by Ashley Cumming
Around this time of year, I often have parents asking about instruments for their children, or students buying before they head off to college. I wanted to offer a few pieces of advice to get you started when considering buying a horn.
This advice is principally for students buying an instrument to get them through high school and potentially a music education/composition (non-performance) degree. If you plan on having a career in performance, you may want to consider an instrument that will be sufficient until you are close to achieving their first professional job, or for completing a masters' degree, at which time you will have developed enough so that you know what is ultimately the right fit for you and you career. If you plan to go to college (especially for performance), you should absolutely speak to your future professor before making any big purchases.
Single vs. Double
Horns range in size, quality and features, and it is important to understand what you are looking at before buying. First of all, I advocate buying a double horn; this is standard for students except for some of the earliest beginners. This allows more flexibility and a beautiful sound in all ranges.
Looks can be deceiving
You do not necessarily need a brand new instrument, but do need one where the horn and valves especially are in good working order. Lacquer wear and the finish can be deceptive; some of the best horns have a few scuffs on the exterior and are dozens of years old. Dents and their impact depend on the size of the tube where the dent is: if the lead pipe is dented 1/2 inch, you are drastically hurting the sound, while a large 1-inch gash near the bell might barely effect the sound and intonation. A detachable bell is a good option if you do a lot of traveling/walking, but if you are clumsy, it's something else that could get damaged! I often recommend buying used horns, because you can get a better instrument for a lower price. Think of this as buying a new car - new instruments will depreciate quickly as they are worn in, and scuffs and bumps are almost inevitable in busy band rooms and students' travels.
There are many brands out there, but when you are buying without a lot of previous research, I recommend first looking at Holton, Yamaha or Conn horns. There are various models and sizes, and the model numbers describe the size, lacquer, and level of instrument. A Yamaha 567 is often selected for young students, but is generally a little small for upper level students and taller students. A 667 or 668 may be a better fit. A Holton 179 or 180 are great options, or a Conn 6D (smaller), 8D or 10D are also popular. In general, I avoid models by Accent, Jupiter, Eastman or similar *deals* - these models frequently break, rarely tune and are nearly impossible to sell once you grow out of them. However, there are one or two new models coming out in recent years that may be worth considering after careful research.
Your horn may come with a mouthpiece, but it may not be ideal for you - when testing horns, use your current mouthpiece so you have some consistency in your trials. For a middle school or early high school student, I start by recommending a Holton Farkas MDC mouthpiece. More advanced students will have different needs depending on their lips and strengths.
How to know what is right for you?
Every horn is different, and even between brands there are a lot of discrepancies. I recommend trying as many horns as you can before you commit to any one style or make. Check at your school and see if they have any horns you can play on, as well as looking to see if there are any local music shops nearby where you can try some instruments. If there is a horn conference or music conference (like Midwest Band Clinic or Southwest Horn Workshop) happening in the region, it is also worth making a trip to try out many horns back to back. Try playing low, high, loud, soft, lyrically, articulately and playing things you are very comfortable with. Bring a friend so they can tell you what it sounds like from several feet away. You should consider both sound and feel, as well as what you think you will need in coming years.
Where to buy?
There are many options today for where to buy instruments; consider each option with care. Music shops and conferences will allow you to try instruments, and may offer payment plans, but less often sell used instruments. Online, you can try brass or horn-specific music instrument dealers (a search online will produce many options depending on where you live), or classified ads on places like the listings on the International Horn Society's website. Some have had luck on Ebay, but remember with online sales, you must consider shipping, insurance, and a return policy in case it is not what you hoped for. Is there a university nearby? Sometimes students are upgrading or the professors there may have a line on a used instrument for sale.
The horns I generally recommend for my middle school and high school students are used horns - Yamaha, Conn or Holton - that are about $1500-2500 in price. They are relatively well-made, hold their value, and are good for resale. I always have a student play several horns first and make sure they have some idea first what model will best suit them. I contact my colleagues asking if they know of a used horn for sale, and if you have a private teacher, I encourage you to ask them to do the same. I also recommend looking at the classifieds and search for an instrument within driving distance - it may be worth a 3 hour trip to pick up a new horn if it will save you a few thousand later and protect you from settling on a lesser instrument or shipping concerns. If you can have the horn for a trial period (always ask for one!), take it in to a trusted repairman to see if there are any major concerns or fixes needing done before you commit. Buying a horn is a big investment, but with good research and careful planning, you can definitely find a great one for you.
Best of luck to you as you on your search for a new horn!
Dr. Ashley Cumming hails from Cambridge, Ontario. She is featured as a soloist, orchestral and chamber musician worldwide, including principal horn with the COSI Opera Orchestra in Italy and Columbus Indiana Philharmonic and freelance horn with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, UANL Symphony Orchestra in Mexico and Orchestre de la Francophonie in Quebec. Her quintet Spark Brass recently released their first album and they perform throughout the USA. Ashley also teaches at Marian University, University of Indianapolis and Indiana University-Purdue University of Indianapolis. She holds a Doctorate of Music from Indiana University. For more information, please see www.ashleycumming.com.