French Horn/new to horn


QUESTION: I am new to the French horn.  I think I am getting the notes alright, but I'm getting a lot of sputtering, like static on the radio.  It makes it hard to get and play a clear tone.  I play a lot of long tones.  Also, does a horn have a water valve?

Thanks, Joel

ANSWER: Hi, it's tricky to diagnose anything by e-mail... what you need to do is have a lesson or two from a good teacher who can listen to you and watch you play.

But let's try to help: firstly, are you new to the horn but experienced on another brass instrument, or completely new to brass playing?

What you're describing can be just the result of not quite centering the note, i.e. not producing quite the exact buzz needed for whatever note you're playing, or not producing a clear buzz at all. Try buzzing the mouthpiece and see whether it sounds like a reasonably clear musical sound. If so, try to find a note or range of notes where you can make a note easiest, and then gradually work up and down from there. If you don't have a trained embouchure then fatigue sets in fairly quickly and when you try to play a long note (sorry, tone) (I'm from the other side of the Atlantic...) your buzz soon sags downwards. But the more you play the better it gets...

If you've already played another brass instrument then you might just need to let your embouchure adapt to get into the centre (sorry, center, see note above ;-)) of the notes.

Horn players empty by removing the slides, there are so many loops where condensation can collect. Some horns have a water key on the leadpipe, but many have none at all. Empty the main tuning slide (first one the tube comes to, normally) and always the 3rd valve slides, and sometimes every other slide as well. Be careful when you empty the 3rd valve slides that you tip them the right way, water generally runs downhill... you would be amazed how many pupils have to be taught that bit of basic physics.

Anyway, get back to me if you can enlighten me any more as to what sort of problems you have... and happy practising!


---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: I am 62 years old and came to brass instruments after 50 years of woodwinds (clarinet).  I also play trumpet(though I'm also a beginner).  I find the sputtering with trumpet, too, but I've found that it is corrected by playing long tones.  It seems to help my lip get accustomed to the notes. I strive for clear notes.  I have tried blowing into the mouthpiece, tightening, and repositioning my lip.  When I blow into the mouthpiece, what particular sound am I going for?  I think I am getting the right notes--I think I could play a C scale--, but the sputtering is like radio static where you can't hear the transmission.  I don't know of any horn teachers or players, so I am basically on my own.

Hi, ideally the mouthpiece on its own should sound like a reasonably clear note, with a definite pitch - you can play a scale or a tune although controlling the exact pitch is tricky. And one of the reasons for practising with the mouthpiece alone is to hear whether there's a clear, buzz or not. In your case there obviously isn't. So let's try to work out why...

It's very tricky to generalise about brass embouchures because everyone's face is different. But firstly, the trumpet and the horn tend to need a slightly different setup, due to the different pitch range and the different shape of the mouthpiece. So it might be tricky for you to try to establish two slightly different embouchures at the same time. You might have more success focusing on one instrument.

Basically a brass embouchure should use various opposing sets of muscles to create tension in the bit of the face which is inside the mouthpiece. The main ones act sideways and vertically.

Sideways: corners of the mouth set slightly outwards in a straightish line, say "mmm", and then the muscles along the top and bottom lips, the ones you would use to pout or kiss, pushing in towards the centre of the lips.

Vertically: corners of the mouth pulled down a bit and muscles between the mouth and the chin trying to pull the lips apart, and then muscles around the centre of the lips trying to keep the lips together.

So then it's just about trying to get the right balance of these opposing forces to start with, and then working on muscle conditioning so as to be able to exert more force and so play higher and for longer.

Lips too far apart can often produce an airy sound, lips pressed too much together makes it all too hard work and only makes very high notes. The sideways forces tend to affect range more than anything else, too much of a smile is no good but if the corners aren't a bit stretched to start with nothing will be functioning.

The trumpet mouthpiece normally sits equally on each lip, if not then more top lip than bottom, and points roughly straight out. The horn one is better with a bit more top lip than bottom and pointing slightly downwards, due to the need to play lower.

These, as I say, are all generalisations, but by experimenting with these ideas, a mouthpiece and a mirror one can usually find something that works satisfactorily. At your age the face muscles you haven't been using to play the clarinet will probably need to be toned up considerably. Your idea of long tones is a very good one for this.

And of course use the instrument as well, on either the horn or the trumpet try to start off in the range from written middle C to G, of course as the horn is pitched in F that's F below middle C up to middle C in sounding pitch, whereas the trumpet it's the same notes as the clarinet. And if you have a double horn, please play on the F horn, normally that's without the thumb valve. That way you have a much better chance of getting a good sound and well-centred notes. And no need to mess with that pesky third valve, the C scale only need 2 fingers!

I think that's enough for the first lesson... I do often tell beginners that it's all a bit of an experiment, trial and error, as we don't really have much conscious control over our face muscles. So the main method is, if it doesn't sound good, never mind, try again, and if it does, try to repeat it.

Let me know how you're getting on!


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Alan Jones


Can answer just about anything on playing the horn, repertoire, buying instruments, repairs, care and maintenance


25 years of professional playing and teaching in the UK


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