Here’s something I wrote about playing the horn for the September 2008 issue of Classical Music Magazine:
(You can simply read the text here, below, or click here to download the .pdf file of the article as it appeared in the magazine.)
“Playing the horn (of the type often called the French Horn, for no
sensible reason) is stupendously and staggeringly difficult. You’ve
probably heard this claim before and I’m telling you that it’s TRUE.
I’ve been struggling with it, full on, for more than 40 years and I’ve
still got a long way to go. I’ve got some aspects of it under control,
I suppose, but I can tell you that my chosen companion for life is an
obstinate, unreliable and unpredictable coiled monster.
I comfort myself by the thought that I’m not alone in the endless
endeavor of learning to play the horn. In London alone there are 465
professional hornplayers and another 2856 non-professional ones.
Hundreds of thousands more live in other parts of the world, and our
vast numbers also stretch back through time. New horn players learn
from old ones, who learned from other even older ones who learned from
our horncestors long dead. The chain of tradition certainly goes back
hundreds of years but I prefer to think it goes back much further even
that that – for perhaps hundreds of thousands of years, all the way to
the first humanoids who entertained their cavemates with stunningly
beautiful tones from conch shells, or perhaps stunned their enemies by
blowing primitive riffs on the amputated horns of large mammals. Yes,
I do believe that hornplaying is as old as humanity – perhaps not as
old as singing, but certainly much older than reading, or tap-dancing.
I believe those proto-hornists soon (geologically speaking) found that
a range of just one note doesn’t really create much of an impression
in a lengthy recital and so they would have been looking for ways to
find more. Actually, this would have been an obvious discovery and is
rather easy to do once you get the hang of it. With both the conch and
the mammalhorn you can simply cup your hand over the big end, covering
the emerging sound to varying degrees. The conch even advertises this
with a huge pink mouthy-looking orifice which simply begs of its
player, “come on – slide your hand in here!”. Doing this with my own
conch gives me not only the semitone below its one and only note, but
another below that, and if I push most of my hand in, curling my
fingers around its internal spiraled cavity, I can go seven steps down
a chromatic scale. Quarter tones? – no problem. Advanced stuff, you
may think. Not at all – it’s totally prehistoric. I can’t prove any of
this, of course, but I’d be willing to slip into a loin cloth and play
a few choruses of “Flight of the Bumble Tyrannosaurus” to show it’s at
least a plausible hypothesis.
After some thousands of years humans moved on from organic horns –
those left by mother nature on the beach or next to the barbecue – and
thanks to the invention of metal tubing it was but a short few
technological steps to the type of horns that Bach and Mozart knew and
for which wrote tortuously difficult music. With tubes bent and
hammered into all kinds of baroque and classical horns, trumpets and
trombones, it was inevitable that sooner or later a clever instrument
designer would invent The Valve. While this was a tremendous leap
forward for central heating technology it was a terrible blow to
hornplayers. We must have thought it would make life easier for us,
but how wrong we were!
The range of a horn’s notes before valves was quite gappy, in fact
there were only about sixteen and they weren’t evenly spaced. Most of
them were quite high notes of the sort which are hard to reach, hurt
your mouth and ultimately give you hemorrhoids. About five were in
the middle register and only about three were low notes that sounded
So, with the appearance of valves, suddenly we had instruments which
could play every note across a range of more than three octaves. What
did composers do then? They persecuted hornplayers by writing
valve-horn parts just slightly more difficult than would ever be
humanly possible to play. We’ve been suffering this ever since. I
believe it explains why almost no major breakthroughs in horn design
have been made since valve horns became established. Composers are to
hornplayers what aerospace designers are to test-pilots – sadists, who
would simply crank up the difficulty to yet higher, faster and more
complex pinnacles of impossibility. Consequently, any promising
inventions to make horns better over the last 170 years may well have
been suppressed by the fabled League of Underground Hornists. How
frustrated composers must be by all the recent improvements in horn
cases and valve oil!
Why is the horn so difficult to play? In contrast to, for example, the
piano where production of its individual notes is taken care of by the
keyboard and hammer mechanism, the horn demands that each note must be
formed using the lips and the breath in a way which does not come
naturally at all. In fact, the instrument itself is of little help to
the player. Anyone who can coax music from a horn can generally get a
similar result from a few meters of garden hosepipe or even a teapot.
The horn, being topologically equivalent to a length of drainpipe,
acts only as specialised resonator. The same is true for all of the
brass family of wind instruments.
Essentially, playing a brass instrument is like singing but using the
lips instead of the vocal chords. Lips aren’t naturally good at this
and it takes many years of painstaking practice to train them. The
lips of a hornplayer are framed by the ring of the mouthpiece in a
crude approximation of the way a singer’s vocal chords are framed by
the larynx. Pushing air between the lips, or vocal chords, is what
gets the air vibrating. Once the air inside the instrument is
vibrating it spreads to the air outside and anyone nearby will
perceive this as sound.
Whereas a singer’s mouth will resonate and thus amplify any frequency
at which the vocal cords vibrate, a horn will only do this for the
lips at a few precise frequencies, which are known as harmonics. It is
only possible to make the horn ring out beautifully if the pitch at
which the lips choose to “sing” exactly matches that of one of the
harmonics the horn allows. If there is even the slightest mismatch you
get farm noises. If you get it right, it’s simply the best sound there
is. Getting it right is next to impossible because it requires a very
high level of accuracy. Because of this there are always going to be
random errors in hornplaying – something which annoys record
producers, provokes angry glares from conductors and pity from players
of other instruments. The addictive quest for a reliably good horn
sound drives thousands of the world’s hornplayers to the brink of
obsessive madness on a daily basis.
The level of skill needed to produce good sounding notes, loudly or
quietly, over a range of more than three octaves, and move between
them to make acceptable phrases leaves brain surgery and
figure-skating way behind. It takes a life-time and even then you’ll
never get it exactly right – it’s just too difficult. However,
mastering these essential skills is just the beginning. Despite the
extreme technical demands, players of all brass instruments must
always try to remember that the purpose of playing their instrument is
to make music, not merely to demonstrate technical skills. This is why
it is an art form rather than a sport.
Ideally, the beautiful and arresting sound that floats from a horn and
fills our halls should give away nothing of the monumental difficulty
of its production. It should speak the language of music,
communicating directly and mysteriously with the unfathomable musical
(Reproduced here with kind permission of Rhinegold Publishing )
Oct 3, 2008 | Categories: hornplaying, publications | Tags: article, Bach, chromatic, conch, harmonic series, harmonics, horncestors, larynx, Mozart, prehistoric, quarter tones, valve-horn, vocal chords | Leave A Comment »
What are your thoughts about breathing and breath control for hornplayers? Try summarising them to an imaginary class of gullible horn students. What do you hear yourself saying?
Now, let me ask you how your thoughts about breathing and breath control might change if (in an imaginary world) you found it was possible to play the horn not just by blowing it but also by sucking? Would it change your ideas about breath support and the use of the diaphragm or any other bits?
A few years ago I became interested in the similarity between what happens at the the lips of a hornplayer and what happens when a violin bow moves across a string. Also, what happens when a flute player blows gently across the blowhole, or whatever it’s called…
One day I’d been doing some very quiet practise and found it interesting that a note could fade away to nothingness and then fade back in again. All that was needed to bring it back was a little air flowing through the horn making a faint wind noise, and for the lip aperture to be exactly right. For the ghost of a tone to emerge from nothing, out of a breathy wind sound, a bit of turbulence builds up inside the mouthpiece, or between the lips, and quickly falls into a stable pattern of vibration. It settles on a frequency – or a pitch – allowed by the mass of air inside the horn. It wobbles like a jelly in there – a very fast jelly. Any note produced will be from the harmonic series controlled by the length of the horn.
From this bit of experimentation I am convinced that you don’t have to “buzz your lips” to get a note going. It’s not the case that notes are produced by forcing air through your lips like “blowing a raspberry”. It seems to me that all you need is a flow of air and the right sort aperture, i.e. the right shape and the right muscle tone in the lips.
So, just as in playing a flute (not that I can) – the flow of air makes the air vibrate; and with a violin – the flow of the horsehairs across the catgut (or metal, or polyester or whatever) makes the air vibrate.
So, isn’t it perhaps a little strange that a violin bow can work in both directions – up and down – but the flowing air between a hornplayer’s lips can only do out – but not in. If the bow is the breath and the lip is the string, then why can we only make a sound by blowing, whereas a violin bow can work in both directions?
After a bit of personal research I discovered something amazing – that I can play the horn by sucking! Not only that – it’s almost exactly the same sound. How cool is that?
Tonguing during the suck is a bit tricky, as you might imagine, and the horn gets colder as I play it, which is weird – and my lungs slowly fill up with musty air from the depths of the horn, which is probably unhealthy, but apart from that it’s the same as blowing. Try it yourself.
Persevere until you can do it. Then go back to the first paragraph here and see what you now think about breathing and breath support for the hornplayer!
Okay. So you don’t believe me? Listen to this:
By the way, there’s much more about breathing and breath support to come in later posts.
Jul 21, 2008 | Categories: hornplaying, hornteaching | Tags: air, aperture, blowing, breath control, breath support, breathing, diaphragm, fade, fast jelly, flute, harmonic series, Horn, hornplayer, lungs, mass of air, mouthpiece, muscle tone, musty air, sucking, tonguing, turbulence, violin bow, wind noise | 1 Comment »
The following text is extracted from “The Cambridge Companion to Brass Instruments”
Edited by Trevor Herbert
The Open University, Milton Keynes, 1997
(ISBN-13: 9780521565226 | ISBN-10: 0521565227)
Reproduced here with the permission of Cambridge University Press.
Embouchure (pages 199-201)
The word embouchure is important to brass players. It is used to describe the precise arrangement, in the playing position, of an individual player’s mouth in relation to the mouthpiece. Because of the demands placed upon the modern orchestral brass player, there has evolved, for each instrument, and ideal embouchure model, which the beginner would do well to emulate. There is a form of natural selection among embouchures, where only the fittest can survive the demands of the repertory expected of the present-day player. The difficulty of achieving such an ideal embouchure (and thinking on this is still in the process of evolution) can be judged by the variation of embouchures seen among beginners and amateurs. In more advanced players, for example full-time students, it can be seen that the range of variation in embouchure structure has narrowed; and this range is further reduced among professionals to the point where, with a few rare exceptions, most use a similar model.
Ideally, a good embouchure should be able to produce any note at any dynamic. It should then be able to change to any other note without compromising its structure. And ideal embouchure has minimal visible movement. On instruments with larger mouthpieces, trombone and tuba especially, producing deeper notes requires the jaw to be lowered to vibrate at lower frequencies. This action also helps the lower register by increasing the resonating space inside the mouth. Jaw position and more obviously visible adjustments between registers are more evident on the larger brass. In general, however, the embouchure should allow the player to roam from high to low without pausing to re-seat in an embouchure “break”.
An embouchure break occurs when, for example, the beginner who has established a foothold in the middle register establishes another in the upper register, with a different embouchure seating, and perhaps yet another in the lower. And experienced teaching will guard against this, encouraging the gradual development of range by incremental degrees – perhaps a semitone at a time – to slowly build up strength and to ensure that the entire range is integrated under one well-formed embouchure. Most methods follow this incremental approach, building strength in the facial muscles through a cycle of play-rest-play-rest. Patient repetitive practice of basic embouchure foundation and maintenance exercises has to be built into a disciplined routine for any achieving brass player. A regime of self-training invariably includes ong tones; adding crescendo and diminuendo to these to learn and maintain dynamic control; slurring between notes on the same harmonic series at first slowly, then gradually quicker. These last, commonly and somewhat misleadingly called “lip flexibility” exercises, stimulate the development of the many embouchure muscles as does exaggerating the vibration of the lip to form a buzz. This last has been a central tenet of much twentieth-century brass teaching, on lips alone, or with the mouthpiece, away from the instrument. Although there is some controversy about its ultimate usefulness, it would seem to be a useful tool in embouchure forming, and in habitualising minimal frontal pressure of the mouthpiece on the lips.
The tuba amplifies many of the problems which beset brass players, not the least of which is control of the air supply. A large amount is needed, especially to play loudly in the low register. The tuba player has to become a more efficient breathing machine than other brass players, among whom there exists a tremendous amount of argument an confusion about breathing and blowing. Arnold Jacobs, former tuba player with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, was one of the first to point out that brass players were not helping their playing by jumping to false conclusions about breathing. Nevertheless, some players perform very well without a thought about breathing, whilst others excel despite adhering to bizarre theories.
Sep 21, 1997 | Categories: hornplaying, hornteaching, publications | Tags: amateurs, Arnold Jacobs, beginners, buzz, embouchure, embouchure break, harmonic series, jaw, lip flexibility, mouthpiece, natural selection, range, trombone, tuba | Leave A Comment »