Because it is not possible for the basic Serpent to be vented properly, the instrument does not conveniently resonate at the desired pitches the way modern wind instruments do. To be sure, there are several pitches which center quite well, namely C's and G's on the Serpent in C (Serpents are usually pitched in either C or D). Notes which are part of the harmonic series (partials) of these notes tend to also be strong, but usually not in tune. Other notes are often considered to be 'not on the instrument', although the player can in fact produce any pitch of the chromatic scale, if enough lip technique is applied. These forced notes tend to have muddy tone, lack of definition, and usually low volume. The player must now change technique for these notes, experimenting with fingerings until the best sound is made for the given pitch.
Originally, the Serpent was held vertically (mouthpiece end up and bell end down), but by the late 1700s the fashion was to hold it more towards the horizontal (mouthpiece end to player's left, bell end towards his right). This change in posture required the right hand to embrace the tubing backwards, with a reversed fingering pattern. The horizontal posture was necessary for playing while standing, marching, or on horseback. The vertical posture is easier for playing while seated. Today, there is no posture which can be considered to be more correct, with the matter being left up to the individual player.
Since the Serpent does not center accurately on most notes, the player must be able to 'sight sing' the music much like a singer must look at a given note and produce the correct pitch without mechanical assistance. Once the player has the specified pitch in mind, he must then produce the required vibration with his lips, forcing the instrument to go along even if it cannot actually resonate at that frequency. On the weakest notes, the instrument is almost like a megaphone, merely focusing the lip vibration instead of resonating to a fixed pitch and forcing the lips to comply, as is the case with modern brass/wind instruments. The player must come to terms with this technique and must learn his specific instrument's idiosyncrasies, since most Serpents play a bit differently from all others.
The Serpent is easiest to play in tune when played gently. Even though the player is 'forcing' many of the pitches, he must not confuse this with forcing by overblowing or too much volume. When played with excess force, the combination of lip control and instrument acoustics quickly degenerate into a lack of control, and the tone suffers badly. Luckily, the Serpent has a tone which carries nicely even at lower volume levels, and in its more successful applications it need not be played loudly.
The addition of keys relieves the player of the burden of straining on the weakest notes, but does not improve the other shortcomings. The Russian Bassoon and the Bass Horn have playing characteristics very similar to the basic Serpent.
The Ophicleide is quite another matter. Here is an instrument which is quite easy to learn, once the odd fingering system is mastered. It has even and consistent playing characteristics on all notes, and requires only a bit of 'lipping into tune' for certain notes. The player must come to terms with the slight changes in tone color which occur as holes of various sizes vent at various locations around the horn, but overall it handles very much like a modern brass instrument; if the correct fingering is made, the horn will play the right note if the player's lips aim in the right vicinity.
Copyright Paul Schmidt 1997
revised December 1999