If you think the brass family got its name because the instruments are made of brass, you're right! This family of instruments can play louder than any other in the orchestra and can also be heard from far away. Although their early ancestors are known to have been made of wood, tusks, animal horns or shells, today's modern instruments are made entirely of brass. Brass instruments are essentially very long pipes that widen at their ends into a bell-like shape. The pipes have been curved and twisted into different shapes to make them easier to hold and play.
Like the woodwind family, brass players use their breath to produce sound, but instead of blowing into a reed, you vibrate your own lips by buzzing them against a metal cup-shaped mouthpiece. The mouthpiece helps to amplify the buzzing of the lips, which creates the sound. Most brass instruments have valves attached to their long pipes; the valves look like buttons. When you press down on the valves, they open and close different parts of the pipe. You change the pitch and sound by pressing different valves and buzzing your lips harder or softer. The brass family members that are most commonly used in the orchestra include the trumpet, French horn, trombone, and the tuba.
The ancestors of the modern trumpet have been a part of human culture for a very long time. Old trumpet-like instruments played by ancient peoples were made of conch-shell, animal horn, wood or metal. Throughout history the trumpet has been used to sound alarms, gather people together, as a call to war, and to add luster to parade music. Like the violin, the trumpet is the smallest member of its family and plays the highest pitches with its bright and vibrant sound. Today's modern trumpet is a slender brass pipe with three attached valves, which is curved and bent into long loops. If you stretched out the trumpet to its full length, it would be 6 ½ feet long! There are 2 to 4 trumpets in an orchestra and they play both melody and harmony and also support the rhythm. You play the trumpet by holding it horizontally, buzzing your lips into the mouthpiece, and pressing down the three valves in various combinations to change pitch.
Unlike the English horn, which is neither English nor a horn, the French horn does originally come from France and is unquestionably a horn. It comes from the French hunting horn of the 1600s, and produces a wide variety of sound ranging from very loud to very soft, and from harsh and blaring to mellow and smooth. The French horn's 18 feet of tubing is rolled up into a circular shape, with a large bell at its end. There are anywhere from 2 to 8 French horns in an orchestra, and they play both melody and harmony as well as rhythm. To play the French horn, hold it with the bell curving downward and buzz into the mouthpiece. Your left hand plays the three valves and you can change the type of sound you make by the way you place your right hand in the bell.
The trombone is the only instrument in the brass family that uses a slide instead of valves to change pitch. A standard trombone is made of long thin brass pipes. Two U-shaped pipes are linked at opposite ends to form an "S." One pipe slides into the other so the total length of the pipe can be extended or shortened. You play the trombone by holding it horizontally, buzzing into the mouthpiece, and using your right hand to change pitch by pushing or pulling the slide to one of seven different positions. If you stretch the trombone out straight, it is about 9 feet long. There are usually 3 trombones in the orchestra and they play pitches in the same range as the cello and bassoon. The three trombones often play harmonies together.
This is the grandfather of the brass family. The tuba is the largest and lowest brass instrument and anchors the harmony not only of the brass family but the whole orchestra with its deep rich sound. Like the other brasses, the tuba is a long metal tube, curved into an oblong shape, with a huge bell at the end. Tubas range in size from 9 to 18 feet; the longer they are, the lower they sound. Standard tubas have about 16 feet of tubing. There is generally only one tuba in an orchestra and it usually plays harmony. You play the tuba sitting down with the instrument on your lap and the bell facing up. You blow and buzz into a very large mouthpiece and use your hand to press down on the valves which changes the sound. It takes a lot of breath to make sound with the tuba!