The Hocus Pocus of Instrument Modification

by Kelly Langenberg

Originally published to

ABQ (Alliance Brass Quintet) is on tour. Last week while we were unpacking, my horn tumbled out the back door of the van and onto the cement. The damage was pretty bad: the outer bell branch was shaped like an oval, the bell wouldn’t screw on, and all the braces between the bell and the inner branch were indented on both sides. The situation wasn’t dire, though, because my Hans Hoyer Team had attended my event the prior evening and were able to get me a replacement HOYER 801 the next morning to use for the duration of our tour. Playing our show for the last few nights on a new horn (same model as my previous horn) has got me thinking about the modifications and personalizations we make to our instruments and to what effect it impacts our playing as brass players.

I’ve had a few personalizations made to my stock 801 (all of which can be special-ordered through your local Hoyer dealer): I had the lacquer removed, I added an Amato key, I changed the bumpers on the rotors to neoprene, and I added a flipper. With the exception of having the lacquer removed, these are minor adjustments that have a big impact on the player’s comfort level. But I understand there are repair shops making big dollars “overhauling” and “upgrading” instruments that are already really great horns. This concerns me. There are some modifications that do make horns play better, but you have to know your horn VERY well before deciding to make these changes.

It’s true that Dennis Brain would have sounded amazing on any French horn. A good player can make any horn sound good, but a good player with a well-crafted instrument in their hands can stand apart from the crowd. The modifications I have made to my horn are more of personalizations. (You could say that having the lacquer removed changes the sound a little bit, but it was not my motivation for pulling it off.) My advice on overhauls is to be careful and do your research. Ask questions and seek honest reviews before you pull the trigger. The results of these “overhauls” are varied at best. There is no magic pill for honest woodshedding. I do recommend and encourage modifications that benefit the comfort of the player. But after the honeymoon period on any horn, you will still sound like you but having a quality horn in your hands to begin with can be the best tool to build your dream sound. Buy a horn whose sound you already admire and you won’t have to spend top dollar to try to get what you didn’t buy in the first place.

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