Hornmasters: Farkas on Holding the Horn and the Left Hand

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Continuing in our series of quotes from classic publications on the the horn, now that we have our horn selected and in working order we turn to the topic of holding the horn and the left hand.

As an orchestral player Philip Farkas in The Art of French Horn Playing was a strong advocate of playing the horn seated. He wrote that

Most brass players sit while playing; therefore they should practice in a sitting position. Some players advocate standing during practice as it seems to make deep breathing a little easier, since the body is less cramped. However, when these players perform in public—sitting—there is a new element of restricted breathing and unfamiliar position to add to their many other problems. … I go so far in trying to duplicate concert conditions that my practice chair at home is the same height as my orchestra chair.

In French horn playing there is another very good reason for sitting while practicing. The modern horn is held quite differently in standing position than when seated.

That last portion of the quotation needs a bit of examination, as actually I would say, today, most professional players do hold the horn very similarly seated and standing. Farkas though states that due to the weight of the double horn (!) it is normally (1956) played on the leg. “It is very fatiguing, if not impossible, for the average player to hold the horn ‘free’ for a long day’s work.”

Surprisingly, many if not most players today, even with triple horns, find it very possible to play a horn off the leg for a long day of work. It would be worth doing a study on this topic. I feel that the ability to hold a horn off the leg for long periods of time actually relates more to the right hand position in the bell being optimal, a topic of a later discussion in this series.

Farkas preferred on the leg though and advocates for a method of holding the horn while seated that does not place the weight of the horn directly on top of the leg but rather somewhat on the side of the leg.

The new method of holding the horn while sitting, which the bottom edge of the bell resting on the outside of the thigh…. Almost the entire weight of the horn is taken away from the hands and arms, giving them and the whole body a more relaxed attitude. The tone automatically becomes slightly darker….

The type of sound advocated by Farkas is key to understanding this as well, he was a fan of a darker, more covered sound than that seen commonly today. His “new method” is in fact little used.

The large issue not touched upon in any depth by Farkas is that of height variations among horn players. For him his method worked. Myself, at six feet tall, I envy in a way players that can play on the leg in the manner described easily. It took me years to figure out that to play on the leg required me at my height to slouch to one side and that off the leg was really the better method. Plus, off the leg really sounds better; compare them back to back, a conductor for sure will prefer the clarity gained by playing off the leg.

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