I have been playing the same horn for about 3 years. But I’ve got a new (old) one coming.
A brass instrument is basically a hollow tube of metal. In the case of the horn, the tube is about 12 feet long. Then, there are valves. You push down the lever, and it adds an extra piece of tubing. We have 3 valves. The first one lowers the pitch of any note by a whole step (like the distance from D down to C), the second by a half step (like C down to B), and the third by a step and a half (like C down to A). My more mathematically inclined readers will note that pushing the third valve is equivalent to pushing the first two at the same time. Following the math to play down the chromatic scale (every note including sharps and flats), we play an open note (no valves), then lower by a half step with the second valve. Using the first valve lowers by another half step. Then the first and second together for a step and a half. Since first and second together equals third, we push the third valve down plus the second valve and we’re a further half step down. And so on.
The other thing you need (using the term loosely) to know is that a hollow tube of metal will produce all the notes of the harmonic series. On the basic horn (basic? I’ll explain in a minute), the lowest possible note to play is a low F. Hence the instrument is said to be pitched in F, and is sometimes called the F horn. For historical reasons which I won’t get into now, we horn players call that note C. Don’t ask, don’t tell. Anyway, after that low C, moving upward, we can play the next C, then G, C, E, G, an out-of-tune Bb, C, D, E, out-of-tune F#, G, etc. Notice that they get closer together as we go up.
If you push down the second valve, you can do the whole series, down one half step. If you push the first valve, you can do the series down yet another half step. For those of you who are counting, the second valve gives you an E harmonic series (which we call B), and the first valve gives you the Eb series (yes, we call it Bb). And so on through all valve combinations. With our three valves, we can play any note in the range of the instrument, though of course we need to use our lips to find the right spot (remember that any fingering gives you a pile of notes to choose from, and you have to pick out the right one).
Above, I pointed out that the notes are closer and closer together as you go higher. It gets harder and harder to pick out the right one, its neighbors are so close. Imagine a piano in which the keys get narrower as you go up. It’s easy to hit the neighboring note by accident. This is why you’ll always hear mistakes from the horns in a concert. And by the way, in the biz we call those mistakes clams.
You can pitch an instrument in any key you want by making the basic length of tubing longer or shorter. So, instead of a 12′ long horn in F, you could have an 8′ long horn in Bb. Playing an instrument like that, which is shorter (and higher), it is much easier to hit the high notes. Their neighbors aren’t quite so close as on the F horn. So some brilliant horn maker had the idea to combine the F horn with the Bb horn in one instrument. The F horn has a richer sound, but the Bb horn is much more accurate up high. Hence the double horn. Another valve, operated with the thumb, switches between the two horns. They share a mouthpiece and a bell (the wide end where the sound comes out). This kind of horn has been around for 100 years or so, and is the basic piece of equipment used by hornists. Almost all the horns I have owned have been regular double horns. The one I play now most of the time is a double horn. It is kind of badly made, with some plastic parts (I’m not kidding), but it plays great.
What? It plays great? Let me explain. Every horn feels different to blow into. Some horns fight you back a little (we call that resistance). Some horns sound very bright, some quite dark. Some horns are easy to play cleanly with a crisp beginning of the note, and others not so much. Some horns have good high notes, some good low notes. My current horn has good everything.
Yet I have a new (old) horn on the way. Why?
Remember about the two horns, F and Bb, that combine into a double horn? Well, there are other horns, too. A horn in high F (an octave above the basic F horn) has really great high notes, since it’s a little teensy thing. And some genius figured out how to add a high F horn (we call it a descant) to the double horn. Yes, dear readers, the triple horn is becoming more and more common. It has two thumb valves to switch among the three horns. This kind of instrument, in theory at least, has it all: beautiful low notes, crisp clean Bb horn accuracy, and all the security of having a built-in descant horn for those scary high notes.
The problem, though, is that the triple horn is a giant compromise. It’s like a small apartment filled with incompatible roommates. They all have different needs, and they are squeezed into the same inadequate space. Many triple horns don’t play that well as a result, and I have resisted buying one.
About 15 years ago, I played a triple horn owned by a colleague. I couldn’t believe how good it felt. The low notes were strong and rich, and the high notes were easy and maintained a good sound. I told my colleague to let me know if she every wanted to sell her horn. Fast forward to the present day. She is selling, I am buying.
Best of all: no plastic parts on this horn.