Though one might assume that a difference as small as one note between two instruments is very little difference at all, the truth is that that one note difference changes everything.
Ask any trumpet player if there is a difference between the Bb and C trumpet and that player will tell you that the C trumpet is harder to play than the Bb, and is certainly not an instrument for beginners.
The same is just as true for Eb and F instruments such as the mellophone. However, because so few people, players and educators alike, are familiar with the Eb version of the instrument, few realize what the player of the F mellophone is up against.
If the C trumpet is not an instrument for beginners, the same can likewise be said of the F mellophone. There is a general truism out there that the mellophone is an easy instrument to play, but the actual truth is that this range of instrument, be it an F mellophone, frumpet, altonium, alto horn or alto trumpet, is a challenge best suited to the advanced player, not the beginner.
Moreover, instruments of this range have a twofold problem: the range of the instrument is difficult plus the instruments themselves are generally inferior.
As evidence of this, consider how many failed attempts there have been in this century alone to create an instrument for this specific range: there have been Horns which are awkward to carry, hard to play and are doubly difficult in band situations when they are cheap, poorly made band instruments; there are marching versions of the Horn in both F and Bb, which are student, not professional instruments; there have been “classic” and marching mellophones; there have been F upright and bell-forward alto horns; there was the F/Eb altonium; there was the F/Eb frumpet; there once were F and Eb alto cornets, and today, though rare, there are F and Eb alto trumpets.
A few professional-quality instruments have been made over the years, such as the Bach 187f alto trumpet in F and its predecessors, but like professional versions of the Horn, these instruments have been prohibitively expensive.
One of the reasons Eb mellophones are generally better-made than their F counterparts is that the Eb version is often a medium-to-high quality instrument made to perform serious music, as opposed to the F version which is a cheaper, student-quality, mass-produced band instrument.
That said, the reasons professional-quality mellophones are not being made are twofold: there is not much demand for the mellophone as a serious instrument, and those instruments being made are mostly the mass-produced student versions.
This is not to say that a professional-quality horn can’t be made. In contacting a number of makers I’ve been told, not only that it is possible to make a pro-quality horn, but all it will take is money, and lots of it. The estimates I’ve received vary, but all are in the range between $4000 and $6000 US dollars.
Thein corno da caccia
My preferred instrument of interest these days is the Thein corno da caccia. These modern valved cornos da caccia (“horn or horns of hunting”) are the object of some controversy right now, the criticism being that they’re a half-length instrument that has more in common with the furst pless or post horn than the classical corno da caccia which is a double-length instrument like the Horn and the Wagner tuba. In any event, the Bb corno da caccia made by Thein is essentially a Bb mellophone (in the same range and key as the Bb cornet and trumpet), and having Thein make an F instrument requires only the asking plus the money needed.
The result, however, would in all probability be a very fine horn appropriate for performing classical music and would be prohibitively expensive for students or bands alike to purchase, and in any event might not have the type of sound desired by marching bands. In fact I’m not sure that professional jazz musicians would desire the sound this horn would produce. In other words the result would probably be a marvelous and very expensive line of instruments for soloists and chamber musicians.
Getting back to the standard mellophones now in existence: the range of the mellophone is problematic because Eb and F instruments exist in a C- and Bb-centric world. For the player of instruments that play in every other key (mostly Eb and F), this is like being a baritone-range singer in a choir geared to soprano-, alto-, tenor- and bass-range singers. In other words the parts are often not written in just the right playing range.
For comparison, musicians that play Eb alto saxophone in concert bands often run into similar range problems. Every so often an arranger will score the part in such a manner that it’s really suited to instruments up in the next register, such as Bb trumpets and clarinets.
This dilemma, made up of a difficult range on the one hand and inferior instruments on the other, has been a mixed blessing. On the one hand makers of marching mellophones are trying their level best to come up with a really good instrument at an affordable price. On the other hand, there is a lot of fudging and compromising going on in an attempt to create nonexistent magic solutions for struggling players.
The mouthpiece is perhaps the most prominent and important example at this time. Many marching mellophones are sold with trumpet mouthpieces because so many mellophone players come from a trumpet or cornet background (this is a long-standing practice, as evidenced by the fact that mellophone mouthpiece receivers have long been either cornet- or trumpet-size, although it must be remembered that “trumpet-size” means both trumpet and alto-horn). Pressure from educators with a Horn background causes players to use either a Horn mouthpiece with an adaptor or one of the several hybrid mouthpieces now on the market.
The problem with this approach is that it’s not allowing the mellophone to simply be itself. There is a right mouthpiece for the mellophone, and it is not a trumpet, cornet or Horn mouthpiece. The downside here is that serious players of this instrument are faced with research and development that’s producing instruments that have had all manner of things done to them in order to make them something they’re not.
It all starts with the mouthpiece, and the mouthpiece diameter suited to an instrument of this type and range runs from around 18.50 mm to 20.00 mm. There is also the cup-shape, aperture and back-bore to consider.
Concerning cup diameter, 18.50 is the absolute minimum diameter a mellophone mouthpiece should be. This is wider than the widest Horn mouthpiece on the market, and in mellophone terms is a very small mouthpiece for a beginner, a person with a very small mouth, or a player with a weak embouchure.
In terms of the mellophone’s lineage, its direct ancestor is the 18th century furst pless or post horn, which in turn is also the forerunner of the modern cornet. This is why the Eb alto horn mouthpiece is often used in lieu of a mellophone mouthpiece: the alto horn, which is a saxhorn, is a member of a family of instruments derived from the valved bugle, and the valved bugle is also a forerunner of the modern cornet, as its predecessor, the keyed bugle, was fused in design with the valved post horn to produce the modern cornet. This is why mellophones today use two types of mouthpieces: those with a valved bugle (flugelhorn) mouthpiece (deep V-cup) and those with a cornet mouthpiece (saxhorns use a cornet-type mouthpiece).
As far as using a Horn mouthpiece goes, the Horn is not a direct relative of the mellophone, therefore in terms of mellophone design it should not be part of the equation. That said, in certain instances Horn students should use a Horn mouthpiece with adaptor when playing trumpet, cornet and mellophone. The Horn mouthpiece is close in diameter to trumpet/cornet mouthpieces, and the Horn plays in the same range as the mellophone.
I say “certain instances”, those instances being adverse affects to Horn technique and possible embouchure destabilization. Horn students experiencing difficulty should avoid using any but a Horn mouthpiece.
Horn students that are not experiencing any sort of difficulty, on the other hand, should be encouraged to use the right mouthpiece for any given instrument.
If you place every Eb and F instrument of this range in a row, you’ll see a wide range of mouthpiece types and sizes. The Horn has the smallest mouthpiece diameter, next comes the contra-alto trumpet, next comes the alto horn, mellophone, alto tuba and alto trumpet, and the largest in this category is the alto trombone in Eb or F which uses a very shallow trombone mouthpiece having a diameter of 25.00 mm on average. This represents a huge variation in size for instruments that all play in alto Eb/F.
Lastly, mellophone players who wish to become accomplished musicians should own, practice on and play a professional instrument. This means owning an alto trumpet like the Bach 187f (discontinued but still around if you look for one) (Cerveny makes an entry-level horn as well), an alto horn (aka Eb tenor horn) like the Besson Sovereign, or an Eb alto tuba (aka alto horn) like the St Petersburg (Cerveny makes a pretty good entry-level horn). All of these instruments can be played using the same mouthpiece and all are conducive to playing and performing music at a professional level.