Are you trying horns again?
Yes. I always tell people they need to keep their eyes open, a better horn is probably out there, keep looking for it.
Why a single B-flat?
Years ago, as an undergraduate I did a few trials on single B-flat horns owned by my school. I don’t know if I seriously tried one between then and last summer. Last summer, working on my book Introducing the Horn, I purchased a basic Conn three valve single B-flat on eBay. It was quite interesting as it was obvious from the first notes on this student model instrument that the single B-flat is a much easier instrument to play than the comparable single F, also by Conn, that I had borrowed from ASU. Something like the last movement of Mozart 3 was much, much better on the single B-flat; the back to back comparison was undeniable. This photo is of that horn, now being used by my nephew in 6th grade band.
Are the fingerings like trumpet fingerings or horn fingerings or?
Although pitched in B-flat, they are not thought of by the player as being in “B-flat” like a trumpet or baritone. For horn players, the world is always conceived to be in F. We would think of the fingerings as being the fingerings that we would use on the B-flat side (“thumb down”) on a double horn when notated in F. They are not notated in a way that directly ties the fingerings to trumpet or mellophone fingerings and are not the same fingerings as on single F horn either. A good fingering chart should make clear the proper fingerings for a single B-flat horn. Also, remember, in the hands of the beginner it is pretty arbitrary what the fingerings are, they just need to use the correct ones for the instrument in their hands and they are good to go.
Is there any advantage to playing a single B-flat horn?
A hundred years ago there were professional players using single F horns, single B-flat horns, and the only recently invented double horn. It was a big controversy then that is still not totally resolved but the vast majority of pros use double horns of some sort today with triple horns coming on strong. But there are still pros that use single B-flat horns to be found, and it may be poised to make a comeback.
The biggest advantage of the single B-flat is that the instrument is light and very responsive. You don’t realize how much weight you are blowing through with a double horn until you pick up and really try to play a good single B-flat. Especially for me having played a triple now for several years this weight reduction is quite interesting, the instrument feels as light as a feather and notes speak very quickly. So while you give up something with it compared to the triple, as there are no low F or high F sides to use, you do gain something by losing all that weight that you can’t really visualize without actually trying the horn.
Many single B-flat horns have a thumb valve. What is that for?
Yes, there is normally an extra valve as in this photo. I borrowed and later purchased this Holton and have found it to be quite interesting. The function of this valve is not the same as on a double horn. This thumb valve is normally set up as a stopping valve.
A stopping valve? UMMM…
That is right. Let’s say you want to play a stopped note on a double horn. You cover the bell very completely with the hand and finger the note a half step lower on the F horn. That is, normally you don’t play stopped on the B-flat side as it is very out of tune. On a single B-flat horn there is no F horn to use for stopped notes. This valve is the solution; it is set normally to be the same length as the second valve on the F horn. So to play stopped on a single B-flat horn you finger the note you want, cover the bell with the hand completely, and add the thumb valve to produce the correct note.
Is that all that the thumb valve is used for?
No. An advanced player will use this valve a couple different ways.
Personally I normally set up this valve pulled out quite a bit, to nearly the same length as a first valve, such as in this photo of me with my Paxman descant (B-flat/high F). I find this very useful for intonation. For example, let’s say that G on the second line is as flat as a pancake fingered first valve on the B-flat horn (which is a very common problem). Instead, you can play G with the stopping valve adjusted correctly for an in-tune G that you can blow right into. I also use it for F-sharp (S-2) and a S123 combination produces a good low B-flat with the valve pulled.
Is there a gap in the low range on a single B-flat horn?
Yes. There is no way to finger the notes between low B-flat and pedal F on a standard single B-flat horn with four valves. The solution is an F extension. In the photo of the Holton an extra slide is visible; this is the F extension for this instrument. This also is very handy in other registers but especially to fill in the range that is missing this slide is essential. (On a descant you can cover this range using the high F side of the horn).
What about tone quality?
This is a great question. In a performing situation in an orchestra in the United States a single B-flat is just not a good idea (unless you have tenure…and the conductor really likes you) as it has a lighter tone that we expect to hear in this situation. It will tend to stick out. With the F extension on it is closer to the sound of a double horn as the weight gets close to that of a double horn.
But in a solo or chamber music situation where a lighter tone would work well a single B-flat could be a great choice. I can also see it working well for jazz, where some players have also used it.
Are you switching to a single B-flat? Tell me it is not true!
No, no plans at all to switch to it, although my predecessor at ASU Thomas Bacon did for reasons that I can now understand better after more trials with a single B-flat. I expect this year I will give it more of a try. The hardest thing for me is my basic technique is very double horn oriented, but I am working to get better with B-flat fingerings in the lower range.
One other footnote: the fingerings for B-flat marching horn are the same as for a single B-flat horn and are thought of as being the same fingerings as the B-flat side of a double horn.
UPDATE: While mainly just a “for fun” instrument, I did purchase a few year later a horn like Dennis Brain played, see this article for more.