French Horn Guide Part 1
Like all modern brass instruments, the French horn - or horn - is basically a tapered brass tube with a mouthpiece on one end and a “bell” or “flare” on the other. The length of the tube dictates what pitches can be played and defines the key of the instrument. The longer the tube, the lower the note. The familiar round shape of the horn and the long gradual taper of the tube help to give the horn its characteristic sound. Besides setting the key and influencing the timbre, this complex tube is an amplifier.
Added to this tube are valves - rotary valves in the case of a French horn. These valves are used by the player to redirect the air stream into additional smaller lengths of tubing called slides. The slides can be adjusted to different lengths in order to properly tune the instrument. By adding these lengths of tubing to the main tapered tube, alone or in combination, a full range of notes can be achieved - the chromatic scale. All horns are based around three valves operated by the index, middle and ring fingers. A thumb operated valve is added to create the double horn which is for more advanced players. You might see horns with more than 4 valves but these are for advanced players and special purposes.
The horn has five basic parts:
- The mouthpiece - the part that the player buzzes their lips into.
- The leadpipe - the first bit of tubing that tapers from the end of the mouthpiece to a larger diameter. In the case of the horn, that diameter is almost universally .468” or 11.9mm.
- The valve section - the tubing through this part usually remains a consistent diameter.
- Taper to the bell - the next part enlarges rapidly after the valve section until it culminates into..
- The bell flare - the large output end of a horn, usually around 12” or 305mm.
Many different materials are used in the construction of a horn. The typical horn is made primarily of brass, a yellow metal alloy of copper and zinc. Most also have a significant amount of nickel alloy parts as well. Nickel alloy, sometimes called German silver, is an alloy with similar characteristics of brass but made of copper, nickel and zinc. Makers combine these two main materials to create a horn that is visually appealing and has both proven sound and durability characteristics.
Most horns, including all student and intermediate horns, have a protective layer of lacquer applied at the end of the construction process. This lacquer not only keeps the instrument shiny for a long time but protects both the metal from wear and the player from prolonged contact with raw brass that occasionally can cause an allergic reaction. Other finishes like silver or nickel plating are occasionally encountered but are uncommon.
Horns made of plastic can be found in stores across Australia. These are lightweight, colourful and fun. Though usable in situations where you may not want to risk harm to a quality instrument they aren’t a long term substitute for a brass horn. Likewise, the colourfully lacquered horns found on places like eBay may attract a child’s attention but are poor quality and best avoided.
Level 1 - Starting Point - The Single Horn:
The single horn for the beginning student is a mass produced musical instrument most commonly pitched either in B-flat (or Bb) or F. The higher pitched Bb horn is roughly 270cm long and lower F horn is 360cm long. These instruments share identical valves, bells and tubing and look identical at first glance. An F horn is in fact longer and heavier than a Bb horn but appears pretty much the same since it is just coiled more tightly.
The single horn can be found in different sizes by how tightly the manufacturer wraps the tubing. Smaller horns, called ¾ horns or Kinder horns, are very popular in the Sydney area. These horns have been wrapped more tightly than a full size horn and have slightly less flare at the bell. The smaller size can be advantageous for a very young player or someone smaller in stature. Be aware that Sydney is a bit of an anomaly with its appreciation of the Kinder horn compared to much of the rest of the world and therefore most name brand manufacturers don’t make Kinder horn models. Every Kinder horns I have ever encountered in the Sydney market can be classified as a “stencil” instrument - an instrument made in an overseas factory, most likely China, built to the buyers specification and labeled with the buyers branding. You will notice a great deal of similarity from one horn to the next regardless of brand. Lastly, care should be taken when buying a Kinder horn as some are wrapped very compactly and may be too small for your child from the start.
Choosing between Bb and F is something I leave to the teacher and I strongly advise anyone to discuss it with them before buying a horn. There are reasons and advocates for both. Rest assured, success and pleasure can be found with either.
Regardless of what sort of horn you play, there are many options that are universal. Each option has advantages and disadvantages. Preferences abound and I always suggest getting advice from a trusted teacher or player. Here are a few to get your feet wet:
- The Mouthpiece - Most commonly made of brass that has been coated (plated) in silver. There are more options than you ever thought possible. Every aspect of the mouthpiece has been explored and then explored again. Certain standards are expected and most instruments come with a decent mouthpiece for a learner. A mouthpiece should be kept clean, have a smooth rim (the part that touches the face) and should have an intact coating of silver or gold or hav a rim that is stainless steel or plastic. Gouged rims can harbour bacteria and mouthpieces that are unplated or excessively worn will expose the mouth of the player to raw brass or nickel. This is not healthy as raw brass and nickel can cause skin irritation and allergic reactions.
- String or Mechanical Linkages - The “linkage” is the connection from the finger lever to the rotor itself. String and mechanical linkages have both been around since the beginning and the merits of each have been debated since that time. Mechanical linkages have advanced greatly over the last 20-30 years and are now almost all sealed “ball and socket” type. An older horn with string linkages will still work quietly but old mechanical linkages can make lots of noise whether they are ball and socket or other.
- String linkages: Advantages - low upfront cost; allows for easy height adjustment of levers to fit player; fewer moving parts to make noise; smoother stroke. Disadvantages - the string can break, become untied or loose; complicated to restring.
- Ball and Socket (Mechanical) linkages: Advantages - durable if good quality and maintained well; unlikely to break at inopportune moments. Disadvantages - student horns often have poorly made ball and socket joints installed; should be lubricated regularly; expensive when compared to string to replace or repair; cannot easily adjust lever height; can be noisy if poor quality, worn or unlubricated.
- Finger Hooks - A finger hook is installed on nearly every horn for the left hand pinky to help support the weight of the horn. Hands, like people, come in a vast assortment of sizes so a one size fits all approach doesn’t work for everyone. A fixed finger hook, usually just a curved hook of metal that the pinky rests in, is low in profile and unmovable. That’s fine if it fits your hand but a nuisance if it doesn’t. The solution is the adjustable finger hook. These can be moved and set to a place that is comfortable. The downside is they are bulky, can get knocked out of position and can scratch or dent the bell tubing underneath. A repair technician can move or bend a finger hook to a more comfortable position or even swap it out for one that is more comfortable but some lacquer damage may occur in the process.
- Flipper or Duckfoot - A flipper/duckfoot is a support that extends from the horn above the left hand grip area. The flipper relieves the stress put on the pinky and the hand by distributing the weight of the horn onto the area between the thumb and forefinger. The flipper flips down alongside the horn to easily fit in a case - hence the name flipper - and pokes out horizontally like a duck's foot - hence the name duckfoot. Flippers are easily adjustable or removable with just a simple tool. Many teachers avoid flippers for certain students as it can cause them to use too much pressure against the embouchure (lips). Flippers have until recently been an after purchase add-on but more makers are adding them on new horns.
- Waterkeys - Waterkeys are small spring loaded valves that release the built up condensation in the tubing of a horn. If too much water builds up the horn will make a gurgling sound. A strategically placed waterkey reduces the need to twist a horn around to get the water out. Many horns come with one, sometimes two, waterkeys installed. They are definitely nice to have but they don’t solve all water problems. Waterkeys can be easily installed after purchase if desired.
- Cases - The case is a very important consideration with any musical instrument. A replacement case can be surprisingly expensive and still fit poorly so investing a little more up front for a horn that comes with a decent case can save money in the long run.
- All student and intermediate horns should come with a case while many premium professional horns do not.
- A good case will have a hard shell of plastic, plywood or fibreglass that is sometimes covered in fabric or leather. The interior will be well cushioned and form fitted to hold the horn securely and have a place for a mouthpiece and a pocket for accessories like oil. Look for a horn that comes with a case that has latches and visible external hinges as these can usually be easily repaired if they break. Some cases, like current ones from Yamaha, Jupiter and some Eastman models, hold the horn in a bell-up position rather than a bell down position. This raises the bell extrusion of the case above the knee when held alongside oneself thus making carrying it a much more pleasant experience as the bell won't collide into the knee when walking. Lastly, some hard cases have “D” rings or attachment points for shoulder or backpack straps. This can help make the undeniably awkward horn shape a little more comfortable to carry long distances.
- A poor quality case is made from cut styrofoam that is covered in cheap nylon fabric. Most have no hard outer shell but do come with shoulder and/or backpack straps and have an outer pocket that is usually just a little too small to actually carry music. Poor quality zippers, structurally unsupported straps and often no hinges at all (or ones pointlessly screwed into styrofoam) round out these offerings.These cases suffer from an internal struggle over what will fail first: the zipper, the handle or the hinge. The worst cases I’ve seen actually had the hinge screws protrude into the horn cavity and poke holes through the brass tubing of the horn! Unfortunately, every recently made Kinder horn I’ve seen in Australia has a case like this and there is no good replacement option available.
- Soft “gig” bags are attractive because they are lightweight, small and usually come with backpack and shoulder straps. I would only recommend the very best gig bag - well made and with heavy leather exterior - to only the most responsible adult and even then I would argue against it. A gig bag will protect a horn from minor bumps and scratches but does nothing to protect a horn from being crushed.
- Screw or Cut Bell - A horn bell can be cut off just below the flare and a large screw fitting installed. A horn with a screw bell can fit into a much smaller, easier to carry case. Many professional horn players have screw bell horns and technicians can install aftermarket bell rings. Makers are now frequently providing this option on student level horns including Kinder horns. Regardless of how wonderful and convenient that sounds, I still strongly recommend against a screw bell for any player that is not at least a high school senior and very serious. Here’s why:
- The threads can be easily crossed, causing permanent damage.
- The bell can easily get stuck on and the use of force to remove it can cause severe damage. Fixing a twisted bell can cost well in excess of $500 to repair if it can be salvaged, and much more if it needs to be replaced.
- The bell flare can be easily dropped whilst screwing on not only damaging the bell flare but potentially warping the bell ring out of round making it difficult or impossible to assemble.
- The rim of the unprotected ring on the horn side is quite fragile and bendable when the bell is off. Even minor damage can cause severe problems.
- Getting the bell on can be tricky and time consuming. I’ve heard teachers and band directors grumble over the fact that the horn players miss the first ten minutes of rehearsal or lesson while they are trying to screw on their bells.
- Even the most careful, conscientious child is going to be in a room full of kids who may not be as thoughtful and careful as they are.
What’s Available Here:
The following are current models that you are likely to find at various shops in the Sydney market:
Full size student horns:
- Eastman EFH324 or EFH325 : horn in Bb
- Eastman EFH362 - Horn in F
- John Packer JP165 - Horn in F
- Jupiter JHR700 - Horn in F
- Yamaha YHR322II - Horn in Bb
- Yamaha YHR314II - Horn F
- Cambridge Cadet - available in F or Bb
- John Packer JP161 - Horn in Bb (very small wrap)
- John Packer JP162 - horn in F
- Paxman Primo - available in F or Bb
- Schagerl 701 - Horn in Bb
- Schagerl 702 - Horn in F
- Wiseman CB450 - Horn in Bb
- Wiseman CF450 - Horn in F