A Review of Ultimate Horn Technique

In my earlier post on transposing I mentioned John Ericson’s new book Ultimate Horn Technique.  Published by Horn Notes EditionUltimate Horn Technique is the latest in a line of excellent publications on a variety of topics related to horn playing (the cover image at left is linked from the Horn Notes Edition homepage).  I’m sure there will be other positive reviews of the book, namely in the Horn Call: Journal of the International Horn Society, but I wanted to write a brief review relating my own experiences with it.  I bought both this book and another new publication, Ultimate Low Horn, at the 2011 Southeast Horn Workshop in early March.  Since then I’ve been working regularly out of both, and almost every day with Ultimate Horn Technique.  The complete title reads Ultimate Horn Technique: Exercises from 19th-Century Masters to Develop Finger Technique, Range, Transposition, Characteristic Playing, Intonation, and Double and Triple Tonguing.  After using the book on a daily basis for the last several weeks, I would say that it definitely delivers on these goals!  The preface states that the material was drawn from methods by Gallay, Kling, Meifred, Dauprat, Arban, Gumpert, and Schantl, though the author has expertly edited and organized the various exercises into a cohesive whole.  The book is organized according to key, consisting of a set of exercises in each of the major and minor keys. Each major key section generally contains the following.

  • A basic ascending and descending scale exercise covering two to three octaves
  • Several more scale studies in that key, with varying articulations dynamics, and rhythms
  • An arpeggio exercise
  • One or more characteristic studies emphasizing lyrical playing
  • Double and/or triple tonguing exercises
  • Several transposition exercises

The minor key sections contain the same kinds of exercises, but without the multiple tonguing and transposition studies.  In addition, the appendix includes several intonation studies for two horns by Gumpert and Kling.  Although there are several possible ways to approach using Ultimate Horn Technique, I initially worked through it more or less cover to cover (minus the appendix), taking about two days for each major key and one day for each minor key.  When I got to the end of the book I started over at the beginning.  I like the variety of spending no more than two days on any one key, and I can already notice an improvement in each exercise on my second trip through the book.  John also mentions in the preface that accuracy is one of the main focuses, and these exercises have certainly helped improve my own accuracy. I highly recommend practicing all the exercises with a tonic drone such as the TuneUp system or something similar.  Playing with the drone not only helps improve intonation, but accuracy as well.  The first time through I played the studies very slowly, making sure to get everything under my fingers before moving on.  The transposition exercises are excellent, and a welcome addition to the standard methods (Kopprasch, etc.) out there.  I have worked with the two horn intonation studies a bit in lessons, but I plan to use them even more beginning in the fall semester.  Overall I think Ultimate Horn Technique is a great resource for the intermediate to advanced horn player, and I will be recommending it to my students in the future.

Yet Another Reason Why You Need to Know How to Transpose

Two words: church gigs.  As a horn player you may often find yourself playing music in churches that was not originally intended for your instrument, and thus you will be required to transpose quickly and accurately to a variety of keys.  One of the most common scenarios is when a brass group is asked to accompany the congregation and/or choir on hymns.  Unless the hymn has been orchestrated specifically with brass instruments in mind, you will simply be handed a copy of the SATB score from the church hymnal.  This is such a standard practice that you will probably not be given the music in advance.  For that kind of playing, your “horn in C” transposition skills (down a P4, or up a P5) need to be ready to go.  Even if you are comfortable with horn in C transposition, be prepared for any number of sharps or flats in the key signature.  Since most transposition exercises and orchestral excerpts aren’t written with a key signature, it can catch you off guard when transposing something that does have one.  Although it makes the most sense to play the alto part on horn in a four-voice setting, make sure you can also competently play the soprano or tenor lines as well.

This brings up another common transposition – trombone parts.  In brass quartet arrangements you may be asked to read a trombone part if there isn’t a “Horn, sub. for Trombone 1” part on hand, or asked to play the tenor line on a four-part hymn.  In this case you have a couple of options.  If you read bass clef well enough, simply transpose everything to horn in C.  However, there is also a trick for reading trombone parts that can work pretty well.  Read the part as if it were in treble clef, and for horn in E-flat.  Then, transpose down one octave.  One thing to be aware of if you go this route is to make sure that when you see a written E in bass clef you play a B-natural on horn and not a B-flat (since what would be a C in treble clef would normally transpose to a B-flat when reading horn in E-flat).  If this sounds overly complicated, then I recommend working on your horn in C, bass clef transposition skills!

If you’re wondering how to improve your transposing abilities, my recommendation would be to adopt a regular practice plan that takes you through at least the more common keys regularly.   The Kopprasch etudes are excellent for transposition practice, and another one that I highly recommend is Ultimate Horn Technique, a new publication by John Ericson.  I’ll write more in the way of a review in an upcoming post, but for now let me say that this is an excellent all around technique book.  One personal testimony to the value of good transposition chops is my regular Easter gig at a large church in southern Louisiana.  I’ve played there for the last three years, and I don’t think I’ve seen a part for horn in F yet.  This year I found myself reading trumpet parts in B-flat and C, as well as SATB hymns.  The services went fine, but one of the most challenging parts for me was deciding – often on the fly – whether to transpose to alto or basso.  In general I tried to read everything in alto when playing a trumpet part as that made the most sense musically.  However, there were times where I needed to drop something into basso because playing it in alto was impractical.  Start working on your transpositions today – it will pay off in the future!

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