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Why Horn Responsiveness Is Important

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For a long time I thought that a euphonium's response was relatively down the list of important factors when choosing a horn. First was the sound. And I broke down sound into two necessities: 1) the sound had to be big and have good projection, and 2) the sound had to have a character that fit well into various styles and could be "bent" or "shaded" somewhat when necessary. And second on my overall list was clarity of sound during technical passages. No sense working hard to play some tough piece if the audience is not going to be able to tell what you are doing. Third was physical comfort - the way the horn fit my body, which would determine how comfortable it is for me to hold. Fourth might have been assembly quality, because a horn has to hold up in heavy use or during travel, etc. Then jumbled together below that were other factors: response, intonation, appearance, and probably others I have not thought to mention here.

The reason I tended to downplay response was that I figured a player could make up for response with a little more effort, but a player can't fundamentally change the sound of the horn. The same logic is why I rated intonation somewhat lower; with effort or alternate fingerings one can adjust intonation.

In more recent years I've come to appreciate an instrument's response as a contributor to the final "product" a player delivers to the audience. Part of this awareness is due to more experience with more horns, part is due to the less regular practice schedule I have these days, which makes me more aware of the instrument's impediments that stand between me and the outcome I have in mind.

Fortunately, our bodies adjust somewhat automatically to differences in ease of response. Our ears guide us toward the desired musical effect and our body's reflexes take over to help us get there. Think of it like the cruise control on your car, which automatically applies more gas when you encounter an uphill stretch of road. That is why most professional players, who have ample reserve capacity, can pick up virtually any horn and sound really good on it. But just as your car will use more gas as you go uphill, even though the cruise control keeps you from having to work harder, a horn that has inferior response will cause you to expend more effort compared to a horn with better response.

"So what?" you may ask. As long as the sound coming out of the bell is the same, does it matter if I use more energy to produce it? It matters for two reasons. The first is perhaps the most obvious: if you have to work harder to get the horn to perform, then your endurance will suffer as the performance gets longer. The second reason may be less obvious.

Think of all the time you spend practicing in your life. Think more specifically about the time you spent where you were working up a new piece. Did you feel like you had 100% of the time necessary to perfect the piece? Was each passage coming out exactly they way your mind and heart would dictate, vs. the way your chops and horn found it easiest to manage? Would you have benefited from having a few extra days to work on it?

Let me look at a more granular example. I have spent a lot of time working on multiple-tonguing skills. My ultimate goal is to make my double-tonguing indistinguishable from my single-tonguing. I want it to be usable at any tempo, even slower than one would normally associate with the need for double-tonguing. I want to be able to use it in soft passages or loud passages. And I want to have the facility to activate it at will, so if I find a need for just a bit more alacrity than my single-tonguing provides, I can just "change gears" easily. (Pardon my continuance of car analogies today.)

Imaging a passage that has a jump down of a 3rd or 4th on the "ka" syllable when double-tonguing. Most players find that a little awkward. Think about practicing such a passage; think about focusing on absolute evenness of all the notes; and think about playing this passage at a dynamic that is not within your best comfort zone for multiple tonguing. Now consider the advantage if your horn could suddenly be made to respond just a little better. On notes where you are using the less-comfortable "ka" syllable and trying to play smoothly, wouldn't it be nice if the horn made it easier for you to get a clean attack?

Now think about a slow, beautiful passage where you will be using lots of expression and rubato. Think of doing it at a soft, gentle volume. Over the years I have tried to learn the limits of the horn so I know just how far I can "push" such passages. How long can I make the diminuendo stretch? Can I get just a little softer on this note before moving to the next (and still make the connection clean)? Can I get just a little more subtle attack on my next entrance? With me, and I think with most serious players, such things are worthy of much practice. They don't just happen.

Consider this story. A friend told me that when he was a student at Eastman School of Music, he once heard a trumpet player in the next room practice "Last Rose of Summer" for hours on end. He was speaking of the 16-measure version from the Arban book. Hours on this. This particular trumpet player was destined for greatness in the orchestral trumpet world. He spent hours practicing those few measures of a slow, pretty song. He obviously wanted every nuance just right. Now imaging the subtleties he was working on. I have thought of that many times and also applied myself fairly intensely to the practice of slow melodies. As I go for a particular way of making a phrase work, often thinking of how a singer would make the words flow, it seemed sometimes as though the horn wasn't quite cooperating with me. Then I had to work harder to make the phrase work. In some cases I worked out a slightly different way of phrasing a few notes - a way that the horn seemed able to handle.

It was only after I played an instrument with great response for a couple months that I realized I wasn't having to adjust phrases to the limitations of the horn. It seemed ready, willing, and able to follow my ideas. It's almost as though it read my mind and was phrasing with me, rather than phrasing only after I insisted. No doubt I should have figured that out sooner, but I'm a little dense about those things sometimes!

Most top-level euphoniums have good response, but there is a discernible difference to be noticed as you try different models/brands. And somewhat unfortunately, the response of the horn will change as you play it more. There are various theories about why this happens, ranging from molecular transformation to the build-up of, um, a "patina" within the bore of the horn. Whatever the reason, I have noticed the shift over time on every instrument I have owned. I believe that if a new Brand A responds better than a new Brand B, then Brand A will probably still have the advantage after both horns were played for a year. Still, it makes shopping just a little more complex.

As you are testing a new horn, don't stop at testing its tone, intonation, valve action, etc. And don't just notice the response, but also test it. Play slurred and tongued scales, arpeggios, and exercises or solos and see how softly you can play them dependably. It is a "quick and dirty" way to test overall ease of response and evenness of response from note to note. As with all other tests you perform on a new horn, it is desirable to warm up the horn before judging.

One of the reasons I began endorsing the Adams Custom Euphonium is its terrific response. There are some construction-related reasons that the Adams may be so responsive, such as the uniform thickness of metals, construction quality, and the careful allotment of bracing. But whatever the reasons, it is a benefit that is easy to appreciate!

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  1. MichaelSchott's Avatar
    Thank you David.

    You touched on this in your addendum but I'm curious as to the factors that make a particular horn responsive. As we've all seen, there are variations even within horns of the same model and brand. That's one of the reason's we try multiple examples of the same horn before making a purchase whenever possible. My 2900S is pretty responsive but I've played others that speak with less effort. Also, Do you think there are modifications we can make to a horn to increase responsiveness?

    Thank you, Mike.
  2. davewerden's Avatar

    There are a great many things that contribute to responsiveness. If I had to choose the most important factor in the Adams design, I would say it is the uniform thickness of the metal. Second in importance is probably quality of construction. My reason for choosing those two is simple: ALL the Adams horns I've tried have a free-blowing quality that one would call a family trait. Given the variety of materials and overall thicknesses, the common factors would still be that uniformity of thickness and construction quality.

    The adjustable-gap receiver is a smaller factor, but it does allow you to "touch up" the responsiveness to your own taste.

    For an existing horn, there are some expert technicians who can do some things. In some cases they may need to take some of the joints apart and refit them so the tubes are butted up to each other more closely (and straight!). Or they may need to align the valves.