Pip Eastop, Horn player, Photographer, Trumpet player

Horn player, Photographer, Trumpet player


My teaching

I love teaching horn, at any level. I’ve been doing it for over 30 years. I find the process fascinating and I always learn a lot from it.

I teach at the Royal College of Music but also, privately, at my home in Beckenham, South London.

This map shows where I live.

Please feel free to contact me if you would like a lesson, or a series of lessons.

My teaching rates:

Consultation lesson (first lesson): 90 minutes. £90

Further lessons: 1 hour for £60, or 90 minutes for £90

Superfluous scales

The harmonic minor scale. What’s all that about?

Nothing. It’s useless. I’d ban it if I could. Anyone here from the Associated Board reading this? Well, please scrap the harmonic minors. They are a useless and irritating waste of everyone’s time. Amen.

‎…and while I’m at it I’d also scrap the of silly downward difference of the “melodic” minor. The melodic minor going up is a fine scale, but why come back down by a different route? Why? Good question. There’s no reason.

So, lest just have two scales.  Major, and the Minor (the same but with the third flattened, keeping the major seventh). Just two scales …and all their modes, of course, haha! Hey, this is what they do in jazz. It makes a whole lot more sense as a workable and useful system.

Where is your diaphragm?

I know where mine is – and it’s nowhere near my belly. It goes above my stomach and my liver (they both tuck up under it, where it looks dark in the 2nd drawing) and my heart sits right on top of it, almost in the middle (the dotted line is the heart’s outline).


I’m going to be giving some tips here soon about some good ways to use the diaphragm – to actually get a hold of it and do something precise with it, specifically for playing brass instruments.

I hope you like my drawings!

Teaching a beginner

This blog entry is quite a large one. It’s taken from a much earlier version of my website (8 years ago) and I’m re-publishing it here because lots of people have requested to read it again since it disappeared a year or two ago in the re-write and re-design of my website.

Teaching my first beginner

I’ve often thought that, for a change, I’d like to teach a complete beginner rather than taking over, as I always have done in my horn teaching, from where the previous teacher has left off. I’ve relished the possibility of having a big influence over the setting up of a brand new embouchure, a new playing posture, new habits of breathing, sounding, listening, thinking – the whole player. Even recently I’ve been wishing for it without realising that already I have that very thing sitting so closely under my nose that I hadn’t noticed it. It, or he, is in the form of my youngest child, Zachary, now aged four [now aged 12!],  who is learning to play the Eb tenor horn.
First, a bit of background: when Zak’s older brother, Mordecai, was about one year old I constructed a playable toy horn for him using a length of garden hosepipe, a plastic kitchen funnel, an old crook from a military band piston horn and an old horn mouthpiece.

Zak playing the homemade hosepipe horn

Zak playing the homemade hosepipe horn

It’s was more or less the right length for a horn in F but, due the acoustic properties of hosepipes, did not have an in-tune harmonic series. Suffice to say that it has roughly the same number of playable harmonics as a horn in F. This kind of instrument is robust enough to be kicked around the floor and left in a toy box rather than needing a case. Another advantage is that it’s not loud enough ever to become irritating. Well, maybe sometimes…

Zak playing the horn

Zak playing the horn

Mo enjoyed playing it, made a reasonable sound and soon had a range of almost an octave. However, it was Zak, his younger brother, who a couple of years later really took to it and seemed to spend a lot of time carrying it around the house with him, blowing it, really enjoying the sounds and sensations. By the time he was three years old he had stopped puffing his cheeks out (nagging parents) and had refined his technique to the extent of being able to articulate notes by tonguing. The most amazing thing, though, was that by the time he was 4 years old he could play recognisable tunes, the first of which was “Jingle Bells”.

When he was four years old we began thinking that Zak needed something a bit more like a real musical instrument to play. What would be good, we thought, was some kind of three-valved brass instrument which would be light in weight, easy to hold, relatively easy to play and would not require a very strong embouchure (i.e. not a trumpet). It should also have a well cushioned mouthpiece to spread the load of any pressure applied so as not to distort a child’s growing teeth. There seemed to be only one choice – it had to be the Eb tenor horn.

I phoned Gale Lawson (the man I get to do all my instrument repairs – and the managing director of the PipStick factory) and asked him to look out for a cheap old wrecked tenor horn which could be patched up and made to play reasonably well and would be suitable for hurling into a toy box at the end of each day. A couple of weeks later we heard back from Gale that he found the very thing. Fifty quid and it was Zak’s – a very fine Christmas present indeed!

Zak Xmas horn

Zak Xmas horn

Since then he has played it quite a lot, encouraged somewhat by the fact of his big brother having weekly violin lessons and practising a bit each day. However, Zak would often forget about it for a week or two and so there was little chance of much progressive development of embouchure strength or of building up technique from one day to the next. Don’t get me wrong – we were really not pushy, ambitious parents – it’s just that we felt Zak would enjoy it even more if he could notice himself getting better at it and that could only happen if we could get him to practise a bit every day.

So, how do you motivate a four year old to practise on a tenor horn every day? A very persuasive “sticker chart” combined with carefully set cash incentives is what’s behind Zak’s current burst of progress (I still don’t think we were pushy parents!). At the time of writing Zak’s chart (identical to his brother’s) was set up 28 days ago and now has a sticker, awarded for having done an acceptable amount of good practise, in every square representing each day since then. There are lots of ways to set up a sticker chart but the way we chose to do it goes like this:

A week is represented by a row of 8 squares – that’s one square for everyday of the week plus a bonus square for putting in an 8th sticker if all seven of the day squares get filled. Each Sunday, we add up all the stickers for the week and hand over cash to the value of 5 pence for each one of them. The presence of a bonus sticker doubles the sum, so o a full week of stickers gets Zak (and his brother Mordecai, violin) a massive 70 pence. It has to be good practise, not just going through the motions, and so far neither of them have missed a day.

I’ve already said that we got him to tongue quite early on but it would be fairer to say that he worked this out for himself. Zak was an early whistler, learning to do it rather well while he was only 3 and very quickly worked out how to whistle tunes, including “Happy Birthday” with even some slurs in. One day his mother noticed that he was using some tonguing in his whistling and she had the presence of mind to ask him if he could do the same trick while playing the tenor horn. He certainly could – and that was that – he didn’t really need teaching how to do it.

Then the sticker chart started and I found myself doing his daily practise with him, just as my Dad did with me from when I was 9 years old. There were definitely echoes of that happy scene – my dad sitting by my side exploring and mapping with me the rugged terrain of horn technique. The way my Dad taught me to play the horn (and the recorder for a couple of years before that) was pure genius and I still think of him as the best horn teacher I ever had, even though he was not a horn player (he was an oboist and marching bass-drummer in a military band). Clearly, it was a more difficult task for him teaching me than it is now for me to teach Zak and yet the things he taught me about learning to play the horn were so pithy and essential that I still work on my playing in the same way he taught me all those years ago. His and my only guide at the time was that excellent and inspiring book, “The Art of Playing French Horn”, by Philip Farkas. My clever Dad was able to extract from that book many essential nuggets of expertise and pass them on to me in an exciting and meaningful way.

Something that may surprise some readers of this journal is that I am not planning to link Zak’s learning of his instrument to teaching to read music – at least not yet. Shock horror! Why not? Read on:

When I was seven I started learning to play the recorder and the first thing I was shown in my school recorder class, along with about eight other kids, was that I had to cover certain finger-holes and blow in order to get certain notes. I walked home from school that day working at those notes and kept on playing them while doing just about everything else that seven-year-olds do …for years.

The next lesson was the one which taught me that the notes I was playing were actually not just musical sounds but were in fact black dots on a printed page. This is confusing at first but young kids soon get the hang of it – just as certain words you say are the same as printed written words on paper. A problem arises in reading music, though, when this idea is turned around and fixed so that the dots on the page become the notes – they literally become the notes.

It happens like this: typically, a teacher will point to a black dot on a page and say “Now, this is a B. Left hand index finger and thumb – play it”. The learner stares at the black dot and executes the note while still staring at it. The black dot becomes the sound, the note.

The drive to learn to read music in this way – simultaneoulsy with learning to play – has become so entrenched in our culture of playing pre-composed music that, for most musicians, the “permission” to play a particular note seems to come only from printed commands rather than directly from musical the imagination of the player.

I was lucky. I escaped from school with my brand new recorder and played it all the way home and all the way back again for the next lesson before anyone had time to tell me I couldn’t play anything unless I was reading it in the form of black dots from a music book. Many were not so lucky. I know this because in all my career as a dot-reading horn player (one who subversively always made music up when nobody was listening [insert link to improvisation page] I have been amazed at how most of my colleagues seemed chained to the printed pages. Like slaves to someone else’s music these exclusively dot-reading musicians seem happy to play only what is written down for them.

Maybe you, the person reading this, are a dot-reading-only musician. Do you refer to a sheet of dot-covered printed paper as “The Music”? Could you play something you never heard or played before to an audience, without reading it from a page of dots and symbols? You might like to think seriously about this.

I don’t want my son to be musically imprisoned so that he can only play written notes. Similarly, his mother and I haven’t taught him to speak only when there are written words to read – he can say anything that comes into his mind, and usually does! In fact, he is quite a vocal improviser, as are most people.

When you think about it, it’s quite a bad state of affairs. Most so-called “Classical” (or Western European Art Music) music is created by non-performing people – Composers – with pens and sheets of paper or computers. Other non-playing people called Conductors keep control of the herds of dot-readers and even coach them through rehearsals to check that they are reading the dots correctly and – worse – make them play the the dots the way THEY want them played. Not really much room here for any creative input from the dot-readers – that is all controlled by the Composers and Conductors. And guess who gets most of the money? Ho-ho! Yep, it’s those silent folk, the Conductors and Composers. Hey, the bastards have stolen our music!

Thankfully there’s still jazz and other forms of improvisation.

Zak can learn to read music when he can play without it first. Just like he could speak before we started teaching him to read.

This rant is now over. Phew!

27th July 2002
Zak and I have been working on his tonguing. In particular getting clean, accurate starts to every note by trying to get six good ones in a row and turning this into a game to make it fun. He’s 4 years old so everything has to be fun. I have also been trying to prevent Zak from ending notes with his tongue by getting him always to diminuendo quickly away to nothing. A diminuendo requires skillful control of the air pressure and both the size and muscle-tone of the aperture so we do quite a lot of work on long notes, starting quiet, getting louder then getting quiter again.

Sometimes we turn this into a competition, which Zak likes. We start playing the same mid-register note together – me playing my horn, him playing his tenor horn – and we see who can hold it the longest. Of course he always wins, so he wants to do it over and over again. His record is 20 seconds. That is very long! Try it yourself and imagine you are the size of a 4 year old. If you don’t play a brass instrument try singing a 20 second note.

I suppose 4 years old is a bit young for an embouchure change and I’m pretty amazed by what Zak has managed to achieve. His natural tendency is to get down into the lower half of his range by tipping his lower tip forward a bit into the mouthpiece. I think it’s the way many beginners first try to descend in pitch – by instinctively opening the aperture and forming it with a softer and slower-vibrating part of the lip. Having found moderate success with it many then stick with that until either they decide to change it or learn to live with the fact that they are never going to have a really good low register. I’m sticking my neck out a bit here, I know, but it’s what I have observed and I believe it to be the case.

Seeing that Zak was indeed doing this I decided to try to get him to do it in a different and, I hope, better way. I showed him how to put his top lip a little in front of his lower lip, rather than the other way around, and hold the centre of the bottom lip back and a little puckered. I combined this with the idea of blowing the airstream “down your chin” a little. Once it looked and sounded better, which it did almost immediately, I got him to think of a name for the new setting and he immediately came up with “Nitwit Lips!”

A later tweak, to tone up the corners of his mouth a little and ensure that no bits of his lip were protruding, became known as “Whistling Nitwit Lips”.
The new setting is certainly more difficult for him so he quite often reverts to his original embouchure. However, whenever he forgets, just by saying “Whistling Nitwit Lips” I can conveniently and quickly get him to switch back to the new improved setup. I just have to keep an eye on how it looks when we are doing his practise but as you can see in the follwing photos it’s quite easy to see the difference.

The first of these two embouchures gives Zak much greater control of diminuendo and crescendo, a wider range and a much warmer and fuller sound.

Here’s a close-up of what I reckon is an almost perfect embouchure.
The overlap is perhaps just a little too exaggerated.

Here’s Zak doing a bit of practice.
The tenor horn is a very comfortable instrument for a small person.

1st August 2002
I’m not bragging or anything but Zak played a very high note today. He was trying to get a concert G (E on the tenor horn) when he overshot and out popped a high Bb, clear as a bell, and a bit flat, it being a 7th harmonic. (Db on the piano, more than one octave above middle C). He used a very nice embouchure and quite a lot of effort but he is only four so I think this proves what I’ve believed for a long time – that success in the high register is a more to do with getting the chops set up right rather than having very powerful muscles.

We found this for Zak in a car boot sale near Nottingham – for twenty quid!

Zak Xmas Horn

Zak Xmas Horn

It’s qite a nice instrument, a Weltklang, in much better condition than his first one and makes a slightly more refined sound. Now that we have the two instruments it’s much easier for me to illustrate things for him as we go along

26th August 2002
I think what’s needed now is a glossary of teaching terms (funny words) which Zak and I have come up with to help us.

  • Whistling Nitwits:
    As described earlier on this page: this is a short code word for a slightly puckered embouchure with the lower lip held slightly behind the upper so it feels as if the airstream is aimed slightly downwards. It is used to correct that very strong urge to roll the lower lip forwards – which is a very common fault among beginners particularly in trying to get down into the low register. The aim here is to get Zak set up with a fully integrated (no breaks across the enitre range) embouchure right from the start so he’ll never have to go through any major embouchure overhauls.
  • DiddyEdds:
    This word means “Get the fingers of your right hands on top of those valve buttons so they are ready for action”. Zak got into the habit of swooping his right hand away from the instrument in an extravagant flourish whenever none of the valves were needed, for example moving to a C or a G. It looked quite cool but meant that he was always late with the valves when they were next needed. The DiddyEds seems to be correcting this, although his third finger is quite lazy and often curls up next to the valve casing.
  • Chimes:
    A chime is a note lasting a couple of seconds which starts with a bell-like accent and then fades evenly to silence. It’s very good for developing a lot of things: Clean, accurate tonguing, control of pitch during a diminuendo and adjustment of the aperture to cope with extremes of dynamic range, from ff down past ppp to nothing. It’s an attractive sounding note and Zak seems to like doing it. Most days we do a few of these. They soon developed into…
  • Double chimes:
    This is like a miniature fanfare and is the same as a single chime apart from having a very short fast note just before it, slightly quieter than the main note – like an upbeat 16th, or semiquaver. This gets his tongue working and it’s fun.
  • Ghosts:
    Ghosts is our name for a twilight sounding note whch you can produce if you fade into our out of a note without using the tongue. It’s a sort of sonic glow. We use it to warm up on sometimes. Very often Zak can get a ghost to appear out of a gentle breath-flow sound and then control this perfectly as it grows into a real solid note. He can often do it in reverse too, fading to nothing so that it’s not possible to hear precisely when the note stops. I’m amazed a four year old can do this as I’ve only been able to do it myself comparatively recently.
  • A hill chopped in half:
    This is a long note which starts quietly then crescendos towards its middle where it is suddenly cut and then immediately restarted with a loud accent. This is then followed by a long diminuendo to nothing. This exercise is totally brilliant as it exercises all of the following:
    Control over pitch steadiness through changing volume.
    Control over the timing of the breath delivery through changing volume.
    Control over timbre variation through changing volume.
    Starting and ending very quietly
    Getting a clean, polished loud end to the first part of the note (the “chop”) and a clean, polished loud attack just after it.
    The chop itself is particularly important as the air pressure must be kept up to challenge 1) the tongue in resisting air pressure prior to loudly tonging the second part of the note and, 2) the glottis (vocal cords) in suddenly blocking the flow of air in order to stop the first part of the note without an audible “tongue-off”.
    (Sorry if that sounded a bit technical!)
  • Horn Tennis:
    Horn Tennis* is a game I’be played a lot with my college students. It is pure non-verbal form of teaching by example. The server (usually me but not always) plays something fairly simple and short (the ball) which has to be returned as accurately as possible. If the return is perfect a slightly more complex ball can be served etc. This is a great game because it’s fun and develops so many skills in both participants. The server has to pitch the ball with care not just to play it perfectly but so that it is finely judged for the other player to be able to copy it but not find it too easy. Zak loves this game, so I’m using it to get him to learn how to play simple rhythmic patterns with uncomplicated note changes. As soon as he can copy something easily I make things a little more difficult.
    Whether with Zak or with any of my students I’m always amazed by the steepnes of their learning gradient during this game.

*One of my students wrote about his experiences with Horn Tennis. Please click here [insert link to Tom Allard’s article]  to read it.

28th August 2002
We tried some jazz today. I put on one of the tracks from the Aebersold series of playalongs. The particular one I chose was of a swing accompaniment which stays on the chord of Eb – it’s a few minutes long. It worked a treat. Zak was able to play any of the notes of his C major (except the F, which is an “avoid” note, F# sounds better, making it a Lydian mode).

30th August
Zak was very reluctant to do his practise this morning, saying very gloomily, “I hate horn practise!” Still, I managed to cajole him into it by offering that we skip it today and leave a gap in his sticker chart. No! he didn’t want to do that and lose his bonus.
I must admit now, after my recent rant, to have buckled under pressure from his mother to start showing him how to read music. I feel slightly unhappy about this but she has a point because in a couple of weeks I’m going to be away for nine days and she wants to do Zak’s practise with him during that time. She doesn’t feel she can keep it going without having some musical dots to point at. Fair enough, I suppose.
So, I gave him a nice big book, the Arban Cornet Tutor. Never do things by halves. And I wrote his name on the front and opened it where the endless ghastly egg-notes exercises start. Before doing this I had drawn for him a stave (staff?) with a few notes on he knew to show him how easy it is to figure out which ones they are. He seemed quite excited by it.

1st September
Today, Zak completed nine weeks of practicing without missing a single day! I find this quite incredible – he’s still only four years old. He’ll be five in October.
Everything has improved. He now has a lovely full and rich sound which is very well controlled. He can crescendo and diminuendo without any pitch change over nearly all of his range. He’s pretty good all the way up to top E and has a remarkably good fruity pedal C. He can tongue any note or creep into any note from silence and then creep back away to silence. Some of these things I’ve only recently learned to do myself, after 34 years of serious study!
Parental bias aside, I am totally amazed by what he has been able to master in such a short time. However, it must be born in mind that he has had a 63 lessons in the last 63 days, with a very careful and focused teacher! Also, he started with no preconceptions or bad habits.

2nd September
Started actually playing from the Arban Cornet Tutor today. Zak didn’t have much trouble with the first exercise although I think he was reading from the letters I’d pencilled in above each note. In a few days I’ll erase them and see how he gets on. We didn’t spend too much time in this, however, and got on with some slurring practice instead. Starting on C (2nd space down) I got him to play a chime start, hold it for four finger clicks (at about 100 beats per minute) and then slur down to a B. No problem, so next a slur from C to Bb. Again, no problem, so a slur from C to A, then C to G, then C to F… all the way down to C to C. The last one was a bit tricky for him but only inasmuch as he found it hard to prevent the G from sounding briefly on the way down. I got him to repeat that downward slur and then slur directly back up to the higher C. This he did amazingly well – in fact the upwards C-to-C was absolutely perfect. Great chops! We finished off with some high E chimes and then some quietly held long ones. It’s a truly beautiful sound he makes.

Here are some sound files recorded on 24th September. I just want to show what Zak can do. I recorded these direct to my PC with a normal cheapo computer microphone.

Zak’s bell note

[audio:Zaks-bell-note.mp3|titles=Zak’s bell note]

Zak’s bell note 2

[audio:Zaks-bell-note-2.mp3|titles=Zak’s bell note 2]

Zak’s bell note 3

[audio:Zaks-bell-note-3.mp3|titles=Zak’s bell note 3]

Zak’s cresc and dim

[audio:Zaks-cresc-and-dim.mp3|titles=Zak’s cresc and dim]

Zak’s Harry Potter snippet

[audio:Zaks-Harry-Potter-snippet.mp3|titles=Zak’s Harry Potter snippet]

Zak’s Harry Potter snippet 2

[audio:Zaks-Harry-Potter-snippet-2.mp3|titles=Zak’s Harry Potter snippet 2]

Zak’s little fanfare

[audio:Zaks-little-fanfare.mp3|titles=Zak’s little fanfare]

Zak’s long bell note

[audio:Zaks-long-bell-note.mp3|titles=Zak’s long bell note]

Zak’s long bell note 2

[audio:Zaks-long-bell-note-2.mp3|titles=Zak’s long bell note 2]

This last clip was recorded a few months later on Christmas day 2002. A duet of Silent Night played by Zak (5) and his fiddle-playing brother, Mordecai (7)

[audio:Silent-Night-Zak-and-Cai.mp3|titles=Silent Night Zak and Cai]

19th April 2003
Here’s Zak with his new tenor horn – very generously given by Jim Gourlay, Head of Wind and Brass at Royal Northern College of Music.

Zak with new Besson on April 1st

Zak with new Besson on April 1st

It’s a Besson “International”, from about 1975. Since receiving it from Jim we’ve had it completely renovated and silver plated, by Gale Lawson. Gale also made the telescopic leg which, as you can see, supports the horn for Zak perfectly.

This picture was taken today just after we gave the new instrument to Zak for the first time. He loves playing it and he sounds great on it. He’s still only 5.

Besson Engraving

Besson Engraving

3rd January 2004

Hmmm…. I’ve not been very good at keeping up with this teaching journal, but now here’s an update:

Zak is now 6 years old and has been practising the tenor horn every day – without missing a single day – for just over 18 months. The sticker chart with cash incentive has proved to be extremely effective. Total cost to us in weekly seventy pences has is now about £57. What’s he being doing with all that money?! In truth, he has missed about three days due to illness – and earned himself crosses on the chart instead of stickers – these, however, he has made up for by occasionally doing double practise and converted the crosses back to stickers. You can’t lose with this system. There’s always a cunning way around.

We’ve been doing a lot of work on scales. Zak likes scales more than anything else – something I am very pleased about because it proves that anything, no matter how arduous, can be made fun, if enough care is taken. So, how can you make scales fun for a 6 year old? Well, the rule seems to be that you have to make it as easy as possible and constantly to show clear proof of improvement – and also dangle rewards along the way.
To make the scales easy you need good graphics. Here is what I have been using – for many months now – with Zak. It’s in pencil, on a large piece of card and has taken quite a battering as it has travelled with us to various holiday places and moved around the house.

Zak Scale Chart

Zak Scale Chart

It’s a “circle of fourths” with one octave of the relevant major scale drawn in at each point. Zak and I are working towards the “ultimate” goal of him playing all twelve of these one-octave scales in one day, up and down at 120 notes per minute. Step by step we have worked on each scale carefully, patiently, a little each day, to get each one up to speed. A tick is earned when it’s completed perfectly (and I am the judge, and a tough one at that) and eventually all twelve have become ticked. We have been around the circle three times now and if you look you can see that each scale has been ticked three times already. My next plan is to get him to do four scales in a day over three days. He can have as many attempts as he likes – he just has to get them all done once perfectly in the same day. When he’s done this we’ll do six per day and then, eventually, and I’ve no doubt quite soon, he’ll manage to play all twelve in one day. He knows that when he achieves that he gets a BIG prize. He wants a minidisc player but we’ll see a bit nearer the time. Perhaps just a minidisc….

He’s pretty excited about starting work on the minor scales after that. I’m going to do all twelve of the Dorian modes (jazz minor scales) with him rather than the stupid “harmonic” minors that nobody knows why you have to learn at music college! The nice thing about the Dorians is that they use the same notes as the majors, but starting on the 2nd of the scale so, in effect, he already knows them. They won’t take long and after that he can get into some pretty interesting improvisation – using real chord symbols.

It hasn’t been all major scales – quite… we’ve had brief respites from them, looking at wholetone scales, chromatics and diminished arpeggios, all using the cirle of fourths. I’m not kidding – Zak finds these things fun! Is he abnormal?

I try to encourage Zak to improvise each day, as far as possible in the key of the scale we have been working on. Slowly, this is building up his ability to traverse the keys freely as he improvises. It’s a massive job but he’s onto it.

4th January 2004

If you look back at Zak’s circle of fourths again you’ll see that the scales have coloured patches at the end of each one. Zak successfully played all the blue ones today – with a metronome at 120 notes per minute. That’s Db major, A major, D major and Eb major. Progress.

5th January 2004

Oh dear! It’s all gone wrong!

Today Zachary decided he hated practise and didn’t want to do any. Furthermore, he never wants to play the tenor horn again and seems perfectly happy with the idea that it might get sent back to where it came from – AND he’s not even bothered about not getting a fabulous prize.  (he did do a bit of practise in the end but nothing to do with scales)

7th January 2004

Zak has still decided against practising scales. And it was a little difficult persuading him to get started this morning (before school – groan! It’s the best time to do it, though). So today’s dangling carrot was the “Band In A Box” program. I told him that we could make up nice pieces – which indeed he did. The program provides an instant backing for your improvisations – all you have to do is type in the chord symbols you want and which bars you want them in. I set up something quickly (all automatically transposed into Eb – tenor horn pitch) with C major, Eb major and G major over a sort of slushy Latin style backing. What did he do? He played up and down the scales and found it all fitted very nicely. He seemed pretty pleased. I didn’t say anything about how useful scales seemed to be and just pointed the relevant scales on his circle of fourths scale chart as an indicator of which notes would sound good. After that I showed him that he could use the notes of C major to improvise over D minor chords. This is a nice feature from jazz musical theory – it’s modalness – D minor uses exactly the same notes as C major – and G7 for that matter (…and a whole bunch of others, like B7-9 or F+11…)

So, he continues. I think it’s time I bought him a book of tunes. I think he’d like to be able to take his hooter to school and entertain his classmates with themes from Harry Potter or Shrek …or perhaps I should write some tunes for him.

9th May 2004.

Zak Xmas Horn

Zak Xmas Horn

Zak is doing incredibly well. It’s now seven weeks short of two years that he has been practising regularly and he still hasn’t missed a single day. An incredible acheivement for a 6 year old, I think.

Last week he played all his major scales in one day, something he’d been working towards, a little each day, for the best part of a year. He did them all perfectly, one octave, up and down, at two notes per second. This won him a prize: a Sony CD Discman.

He’s lost one of his upper incisors. This could be a problem but I’m playing it down for the moment. It’s altered his sound a little and I think he’s got one or two pressure points from the remaining tooth on his inner upper lip which is uncomfortable for him. I’m keeping him out of the upper register for a while to see what happens. I’d be pretty sad if he had to stop for a while but I’m not going to make him play if it hurts or if it means he has to invent some weird temporary embouchure.

The photo looks okay, doesn’t it? And he sounds really great. A full bodied, warm and satisfying sound. I’d have been really glad to have a sound like that when I was 12. He’s 6.


Since then:
For several years after this Zak and I continued in much the same way and at some point he switched to trumpet. He learned ALL the scales and modes and we started working more on jazz improvisation. The sticker chart continued to be a great success. His sound and his chops were absolutely perfect and he could improvise freely in all sorts of ways and was making good progress with the mundane skill of reading printed musical notation (please note my resistance to calling it “music”). In 2007 I bought him a wonderful Yamaha Custom trumpet – the Wayne Bergeron model. A stunningly good instrument which is powerful but light in weight and thus suitable for a young and growing player.
By this time I had been expelled from my family home and, tragically, was not able to keep up regular work with Zak. He still works on his trumpet playing,  although without my supervision. He spends each Saturday at the excellent Junior Department of  Guildhall School of Music and Drama where his obvious musical skills are being nurtured and developed in a wonderful environment teeming with similarly motivated kids.
I’m am extremely proud that I was able to give so much to Zak, in the way that my Dad gave so much to me when I was starting off. I hope that in a few years, when he’s well into his teens, he and I will be able to continue the work we started together…

It’s now early 2015 and Zak is 17 and he is know by many to be an outstanding young trumpet player. Just yesterday he asked me for a trumpet lesson.
100% happiness 🙂

The starts of notes

I’d like to try to explain why the quality of the starts of notes is so important and I’ll start off by saying something which may sound surprising, or even silly:

After you start the note, nobody is listening any more.

They are still hearing you – but they’re not hearing what you are playing right now because they are still hearing the start of the note – its very first instant. That is the way human ears work. There’s no escaping it.

Try this:
Pick a note somewhere comfortably within your singing range and sing one of these (it doesn’t matter which one), lasting a few seconds:


The interesting thing here is that although the consonant at the beginning lasts only, say, one hundredth of the duration of the sound, it pervades the whole thing. In other words, the sound at the start, and its meaning, pervades the entire length of the sound.

To test this, try the same sound again, this time without the consonant at the beginning, for example:
Compare “POOOOOOOOOOOOOOO”, (sing it out loud) with “OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO”.

Despite the fact that the difference is absolutely minute (in that only the first fraction of a second is different) the meaning is quite different all the way through.

The same thing happens when we play the horn. If you play a note with a perfect start, the whole duration of the note sounds great. Whereas if you fluff, crack, split or even slightly wobble at the start of a note, this effect is perceived throughout its duration. In other words the entire note is permeated by whatever evil happens right at the beginning.

What this means is that the quality of the first instant of any note is crucially important. In fact, it’s the only thing people will hear. Whatever you do to the remainder of the note, you cannot fix a bad start.

In other words, you cannot hear “POOOOOOOOOOOOOOO”, as, “OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO”, or vice versa. Try it.

So if you crack a note and it’s a long one, the crack stays there all the way through the note.

So, in terms of investment of precious practice time, that first fraction of a second is where to do some serious work.

A slur is not a fast glissando

Since we have the words “slur” and “glissando“, we may as well use them precisely so that we can understand what we’re talking about with some precision.

How about these, for definitions:

A glissando is:  moving from one note to another of a different pitch, legato (joined – the sound does not stop) and allowing any notes en route between them to sound, whatever the speed.

A slur is:  moving from one note to another of a different pitch, legato (joined – the sound does not stop) and NOT allowing all the notes en route between them to sound, whatever the speed.

If this is correct, then difference between a slur and a glissando is the absence or presence of notes during the legato join from one note to the next  The glissando takes a little time and has stuff in it – the slur is as instant as possible and clean.

So how is this done?

First, though, how is it not done? 

I believe there are many hornplayers out there who think that a slur is simply a very fast glissando. I’ll try to show that this is not the case at all. 

Find a nice glissando – for arguments sake, let’s make it one which goes up through one octave, say, from D to D (from the bottom to the top of the treble clef). There should be three or four notes audible on the way up. Play this glissando in a fairly leisurely manner a few times and then, little by little, make the trip up go a little quicker.  Keep doing this until your glissando is a fast as you can possibly do it. 

It’s still a glissando, right? 

Now try slurring it. If you can slur it, cleanly, without the notes in between, then I think you have just proved that a slur is not a fast glissando. 

So, this naturally leads on to a very good question: how do you stop the “glissando” notes from sounding during a nice clean slur? In other words, how do you slur?

The way it’s done is a clever trick – and it’s a kind of illusion. I’ll write about it very soon…

The problem with horn “studies” (rant)

I think I’ve got to the bottom of why horn studies annoy me so much, and why I often  discourage my horn students from playing them.

The horn is a wind instrument and its sound depends on the breath. In this way it’s comparable with singing. Songs are written with the need for breathing written into the actual shape of the music, in phrases. Horn studies are, on the other hand, usually written as if the breath was something to hide – something to pretend does not exist.

Composers who write music with horn parts understand that the horn is a wind instrument and there are almost always good places to take a breath that allow for phrasing, human-style. All of the good composers – Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Bach, Schubert, Schumann, Bruckner, Wagner, Mahler, Sibelius etc. have done this perfectly well.

Now look at horn studies: Maxime Alphonse, for example. There is nowhere to breathe. Why not? What possible virtue is there in making this pseudo-music chugg on like a machine while the player heads towards cardiac arrest?

There are often no stopping points – no ends of phrases. This is an important trap for the horn student (of which I am one) Typically, during a practise session, the poor study-sufferer will put the book on a music stand, chose a page and start. After a bar or two of flying about the instrument, splitting or fluffing a note here and there, not stopping to correct anything, a breath is needed. What to do? There’s nowhere to breathe – it’s all semiquavers:

…..thought bubbles: “…I need to build endurance – no pain, no gain – I must suffer – continue playing – do not breathe – getting uncomfortable – a quick look ahead – nowhere to breathe for at least another thirty bars – must snatch one – now! – gasp! – good, but not enough – need another quickly – don’t want to draw attention to my need to breathe – must develop endurance – starting to press mouthpiece into lips – splitting and fluffing lots of notes now – must breathe, or die – snatch! – phew! – keep going for another bar or two – mouth filling up with saliva – shoulders hurting – trembling now through the need to get rid of stale air and take in some fresh – but must keep going – only twenty bars left – yesterday I didn’t get as far as this before I stopped – this sounds awful but I’ll keep going – need to develop endurance – must breathe – gasp – saliva pouring into mouthpiece now – keep going – body shaking – back hurting – belly clenched and juddering…”

Does this sound familiar? It’s quite a common situation. I’ve been there myself, and I’ve seen it a lot in conservatoire horn exams. How can such suffering be conducive to producing music? Hornplaying is not an endurance sport!

Furthermore, this way of practising actually does nothing for your “endurance”. What it does do, though, is encourage some pretty bad habits. Inaccuracy, poor intonation, poor rhythm, rough sound, bad posture – the list goes on.

What is the purpose of playing things through, anyway? “Playing through”, is what you do in a performance. It means starting at the beginning of something and playing it all the way through without stopping to make corrections.

This brings me to my main issue with horn studies:

The essence of the problem is in not stopping to make corrections. As I understand it, stopping to make corrections – to fix absolutely everything as you go along – is the quintessential horn-learning technique. Without it you don’t get better – you simply stay the same …or get slightly worse. Your chops muscles might bulk up but they will be getting stronger at playing badly.

If you really must play the M.A. horn studies then it’s best done with a pair of scissors. Cut them up into one, two or four-bar chunks and treat each chunk as a handy little study. Then look through the pile of study-ettes you have – you’ll see that there are a lot of duplicates. You can throw all of those away.

….and while I’m ranting. Something I really hate is to hear Mozart’s Concertos, or any other good bits of horn music, used as “studies”, in the sense of starting at the beginning and playing them through to the end. Again, get the scissors out and work on small bits. Mozart knew how to write for the horn, always leaving lots of spaces to breathe and recover between phrases.

Tonguing simplified

Tonguing is really simple, but hornplayers have a lot of problems with it.

I think most of these problems stem from overcomplicating the issue.

To simplify everything, let’s define tonguing:

Tonguing is (nothing more than) the movement of the tongue from one position to another. These positions are:
0.  Obstructing the airflow – by being in the way of it.
1.  Not obstructing the airflow – by being out of the way of it.

I’d like to illustrate that with a fingering exercise.

Pull out and remove one of your tuning slides. It doesn’t really matter which one. Make sure that when you blow air through the horn it vents out through one of the disconnected pipes (use a valve or two if you need to).

Now, while blowing air through the horn, put a finger over the end of the open pipe to block it. Then take the finger away to let the air out again.

If that worked okay (no air leaks) now do the same while playing a note – any note. Block and unblock the tube while you are playing. Please make sure you try to keep a steady tone going, even when the tube it blocked.

So your finger is working like a two-position switch. Let’s call these positions, “1” for when you can make a sound and,  “0” for when you can’t. In other words: 1. lets you make sound,  0. stops any sounds. A useful analogy would be water spurting out of a hosepipe and stopping when you put your thumb over the end. Alternatively, it’s like a light switch – two positions – 1 and 0 – on and off.

When you’ve got bored doing this, put the slide back in and read the next bit very carefully.

Tonguing is when your tongue does exactly what your finger has just done – the only difference is that it’s doing it on the other side of your lips.

Get a note going, then stop it by putting your tongue in the way – BUT DON’T STOP BLOWING (this is the same as NOT turning the garden tap off or NOT shutting down your local power-station). Then take your tongue away – if you kept the blowing pressure constant during the OFF then the note should start up again – exactly as it finished but sort of in reverse. We are not talking about particularly nice notes here – just tonguing.  We are talking blunt, uncultivated tonguing and tongue-stopping here.

And that’s it. Tonguing and nothing else – no frills.

Getting nice rounded starts to notes and nicely shaped notes is, of course, very important but these things are not part of the tonguing mechanism. If you want to work on your tonguing then you need to know what it is – and (at least as important) what it isn’t.

All of the subtle musical nuances in note shapes are controlled by varying the volume of the notes – something which the tongue does not control.

Keep things simple: tonguing is a simple binary switching mechanism – On or Off.

There is more about tonguing in an earlier post here.

•  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •

I’ve come across many curious and delightful misconceptions about tonguing. I’d like to collect them and list them here. Please, if you have one – leave it here in the comments section.

Common tonguing misconceptions:

  • The tongue works like the hammer of a piano – it strikes behind the upper incisor teeth and somehow shoots notes through the instrument.
  • That the tongue must never touch the lips, or protrude between them. Believe me – EVERYONE does this. (Get any hornplayer to prepare to play a note and FREEZE just at the last fraction of a second before starting it. Then, without changing anything, take the mouthpiece away. See the tip of the tongue showing? Ha ha!)

Can anyone tell me what an “Air Column” is, please?

…or, if you prefer, you might like to explain what a “Cloud of Concrete” is.

It makes just as much sense.

Vanishing Technique – a teaching method

The problem with the horn is its sheer technical difficulty.

The technical difficulties are so great that they often form a barrier against musical communication.

With most other instruments technique is not such a huge obstacle to communicative playing.

It is always disappointing when technical problems intrude in a performance, distracting both player and audience from the music.

Many horn players do not play musically. You can hear that, instead, they are working on their technique; playing carefully instead of communicating music. This downgrades horn playing from an art-form to something more like a sports activity.

Music is not a sport. It’s a unique, wonderful and mysterious form of communication. It is something special which happens between people – a kind of language. Horn technique, on the other hand, is a private thing – something you have to sort out on your own – to study in isolation.

My goal in teaching is to get the technique of my student so highly polished that it effectively vanishes. Only when this is achieved can truly musical things begin to happen. It seems paradoxical that in order to make something vanish one has to work at it to an almost obsessive degree but, in my view, this is exactly what a horn player must do to overcome her/his musical “event horizon”.

Thus, to my students it must appear that I am obsessed with detailed technical considerations and completely uninterested in music. Paradoxically, nothing could be further from the truth. Technique is only a means whereby musical communication can happen. It should not be an end in itself – as it is in sports and crafts.

I believe that the playing characteristics of any horn player are precisely defined by what and how they practise. Thus, getting the practise regime right is crucial. If a player does not play well, technically or musically, it is because they have not been practising well.

So, in my teaching, rather than simply teach someone how to play I tend to work with them on how they practise – how they learn how to play. In other words, I teach them to teach themselves.

In playing the horn there are a lot of techniques to learn which, once learned, have to be maintained. It makes sense, then, to develop an efficient system of practise which gets the maximum amount of useful work done in the shortest possible time.

I try to equip each student with a system for developing and evolving their own super-efficient practice regime.

My hornplaying sucks

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.

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.

Horn Tennis

Written by Thomas Allard (horn student at Royal College of Music)

(Year 3 Teaching Skills Assignment)

Horn Tennis”

“It is impossible to teach the horn. It is only possible to teach the students how to teach themselves.”

This is Pip Eastop’s main philosophy, and over the last three years I have gradually come to agree with it. The main reason for this is that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to give a totally accurate description of the physical processes involved in tone production. Furthermore, even if the professor can describe accurately what he does, it does not mean that students can do the same thing, simply due to the fact that the physical make-up of the inside of the mouth differs from person to person.

To tackle this problem, my professor has devised a practise method to help students address all aspects of technique and discover for themselves the way to attain an ideal sound and technique. Hopefully this eventually allows them to express themselves musically without succumbing to the technical limitations of the instrument. He calls this method the “workout”. It is a period of intense practise incorporating self-styled exercises for breath control and tonguing at different dynamic levels throughout the horn’s range, slurring over different widths of interval, double and triple tonguing, lip trills and attacks on high notes.

Emphasis is on having a heightened level of awareness of what you play, and on only playing to a level at which you can play everything perfectly. Trying to push past this level too quickly does not help you to improve. However, by playing only what you can play perfectly day in, day out, it becomes apparent that the level at which you can do this is always increasing. Once students have an understanding of how the “workout” works, they can tailor existing exercises and invent new ones to meet their specific needs at any given time.

There can come times, however, when the student has trouble advancing with a certain area of their technique, possibly due to the fact that the exercise they have been using does not quite address the problem or perhaps because they are not quite sure what outcome they are aiming at (e.g. tone, type of attack etc.). In an attempt to overcome this problem my professor has invented a teaching method based less on verbal description and more on the aural perception of both the professor and student.

It is called “horn tennis” and involves the professor and student sitting in such a way that their bells face each other so that they can hear each other as clearly as possible. Then, taking into account the student’s description of their particular problem the professor will play something short, usually from a “workout” exercise, which the student then has to imitate exactly. If the student is unable to do this, the professor will play something easier so that the student can imitate it perfectly. Then he will see how far his student can improve by gradually increasing the difficulty of what he plays (without, of course, allowing them to play anything that isn’t perfect) as they continually bounce these small snippets of exercises off each other.

I have seen many of the benefits of this teaching method. Firstly, when there have been faults in the way I have been practising exercises I have been able to spot them straight away. Often I realise that I have not had enough patience in slowly building up what I am able to do. Other times it has been a case of me not quite having had high enough a level of awareness and thus having allowed mistakes to creep in.

Furthermore, there have been times when suggestions of a new approach to a problem by either my professor or myself have led to the discovery of new exercises which have ended up benefiting both parties.

When I have felt stuck because of being unsure of my aims I have benefited from “horn tennis” simply because I have been able to listen to how my professor thinks something should sound and slowly infiltrate this into my way of playing.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, “horn tennis” has given me a valuable insight into the way in which my professor practises. This alone can often put my playing back on track. After all, if it can make him as good a player as he is, it can hopefully do the same for me!


Tom - thanks for allowing me to reproduce this on my website!

Embouchure (book excerpt)

The following text is extracted from “The Cambridge Companion to Brass Instruments

Edited by Trevor Herbert

The Open University, Milton Keynes, 1997

John Wallace

(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.


The Cambridge Companion to Brass Instruments

Sound production (book excerpt)

The following text is extracted from “The Cambridge Companion to Brass Instruments”

Edited by Trevor Herbert

The Open University, Milton Keynes, 1997

John Wallace

(ISBN-13: 9780521565226 | ISBN-10: 0521565227)

Reproduced here with the permission of Cambridge University Press.

Sound production (page 199)

On all brass instrument, the lips, held under tension within the circle of the mouthpiece rim, begin to vibrate when turbulence occurs in the air passing steadily between them. If the muscle tone of the lips and the rate of airflow are kept constant, then the excitation of the edges of the lips cause by their contact with the moving air sets up standing-wave oscillations within the instrument. This vibration of the air sets the lips vibrating in sympathy, and in turn affects the exact way the air vibrates as it passes between them. This interplay between vibrating lips and air controls the complex shape of the sound wave-form, and helps give each player his/her unique sound.


The Cambridge Companion to Brass Instruments

The Diaphragm (book excerpt)

The following text is extracted from “The Cambridge Companion to Brass Instruments”

Edited by Trevor Herbert

The Open University, Milton Keynes, 1997

John Wallace

(ISBN-13: 9780521565226 | ISBN-10: 0521565227)

Reproduced here with the permission of Cambridge University Press.

The diaphragm (pages 201-203)

The diaphragm is the principal muscle of inspiration – of the drawing in of air, or inhalation. As with all muscles, contraction and relaxation of the diaphragm are controlled by nerves “wired” into it. When stimulated into a contraction, the diaphragm shrinks powerfully in its first phase of action, pulling its centre downwards, stretching the lungs down with it. Besides causing the lungs to expand, this displaces the contents of the abdomen below both downwards and forwards.

It is impossible to feel the diaphragm, but ballooning out the belly (without arching the lower back) is a good way of indirectly demonstrating its working, as there is no other muscle apart from the diaphragm which can cause this to happen. The size of the lungs, and thus the volume of air the contain, directly follows the expansion and contraction of the ribcage. In addition to the effects of the diaphragm acting on the ribcage, there are other muscles – the scalenes and the internal and external intercostal – which contribute to its expansion or contraction. None of these, however, are capable of expanding the lungs downwards; only the diaphragm can do this.

However, when it comes to expelling air, the most powerful and important group of muscles are the abdominal muscles. Unlike the diaphragm it is easy to feel the state of tension of the abdominal muscles with the fingers. Relaxing the belly, gently pushing the fingertips into it and giving a cough (pushing out the breath against the resistance of the glottis, and suddenly opening it) will demonstrate unquestionably that it is the contraction of abdominal muscle which propels the air out of the body.

There are some outwardly visible signs of good breathing technique. When the player takes a deep breath to play, the belly swells out to the front and sides (a little widening of the ribcage here is inevitable and should not be resisted). As the belly nears its maximum size the ribcage then becomes more involved, expanding outwards and upwards. During this, the sternum moves forwards and upwards, while the width of the ribcage, from one armpit to the other, increases. The shoulders lift slightly, pushed up from underneath by the ribcage, not pulled up by the should muscles above. Care must be taken not to raise them any more than the ribcage needs as this causes chronic shoulder tension.

The instinctive way of producing a perfectly co-ordinated, full and deep inspiration, which accomplished everything to do with the in-breath covered in this section and is immune to any interference by our conscious thoughts, is yawning.

It should be held in mind by all brass players, that developing good habits of breathing, or good habits in any aspect of instrumental technique, is a means to an end and not and end in itself.

The Cambridge Companion to Brass Instruments

The Tongue Cut Off!

The Tongue Cut Off!

( This article was published in “The Horn Magazine”, Vol. 5 No. 2, Summer 1997)

Those readers whose quality of repetitive tonguing stays consistently tidy and clear from the quiet and slow through to the loud and fast, will probably find little of use in this article. Please jump directly to the very interesting section on historic brass-rubbings, later in this journal.

For the rest, perhaps you have wondered why it is that, below a certain speed, you can articulate a string of repeated notes with good clean attacks, whereas, at a faster tempo, each tends to begin roughly and muddies your overall clarity of playing. For years this puzzled me, but I think I Have now found an explanation and, even better, a solution. Better still, it’s free.

First, to clarify the problem, let me start with an illustration which everyone knows the first whole bar in the rondo from W A.M.’s fourth horn concerto(see below). Whether it is played on the Bb valve-horn, the F valve horn or the Eb hand horn, the problem is there: you might find that when you play it up to speed, forte, you get six rather rough attacks so you try it slowly and the articulation comes out nice and clean. You do the obvious thing and practise it slowly, a lot, maybe for days, but when you play it up to speed again it has hardly improved it still sounds rough and ragged. Help! What is going on here?

I aim to show that if your symptoms match those I have just described, then a potential solution lies just around the corner. But first we need to home in on the problem and highlight it, so lease follow these instructions carefully:

At a metronome speed of dotted crotchet = 126, take the first whole bar of the rondo; put repeat brackets around it and keep on cycling through the bar at about mezzoforte. Make sure you are playing sufficiently staccato so that there is a detectable silence between each note.

This next bit is difficult, so be very careful and persevere until you can do it and get someone else to listen to you if you are not sure you are doing it right. Begin to lengthen the silences so that the notes get pushed apart and the tempo becomes increasingly retarded until it is down to about dotted crotchet =45. Make sure the notes themselves do not become elongated as they move further apart.Meanwhile, keep an eye on every thing else you are doing, particularly with your abdominal muscles and your throat, to make sure that the only thing that changes from note to note is the speed of events not the way you do them.<

Next, maintaining the silences at the duration you have just reached, start to deliberately lengthen the notes. Again, take care not to change anything but the note lengths. Keep slowing until you arrive at around quaver= 76.

Now, by this point you should find yourself playing a string of very ugly, loud, square-sounding notes, each of which starts with the tongue and is cut off by the tongue to make silences roughly equal in length to the notes you are playing. If not, please try again and persevere until you can do it. Remember; some find this very difficult for reasons I hope will become apparent.

What I hope I have proved to you by putting this little excerpt under what is, in effect, an aural microscope, is that during fast staccato tonguing you stop each note with your tongue, Actually, there is no other way, at high speed, to get the little silences between the notes which produce the staccato effect, so rest assured you are doing the right thing by tonguing off at high speed. Incase you had not noticed this before, you have been breaking one of the fundamental laws of modern horn technique, “NEVER END A NOTE WITH THE TONGUE!”. Good for you, I say it was a pretty daft rule anyway. If, by this point, you are still with me and haven’t skipped in disgust to the brass-rubbings, there are, in the light of this revelation, several things to do. The first is to work out why such a rule exists and is so pervasive in horn playing. Then, having admitted to yourself that you really do, at least sometimes, end notes with the tongue, work out what can be gained from such a discovery .

So, why does this rule exist? Primarily to get novice horn players out of the habit of ending each and every note abruptly, which is the easy thing to do, and to encourage them instead to”tail-off” musically the ends of notes or phrases which is very difficult.

It may be interesting to consider the possible origins of this “classical” shaping of the ends (and to some extent the attacks) of notes and phrases. Tradition has it that a typically horn sounding single note should start more or less abruptly, reach its fullest sonority almost immediately and then taper away to silence. There are probably many reasons why this particular teardrop, or pear shaped “envelope”has become, in our musical culture, the one we default to when none other is specified, but the most compelling one I can think of is that when contrived on; brass instrument it imitates the envelope of a note played in a church-like acoustic. Inside a large resonant building even a staccato hand clap is transformed by reverberation, the proliferation of contained sound reflections, into a longer sound which will be perceived as having the teardrop envelope, i.e. it has a smooth tail off added to it.

Contriving such envelopes in non-resonant environments comes easily to the human voice but is much more difficult for the lips and breath of a horn player. It requires the kind of complex technical facility which is central to horn technique but very difficult to develop to a high degree. Inexperienced players who have not yet acquired the rounded attack and the taper to silence will tend to reveal their lack of both by playing square sounding heads and tails of notes which at least helps to avoid the embarrassment of accidentally slipping up or down a harmonic or two. So the rule: “Never End A Note With A Tongue Stop” can be thought of as a preventative teaching aid, at least in its origin. But time moves on and sometimes rules need breaking, or at least bending, to keep them flexible and to allow advanced players a little more freedom.

Now, to explore what can be gained from having found the bath-plug tongue-stop, alive and well, hiding between the notes of your fast staccato articulation: As I have suggested, cleaning up articulation by practising things slowly may not necessarily work. You play the thing up to speed again and nothing has changed, however wonderful it may have sounded at a slow tempo. My hypothesis, then, is that when we slow something down with the intention of working on the articulation we might inadvertently change not just the tempo but also the method of our articulation. We slow it down and then, without realising it, waste time practising some thing quite different, i.e. because we now have time to fit them in we give each note a nice tail off.

Traditionally, the requirement in horn playing to end all notes and phrases with a taper to silence has been so universal that the abrupt tongue-stop way of ending a note has become redundant, and is widely frowned upon. In contemporary music, however, the effect is often specifically required. 1 must say that I really enjoy playing these backward sounding notes. I like the way they end with a thump similar to the effect of letting the bath plug slam back in the plughole as the water is runningú out. In fact, broadly speaking, the bath plug analogy is not a bad one for explaining the simple mechanics of tonguing in horn playing: you pull out the plug and the water/air starts moving again (this is of course a simplification of what really happens) .

Go back to the WAM example. Does it sound even more ragged played on longer lengths of tube? Try it on the Bb horn, then on the F horn. If you are like the rest of us you will probably find it worse on the longer tubing, which is an interesting clue if we continue comparing the tongue to a bath plug.

When playing our example on the Bb horn a relatively small volume of air is flowing along a relatively short length of tube. This mass of moving air is abruptly halted at the precise moment the tongue plugs the passage of air through the mouth. When doing the same thing on the F horn there is a considerably larger, and therefore heavier, volume of air (travelling at the same speed) which has to be stopped dead. The result is a much heavier yank on the tongue caused by the inertia of all that suddenly arrested air flow which then immediately needs the powerful kick of a tongue-release to get it moving again for the next note. Simply put, this means that a stronger tongue is needed to stop and then release the flow of air in longer tube lengths or, alternatively, the shorter the length of tube, the less ragged and burbly the tonguing will sound. Please note my use of the words “stop and release”. I have chosen these carefully to avoid supporting the common misunderstanding that the tongue in some way catapults air out between the lips and down the instrument as if it were some kind of powerful piston. A similar common misconception is that the tongue accts in a way similar to a piano hammer miraculously striking the roof of the mouth to produce sound. The truth is that the tongue stops the flow of air by blocking its path, or allows it to flow by simply getting out of the way.

Having proposed that a strong tongue might be better than a weaker one at producing clean sounding staccato tonguing, it would be a sensible idea to test this out for yourself by setting up  an exercise to strengthen it in the right sort of way. This is simple if you follow the instructions I gave earlier and spend some time working at the slow, rather ugly, square sounding abrupt starts and stops. If you do this exactly as I have explained you will probably find, after some time that the roots of your tongue will be aching with the unaccustomed work load which is a good sign that the tongue, which is nearly all muscle, is responding and will naturally become stronger with the exercise. You should feel this ache approximately half way between the tip or your chin and your Adam’s apple, up in the soft tissue between the bones of your jaw.

In my opinion there are very good reasons why tonguing, rather than merely blowing to start a sound, is a good idea. There are some players who advocate starting notes without involving the tongue at all. Presumably, this is to defend potential listeners from the imagined unpleasantness of abrupt attacks. To my mind this is taking the idea of smoothing and rounding everything off a bit too far. It is somewhat analogous to speaking without consonants (try saying this sentence with only the vowel sounds, omitting all vocal tonguing i.e. all the consonants).Playing just about anything without the added colour brought by at least some tongued articulation will probably sound dull and laboured.

Also there is a danger, when non-tonguing, of sounding late to the beat, particularly within a horn section. Generally speaking, it is almost always necessary to synchronise starts of notes with stimuli coming outside ourselves the flick of a baton, the nod of another player, the click of a metronome or click track. With untongued notes this is precarious as there will inevitably be an element of waiting for your note to get going when it is ready, rather than being in precise control as you are when tonguing.<

However, while I definitely advocate the use of the tongue to begin notes and phrases I must make it clear that it is not my intention to encourage the use of the tongue-stop in general playing this would be awful. I only hope to illuminate its specific usefulness as a technical practice aid. As such I have found it to be very useful in my own playing as have many of my students in theirs.

©1997 Pip Eastop

Note: When first published this article was met with a deafening silence from readers of the Horn Magazine and nearly all of my professional colleagues. So far I only know one professional horn player or teacher who has enthusiastically endorsed it – Anthony Halstead.

I have a suspicion that there may be many closet tongue stoppers out there. What do you think? Please email me with any confessions.

Some Ins and Outs of Breathing

Opening up the can of worms.

Many wind players do very well with no thoughts at all about breathing, and there are plenty of others who do rather well despite adhering to completely absurd theories. There is much argument and confusion about the best way of using our internal bellows equipment for the purpose of powering the vibration of air within a resonant tube in musically effective ways. With this article I aim to add yet more confusion with the perhaps unusual idea of explaining some facts, rather than handed-down opinions, about how our breathing apparatus actually works.

This article can be approached in two ways, either just out of interest, or in order to work on breathing in a serious analytical way, in which latter case it should be said that one’s habitually used breathing pattern is extremely difficult to change and perhaps should not be undertaken lightly. What is written here may provoke a careful rethinking of breathing method and care must be taken that whatever changes made must bring about a genuine improvement or be abandoned.

I should stress that this article is mainly intended for those who are knowingly confused about breathing. Anyone not so confused, or who believes that it might be somehow interfering, dangerous and damaging to think too much about the bodily mechanics of something so “natural” might be better off not reading it. After all, why mess about with something which has not yet started causing problems? On the other hand, an exploratory foray into new ways of looking at breathing cannot do too much harm and may even unlock some extra potential, as it has done in my case.

Challenging the Standard Model.

In my experience, nearly all wind players and teachers say something like, “blowing from the diaphragm”, whenever they talk about breath control. Given the fact that the diaphragm can only draw air into the body this makes about as much sense as, for example “singing from the ears”. To add to the confusion, while saying it, they will happily pat their bellies revealing a mistaken belief that this is the area of the body in which the diaphragm can be found. This is quite wrong. As you will see, the diaphragm is much higher up than we easily missled wind-players have been happy to believe.

There are some established anatomical and physiological facts which we could make use of if we were not so entrenched in traditional, imprecise ideas about breathing method. Those of us with incorrect or unhelpful ideas were usually handed them by our teachers, who got their ideas from their teachers in the previous generation, and so on back into history. One of the reasons why these, what might be called folk-theories, persist so strongly is that in practice they often work, simply in terms of getting oneself or a student to play something a bit better. However, because they are mostly based on incorrect physiology (the study of how the body works), they are often not useful outside the specific context for which they were thought up and can cause difficulties and confusion when applied to other things. The “if it works, use it” theory is fine up to a point, but the problem with sticking to what works rather than seeking an understanding of why and how it works, is that on occasions when it doesn’t work, one has no deeper understanding to turn to for solving problems. One is then left with the, “if it doesn’t work use it anyway” approach, with which most of us are probably familiar.

My interest in all this was sparked by my surprise on discovering, during my three years of Alexander Technique teacher-training, that the muscle known as the diaphragm is not the one that we use to blow air into a wind instrument. Now, if you remember just one thing from reading this article, please make it the following: THE DIAPHRAGM IS A MUSCLE OF INSPIRATION, i.e. of sucking air in, not blowing it out. This will come as a big surprise to many, and some perhaps will not wish to know – but it is certainly true.

There follows some simple anatomy and physiology and a few drawings to  help in building up a mental picture. Please note that the arrows are to show the direction of movement at the start of the in-breath.

What and where is the diaphragm.

The diaphragm is the principal muscle of inspiration – that is to say, of the drawing in of air, or inhalation. Broadly speaking, it is a thin sheet of domed muscle which when viewed from above (see fig.1) is kidney (or cardiod) shaped in outline and which has the ability to contract between its edges and its centre. Its centre lies horizontally across the body dividing the trunk into two compartments: the thorax (the chest) and the abdomen (the belly) (see fig. 2). The thorax contains the heart and lungs while the abdomen contains all the organs of digestion. The sides and back of the diaphragm, as it curves down to attach to the lower rim of the rib cage, become very steep, almost vertical (see fig. 3), so that the liver and the stomach are more or less contained within the dome and are thus given some protection by protruding some way up inside the bony rib cage.

The heart sits behind the sternum high up on top of the centre of the diaphragm (see dotted outline in figs. 2 and 3) and is surrounded on either side and above by the lungs. Together the heart and lungs fill most of the space within the rib cage.

At the front, the outer edge of the diaphragm is attached to the inside of the sternum in the centre of the chest. From here, all the way around the sides to the spine the lower, outer edge of the diaphragm is attaabched to the inside of the lower rim of the rib cage. At the back some of the muscle fibres of the diaphragm gather into several powerfully contractile bundles, called crura , which reach down and attach onto the front of the chunky vertebral bones in the lower back (see fig.1). This gives the rearmost part of the diaphragm a firm anchorage from which it can pull itself down with great strength.

As with all muscles, contraction and relaxation of the diaphragm is controlled by nerves “wired¨ into it. When enervated into a contraction the diaphragm shrinks powerfully along the direction of its muscle fibres with the effect that, in the first phase of its action, it pulls the centre of itself downwards, stretching the heart and lungs down with it. Besides causing an expansion of the lungs, this makes the contents of the abdomen below move downwards and forwards, a displacement which is accommodated by the yielding abdominal-wall muscles as they relax and bulge out to the front and sides, giving more internal volume.

It is impossible to feel one’s diaphragm but ballooning out the belly (without arching the lower back) is a good way of indirectly showing its effects, as there is no other muscle apart from the diaphragm which can cause this to happen.

The lungs inside the ribcage.

As mentioned, high within the rib cage lie the lungs. It is very important to understand that during inhalation air is drawn into the lungs and only the lungs; i.e. it goes high in the chest and definitely does not pass below the level of the diaphragm.

The lungs are like elastic sponges covered with a thin outer membrane. Between this membrane and the inner surface of the chest cavity (which includes the upper surface of the diaphragm) is a thin film of fluid which ensures an airtight seal, and therefore adhesion, between the two surfaces. The effect of this adhesion is that the size of the lungs directly follows the expansion and contraction of the rib cage. The lungs must be expanded to draw air in, and squeezed smaller to blow it back out again. To achieve this they are made to change their size in two ways: 1. by being stretched downwards with the lowering of the diaphragm and 2. by being drawn outwards and upwards by the expansion of the rib cage. As I will show, the diaphragm alone can do all of this.

The rib cage is a sprung flexible basket-like structure made up of pairs of ribs which, at the back, are attached by articulated joints to each side of the spine and, at the front, to the sternum. Each individual rib (apart from the four lowest “floating” ribs) is exquisitely shaped and curved along its length so that when hinged up or down it contributes to an overall enlargement, in all three dimensions, of the rib cage as a whole which thus expands from front to back, from side to side and from top to bottom. Because of the diaphragm’s ability to lift the ribcage it increases the volume of the lungs not only by stretching them downwards but by expanding them outwards and upwards as well.

In addition to the effects of the diaphragm acting on the rib cage, there are other muscles which contribute to its expansion or contraction. None of these, however, are capable of expanding the lungs downwards; only the diaphragm can do this.

Those muscles whose contractions act to raise the rib cage, thus expanding the lungs, assist in inspiration. Apart from the diaphragm they include the scalenes (six strap-like muscles which from high in the neck pull up on the highest pairs of ribs) and the external intercostals (upward-pulling muscles woven in between the ribs). In forced breathing yet more muscles join in, even some back muscles – any which can exert some upward pull on the ribs. Muscles which act to lower the rib cage, thus contracting the lungs, assist in expiration. They include the internal intercostals (downward-pulling muscles between the ribs) and the several layers of abdominal wall muscle.

From here on I will refer to this layered group simply as the abdominal muscles.

During forced exhalation, i.e. long sustained fortissimo passages, even the latissimus dorsi, muscles of the arms and back, are brought in to help with the squeeze.

Postural considerations.

To permit the rib cage its maximum range of expansion and contraction and so to give those muscles that elevate the ribs an optimum chance of doing their job, there are two postural considerations. First, the spine must be reasonably straight and erect. Second, the head must be high up on top of the spine balanced on a relaxed and free neck. With these two conditions satisfied the ribs are well spaced and the muscles which move them, particularly the previously mentioned scalenes, have a chance, which otherwise they would not, of helping to lift and thus expand the rib cage.

Muscles in opposition – antagonism.

The vast majority of muscles or groups of muscles in the body, are arranged antagonistically, in balanced opposing pairs. To illustrate the principle, a good example is found around the jaw, where one muscle group has the job of pulling the mouth open and another has the job of pulling it shut. Normally, one group will relax to let the other group do its work unhindered, but there are circumstances when both muscle groups will deliberately oppose each other to stabilise or regulate each other’s action. In the case of the jaw, for example, this happens when something fragile, perhaps a small egg, is held lightly but securely between the teeth.

Opposing and balancing the action of the diaphragm in just this way, is the abdominal wall. Like the diaphragm, it is in the form of a sheet although the abdominal wall is in several layers. Understanding the way the abdominal muscles work in relation to the diaphragm is a key to a clearer picture of the way breathing works for wind players. But please remember: put in the simplest language, the diaphragm sucks and the abdominal muscle blows!

The abdominal muscles.

The very powerful abdominal muscles form the belly by enwrapping the abdomen between the underside of the rib cage and the pelvis. At the front they extend all the way from the sternum down to the pubic bone, and at the sides from the lower extremity of the rib cage to the top edges of the hip bones (upper parts of the pelvis). They extend around to the back as far as each side of the lumbar spine.

Unlike the diaphragm it is easy to feel the state of tension of the abdominal muscles with one’s fingers. Relax your belly, gently push a few fingertips into it and give a little cough. If you try to cough, i.e. to push out the breath against the resistance of the glottis which suddenly opens, you will discover that it is most unquestionably the contraction of abdominal muscle which propel the air out of you.

The interplay between the diaphragm and the abdominal muscles.

The activity of the diaphragm and the abdominal muscles, as an opposed pair, varies reciprocally. Thus, during inhalation the muscle tension of diaphragm increases while that of the abdominal muscles decreases; and vice-versa during exhalation.

During inhalation, by the time the diaphragm has pushed the contents of the abdomen a good way down and out, into the accommodating, bulging but relaxed abdominal muscles, to the point where resistance occurs, the abdominal contents have become firmly enough compressed to make a firm base upon which the diaphragm can begin its second phase of action: it continues to contract and by bracing down against the compressed viscera (held in check by abdominal muscles) begins to elevate and expand the entire rib cage by lifting it upwards.

With one palm spread lightly over your sternum and the other over your belly it should be possible to detect these two distinct, though overlapping, phases – first the expansion of the belly, then the expansion of the chest. It is worth persevering with this kind of self exploration to learn recognition and control of the expansion/contraction of the chest and belly – both independently and separately. When doing this remember the importance of a good, upright, relaxed posture and notice how difficult it is to get a substantial chest expansion without the head balanced high on top of the spine.

Full compression, or distention of the abdominal contents, or the moment during inspiration at which the abdominal muscle begins to resist the diaphragm’s downward pull, marks the point at which the effect of the contracting diaphragm changes from that of further pushing out the belly, thus lengthening the lungs downwards, to that of raising the ribcage and thus expanding the lungs outwards in all other directions.

While drawing air in, in preparation to play, it is best not to oppose the descent of the diaphragm by any contraction of the abdominal wall because if the abdominal muscle does not balloon out enough during inhalation it is likely that it will “power-up”, at the beginning of a note or a phrase, in what may be described as a pre-contracted state. It is actually quite common for the abdominal muscles of individuals confused about breathing to be already half way through their range of movement, and thus a largely spent force, before even starting to supply the power needed to play something. In such a case much unnecessary tension will build up during playing – felt most intensely in the solar plexus area – and a “tremor” in the sound is a likely result.

It is well worth experimenting with this to get the feel of what is happening. Take a full breath, expanding mainly around the chest, without much belly expansion, then play a long loud note, keeping the chest high and relatively expanded throughout. This keeps the lungs in a high position. Towards the end of the note an increase in belly tension will probably be felt as it tries with difficulty to assist in the evacuation of air from the lungs, and a fast irregular tremor might be heard. If this is a familiar feeling then some remedial work is needed.

The elasticity of the rib cage.

The resting size of the chest is roughly half way between its most expanded and its most contracted states. From hereon I will refer to this as the midpoint.

When the chest is stretched open to capacity, with the lungs (which are also elastic) full of air, it will tend to recoil, causing a sigh, back to its midpoint if the diaphragm, along with the other muscles of deep inspiration, suddenly relaxes. Similarly, when the chest is contracted as far as possible, i.e. the lungs emptied, it will tend to spring back to its midpoint, causing a gentle inhalation, or an anti-sigh, when the muscles of expiration finish doing their work and relax. As it is, this elastic recoil is not a great deal of use to the wind player as the air flow it produces is quite weak and rapidly diminishes in power, like a rubber band unwinding, as it goes through its range of movement.

Discovering the synergistic interplay between the diaphragm and the abdominal muscle.

Breathe in deeply, then suddenly release the muscles of inhalation to let, but not push, all the air out very quickly – as in a big sigh – until the chest, powered only by its elasticity, returns to the midpoint. You can also try the opposite of this: from the midpoint begin to exhale deeply until the lungs are empty and no more air can be squeezed out. Then suddenly relax the contractions and let a natural rapid elastic inhalation occur, taking you back to the midpoint.

Next, inhale deeply as before, then start to let it out very slowly. What happens now is that you will naturally “brake” your exhaling using the diaphragm to hold back the chest from contracting too rapidly, as it did in the elastic release/sigh of the previous paragraph. (Please note: to make sure that it is your diaphragm, and not the glottis doing the braking, keep the outflow of air from the mouth absolutely silent. If you use the glottis as your “brake” you will produce the sound of a whispered “ah”).

All wind-players must use the diaphragm as a brake in this way while playing any stable continuous tone. The abdominal muscles need the support and steadying opposition of the diaphragm in order to maintain an unchanging controlled outflow of air.

The outwardly visible signs of good breathing technique.

When taking a deep breath to play, the main thing that should happen at first is that the belly should swell out to the front and sides (a little widening of the rib cage here is inevitable and should not be resisted). As the belly nears its maximum ballooning the rib cage should then become more involved by expanding outwards and upwards. During this the sternum should move forwards and up while the width of the rib cage, from one armpit to the other, increases. The shoulders will lift slightly, pushed up from underneath by the rib cage, not pulled up by the shoulder muscles above. Care must be taken not to raise them any more than the rib cage needs as this will cause chronic shoulder tension.

At the start of playing, for example, a long phrase at a medium volume the belly should be remain ballooned out to the front and sides while the chest comes down, losing its expansion. The lowering of the chest should gradually hand over to a tightening and contracting of the belly until the end of the breath. This trick is to keep the belly ballooned for as long as is comfortable by means of some diaphragm opposition.

Even simpler directions for breathing.

Having worked through all of this in detail we now need a nice simple way of checking if we are doing it right. Luckily there is a reference against which all of us can check and compare our breathing. It is an instinctive way of producing a perfectly co-ordinated, full and deep inspiration, which accomplishes everything to do with the in-breath covered in this writing and is immune to any interference by our conscious thoughts. It is yawning – our own private, marvellous, teacher.

To learn from the yawn it is useful be very sleepy and to stand naked, at least down to the waist, in front of a full-length mirror. Observe the order of events and all the following things that happen during a delicious yawn:

  • Feel the belly balloon forward as the diaphragm heaves itself downwards.
  • Notice how the back is pulled up into a straighter position (mostly by the crura of the diaphragm – refer to part 1 for illustration) and how the head is moved up onto the top of the spine into the ideal position described earlier.
  • Notice how this then allows the chest to be filled and massively expanded – with the sternum coming forwards and upwards (just like we were all taught not to).
  • Notice how good it feels!

This is all very well but…

Having spent all this time wittering on about the mechanics of respiration, I feel strongly moved now to put things clearly into perspective by reminding myself and readers that we are, or should be, in the business of making music; something which is on an altogether different plane from the simple mechanics I have been outlining here. Thus it should be held in mind, by all wind players, that developing good habits of breathing, or good habits in any aspect of instrumental technique, is a means to an end and not an end in itself.

©1997 Pip Eastop