In Praise of Plastic

Discussion in 'The Rehearsal Room' started by Jack E, Sep 8, 2017.

  1. Jack E

    Jack E Well-Known Member

    I've read with interest various reactions on YouTube and various forums as to the pros and cons of Ptrumpets and Pbones - but this video puts the arguments in perspective:

    One commenter below asks "Did they hit it with a car?", but the damage came about through years of being played, knocked and dropped (and thrown?) in a school - and it's obvious from the attitude and comments of the repairer (a master tradesman!!) that it's nothing he hasn't seen before.

    If I'd seen the tuba before seeing Jim at work, I'd have said it was only fit for scrap!

    But if that's the common fate of instruments in schools, then - in that setting - Ptrumpets and Pbones make perfect sense, to me. For one thing, they can withstand knocking about far better than something made of very thin, malleable brass sheet; for another, if totally wrecked, then replacement is far cheaper.

    I've watched that video several times, and I'm still awed by what Jim achieves - my respects, sir!

  2. GER

    GER Active Member

    Wow, fantastic to watch a skilled craftsman at work
  3. Tom-King

    Tom-King Well-Known Member

    That's the thing though, brass is repairable - if you drop a plastic one, it'll either bounce or it'll crack, where the brass one dents... The brass one is repairable but the plastic one isn't.

    I've seen some incredibly mangled trumpets brought back to life and you'd struggle to tell they'd been effectively flattened.

    Plus, plastic just plays rubbish - the sound is never the same, response is never the same.

    Maybe worthwhile for very young kids (it'll hurt less if they drop it on themselves, lighter weight to hold, etc) but there's an awful long way to go before they even equal beginner level instruments
  4. Jack E

    Jack E Well-Known Member

    The components are made of ABS, and the Pbone's slide is fibre-glass, both of which are used to make crash helmets, so we aren't talking about brittle stuff like polystyrene! Both materials are far more likely to bounce than crack if dropped - and the makers say, in any case, that cracks can be repaired with superglue.

    You only have to watch the above video to see just how well a battered brass instrument can be pulled back from apparent death - but how much does it cost to do it? And how much does the total cost of such a repair stack up against the cost of throwing away a totally wrecked Pbone or Ptrumpet and buying a new one? They are on sale to private buyers for just over £100 (schools can probably get a discount on that price); how much of a skilled repairer's time can you get for a hundred quid? Not a lot. I recently had a repair done to a tuning slide, one side of which had become detached from the curved end - so the work comprised cleaning up and resoldering the joint, and touching up the finish. Not a huge job by any means - yet that small job cost just over £15. (not that I'm complaining, mind - I thought it was cheap at the price, and Alan Gregory's repairers did it so well that I'm blowed if I can see which side they repaired!)

    So if it cost that much to repair and posh up one soldered joint, how much would it cost to do a sound repair job on a trumpet whose bell had been seriously battered, or a trombone with a badly buckled slide?

    I'm sure they aren't as good as even the cheapest of brass instruments, but I think you're missing the point of them, Tom. They weren't designed to have really good sound and response; like the Austin Seven, they were designed to be tough, forgiving and usable, but - most of all - they were designed to be cheap!

    Exactly - that's the very market that Ptrumpets and Pbones were designed for!
    KenIrvin likes this.
  5. Tom-King

    Tom-King Well-Known Member

    Excuse the snark, but a toothpick is made of wood, which is the same stuff as a baseball bat... it's not about the material, it's about how you use it.

    Sure, you can repair them with superglue if cracks develop or joints break, but they generally play even worse than normal if you do (a friend had one)... these things are neither as fragile as fine china nor as bombproof as a tank - if they're abused, they can (and do) break.

    I don't have to watch the video, I've seen instruments in far worse shape fixed - sure, the cost (in terms of man hours) might be fairly high, but ecologically it's far better than throwing away a worthless piece of plastic and just buying another one... this is a very short-termist view - I'm disappointed how arguments seem to be made for plastic to become the rule rather than the exception, I really don't think that's responsible and nor does it (in my view) afford proper respect for "brass" playing as a discipline.

    But they're not that tough (as you already alluded to, they're considered disposable), they're not forgiving to the player at all - they make it harder, which may be offputting... and they'e usable up to the point that a resonant sound or decent intonation are required (and that's before we get onto them being completely unusable in the high register).

    Yes, they're cheap, but they're cheap because they play far too poorly to justify putting a higher pricetag on.

    I'm not denying that there isn't some place for them, but they're still not very good in any important sense (other than being cheap).

    Is it?
    If they were designed for children too young to treat anything with even basic respect and without the strength to hold up a cornet, they're not musical instruments they're toys - do we want kids imprinted young with the idea that brass instruments are toys? Will this do anything to encourage kids to learn to play more seriously?

    I'm sorry, I just really, really don't see the point - I just see a gimmick that's caught on.
  6. Jack E

    Jack E Well-Known Member

    My point was that the material Ptrumpets are made from is not fragile enough to be damaged by the sort of knock or fall which would inflict significant damage to a brass instrument.

    I didn't deny that, did I? But so does a brass instrument - the difference being that you can damage a brass instrument far more easily, and the repairs could cost far more.

    Such arguments may have been made by others - but NOT by me, either in my original post, or subsequently.

    Toughness is a relative term; as I've said, they are tougher than a comparable brass instrument, which is very easy to damage, even with a very light bump (as I know from personal experience).

    Only when they suffer serious damage. A car of mine suffered serious damage (which could have been repaired) when I skidded on black ice and hit a stone wall. The repair costs were more than the car was worth, so I scrapped the car. Does that make cars 'disposable'? I don't think so.

    As to that, I couldn't say; but I'd hardly have thought that they'd get the testimonials they have from well-known musicians (no matter what endorsement fees they were paid) if they were totally useless, except as toys.

    And that was where I came in, Tom; I never suggested that they should even be considered as a replacement for brass instruments - only as an cheaper alternative to brass in very specific situations.

    Tom, how often do parents try to instil road safety into their children, and get them to treat traffic with respect? And how often do children take in the message, and do their best - but get distracted at the vital moment and run straight across the road? Don't you think exactly the same happens when trying to teach children to treat anything else with the respect that it deserves? And don't you think you're being unfair to teachers and parents who do their best to instil that respect into children - but who are savvy enough to know that genuine accidents will still occur, regardless of their best efforts?

    It will enable more children to play by enabling schools and parents to get them started at much lower cost. Bear in mind, with the budgets many schools (and parents!) have, it isn't a case of them being able to choose between brass and plastic; for many of them, it may be a choice between plastic and what I had when I was at school; tambourines, drums, and triangles.

    As for them playing 'more seriously'; children find it quite normal to start off with a scooter, progress onto a small bike, and then move up to a full-size bike, with each one more capable than the last. I see no reason to assume that, even if they start off with what you consider to be a toy, they won't aspire to greater things. The vital thing, in my view, is to get them started! Their own enthusiasm for getting better at whatever they do will carry them on from there. A small child can throw a ball, say, 20 yards - but they don't stop there, do they? They'll try for 30 yards, then 40 yards, and so on. A boy who enjoys kicking a ball around in the garden with his dad will be encouraged to play in a local under-7s team in the local park. And he won't rest there - he'll set his sights even higher (before being accused of being sexist, I know that girls do just the same!).

    Then we'll have to agree to differ, Tom.

    With best regards,

    KenIrvin likes this.
  7. Jerry

    Jerry Member

    I totally agree - I am teaching my 6-year old on a normal trumpet (he insists on learning the trumpet, not the cornet which might be slight;y easier to handle on account of the different weight distribution) and he manages absolutely fine. Admittedly, the aged instrument he plays is a fairly lightweight one (certainly compared with my first trumpet which I was given when I was 11 years old), but there really is no need for a ptrumpet. My 3-year old is a bit too young for serious tuition, but also manages to produce sounds from a normal instrument - a Jupiter pocket trumpet. Fingers too small to press valves with any particular degree of accuracy, but no probs in terms of holding / handling / note production. And, as you say, it teaches them from the get-go that brass instruments are not toys. Incidentally, either one of mine have yet to drop, or bash a dent into, either of the instruments I mention, so the strategy seems to be working!
  8. Euphonium Lite

    Euphonium Lite Active Member

    One of my bass players bought his plastic Bb tuba to rehearsal last week.

    His main comment is around weight – having done a Whit Friday a few years ago on The Beast, I know Bb basses weigh a ton, but this was a fraction of the weight. Its non-compensating, rotary valved – so not really suitable for contest or even major concert – but for doing a street march, or Christmas Carolling, where there is a lot of standing about he reckons its ideal. It was a lot lighter than my Prestige Euph….

    Other point is that he purchased it as damaged (and got it for a lot cheaper). One of the slides had apparently sheared off, and there were a couple of cracks. Apparently a bit of superglue sorted the problem and its perfectly playable. He does do instrument repairs as a part time thing, but that being the case it makes repairs easily manageable at home for anyone capable of using superglue without spreading it over themselves (I will have to exclude myself from this)

    So they do have a use - not perhaps as a common everyday instrument for serious players - but I think its potentially as good a development in the brass instrument world as the Compensating system or slide triggers, or adding a plug or 2 to a trombone - Im sure each of those was met initially with "whats the purpose of that" in some quarters
  9. Jerry

    Jerry Member

    Yup, agreed, plastic instruments can have their uses - but I think it would be a shame if they became the default go-to for schools and children in general.
  10. Jack E

    Jack E Well-Known Member

    A number of people above seem to have got hold of the wrong end of the stick. I have not - and would not - suggest for one moment that plastic instruments should become standard issue, nor that they are anywhere near as good as brass; to quote the relevant passage in my original post which some of you seem to have overlooked:

    "But if that's the common fate of instruments in schools, then - in that setting - Ptrumpets and Pbones make perfect sense, to me."

    And I stand by that purely personal opinion.
    Euphonium Lite likes this.
  11. 2nd tenor

    2nd tenor Well-Known Member

    Anyone who feels that plastic instruments aren't worth playing should have a listen to the several videos and comparisons that this young American artist has posted, fantastic skill IMHO.

    Edit. For those who would like to know more about Christopher Bill or hear more of his playing this is his website: Christopher Bill

    He is using a Tromba 'make' instrument - I understand that they are superior to another popular make.
    Last edited: Sep 13, 2017
    Jack E likes this.
  12. T Bone Funky

    T Bone Funky New Member

    As far as I'm concerned, the main usage for plastic instruments is as an affordable means for someone to learn or pick up an instrument. For that purpose, they're fantastic. They also have many other great uses such as for things like Christmas caroling, marching jobs, anything where there's a lot of standing around required. It means that a youngster or an older person who can't carry the weight of a metal instrument for a prolonged period (or even at all perhaps) can carry on with their beloved hobby.

    Plastic will never replace metal for the more serious things like contesting, obviously, but they have their uses. And anything that makes brass music making affordable and available to the wider audience and not just those who can afford it (for example) is absolutely fine by me.

    As a side note; I'd be very curious see an experiment done. Have a top band play a test piece on metal instruments and then have the same band play the same piece again but on plastic in front of a panel of blind judges. Of course, you'd be able to hear the difference (one would think) but it would be fascinating to see the outcome.
  13. Chuk_rok

    Chuk_rok New Member

    Have to be honest, I've just bought a Tromba trumpet for two reasons
    • For me to use if I do outside gigs (festivals, race days) where I'm either going to be stood playing for a long time, or there is a risk to my trumpet getting damaged
    • I have 7 and 3 year old boys, both of whom want to try the trumpet, however I'm not prepared to trust them with mine at the stage and as I'm constantly concerned about their teeth didn't want them playing on a metal instrument as more weight to pull onto their face when they're learning
    Definitely don't see it as a proper replacement, but as an addition it can only be a good thing
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  14. ascalon

    ascalon New Member

    Agreed there.
    I had a blow on a plastic trombone a few weeks ago and was mightily impressed.

    In my opinion though the main use in schools. Ultimately ANYTHING that gets kids playing is a good thing and if a purple trombone with flowers on, that they can take on the school bus, drop, knock around, bash etc is best than that is great and so effective. I would have loved one at school.
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  15. MoominDave

    MoominDave Well-Known Member

    This isn't a question that's yet been raised in this thread, other than in passing, but I see no reason why an instrument constructed of plastic shouldn't blow as well as one made of metal. So often people assume that it's a joke concept, but the sound that comes out of the bell depends not on the vibration of the construction material, but on the vibration of the air column; coupling between the two is minimal. This was recognised way back when by Boosey's 19th/20th century design guru, David Blaikley (the man who gave us both the compensating system and the tubing layout still used on brass band instruments), who recorded in his workshop notes the minimal effect of changing bell materials - one of his prototype bells was even made of paper...

    We don't yet have a satisfactory-to-play plastic trombone, but continuing design effort would I feel confident see one appear. I can certify from personal experience that the pBone is not a satisfactory-blowing instrument - but then, neither have been various student small-bore trombones made of metal that I've tried, in similar fashion. The supplied mouthpiece is most of what's wrong with it - substitute one of greater depth and immediately it sounds vastly better.
    I haven't tried a Tromba instrument... Listening to the excellent Christopher Bill above, it's clear that his playing (while still very good) isn't its usual fluid self on the instrument; compare one of his other videos. No, we're not there yet. But if we had plastic instruments that played as well as more mainstream options, but cost one tenth the price? We'd rapidly start to see them on contest stages, though it would take a while for inbuilt suspicion of the concept to disperse.
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  16. 2nd tenor

    2nd tenor Well-Known Member

    If there is a written record of Blaikley’s experiments and / or results then I’d be very glad to have details. Of course it does go against what I’ve read elsewhere but a lot of people make good money by selling ‘the Emperor’s new cloths’.
  17. MoominDave

    MoominDave Well-Known Member

    There's a great deal of mythology propagated on the subject, including by a lot of seriously good players. It's too easy to convince oneself of false positives - change your Rath red brass bell out for a yellow brass one - it plays differently, must be the small change in metal composition... But no-one ever plays the same note exactly the same way twice, and no bell is ever quite the same internal shape as another bell. And the metal of the bell does affect how the sound reaches your ears - but not how it reaches the audience. So it's not a nonsense question, but it isn't the question most think it is - rather it affects the player's aural feedback mechanism. And it's pretty much impossible to control for variables, and when good players that think they can tell a difference have been rigorously tested, it's turned out that they can't do what they think they can.

    I can't immediately see how to get hold of Blaikley's workshop notes - I'm sure I've seen a reference to them being published before, in the place where I got that description of the bell experiments, but Googling's not turning anything up immediately. I think it was probably in a paper by Arnold Myers of Edinburgh University, whose contact details can be found online.
    Jack E likes this.
  18. Jack E

    Jack E Well-Known Member

    I've often wondered about this, Dave, as the brass used to make brass instruments is a very malleable grade - which it has to be, else you couldn't shape it as required - which is why they dent so easily. As to coupling between the two being minimal, I can well believe it. I was astonished to read some years back that the soundproofing used in modern aircraft is made of thin sheets of foam plastic with a layer of sheet lead bonded onto the outer face of it! The article went on to say that the reason was that lead was so malleable that when a sound wave hit it, it didn't ring at all, but just slightly deflected - and this damping was so effective that aircraft builders found they could get more reduction in sound per kilo of the foam plastic/lead than they could get with the same weight of any other sound-damping material. I should add that the thickness of the lead coating is only a few thousandths of an inch thick.

    It's completely the opposite when you look at a church bell, where the coupling between the metal and the air has to be very good, as it's the vibrating metal which generates the pressure waves in the air. But what do they make church bells from? Cast metal, whether it be iron, bronze or a very hard grade of brass, all of which are extremely brittle, and so unmalleable that they sometimes crack - as did the Liberty Bell in America when it was first rung.

    I think it's worth noting that the twin Fiamm horns (which I always fitted to my motorbikes) have plastic trumpets - yet Fiamms are known for their musical tone and their volume - like these two!


    With best regards,
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