Heliconology, Part III

February 8, 2012

I have somewhat desultorily been documenting my pursuit of a helicon in these pages over the past year or so. I had found an 1917 Holton BBb helicon online, but it turned out to be essentially trash, sadly. However, the awesome Dick Akright, owner and master repair guru of Oakland’s Best Music Repair and A&G Music, very kindly offered me one that he had in his back room. I was surprised and extremely grateful to Dick and picked up the horn several months ago. It turns out that the horn is a silver EEb Conn from the year 1909. I’ve been cleaning and working with the horn over the past few months and it is time to report my experiences with this new instrument.

The horn is very free-blowing and the tone is remarkably full and rich. In addition, the action is very easy. I can actually get results comparable to the Miraphone’s rotary valves in some cases! There is a small issue with the third valve (the threads on the stem have stripped), but I was able to make repairs with silicon tape and so far that has worked well. Otherwise the valves themselves are quite good – the only real need is new pads as they are somewhat noisy at times.

The horn was missing its original leadpipe bit, and so I have had to adapt a pair of sousaphone bits. This is not optimal and eventually I think I will have a one-piece bit custom-made. However, the two-piece bits work well enough for the present. I’ve been experimenting with several mouthpieces and have finally settled on a Tony Clements Eb/F Custom, about which I will have more to say in a dedicated post a little later.

So. How much does it weigh? Well, as one might expect, the weight of the horn is obviously far less than my Miraphone 186-5U, and I have found that I can comfortably wear the horn for a much longer time than the Miraphone. I would guess that it is probably around twenty pounds, as opposed to the thirty-plus pound-weight of the Miraphone. Big difference. When I am more comfortable with the EEb fingerings, I expect I shall be making this my primary trad horn.

Oh, yes. The EEb fingerings. Well. I had never played a EEb horn before so it took some time for me to get the different fingerings down. However, I have begun to feel comfortable enough that I actually played the horn in public on one or two tunes at various gigs. I’ve got a lot more work to do before I am ready to take this as my sole horn to a gig, but I’m getting closer. Sight-reading is an amazing tool. For all you young musicians out there, I cannot recommend sight-reading highly enough. Sight-reading and long tones. Trust me on this and when you are (hopefully) playing Carnegie Hall, you’ll thank me.

Overall, I’m really liking the horn. The great Howard Miyata played it a few weeks back and had kind words to say as well. That made me feel good – I was really liking the horn but it is always nice to be confirmed by someone as expert as Howard. I need to clean it, but otherwise it seems to be in remarkably good shape for a one hundred-plus year old instruments. Thank you Dick Akright!