Pip Eastop, Horn player, Photographer, Trumpet player

Horn player, Photographer, Trumpet player


Posts tagged “harmonics

Performance note from Hyperion CD booklet.

It has been more than two centuries since Mozart composed the music performed on this recording and during that time the horn, an instrument he loved and knew well, has evolved substantially. During the nineteenth century it grew valves and extra loops of tubing; it ceased to be a ‘hand horn’, or a ‘natural horn’, and emerged from experimentation and confusion as a fully chromatic instrument. The response by later composers to these changes was to write music that increasingly exploited the horn’s new ability to play not only any note with a full and sonorous resonance but also any note with a closed, ‘stopped’ sound. The evolution of the horn continued with a widening of its bore and an increase in dynamic range to suit the music of Wagner, Mahler, Richard Strauss and many others. Today, the horn’s modern character can best be experienced by hearing the way it is used in orchestral film scores to depict the archetypal ‘hero’, conveying such attributes as strength, courage, seriousness, stability and control. Before the horn ‘grew up’ its character was altogether rougher, wilder, more unpredictable, playful and idiosyncratic—perhaps more Robin Hood than James Bond.

It is in getting from one note to the next that the mechanics of the instrument and the technique of its playing are so different between the old and the new. This difference is much larger than with instruments that did not have such a marked metamorphosis in their historical development—that is, the addition of valves. Stringed instruments are still essentially the same as they were in Mozart’s day. Woodwind instruments have gained more projection and refinement but are essentially still pipes with vent holes. The piano, Mozart’s favourite instrument of all, has been developed and refined in countless ways but still involves the mechanism of fingers pushing keys to make hammers hit strings. Changes to other instruments have been in timbre and power. But from hand horn to modern horn the change has been more profound.

Without doubt Mozart would have loved the modern valved horn with its fully chromatic ability, and if his friend, the horn player Joseph Leutgeb, had possessed one then Mozart would have written entirely different music for him. Mozart’s horn concertos sound wonderful played on the modern horn, of course, but inevitably, along with the broader, warmer voice and gains in both smoothness and uniformity of timbre across the entire range, some of the colour and drama that Mozart would have expected is lost.

To play the hand horn is to wrestle with nature. While the modern valved horn will cruise comfortably through most things in the classical repertoire the hand horn simply doesn’t want to cooperate with at least half of the notes Mozart threw at it. Its natural array of pitches, the harmonic series, does not align with any kind of equal or non-equal temperament or any sort of scale, whether major, minor, chromatic or whatever. Melodies have to be physically wrenched into shape from both ends of the instrument; at the narrow end by strenuous techniques of breath and lip, and at the other end, within the throat of the bell flare, by rapid manipulations of the right hand for correcting and continuously adjusting the intonation of every one of the instrument’s naturally occurring tones. This right-hand technique unavoidably alters both loudness and timbre from one note to the next, often quite drastically, and it is this phenomenon that accounts for most of the differences in musical effect between the classical hand horn and the modern horn.

After the development of valves, the ancestral hand horn did not disappear. It remained, as it was in the eighteenth century, arguably one of the most perfect of all instruments in its simple emulation of natural forms such as cow horns or large sea shells. It is nothing more than a long, narrow, conical brass tube with a small hole in which to blow at one end and a bigger hole where the sound emerges at the other end. It starts at a diameter of about 8mm (about one third of an inch) and continuously widens along its length until it ends with a dramatic widening into a flared bell of about one foot in diameter. For convenience and comfort hand horns are coiled into loops and are traditionally played with the bell held to the right, pointing backwards and to the side at about waist level. These days we call it the ‘natural horn’ or ‘hand horn’, to differentiate it from its modern descendant, the ‘French horn’—a poorly named grandchild since there is nothing particularly French about it.

Despite the visual complexity of its convoluted plumbing, the modern valved horn can be understood simply as a combination of twelve differently lengthed hand horns into one super-instrument (perhaps ‘Dodecahorn’ would be a better name for it). The modern horn player switches instantly from one length to another by means of finger-operated valves. It is actually possible to play an entire Mozart horn concerto on just one of the twelve component instruments of a modern horn using hand-horn techniques rather than by employing the valve mechanisms. However, this is not generally done because the merging of twelve instruments invariably causes a compromise in quality to each one. Also, it has to be said that there is something very pure and satisfying about playing great works by Mozart on such a wonderfully simple instrument.

The complexity of the modern horn conceals any resemblance to its ancient, naturally occuring ancestors whereas the simplicity of the hand horn makes such a visual connection obvious. Although a spirally curved cone is a complex shape and difficult to make it is an easy structure to understand, being essentially a tube which gradually widens. Molluscs and cows grow their curved cones naturally and unconsciously, but humans have needed many centuries to learn first how to copy and then to extend the concept, fabricating delicate coils of accurately tapered metal tubing far greater in length than animal horns. Historically, advances in musical instrument metal-working technology have been driven by this need to make horns longer than those provided by nature. The extra length is desired because short, naturally occurring horns allow only the lowest note of the harmonic series to be played (the so-called ‘fundamental’), all the other ones being too high to play comfortably. Many ancient cultures understood this. Trumpets of bronze, silver and gold were discovered in Tutenkhamun’s tomb and the Romans used brass and copper horns and trumpets for military purposes. In the bronze age the Celts had their ‘carnyx’, the Scandinavians had their ‘lur’ and in Ireland they made fabulous bronze horns shaped like those of the now extinct giant bison.

During Mozart’s time hand horns were available in a range of fifteen different lengths, from the shortest in the key of C (alto) at eight feet four inches (2.54 meters), to the longest in B flat (basso) at an impressive nineteen feet (5.79 meters). The length, or key, favoured by Mozart was somewhere in the middle, the E flat horn, at about fourteen feet long. The instrument used in this recording is a modern copy of an 1830 Ignaz Lorenz of Linz, made in Bavaria by Engelbert Schmid.

The standard classical pitch used these days for (so-called) ‘historically informed performance’ is somewhat lower than modern pitch, where A is set to vibrate at 440 cycles per second. Orchestras such as The Hanover Band usually tune A to 430Hz for music of the classical period, and this is the pitch used in this recording for the four concertos. For the quintet recording, due to the absence of woodwind instruments which are specifically built to be played at 430 and have far less flexibility to adjust pitch than stringed or brass instruments, it was possible to take the pitch down approximately one third of a semitone further, to 421 cycles per second. This is exactly the frequency of the tuning fork that belonged to Mozart.

At several points during the horn concertos Mozart indicates that the soloist should play a short unaccompanied passage, a ‘cadenza’, of his or her own invention. This is a difficult task for the modern horn player: adding anything of value to historical works of great musical genius is challenging, to say the least. Because of the instrument’s natural simplicity the task of cadenza-writing for the hand horn in Mozart is somewhat easier than it is for the modern instrument. When playing the fully chromatic modern horn it is hard to be constantly mindful of avoiding anything which would have been technically unfeasible during the classical period. The use of valves, however carefully and tastefully applied, creates an effect impossible for the hand horn, so by playing on the type of horn Mozart knew one avoids such anachronisms. Removing that complication allows one to focus more on questions of musical material and style. In preparing the cadenzas for these performances I investigated those that Mozart took the trouble to write down (although he never composed any for horn). Searching through his published keyboard cadenzas I found that here, more than anywhere else, he explored chromatic harmonies with the greatest intensity and passion. In his later works the urge to delve deeper into chromaticism becomes increasingly obvious and this shows clearly in his horn-writing, where he pushes hard against the instrument’s inherent limitations.

In attempting to escape from the instrument’s constant pull towards E flat major, I have tried to stretch its scant chromatic capabilities as far as practically possible (in particular by using diminished harmonies) while attempting to keep within the spirit of Mozart’s horn-writing and what is known of his cadenza style. I can only apologize to the ghost of Mozart for any musical crimes I may have committed. In my defence (and in that of horn players everywhere), if a cadenza is indicated by Mozart we are obliged to do at least something.

Pip Eastop © 2015

Article in Classical Music Magazine:

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
any good.

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
human heart.”

(Reproduced here with kind permission of Rhinegold Publishing )

Teaching self-teaching

Reproduced here by kind permission of the Open University (go there) is my chapter from the book “Knowledge, Power and Learning”. Edited by Paechter, C. Preedy, M. Scott, D + Soler, J. (2001) ISBN 0 7619 6936 3

The book is associated with an Open University second-level course: E211 – Learning matters: challenges of the information age (visit the course website)

Click on the this to go to the publisher’s website

Teaching self-teaching

In this chapter I will discuss my approach to the teaching of horn students within the context of music conservatoires which prepare students for the musical profession. After describing the conservatoire learning context I will explain some of the specific training needs of performing musicians and outline aspects of my approach to teaching them.

Music conservatoires differ from other establishments of higher education in that they exist as places of practical, rather than academic, learning for performing musicians. Although their courses have some academic elements, which form compulsory parts of the students’ degrees, the main emphasis is on the students developing their performance skills to the highest possible professional level. For this reason, in the conservatoire context, instrumental teaching is done on a one-to-one basis by established performing musicians of the highest calibre.

Entrance to the music conservatoires is by audition and the standard is extremely high. Only a very small number of school leavers who play musical instruments are proficient enough to consider auditioning for a conservatoire place and, out of those who make the attempt, only very few actually gain entrance. Once accepted, their training focuses on improving their technical and musical performance abilities to such a standard that they are professionally employable when they leave. The reality is, however, that in proportion to the numbers of hopeful college leavers there are relatively few vacant jobs for performing musicians so, again, a filtering takes place and only the best of them make it into the profession.

I teach undergraduate level horn (1) students at two of London’s music conservatoires. Their courses last four years and towards the end of each academic year they have examinations in which they are expected to demonstrate their performing achievements. At the end of their course they have to perform a “final recital”, to a high degree of technical and musical excellence as a major part of their B.Mus degree qualification.

On leaving college the newly graduated professional must have the resources to continue improving their playing because due to fierce competition the acceptable standard is not only high but keeps on rising, a fact which poses a continual challenge to all musicians, even established ones, who wish to have long careers.

Typically, after the conservatoire years, a horn player will want to make a living in the employment of an orchestra. Unfortunately, although the standard of playing reached by this stage is often very high it is quite rare for newly graduated horn players to find such work immediately upon leaving. Some, in anticipation of the difficulties ahead, opt for a postgraduate year or two to develop their playing expertise while still under the shelter of the college. Some realise that they will not make the grade and switch to alternative careers. Most, however, will try to set themselves up as freelance players and begin developing networks of employment contacts in the hope of gradually building up their work to the extent that they can earn a living by their playing. Many fall by the wayside by failing to keep up a high enough standard.

During the years of a horn player’s career many aspects of their working materials and environment can change. In particular the teeth can move leading to a need for subtle changes in lip technique. Also, the instrument and mouthpiece may be altered, or perhaps the kind of repertoire played, the place of practice, the amount of practice time available and its regularity. Thus, what works today might not be so effective in several years time. Indeed it is often the case that horn players who have played beautifully for decades begin to feel their ability to play coming slowly unravelled. This can be a dangerous time for a horn player, particularly if they have no investigative resources and are thus unable to overhaul and rebuild their technique.

Although the study of a musical instrument is never complete, when a student leaves the conservatoire, ideally, they should not need the help of a teacher again. Thus, an essential element in a student’s preparation for a professional working life is their acquisition of flexible, self-analytical tools for problem-finding, problem-solving and sustaining continuous personal development of their own technique and musicianship. The skills needed for this “self-teaching” are among the most valuable a performing musician can have but also the most difficult to acquire. It is because of this difficulty that I believe “self-teaching”, as a discipline in itself, should be instilled in the student as deeply as possible during their conservatoire training.

Horn playing is very technique-intensive, by which I mean that a lot of technical work must be done before its output will be recognised as musical sound rather than grotesque noise. Once painstakingly acquired, the collection of discrete skills which in combination make up a full working technique must all be maintained in as stable and reliable a way as possible to minimise future breakdowns in ability, disasters in performance and to keep the playing generally on top form. 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 to most people. 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 metres of garden hosepipe or even a teapot. The horn, being topologically equivalent to a length of drainpipe, acts only as resonator with the potential to assist the player in making exceedingly beautiful tones. The same is true for all of the brass “family” of wind instruments.

It has become a traditionally held belief that the horn is one of the most difficult instruments to play. Indeed, there is some truth in this as it usually takes years before the beginner can play even one note proficiently, let alone sequence them into an effective musical phrase. The horn player’s lips must be trained to vibrate like the vocal cords of a singer, which is problematic enough but there is yet a further difficulty: whereas a singer’s mouth will resonate and thus amplify any frequency at which the vocal cords vibrate, the horn will only do the same 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. The particular array of these harmonics is entirely dependent on the length of the instrument, from its mouthpiece to the its final bell flare, which can be varied in the modern horn by the use of its four valves. These are simple devices, operated by the left hand, which in various combinations enable the length of the instrument to be changed instantly. The tension of the lips, and several other physical variables of breath and mouth which are too complex to describe here, must be set exactly right to blow any particular harmonic or there will be a disagreement between the intention of the player and what the horn “wants” to do. The player must know exactly where, in “pitch space”, the required harmonics lie in order to have any chance of finding them quickly. The dreadful sound resulting from inaccuracy in this respect is commonly known as a “split note” and a player who does this regularly will not last long in any of the better orchestras. Pitching horn notes accurately, then, is somewhat analogous to archery – any single good note being the equivalent of a hitting bulls-eye from several fields away in thick fog and high winds. The livelihood of the modern horn player depends on a very high degree of accuracy.

Apart from being notoriously difficult, horn technique is also a very hidden discipline. It is impossible to see what is going on from the outside. The mouthpiece (2) completely obscures that part of the mouth which a horn teacher would like to observe in order to “see” evidence of poor technique. There are a variety of subtle ways in which the lips can be doing things badly but, generally speaking, these can only be spotted if the teacher has had some past experience of working through the same, or similar, problem and thus can somehow sense from a range of clues, intuition and guesswork what is going wrong. Once such a problem has been discovered it is often quite easy to find a fix for it, the diagnosis being the most difficult part.

When investigating such subtle problems I try to involve the student as much as possible in the processes of analysis and subsequent experimentation to find solutions. My first step is to get them to see, hear and feel the problem – a process which can be surprisingly difficult. Fixed habits of seeing, hearing and feeling can be very strong; often to the point of self delusion. Who has not been surprised, or appalled, at the sound of their own recorded voice? What we self-observe as we actually carry out a complex task such as walking, speaking or playing an instrument is usually very different to what we see if we observe the same thing retrospectively (3). An obvious solution, then, would seem to lie in the students using recordings or videos of themselves playing. However, while this can be helpful occasionally, it is not something that ought often to be relied upon because not only does it slow down valuable practise time but, more significantly, it discourages development of one of the most important skills in horn playing, namely, accurate self-observation in real time. It is of course much better to learn to hear the truth precisely, as it is happening, with one’s own finely tuned perception. Acquisition of this skill can be a painful process because the truth sometimes hurts.

In order for the student to gain an accurate impression of how they are playing they need to have as much accurate feedback as possible, both aural and visual. The visual aspect here is quite important because, as is the case with musical performers of all descriptions, poor habits of posture if left unnoticed can exert a deleterious influence on the final musical result. To this end I may, for example, set up a mirror so that the student can see, at least superficially, what some of their visible playing musculature is doing, or indeed how some of what ought to be their non-playing musculature may be interfering. I might then give them a very simple exercise to work on, perhaps in the form of one single note, so they can hear without too much complication, and encourage them to listen with an intense focus of awareness.

If this kind of feedback is not developed a horn player’s imagination tends to fill in any obvious gaps in understanding by creating mental pictures of what they think they do when they play. Such fantasies can be quite inaccurate and when used as a basis for further exercise, or even in the teaching of others, can be quite disastrous. An example of this is the commonly held belief among many brass players that the action of the tongue in contact with the roof of the mouth for the purpose of making notes start firmly is comparable to the action of a hammer striking a percussion instrument, whereas, in actual fact, the tongue in this context functions more like a valve which opens to let the breath flow or closes to stop it. It is easy to see that designing exercises to develop tongue co-ordination based on such misunderstandings of underlying physical functions will not be the most efficient way to train. Given better feedback, it is possible to avoid this and other forms of self-deception.

Deceptions of fantasy and imagination are not confined only to the realm of how a player perceives the mechanical “doing” of their technique, but extend also to how they perceive the results of their playing – how they listen. There seem to be two forms of this – the first concerning the musical building blocks, individual notes, while the second concerns musical phrases. These compare well to the pronunciation of individual words and the meaning of sentences in spoken languages. The quality of individual notes, as heard in the practice room, should be, but is often not, studied through a cultivated awareness of comparisons between the carefully monitored input to the instrument and the exact resulting sound output. Having good acoustics in the practice room is very helpful here, but the specific requirement is quite the reverse of the rich resonant reverberation so desirable in a concert hall. I deliberately make my teaching room acoustically “dry” because in such a room it is possible to hear details of sound analytically. This is the kind of acoustic most horn players would describe as “unflattering”, because a dry acoustic reveals even the tiniest of imperfections whereas a reverberant one tends to hide them. The abundant sound reflections found in reverberant rooms, although very satisfying for the player because of the complexity and richness they add to the sound, divert the ear from a true picture of what is emerging from the instrument. Without clear aural feedback it is very difficult to develop the production of really fine individual notes.

With musical phrases, there is a tendency to hear one’s musical intention rather than the actuality. This is not surprising; if a beginner were able only to hear an objective version of their music, un-enhanced by their imagination, they would probably give up before long (this might have something to do with why it is that instruments seem easier to learn when young – while one’s imagination is still believable!) To break free from dependence on teachers, in this respect, the student must work on refining their objectivity of listening.

Instrumental teachers preparing those at school level for entrance to a conservatoire are often excellent in many respects. They may inspire a love of music and enthusiasm for the instrument while nurturing the growth of good basic playing abilities. However, not generally being performers of an exceptionally high playing ability, they will most likely not have passed on an understanding of the intense level of self-awareness which is needed to refine horn technique up to a modern professional standard. Later, when the horn student begins study at the conservatoire the deepening of introspective self-awareness needed to take horn technique up to a higher level can come as something of a surprise.

While it is obviously the case that horn players need skilled tuition to accomplish the basic technical and musical skills which comprise horn playing at beginner or intermediate levels, there comes a time when in order to progress the horn player must go it alone to a large extent. One of the reasons it is so important for a conservatoire-level horn student to develop self-teaching, particularly of refined technical details at a high level, is because of the near-impossibility of such refinements being taught to them by anyone else. Indeed, many of the established horn players with whom I have discussed this issue feel themselves to have been largely self-taught, particularly at the higher level, despite having spent many years studying at a conservatoire. No teacher, apart from oneself, has the sensory feedback available to make really clear and accurate judgements about precisely what is happening during the process of playing the instrument. Thus, any teaching of the finer points of breath and lip control, apart from self-teaching, can be based on little more than intuitive guesswork.

Interestingly, most of the subtle skills of listening needed for effective horn teaching are exactly the same as those learned directly from the experience of monitoring oneself in learning to play. Indeed, I would argue that a teacher without the experience of successful self-teaching would find it virtually impossible to pass on anything of real technical value to high level students.

I have talked mainly about technique in this chapter and have said that horn playing is very technique intensive. While this is true, I must now redress the balance by saying that from the point of view of the listening audience, whose primary requirement is for a musical experience, the intricacies of horn technique are of no interest whatever. Naturally, there is a need for excellent technique in performance, but one of the dangers in emphasising the importance of technique is the possibility of ignoring the development of a “feel” for music, so-called “musicality”, or of neglecting aspects of style and phrasing. Music is a language which, like any other, can only be learned by immersing oneself in it and by nurturing a love of it.

It should be borne in mind by those who study technically demanding instruments that the musical notations we are trained to read and to translate into delightfully complex vibrations of the air are merely bare sketches – the bone structures of composed music. Composers have always written for musicians knowing that they will flesh out this basic notated structure and add musical meaning to it, add life to it, interpret it, in the same way a reciter of poetry will not simply say the words in a dull, mechanical monotone but animate and phrase them into a meaningfully expressive vocal line. Sadly, it is not as uncommon among horn players as one might expect to hear performances devoid of any communicative musical qualities. It can seem as though the performer is too busy “doing” the playing to take much notice of the results, leaving the audience with nothing more to listen to than the technique of the player. This is a very bad situation because if the technique is perfect, and thus invisible, there will be nothing of interest to listen to, whereas if the technique is gritty with imperfections the attention of the audience will fall hungrily upon it and tear it apart.

For students of music, then, instrumental technique, however awesomely difficult, is only the beginning. Technique should never be an end in itself but a means to an end, the ultimate “end” being a communicative performance of music charged with magic to move the listener.



1) The “horn” in this essay is the modern French Horn. It is simply a long tube, looped several times, with a narrow end through which it is blown and a flared end from which a variety of sounds emerge. It commonly has four valves which are used to vary its length so that it is capable of playing every note within a range of at least four octaves.

2) This is a little metal funnel which is placed over the central part of the lips and channels the outflowing breath into the narrow entrance of the instrument. Where the mouthpiece covers the lips it obscures a circle approximately one inch in diameter. A glass mouthpiece would seem a sensible solution to this problem were it not for the distorting refraction of the glass in addition to a tendency for it to steam up whenever blown rendering the lip aperture once again invisible.

3) Along with many other musicians, I am indebted here to the work of F. M. Alexander, a pioneer, and teacher of, this form of self observation. He became famous for developing his sophisticated “Alexander Technique” , a method which teaches the recognition, and subsequent re-training of , habitually inaccurate self observation, neural motivation and physical execution of complex physical actions.