Horn Secrets: Putting Conventional Wisdom to the Test

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A week from today I will present a session at the 2012 Southwest Horn Conference with the title “Horn Secrets: Putting Conventional Wisdom to the Test.” The following was turned in for the program book:

Many elements of a conventional approach to horn playing were put forth by Philip Farkas in his 1956 text The Art of French Horn Playing. But the seldom told story is that many of the best horn players break many of those rules, the Farkas approach being only one end of a spectrum of ways to approach a variety of technical issues. This session will look at that bigger picture through a variety of resources from the past and present, with a particular view toward seeing clearly those points where conventional wisdom and physiological accuracy collide.

You will need to attend the session to get the full view, but the basic plan is to first quote Farkas, who pretty much defines conventional wisdom on a number of topics. With him setting the table so to speak then on each topic attention will turn to three sources that present and illustrate differing approaches, in a way that will challenge thinking but at the same time not be an overwhelming amount of information for the time available. The point being in no way to attack Farkas but to stimulate thinking about a bigger picture of horn pedagogy.

To stay within time constraints there will be only four major topic areas addressed in the session. As I know most Horn Matters readers won’t be able to attend the session (but come if you can!), the following quotes drawn from the PowerPoint and links to more, related information give a good idea of some of the concepts presented and should be of interest to serious students of the horn.

Average tonguing

Philip Farkas, The Art of Brass Playing
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.

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Milan Yancich, A Practical Guide to French Horn Playing
There is a great deal of argument concerning the use of the tongue in brass playing. Having been taught to tongue behind my teeth in my early years on the horn and later to tongue between the teeth, I have concluded from both experiences that there is no one-and-only way to articulate. Tonguing is an individual matter depending on the formation of the teeth and jaw. The tongue, its thickness and length, the size of the oral cavity, the bite of the teeth, all these contribute to articulating with the tongue. I usually instruct my beginning students to tongue slightly between the teeth.

Anton Horner, Primary Studies for the French Horn
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.

Dale Clevenger, as reported in Dale Clevenger: Performer and Teacher
Position the tongue at the bottom of the top teeth to articulate. The cleanest articulation is produced when the tongue meets the bottom of the upper teeth. If the beginning of the note is fuzzy or unclear, most likely the tongue is making contact too high back on the back of the upper teeth or even on the roof of the mouth, which may interfere with the flow of air. At the point of sound, the tongue should already be in place at the bottom of the top teeth, and it should move backwards to create an articulation when the air is released.

Staccato tonguing

Philip Farkas, The Art of Brass Playing
…the release of a very short note, coming, as it does, right on the heels of the attack, is most often the point of technical failure. Too often the misguided player attempts to get shortness in his staccato notes by stopping the vibration with the tongue—“tut-tut-tut”. This abrupt stopping of the air-column, and its consequent abrupt stoppage of the tone, produces a most unmusical and unnatural quality. No musical instrument in the world stops its sound suddenly. …any musical note, no matter how short, has a diminuendo at its very end which tapers it down to inaudibility….

Fred Fox, Essentials of Brass Playing
When playing a series of fast sixteenth notes only the tongue is used to start and stop the notes, since now, with the notes following each other so quickly, the hard tongue stop cannot be heard.

Harry Berv, A Creative Approach to the French Horn
The staccato note ends almost as soon as it starts by the abrupt stoppage of air, which is responsible for the so-called “dry” sound.” The tongue acts as a valve in starting and stopping the flow of air; never try to end the note by constricting the throat.

Douglas Hill, Collected Thoughts on Teaching and Learning, Creativity, and Horn Performance.
[In relation to very short articulations Hill recommends practice of staccato eighth notes with]…the most compressed tut possible.


Philip Farkas, The Art of Brass Playing.
So we see that there are several forces at work in forming the embouchure. The drawstring of muscle around the mouth contracts in an attempt to form a very small circle of the mouth, but at the same time the cheek, chin and jaw muscle, in fact the complete network of muscles radiating out from the mouth, are striving to pull the mouth wide open in all directions.

Although these opposing muscles seem to be working at cross purposes, it is exactly this stress or tug-of-war which is needed to supply the tension so necessary to the creation of lip vibration. … the opposing muscles might figuratively say to each other, “You pull less hard and I will, too, but let neither of us win this tug-of-war.”

Perhaps the above discussion will make us realize the futility of the age-old argument among brass players: “Which is the proper embouchure, the smiling one or the puckered one?” A little thought will lead to the conclusion that both systems must be combined.

Gunther Schuller, Horn Technique
…there are four ways in which pitches can be altered by the embouchure: one is by pressure upon the lips from without (the mouthpiece and the horn); the second is by changing the size and shape of the lip opening; the third is by altering the degree of tension in the lip muscles; and the fourth is the angle at which the air is directed into the mouthpiece. The first approach is controlled primarily through slight pressures applied by the left hand, while the latter three are governed by the movement of the jaw, the lower teeth, and the lip muscles themselves.

Farquharson Cousins, On Playing the Horn.
There is, I believe, a rare secret to be found in every first class embouchure. It has no accepted name, so I shall invent one which is also a literal description: ‘the Upward-Resisted-Push’. When the mouthpiece is in position the player pushes it upwards towards the nose, where, provided that the pivots are firm, the muscles between the top of the mouthpiece and the nose will RESIST. Apart for from the advantage of making it difficult to press in excess of muscle support, the Upward-Resisted-Push assists the red (vibrating) part of the top lip inside the mouthpiece to be revealed. Also it helps the tightening of the lip membrane for higher vibrations. When the knack of the Upward-Resisted-Push is acquired a note seems almost to sustain itself and there is a sensation of effortless ‘poise’, perhaps the most satisfying experience in the whole game of horn playing. What has been described is the basis of what I call the ‘Embouchure-Seal’.

Douglas Hill, Collected Thoughts on Teaching and Learning, Creativity, and Horn Performance
To form the embouchure, begin by humming the sound emmm. Feel the position of your jaw. Notice how the teeth are separated, yet the jaw is relaxed. Now simply tuck the corners of the mouth (firm but not flexed) in toward your teeth. This is not a full smile but is just enough of a smile to inhibit the formation of air pockets in the cheeks and top lip while blowing. This firm tucking should also cause the chin muscles to be pointing downward set in a flattened or concave position. Thus, the lower lip will never fill with air, and the chin will remain stable and never bunch upward. Before, during, and after the formation of an embouchure, attempt to feel heaviness in the face, especially around the eyes. Look tired like a basset hound. (Try to imagine that.)

From this relaxed positioning of the facial muscles, it is simply a matter of forming a very slight pucker at the center of the lips, as if the letter “p” is about to be pronounced. With the release of a steady airstream through an oval-shaped aperture, you should be able to produce a vibration. If your teeth form a natural overbite, then your top lip will probably also protrude farther than your bottom lip. Allow your embouchure and aperture to conform to your natural facial formation as much as possible. This point is very important in finding your best embouchure.

Mouthpiece pressure

Philip Farkas, The Art of Brass Playing
Through another of our homely illustrations we can visualize how heavy pressure achieves both the small aperture and the firm flesh. Imagine a nice, fresh, spongy doughnut, sandwiched between two pieces of plate-glass. If these pieces of glass are slowly pressed together, the hole in the doughnut can be observed to gradually get smaller as the doughnut itself is flattened. But, at the same time, this pressure also compresses the “flesh” of the doughnut into something much firmer than its original spongy consistency. In just the same way, mouthpiece pressure diminished the size of the opening of the lips, while simultaneously compressing the soft flesh into something resembling strong, firm muscle. Unfortunately, the poor lips suffer the same abuse as did the crushed doughnut, and, of course, human lips cannot take this punishment indefinitely.

Farquharson Cousins, On Playing the Horn.
Lips are tough, and with training can support almost effortlessly whatever pressures are consistent with their development. There must be no confusion about this. Imagine a wheelbarrow being edged by a mini-car, then the mini-car by a lorry, and the lorry by a locomotive. In each case pressures are brought to bear without much effort on the part of the stronger party. A mouthpiece made of metal could crush any human tissue if allowed to do so, but if the player develops the muscles in his lips, reasonable pressure can not only be harmless but can improve the efficiency of the ‘Embouchure-Seal’, the only condition being, as already emphasized, that pressure is relative to muscle support. The stronger the lip muscles, the greater the pressure that can be exerted, and the firmer the contact between mouthpiece and lip.

Joe Barbenel, John Booth Davies, and Patrick Kenny, “Science proves musical myths wrong,” New Scientist, April 3, 1986
From these experiments, we can make several guarded statements. First, it is simply not true that professional players of the highest calibre use low levels of force on the mouthpiece. We could not differentiate amateur players from professionals in terms of the amount of force they used to perform a given task. Secondly, skilled players were no better than other groups at ranking photographs of players for the amount of force the subjects were using on the mouthpiece. The experts appeared to base their judgments of force on the general appearance of effort rather than on any specific cues. When asked to judge between different players, experts could not reliably tell who used the most force and who used the least.

Randy Gardner, Mastering the Horn’s Low Register
Many people are taught to anchor their mouthpiece into the bottom lip and lighten pressure on the top lip when playing in the high register. This is essential in the upper tessitura to ensure that the top lip remains free to vibrate.


And there will be a lot more covered, with a look at elements of The Balanced Embouchure, the general topic of why Farkas presented his approach as he did in print, and much more.

By the way, I will also perform! In addition to a half recital shared with Daniel Katzen I will be playing third horn on the Konzertstuck with an all-star group (J.D. Shaw, Laurence Lowe, and Daniel Katzen) and more! If you are in the area and not sure about attending, do attend. Hope to see you there!

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