A New, F Mezzo-Soprano. Really?

Conn F Mezzo Soprano saxophone, 24M, silver plated, vintage sax,

     Conn 24-M Mezzo-Soprano Serial # 213735   Source: SAXQUEST.COM on eBay.com

At the end of last month, a fellow by the name of Jay left a comment on this site asking about F mezzo-sopranos. Specifically, Jay was wondering if a company like Aquilasax were to start making the horns again, would there be a market for them? Or were they just a historical curiosity?

My reply to this was simple: Yes, they are just a historical curiosity. No, I don’t see a market for them.

Well, little did I know that Jay’s dropping of the name Aquilasax, was more than an abstract example. Yesterday morning I happened across a thread on SOTW, that a fellow named JayAyliff started 2 days ago.

JayAyliff posed the following question in a thread titled, Who wants an F Mezzo?

Does anyone actually want to own and play one of these? Aquilasax are considering having some made if enough people want one. They’re expensive because they’re not expecting to sell many, but go here to register an interest. Who knows, if lots of people want one maybe the price will come down. http://aquilasax.3dcartstores.com/F-Mezzo-saxophone_p_414.html

All the best,

Jay Ayliff

Since Jay posted his question, the responses have been—to my mind anyway—quite predictable. So far 6 people have responded. Of the 6 respondents, 5 didn’t own an F mezzo.

The 1 person who did already own one, paulwl, offered up the following:

They do have a unique tone – they are tonally to the alto what the C melody is to the tenor. But it’s nothing you couldn’t try to get on a conventional soprano with a dark setup.

They might be handy for playing English horn parts if an e-h isn’t available. But again, not worth the $5k-plus one will cost you.

They’re best as an investment rarity, to be appreciated first and foremost for themselves.

Mine is extra cool ’cause it’s got a factory-add-on high F# key!

None of the 5 players, who didn’t own an F mezzo yet, appeared to be poised to sign up on Aquilasax’s website. Their answers ranged from: “While I find the F-mezzo an interresting horn with a beautiful voice, I also find it is too similar to the Eb-alto to justify the investment.” To: “I have only played 2 or 3 Mezzos (Conn) and I feel it is the least marketable horn of the saxes.”

Another interesting point raised, was that “…unlike the old C-Mel, which is usually a real bargain, you would still have to transpose. Plus, for orchestra, I really like what french horns add to the mix. I don’t see a need to put a sax in that position.”

The most promising response was: “I don’t know that I want one (transposing from Bb and Eb horns in one tune taxes me me enough), but if Aquilasax can match that old Conn sound, I would be interested.”

The next day the same poster came back and wrote: “I was somewhat interested until I DID go to the linked website and saw the price. Best of luck with this project but I think I’ll pass on it. And I’m NOT trying to be negative, it is just at that price, I am not motivated to sign up for one.”

I think my friend Milandro summed it up quite well when he wrote:

The musical merits or demerits (range, need to transpose, use in the orchestral context ) are rather more the icing on the cake to add motivation to the possible buyers, most will buy an horn like this (if affordable and therefore made in China ……..the Jenssen sax is not only expensive because is hand-made but because is made in Denmark with a limited possible market!) for the novelty content. ( the SOTW audience and users pool is the perfect example of how some people collect saxophones (for not too many logical reasons) way above their ” needs”, or, for some (I am one), even capabilities….).

Which will give a surge of sales (so to speak……) in the beginning and then there will be very few sales after that.

All in all, the fact that this thread has been up for just under 60 hours now, and only 6 people have responded—and only the original poster was enthusiastic about the project—tells me that a new, F mezzo-soprano is unlikely. If Aquilasax does proceed with the project, early buyers are going to be paying a premium, since they will be covering the R&D, start-up costs, etc. etc.

Conn F Mezzo Soprano saxophone, 24M, silver plated, vintage sax,

     Conn 24-M Mezzo-Soprano Serial # 213735   Source: SAXQUEST.COM on eBay.com

Currently Aquilasax is projecting the price to be just south of $3,000. Quite honestly, if I wanted an F mezzo-soprano, I’d buy a Conn.

This is a thought echoed by Bill Baily who writes:

At a college where I taught, we had a Basset horn in F (like an alto clarinet) which was purchased to play french horn parts in woodwind ensembles due to the lack of the FHs. That would be a use for the mezzo but I still feel it is more of a collector horn and I would just spring for a Conn if I were interested.

In the last while there has been a bumper crop of Conn F mezzos for sale or auction. At the moment, there is only 1 on eBay, but it is quite the beauty that Quinn is selling.

Now, if you are indeed interested in signing up for a new F mezzo-soprano, I’m sure Aquilasax would like to hear from you. (Since it seems it won’t be winning many of us SOTW old timers over any time soon.) ;)

…this is just my blog. My “real” website is www.bassic-sax.info. If you’re looking for sax info, you should check it out too.There’s lots there!

 

© 2012, Helen. All rights reserved.

Helen

Helen Kahlke is a professional horn player and sax teacher who lives in Abbotsford, British Columbia. She plays soprano, alto, C melody, tenor, baritone, and bass saxophones.

12 Comments:

  1. Hi Matt.

    I do encourage anyone interested in the F Mezzo-soprano to sign up with Aquilasax, but you’re right, I personally am not interested.

    I don’t know why my opinion should matter to you at all. I don’t have any kind of real power in the online saxophone world, and I doubt that my readers are influenced in any real way by my opinion.

    This is my website, and the content of these pages express my personal opinions. This type of back and forth isn’t interesting to anyone, and wasn’t what I expected.

    To let things settle down for a while, I’m going to close the comments on this article.

  2. Well I’m not at all offended, but I don’t see saying things like “Yes, they are just a historical curiosity, No, I don’t see a market for them” and echoing “Which will give a surge of sales (so to speak……) in the beginning and then there will be very few sales after that” and “Quite honestly, if I wanted an F mezzo-soprano, I’d buy a Conn” as being very conducive to your stated goal of wanting more players to know the project is being considered. Your post reads more like “These guys are thinking about doing this, but it’ll be expensive and sound like junk, not a lot of people will buy them [as if that really matters] and you don’t want one” than anything even slightly enthusiastic about bringing this horn back.

    I like vintage horns too, as well as modern, but there are only some 50-odd of these publically known and maybe at best 100 left in the world. Most of these are and will remain hoarded and tucked away in their cases on shelves by collectors, not even to see the light of day, and I doubt I’ll ever even see one IRL, much less play or own one, if someone doesn’t start making new ones.
    My own opinion is that this could bring a whole lot more sax players into modern bands, and turn a whole lot more musicians into sax players, maybe even start a new “sax craze” in music. I have talked to a lot of people who stoped playing out of frustration with playing awkward fingering patterns in the common keys with modern bands.
    I think the F alto is a great idea, and long overdue, I have wanted one since I first learned they existed some ten years ago, I welcome that Aquilasax is pondering resurrecting it, and I have put my money where my mouth is and signed up on their waiting list, and would encourage anyone else who loves the alto sax but hates the awkward gyrations one has to go through to play in common keys on Eb horns to check out this horn and sign up on the waiting list.

  3. Hi Matt.

    I’m sorry if I’ve offended you in any way, or in some way made you think that I was trying to “poison the well” with regards to these new F Mezzo sopranos being proposed by Aquilasax. That was never my intent.

    I wanted more sax players to know that this project was being considered. That’s why I wrote the article to begin with, and provided a link to the sign-up page on Aquilasax’s website.

    There are lots of people who, unlike myself—and many SOTW members—don’t like vintage saxophones. For those people who want a modern F mezzo, this might be good choice.

  4. Hi, Helen,

    It looks like you are using mutually exclusive arguments to prove the same point. The F horn can either sound “too much” like an alto to be a worthy investment as an objection, or it can “just not have quite the right alto sound”, but not both. But it appears to me that it can sound very much like a soprano as well. Which I see as a bonus, not a problem.

    I am not at all convinced that folks have such rigid expectations about what each type of sax “should” sound like in any case, and I hear quite a bit of variety in each type of saxophone between players and horns and indeed on the same horn with different mouthpiece/reed combinations — and I see that variety as a Good Thing. The musical world doesn’t revolve around everything and everyone sounding the same.

    What I really don’t understand is all of this, what can only be described as poisoning the well. I don’t see arguments about issues with baritone saxes being at all relevant to the question of reviving the F-Alto. Nor do I see “not-quite-right” tonal issues with C-saxes as being all that relevant, either, seeing as they were made with a bore smaller than an alto and pitched a step above the Bb tenor. But you also admit that a C horn can sound enough like an alto to “fool the audience”, which is just fine, because the audience are the ones who are paying to hear it, and they couldn’t care less about the kind of nuances of tone that you are complaining about–in a C horn, which again doesn’t have much bearing on what this F horn is going to sound like.

    I also don’t understand the complaints about the initial start-up cost of this horn, which the company has been up front about it being initially high compared to its other instruments in order to cover start-up costs. Especially when I see the prices other horns are fetching on the market. Aquila is projecting half the price of an eighty-year-old original for a new horn. And that new horn will likely have modern keywork, as their other C horns do.

    What I see in this instrument is a horn that was designed to live in the sharp keys, which is where most modern music lives, and should have a very nice tonality that can be adjusted either toward a soprano sound or an alto sound. I don’t understand why there should or would be all this “can of worms” that pete refers to; the nay-saying and appeals to personal incredulity from folks who just don’t want one — which is fine, but why poison the well for folks who do want one with what are really only half-thought-out arguments from incredulity?

    To me, it is the right tool for the job for working in the sharp keys. The fact that A. Sax made them seems to agree with that. Playing an Eb alto in the sharp keys is like trying to use a screwdriver as a hammer.

    Thanks for the references. As an aside, I have been for years carrying around a card similiar to the one you linked to, but mine also includes F and G transpositions as well.

    @pete: hvae you seen this youtube video featuring a conn-o-sax?: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NA_q07phNjE
    This one sounds very much like a soprano to me, rather than an alto. Very nice.

  5. I can think of one fitting place for an F Mezzo — the solo in “The Old Castle” from “Pictures At An Exhibition”. This was originally written for English horn (largely due to the relative unavailability of saxophones in orchestras at the time) but is typically played on alto saxophone. I think Ravel (who did the orchestration in question) would have approved of the F Mezzo as the drop-in replacement for the English horn.

  6. Opening up teh can o’ worms ….

    I had some conversations on SOTW and the WF regarding F saxophones. While there are several ways of looking at it, the only F sax attribute I’m worried about is TONE. According to the conversations, Paulwl is absolutely correct that the F “mezzo soprano” sax (Conn’s) and other F altos (A. Sax’s, Kohlert’s, etc.) sounds like Eb altos — or, at least, you can make them sound like Eb altos. If you’re talking about the Conn-O-Sax,though, that may be something different.

    According to my research, the only real difference between the Conn-O-Sax and the F Mezzo-Soprano is that bulbous bell on the Conn-O (and keyed range). However, Paul Cohen makes the point that this horn can really sound different and, based on his Conn-O-Sax recordings vs. his Eb alto recordings I’ve heard, he’s right.

    Me? I just present the data. I’ve held a Conn-O-Sax and that was it. I know a few folks that own them and I know you can make the Conn-O-Sax sound like any garden-variety Eb alto.

    In the case of Aquilasax, they’re going for making an F alto that looks like an Eb alto. That tends to suggest that it’ll sound like an Eb alto. Kinda like their C tenor.

    In the distant past, I’ve e-mailed Benedikt Eppelsheim regarding producing F instruments — hey, he makes contrabasses and sopranissimos, so why not an F horn? — and he said it’d depend on market demand. Knowing his work, if he made one, it’d be something similar to the Conn-O-Sax.

  7. @Gandalfe: I was looking the the F mezzo that Quinn is selling right now and thinking of you. I couldn’t help but wonder if it was your old horn. It looks just as minty as yours was. Very pretty. If I wanted one, that’s the one I’d be buying.

    @Matt: Hi Matt. Welcome to my site.

    I hear what you’re saying about playing with rock/pop etc. bands that prefer concert keys like A, E, B, G and so on. I play in them all the time. I am currently playing Bb tenor most of the time, but I very occasionally throw a bari into the mix. In the past, I played bari and tenor in about equal amounts. Having a C or F pitched replacement horn is not an option for a baritone—and quite honestly I personally don’t see the need for one.

    As I mentioned in my reply to Jay initially, there are only 12 keys. As a competent, professional musician, your job is to be fluent in all of them. Even if you’re a weekend warrior, 12 keys is not a huge amount to master, if you’re logical and take your time learning them. There are lots and lots of resources that can help you master the scales,as well as the important modes and chords of these keys. If you like, I’d be happy to send you some information about some books that I would recommend to help you along the way.

    As far as the mental gymnastics goes, yes, I can relate to that. However, again, there are only 12 of them. You memorize them over time. For Bb horns they’re easy to figure out, because you just go up 1 tone. Because I don’t play Eb horns as often right now, I carry a small pocket transposition chart in my sax case or gig bag. If I ever draw a blank on the what the transposed key is for bari, I just pull out my transposition chart, and take a quick peek to confirm what key I should be in. I developed this one for my students years ago if that helps. Just cut out the chart portion, and carry it with you: http://bassic-sax.info/version5/wp-content/uploads/2009/07/Transposing-Chart.pdf

    It will be interesting to see if Aquilasax gets enough interest to move ahead with a new F Mezzo-soprano. I haven’t checked back on SOTW since I wrote this to see how many more responses have come in, and how many of those have been positive about the project. Maybe there’s an untapped market out there just dying to start playing F pitched saxophones. I can’t imagine it, but hey, I’ve been wrong before. I could be wrong now.

    Thanks for stopping by Matt.

    Regards,

    Helen

    • Hi Helen,

      Always happy to take suggestions for resources, thanks.

      You are of course right about there being 12 keys, and I agree that it is our job to be fluent in them, and I can play in all 12 of them. But at the same time, the original design reasonably called for C/F horns for concert keys. That Eb/Bb saxes are widely used in concert-key settings is simply an unintended historical accident. Agree that Bb horns are an easy transpose — though I see other issues due to the range of notes in certain concert keys — but my point is that the C/F horns were and still are the proper tool designed for the job, and it makes ergonomic sense to avoid awkward fingering patterns given the choice of a horn with awkward fingerings and one with easy ones.

      But again I would gladly accept any information you would kindly throw my way.

      • Hi Matt.

        I don’t know about you, but I find C-pitched horns don’t have quite the “right sound” for the style of music I play. In rock, blues, whatever, there is a certain expectation of what a saxophone is going to sound like. It will either sound like an alto, a tenor, or a bari. I find that the C mel doesn’t sound like either an alto or a tenor. It has its own unique sound, therefore it doesn’t really fit into modern music. Now granted, I haven’t played an Aquila sax, so I’m basing my comment on my experiences on my Conn straight neck, and on hearing only other vintage C mels. Sure you can tweak the sound with different M/P and reed combos, but it still won’t sound like a tenor. Maybe it will sound enough like an alto that it will fool the audience, but IMO, it isn’t quite fish or fowl.

        As far as resources goes, I’d say the best that I’ve come across, are the ones I used in private studies while still in HS, and then later on in university. I still use today to keep my finger dexterity up, and to keep my memory on infrequently used key signatures and chords current. Two books in the Berklee Series, The Technique of the Saxophone Vol. 1 Scale Studies and The Technique of the Saxophone Vol. 2 Chord Studies, both by Joseph Viola—Amazon.com lets you see a bit of a preview—are great because the cover the full range of the horn. I find they really work all the awkward fingerings—which for me are the left palm keys and pinkie cluster. Here’s the link the books on Amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=a9_sc_1?rh=i%3Aaps%2Ck%3Atechnique+of+the+saxophone+vol.+1+scale+studies+joseph+viola&keywords=technique+of+the+saxophone+vol.+1+scale+studies+joseph+viola&ie=UTF8&qid=1329073905

        • If you’ve played a straight-necked Conn, then you already know what the Aquilasax sounds like. Of course it has keys arranged in the modern manner, including the high F#, but the tone hole locations and bore profile are based off a 1926 Conn. It sounds like it too. I ended up selling mine because it sounded like an alto, had some design flaws (which I understand have been addressed since), and didn’t play particularly well in tune even after I got a replacement neck. It wasn’t a lack of QC either — this one was play-tested by Steve himself but still was disappointing. I probably could have done more with him to address some of the deficiencies, but the fundamental one (it sounds like a Conn) was built in deliberately and wasn’t going to change, so I just moved it on.

          I did a comparison between the Aquilasax atd the 1919 True Tone here:
          http://mal-2.com/aquila/

          The foil on the cork was to accommodate a tenor mouthpiece, this was not due to an undersized cork or anything. I was just doing the bare minimum possible with each mouthpiece I tried, since they’re all a bit different-sized inside. The copper flashing was also something I did, since I thought it would look nice. It did, but was WAY too vulnerable to damage from the slightest touch (which would then oxidize a nasty brown), so I ran the electroplating kit in reverse and removed it all.

          The intonation defects I largely covered up because I was trying to play both horns as best I could rather than trying to reveal flaws. The fourth photo shows a flaw that never should have made it into production — the linkage screw on the low B key is so close to the pearl for the RH2 key that it causes a problem accessing said RH2. It should have been placed on the other side of the low B key arm (and I understand that it now IS). For my particular horn, I ended up grinding the little bead for the screw mount completely off, and using a solder blob on the back side of the key arm to accomplish the same thing (except not adjustable, obviously).

  8. I signed up the first day they put it up in the store. I am a multi-instrumentalist and love the sax but I hate hate hate the awkward fingerings and transpositional mental gymnastics required to play the Eb Alto (especially) along with groups playing in the “common” keys most pop/rock/blues groups play in — E, A, G, D, C, B. I have a Holton C-Melody sax and I find the fingerings for almost all of the common keys to be intuitive and easy to play. While it is true that one must transpose on an F horn, the shift is easy to visualize and remember (concert C=G, D=A, G=D, A=E, E=B, B=F# being the only “oddball”) and the fingerings for the common keys are almost all just as easy on the F horn as on the C. That is the big draw for me with the F horn. That’s my experience, anyway, and I’m not claiming that it’s universal or anything, though i doubt it is unique, either.

  9. I sold my Conn F Mezzo last year. It was a sweet ride, but hard to justify in the long run. I did commission a sax quartet written by Merlin Williams to feature the F Mezzo. I still love that work too. I just play the lead on Bb Soprano sax now.

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