Playing the Cornetto — Cornetto Learning and Practice Journal

For some years, I’d thought it would be cool to learn to play a mellow lip-reed instrument (cornetto, flügelhorn, French horn, etc.) or maybe a natural trumpet.

At the Berkeley Festival Exhibition in June of 2016 I got to see & hear a cornetto (the most excellent wind instrument) live and decided I’d sure like to learn to play one, especially after I saw some YouTube videos (like this) of how the instrument sounds played by a real pro. Only problem was that when I tried at the Exhibition, I couldn’t get much, other than a couple squeaky notes out of the thing — and mostly just hot air.

Inspired by this video, I figured it would be fun to document my progress learning the cornetto from as early in the learning process as possible. If you’d like to hear any sound clips of all this stuff, email me thru the Contact page. (WordPress charges an extra fee to have sound clips here.)

July 8, 2017

I attended a few of the concerts of the SFEMS mediaeval and renaissance workshop this week, which were fun & inspiring. I got to meet a couple of other cornetto players, very nice folks who can really play well, and we chatted a bit about the instrument and details of technique.

Puttering along in my own practice, I’m delighted that I finally figured out the lip, mouth, & jaw position to get C4 to be a nice clear note with minimal wind noise. Next task will be to spend a few months working on being able to play each note (up to, say, A6) exactly on pitch, with lots of help from the tuner app. Do I have a precise enough ear to play within a few cents of exact pitch? And all the while continuing to build my mouth musculature to be able to play loudly to bring out the instrument’s characteristic timbre.

Still working on smooth harmonic slurs in the high register on my factitious instruments.

June 4, 2017

I’m continuing to practice mostly my factitious horn (11.5 foot tube + funnel + french horn mouthpiece), but also my factitious trumpet (6.5 foot tube + funnel + trumpet mouthpiece) and my cornetto. I’m making good progress, getting much better control of notes and coordinating tongue placement, embouchure, mouth corner strength, etc. Each different pitch requires a slightly different mouth configuration; I can play harmonic slurs pretty easily and starting to experiment with the ‘t’ and ‘k’ articulations. Range is continuing to improve. While it still takes a few tries to get it, I can sound a D7 on my cornetto sometimes. A6 is now a pretty easy note. Even on my factitious horn, the hardest of the three to play high notes on, G#6 is not hard. Of course playing in this high range is very tiring!! Lately I’ve been trying to play simple low register melodies on my cornetto, to learn fingering — and think I have started to get the wind noise in the lowest register, especially around C4, under control.

March 6, 2017

Big news: I received my French horn mouthpiece today and it plays great in my factitious horn. I’ll be focusing almost exclusively on that instrument (rather than the cornetto) for the next couple months in preparation for playing fanfares and calls outdoors during the summer astronomy season, as noted on the main page.

Late last night I very briefly achieved a note between E7 and F7 buzzing my lips without a mouthpiece.

March 4, 2017

Wow it’s been a while since I added a journal entry! I’ve been puttering along with my cornetto, and over time have built up my embouchure to be able to play some pretty high notes. A lot of this is involved with learning to exert almost no mouthpiece pressure, and I’ve found how useful it is to place my tongue up and forward to help high notes.

I am focused on working up to being able to easily play C7. I practice in short little segments throughout the day. I also practice on my factitious horn (see main page posting) and sometimes just buzzing my lips without the mouthpiece. Last night I recorded my highest unassisted lip buzz, a D7. I’m working on being able to slur smoothly over the whole 3 octave historic range, which is difficult because I find my embouchure has a high and low mode that I have yet to fully integrate. One thing that’s nice is that F5 is a pretty easy note now; when I’m well rested I can often play G6 or A6 without much trouble and F6 (3rd harmonic of all holes open) is a pretty readily playable note.

I’m also getting much better at getting reliable and dependable tones in the lower (A3 – A5), more useful, sections of the range. Especially in the first octave I can play nice slow tunes with actually very good pitch accuracy. The A3 – A4 range are getting to be loud and stable tones.

November 20, 2016

I’ve been trying to be a good student, focusing on the normal range of the cornetto, A5 and below. But I guess I’m just too enthralled with the ethereal beauty of those high notes in the F5 to C7 range. So I decided I might as well work on those for awhile, with an especial focus on proper technique and very importantly, not pressing the mouthpiece.

I’m getting less wind noise in C4 under control and the other notes (E5 and below) are sounding much bigger and better.

I was thinking of getting a plastic bugle to bring on my winter trip, but after seeing this video decided I would do just as well to buy a long funnel, a cheap mouthpiece, and various lengths of plastic tubing. (more details soon)

October 27, 2016

On Sunday (10/23) I had my 2nd lesson with my teacher. He gave me a few new exercises to work on and also highly recommended switching my embouchure a bit.

In other news, on 10/25/16 I achieved D7, D#7, and E7 that were more than just transients. These are still rare events, but getting easier. But mainly I am focusing on getting better sound in the normal range of the instrument (A3 to A5) and harmonic slurs.

I’m also getting much better with my vuvuzela and can now play its first 6 harmonics without too much trouble. They are: A3, A4, E5, A#5, D6, F6.

October 9, 2016

tiny-cornettoI was at the Vegetarian Festival and one of the folks with a booth there was flutist Monica. She had a variety of end-blown flutes for sale and for people to try. In the interest of hygiene, she provided short pieces of plastic tube for each person to use to blow the flute rather than putting their mouths right on it. (see image)

I had some fun with her flutes, demonstrating the basics of flute tuning and construction to various people, including the use of an intonation roller, a concept totally unknown outside of organ building.

Being in a slightly goofy mood, I was curious to see if that tube could be played like a tiny cornetto. The answer is yes! – it plays about an F7 just as acoustic theory would suggest based on its length and cylindrical profile. The fact that my lip shapes allow me to play this pitch — even with no proper mouthpiece — I think bodes well for the development of my eventual high register playing ability.

Meanwhile, I am continuing to get slightly better playing harmonic slurs on my real cornetto.

September 30, 2016

Lately, I’ve been watching some of the videos on the Mystery to Mastery web site. These have given me some new ideas about how to practice more efficiently and effectively. Mr. Spence’s teachings really make a lot of sense and some preliminary noodling with high notes based on them seem very promising!

I’ve been kind of amazed not to see any cornetti for sale on eBay lately, wow I was lucky to get mine.

September 20, 2016

One doesn’t need to browse the Internet for long to learn that many trumpet players have a curious propensity to want to play really high notes. And this newbie cornetto player does too. I’ve been lately distracted by high notes, and of course find them very hard to play with anything like proper technique. However, I read an interesting bit of advice for trumpet players trying to play those high notes, tried the concept, and it actually worked for me. 🙂

So to summarize, here’s my high note report as of today:
F5 – getting more stable, clear, and predictable
A#5 – pretty often (“high C” in trumpet terminology)
B5 – fairly often, difficult
C6 – reasonably often, difficult
D#6 – reasonably often, difficult
E6 and F6 – playable briefly as harmonics of all-open fingering, unstable
G#6 – briefly squeakable
A6 – briefly squeaked for the first time on 9/7/16
A#6 – briefly detected on 9/19/16 (what the trumpet folks call “double high C”)
A7 – detected for just an instant on 9/19/16

(The key tool is the gStrings app)

So these notes are at least in theory playable by me on my cornetto. With this assurance, I can now return to the main task: getting beautiful sound quality in the first 2 octaves. (which I define as G#3 to A#5)

September 15, 2016

Some silly playing with high notes lately. On 9/7 a measured A6 was briefly squeaked with very poor technique. I expect it will be a matter of years before I can play it with correct technique. More serious practice with my cornetto nowadays involves long notes in the C5 to A5 range, and working on getting cleaner sound in the G3 to G#4 range.

I was looking at the violin part of Pachelbel’s famous Canon in D major which calls for a D7 as its highest note. By contrast, I don’t see any mention on the Internet of anything higher than G6 or maybe A6 as a playable cornetto note.

In other news, I can now more reliably play the 2nd overtone of my vuvuzela, which is almost exactly E5. As noted before, it’s a pretty weak resonance.

I found this very cool and jazzy cornetto and accordion piece.

September 3, 2016

I’ve been playing around with high notes and can occasionally play as high as F6 and even G#6, but these are squeaks rather than notes and done with bad technique! (n.b. F6 would be the 3rd harmonic of the all-holes-open fingering, and G#6 not quite reaching the 4th harmonic which should be A6 or Bb6)

August 30, 2016

Wow it’s been a while since I updated this journal! Anyway, I’m continuing to make good progress with my cornetto. I’m learning how to not get wind noise in my notes. I can now nearly always hit the low notes (G3, G#3, A3) and often without wind noise. A favorite practice sequence is A3-D4-E4-F#4-A4.

Maybe in coming months I’ll be able to regularly play the series Bb4-D5-E5-F#5-Bb5. I still have a lot of work to do in getting the notes above about C5 to be nice and easy. I can now play from E5 to A5 with some difficulty — it’s not a beautiful, stable, or well-controlled sound. Funny that G5 seems a very difficult note for me, while G4 is easy (and generally considered the easiest note on the instrument).

Playing notes above A5 is a matter of luck and bad technique. 🙂

I can sometimes get the 2nd and maybe 3rd overtone on my vuvuzela, however, it’s obvious that the fundamental and 1st overtone on the vuvuzela are the strong resonances, while the 2nd overtone and above are pretty weak.

I put a tuning app on my smart phone which is very handy in seeing exactly what note I’m playing and how far out of tune it is. It’s interesting that the 1st overtone on my vuvuzela is almost exactly A-440Hz.

July 12, 2016

The big news of the week is that I got a lesson from the Bay Area’s resident cornetto teacher on 7/10. It was a real eye- and ear-opener. I learned that I should play louder (my sound being heretofore wimpy compared to the bold sound demonstrated by my teacher), play long notes, and work on cleanly starting and stopping notes. I learned lots of little details of embouchure too. Now when I practice I can really feel my flabby mouth muscles are getting a workout. And the good news is that my upper lip is an acceptable, if not ideal, shape for brass playing.

I can now sometimes manage to squeak an F5, but for the most part E5 is the highest note I can reliably play. The low notes below C4 (i.e. middle c) are still pretty iffy. Impressively, my teacher is able to play the 2nd overtone on the vuvuzela, so I know it’s in there, but except for a couple times maybe I can’t produce it.

besides a few cornetti, my teacher also had a baroque trumpet in his briefcase — what a beautiful and impressive instrument! I got to try that and that’s very cool. The trumpet mouthpiece feels enormous by comparison to the tiny cornetto mouthpiece.

I’m realizing that the cornetto, and even more so, baroque & natural trumpets, are extroverted instruments. Being a bit shy, I think learning to play them will be good for me. 🙂

July 5, 2016

I’ve had my cornetto for a bit more than a week so far, and I’ve been surprised how quickly I’ve been able to make progress. My hands can now situate on the holes, and I’m beginning to get more, and nicer-sounding notes, out of it. It’s a matter of slowly learning to adjust lip tension to get a clear tone for each combination of holes covered. (muffled = too tight, rattly = too loose, no sound = way off pitch)

During the first few days I was able to play more and more notes in the lower register (approx. G3 to A4). In the past couple days I increasingly am able to play notes in the upper register (Bb4 and above). First, E5 was the highest I could play; as of today I can sometimes squeak an F#5. 🙂

In other news, while I can now easily get the fundamental and 1st overtone on my vuvuzela, the 2nd overtone still eludes me.

June 28, 2016

I got my cornetto yesterday, here’s a picture:
It’s a pretty large instrument – about 2 feet long. At top you can see the weirdly small removeable mouthpiece.

The first thing I discovered is that it is really difficult to place my hands to cover all the holes properly – My hands are probably a little too small for optimum playing. Maybe I’ll do some hand yoga to extend my reach, or it may just get easier with practice.

June 19, 2016

Great news: I was the high bidder on a used cornetto on eBay, got it for 1/3 less than the cheapest new one I saw offered elsewhere.

June 17, 2016

Here is my first journal entry.

I have a vuvuzela, which with great difficulty (and awful technique) I could sometimes get 2 notes out of.