Choosing a French Horn Mouthpiece (II): Cup, Throat and Bore

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French Horn Mouthpiece Cutaway Diagram
In Part I, the main focus was on the mouthpiece parts closest to the embouchure.

For this reason alone, it seems entirely logical that the rim, bite and mouthpiece diameter are a good place to start in choosing a mouthpiece.

Worth mentioning too is that these parts are clearly in view. They are easily discerned by the naked eye and are tangibly felt on the lips.

Choices in main body of the mouthpiece (the underpart), though perhaps less tangible, are of equal importance. Variants in the cup, throat and bore can produce significantly different results in tone, pitch control, response and overall resistance.

» Cup

Generally speaking there are two types of French horn mouthpiece cups: bowled-shaped cups and funnel-shaped cups.

Philip Farkas writes in The Art of French Horn Playing that a bowl-shape will produce a narrower, more resonant baritone-horn quality, while a funnel-shape will produce a wider sound of a more “velvet quality.”

The depth of the cup — from the top of the inner rim down to the throat — has an affect on the overall response of the instrument.

  • A shallow cup will have a quicker response, easier high notes and will produce a more focused and intense sound.
  • A deeper cup will have a slower response, easier low notes and will produce a wider and broader sound.

(In describing horn tone quality, the terms “bright” and “dark” are laced with subtext. For this reason I avoid them.)

Some cup shapes and depths will work better on different types of horns. This is another reason to use different mouthpieces — but the same rim — for different horns.

» Throat

Mouthpiece throats fall into two general types: throats with a sharp transition and those with a more gradual, curved transition. These different types may be viewed in cutaway diagrams on page 5 of The Art of French Horn Playing.

» Bore and backbore

The bore and backbore on the other hand are probably one of the most hotly-discussed aspects of mouthpieces. Much talk for example, has been made about the iconic, hugely bored-out mouthpieces attributed to several major American players of a past generation.

The bore is, simply put, the hole at the center of the mouthpiece. Its size is associated with the drill bit used to make the hole.

The gradual taper from the bore towards the end of the mouthpiece is the backbore. Its contour and taper can play a crucial role in pitch control and the amount of resistance felt while playing the instrument.

From Tom Greer’s Moosewood web site:

The rate of flair in the backbore section of the mouthpiece influences the resistance and steadiness of the tone. If the backbore is narrower (Backbore “B”), the tone will be more compact, but on the other hand Forte levels will be more resistant. A medium backbore (Backbore “A”) is a good all-around balance for the majority of players. An extra-large, concave-shaped backbore (“C”) will make the tone darker and softer, and on the other hand will not have the compact sound of the “A” and “B” backbores.

Two things to consider:

  • Some players prefer a straight section in the backbore starting at the throat. A short, cylindrical section without taper for up to a quarter of an inch may help with pitch (and clam) control.
  • Some players in pursuit of a more free-blowing feel may prefer a larger bore size. This seems to work better on Kruspe-style instruments.

As mentioned earlier, there can be a danger in going to extremes, especially with large bore sizes and extreme backbore tapers. It is probably best to stay within the moderate bore sizes in the 10 to 15 range.

» Resistance is a good thing

In the pursuit of the right feel, I would advise to err on the side of more resistance rather than less. A certain amount of resistance — the sensation of opposition (or impedance) to the force of blowing — is helpful with sustained breath control, among other things.

While the sensation of a free-blowing mouthpiece can feel liberating at first, high notes and accuracy may suffer in the long run.

Rather than paying attention to how freely a mouthpiece blows, I recommend focusing instead on how much it resists. This might sound like a radical thought to some, but resistance can be a good thing.

Finding the right feel may take some experimentation.

University of Horn Matters