“Horns are a Quarter-Beat Late”–A Response

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This article came to mind in answering a recent question that came in, and a bit of searching told me that it was not in the current website. This is an article from the original HTML Horn Notes Blog dated 4/25/06. I will leave it exactly as originally posted (with the “Tip of the Day”) but with a few comments at the end.

First, sorry for the delay in recent postings. Things are finally slowing down again a bit, the spring semester is the busiest time of the year.

Arizona has a regional IHS newsletter, Horn on the Range. In the March issue there is an article by Tucson hornist Loren Mayhew, which is based on a posting or series of postings on the horn list.

The title of his article is “Horns are a Quarter-Beat Late,” and in it he argues in short that “if you attack the entrance exactly on the beat or exactly with the instruments around you, the horn sound will be late, guaranteed.” He speaks at some length about sound delay, distances to reflective surfaces, absorption of surfaces behind the horn section, etc.

There is a point to all of his points but I am skeptical that this is the real problem. I have never to my memory had this problem in an ensemble professionally and I have played in many, many different acoustics. There are two central points I believe he missed.

A first point would be that many players honestly believe that they are articulating on time and may actually be articulating on time, but what the conductor and audience hears as the articulation is the point just after the articulation occurs when the sound develops to full volume. It is a version of the “twa-twa” problem. At a distance you don’t even hear the “T” of the “twa” at all, the sound that is heard is just the “wa-wa” part of the equation. This is especially apparent on loud, pointed articulations. [Such as off-beats.]

An element of this problem is mouthpiece choice. Few players can get a tight, pointed staccato articulation out of a very large mouthpiece like a C-1.

The second point would be this; many players just don’t play on top of the beat. You can’t lay back and “follow” you have to lead on every part. Be on top of the beat. Related to this, nothing can be more frustrating to me than percussionists who don’t play on top of the beat. I don’t know what is in their minds–why lay back?

In short, while I don’t doubt that theoretically the acoustic can impact articulations and perceptions of articulations out in halls, I do think that horn players need to be sure they can actually produce a very tight articulation right on the beat before they resort to sound reflectors and such.

TIP OF THE DAY: I was talking about articulations and mouthpieces with another horn teacher at one of the recent workshops and he told me that he had run into students in high school who had been suggested to use a C-1 mouthpiece and were having trouble. Of course they were! This is way too big for practically any player. I say this having been there and done that; perhaps every player needs to have the “big mouthpiece” phase at some point, but I am now way past my C-1 phase.

Looking at this again, I maybe was a little hard on Loren–I certainly am glad he took the time to write the article and also the points he brings up are valid–but I did want to make my point clear that while there may be acoustical concerns to overcome, actually I think often the problem is technical on the performer end of the equation. On the other hand, it is almost as though if some conductors see you with a horn you are already late no matter what you do. They have it written down in their yellow pad–horns late here, horns dragging here, etc.

This general topic, of horns being late, is a great one that will never go away. A more recent article I would point to presents the basic ideas to consider on the technical side is “Tonguing is the Answer.” A final note being there are rules laid out in books that don’t necessarily help players get the best, tight articulations that are right on top of the beat. I will have more on this topic on Thursday.

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