Hornmasters: Farkas and Schuller on the Slur, Air, and Vowels


We return to the Hornmasters series this time looking at  topics related to the lyric side of playing the horn, beginning with slurs, air, and the use of vowels. This article will be longer than average in this series as it allows us to focus in more depth on the contrasting approaches presented by Philip Farkas and Gunther Schuller.

Farkas in his discussion in The Art of French Horn Playing starts with the slur, as it allows him to first focus on the use of air in musical contexts. In a slur the lips must continue to vibrate between notes. He comments

As we know, the lips are vibrated by the air column, so it is obvious that a good legato requires that the air flow steadily and continuously between notes. There is a commonly committed error of “huffing” each note into place with a shove of air just as the slur takes place. Done correctly, the air should continue steadily during the change, exactly as for one long tone. The slur should result from the proper use of the embouchure, not from a shove of air.

And here is where we need to immediately step back. There is an introductory article to the topic of slurs and legato as part of the University of Horn Matters series (here). In that article two videos are embedded in 2016 updates, relating to the recent MRI horn studies led by Dr. Peter Iltis. It truly will be worth your time to take 15 minutes and listen to at least the podcast and also check out the longer video at the 8:00 mark for a minute or two. Because actually Farkas immediately ventures into a grey area.

mri-hornSeriously, any real horn teacher or aspiring horn teacher should not be ignorant of what the MRI videos clearly show. Farkas sounds correct enough, don’t shove the notes into place! However he had no way to see that actually, in slurs there are natural pulsations of the tongue which are very visible in the MRI studies. This fact has to my knowledge never been mentioned in any horn text or article.

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Done to excess I think you will hear the pulsations as evidence of a shove of air or a dreaded “twa-twa.” However, they are also completely natural and obviously part of the standard technique of fine horn players. We will return to this topic as we continue.

As Farkas continues his thought he applies and clarifies the use of the tongue as discussed earlier in his section on the four points of resistance, the use of vowels or differing vowels by range.

The tongue furnishes very definite help in slurring and is used in conjunction with the lips. If the slur is upward, the tongue should silently form the vowel “oo” for the first note and “ee” for the second. In a downward slur the opposite order is used, “ee-oo”. These enunciations will accomplish perfectly the result that was hoped for by the intuitive (but wrong) urge to “huff” notes into place. A shove of air will definitely aid an upward slur, but this shove must be far more subtle than any shove of the diaphragm. When forming “oo” for the lower note and changing to “ee” just as the embouchure makes the slur, the tongue arches upward in the column of air the needed, but very subtle, shove. The vowels “ee-oo”, formed in making a downward slur, produce the opposite effect; they relax the air stream slightly so that he lower note is settled upon gently.

…Do not carry this arching too far, as it is only a minor aid to slurring, which must be basically achieved with the embouchure.

Back to the MRI videos, Farkas is correct about the “oo” to “ee” vowel shape changes (low to high) but incorrect in saying it is a minor aid to slurring. Actually it is a key to slurs, especially wider slurs, which he recognized more in a later publication (examined shortly). If this element is missing and you solely “muscle” the slur it will be problematic, as would also the absence of the natural pulsations of the tongue.

[NOTE: For clarity I will generally use the same vowels that the author used in the quote when commenting on it. My general default will be Hee-Haw, with “aw” and “oh” being considered for our purposes to be nearly the same.]

Gunther Schuller opens his chapter in Horn Technique on legato addressing a similar topic but from a very different angle. While Farkas looked at slurring as something aided by changes of vowel sound, Schuller looks toward air speed adjustments as the essential aid to slurs.

The single most important factor in legato playing (slurring from one note to another) is our old friend ‘breath support’. As we have learned, it is the air column that largely controls the vibration of the lips. Now the secret of good slurring is to keep this vibrating of the lips constant and controlled between slurred notes. Otherwise the beauty of the legato will be impared or—worse yet—the player may find that the second note, to which he is attempting to slur, will not speak at all. It therefore stands to reason that extremely sensitive control of the air column is the key to a smooth, perfectly controlled legato.

The most common fault among students is that they generally give insufficient breath support in slurring….

In order to get a smooth legato between two notes, in which both notes shall be equal dynamically and qualitatively, a ‘breath crescendo’ must be made internally. This is especially true of any upward slur, and becomes more critical the larger the skip or the higher the register involved in the slur.

If we step back from this, what is a “breath crescendo” anyway? It is a change of airspeed. How do we change airspeed then? “Blow harder,” maybe, but also if you change your tongue position in your mouth the airspeed is impacted too. As the tongue goes up there is a venturi effect and the airspeed increases.

So, for example, exhale through your mouth and imagine you are playing a very low note and then a very high note. Notice that your tongue goes up and as a result the airspeed is higher? This effect helps slurs.

Back to Schuller, besides breath support, which he sees as the crucial factor towards legato, he points out two other important elements, “the size of the embouchure opening, as controlled by the teeth, and the jaw and the timing and smooth operation of the fingers of the left hand.” And he has one other final, important point to make.

Before I leave the subject of legato playing, I must speak of one other related problem—in my opinion one of the most widespread evils of horn playing. It is what I call the ‘wah-wah’ style of playing, in which each note is pushed and bent in a way that disrupts the easy musical flow of a legato or semi-legato phrase. This style—to call it that is to flatter it with a euphemism—is not confined to one country. I have heard it in all countries where I have heard horn playing….

Strangely enough, this manner of playing is seemingly accepted by all conductors, not to speak of lay audiences…. Conductors seem relieved when the horn player ‘gets the notes’, and generally do not quibble about matters of phrasing and intonation…. My guess is that most conductors fail to hear the difference, or at least are unable to cope with it on practical corrective terms.

As to what it is exactly Schuller offers the following.

An analysis of the nature of the ‘wah-wah’ discloses that, whether tongued or slurred, the beginning of each not starts with not a quite centred tone and a correspondingly lower dynamic level. During the course of the note, both tone and dynamic level are expanded and heightened. Toward the end of the note, the original level is restored. At this low point, the connection is made to the next note. It is evident that there is a certain security—a feeling of taking no chances—in this ‘sneaking-in’ approach, and this indeed is the reason, I think, for the prevalence of this bad habit. It gives the player a chance to ‘test’ the note, to sort of feel his way into the note before playing it at full level. This is convenient, but most unmusical.

That is conventional wisdom of what causes a “wah-wah,” but now the pulsations I talked about earlier make sense. They are natural, they will be there, but when they get to the point that you begin to hear them as a “wah-wah” you have to look toward making them less obvious, focusing on trying to make strings of notes become perfectly connected blocks of sound.

Farkas has more to say on this topic in his later publication The Art of Brass Playing, where he suggests in slurs that

It should be quite obvious that a well-supported air-column must continue between the notes to keep this buzz alive. So many players have a misconception that the air-column “bulges” on each note and continues as a mere thread between these notes—a sort of hourglass effect rather than a straight column. The air-column must continue straight and steady between notes with just as much support from the diaphragm as would be used to sustain one long tone.

Farkas thus was also concerned to avoid what Schuller called a “wah-wah” effect in slurs, just he called them “bulges” and did not have benefit of MRI to spot the underlying issue. Farkas also in this publication it is notable was more of an advocate of vowel sounds as being a valuable aid to slurring, showing some change in his pedagogy over time.

There is a natural (and, in my opinion, correct) to form the inside of the mouth for the vowel “oh”, while holding low notes, “ah” or “oo” for the middle register, and “ee” for the high register. These vowel sounds do not change from one to another at any certain point in the range, but rather change imperceptibly and gradually as the range ascends or descends. That is, the “oh” formation of the lower notes gradually becomes “ee” in the high register by the gradual arching higher and higher of the back of the tongue. This process works in reverse as the player descends.

In slurring very small intervals, this action is almost imperceptible. But, in the slurring of larger intervals, this change becomes quite pronounced.

Farkas explains that these changes of vowel sound subtly increase and decrease the air pressure in the mouth, which aids with slurs. In total, we can see an evolution in his thinking on the topic, as to go from “oh” to “ah” to “ee” is to arch the tongue. It is presented in The Art of Brass Playing as much more than a “minor aid to slurring,” he realized that he had downplayed an important topic in The Art of French Horn Playing.

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