I have learned from various manufacturers and dealers that most people buy a horn by relying on first impressions or their "feeling" about a horn. I think that this is a dangerous system and many players end up buying a "dud" when the problems could have been found out before the purchase. The most common problems I have come across are:
1. A horn with a good sound but bad intonation.
2. A horn with good intonation but a bad sound.
3. Bad notes (harmonics) that "hid" during the testing.
4. The buyer's idea that "I have to adjust to the new horn."
The first step in testing a new horn is to know what you want. What type of sound do you want to hear and what type of metal produces the sound you like most? What type of resistance is necessary in a horn for you to play your best? How much weight can you hold? A stopping valve and a cut bell add perceptibly more weight to a horn and of course a triple is heavier.
These and many more questions should be considered before going to the "store" or especially before ordering a specially made horn. Also, you must decide on the importance of each one of these factors.
Many players check an instrument by playing various concertos or excerpts and comparing the new horn to their present habits. I try to use a more objective and organized approach to testing. When I test a horn, first I look for intonation, which means a well in-tune harmonic series. Second I look for defective notes. Third I listen to the sound and see if it corresponds to what I am seeking, and I check the response and resistance of loud and soft dynamics in all registers. These are my priorities.
Tune all sides of a double horn or triple horn to each other beginning with the shorter horn, and tune each note. Use a tuner, and use the technique appropriate for the horn.
For example, American style large-bore horns (e.g. Conn, Holton and Yamaha) require the American system of playing on the F horn in the middle register. The construction of these horns is such that they will always be sharp on the B-flat side in the register from approximately g to a'. I find Alexander and Paxman large-bore horns have this characteristic to a much lesser degree if at all.
Be sure to keep in mind the characteristics of the different harmonics. A horn that is not in tune is unacceptable and testing stops here. If the horn is in tune proceed to the next step.
Next look for defective notes. I play the harmonic series of each valve combination to see if the harmonics lie where they should (for example, the fifth harmonic is flat), then I check various scales playing both loud and soft. The loud and soft contrasts are important, because this is one one way "bad notes" hide and are not perceived until later.
A horn with a bad note is also unacceptable - back to the stock room, or if you are at the manufacturer they can sometimes correct the problem in the workroom.
RESPONSE AND SOUND
Now I begin to test for the response and quality of sound. Again I play loud and soft playing, but now I use my concertos and orchestral excerpts. At this stage I am looking to confirm all the qualities I have found in the instrument during the first tries and to make sure that the sound corresponds to my idea of a horn sound.
If you are unsure of yourself as a hornist, for example are still a student or perhaps a dedicated amateur, it is probably a good idea to have your teacher or local professional try out a set of horns for you. If this is not possible, try to be objective as possible and concentrate on what the horn is doing, not on how well or poorly you are playing that day.
Best of luck and good buying.
Excerpts from an article originally published in THE HORN CALL Volume XXIV No. 3.
Francis Orval is the horn professor at the Hochschule für Musik in Trossingen, Germany, and he tours extensively as a recitalist and teacher on both the valved and natural horn. His career has included principal positions in the National Orchester of Belgium and the Radio Tele Luxembourg Orchestra; and horn professor at the University of Texas-El Paso, the University of Delaware, and the University of the Arts in Philadelphia USA.