Thoughts and concepts about various aspects of English Horn playing

A Few Words About Bocals

What makes an English horn bocal a good bocal?

There are numerous opinions as to what constitutes a good bocal, from general preferences in terms of how bocals are fabricated and the specific materials used in their construction, to other, more personal criteria or preferences that individual players may consider important with respect to the subject. This post includes some of my personal thoughts:

For many years, very few choices of English horn bocals were available. One simply used the bocal that was included with the instrument, regardless of whether or not it was a good match for the instrument and/or the player. Apparently, not much thought was dedicated to the relative importance of the bocal with respect to tone quality, resonance, intonation, resistance and stability.

There have been numerous changes in the world of English horn bocals during the past 25 to 30 years. This is due, in part, to extensive research and test trials from several bocal manufacturers in the U.S., Canada and Europe. In addition, as the popularity of the English horn has grown, there has been a demand for better bocals to keep pace with the increasingly higher standards of instruments and players.

Bocals are usually available in standard lengths. They are generically numbered 1,2 & 3. The length of the bocal increases with the corresponding number, usually by 1 mm. Thus, the pitch of a #3 is generally lower than that of a #1. Some bocal makers have started offering modified lengths based on the original three numbers, labeling them 1.5, 2.5, etc.

Traditionally, nickel silver was the standard metal used in the manufacture of bocals. However, several manufacturers now offer their products in a variety of metals, both solid and plated. Examples are sterling silver, gold, copper, nickel silver and brass. Each metal has its own unique type of vibration that greatly affects tone quality, resonance, resistance, and to a certain degree, the amount of sound generated.

In addition, there has been a great deal of experimentation using different mandrels, tapers (venturi) and curves. The curve, or angle of the bocal has a direct affect on the resulting tone and resistance, as does the thickness of metal.

Chamfering is a technique used by the majority of bocal makers to better channel the air stream from the staple into the bocal. In this procedure, the top edge of the bocal is reamed to create a very small angle. This has the effect of removing some of the resistance at the junction of the staple and the bocal, resulting in less resistance and a more vibrant tone.

There are two different methods used to manufacture bocals

        1. A sheet of metal is heated and then formed around a tapered mandrel. The seam is then soldered. Finally, a piece of cork ranging from 25 – 30 mm in length is applied to the bottom section of the bocal.

  1. A solid bar of round nickel silver is drilled and reamed with a tapered reamer. Sometimes multiple reamers are used during this process. As in the first method, a piece of cork is applied to the bottom section.

A frequently asked question is whether one should first choose the English horn and then the bocal, or vice versa. In my opinion, the  instrument should be chosen first. However, when testing English horns, try several bocals (and reeds) with each horn before  making the final  choice of instruments. Once the English horn has been “broken-in” as in the case of new instruments, one can begin the search for the ideal bocal. If a player owns more than one English Horn, it is highly likely that a separate bocal will need to be chosen for each instrument.

Choosing the best bocal for one’s English horn is a matter of personal taste. A great deal depends on the qualities of the specific instrument and the reeds used, with both representing critically significant parts of the equation. Some bocals are well suited to narrower and less resistant reeds, while others are better suited to wider and more resistant reeds. When choosing a bocal, I suggest trying each bocal with several reeds to make a more accurate assessment of the qualities of the bocal. If at all possible, play the bocals in several locations, not just the retailer’s supply shop or your home studio. This should help to determine the ring of the tone and whether it carries into the concert hall, theater, church, etc.  In addition, consider asking musicians whose opinions you value, to listent and give feedback to each bocal.

When trying bocals on the instrument, one should perform the following tests:

1. First, determine whether the English Horn is sealing properly.  If not, have the problem fixed by a good repair person.

2. Start the process by playing the bocal you currently use on the horn. Then, move on to trying the other bocals.

3. Is there "ring" (resonance) in the tone or does it sound dull (so-called "dead tone")? 

4. How is the overall pitch? Is it even throughout the practical range of the instrument or not? 

5. Is the "A flat" above the staff stable or does the pitch waiver, thus making it difficult to center the tone?

6. Is the 3d space “C” low in pitch? This note is generally flat on English Horn, but is easily tuned by a good repair person - and the right bocal.

7. Is the 4th space “E” high in pitch? This note is generally sharp, but can be brought into line by a good bocal.

8. Can you easily slur up octaves beginning on the second space "A flat" continuing up chromatically to “C”, and do the pitches remain stable?

9. How is the response of the first line “E”? Is it possible to make diminuendo with an even tone or does the tone break-up?

Many double reed supply shops have bocals from several manufacturers in stock, and some manufacturers sell their bocals directly. It is recommended that one contact double reed supply shops directly or do an online search. Some prominent bocal manufacturers are listed below:

Mark Chudnow Woodwinds

The Dallas Bocal Company

Thomas Hiniker

Phillip Ross

John Symer


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