Imprinted on a Sound

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Thanksgiving can be a time of reflection, and recently I realized a somewhat deep thought with respect to sound.

Starting on a basic level, the first point is that something in me is deeply imprinted to the sound of the French horn in general. I think the comparison of a baby and mother bonding is not far from it. On a very basic level this must also be what drives the hatred some out there have toward the mellophone; French horn players are imprinted on a horn sound, not a mellophone sound. Way back in the day there were people who hated the valved horn and loved the natural horn for much the same reasons; they were imprinted on the sound of the natural horn.

I switched to French horn in ninth grade. The first horn I played was a Conn 6D but only very briefly; within a month or two my high school was the proud owner of two brand new shiny nickel silver Conn 8Ds, one of which went to me. That horn got me started. A couple years later my parents bought me a Holton H177, nickel silver, that I played into college but there again, on the suggestion of a teacher, I upgraded to a school owned E series Elkhart 8D and then a year or so after that upgraded again to a vintage 8D of my own, serial number 564,190. Pre-letter, Elkhart; I know that serial number by heart to this day even though I can hardly remember my own cell phone number.

I played that horn more than any other horn I owned for the next twenty years, and the sound and feel are deeply embedded in my playing. I had the valves rebuilt, bell cut, and used several different flares and leadpipes on the horn over the years.

I did try and use pretty seriously other horns, more recently a Paxman triple but more notably, career wise, winning the Third Horn position in Nashville playing on a Yamaha 667. Not long after I got tenure there I switched back to the 8D. Partially I just felt more accurate and it was a better match for the mostly Lawson section at that time there (I used a Lawson flare on it most of that time) but also it was home and made that sound I wanted to hear.

I actually really like to hear and play other horns and types of horns. Of all the horns I own now a favorite is an Alexander single Bb for example. It is as light as a feather and very responsive. No wonder Dennis Brain played one.

I like the feel of smaller horns in general. In search of that feel I recently played quite a bit on a communist era Hoyer for example. For the solos I played on my recent recital it was great. But for some music it really does not produce the sound in my head.

This was driven home for me last week. Two reading sessions were underway in ASU ensembles and we were short one player to fill the sections. I subbed in on horn 5 on Ein Heldenleben. It was a great chance to open up and play in a brass section. At the same time though, I really was not wild about my sound. I think if I were just a listener I would have liked it. But the old Hoyer felt like it was backing up on me and it was not the orchestral sound that I feel imprinted to.

I don’t own an 8D any more. It was getting tired and due to wear I had to put a big patch on the first branch. I sold 564,190 to a former student more than five years ago as by then I had pretty fully switched to a big Paxman 25AND, nickel silver with the “American” bell. I made both my solo CDs playing on it. But at present it is loaned out to another former student. So I got out this horn, owned by Arizona State. It looks a bit rough but it is a pre-letter 8D that is actually pretty low mileage for its age. I strapped on a Lawson leadpipe that I used to use and had at it. THE SOUND! Strauss excerpts, Mahler excerpts, Gliere concerto, that sound is it in terms of what I think I should sound in a big hall with a large ensemble at full volume.

If you have really imprinted on the vintage, Elkhart 8D groove I think the statement “once an 8D player, always an 8D player” is especially true. Change is hard. [But UPDATE: I have found a custom Geyer that hits in a great place for the playing I actually do these day.]

As an aside, it is interesting to me how some hornists who never were 8D players hate 8Ds almost as much as some hate the mellophone. I do honestly like pretty much every kind of horn as a listener. Each has a unique place and flavor, and I have no problem with mixed sections either really, it all works out with good players if it is all in tune. But, in terms of a sound that is actually coming out of my bell there are facts that I can’t avoid, and I realize clearly that I am really imprinted on that classic 8D color, especially when it comes to big, full volume playing.

I should note that I am not personally a fan of the “tubby” school of 8D playing with overly big mouthpieces, although I was once inside that approach too, being so far into it to even play on a Giardinelli C-1 for a time, the quintessential “big” mouthpiece for the big horn. I have mostly used average to somewhat small mouthpieces, I do want a bit of color (edge) to come in and I expect a bit easier playing qualities.

Also, I am very comfortable teaching and working with people who have different tonal ideals. I believe that I know what a good tone is in relation to any style.

At some point I will have to cut back a few horns. While I like Geyer style horns a lot and I think that the sound they produce is more commercially viable in our current horn jobs market, if I were told at this point in time that I could only own one horn I would be sorely tempted to make that on horn a vintage 8D. It is my mother tongue, I am a native speaker, it is a sound I am on some base level bonded to.

University of Horn Matters