/ News / Sarah Jessen explains rotary trumpets

Curtis students will perform on rotary trumpets for Bruckner's Symphony No. 9. Learn more about what makes these instruments unique.

Sarah Jessen in rehearsal with a rotary trumpetThis weekend, when Yannick Nézet-Séguin leads the Curtis Symphony Orchestra, attentive audience members may notice a special sound from the brass: During Bruckner's Symphony No. 9 in D minor, the trumpet section will perfom on brand-new rotary trumpets, purchased with support from Dr. Bong S. Lee. We sat down with trumpet student Sarah Jessen to learn more about what makes these instruments special, and how they'll make an impact in the concert.


What is a rotary trumpet? How does it differ from the "standard" trumpet that audiences are familiar with?

A rotary trumpet uses “rotary valves” which work by rotating 90 degrees once pressed, redirecting the airflow through a longer set of tubing and lowering the pitch. These valves are the standard for the French horn in orchestras across the globe. Piston valves are what one would see on the “standard” trumpets American audiences are accustomed to, and are pressed down to redirect airflow.


Trumpet students Justin Bernardi (L), Sarah Jessen (C), and Omri Barak (R) show off Curtis's new rotary trumpets.Are there other differences beyond the rotary-style valves, compared to a piston trumpet? Does it feel different to you as a player?

While it may seem like these two types of trumpet simply use a different means to achieve the same end, the different valves do affect the sound. For instance, rotary trumpets generally are said to have a darker and warmer sound as well as more decay on ends of notes, while piston trumpets are used for their bright and vibrant sound, their immediacy of response, and crisp articulation.

As a player, I do notice a large difference in the “feel” of the horn, meaning how it transitions from note to note, and where the notes are placed. Additionally, articulation is different: It takes more effort to get a sharp, harsh attack that I am accustomed to as an American brass player who primarily uses a piston trumpet. Because the sound quality  is naturally darker, it takes more effort to force the horn into more "orange" and fiery tone qualities. Also, as a trumpet player who is accustomed to piston trumpets I usually find the rotary to be a bit hard on the hands. This is because rotary trumpets are “sideways” in comparison to piston trumpets and don’t offer a great place for my hands to grip the horn.


What makes these instruments ideal for the Bruckner Symphony that the CSO is performing this weekend? Are there other works or style of music that they are used for?

Bruckner 9 has so much power and emotion, often in the form of rich chords in the brass as well as various brass soli sections. The rotary’s warmth, its ability to phrase, and its similarity in articulation to the French horn allows for a better blend within the brass section. The result is a very resonant and warm sound quality.

Interestingly enough, the rotary and piston trumpets were developed at the same time, in the 1830s, but they were adopted regionally. As a result, within American orchestras rotary trumpets are generally used for German and Austrian Classical and Romantic repertoire from the likes of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Bruckner, as well as repertoire originally intended for valveless "natural trumpets," in an effort to honor what the composer originally had in mind for the sound profile of the trumpet. Meanwhile, many European orchestras use the rotary for all types of repertoire.

What should the audience listen for during the Bruckner? Will they be able to notice the difference in the sound of the rotary trumpets, as opposed to the piston trumpets that they'll hear on the rest of the program?
With a little bit of knowledge on their side, the audience should definitely be able to hear a difference from the rotaries, particularly in regards to trumpet solo sections and brass chords. In such sections, the audience should listen especially for the warmth and depth of the brass. It will certainly contrast with the sharper and far brighter trumpet sound they'll hear in the French selections that are also on the program. Also, it can’t hurt to get a good peek at these slightly odd-looking "sideways" trumpets, which are notably much more shiny and gold than the pistons we generally use!


Tickets are still available for this weekend's concerts in Verizon Hall and at Immaculata University!

The Weimann rotary trumpets used in Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9 were donated to Curtis by Dr. Bong S. Lee in memory of Dr. Mi-Wha Lee.