Hornmasters on Average Tonguing, part I: Horner and Farkas

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Every method book on the horn has something to say on the topic of tonguing, some of it being contradictory. And it is a really important topic. As such, this part of the Hornmasters series will be broken up into five parts, moving chronologically through Classic horn publications that address the topic.

mri-hornUpdating this for 2016, in my recent podcast interview with Peter Iltis (MRI horn studies) he describes the motion of the tongue in tonguing as being oblique. It really is neither up and down or forward and backward. How that physical reality is described by the authors of the following quotations from classic horn publications gives insight into their thinking on the topic along with insights into how to address tonguing problems in general.

To begin I would like to go back to 1939, before the Farkas book, and start with a quote from Anton Horner.

Attack each note with your tongue as though you had a small hair or tiny piece of thread on the end of your tongue and wanted to force it out of your mouth.

As noted in a prior article, this quote is from page 4 of Primary Studies for the French Horn, where it may be found right before study No. 1. Why this quote is important is that Horner was the teacher of a generation of the best horn players in the United States. Anton Horner (1877-1971) was principal horn of the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1904-30 and a member of the orchestra until 1946, and he was also on the faculty of the Curtis Institute from its founding in 1924 until 1942. Big name players he taught included James Chambers, the Berv brothers, and Mason Jones. He left few publications but his influence was wide and significant.

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So before reading on, just try to do what he says in the quote. Effective instruction is simple and clear and also gets the desired result. It really worked in his teaching, and it would pay off to keep this little statement in your mind as a filter to put other subsequent quotations through, as for many players this simple approach works beautifully. For a slightly longer discussion of the Horner tonguing approach please read my earlier article, which quotes Kendall Betts.

Being the “Bible” of horn playing, for many players looking at the topic of tonguing the first stop for years has been the Farkas book. Farkas began his description of an average or general style of tonguing in The Art of French Horn Playing by describing what he felt was a common fault.

One of the most common faults is the method of tonguing forward and backward into the lip opening. In this method, not only is the tongue fighting against the air stream, which is going in the opposite direction, but the entire tongue, a rather heavy organ, is required to move. No wonder that players who use this faulty manner of tonguing complain of sluggishness and lack of speed in rapid staccato!

Now go back an read Horner again. For those players influenced by Horner their tongue motion much more closely resembles the above description of how not to tongue than the description of the Farkas tonguing method that follows.

Keep the main body of the tongue motionless and well down in the bottom of the mouth. The curl the tip of it upward until it resembles the point of a ski. Touch this tip to the gum line where the back of the upper front teeth enter the gums. The tongue is now in a position to be helped in its attack by the air, which will tend to push it in a downward direction. It is this up-down action of the tongue which should be induced….. Move only the tip of the tongue and that no farther than absolutely necessary to open and close the flow of air. The shorter the up and down stroke of the tongue can be made, the faster it can repeat.

Before I add any comments we have more to read. In The Art of Brass Playing Farkas expands upon his concept of tonguing. He believes that an attack is best thought of as a “pulling away of the tip of the tongue” and that the tongue moves in an up and down motion. Expanding on this idea,

One might think of a series of tongued notes as simply a long note which is cut into separate segments by the tongue. When one thinks in this way, the logic of moving the tip of the tongue in a up-and-down direction becomes apparent. So many players have the mistaken idea that the tongue should move back-and-forth—piston-like. …Correct tonguing is an up-and-down motion, but when the tongue is placed between the teeth, the only direction it can move for the attack is backward.

Going back to the simple quote from Anton Horner that we started with, it really does not line up at all with the approach presented by Farkas. In fact you get a pretty clear sense that Farkas thought the Horner approach to be wrong.

If you want to be diplomatic you could say that Horner and Farkas presented two different ends of a spectrum of ways to think about tonguing. If you want to be real technical about it, both are probably wrong.

If however you look at an X-Ray video of tonguing (for example here) you will see that Horner was on the right track toward something that was physiologically accurate and Farkas was a bit off in his descriptions. As we proceed in this series readers will see varied approaches presented, and when combined with a bit of critical thinking will hopefully also come to new clarity about their own best approach to tonguing and teaching tonguing.

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