Playing on Piston Valves, a King Mellophone, and the IYM

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As I have been preparing for my session at the IHS symposium that involves performing on a vintage piston valve horn, I have been playing on piston valves quite a bit. Piston valves are very interesting animals if you have basically only used rotary valves for years. As I have commented elsewhere, they feel quite a bit different, especially in legato and slurs. Piston valves really are smoother, but as hornists this is an element we only rarely can experience.

Last week I played the vintage Hawkes piston horn quite a bit crooked in F. Although still not easy to play, over the week it started feeling better and better. I became more used to how it blows and for sure it is more responsive than the F side of any double horn or any cheap student model single F.

This past weekend I was on a very different piston “horn,” as at a church retreat I took my old King mellophone as the instrument to play in the praise band, as I have done other years. At the retreat I also brought along my IYM mouthpiece, seen in this photo. It is a “heavy” mouthpiece and looks pretty intense, no? I have some comments on this mouthpiece in this article, but to add briefly it did project well with a sound very much like Flugelhorn. I really wish that I could modify the rim to be closer to what I normally play, but otherwise it was a nice break from horn, especially so after working with the vintage piston horn.

I know there are readers out there that on principle hate the mellophone, but on the other hand it feels almost impossible to miss notes on a mellophone in the context of praise band if I get the right fingerings down. No wonder marching band directors love them. And with this mouthpiece the sound really is in a nice place.

To offer one other random tip, one thing I have to remind myself of when I go back to my mellophone is that for best intonation you have to extend the first valve slide ¼ inch except on the written C-sharp and D in the staff where you pull it in all the way. It makes a huge difference on this instrument, but other brands of mellophone feel a lot different and have different intonation tendencies.

To conclude, while the legato is great on both of the horns above and the easy accuracy was fun on mellophone, the big negative is that both instruments dished out some stress out on my left arm/hand. Yesterday I resorted to warming up “backwards,” holding the horn with the left hand in the bell and limiting myself to lip slurs and patterns on one fingering, a trick I believe many pros have employed over the years. Fortunately this week I will be performing on a concert at the IDRS symposium and for that I will be back on my triple which is set up much more ergonomically.

University of Horn Matters