New instrument! Change mouthpiece? Break it in?

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Some horn players are very averse to change, but changes have to be made! One exciting type of change is getting a new horn — which I just did! This type of change can be a special challenge to players who are coming from a big horn like an 8D to a smaller horn such as the popular Geyer style horns. Trying them can even be difficult.

But let’s say that the shopping is done, the deal is made, you have the horn. What next? I just did this, so while your experiences will vary, the following has been mine.

I had been playing mostly for several years a Geyer style horn, a Willson (more here). What I liked about it was it was responsive and free blowing, professional sound, a great high Bb too, but there were some things I did not like (ranging from being for someone with a smaller left hand to other playing concerns), and in the end I just desired a better horn of the same general type to use, ideally, for the remainder of my career.

I had been trying to sell my big Paxman 25AND for nine months, but got it back from Houghton (it was on consignment — the Willson is there now), and I took the plunge and ordered a Patterson model R Geyer, seen here, after trying the model pretty thoroughly at the recent Southwest Horn Conference.

Part of the process of this switch was that I would be, for a time, back to playing the Paxman as my main horn. As I often tell people, the big Paxman is a great horn, I made my first two solo CDs playing on it, but it takes about two weeks to get used to. It is a very big horn (I call it my 5/4 size horn! Half-inch tubing on the F side and the big “American” bell), it needs some major air and takes strong articulations. I don’t think it tests well for that reason and, of course, the market for big nickel silver horns is tanking, and this is not just big but really big.

There is an important side point worth mentioning at this point in this discussion. Contrary to what some people say and think, I don’t think horns “break in” at all. What happens is YOU break in! Your playing subtly adjusts to accommodate the different horn, and in the case of my big Paxman I knew from experience how long it takes to get used to it.

Part of that process of “breaking you in” is dialing in the new horn with the mouthpiece choice. Even the best horn will feel “stuffy” with the wrong mouthpiece (even if it was the right one for your previous horn!).

I got the new Patterson horn near the beginning of our spring break, exactly two weeks ago today. In short what I was using as a mouthpiece on the big horn did not pan out as working or sounding good on the Patterson. I had been playing a Houghton mouthpiece (made by Houser) and worked through my Houghton and Houser mouthpiece options, first with a limited selection at home and then with the larger selection in my office.

The useful point I would make to readers is that what I discovered was that my Patterson plays best with a “plus 1” shank.

So what does that mean? This is one area where horn mouthpiece options have improved immensely over what we had back when I was a student. Houser in their system offers five different options as to the external taper of the shank, three of which are seen in this photo. On the right is the “0” option, which fits in a standard amount. In the middle is the “1” option, which sits in the horn less distance — 1 MM less to be exact, as seen by the tape position. The one on the left is the +2 size, which sits out of the receiver 2 MM further than the standard version. Each shank is progressively a little bigger in diameter, in other words.

For me, on this particular horn, the standard shank size works OK but I feel the +1 size brings the high range into focus. The +2 size, however, goes too far, the sound gets a bit barky and harsh on this horn.

The point of all this being not that horn players are neurotic (OK, maybe we are a little), but rather that most of the differences described above are actually in the thousandths of an inch range — yet they are very perceivable as you dial in a new horn.

A final point being that I know I am also changing my default style of articulation a little, essentially softening it to match the horn. Not to the extent that I had to when making my period horn recording (more here), but still it is the same general change. Saying it another way, when first coming off the big horn I sounded a bit barky on every mouthpiece I tried, I was hitting the notes too hard.

Thus, part of the “breaking in” process is not only finding a mouthpiece that brings things into focus but also my adjustment to the way the new horn responds. A process that took me — two weeks!

Which is all to say that you are part of the equation, the horn is part of the equation, and the mouthpiece is the final part that you can alter toward getting the sound and feel you desire. I am very happy with the horn, I should have upgraded in this direction years ago….

Looking ahead, there will be an article soon related to that last thought. I wish a horn of this quality and type were available back when I was a young professional player in the early 1990s, we have come so far in terms of horns and mouthpieces.