19 February 2014

Copper in the Arts

The Art and History of Brass Musical Instruments

By Donna Dvorak

Through the ages, copper and brass instruments have been used in an assortment of capacities, and are still popular today throughout the world. In the famous Broadway Show The Music Man, its memorable tune "76 Trombones" by Robert Meredith Willson is belted out in a parade with copper and brass musical instruments gleaming like a beautiful sea of copper.

But, what comprises a brass instrument? Anthony Baines, author of European & American Musical Instruments, states that brass instruments are defined as instruments that produce a tone by vibration of the lips as the player blows into a tubular resonator. Also known as labrosones, brass instruments are constructed of brass and other corrosion resistant, easy-to-fabricate copper alloys.

The actual description of brass instruments are dependent on the overtone series first studied and analyzed by the Greek philosopher Pythagoras. A string or vibrating air column in the case of a brass instrument will tend to vibrate at certain frequencies based on the length of the string or tube. The fundamental pitch is the lowest natural note with other possible notes one octave above the fundamental, followed by a perfect fifth, fourth and up. Modern brass instruments usually alter the length of the tubing through valves, including the slide still used by today's trombonists. The Roman Tuba, Lituus and Buccina, and other early brass instruments were made of bronze combined with animal horns, like the Scandinavian lur, and the Roman cornu.

Getzen Brass Instruments: Then and Now

Musical instruments are a long-standing family tradition of the Getzen family that began in 1939 in a converted dairy barn behind their family home in Elkhorn, Wisconsin. Three employees concentrated on band instrument repair and they produced their first trombones in 1946. They're now producers of world-class trumpets, cornets, fluegelhorns, and trombones.

"Now, we make approximately 15,000 instruments a year and we send them all over the world," says Brett Getzen, Special Projects Manager and great-grandson of the founder Anthony James Getzen. "Tony originally worked for another band instrument manufacturer but, in 1939, branched out to start his own company. When he began building horns in the late 1940's, he used a copper trim. Copper has also been used for quite a while to create resonant bells. We have two kinds of copper bells - one made here from copper tubing for the bell and the other kind is electroplated. They take a steel mandrel and plate copper onto that until it's thick enough to break away - and then you have a bell blank. When you create a bell for a trumpet you spin it on a lathe to get the tapered look, and the blank looks like a bell that, at that point, isn't the right size - yet. At that time in the production, it can become several things. One example is several different bells on trumpets. The rate of paper to the bell, the size of the throat and flare determines how the horn sounds and plays, so according to what you're trying to achieve, we make these copper blanks into different bells, depending on how we spin them. The largest copper instrument we have is the trumpet bell. We also use copper in our plating and use copper plate as a basecoat before we do a silver plating. We put a thick layer of copper on before we put the silver on because the copper makes the silver more illustrious and provides a distinguished tone, as well."


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