A Horn Story
by Rudy Volkman
I grew up playing BB-flat instruments, so that’s what I play. But, I’ve always kind of wanted a CC. The trouble is, the only one that I ever found that I liked the sound and feel of cost well over $7,000, which seemed a bit steep to indulge a whim.
Rudy Volkman and his newly-cut Conn 20J CC tuba
I’m fairly handy with tools, though, and I’ve done some horn “tinkering” in the past, so I finally decided to try to make my own—that is, to cut down a BB-flat I liked the feel of down to CC size. For the record, I play a 1936 Conn 20J that has a few minor modifications. It’s pretty big.
the pre-cut original
I found another, newer, 20J online, and looked it over for a month or so before committing to what might well be the destruction of a perfectly good horn. But after some preliminary modeling of the pieces and how they might fit with some two feet removed here and there, I proceeded to take it all apart.
From there, I made cut-out templates of all the parts (see photo 3), and laid them out on graph paper (an empirical approach), creating the overlaps that would allow me to remove the total necessary length of tubing. The trick was to take out the tubing in such a way that the valves would stay in the same relative position (relative to all the tubing) so that it would still be playable.
My plan was to keep the couplings that hold the pieces together in order to guarantee an approximation of the original overall taper of the tubing, ending with the bell attachment ring. Of course, when you cut a piece out of a cone, the two ends don’t match up any more, so I slit both ends for 3–4”, spreading the narrow end and cutting a wedge out of the large one. These would have to be patched when the horn was reassembled.
I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to sustain a perfect cone by doing this, but had faith that it would still work—after all, I’ve played a lot of old clunkers with monumental dents and other disturbances to the overall shape that still sounded good and played in tune.
the finished version
All the general wisdom is that the difference between a BB-flat and a CC horn is 24” of length. Once I had all the pieces cut and pushed back into shape, I taped it all together with masking tape and played it on the bench to check the pitch—my plan had been to take twenty inches out of the general tubing, and to leave the last 4” for adjustments to the tuning slide. It’s a good thing I held back some extra—it turns out that the difference between a BB-flat Conn 20J and its CC version is only about 20 1/2”.
With the horn proper tuned to CC, all that remained was the cutting down of the valve slides. A trip to my friendly music store for a chemical wash to remove all the brass shavings and dust was necessary, and I eventually moved the lead pipe to a more comfortable position for me.
Otherwise, it was a piece of cake—I have probably the only Conn 20J pitched in CC in existence; it sounds, plays, and feels great.
Dr. Rudy Volkmann is retired from a thirty-year career as a theory professor; he contributed several articles to the early days of the T.U.B.A. Journal. As a low-brass generalist performer, his credits include a broad spectrum from symphonic and big band jazz to German Oompah bands on tuba, euphonium, bass trumpet, and even alto horn. His many compositions parallel the same broad spectrum. He lives, composes, plays, and records in Augusta, Georgia, where he is the owner and Maitre d’Armes of the Augusta Fencers Club.