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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