Is Playing the Horn Natural?

Over the last few weeks I’ve been reading a series of posts by Bruce Hembd at Horn Matters on his own personal study of embouchure function.  You can read all the posts by following the links below.

Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV

As an analyzer myself I found Bruce’s posts insightful and logical. Although I may not think about my own embouchure function in exactly the same terms as he describes, as a teacher I am always interested in different approaches to the instrument.  Recently the brass blogging world has been buzzing with numerous comments regarding the topics covered in these posts, including a related post by Julia Rose (Associate Principal Horn of the Columbus Symphony), and multiple comments on Part IV of Bruce’s series.  To wrap up this summary – I feel a bit like a sports reporter giving the “blow-by-blow” details – Bruce has posted a follow-up article addressing, among other things, the concept of horn playing being a “natural” act.   In true blogging fashion, reading and attempting to digest these various points of view has encouraged me to focus my own thoughts, and attempt to get at least some of them down in writing.  The following are some of the main points that came to mind for me as I read (and re-read) this material.

I think that one can consider horn playing a “natural” act, but only up to a certain point. After all, our muscles are designed to contract, our lungs to inhale and exhale air, and our lips and oral cavities to form various shapes.  Beyond that point, however,  I think the instinctual side of things has to be refined through training and at least some analysis. Of course the balance between instinctual and analytical playing will vary from player to player, teacher to teacher, and situation to situation.  In short, I think there is a place for both paradigms, and honestly I don’t think they are mutually exclusive.

Dr. John Ericson (and I’m sure others as well) have written about this issue – but I think it bears repeating as it seems to come up inevitably in any discussion of brass pedagogy.  As teachers we often come up with little phrases to prompt students, often substituting a few words for what is in reality a series of complex physical and mental processes.  For instance, one might tell students “when playing in the low range, think x, and when playing in the high range think y,” and so on.  Many prominent teachers use these types of phrases, and they have been proven to be very effective for a large number of students.  However, they may not in fact accurately describe what is happening with the embouchure/airstream/throat, or whatever.  Now, the real question is – does it matter?  If thinking x in the low range (for example) works, is it really necessary to understand in detail exactly what is going on to produce a strong, reliable, and in-tune low register?  For day-to-day playing and teaching, maybe not, but I think this kind of research, if you will, is important to our field, and helps drive future developments in pedagogy, like new method books, etude collections, etc.  Without experimentation and trial and error, we risk stagnation as performers and teachers.

Does this mean we should change mouthpieces once a month, or try different techniques just for the sake of it when our current practices have already proven successful?  Absolutely not – but I do think it is important to constantly evaluate our current methods and paradigms, if for no other reason than to reinforce our own ideas about what works for us and our students.

Tips on Playing the Descant Horn from Michael Hoeltzel

In an earlier post on trills, I mentioned Professor Michael Hoeltzel’s excellent book Mastery of the French Horn: Technique and Musical Expression (trans. by William Melton). The rest of this book is full of great practical advice on horn playing, and I think it is only a matter of time before it becomes more popular in the U.S. with students, teachers, and professionals. Hoeltzel devotes an entire chapter to the question of “Which Horn for Which Music?,” and in today’s world of descants, triples, single high F horns, etc., advice of this type from a seasoned professional is very welcome.  The entire chapter (and book) is of course highly recommended, but some of the best comments I’ve found take the form of a list of hints on playing the high F horn.

The successful employment of the high F horn on upper register orchestra parts requires the following prerequisites:

1. Take in less air, but expel more air. Typically, too much air is breathed in, creating tension in the muscles of the chest and neck that strangles the high register. The proper technique uses a light intake of breath (without swelling of the chest), support in the lower rib area, and a full airstream in playing high notes.

2. Articulate delicately.

3. Let the hand in the bell be involved in forming the tone. The hand should be cupped, flexible, and not too far into the bell so that it can serve as an aid to intonation.

4. Change horns sensibly. Choose the optimal notes on the various natural horns, experiment with the many possible fingerings, and write these into the part.

5. Think beyond one part, working out intonation with the 2nd horn. Think specifically about a) hearing functionally, b) recognizing pitches that veer sharp or flat, and c) make decisions that take the various tendencies into account. [p. 90]

In my experience with the descant horn all of the above tips are spot on, especially Nos. 1-2.  If you try to force articulations too much on the high F horn it will practically fight back, resulting in poor intonation, and explosive fracks.  And I think tip No. 1 can be very helpful in developing the high range on the regular double horn as well.  There are of course other excellent resources on descants and triple horns out there, all of which should be on every serious horn player’s shelf.  In addition to Hoeltzel’s book, one of the best I’ve read and used is Playing High Horn: A Handbook for High Register Playing, Descant Horns, and Triple Horns, written by John Ericson and published by Horn Notes Edition.  Both books are reasonably priced – if you haven’t read them, and especially if you own and play a descant horn, check them out.

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