As you can see from the photograph above, Petunia the cat is somewhat suspicious of all these objects. She is right to be. Obsessed over by composers and arrangers, mutes are essential tools for trumpet players, but many of us view them more as a necessary evil than as an expressive gift. They can wreak havoc on instruments that already present challenges with regard to intonation, articulation, and projection at different dynamic levels. The problems that I have noticed with myself, students, and fellow performers can usually be attributed to one, or more often all, of the following three causes:
Failure to practice regularly with one’s mutes
It is often as simple as this. If a student is struggling to achieve a clear, in-tune, characteristic sound with a mute, the solution might simply be to spend more time with the mute. Pick your favorite flexibility or articulation studies, and play them with a Harmon mute. Put in a straight mute and have a go at some Clarke studies or an étude you know well. A muted trumpet is a different trumpet, and requires its own dedicated work on fundamentals and musicianship.
Failure to adjust one’s tuning slide(s) to accommodate pitch tendencies
This is a big one. The basic pitch tendencies of our most commonly used mutes are:
Straight - sharp
Cup - flat
Harmon - very sharp
Bucket - oy veh
Plunger - toilet
While I strongly recommend adjusting the main tuning slide for virtually all mutes, given enough time by the composer/arranger, I find that it is most critical for cup and Harmon mutes, for the simple reason that physics has given us an instrument that bends down much farther and more easily than it bends up, but that bending a pitch down too far for too long is unduly taxing and best avoided. Still, I prefer slide adjustments for all mutes, including straight. If there is not enough time when adding or removing the mute to adjust the main tuning slide, I will often make use of the first and third valve slides, when applicable, to adjust the pitch, or I might even select alternative fingerings. My goal with all adjustments is to reduce the work involved in playing, and make my sound production mechanism as similar as possible between all mutes and the open horn. The clearest evidence that a player’s approach to adding a mute is flawed are the problems that ensue once the mute is removed, such as loss of response, lack of clarity in the sound, and simple fatigue.
The plunger mute is a whole other thing, with and without pixie, and I recommend this video for an explanation and demonstration by a true master, Jon-Erik Kellso:
Flawed sound production technique, often involving a reliance on over-blowing that is exacerbated by the presence of a mute
Contrary to the instructions of many a band director, “more air” is not the solution to everything. An extraordinary percentage of trumpet students try, with limited success, to throw air at all their problems, often in combination with an addiction to forceful tonguing. The antidote here is generally to regularly and diligently attempt quiet and clear breath attacks until response is immediate and unforced. Depending on how deeply ingrained the player’s bad habits are, this might involve other tactics for retraining, and years of patient work. Once a mute is added, the efficient player will be better positioned to negotiate with it productively. The inefficient player will attempt to dictate terms to the muted trumpet, which will, not unlike Petunia the cat, haughtily ignore all demands.
To this short list I will add two more common causes of mute trouble:
Poor design, manufacturing, or condition of mutes
Mutes with corks that have been sanded down too little or too much
As always, please feel free to leave comments or questions below, and thank you for reading.