Bring a Friend
Bring along a colleague to listen
to you in the room. Choose someone who understands
your concept of euphonium sound. If he or she
is also a euphonium player of roughly similar abilities, you can each take
a turn playing and listening. Even though your
colleague may have a different style of playing
than you, some of the characteristics of a horn
will be audible no matter who is playing.
the Spice of Life
Pick out your music ahead of
time. You should have several different
styles at your disposal, and you should know the
excerpts well enough to be able to play them consistently
time after time.
My own choices might be:
from the Holst Second Suite in F (for full,
of Venice or similar (for technical style).
I would use both slurred and tongued passages.
It is important to use some excerpts that
use a strong tongue. (The way horns respond
to the attack can be significantly different
between models; this is discussed more thoroughly
march, using at least one mf
strain and the ff breakup strain.
slow, lyrical song -- any number of vocal
pieces will do. This is a good chance to try
soft playing and to listen for smooth transitions
or broken scales that will take you down into
the range between low F (concert) and pedal
Bb. You need to pay attention to the response
and tone when using the 4th valve in combination
with other valves.
- A contemporary solo with some dramatic passages,
wide variations in dynamics, and some large
As you go through the different
styles in your play-testing, listen for the instrument
that will adapt the easiest. For instance, a horn
could have a nice sound on lyrical solos but might
sound tubby on a jazz/commercial piece. Or a horn
could sound lovely on soft music but sound strained
on ff passages.
Choose or invent a passage
that goes from very soft to very loud. You can
even use a simple scale that goes from middle
F to upper F, pp at the bottom to ff
at the top. Push the upper dynamics as far as
possible to find the limits of the horn. See how
loudly you can play it before the tone breaks
up, and try to do this without any more "edge"
than necessary. This will tell you if the horn
can project over a too-loud band even when you
don't want to get "brassy" sound.
need versatility in musical performance, especially
with a euphonium. Because of the instrument's
very dark tone, the capability of producing different
tone shading is very important. Don't let an instrument
force you into sounding the same on every style
of music you play. This is one of the characteristics
that is highly important to me -- I don't want to be constrained to a "monochromatic" tone quality. Some euphonium brands really
limit the variety of sounds I can produce, and
that is not acceptable for most players' needs. Evaluate the tone
in all registers. You should be able to make the
horn sing in the low, middle, and high registers.
When comparing several samples,
try to play on each of them for a while before
you begin more serious testing and comparing. This will give you a
feel for the horns and get them working acceptably.
Then do the serious comparisons in pairs only.
Try two horns thoroughly and choose the best one.
Set aside the one you don't like and start on
another pair. As you begin to try each pair, start
by playing the "new" one and warm it
up a little before you resume comparing. Continue
this process of elimination until you have gone
through all the choices. When you have selected
the best of the lot, be sure to try your old horn
on the same tests to make sure you are really
getting something better (but see the "Newness" topic below).
Pay some attention to the way
a horn works mechanically, but don't get too distracted
by it during your initial selection process. First
narrow the field down to a couple winners. If
one of them has some mechanical trouble, attend
to it and see if it can be remedied. A horn that
has otherwise good playing characteristics is worth exploring
a little further. For example, if the valves are
not smooth, disassemble them, clean every nook
and cranny on the valve and the casing, oil carefully,
and reassemble. If the action is still not smooth,
repeat the process. New horns are often shipped
with a thicker oil to protect the valves, and
sometimes debris left over from manufacturing
is caught in the valves. Also check all the pieces for tightness of assembly. If one of the caps on the bottom of a valve is not tight, that can cause a clanking sound when the valve is depressed. If a spring is not seated straight in the center of the valve, it can scrape when the valves move and may cause a "buzzing" sound on certain notes.
Move the valve slides in and out while holding down the corresponding valve. The slide should move smoothly over the range of travel, but it needs to fit tightly enough so that is has a good air seal. For the 2nd-valve slide, it needs to fit snugly enough so it does not fall out, but it still must work smoothly so you can remove it to empty out the water that accumulates there.
If the horn has a trigger, check its operation as well. Do not be too concerned if the action seems sluggish. Many triggers need to be broken in a bit before they will operate smoothly and quickly. And it may take some experimentation to get the right combination of type and amount of lubricant for the slide action. If you are not used to a trigger, it probably won't feel comfortable at first. You need to get used to holding most of the horn's weight with your left hand and still keep your hand free enough to operate the trigger's paddle.
With or without a trigger, make sure your left hand can hold the horn comfortably. There can be considerable difference in the distance from the 3rd valve tube to the other side of the large branch -- your "grip" reach. If you have large hands this may not be an issue, but if you have smaller hands this can be an important factor in avoiding muscle/tendon strain..
As mentioned before, the attack
is a very important criterion to test. Much research
has been done on the acoustic properties of instruments.
In one test from decades ago, instrumentalists played
long tones, which were recorded on audio tape. The tape was later played back for musicians to identify. The panel
were able to identify each instrument with little
trouble. Then the technicians used a razor blade
to cut off the attack of each note (this was obviously before digital recording technology). When this
cut version was played, the panel had great difficulty
differentiating between a any two instruments playing the same exact pitch. A trumpet could not be distinguished easily from a clarinet without being able to hear the attack.
same phenomenon comes into play when listening
to different models of euphonium. The way the
horn responds to an attack can give it a unique
sound. Usually, a horn with a large dynamic range
will do the best in this test. The attack is the
loudest part of most tongued notes; if the horn
doesn't have much dynamic "headroom"
it will constrain the attack.
This is a difficult area to
assess in any reasonable amount of time. No horn
has perfect intonation. You have to find one that
has made acceptable design compromises for your needs and playing abilities. However,
your impression of the new horn's intonation will
be dramatically affected by the intonation of
the horn you are used to playing.
A TUNER. This is your only hope of judging a new
instrument accurately. (They are not expensive, so if you do not own a good tuner,
look on the
chromatic tuner page of Amazon's Tuba-Euphonium Store.) Be very sure you get each
horn warmed up thoroughly before judging the intonation
(five minutes will not do it). Then tune it carefully
to a concert Bb in the middle register.
Notice three things with any
- Is it in a range that will
be noticeable or problematic?
- How far is it from true
- How easy is it to adjust?
Work with intonation long enough
that you begin to feel familiar with each horn.
If you are judging a particular note, approach
it from above and below melodically to see how
that affects it. Remember, you may be used to
lipping a certain note up or down because of the
horn you have been playing (when you are really used to one instrument, you
may not even be aware you are doing it). You may
perceive problems in the new
horn that aren't there. In order to work around
this, you need to find out where the horn
wants to play the note. Stay on the note in question;
play it loud and soft to get a feel for it. Bend
the pitch grossly up and down. This will help
you disassociate your previous notion of where
to put the pitch. As you bend the note, listen to where it is
most resonant -- this is where the horn wants
to place it. As you are doing all this in front of your tuner, start with your eyes closed. When you feel like you have found the horn's true pitch on a given note, open your eyes and see what the tuner reports.
There is one more characteristic to observe. Some horns make is easy to adjust pitch by lipping; others make it quite difficult. If the horn is too easy to "bend" on pitches, that may be because it doesn't have a good, solid center. You want a horn that has well-centered notes. However, some horns are so well centered that it can be very difficult to bend a note up or down. That is the point of #3 above -- you have to be able to adjust the pitch as much as necessary to play in tune with a section.
An instrument with superior
response can make all slurs easier and cleaner
(slurs can be one way to judge response). You
will be able to play slurred arpeggios with more
facility. For this area of testing, you will probably
judge as much by feel as by sound. As with many of these factors, test slurs in various ranges. I suggest testing with melodic slurs, slurs over small intervals (such as arpeggios), and slurs over wide intervals.
Compared to euphoniums of 40 years ago, today's models have better response in general. You may find several brands that feel better than your "old" horn this way. It is easy enough to detect the improved response in a general sense, and much harder to evaluate differences in response between two brands if you are not already used to today's standards. I often use soft playing to help me evaluate this. Try playing a piece at a consistent p (piano). As you go from note to note, and as you play over intervals, see how easy it is for you to make all the notes speak evenly and still stay within the p volume. Instruments with better, move even response will help you do this.
Compensating horns are inherently more "stuffy" (less responsive) in the compensating register from the B natural just above pedal B-flat (played 1-2-3-4) up to the 4th-valve F. But modern horns have improved that area dramatically. Larger bores and better construction have contributed to less stuffiness, but you still find differences between brands. Test this range by playing scales, including chromatic scales, through this area. It may feel easier on some brands. Also test by playing a note in the octave above, then gently tonguing the same note in the compensating octave. The horn that gives you the best accuracy percentage probably has the best compensating response.
Notice if the horn is comfortable
to hold. Try it while sitting and while standing. Notice the
reach from the right hand-brace (behind the valves)
to the valve tops, and notice the reach for your
left hand to wrap around the slides as you play.
Also, make sure the angle of the mouthpipe is
comfortable. Any of these factors can vary between
samples within the same brand; try several if
necessary. If you have small hands or strength issues, the weight can be an important factor, and it can vary a great deal from brand to brand and even model to model. Compensating euphoniums are preferred for serious players, but they are also heavier than non-compensating euphoniums. A trigger adds considerable weight. Some brands offer options for metal thickness; thicker metal may give you a more substantial sound, but will also be harder to hold in playing position, especially while standing.
Don't be too distracted by the
"newness" factor. No brand new horn
plays as well as it will when it is a year old.
New horns will be stuffier, less clear, and won't
respond as well in the 4th valve register as when
they are well broken-in. If you can get a horn
to try for a couple weeks, it will play noticeably
better at the end of that time, and may give you
some idea what it will be like when broken in.
my work helping manufacturers develop their euphoniums,
I invariably found that if I had played one for
a few months and then got a new one to try, the
new one seemed stuffier. It was only after considerable
playing that the new sample began to feel like
a comfortable old shoe. By then it was time to
trade for a newer version, and I had to start
breaking in a horn all over again.
is somewhat easier to deal with when comparing
all brand new horns. They will all be stuffy because
of newness so the playing field is level. Be aware,
though, that sometimes one of the new horns may
have been played much more than the others (because
of being on display at a show, for example) and
may have better characteristics because of that.
I haven't found a good way to deal with this;
just be aware that it may be a factor.
Finish: Three Common Choices
Brass instruments are commonly offered in two finishes -
gold color and silver color. With modern materials and
construction techniques, either color finish can hold up
very well for years. Gold finish is almost always due
to highly-polished brass coated with a clear (or lightly
tinted) lacquer. If it were not coated, brass would begin
to tarnish immediately and would soon look uneven and dull.
Silver finishes are usually a plated coating on top of brass.
Inexpensive horns may use a nickel plating. This is durable,
but does not have the clarity of shine that silver offers.
More expensive models use silver plating, usually with a bright,
shiny finish. They are the most durable for typical players.
Some models may use a "satin" or "scratch" effect
on the silver finish. This has a duller finish (similar to a shiny
silver object that has "fogged" up from humidity). Either
type will require some effort to polish them periodically.
Some instruments offer options of two or three of the finishes mentioned
above. Lacquered brass is usually the cheapest (standard) choice. Nickel
may cost slightly more. And silver usually has the highest cost premium.
Some professional models offer variations not mentioned above.
For example, at least two makers have bells that are made of solid
sterling silver, rather than silver-plated brass. Some gold-colored
parts may actually be brass plated with real gold. At least one
maker offers a horn in unfinished brass. But for most purchasers,
these more "exotic" options are not a factor.
The horn's finish does has a small
effect on tone quality and possibly response. For a discussion of this
and other finish considerations, see the blog post on this site titled
Silver Plating vs. Lacquer Finish.
Most professional euphoniums
use a bass trombone size receiver for the mouthpiece,
but some popular horns use the middle size receiver
(similar to the size Besson used before 1975),
and at least one uses the smaller tenor trombone
size receiver. If you can, bring along your model
mouthpiece with the shanks you will be needing.
Most mouthpiece manufacturers can supply you with
a mouthpiece of any shank size. It might be worth
the expense to obtain a set of varied shank sizes.
You may find that you have a use for them in the
future, and they will be extremely helpful in
trying out different brands of euphoniums. If
you use a standard mouthpiece, the euphonium dealer
may be able to supply you with acceptable duplicates
of yours in different shank sizes for trying out
horns. If you are going to use the dealer's mouthpiece
for any of the horns, use his for all of them
-- your comparisons will probably be more valid.
Obviously, preparation is very important.
Make sure you are in the best playing condition possible. Know
what music you will be using and learn it well. Arrange for mouthpieces
to use. Attempt to secure a large room. Bring along a tuner and
use it wisely. Bring a friend. Take your time. When you have made
a tentative choice, arrange to keep the horn for a couple weeks
to really test it. Don't be too put off by the prices of professional
euphoniums -- they are long-term investments.
There are many high-quality euphoniums on the market today. If you observe the professionals from around the world, you will know that the market is not limited to one or two top choices. If you can get to a large music event that has many manufactures displaying their wares, try as many horn as you can. Just because your favorite soloist plays a particular brand, that doesn't mean you will like that brand the best. Keep an open mind!
(Also read the panel discussion on choosing
from the International Euphonium Institute, 2007.)