Oh boy. Mutes!!! …those things you stick on the end of a horn that changes the trumpet’s (or trombone’s) glorious sound to something quite different. Why, you ask???
It is the fault of all those darn arrangers and composers from decades ago. Dance bands of the 20’s and 30’s experimented with different effects, and many solos from that time are noted for the sound of the mute that was used at the time.
So why use mutes now? Composers are still writing for the change of timbre within the songs. The picture shows some basic mutes. Do you need them all? The young player and his/her parents need to know what order mutes start appearing in the band music. It is a common occurrence in middle school band music to see a request for a straight mute. Humes and Berg or Denis Wick make the most common straight mutes of fiberboard. Metal mutes of different alloys offer better intonation throughout the playable ranges and different timbres. Straight mutes can be found in a number of concert band selections and is a must for all players of the brass section.
If your player is involved with a jazz ensemble, the next mutes to acquire are the cup mute, harmon (or wow wow) mute and common plunger. Cup mutes of fiber are fine. The adjustable cup mutes are becoming more popular because you can alter how close to the bell you can get the cup, changing the timbre. You can choose aluminum or copper cup mutes depending on depth of sound you want.
The wow wows also have an adjustable stem. Most often in modern music, stems are not needed, but when the director needs the mutes to be louder, you will need to put the stems back in.
Plungers, well, are plungers. You really don’t need the stick!!! You do have a choice on size though, depending on the size of the student’s hand and instrument bell. Usually the smaller plungers work well for trumpets and the larger for the trombones. Personal preference will, of course, be up to the player.
Bucket mutes are sometimes called for in trumpet music. You can get around having a bucket just by playing into the stand with the bell an inch away from the music. Bucket mutes can also be used when flugelhorns are called for and the player doesn’t own one.
Another useful tool is a practice mute. For those who live in small places, the practice mute is a good idea if you want to remain friends with your neighbors. Practice mutes can be the mute alone, or have a digital/electronic component with earphones and settings to simulate various environments.
So, the next time you hear a good high school or college jazz ensemble, pay attention to what the brass players are doing. You will be amazed what a difference a mute or change of instruments, play within the ensemble.