Accuracy, intonation, tone. You need them all, so what type of horn gives you everything?

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In a very recent Horn People discussion there was a topic posted related to triple horns, more specifically to the question of if the high F side tone color sticks out. My contribution to the thread was this:

As someone who has not only published a book on descant and triple horns and also has recorded an entire CD on a single F, yes, I can certainly hear the high F side being used. Making the CD (“Rescued!”, on Summit Records, recently released) really emphasized the tonal side to me. That said, I think a triple horn is great playing a position in an orchestra, your conductor is sadly probably only going to note if you are missing notes. But to win that job I am inclined to think you still would be better off playing a double with a descant for certain excerpts.

There are at least three big elements you hope your horn provides to you, and you need all of them: accuracy, intonation, and tone. It is quite a puzzle to sort out on a high level.

Accuracy

A brief but related aside. Right now I am reading a book, Performing Under Pressure (2015). In it early on the topic is brought up of clutch artists in sports, people that seem to do best under pressure. Statistically this is actually only an illusion, they are not performing any better than normal, just their normal is really good.

I think we tend to forget that element in accuracy on the horn. You have to have “normal” at a very high rate of accuracy all the time.

People look to equipment to help. My experience would say that a triple horn is more accurate than a double horn.

Or is it?

Yes, you have the shorter tubing of the high F side. But also you now have a heavier horn. The issue being you have that weight to blow through and that results in some perception of loss of responsiveness. Mouthpiece choice can help this, a shallower cup is a better acoustic match to the shorter horn (more on that here).

As an experiment, I would challenge readers to try playing a light single Bb for a change and a trial. You may not like the sound — it is lighter/smaller — but you likely will feel it is harder to miss notes on, it is so light and responsive.

If you don’t have access to a quality single Bb, try the “trick” at the back of the Farkas book, take all your F horn slides off and also the valve caps and try your horn. It will feel different; more responsive, easier in the high range, the tone will be lighter, and you will likely feel more accurate.

Intonation

A professional horn needs to play well in tune with itself. Which is more of a challenge to the horn maker the more sides you put on a horn.

Really worth noting is that as built now many/most European horns are set up to favor the Bb horn. This would include horns of every type: standard double horns, triple horns, and double descant horns. I touched on this slightly in my recent intonation article, but maybe not directly enough. It has to do with tapers. U.S. brand horns were and are F horn centric, with tapers geared to the horn being more even across both sides with good low range F horn intonation. European players generally play more Bb horn than we do, so if the F horn is a little funky for intonation it is not as big a deal to them, opting on a design level for a better Bb side. For me and my preferred fingerings, however, I need a low F side with reliable intonation. This issue is often a problem with triple horns, but you can feel it on doubles too.

Not to mention that high F tapers on a triple horn are quite compromised from a theoretical ideal due to having to use a common bell and partial leadpipe with two other sides of the horn. Fortunately, you tend to only use the high F side above the staff so it is manageable.

Tone

Back to the original question posed in Horn People, certainly you can hear the difference of sound on the high F side. If it is a negative or not to your conductor is a good question. If you miss less notes and still play in tune they likely don’t care that the sound has a little bit lighter color. But it can be heard.

The overall tone tends to be different for triple horns too, due to weight. Part of why this stands out is due to a horn design pendulum having swung. Back in the 1980s when I was a student heavy horns were a big thing, such as the Lawson, with other makers also picking up the idea to a point, to better match instruments to a school market (as in, they might have been tanks but didn’t dent as easily). Now several makers are working in the opposite direction, toward even lighter horns with smaller, lighter valves. The result is new horns maybe are not as light as a natural horn, but they are lighter than the old standard horns we had been used to.

Everything impacts tone, and when you add a bunch of tubing (think triple horn) it will certainly change the sound spectrum.

Stepping back a second, the F horn has a characteristic sound on a single F horn, one I have explored in depth. The F side of a similar double horn sounds different, due in part to the extra weight of the Bb horn tubing and different tapers. The F side sounds yet different on a triple horn, with yet more additional weight and further altered tapers.

Take all that weight away from say a double or triple horn, would the sound be better? Actually, there is a point where some weight is probably a good thing. Having played a lot of F horn, I enjoy the response of the lighter single horn, but I don’t think the upper range on the single F horn sounds in a way that could ever work in an audition today (other than for the Vienna Philharmonic!), there is a raw quality to the sound, and you are certainly more prone to miss notes. Probably it is conditioning too, but for me the Bb horn simply sounds the best in high range.

Conclusions?

It is not going out on a limb to say as of 2016 the double horn remains the best compromise for most players. Specifically, I think it will overall sound better in an audition than a triple when compared back to back and can be played just as accurately by a good player. Maybe I am a little old school, but I still feel that a double horn and a descant horn is a great pair of instruments for getting the job (if you can figure out a way to get the two horns to the audition) — there are several excerpts that really work best on a descant (Brandenburg, Queen Mab, etc.). And students: don’t write off the descant, triple horns have a lot of buzz now, but a descant is a great tool on the right excerpts. But with that all said, a triple can potentially “do it all” and is a great thing for when you have the job. Check my E-book out for even more on the topic.

(And don’t totally write off the single Bb as an option either, the pendulum of horn design is swinging, how far it goes only time will tell).