Whilst most of the trumpets you will come across will be a piston valve design, occasionally you can spot trumpet players playing a different designed instrument with rotary valves, resembling the valve systems used on French Horns.
There are many ways in which rotary valves differ from piston valves – the design of the instrument, the design and weight of the valves and the way the valves move within the valve cases are just a few examples.
Piston valves trumpets are the most commonly used valve system, particularly in jazz and marching band settings. When pressed, piston valves reroute the air through an additional length of tubing altering the pitch of the instrument by moving a cylindrical block inside a cylindrical casing. The valve spring then returns the valve to its original position.
Piston valves provide players with a clear, clean movement and as the distance the valve travels is relatively far, techniques such as “half-valving” can be easily applied and fast passages can be played giving each note clear definition. Piston valves are easy to maintain and water can easily be released via the water keys fitted to some of the slides. In general, piston trumpets offer a brighter, more focused tone than their rotary valved counterparts. The design of piston trumpets also tend to be more comfortable to hold, which is worth considering if playing for a significant amount of time.
Rotary valves achieve the same redirection of airflow as the piston valves, but via a different method. Instead of using an up and down movement, rotary valves rotate 90 degrees to divert the airflow. This valve design results in less movement, offering a much smoother transition between notes ideal for lyrical playing.
Rotary trumpets tend to offer a broad, mellow tone making them much easier to blend when playing in an ensemble setting. This style of trumpet are particularly popular with classical and baroque musicians, playing music where the trumpet is used as a key part of the ensemble and required to blend with other instruments.
However, rotary valves do require significantly more maintenance the piston valve trumpets, with different oils required to lubricate the linkage mechanism as the rotor system. Emptying water from these models can also be more effort, as often water keys will not be fitted and therefore the slides will need to be removed to emptied, taking significantly more time.
Taking all these factors into account, it’s easy to see why piston valved instruments have become the most mainstream models of trumpet – easier to maintain, more comfortable to hold and offering more precision on the faster passages that are so often required of the trumpet these days. However, for the purist playing particular types of music requiring a darker sound and a resonant timbre, playing a rotary trumpet is worth the hassle for the overall end result.
JP Musical Instruments has a piccolo trumpet which has rotary valves.
Check out the JP154 here.