Monday, July 27, 2009

Horn Guild

I've often thought that there's a strain of the Renaissance guild mentality still present in modern musicians. There's the sharing and nurturing of special talents and skills. And sometimes there's a hint of being superior to non-members (the audience). The first part of this seems especially true for horn players. The horn is by far the most complicated instrument I've ever tried. (But never tried a double reed once an oboist friend at conservatory explained about the necessity of making your own reeds and the tools, labor and time involved).

For one thing, the usual double horn is really two different instruments sharing a mouthpiece. I've lately become convinced part of my difficulties stem from a lack of appreciation of the differences between the two, that I've never seen much talked about in the info I've found. You can get the same note on either side of the horn, but the lips feel a little different. Because of being the only horn in the community band and having to play high parts, I've never really developed a full feel for the F (the lower pitched horn). Currently I'm spending a lot more time with it, and feeling I'm broadening and strengthening my foundation as a player.

(As an aside - I'm also starting to think there's some subtle difference between the two horns besides simple length. You use the naturally occurring third of the F horn, but on the Bb side it's a second or third option. John Ericson (Horn Notes) just put up a post about curiosity, and I've been curious about this for a while, but can't find an answer to the question).

But back to the guild notion. Something else about the horn is the amazing choices of mouthpieces you can use, but as far as I can tell, there's no place you can go to find why the designs are different, other than the occasional mention of the different sound they might have. Have not once seen anything about how different shaped lips might interact with different designs. 

Back when I had the lip callus,  I switched away from the Farkas VDC to the one that came with the Yamaha horn that's more rounded and thicker where it's against the lips. Here lately went through all the mouthpieces again and realized the Farkas medium cup is the one for me to go with for now. Much better tone and thinner where it meets the lips than the Yamaha, but not as thin as the VDC. Long term I hope to get to where cousin Steve is on his trombone. He once said different mouthpieces were like different pairs of shoes and he switched around a lot.

My guess in that this is the sort of information that high level horn players know, but as with guilds, not made easily available to the public (most of whom wouldn't be interested anyway). It all reminds me of the passing comment Christopher Hogwood made in his book on the Handel Water Music & Music for the Royal Fireworks. Somewhere he says that there are no articulations or info on trills and such in the scores because Handel left such details to the horn players guild.


  1. Hi Lyle,

    I wouldn't assume that all horn players know much about mouthpieces beyond what they have tried and found works for them. A surprising number will assume that what they have found works for themselves will also work for everybody else. Of course, over on the Yahoo and Memphis horn mailing lists, you get lots of people who seem to spend a lot of time comparing mouthpieces, custom leadpipes, different makes and models of horn. And just like football fans, they can get quite vociferous about their favourites! Of course, it is far easier to talk about hardware than about musicality...

    But what they seem to forget is that in the final analysis, which horn you blow into matters far less then how you blow into it.

    I've used the same mouthpiece since I was about 14 years old - a bored-out Alexander 5. It's a fairly small diameter, medium rim, medium cup mouthpiece. It seems to work for me. I have no reason to want to change it and therefore no need to know what all the modern mouthpiece options are. So I avoid those conversations, because I have nothing to add to them.

    As for when to use the F side and when to use the Bb side, well, that has been known to spark some, ahem, vigorous debate! Maybe I should do another post on that sometime soon.

    But briefly, the 5th harmonic - E on the F side, A on the Bb side, is somewhat flat relative to equal temperament. If you are playing a classical piece, the E (or Eb, D or C# played using the same harmonic but with additional valves down) is going to be in the appropriate key, and so the flatness will not be much noticed because it is a correct natural harmonic of the piece's key. The A on the Bb side is rarely in the same place relative to the key of the piece, and as it can be played 1-2 on both F and Bb sides, and with that fingering is not flat, that tends to be the preferred fingering on the Bb side.

  2. Lyle - coincidentally, I have a detailed 3-part series starting tomorrow on mouthpieces that might help.