You are on page 1of 4

SPOTLIGHT ON BRASS/LE CUIVRES DE PLUS PRS

A Fun & Easy Approach to Playing


and Teaching the French Horn

that. Starting on the single B-flat hom has many advantages over starting on
a single F hom. the most common first hom for young players. I know this
approach deviatesfii^mcommon practice but there are advantages in doing so.
Advantage No. 1; The single B-flat hom is smaller, lighter, and easier to hold,
carry, and blow through. If a student moves from tmmpet to B-flat hom, the
fingering are very similar. It took me only a day to figure it out.

Joan Watson
"Of all the orchestral instruments, the hom, probably the most difficult to play.
is one of Ihe most useftil," suggests the Hatyard Brief Dictionary of Music.
Widely considered a challenge to be taken up by only the most diligent students,
the hom can also be a curiosity, if not a source of confusion, in the band room.

Advantage No. 2: The single B-flat hom is shorter and is much easier to play
high on than the F hom. Most young players have difficulty playing above a
third-space C. On the F hom, they face two obstacles:findingthe notes among
harmonics that are close together, and fingerings that are not helpful (moving
stepwise from C to G on the F hom isfingered0,1,0,1,0, but on the Bb hom
isO, l&2,2,0,1).

If the hom were as difficult as people think it is, I wouldn't be playing it! The
first thing I get my students to do is to make a sign for their music stand that Advantage No. 3: Students' confidence comes faster on the B-flat hom because
says, "FUN and EASY." 1 got that advice from Phillip Farkas, author of The die fingerings help them know what note they are on, and they have better
.4rt of French Hom Playing {Evanston: Summy-Birchard, 1956). If those two control ofthe range issue. They advance faster and have more ftin doing it.
elements are missing, something is wrong.
Advantage No. 4: When they are ready to move to a double hom. the switch is
A basic understanding of how the hom evolved can be helpful. Consider easy. Adding the F hom to the B-fiat is much easier than adding the B-flat hom
the brief history below as a prequel to the subsequent outline of the teaching to the F. More notes are actually used by the B-flat hom {e.g., most pros switch
to the B-flat hom on middle G-sharp (Thumb-2-3), so every note above that is
approach 1 have developed over the last thirty-five years.
on the B-flat hom. If you use the B-flat hom to play below middle C, the notes
speak better and are clearer and easier to hit.
Short History of the Hom
Starts off as a signalling device made irom animal homs
Bronze Age: develops into a metal instrument, with a longer tube and more
notes
Continues as a signalling instrument for hunting. Thus, the bell faces
backwards because homists had to signal to the hunters behind.
One of the first wind instruments in the orchestra. By lowering the bell a
bit and placing a hand in it, the sound quality and range improved (the tube is
lengthened or shortened slightly by closing or opening the bell with the right
hand).
The "crook," our tuning-slide equivalent, is developed. Homists could change
key when needed by using different length crooks. But it was still considered
the "hand hom," and scales were obtained by manipulating the right hand in
the bell.
The orchestra goes fh)m two to four horns. While one duet fumbled for
different crooks, the other pair could be ready to go in whatever key was needed.
To this day, homs are usually written in two pairs, first and second in a high/low
duet and third and fourth in a high/low duet.
The development of valves in the industrial age ended the era of the hand
hom. Today we have three or four valves manipulated by the left hand, with
the right hand used to colour the sound and adjust intonation slightly. At some
point in time, a single tonality won out, hence F hom parts.
This instrument developed as a compromise, and the hom we all play actually
consists of seven homs (i.e., seven different valve combinations or lengths
of tubing, just like the trombone, trumpet, and tuba), with all seven sharing
the same bell and mouthpiece. The longer the tube, the bigger the bell and
mouthpiece need to be to work optimally; the opposite is tme for the shorter
homs (smaller bell and mouthpiece). Since they all share the same bell and
mouthpiece, none ofthe seven homs is quite right. And the double (F/B-flat)
hom has fourteen sets of tube lengths!
Starting to Piay the Hom
I started on B-fat trumpet in Grades 3-6 and moved to a single B-flat hom after

Disadvantage No. 1: The B-flat hom lacks notes fi\)m low B (bass-clef second
line) to pedal F-sharp below that, then it provides the remaining range down to
pedal B. You need an F hom to play these notes but, to my knowledge, most
school-band parts will never require them; by the time they are required, the
student will most likely be on a double hom.
Disadvantage No, 2 (Not): Many will say you can't get a characteristic sound
on the B-flat hom but this is a red herring since every pro player has a double
(F/B-flat) hom and plays on the B-flat hom much ofthe time.
I am not advocating tossing out all the single F homs, but if the opportunity
arises to purchase or rent a hom for a student, consider the single B-flat.
especially for beginners. Yamaha makes both types, and most band metliod
books include both sets of fingerings.
Understanding How to Play
The basics are simple: without a wami, sonorous sound, the hom has little else
to ofFer an ensemble. Someone playing out of tune and missing notes with a
bad sound is so much harder to take than someone missing notes with a great
sound. And a great sound is easier to play in tune. So, that is the number one
thing to achieve. Everything else comes afler that.
Some Observations and Conclusions
Most brass teachers focus on "buzzing" the lips to create sound but there is a
big difference between tensing one's lips to buzz and feeling the air moving
past your lips with a relaxed jaw that allows for a healthy, resonant vibration.
The best "buzz" I ever heard was produced by my two-year-old son, Max. who
pushed my hom up to his mouth and blew. He sounded fantastic! That is the
kind of buzz we are all looking for: the effortless result of having your lips just
close enough together to vibrate when you push air across them. Youngsters at
two also have the advantage of breathing properly from their diaphragms and
then blowing out from there.

Vents canadiens * Canadian Winds Fall/automne 2008

A FUN & EASY APPROACH TO PLAYING AND TEACHING THE FRENCH HORN
To reiterate, I believe that the "vibration" ofthe air should happen as a result
ofthe air going past the lips. How fast it goes and how much is being expelled
from the body determines how fast or slow the lips vibrate. So, the only way 1
can play A 440 on my F hom (fourth-space E in the treble clef ) is to vibrate my
lips at 440 cycles a second. That note is only going to sound with that number
of vibrations. I can feel what I have to do to blow out the appropriate amount of
air at the right speed to make my lips vibrate at 440 cycles a second.
If I go down one octave to A 220 (first-line E on the F hom), I have to adjust
the air speed and volume to achieve that vibration from my lips. That does not
ehange from day to day. Students familiarize themselves with this by playing
"long tones." However, rather than just playing single long notes, I get students
to play a phrase. See Music Example 1 below:

Music Example 1. Easy version of a long-tone exercise.

As they advance, this can be extended, as in Music Example 2 below:

Music Examine 2. More advanced version of a long-tone exercise.

In this exercise, they are focusing on consistently knov^'ing the amount of air
needed to play a specific note. That way, even if they can't hear the note, they
can still feel it. Asking students to tighten or relax their embouchure puts the
focus on the wrong area, and leads to too much attention on how their lips feel
versus how the vibration ofthat note feels overall.
Because the hom is longer than most brass instruments but plays in a higher
harmonic range (the F hom is the same length as an F tuba but plays harmonics
much higher in the overtone series, which are closer together), it is critical that
young homists develop a good "ear" for notes they are about to play. I don't
endorse starting absolute beginners on hom - there are too many things to leam
at once. A student needs to have a good background on voice or piano or another
instrument like tmmpet under their belt (at least three years) before moving
to hom. Starting someone in Grade 7, 8, or 9 is ideal because they will be
physically able to hold the hom by then, and should have more confidence with
finding pitches and being able to play in the middle ofthe band harmonies.
If you take a rock and throw it into water, concentric circles spread out on
the surface. If we create vibrations with our lips by blowing air past them,
those vibrations go out into the brass instrument. But they also go in all other
directions, as in our water analogy, including travelling back into the body that
created them; now the whole body is vibrating that note.
To take this one step further, the true instmment is the player's own body. How
the body vibrates creates the quality of sound that goes into the instrument. Try
playing a wind instrument with your body tense; at best, you will get a tight,
hard-to-produce, out-of-tune sound. If the body stays relaxed and open, and
you use only the stomach and back muscles to push out the air at the speeds and
amounts required, playing becomes effortless.
Following this line of thinking, the instrument's range also gets reflected in how
the body vibrates. Achieving high notes is purely a matter of speeding up the
air from the stomach muscles, using a bit less ofit, and, since the vibration of a
higher note is faster and shorter, then the corresponding vibration comes from

22

Fall/automne 2008 Canadian Winds Vents canadiens

a higher place in the body. (Most young players attempt to play higher notes
by tensing up and pushing more air out. This will create a tight sound and air
that is going the wrong speed to get the vibration ofthe note they want.) The
reverse holds tme for low notes. To attempt to play the range of a hom from
one place in the body is really difficult. To observe the vibration move up and
down inside the body gives the student better control.
Singers are very aware of this feeling inside. Most students 1 encounter are
consumed with their focus on the "extemal" instrument and their lips. They
want better equipment or a different mouthpiece, or their lips hurt from the
pressure of their left arm pulling the hom towards them in an attempt to squeeze
out high notes. The hom itself is just an amplifier of the vibration going on
inside the player's body. If that vibration is tight and unhealthy, so will be the
vibration amplified by the hom. If students leam to take a relaxed breath in,
stay relaxed, and leam how to spin the air out of themselves for each note, they
will enjoy the benefits of improved confidence, a gorgeous sound, bigger range
capabilities, and reduced sore lips,
If the big muscles in the body keep the air flowing correctly, the little muscles
ofthe lips only need to vibrate. There is no need to increase the pressure on the
lips to squeeze notes out. The power ofthe stomach and back muscles do all the
work of creating the right air speed and amount for each note's vibrations. The
lips only vibrate in response to that air They don't have to woric hard at all.
Gaining Confidence and Accuracy
To quote Christopher Leuba, the former Principal Hom of the Chicago
Symphony Orchestra, "All you need to know to play the hom are two things:
how to start the first note, and how to move to the next note." That simplifies
things substantially. Sticking to this philosophy means that doing interval
studies makes life much easier and ftin on the hom. Remember that when a
student homist has to movefromsecond-line G to second-space A, the fingering
changesfromopen tofirstand second valves. But while the musical line needs
to rise a major second, the hom actually descends (longer tubes) one-and-a-half
steps.
Music examples 3a and 3b give two versions of Leuba's interval study, one for
beginners, the other for more advanced players. Variations on these can include
eighth-note and sixteenth-note tonguing.

Music Example 3a. "Moving down" version of Leuba's Interval Study.

M J I I I I I I

t J 1.1 I J I .i I

I I J 1-i^t^^tr^

Music Example 3b "Moving up" version of Leuba's Interval Study.

Students who do these exercises every day will enjoy the hom at a much higher
level. Knowing where a "leap" to another note comes is quite confidenceraising. The distance of a major third interval is the same in every key. Leuba
suggests playing the interval study in a different key each day. For beginners,
this may be only two keys to an interval of a perfect fifth, but they will start the
habit of thinking this way, and can expand the interval and the keys later, as
needed. It is also a much more interesting way to practice scales.
Also, in interval practice, the student comes to understandftirtherhow to produce
the vibration for each note, and how that changes how they feel inside. They

A FUN & EASY APPROACH TO PLAYING AND TEACHING THE FRENCH HORN
become aware of using their lungs and muscles to move between notes - faster
to slower vibrations. They also get a sense ofa singing style of playing fi'om
these exercises -that each note relates to the next one and pulls the listener's ear
through the creation ofa phrase.

abandon.

Homists tend to be perfectionists who have accepted the inevitable "kack" once
in awhile. It goes with the choice of instmment and a "correct and continue"
approach to life. Having recordings available for students to listen to and model
their own playing after will speed leaming as well. Providing an instrument the
What About that Right Hand?
Despite the existence of valves, therighthand still serves an important ftinction young homist can keep at home, rather than having to lug one back and forth to
in the bell. There are a multitude of theories on how to place the right hand, school, can also be a big factor in getting students to take up the hom. Though
probably as many as there are homists. As the hom evolved physically, perhaps a luxury for most budgets, it is worth considering if you have enou^
different "schools" of playing developed across Europe, each with a distinct homs available.
sound, including many with vibrato. As the descendants of these schools.
North American homists embody a couple of centuries of diverse thinking 1 have played the hom for four decades and still love every minute of it. For
about the correct way to hold and play hom, and which equipment is best. I the past twenty years, I have played a Yamaha 862 with a model 30C4 Yamaha
have apparently descended from the Dresden "school," the same one as the late mouthpiece. I have yet to play a better "amplifier" hom and I've tried it against
British virtuoso, Dennis Brain, through my first hom teacher. Bill Gordon in some fine instmments in blindfold tests. As much as I enjoy playing in the
Canadian Opera Orchestra and the True North Brass, I am still swept away by
Dauphin, Manitoba, who was from Britain.
the organ-like grandeur of multiple homs playing together. We ;ire coming into
1 was taught that therighthand needs to be shaped as though you were holding ourthirdyearoflntemational Hom Day in Toronto. Last year, 150 homs from
water in it. The fingers are closed together and then the hand is tumed over all levels of ability performed and ended up on YouTube.
and inserted into the bell so that the thumb and index finger hold the hom up.
The other fingers touch the bell and create a path for the sound to be directed
down and away fVom the player. I look to have my sound directed to some hard
surface about four to six feet away, so that it can reflect off that surface and
bounce forward to the audience.
The most difficult placement for a hom player is in front of instmments that
blow directly into the hom section (e.g.. trumpets and trombones), in front of
percussion (for the same reason), or directly in front ofa wall or (worse still)
drapes or another non-reflective surface. If the hom sound coming out the
bell is absorbed or reflected directly back into the bell, the homist can actually
be physically harmed. Vibrations reflected back up the bell or coming from
another source are actually amplified up to 40 times as they travel into the
progressively smaller tubing toward the mouthpiece. When they hit the hom
player's vibrating lips, it actually feels like being smacked in the mouth. Over
time, this can prove damaging both physically and mentally.
Music, Music, Music
So much of playing the hom can become technical. However, 1 am a big believer
in leaming technique through the music. If students are tumed on by the music,
it is amazing what they can leam technically. My favourite beginning hom
books are volumes I and 2 ofthe Clevenger French Hom Method (San Diego:
Neil A, Kjos Music Company, 1974). In them. Dale Clevenger, the long-time
Principal Hom of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, introduces range in the
best way possible, keeps music-making as the focus of playing, and includes
ducts, which can keep hom students interested when band parts for their inner
voice may not be challenging enough. Rubank is still producing good method
books (Elementary, Intermediate, and Advanced) and easy duet books for
French hom. 1 leamed both tmmpet and hom on the Rubank books.
I am a big fan of getting students into festivals and competitions to stimulate
progress and in rivalry. The Westem Board and Royal Conservatory of
Music exams take them through standard repertoire and technical progress at
a prescribed rate, and students can feel a sense of discipline, challenge, and
accomplishment as they move up through the different grade levels. Ideal
homists seem to be students who love accomplishment and challenge and who
have patience to leam. but also have a child-like approach to just "making a
joyftil noise." It is a brass instrument, afier all, and given its signalling history,
needs to be approached witli a heralding joie de vivre and an attitude of

Once you get a student hooked on the hom, s/he will be part ofa community of
like-minded musicians everywhere they play. You can inspire them with movie
music, especially John Williams, who has even written a hom concerto, and with
the many wonderful soloists, chamber musicians, jazz and orchestral homists,
and Web sites devoted to the hom. I believe that the sound ofthe hom has been
around for so long that it actually runs in our DNA. When anyone hears the
hom, it elicits a sigh aiid a deep love of the sound. My hopK is that some of
the above concepts will help you build a wonderilil sounding, enthusiastic, and
singing horn section in your school ensemble.
Questions about hom playing and teaching may be addressed to me at the
following e-mail address: <joan@tmenorthbrass.com>.

Joan Watson is Canada's foremost


French hom soloist, principal hom. lecturer,
and educalor She is the Principal Hom
of the Canadian Opera On:hestra and a
founding member of the True North Brass
quintel. She was the Associate Principal
Hom of the Toronto Syniphotiy Orchestra
for fourteen seasons, and has also played
Principal hom with the Esprit Orchestra,
the Victoria Symphony, the Pacific Opera,
and the Vancouver Opera Orchestras. Joan
is frequenlly heard on CBC as a chamber
musician and with New Music Concerts. You will also hear her on numerous commercials,
television shows, and movie scores. For two decades, she has been a Y a m ^ artist and clinician,
and has taught at the University' of Toronto's Faculty of Music. In addition to leaching hom. Joan
lectures on perfonnance skills, audition preparation, practice tips, and creating a passionate and
fiilfilling life in music.
Songs My Mother Taught Me. a collection of favourileftines,was herfirst solo CD. Asecond
solo CD, The Call of Christmas, recently recorded with colleagues from the COC orchestra, can
be obtained through TheCallofChrislniasrjgmail.com> for $20, including tax and shifting.

Vents canadiens * Canadian Winds * Fall/automne 2008

23