Late December 2008: I brought the horn home two days before Christmas. I can’t wait to play it but I am on doctor’s orders to wait for two weeks past my surgery date of Dec. 19th. Talk about frustration.
Early January 2009: Finally I can play the new horn. The valves are an absolute delight. Slides pull easily. In fact, everything except intonation is fabulous. The intonation worries me. It’s a big deal especially since I played the Yamaha in tune. The third space C is very sharp and middle C is somewhat sharp. I have spoken with Scott Bacon (the fellow who sold me the horn) and the first thing he said to do was find out what frequency the horn is calibrated to on middle C when I play it with all the slides pushed in. The way to do this is to turn on the tuner, set it at 440, close your eyes and try to center the note. Then look at the tuner. Keep adjusting the tuner (in my case up) until it reads in the center. For me, and I emphasize me, this turns out to be 452 on the Bb horn with the F horn just slightly flatter. I think we both were surprised at the value and were expecting something around 445. Scott thinks it’s up at 452 because I’m not finding the notes’ center yet. One theory is that I learned to play the Yamaha in tune but that it’s inherently flat. My muscle memory therefore is set in a way that would have me play sharp on a horn that is in tune.
A few words on finding the notes’ center for the new hornist. I’m probably a victim of brain fog but I don’t remember learning about centering notes back when I used to play. I just tuned my horn and played in tune or at least I thought I was playing in tune. Maybe I was lucky and had a horn that had decent intonation. More likely, since most horns have a few notes that are inherently bad, I just learned how to deal with them appropriately. And the appropriate intonation varies depending on the key you are in and who you are playing with (piano, chamber group, orchestra, etc.) Once your horn is in tune with itself, when playing in groups the tuner is not your friend, you have to use your ear.
Anyway, back to centering notes. My understanding is that horns have slots for each note and depending on the brand of horn, these slots vary in size. You can play high (sharp) in the slot, in the center of the slot or low (flat) in the slot. This lets you lip up or lip down notes to get them in tune. (Positioning your right hand in the bell correctly also plays a huge role in achieving good intonation.) When a beginner plays a horn with wider slots they are more likely to get the note without clamming it, but also are more likely to play the note out of tune. For horns with narrower slots, beginners are more likely to clam notes but when they get the note, it’s more likely to be in tune. I have heard that most custom horns have narrow slots.
I think my new Hoyer has fairly large slots. I can play the third space C to the point where it’s almost a C# and I can lip it down so that it is in tune when I watch the tuner. My natural tendency is to play the note quite sharp and to play most of the horn somewhat sharp. Pulling the tuning slides all the way out helps a bit but also makes a few other notes flat.
Mid January 2009: Some progress. The intonation is getting a bit better. I can play many notes in tune at 440 with the main tuning slide fully out. Third space C is a tiny bit better. Checking the calibration, it’s now around 449 so it is also getting better. I’m starting to believe that I may be able to conquer the intonation issue. My teacher has played the horn and she plays it in tune. However, even if she plays it in tune I’m the one that ultimately has to play this horn.
The good news is, other than the intonation issue, that I’m playing way better on it than I was even a few days ago and so much better than on the Yamaha words can’t really describe it. (Well not really but I can dream, LOL.) I have fewer gurgles between notes and I don’t clam as much.