My longtime friend and colleague Andrew Downing recently visited the Gebr. Alexander showroom in Mainz, Germany to hand pick a new horn. Andy was kind enough to answer some questions about his experiences there. His 2-part interview offers some fascinating insights into Gebr. Alexander’s manufacturing and sales process.
James Boldin: You recently had a rare opportunity for American horn players: visiting the Gebr. Alexander showroom in Mainz, Germany and hand-picking a new horn. Could you give some brief background on how this visit came about?
Andrew Downing: I have a younger brother, Tom Downing, that studied horn throughout high school and chose to enlist in the US Army Band services at the age of 18. Upon leaving the military music school in Norfolk, VA he was given a chance to choose his post and elected to join a band that was stationed at the time in Wiesbaden, Germany. Wiesbaden is a beautiful hillside town across the Rhine from Mainz which is known to most horn players as the home to Gebr. Alexander. Tom served in the Army for many years before his departure to join the American military support work force in Wiesbaden. Tom and his family graciously invited my wife Ashley and I to visit them this spring and I was suddenly facing the chance to visit the legendary Alexander workshop and potentially purchase a new horn. I knew I might have few chances like this in my life and decided to begin creating a savings plan. The VAT tax savings and current exchange rate made the travel worth the effort. The scheduling process took close to a year and began with an email to one of their primary sales managers. Once he confirmed it was possible the planning began.
JB: Why Alexander Horns? Have you always had a special affinity for them?
AD: I spent a few years of my collegiate studies playing on a 1960’s era Alexander model 103 I acquired from a European professional that had moved to the states. I immediately fell in love with the special character of Alexander horns – dark and velvety in softer dynamics and brassy and bright when played loudly. There is an unmatched color they make that seems to encourage many European horn sections to use them down the line to generate a uniform sound. I have always felt that the best Alexanders I’ve played seemed to vibrate in the core of the horn rather than at the embouchure much like the way a great bowed instrument resonates from within. I played many memorable concerts on my old horn and only gave it up in the early 2000’s to get on the Geyer-style horn bandwagon for American auditions and jobs I was taking. It also needed quite a bit of work and I ended up selling it to someone that wanted to invest in the restoration. I have missed it ever since.
JB: Was it difficult to schedule a time and day for the visit? What was the overall customer service experience like?
AD: The sales experience began in the early fall of 2016 with an email to Reimund Pankratz, one of the sales managers for Alexander. He was extremely welcoming to my request and was pleased that I was planning so far out. Reimund took time to discuss my options and talk through the buying process. Once we settled on my instrument preferences we agreed on a set time and date to visit during my trip early on to select a horn. I would then wait about a week and a half for finishing. No deposit was required for the trial and the payment takes place at the time of final selection. All horn trials in their shop are done with their horns in “raw condition” – their term for unfinished brass with much touch up work to do to the finish at solder points. Once my choice was made and I had completed my purchase they would move it to their shop for touch up and customization per my requests. Based upon my experience it seems that the best chance for someone to secure an appointment for a horn trial would be to contact Alexander nine to twelve months prior and attempt to secure a date. They focus on a very private trial experience and their time and space are limited for demos.
JB: What horns did you try?
AD: Reimund and I discussed the models I wanted to try and settled on the 1103, the Geyer-style or “K Model” as they name it. I chose this because I play quite a few gigs in the Dallas/Fort Worth area and most players here are on Hills/Rauch/Schmids, etc. I wanted to have an instrument that fit more closely with those types of horns than the omnipresent 103. The reason we settled on one model, not many models, is so they could prepare the model of my choice with various options. The 1103 comes in yellow or gold brass, hand-hammered or spun bells, and even cryogenically frozen bells. Alexander makes over a dozen horn models and it’s virtually impossible for them to prep all of their horns in all their options for one visitor. Ultimately they prepared five 1103s for me to try with a variety of features. Anyone that wants to visit should be careful to pick their base model to try prior to beginning the planning process to allow for the widest assortment of options. That being said I also had the chance to play a few 103s, a forthcoming prototype not yet ready for the market and even a Vienna horn! A particularly impressive part of their trial space is their Wagner tuba display. Alexander consulted with Richard Wagner to design the original tubas for the Ring cycle and as a gift he gave the company a handwritten manuscript of Das Rheingold, the first opera in the cycle. A facsimile of the score covers a wall of their showroom.
Andrew Downing lives in suburban Dallas, Texas. He is an active freelance artist and is a member of the Mockingbird Brass, a quintet based in North Texas. More information about him can be found at: http://www.mockingbirdbrass.com/about.html
Coming up in Part 2 of this interview: testing out horns, selecting a horn, and final thoughts.