Question from the Mailbag: What Level of Horn Should an Adult Amateur Buy?

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Ryan asks:

I am in the market for a new horn and I’ve noticed intermediate horns seem to have the same specs, but are typically $1000 less than professional horns.

Seeing as I am an amateur player, mostly for fun and the community band, would an intermediate horn be a good choice for me or do I still need to get a professional horn?

What makes them different? If it makes a difference, I have no difficulty handling or playing a professional horn.

This is a really great question, one that leads to a lot of other great questions – for better or for worse.

If budget is ultimately not a concern, the simple and pat answer would be to play on whatever horn that suits your fancy. If you want to own the latest thing that everyone is talking about, there is nothing wrong in giving that a shot. If you see something on eBay that looks interesting, give it a try.

However, if someone were to buy a high-performance Masarati, but only drive it to church on Sundays, the full artistic potential of that vehicle is arguably not being met. One could say that owning a high-performance car for such a humble purpose is extreme overkill – it is a waste of money and that car’s super-charged potential.

The fork in the road

There is nothing wrong of course with owning a high-performance toy as an object of admiration, having fun with that toy, and getting enjoyment from that interaction. Along this line of thought, late-night television host Jay Leno and his huge car collection comes to mind.

But for only getting groceries and going to church on a regular basis, a cheaper, electric golf cart would in reality serve the same basic function and purpose. (At least this is how the argument goes.)

So, for the adult amateur French horn player shopping for a new instrument, a philosophical fork in the road might appear in the headlights:

  • Do I buy an economy horn that meets my basic needs and budget?

– OR –

  • Do I chase a rainbow and look for a horn that fulfills a deeper, more spiritual need?

Five practical tips

This dilemma is really no different for professionals or serious music students. Given the wide spectrum of choices, all that can really be given here in terms of practical advice are some general guidelines:

  1. Go to an IHS workshop/symposium and play on a lot of horns.
    This is really the smart way to spend your cash.
  2. Talk shop with people. Consider a used instrument.
    This another good reason to go to a workshop or symposium. The after-market for used horns is fairly huge and there are diamonds in the rough to be discovered. The dealers in this market are good people to talk to. Unless you are specifically in the market for a brand new horn, take aggressive sales pitches on new instruments with a grain of salt.
  3. Consider the three standards of horns out there: budget/economy, intermediate and first-class.
    Determining these levels and what works for you in more concrete terms can be subjective and gray, depending on who you talk to and what horn is being talked about. Caveat emptor.
  4. Consider updating your current equipment first.
    Sometimes a simple thing on your horn, like a new mouthpiece or lead pipe, changes everything.
  5. Consider a hybrid or off-brand horn.
    Along the line of the previous point, I have been very happy with my Patterson/Yamaha horn. John is equally happy with his Willson brand instrument.

Further reading

Speaking of John Ericson, a great article to check out is “Suggested Horns, Mouthpieces, and Mutes” over at John’s college-based web site. He offers some great tips on shopping for horns and accessories. Another related article also by John is “Buying a Horn: The Question of New or Used, Factory or Custom or Upgraded,” which is here at Horn Matters.

The heady relationship between horn and player

Closing out this topic I would turn the conversation towards a more abstract concept, that of the emotional relationship between the player and their instrument, because this is ultimately what a choice of instrument is about.

The broader question being, does this instrument give me thrills and goosebumps when I play on it?

Many years ago in a private lesson, I was confronted by a music teacher for blaming my mistakes on my horn. He wisely noted that whenever I put my horn down in frustration I would also glare down at it, as if the horn had a mind of its own and was at fault.

In hindsight, I now understand that a deeper problem existed with my music-making; one that really had little to do with the instrument I owned, or its make or model.

The grass is always greener on the other side

Along these lines, a certain amount of anthropomorphism can be a healthy thing. I have heard of people giving their horns names, for example, and this sounds like a fun and positive thing to do. If however, your horn’s personality becomes a source of fault and blame, a deeper issue may be at play that has little to do with brass tubes.

Looking at the big picture, the player/instrument relationship is a marriage of sorts. If you are truly unhappy with your partner, begin the journey by looking inside and asking deeper questions before throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

University of Horn Matters