Growing Great Horns

Mike Lawson • Performance • July 6, 2009

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Developing a good horn section seems to be one of the great hurdles that many band and orchestra directors have a hard time clearing. My visits to various band and orchestra programs around the country often reveal a lack of understanding for this beautiful but challenging instrument. I have observed many school ensembles that have weak horn sections, if there is one at all, or horn sections that are not playing up to their potential. Horn definitely can be treacherous, but giving attention to a few simple aspects of the instrument can make your horn players better equipped for success.

Start at the beginning

Which students a director chooses to place on horn is often the most critical decision in creating a solid horn section. Student interest is important, but good aural skills along with proper lip thickness and teeth alignment are more important. Students with poor aural skills enter the world of horn playing with a strike already against them. The harmonics on horn are so close together that it is very challenging to locate the correct pitch, even when the correct fingering is used. In fact, once you go above written third space C on the F side of the horn, a player can literally play just about any note with any fingering! Horn students must have the ability to discern correct pitch and to hear the proper pitch in their head before playing a note. There are several commercially produced aural exams available for checking a student’s aural ability. I have found that the old Selmer Music Guidance Survey gives a fairly accurate account of a student’s ability to discern higher and lower within a musical context and it only takes a few minutes to administer.

Proper alignment of the teeth and proper lip thickness are not as easy to determine, but there are a few simple guidelines a director can use to steer potentially ill-equipped students away from the horn. The rim and cup of the horn mouthpiece are thin and small and, consequently, students with relatively thin lips and straight teeth are best suited to play on one. This is not to say that students with thicker lips cannot play horn, but if the rim of the mouthpiece rests on the red fleshy part of the lower lip, it will decrease both range and flexibility. This soft inner part of the lip is where the sound is produced and it must remain unhindered to produce a full free tone. The correct angle for the mouthpiece and lead pipe on horn does allow

for a slight overbite, but students with severe overbites may experience difficulties achieving the full range of the horn (which should approach three octaves for a descent high school student). Braces cause problems for all brass instrument embouchures, but even more so for the thin-rimmed horn mouthpiece. The rim tends to land right on the metal of the braces and can cause quite a bit of pain, even when wax is used.


Mouthpiece placement and embouchure
The textbook placement for the rim of the horn mouthpiece on the lips is 2/3 on the top lip and 1/3 on the bottom (see figure 1). Students who play with the mouthpiece too low on the lips will usually encounter limited range and stuffy sound in the extremes (see figure 2). It is also important to pay attention to how the mouthpiece rests on the two lips. It is all too common for young horn players to put too much pressure on the top lip and teeth due to the placement of the bell on the right leg. This heavy pressure on the top lip and teeth will again cause flexibility and range issues (see figure 3). Smaller students can experience the opposite problem by reaching up to the mouthpiece, which, in turn, puts too much pressure on the bottom lip (see figure 4). Make sure the mouthpiece is angled down slightly (in most cases) to align with the player’s natural overbite. If placing the bell on the leg causes the mouthpiece to be either too high or too low, you may need to have the student adjust his or her right hand position in the bell and play with the horn off the leg.

Students who allow the lips to roll out, as in a pucker, will experience a tight and “buzzy” sound. This is easily corrected by asking your horn student to place their lips together as if saying “em.” This will cause the lips to gently come together with neither a pucker nor a rolling-in of the lips. Have students buzz their lips in this new position while bringing the mouthpiece and the horn up to their lips. This should alleviate the puckering.

Right hand position and instrument placement
Right hand placement in the bell is probably the most abused aspect of horn playing by school-aged players. A quick visit to the bell-side of the horn section during a rehearsal will confirm this statement. Proper right hand position does not only help provide the proper tone but it also aids in keeping the pitch of the horn section more stable. The right hand is to be placed in the bell for both historical and pedagogical reasons. In times past, the right hand was used to make the then valve-less instrument fully chromatic, but now the right hand is used to darken the timbre of the instrument and to allow for subtle pitch adjustments on troublesome notes. The most common abuse of right hand position is simply not placing the hand in the bell at all. What many students do is rest the right hand on their leg or grip the top of the bell with it. Both locations will result in a brighter tone and an overall sharper pitch. I teach my students to cup the right hand slightly with all the fingers and thumb tightly together and then to imagine the bell of the horn as a clock while placing the right hand at the 4 o’clock position. The knuckles of the right hand should not go in too far and the fingers should lay flat against the inside of the bell (see figure 5). The right hand should be placed in such a way as to not block the end of the bell. It is easy to unintentionally allow the palm of the hand to close slightly or for the fingers to curl both resulting in a muffled tone and lower pitch. The placement of the hand at the 4 o’clock position also allows the player to easily close the palm for stopped horn playing usually indicated by a “+” above the note (see figure 6).

If the player rests the bell on their right leg, attention should be given to the direction the bell is pointing. Never allow the student to have the bell pointed in towards the stomach (see figure 7). This will also result in a muffled sound. The bell should be pointed out to the right side of the player while the head remains facing straight ahead. If you visualize the sound coming out of the bell, it should follow in-line with the right forearm out to the side (see figure 8). If the player is playing with the bell off the leg, make sure that he or she does not block the end of the bell by having their right hand in too far. This is a common problem due to the awkwardness of holding a heavy instrument. Proper “off the leg” playing position will place the weight of the instrument on the first finger knuckle and thumb of the right hand, which allows the palm to stay open (see figure 9).

Using the correct fingerings
This topic may seem unnecessary to some, but I have found many school-aged horn players using incorrect fingerings, including those students in high school ensembles. The most basic concept that needs to be understood is that a standard double horn is in both the key of F and Bb, and the fingerings used for each side are different. Many students who were started on a single horn in F continue to use these F horn fingerings long after they have moved up to a double horn. This should never be. Playing on the F side of the horn, especially above third space C, is like walking on ice. The young horn student has little chance of getting through the passage without slipping at least once! It is important to know when to use which set of fingerings and for what purpose. It is commonly agreed upon that players should switch to the Bb side (thumb valve depressed) starting on second line G# and continue usage of that fingering system for any note above that. The horn player should consequently use F side fingerings (no thumb valve) starting on second line open G and all notes below. There are a few exceptions to this rule. If the horn player is playing stopped horn (closing the end of the bell with the hand and fingering a half step below written pitch), the F horn fingerings should be used at all times. This improves tuning because of the longer length of pipe on the F horn. When playing in the extreme lower register of the horn, Bb horn fingerings can improve response and in some cases, pitch. In particular, the D (fingered 1-3), Eb (fingered 2-3) and E (fingered1-2) below the staff on the F side will speak much more quickly and clearly using T-3, T-1 and T-2 respectively on the Bb side. This will also help correct the sharpness of these F side finger combinations.

Adding the thumb when crossing over to the Bb side can make any finger combination more challenging so it may be more advantageous for the player to stay on either the F or the Bb side when performing a rapid passage that crosses between the two different horns. In the example below, it is easier to keep the thumb down and use the Bb side fingers throughout this passage rather than going back and forth between the F and Bb side.

Proper tuning
It was mentioned earlier that proper right hand placement is critical to tuning, but it is also essential to have the various tuning slides on the instrument positioned correctly. A standard double horn contains a minimum of eight tuning slides with some horns having an additional Bb side tuning slide bringing the total to nine. It is important that all of these slides be adjusted properly. The best pitches to tune the open horn to are second line G and third space C. The horn player should check the pitch for the C on both sides of the instrument. When tuning the C on the F side of the horn, pull both the F tuning slide and the main tuning slide. If you follow the lead pipe around, the first tuning slide you come to is the main one (see figure 10a). The tuning slide directly below it is the F tuning slide (see figure 10b). When tuning the C on the Bb side of the horn, adjust both the Bb tuning slide and the main slide. The Bb tuning slide will come directly out of the valve casing for the thumb key (see figure 11). Note that not all double horns have this tuning slide. In particular, the tuning slide that is attached to the thumb valve on the Conn 6D and 8D models does not actually alter the pitch for the Bb side of the horn, so do not pull that one.

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