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Music professor makes 17th century style trumpet

October 29, 2015

Pieces of Shuler’s partially finished trumpet await assembly on a workbench. (Contributed Photo) Pieces of Shuler’s partially finished trumpet await assembly on a workbench. (Contributed Photo)
The bell of the trumpet shows the marks of a fine scraper used to polish its surface. (Contributed Photo) The bell of the trumpet shows the marks of a fine scraper used to polish its surface. (Contributed Photo)
Shuler holds the piece of brass that will form the bell of his natural trumpet. (Contributed Photo) Shuler holds the piece of brass that will form the bell of his natural trumpet. (Contributed Photo)
Soldering and annealing the brass trumpet leaves a black finish which is removed by scraping. (Contributed Photo) Soldering and annealing the brass trumpet leaves a black finish which is removed by scraping. (Contributed Photo)
Hand tools are used to make cuts in the brass pieces that form the trumpet. (Contributed Photo) Hand tools are used to make cuts in the brass pieces that form the trumpet. (Contributed Photo)
Sid Shuler Sid Shuler

CHADRON – Tooting your own horn probably comes naturally for a music professor who specializes in the trumpet.

After participating in an International Trumpet-making Workshop this summer, Dr. Sidney Shuler, assistant professor of music and Director of Bands at Chadron State College, can really do just that – on an instrument he made himself.

The trumpet Shuler created isn’t the conventional three-valve instrument of today, though, but a ‘natural trumpet’ based on the design of one built by Hanns Hainlein in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1632. Shuler made it using hand tools and methods of the 17th Century.

“We started with sheets of brass,” Shuler said of the intensive, five-day workshop in Bloomington, Indiana, where each of the 12 participants built their own playable, high-quality trumpet. “We used older style jigs, mandrels and tools that very much would have been present at the time.”

Shuler said he has been interested in the natural trumpet, also known as a straight trumpet, since his undergraduate days, after hearing a recording of the trumpet part in Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2.

“This recording really hit me because it’s hard to play even on a modern piccolo trumpet,” Shuler said. “It lit a fire under me. I thought it would be really cool to learn how to do that.”

The impulse took a back seat for almost a decade, while Shuler completed his advanced degrees and started teaching, but was revived last summer, when he and his wife, Pamela, who teaches clarinet at CSC, were at a music festival in Edinburgh, Scotland.

“We found a music instrument museum. They were doing a concert in there and four or five guys were playing straight trumpets,” he said. In talking to the performers, Shuler learned that they had made their instruments at an International Trumpet-making Workshop (ITW) with Richard Seraphinoff.

Shuler said he had heard of the ITW, and of Seraphinoff, who teaches at Indiana University, and decided he would try to attend. CSC was supportive of the idea, and a faculty grant helped with the cost of the course, he said.

Seraphinoff, veteran natural trumpet maker Robert Barclay and Michael Münkwitz, of Rostock, Germany, lead the trumpet-making workshops, which are limited to a dozen participants and offered several times each year in Bloomington and various European locations. Their website, seraphinoff.com/itw, claims over 500 trumpets have been built at workshops over the past 20 years.

Shuler said his prior metal working experience was limited to a class in junior high school, and early in the workshop he managed to cut his thumb on a sharp piece of brass. He enjoyed the work, though, and was able to complete the trumpet despite his injury. A variety of tasks, including cutting, filing, soldering, hammering and annealing the brass pieces, and polishing the metal using a razor sharp scraper, were involved in the project, he said.

The trumpet he created plays well and Shuler has already demonstrated it for his CSC students. “I think it’s going to spark (interest),” he said, adding that it will be particularly useful for teaching trumpet players about the history of their instrument.

Using the trumpet for public performances could be a challenge, however, for a couple of reasons. “You can’t play very many notes on a straight trumpet. Without valves you are limited to the harmonic series,” Shuler said.

And, although music written for the natural trumpet is available, the sound of instruments has changed over the past 200 years.

“Today, when we play A, it’s 440 Herz. In the Baroque era, it was 415 Herz, a half-step lower,” Shuler said. “All music from that era was written for that. This instrument doesn’t play well with our modern instruments.”

Despite the limitations, the idea of building an historic instrument appeals to a range of people, Shuler said. While most workshop participants were musicians, some had never played trumpet at all, he said, and he was told that even non-musicians have taken the course.

Shuler said he enjoyed the trumpet-making workshop so much that he got an idea of trying to hold one here in Chadron.

“They do it in several spots. Out here is as beautiful (as the other locations),” he said. “It would be interesting to see what could happen here.”

—George Ledbetter

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