It happens every summer for a majority of high school horn players. The time comes to put down the horn (temporarily) and pick up a mellophone or a marching horn.
Some love it, and some dread it, but either way, it’s one of the facts of life for horn players.
On this page, I’ll discuss some of the best ways to get more comfortable with your marching instrument and how best to tackle this beast.
Know What You’ve Got
The first thing to do, especially if you’re new to marching horns, is to find out what instrument you have.
The two most common instruments used in American high school bands are the mellophone and the Bb marching horn.
While I’m not 100% sure, I imagine the mellophone is more popular. It’s certainly more common in Drum and Bugle Corps, and it’s played by both trumpet and horn players there.
Both the mellophone and the marching horn play off of regular French horn parts. The mellophone uses trumpet fingerings, while the marching horn uses the trigger fingerings from a standard double horn. The Bb marching horn is the same as the Bb side of a double horn.
For the Bb marching horn, mouthpiece selection is straightforward. Most players should use the same mouthpiece in your marching horn and your concert horn.
Keeping the same mouthpiece means that the rim stays the same, which helps both your marching and concert horn playing. If you have a 2-piece mouthpiece, you can swap out the cups (something smaller and more shallow will make high parts easier) and use the same rim. Remember that the rim should fit your face, the cup of the mouthpiece should match the horn.
For mellophone, it becomes a bit more complicated. This is because the mellophone takes a mouthpiece with a shank similar in size to a trumpet mouthpiece. This gives you three options:
- Use a trumpet (or mellophone) mouthpiece,
- A screw rim mouthpiece on your horn and mellophone that let you keep the same rim.
- French horn mouthpiece and an adapter.
The best option (but one that I haven’t seen done anywhere) is probably #2. However, not only are there not many mellophone mouthpieces out there, there are fewer with a screw rim.
This leaves with option 1 or 3. Neither is perfect, but here are the pros and cons of each as far as I see it.
Mellophone Mouthpiece Options
Using a trumpet/mellophone mouthpiece will let you get the best performance out of the mellophone. While a mellophone mouthpiece is the best option, a deep and wide trumpet mouthpiece will get you most of the way there.
Some trumpet mouthpieces will work better than others, but in general, you’re going to want either a large trumpet mouthpiece or something designed for flugelhorn. These (usually) have larger inner diameters, thicker rims, and deeper cups.
The problem with some trumpet mouthpieces, however, will be the shank. Some mellophones are designed for shorter and smaller shanks than trumpet mouthpieces, with others are designed to work standard trumpet-style mouthpieces. The best way to determine which mouthpiece works is trial and error. It’s easy to find a spare trumpet mouthpiece lying around, and you can see if it fits securely in the leadpipe.
You can find the most common 3 makers of mellophone mouthpieces at WWBW.com or at Amazon. These three makers (Bach, Blessing, and Yamaha) are all reasonably priced options that make good-quality mouthpieces for the mellophone.
The Yamaha MP-14F4 and Blessing 6 are both on the small side for a horn player (about 16.75mm inner diameter), but on the larger side for trumpet players. The Blessing 5 has an average inner diameter (17.5mm) for most horn players. For the Bach mouthpieces, get the same model number of the horn mouthpiece you use (mouthpiece comparison chart).
The downside of using a trumpet/mellophone mouthpiece is that switching between the mellophone and French horn is more difficult. For those players that need to switch back and forth a lot, the best option is to use a horn mouthpiece and mouthpiece adapter.
Using the adapter can cause issues, though. Since the adapters are tapered and fit between the mouthpiece and leadpipe, even small defects can cause playing issues. French horn mouthpieces are also deep for the mellophone, which can lead to some pitch issues and upper-register instability. However, using your regular mouthpiece on the mellophone can make picking up a horn easier at the end of the marching season. It’s all about your priorities.
While the mellophone and marching horn are similar in appearance, they are quite different in playing characteristics.
A good Bb marching horn will play like a free-blowing version of the Bb side of a double horn.
This makes these horns excellent for French horn players. The upper register fingerings (for those who play a double) are already familiar. These horns also have a substantial low register (although they are missing notes from the low B natural to the pedal F#). Since these are in Bb, they can also do lip slur exercises in unison with the other brass.
Remember, however, that if these are played by horn players the Bb marching horn reads music for F horn. Like using the double horn, the transposition from F → Bb is “built-in” to the fingerings. The player needs an F horn part and will use the Bb trigger fingerings.
One possible weakness of the Bb marching horn is the upper register. Since this horn is longer than a mellophone, the high register is not quite as “notchy”. This isn’t bad, though, since the player can easily overcome this. It will also strengthen the upper register of French horn players since the Bb marching horn is basically half of a double horn.
While they are pitched in F, these instruments are much more trumpet-like in playing characteristics.
Like previously mentioned, these horns respond best with mouthpieces similar to a deep trumpet mouthpieces. While they can work with horn mouthpieces, generally they won’t perform at their best.
Like trumpets, the articulation on mellophone can be overly harsh if you use the same double horn “Ta”. So horn players have to learn to soften their articulations to a “Da” to keep from overly accenting notes.
Mellophones are great transition instruments for trumpet players, since they use similar mouthpieces, and the fingerings are the same. However, note that mellophones will read off the same (F horn) parts that the Bb marching horns read off of.
Learning the Fingerings
The new fingerings can be a big challenge for lots of younger students.
No matter whether you’re playing mellophone or a Bb marching horn, there will be fingering similarities and differences from the “standard” horn fingerings.
For the mellophone, having a trumpet background makes it much easier, since the fingerings are the same. You can use my mellophone fingering chart if you need one, but any trumpet fingering chart will work as well.
Even without a trumpet background, notice that the major third between Ab and C are the same as horn fingerings. With the exception of the lowest two mellophone notes, F, F#, and G are the same as well.
This leaves only the notes between C# and E (in at least 2 octaves) to learn. These are new fingerings, but since it’s only a few notes (instead of learning all new fingerings) it’s much easier to focus on.
Remember that the Bb marching horn is just a re-wrapped Bb side of a standard double horn. If you play on a double horn, then you already know the fingerings starting from the middle Ab and up. Since most marching music takes place toward the middle and top of the staff, that’s most of your job done.
For the lower notes, remember that Ab-C (in all octaves) is the same fingering pattern. Which means the most important area to focus on is the fifth from middle C to second-line G. If you don’t know these fingerings, you should. They are odd initially, but the effort spent in learning it will doubly pay off when you get back to the “real” horn.
Like learning any brass instrument if you know even a little bit about the harmonic series, you’ll have a much easier time getting around.
Harmonic Series Exercises
For the Bb marching horn, use my harmonic series chart for the regular F/Bb double horn, Bb fingerings. Use my harmonic series studies page for the patterns, and make sure to work the 2nd-4th partials, since those are rarely used.
For the mellophone, you can use this harmonic series chart. When you’re first getting started on the mellophone, make sure to practice lip slurs between partials 2, 3, and 4. This register is often used on the mellophone, and there is a tendency for horn players to let these notes “sag” in pitch. Make sure to support these notes with lots of air.
Once you get comfortable moving between the 2nd – 4th partials, you can start working up to the 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th partials, using the patterns on my harmonic series studies page. Don’t rush up to the 8th partial, though. Remember that the 8th partial on the open mellophone is a high C!
If you’re looking for other flexibility exercises, I can’t recommend the book "Lip Flexibilities for Brass" enough. It was developed by a trumpet player, and while some of the exercises are extreme, the simple slurs are excellent for overall flexibility.
Like I mentioned on my scales page, brass players need to learn both the harmonic series and scales to really be a complete musician.
For horn players playing a Bb marching horn, you should already know a lot of your scales from the G#/Ab and up. This means you should spend your time focusing on the lower and middle register scales since some of the Bb horn fingerings in this register are likely not as strong as they are in the upper register.
For mellophone, if you have a strong trumpet background, then you already know lots of the fingerings. If you don’t have much trumpet experience, then you’ll have to start from scratch, but make sure you take a good look at the mellophone fingering chart first. You’ll notice that lots of the mellophone fingerings are the same as horn fingerings. Notes like C, B, Bb, A, and Ab are the same, and other notes (F, F#, G) are often (but not always) the same.
In general, if you have fluency in all 12 major scales and arpeggios over one octave that is sufficient. If you can play them over multiple octaves that is better, of course. Focus more on getting the finger dexterity and muscle memory in multiple keys over octaves, though.
Two other useful resources for getting comfortable with the mellophone are trumpet books:
If you’re serious about getting good on the mellophone (especially if you’re interested in auditioning for drum corps) both of these books are essential. Even if you’re not though, these two books have lots to offer French horn players. The Clarke studies book is full of great scale and arpeggio studies, and Arban has dozens of short tunes in a wide variety of styles and keys – perfect for working on interpretation.
If you’ve got any questions about moving into the marching realm, feel free to contact me or leave a comment below. If you need more than just text, I offer lessons either online or in person, and I’ll be happy to listen to any marching or concert music to help you out.
One final thing – if you’ve found this information useful, it would mean a lot if you could donate a couple of bucks to support this site. This site runs on my enjoyment of teaching and coffee, and only one of those are free! Thanks!