Thoughts on testing a horn
by Leo Sacchi, Cornucopia, September 1997
Faced with a horn, or several horns, to evaluate, what tests will most quickly reveal important playing characteristics? Books and articles contain suggestions, most of which are valid. Here are tests not found elsewhere. They can be performed in any order. Every note in one's playing range should be tested, but it is often not necessary to go so far since deficiencies soon become apparent.
1. Bend each note to see how far it goes before jumping to the next. The extent to which this can be done depends largely on the range, but the greater the amount of bend, the more space (band width) there is per note and the better the slurs. There is also a direct relationship between the band width and resistance. While I prefer an easier-slurring, freer-blowing horn, others may prefer one in which the notes lock in more, have more resistance, and, paradoxically, may be more energy-efficient. A com- promise would likely be the best choice for most players.
2. Test the horn's pitch stability by playing long tones with crescendo and diminuendo. Avoid making any adjustments to control the pitch as the dynamic changes, observing instead how much it might otherwise wander. Notes within and above the staff in particular should require little or no adjustment.
3. Play sfz attacks, repeating each note several times. Response should be immediate, without hesitation or differing pitches. This test reveals bad notes and the horn's potential for clean staccato. Also check if notes respond softly and immediately at the slightest puff of air or require a hammer-blow from the tongue to start.
If deficiencies are found from these tests but the horn seems to have potential, experimentation with different lead pipes might be a worthwhile investment.
The horn's harmonic series must of course be well in tune, but only the octaves can be checked against a piano or tuner as the harmonics do not follow tempered tuning. The easiest interval to hear is the "true" fifth (4th to 6th harmonic, 6th to 9th, and 8th to 12th) by slowly playing the lower then the upper note. The slightest deviation of the upper note is noticeable. No slide should have to be pulled far to tune the horn.
Finally, while tone is usually a major factor in choosing a horn, what is apparent at first becomes less so in time as the player<@146>s normal tone creeps back in. Some horns change tone color more readily than others with slight changes in hand position. This characteristic could be a valuable asset and something to consider in testing.
Leo was a student of Philip Farkas, played first horn in the Chicago Civic Orchestra, then in Denver, first in NC and Florida, and eighteen years as third in Houston. Since leaving the orchestra in 1982, he has continued in Houston with free lancing, teaching, chamber music, and research on historical music.
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