Get a Grip for Better Comfort

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UPDATE: Apologies for the missing images. They will get fixed soon.

With the beginning and intermediate French horn students I teach, about 8 out of 10 of them have a very hard time just holding the instrument. For some, it is a real struggle.

Well, let’s face it – the horn is awkward to hold, and most beginning students experience physical strain and discomfort at the beginning. But, if a horn doesn’t fit their young hands to begin with, their troubles will most likely continue into the intermediate stages. I advise all my private students to “bring the instrument to themselves” rather than to submit to the instrument’s design. In most cases, this translates into taking it to the repair shop for some ergonomic improvements.

Discomfort, pain or numbness from an inefficient grip can be discouraging for a player of any age, as it can make playing an unpleasant experience. In fact, here in Arizona, I see students quit playing for this reason all the time; because the instrument is so difficult for them to hold, beginners get discouraged and quit.

A more determined, advanced student may develop a strained hand position to compensate for an inadequate grip. This strain invites a host of problems. At the very least, a strained grip limits finger mobility and causes discomfort; at its worst it invites long-term problems like chronic numbness, tendinitis or even Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.

Last week, I was honored to participate in a local American Music Educator’s Association panel discussion and demonstration called “Why the Horn.” This panel included the three state university horn professors from Arizona: John Ericson (ASU), Keith Johnson (UA) and Nancy Sullivan (NAU). The purpose of the discussion was to encourage educators to recruit more horn students.

I brought up the topic of the hand grip at this discussion, and after some more thought decided to write something here. This entry is focused solely on the valve-manipulating hand – the left hand.

The “Claw”

One common, tell-tale sign for a strained left-hand position is something that I call “the claw.”

This hand position reminds me of how my cats wrestle and play-fight with their scooped paws raised in the air. It happens when the wrist of the left hand is bent at a forward angle and the fingers are extended beyond a natural curve. Players doing the “claw” are most likely over-reaching for the valve levers or straining to reach the range of the pinky hook and thumb valve.

For most people, the arm, wrist and hand work best when positioned in a straight line or at a slight angle. The spread of the hand should feel natural and not stretched. A large angle – the “claw” – in most cases indicates a mismatch between the instrument and its user. A mismatch like this impedes the player’s finger control and arm support, and may cause undo muscle strain.

Try this: without a horn, hold your hand out straight without bending the wrist. Wiggle your fingers and observe your forearm. Now, bend your wrist forward at a right angle and wiggle your fingers again. Notice all the extra activity in your forearm muscles? The best left-hand position in my opinion gets its support from larger muscle groups – the shoulders and triceps. Bending the wrist into a “claw” minimizes these bigger muscles and activates the smaller forearm and elbow muscle groups.

There is no one answer to fixing the “claw,” but below are some possible solutions. In most cases, fixing the “claw” involves a combination of some re-soldering and adjusting – and maybe even the addition of extra parts.

Pinky to Thumb – Solder Adjustments

For most beginning students, the distance of the pinky hook in relation the thumb hook or thumb valve is too large. I have seen students gripping the hook with the very tip of their pinkies because their hands were too small and their horn’s grip too big. Overstretching the hand like this has many negative side-effects: a sore hand, a slippery, unstable pinky that needs constant attention, and an inefficient grip on the thumb valve. Unfortunately, most major instrument manufacturers seem to design their instruments for medium/large hands, and correcting this mismatch should the first order of business for any student or person with small (or weak) hands.

The solution is very simple – take the horn to a music repair shop and talk to the brass repair technician. Ask them to move the pinky hook to a different location better suited to the player’s hand. Using a marker or pencil, the repair tech can mark the ideal location, remove, and then re-solder the hook – all for a minimal charge.

Adjustable pinky hooks are available for purchase as an “add-on” product. Some student Yahama horns have them built-in from the factory. These are fantastic! It is amazing what a difference this very simple fix can make.

Valve Levers – Height and Length

The height of each valve lever should relate to the player’s natural finger curvature. Personally, I prefer different levels for each lever, depending on the length of its corresponding finger. For example, my third valve lever is the lowest of the three as my pinkie is the shortest. My middle valve sticks up a little bit to compensate for the extra length of my middle finger. My first valve lever is slightly higher than the middle lever as this feels natural to me. This escalating system works for me, but others may prefer something different; for instance, all the levers positioned at an equal height. It is all a matter of personal preference and comfort.

The “wiggle room” for adjustment differs from manufacturer to manufacturer. For example, on my Yahama 667, I can raise and lower each pedal by over an inch total. On my Conn 8D, there is less room for adjustment – about 3/4 inch. In any case, adjusting the lever heights is a simple adjustment that can be done with a screwdriver. If a student or teacher is not able to figure it out, a repair tech can help. This is a very cheap, but important, fix.

The length or throw of the key pedals may be a problem. They may not be long enough for a person with short fingers – as is often the case for me. Even when I adjust the levers to the lowest possible setting on some horns, I still have to do the “claw” to reach the keys.

My solution is to solder extensions (US dimes to be exact) on the ends of the valve levers to expand their reach. A few horn and instrument manufacturers sell flat, brass discs specifically made for this purpose.

Besides looking cool, the dimes serve a practical purpose. As seen in the underside-view picture above, the dimes on my Conn 8D extend the pedal reach by several millimeters. As a result, I have a more relaxed and natural finger curvature and can avoid the “claw.”

And besides, now my horn is worth 30 cents more… 😉

Even for people with large hands extensions may have advantages; they can provide a larger surface area for larger fingers to make contact with.

Extra Braces – Reducing Circumference

While trying out a new, custom lead pipe on my Conn 8D, I removed an extra bracing between the first branch and bell flare and attached the lead pipe directly to the third branch. I removed this brace (underneath my first knuckle) to reduce the overall circumference of the grip. For students with small hands I recommend the same; the extra eighth-inch space makes a huge difference.

Beyond this, I believe that removing this brace has enhanced how the instrument responds.

Widgets and Gadgets – Add-on Support

There are several add-on products that can help give a student a better hold on the French horn. These include: adjustable handrests; handguards; or other widgets like the “Pip Stick.”

Adjustable handrests come in several different shapes and sizes, but their objective is the same – to add extra left-hand support. There are two basic designs in use today: the leather strap and the metal “flipper.”

The leather strap adds a band of wide support with a large leather loop. It is attached to the Horn with a type of bolt soldered to the bell flare. The strap renders the pinky hook useless and it is usually removed. I have several colleagues that rave about the leather strap and how comfortable it is. I personally use a metal “flipper” – pictured above. Sometimes called a “duck’s foot,” it’s support covers less area, but I like the convenience of an adjustable, hinged flipper that lies flat when I put my Horn in my case. I also like to have my pinkie anchored by a hook.

There is also a Velcro Holding Strap available that requires no soldering. It is adjustable and is anchored in place to the pinky hook. Because these straps are relatively inexpensive (about $20), I recommend these to my beginning and intermediate students.

Handguards wrap around the lead pipe and bell flare. They provide a bit of padding, moisture protection from perspiration, and a surface that is easier to grip onto.

They come in two varieties: handguards with shoe-stringed enclosures, and handguards with Velcro enclosures. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and it may be necessary to trim the handguard with a pair of scissors to get the right fit. As pictured above (in an underside-view), I had to trim 1/4 inch from my Conn handguard to prevent it from getting in the way of my thumb and thumb valve.

One final product to be considered is the “Pip Stick.” While I have never personally used one I have always considered one for students with extreme difficulties in holding the instrument. I have also considered one for myself. In the event of a physical injury where my ability to hold the Horn might be impaired, the Pip Stick could be a career-saving device.

Customizing Enhances Playing

Customizing the left hand grip on the French horn is critical to comfort, to reducing stress on the body, and to efficient finger movement. A personalized grip enhances playing; a good grip makes supporting and fingering the instrument more natural and intuitive.

As a professional, on average I spend up to $200 on customizing the left-hand grip of my horns. For a beginner, even an entry-level investment of $20-$40 can make a huge difference.

With some simple re-soldering, a new handguard, and a new handrest, a mismatched horn can easily be customized to any player of any age. It is well worth the time and expense.

Recommended Web Sites:

University of Horn Matters