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by David R. Werden

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Compared to the years I was in high school and college, the euphonium market is amazingly different now. In earlier decades your choice in the realm of professional euphoniums consisted of one or two brands: Besson/Boosey & Hawkes and possibly the Conn Constellation. But today I'm not sure I could even name all of the professional models off the top of my head. Suffice to say, a rich collector could spend $100,000 or more on professional euphoniums without duplicating any model.

The situation in low-to-mid-price models has also improved, and there are many fine brands from which to choose. Not every player needs or can afford a professional-grade horn; many will be happy with an instrument that costs from 1/6 to 1/2 the price of the professional models. This article addresses those more frugal choices.

Be aware that there is confusion about the name "euphonium" among musical instruments. If you show a standard American-style 3-valve euphonium to some people they will call it a baritone (or baritone horn); others will correctly call it a euphonium. A true baritone horn is a smaller instrument that is used mostly in brass bands. All the instruments discussed below will be euphoniums. (If you wish to learn more about this confusing naming issue, read my article explaining the difference between a baritone horn and a euphonium.)

Number of Valves

I started out playing on a 3-valve euphonium when I was 10 years old. This is fine for very young players who are just learning about the wonderful world of low brass playing. However, a standard 3-valve horn suffers from intonation problems on notes played with 1-3 and 1-2-3, and it cannot play down to low notes that are needed in much intermediate and advanced music.

For certain limited uses, a 3-valve euphonium can be satisfactory for players who are beyond the beginner stage. If you are using it for marching band, for example, the low-register intonation is not going to interfere with your playing as often as in concert music, and the lower weight of a 3-valve instrument might be welcome.

Receiver Size

The receiver of a euphonium is an "extra" piece of tubing attached to the end of the leadpipe - this is where you insert the mouthpiece. The receiver is made to fit a particular size of mouthpiece "shank." The shank is the long extension of the mouthpiece that fits into the receiver of the instrument. In the euphonium world there are three standard shank sizes for mouthpieces.
  • The smallest is called a "small shank" or a "tenor trombone" shank. This is the size that would fit in a typical student trombone. The Yamaha 321 is the most commonly-used euphonium that takes a small shank mouthpiece. A few of the common brands use this size. (It is seldom found on professional euphoniums.)
  • The "medium-shank" or "European-shank" mouthpiece is a size used primarily on euphonium, and would not be found in the trombone world. Besson and Boosey & Hawkes euphoniums made before 1974 have the in-between size, as does the very popular Willson 2900. I am not aware of any student-level or intermediate euphoniums that use this shank, but it may be found if you are considering used instruments.
  • The "large shank" or "bass trombone" shank is the size you find on bass trombones and on symphonic tenor trombones. Most professional euphoniums use this size and many lower-price instruments do as well.
The shank size should not be a major part of your decision, but there are a couple of considerations you may wish to keep in mind.
  • Air Requirements. Mouthpieces with a large shank may allow more volume of air (because they are larger at the output end). For players with a limited air supply because of age, body size, or health, small-shank mouthpieces may be a more comfortable choice.
  • Overall Mouthpiece Selection. The greatest number of choices is found within large-shank mouthpiece, second is small-shank, and the smallest selection for medium-shank mouthpieces.
  • Mouthpiece Selection vs. Player. For players who want a small-size mouthpiece cup, there is a better selection among the small-shank mouthpieces. For players who need a larger cup, the selection is much better within large-shank mouthpieces. Medium-shank mouthpieces are more easily found in the common cup sizes for advanced players.
  • Room for Growth. If the player is a student who will need to use the horn through high school (or even college), then a large receiver is the best choice in a new instrument (or possibly a medium receiver for a used Besson or Willson). This will allow for more air volume that a maturing player will develop with age.

Finish

There are three finishes typically found on euphoniums, and each has advantages and disadvantages. Mostly, you should be concerned with appearance (your preference), durability and repairability. Many players believe that the type of finish affects the sound quality and response; many other players don't think so. My opinion is that there is a small difference because of the finish (and because of some manufacturing steps having to do with the finishing process). However, I find the difference in sound to be very small, and it may be so small that sample-to-sample instrument differences may make as much of a difference.

All euphoniums are made mostly of brass. If you see a gold-colored euphonium, its appearance is due to highly-polished brass that is covered in clear (or lightly-tinted) lacquer. If you see a horn that is silver colored, it is still made of brass but is plated with either nickel or silver. With any of these finishes, it is important to keep it clean. A good practice is to wipe off that parts of the horn that contact your body after each playing session. A soft cloth will work, but if your hands are acidic or if you play in conditions that make you sweat, then it would be better to wipe off hand prints with a damp cloth and then dry with a separate soft cloth.

  • Lacquer Finish. This finish is very easy to maintain. When maintained as described above, it will look nice for a very long time. It is not quite as durable as the silver-colored finishes, but it holds up well. Scratches in lacquer tend to look a little more obvious. It is easy to scratch all the way through the lacquer, and the exposed brass will tarnish and turn a darker color. However, lacquer can be touched up by a good repair shop when a bare spot appears due to wear and tear or a scrape. Some people have sensitive skin that is bothered by prolonged contact with metals; in that case a lacquer finish would provide a big advantage.
  • Nickel-Plated Finish. Of the two silver-colored finishes, nickel is cheaper to produce and has a little "blacker" appearance. It will need to be polished from time to time. Some people find that nickel has a "slipper" or even "slimy" feel when it is dirty. Nickel may appear a bit cloudy after a few years, depending on the care. In theory nickel can be touched up for spot fixes, but most shops don't have the equipment to do this. Because it is cheaper than silver, nickel may be your only choice for a silver color in a less-expensive horn, depending on the brand.
  • Silver-Plated Finish. This is the most expensive to produce, and varies somewhat with the price of silver at the time. It will generally have the best appearance when new or kept in really good condition. A good silver plate job will last very well with reasonable care. Silver polish is necessary to keep tarnish from clouding and/or darkening the appearance. Silver probably requires the most work to keep it looking like new, but will probably last the longest of the three finished discussed here.

Weight

All things being equal, a heavier instrument may be more durable. If a maker uses heavier metal and more bracing, it adds to the weight, and will usually add to the durability. But durability also requires skilled assembly so that the parts are fit together well and that all solder joints are solid. But some good instruments are made with lighter metal; as long as they are assembled well and their materials are good quality, they will hold up well. For smaller or younger players, a light horn may be more comfortable to manage during long practice sessions.

Case

Some players are in situations where most of the time they can use a soft gig bag. If so, the case that is included with a euphonium may not be a big factor. If a horn is carried back and forth to public school or college, and especially if it is put in a storage rack that is open and shared with others, a hard case is a necessity. Also, a hard case can be necessary for travel on mass transportation, depending on the situation.

If a hard case will be important, examine the case to see if it is sturdily built. At the same time, consider the weight. Molded "plastic" cases can be quite sturdy if they are made from high-quality materials. The other general type of hard case is made from formed plywood. These tend to be noticeably heavier, but they may also be quite sturdy. In either type of case, look at the way the instrument sits in the case. There should be ample padding on all sides. Use your hands to compress the padding to make sure it has ample firmness. Also make sure that something that looks like a thick block of foam is not just thin foam on a block of wood. Check the latches and hinges on either type of case. They should feel very substantial and open/close smoothly. A good case is not much value if it falls open.

Some cases have extra storage compartments inside. At the very least there should be a holder for one or two mouthpieces. In some older molded cases this was done with holes that held the mouthpiece shank, and the holes were unfortunately positioned so that if you open the case without first laying it down, the mouthpiece could easily slip out of the hole and dent the bell just beneath it. A well-designed case will also have enough storage to hold valve oil and some small accessories. Some even have a long compartment that is large enough to hold a folding music stand.

Consider Future Repairs

There have been many off-brand instruments sold on eBay and even from some music stores, and most of them were not worth even the low prices they brought. Some may have played reasonably well, but seams tended to come apart and various pieces might fail.

Horns at any price can suffer mechanical failures that need to be repaired. When this happens, you will want to be able to go to a local repair shop and get the horn fixed. But some of the cheap horns use such thin or soft metal that they cannot be soldered together again - the metal may simply melt or deform. Also, you may have great difficulty finding replacement parts for inferior brands. Standard brands generally are made of more substantial materials that can stand repair work, and they have spare parts supply chains that enable a shop to do work beyond simple re-soldering.

If you buy from a reputable dealer, this should not be a great worry, but you might talk to their repair people to see if they experience has been good. If you are buying elsewhere, try to take the horn to a good repair shop for evaluation.

Used Instruments

For some buyers a used instrument may be a good choice. Used professional euphoniums may be found for about the price of a new intermediate model, and they could offer attributes that benefit certain players. But they are not the best choice for everyone.

If human beings were 100% logical, then it would not matter if they have a nice used horn or a brand-new horn. But that's not how we work. (Your car runs better when it's clean, right?) Young players especially needs encouragement to practice and to take care of their instrument. A shiny new instrument may prove to be an inspiration. If so, that's a valid reason to buy new instead of used.

Young players tend to be hard on instruments. It takes experience maneuvering a large instrument around other instruments and music stands, and young players (or those playing near careless players) may attract more dents and scratches. Euphoniums that are inexpensive may not hold up well, while a used Besson (for example) might withstand such treatment with less damage. But some less-expensive euphoniums are sturdy, so you should evaluate that factor on a case-by-case basis.

In general, Yamaha, King, Conn, and Bach have been fairly consistent over the years. If you find a well-maintained used instrument from one of those makers, and if that instrument is an appropriate choice for a less-experienced player, it is well worth considering.

Very talented players on a limited budget would probably prefer a used professional horn to a new intermediate horn. Older Bessons are often sought by experienced players and can be a good match. However, those same horns had intonation that was difficult to manage in the upper-middle register, while some of the less-expensive new horns have good intonation. But in the hands of an experienced player the Besson can produce a tone unmatched by student-level or intermediate-level instruments.

Summary

As mentioned in the introduction, it's a good time to shop for a student-level or intermediate euphonium. There are a great many choices. However, the drawback is that there are also many choices among poor brands (or off-brands).

If you have a good local music store, start there. If there seem to have a good instrument, look it over with the above points in mind, then do a little research on the brand/model. Check some sources, such as local band directors or Internet discussion forums, and see if there is a consensus about that model. If it seems good, then I strongly urge you to purchase from your local dealer. You may find a cheaper price online, but it is important to support your local dealer and develop a relationship with the shop. You will probably rely on them for tips, supplies like valve oil, and possibly their repair shop. If you have no local dealer options, then research the online sources by visiting the well-respected forums online and make sure you choose a dealer that has fair policies and a good history of customer care.
 

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May 9, 2016