The Arizona State University Horn Studio
The Mello Zone
In the United States nearly every horn player will encounter marching horns and mellophones, both of which are often not favorite instruments of horn players.
I first encountered the mellophone in F alto in high school in the late 1970s, as I was given a "classic" mellophone (or concert mellophone) by a family friend, the one pictured at right. This type of mellophone was used fairly widely in the United States from before the turn of the century until before WWII. Featuring piston valves and fingered with the right hand, this instrument is an octave shorter than a standard single F horn and was generally used to play horn parts in amateur groups. While it is easier to play, it lacks some of the poetry of tone we associate with the horn. It is built to use a mouthpiece sized between that of a trumpet and trombone with a cornet shank.
I did not march with a mellophone in high school or college, as Emporia High School, the Kansas Lions Band, and Emporia State University all marched standard French horns, which was not uncommon at that time. But being interested in horn history I even then started becoming familiar with other alto range brass instruments, including the mellophone and alto (tenor) horn.
Fast forward to the years I played in the Nashville Symphony. I also helped with horn sectionals at McGavock High School, and about 1994 they were in the process of buying new instruments. Besides the mellophones the directors where looking at I had them also get a Yamaha B-flat marching horn on trial. I did a playing test of all the different instruments. To my mind the B-flat marching horn was the best, but the directors chose the best of the mellophones. It is an instrument pitched in B-flat built to use a horn mouthpiece; the music for this instrument would be in F but fingered with B-flat horn fingerings, just like "thumb down" on a double horn. One is pictured at left.
When I left Nashville to start teaching full time at the Crane School of Music in Potsdam, NY, life was good in a sense as they have no football team or marching band! I only had to talk about mellophones with the students in horn methods classes.
Fast forward again to 2007 and teaching full time at Arizona State. For the first six years of my tenure here they used B-flat marching horns in the marching band. However, people in high places wanted change in the athletic bands. As a part of that change a decision was made to replace the old marching horns (mostly purchased in the 1980s) with brand new mellophones, part of a large purchase of instruments and uniforms funded by an anonymous donor. The first one I tested is below. It is in F alto just like the classic mellophone at the top of the page, but it is built in a different shape and uses a more trumpet-like mouthpiece with a trumpet shank (although a smaller horn mouthpiece works fairly well with an adapter).
Initially I was not very happy about this turn of events. But it did get me thinking out of the box. Most horn students today in the USA will play mellophone for a while somewhere. The way the mellophone is taught and used is a part of the "horn problem;" if it were taught better it could be a part of the solution to the issue of there just not being enough good horn players around at the high school level.
The result was that during the summer and fall of 2007 I became very well acquainted with the mellophone. It is an ideal time to get to know the mellophone better, as the fact that DCI groups recently switched to standard band instruments has been a big boost to mellophones. They had long lagged behind other brass instruments, but now there is in fact a "renaissance" in progress with real development money and effort going into improved instruments and mouthpieces. Starting that summer I wrote not only a number of posts in my former blog (now a part of Horn Matters) but also wrote a book, the only one of the kind ever written, A Mello Catechism; A Guide to the World of Mellophones and Marching Horns.
A Mello Catechism: A Guide to the World of Mellophones and Marching Horns
A highly practical tome on all things mellophone. Includes information on mellophone history, mouthpiece choices, tone quality, intonation, coping with marching, and much more. 30 pages.
Available from Horn Notes Edition.**
A review is posted in The Middle Horn Leader web site, the online magazine on the mellophone.
My Mellophonium Mood
Mellophone Mouthpiece Options
Since the completion of this project I have played mellophone from time to time in the praise band at my church, emulating the style of the classic jazz mellophone recordings from the 50s and 60s. In this case for me it functions much like the high F side on a descant or triple horn, and as the lone brass instrument in the group a mellophone played with a small tenor horn mouthpiece fits the texture of the music very well. Sort of a low Flugelhorn that I am not likely to chip notes on.
In the process of writing the book I started posting about the mellophone in my blog, now part of the Horn Matters project. There are several posts there which I believe will be of continued interest among mellophone players and band directors that go beyond the contents of the book. To see the full series, check the category "Mellophone."
Above all I had hoped that these writings help encourage horn students as they traverse the "mellophone jungle" and maybe even inspire a few more mellophone players to switch over to the horn for concert season. We need more horn players! Instead of being a part of the problem it was my hope as a horn professor that the mellophone might be better taught and become more horn friendly in the coming years.
However, I close this article on a down but honest note. I have been forced to conclude that there are people out there in "the activity" that actually hate horn players, or at least disagree strongly with the thought that there might be any connection at all between how you might approach a horn and how you might approach the mellophone. It is a polarized world to traverse carefully if you are considering entering it. In short, as I also posted in a comment on Horn Matters, while I would like to be positive about the mellophone, maybe I was wrong. Maybe those that fear and despise the mellophone are correct, and maybe it will always be an instrument hated by horn players.
**I still have a few copies of my book in stock, but when they are gone it will be going out of print. Buy it while you can.
Mellophone Links--the best on the web!
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|Contact Dr. Ericson at:
School of Music, Arizona State University
Tempe, AZ 85287-0405
Phone: (480) 965-4152
Dept. Fax: (480) 965-2659.