Did you know that band directors can often tell which students will drop out of band by looking at the quality and condition of the instruments that they're using? Why is that?
It's because an instrument that is difficult to play or won't perform properly is a huge discouragement to beginning musicians. Like anyone learning a new skill, a beginner can find it challenging to make the first sounds. The instrument used during the first few months of study is critical in determining the success or failure of a young musician.
Beginners are learning the basics of making the notes, so beginner French horns typically don't have the features to produce a high-quality tone. Beginner instruments are designed for early use and gratification for the student.
Beginner French horns are single horns, which means they have a single set of tubing. A single French horn is fine for beginners while they learn to make the elementary notes and work on basic technique and intonation. In addition to the single set of tubing, they have small bores (inside size of the tubing), making them easier to play but sacrificing some potential tone. They're typically finished with clear lacquer, allowing the brass to show through, and include the most basic features. They are designed for early use.
By the end of the first year of musical study, a student is already outgrowing their beginner instrument both physically and musically. A musician's instrument should grow with them. This means it's time to step up to a more advanced, higher-quality instrument that will complement their developing music skills.
Intermediate French horns are double horns and have larger bores, allowing bigger fuller sound production. They can have a lacquered brass, silver-plated or nickel-plated finish. The rotor valves are typically fitted to closer tolerances, minimizing leakage of air that causes a player to work harder. Mouthpieces tend to be slightly larger and more open. Intermediate French horns are popular with junior high and high school band students.
Performer French horns are made largely by hand, especially in the hand-hammering of bells, special annealing of the brass, and hand lapping and fitting of the valves. The design and production processes focus on creating a French horn that reproduces vibrations freely and faithfully. Bore sizes are usually medium-large and the finish is often silver, although some performer French horns are available in lacquered brass finishes as well. Performer French horns have some tone advantages over intermediate French horns and are designed for use by students, both high school and college, who take their music seriously.
Top-line French horns are largely hand-made and incorporate all of the manufacturer's best features and processes to create an ultimate French horn. They are used by professionals, studio musicians, and symphony players, as well as some amateurs for whom the French horn is a serious avocation.
With routine care step-up French horns, particularly performer and top-line French horns can be expected to last a lifetime — there is rarely a need to ever replace a step-up French horn.