A New Instrument

I spent a few days two weeks ago at the Horn Symposium of the International Horn Society, in Memphis. Sound like a nightmare? Well, I had a great time. Picture 500 horn players (I’m using the word “horn” to refer to my specific instrument, the French horn, as opposed to all the horns together (including trumpet, trombone, etc.)) all gathered on the same university campus, playing concerts, trying instruments, schmoozing, talking shop, buying music and CDs.

I know a lot of these people, and because of my job a lot of others know who I am. So the schmooze factor was in overdrive. My UW students play in a horn choir at school, so I bought lots of music for them to play. Great players gave recitals (for my non-musician readership, a recital is a solo concert, often with piano accompaniment; a concerto is a solo performance with orchestral accompaniment; a concert is a generic term for any performance; a masterclass is an event in which a great teacher teaches in front of a crowd, ideally (but not usually) enlightening everyone, not just the student who is playing).

A colleague of mine (well, everyone there was a colleague of mine) gave a masterclass in which he made a statement that I loved. He said, basically, that you can play any piece of music any way you like, but you must have an OPINION about every note you play. In other words, you don’t just play notes, but you play them in a certain WAY, and you think about how they should go. I loved how he phrased that, and have officially stolen the idea. It might sound simple or obvious to you, but it is very easy to just play notes and try to hit them rather than playing with a concept in your head.

A high point for me, aside from eating barbecue, came when I was chatting with a guy from Boston who, in addition to playing the horn, sells and repairs instruments. He asked if I had tried the new Yamaha horn. I didn’t know what he was talking about, and he brought me into a back room where there were two horns and a bunch of spare parts on a table and three Japanese gents behind the table. It turns out that Yamaha, which has been making horns for quite a while, is developing a new professional level instrument and they were having people try out various permutations.

For you non-hornists out there, I should explain that the horn has yet to find its Stradivarius. There is no unquestionably great horn maker who has revolutionized the instrument and set the standard for all, as Stradivarius did for the violin. Rather, we’re in a period of evolution, where different designs are tinkered with in ways small and slightly less small. Horns have a lot of tubing and there are different ways you can wrap up that tubing (we call this, not surprisingly, the wrap). The bell of the instrument flares out dramatically, but there are lots of size variables there. The instrument has a conical bore, which means that the tubing gets bigger and bigger as you travel the 20-some feet of tubing from the mouthpiece to the bell. In what way does it get bigger and bigger? It’s still open season as far as that goes.

It’s not that every horn maker starts from scratch, though. There are a few basic wraps that have become more or less standard, and the new Yamaha is one of these (a Geyer wrap, if you must know). Yamaha had settled on the valves (the buttons we push, which add a particular length of tubing, which enables you to play all the notes of the scale – there are four of them on this kind of horn), so the real issue was the very first piece of tubing (called the leadpipe, pronounced “leed” and not “led”) where your mouthpiece fits in, and the bell, at the other end, where the sound comes out.

It turns out that the leadpipe on horns has a complicated shape, and therefore can make a big impact on the instrument. Each of the two horns had a leadpipe built in (that’s normal), but there were  three extra unattached leadpipes on the table that could be taped on (high tech, I know). And there were, if I remember right, two extra bells. And of course the two horns (which, I believe, had slightly different bell throats, which is to say that the way they opened into the bell was slightly different). The specifics of this are boring to the non-player and possibly even to hornists, but the point is that there were lots of permutations to try.

And trying was FUN! Each permutation felt really different from the others. It was hard to describe in words what my reactions were, though not impossible, but after a while it became clear just by listening which combination of parts let me just PLAY and which ones made me adjust and fuss. It felt like I was being allowed to be present at the creation of the genetic makeup of the instrument. And the version that suited me best was fabulous, so of course I pleaded with the Yamaha people to make that the one they end up with. Time will tell.

So, see you all in London next year for the 2014 International Horn Symposium!

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2 Responses to A New Instrument

  1. Ruth says:

    What a great way to beta test an instrument!

  2. Kyle Hayes says:

    So excited to see (and play) the finished product!

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