In lots of ways, Innsbruck is a very modern city. If you’re looking for plant-based burgers, poetry slams or a freshly-brewed Guatemalan nut roast latte, you won’t be disappointed. But amongst the vegan restaurants and urban cultural events, you can still find little pockets of tradition tucked away throughout the city—and one of those is the workshop of Innsbruck trumpet maker Benedikt Sonnleitner.
Huddled over his workbench, Benedikt carefully handcrafts trumpets and other brass instruments using techniques and methods that are hundreds of years old. We visited Benedikt at work to find out how this traditional craft is being kept alive in Innsbruck.
How Trumpets Are Made
Trumpets have been around for centuries, literally. The first trumpet music was composed in the 15th century and since then, all trumpets have had a similar design: a long metal pipe bent at right angles to create a rectangular shape. The methods for making them have stayed pretty much the same too. “Trumpet making hasn’t really changed that much in hundreds of years,” Benedikt explained. “You cut all the pieces you need out of a flat sheet of metal and shape them to make the pipes and the bell and all the other parts. Then you join all the parts together to make a complete instrument.”
Workshop chic in the Maximilianstrasse © Ana Filip
He might make it sound easy but learning to make a trumpet takes years of training. Benedikt had to complete a three-year apprenticeship near his hometown in Bavaria, followed by a two-year certificate in master craftmanship, and he also studied trumpet performance at the conservatoire in Innsbruck. It was while studying that he fell in love with Innsbruck, and in 2015 decided to open his own workshop in the heart of the city. “It was difficult to find the right space but then I found a small workshop in the Maximilianstrasse,” Benedikt told us. “And I’ve been happy there ever since.”
Walking around Benedikt’s workshop is like stepping back in time. There are antique instruments hanging from the ceiling and you can find just about every type of hammer and file under the sun. But you won’t find any fancy machines or computer-automated processes. “I still do pretty much everything by hand with metal shears and a hammer.” Really, no modern techniques at all? “Some. When I build modern trumpets, I do buy in some parts, such as the valves. However, I also build historical instruments, like baroque trumpets.”
For the uninitiated, a baroque trumpet is the type of trumpet they played in the 17th century. Unlike modern trumpets, baroque trumpets don’t have valves—the buttons you press to change tones. Instead, you have to use your lips to create all the different notes, making it a highly-specialised instrument for advanced trumpet players only. “I’m making every single part of these baroque trumpets right here in the workshop. It’s more effort and it takes longer, but when you build everything from scratch, the instrument has a much more personal feel and I really like that.”
A Unique Sound
Of course, nowadays not all trumpets are handmade. Building an instrument purely by hand is a long and expensive process, so many people opt for a factory-made trumpet instead. “There are both good and bad factory-made instruments,” Benedikt tells me. “You can get very cheap ones, which are made from poor materials and just sound bad. But you can also get factory-made instruments which are really well-made and produce a great sound.” So where’s the problem? “Well with any factory-made instrument, even the good ones, there will be thousands of people around the world with an instrument that sounds exactly the same as yours.”
That’s where instrument makers come into their own. Each handmade instrument has its own characteristics, so you’ll never find two identical ones. “The art of the trumpet maker is putting all of the parts together in an individual way so that each instrument sounds a little bit different,” Benedikt explains. And because each part of the trumpet can be individually tailored, you can also make trumpets specific to a customer’s needs. “If a customer tells me how they want it to sound, I always try and get as close to that as possible.” Something tells me there aren’t many trumpet factories in China willing to do that for their customers.
The Future Of Trumpet Making
Our world is changing faster than ever before. New technology is being created all the time, surely this will have an effect on traditional crafts like trumpet making? “Trumpet makers haven’t changed their methods in a long time. And this is something I often think about: what could you do differently, what new developments could there be? But I haven’t had my eureka moment yet.”
And until Benedikt has his eureka moment, Innsbruck’s trumpet players will just have to be content with having beautiful traditional instruments handcrafted right here in the city. Let’s hope it stays that way for a while yet!
If you’re interested in learning more about handmade trumpets and other brass instruments, check out Benedikt’s website at http://sonnleitneronline.at/