of the full-length natural trumpet without the dynamic limitations that an historical instrument would have when used in a modern orchestral context.

A further if somewhat less authentic use of this instrument would be for a modern-instrument performance of the solo trumpet part of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 of J. S. Bach. This writer has for over twenty-five years maintained that this part was supposed to sound an octave lower than it is customarily played today. A number of performances in recent years, starting with a recording supervised by the British musicologist Thurston Dart shortly before his death more than twenty years ago, have in fact been done precisely that way, although with the substitution of modern horn for trumpet. The use of the low F orchestral trumpet would in fact keep the work in the provenance of the trumpet world, provide a tonal quality closer to that of the same-length baroque F trumpet, and restore the proper balance and octave placement of the four solo parts as well. We suspect that many trumpeters will continue to play the solo part in the higher octave simply because it represents a macho tour de force for the accomplished player; musically sensitive players and conductors, however, may well wish to opt for a performance which places a premium on musical values rather than exhibitionism.

Flügelhorns, Posthorns, and Herald Trumpets

We also now have in stock several models of rotary valve flügelhorns in Bb by Josef Dotzauer. They produce both a standard size instrument and a shorter, smaller-belled Kuhlo model flügelhorn, which has a tone quality and response somewhere in between a full-sized rotary valve flügelhorn and a Bb rotary valve trumpet. The brass band, jazz, and studio players who have tried these instruments have pronounced them greatly superior to piston valve flügelhorns from various makers. They have a uniformity of response, accuracy of intonation, easy-speaking high register, and will accept standard trumpet shank mouthpieces; we can also get replacement mouthpipes with receivers for American-style short-shank flügelhorn mouthpieces. Players will find these instruments ideal for the extensive lyrical solo flügelhorn passages in the Ninth Symphony of Vaughan-Williams and Stravinsky's Threni, as well as the flicorno parts in such scores as Respighi's Pines of Rome. The famous extended posthorn solo in the Mahler Third Symphony is also frequently played on flügelhorn (or sometimes even less correctly on cornet); the Kuhlo model flügelhorn is actually a much better choice for this passage. Please note, however, that we also have in stock fine posthorns in Bb with three rotary valves, which are the ideal instrument for the latter work as well as the posthorn solo passages in the Mozart Posthorn Serenade, K. 320 and the sleigh ride German Dance, K. 605, No. 3. The Josef Dotzauer flügelhorns, like their trumpets, are available in both the deluxe yellow brass model and a gold brass professional model with third valve trigger mechanism; the posthorns are available only in yellow brass, wrapped with either imitation or genuine green leather.

Tenor and Bass Trumpets

The bass trumpet in D, C or Bb is required for the Wagner Ring dramas and for a number of contemporary scores as well. The instrument is usually assigned to a utility member of the trombone section and is typically disliked by many players in spite of the wonderful solo passages assigned to the instrument. Again, we suspect that this attitude stems not just from a lack of familiarity with the instrument (the Wagner Ring is certainly not standard repertory at many of the world's opera houses) but also from the trauma of having to play exposed solos on an instrument that is all too often unresponsive, lacking in tone quality, and problematic in intonation.

Josef Dotzauer, in addition to their extremely wide assortment of other brass instruments, also produce an excellent professional quality rotary valve bass trumpet in Bb which is capable of truly musical results. This instrument is extremely compact in design, well-balanced in distribution of weight, and produces a true bass trumpet (as opposed to tenor horn or trombone) tone quality. The rotary valves are precision built and operate effortlessly, affording the player outstanding response and an excellent legato even in the low register. Josef Dotzauer also produces a tenor trumpet in low Bb which has a smaller bell and bore size than the bass trumpet.

Piccolo Trumpets

In addition to their standard Bb and C trumpets, as well as their low-pitched instruments, the Dotzauer workshop also produces an excellent and very reasonably priced rotary valve piccolo trumpet in Bb/A. These instruments are very similar in appearance to the piccolos made by the East German Scherzer workshop, but they are more consistent in quality and uniform in tone. They provide excellent intonation and a relatively full tone that avoids the nasal quality common to many other piccolo designs. They have four valves, as do most professional piccolos; the fourth valve, operated by the right little finger, is available either with a lever in-line with the other three valves or a longer, offset lever, to compensate for the shorter length of the little finger. We usually keep just the offset model in stock, but are happy to get in-line instruments on special order for customers preferring that style of instrument.

Rotary Trumpets in Jazz

The jazz trumpet players who have visited our exhibits at the New York Brass Conference or the ITG Conferences in the past two decades, many of whom had never played a rotary valve trumpet before, have been greatly impressed with the jazz potential of these instruments. The greater fluidity and warmer tone quality, the shorter finger movement and greater ease in operating the uniball linkage of the rotary valves, and the accurate yet tapered response attack have earned these instruments much favorable comment among some of the most accomplished jazz artists in the country. This crossover between the jazz and symphonic schools of brass playing is indeed a heartening and healthy trend. A number of prominent jazz artists have purchased rotary valve trumpets and flügelhorns from us and are using them regularly in their club and studio work.

The Future of American Trumpet Playing

The audition lists for most American orchestras, both major and minor, now generally require several excerpts to be prepared and played on rotary valve trumpets. An informal survey of several friends playing in the trumpet sections of major American orchestras seems to indicate that some orchestras are now using rotary valve instruments a good 50% of the time. We have no doubt that, within the next five to ten years, more players will also be using the orchestral F trumpet as well for the substantial body of late nineteenth century music specifying that instrument. The F trumpet is also clearly a better choice for the classical and early romantic trumpet parts in F, E, Eb, D, and C, since it can be "crooked" down to the other keys by the valves and then actually played as a natural trumpet.

Let's face it, the days when an orchestral player could make do with only one or two instruments are past and gone forever. Today's orchestral player is expected to be equally proficient on a wide variety of instruments from the Bb/A piccolo through the high G, F, Eb, and D trumpets, the standard C and Bb instruments, both piston and rotary, and in the near future the low F orchestral trumpet as well. The younger conductors now coming to the fore are generally better informed and more musically sensitive than many of their predecessors, much to the relief of the long-suffering orchestral player; they are, however, also making much greater demands upon their players as well. The end result, we hope, will be more flexible orchestral musicians and better performances. While a few players will undoubtedly grumble about having to "keep up" an increasing number of instruments, the best of today's younger orchestral musicians seem to have no problem doing all of this and doing it better than the preceding generation of players, which had fewer instruments and far less literature to master. When one considers the increasing number of players who are now also playing natural baroque trumpet as well, it is clear that the profession has come a long way in the past two decades.

The price of a custom-made rotary valve trumpet is always going to be higher than a massed-produced piston valve trumpet, due to both the complexity of construction, the amount of handwork required, and the cost of the valves themselves. In comparison to a French horn with similar rotary valves, a rotary valve trumpet seems much more reasonable in price. We urge you to try one of these excellent rotary valve trumpets by Josef Dotzauer in your studio and concert hall at no obligation whatsoever. If you do not agree that these instruments are the finest available and substantially superior to any rotary valve trumpet you have ever played in spite of their extremely low prices, you may return it to us via UPS after one week's trial for a full refund.

Copyright, Antique Sound Workshop, Ltd., 1998 & 2002. All rights reserved.

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