A Guide to Band for Parents, Episode II: The Horn

Hi, I’m Randy Kemp, owner of Main Street Music. I’ve been putting together this all inclusive blog guide about band to make the entire process easier for parents. Especially parents with little knowledge about music in general. I hope to use my experience to help make your life easier!


Today I’ll be talking about “The Horn”. When a musician says “horn” it can virtually mean anything you blow into to make a sound. Typically, horns either use a reedless mouthpiece (flutes, trumpets) or any combination of reeds (i.e. clarinet uses one reed, a bassoon uses two). In modern musician lingo, “horn section” typically refers to woodwinds and brass.

Reeds and mouthpieces for woodwinds and brass will be covered later, for now I’m going to focus on horn quality. As I mentioned in the first episode of this blog series, horns are generally classified “Beginner“, “Intermediate“, and “Advanced” models. It’s really the craftsmanship, key action, and materials used to make the horn that decide its status.

So Your Young One Wants To Start Playing?

That’s wonderful! Music and band are great activities for growing minds! But, let’s be real here– you know, as a parent, everything comes with a price tag. Well I’m going to give you tips to have the lowest price tag!

The biggest thing about outright buying an instrument is commitment. Children, of course, are children, and typically switch interests often. This is why the best idea is to simply rent a horn. Sure, you can pick up a basic (new) beginner sax for a couple hundred dollars, but the quality of rental instruments is much higher as they tend to have good brands. You can normally rent an instrument for about $30-50 per month, depending on where you shop and what instrument you need. Although it is a bit more expensive than buying a beginner horn outright, they will be of better quality. Some rental companies even offer a “rent to buy” option, where the money you spend on rent goes towards the purchase price of the horn. 

So Your Child Has Been Playing For A Few Years And Needs A Better Instrument?

As a student progresses, they’ll eventually need more equipment. This can range from horn care products, to mouthpieces and indeed a better horn. If your student started in 4th or 5th grade, by the last two years of middle school, they should have mastered basic skills like embouchure, breathing, and basic tone support.

This is all well and good, but if they still have a “beginner” horn, there can be draw backs. At this stage in education (middle school, early high school), band students are challenged a lot more than they used to be. They have to play fast runs, play with more of their fellow students, and begin critiquing their own sound.

This is where renting instruments really comes in handy, as most companies offer “step-up” setups. A “step-up” setup for horns could be small like simply switching the brand you’re renting or changing a mouthpiece. For serious players who are in 8th grade and high school, you’ll want to rent or purchase an “intermediate” horn.

So Now Your Kid’s In High School/College! What Kind Of Setup Do They Need?

Well,  this is where some advice from a teacher or instructor would come in handy. By the second year of high school the student should have an idea of what kind of sound they want to have, and what they want their horn to sound like. It’s a great idea at this stage to experiment with different mouthpieces and horns to see which one fits the vision of the student best. Mouth piece and head piece information will be contained in a separate blog later on in this series.

The most important thing is that the student can play comfortably and freely on their setup. When I was in high school, I had tried switching mouthpieces and it didn’t work at all. It really effected my morale as a whole, because I had trouble getting the sound I wanted–as well as trouble getting notes out. To avoid this, go to music shops that specialize in horns and try different instrument models and mouthpieces. If you and your child invest time into that, it will pay off.

So When Would I Need To Rent Or Buy An Advanced Model?

Advanced model instruments are costly, but more work is put into them. Tone quality is usually a lot better than it’s lower counterpart models, and, in some cases, in may contain a different key design or even more keys (i.e. “F#” on an alto sax). Typically these are purchased or rented by college students who endeavor to become professional musicians. 

In rental situations an “advanced setup” means more than a simple stock mouthpiece, but by the time the student is in college they should already have decided on their tone and what mouthpieces work for them. The rental or purchase of an advanced horn is more for the horn itself. It’s made better than others so it will typically have better action, intonation and ease of play.

Join us next time for Episode III: Revenge Of The Mouthpieces


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