Hornmasters on Pitch Bending

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In this series we now arrive at the topic of pitch bending, an exercise that can be of great benefit to hornists to develop tone quality and the lower register.

In the addendum to Essentials of Brass Playing Fred Fox addresses the topic of honing in on the best tone quality through pitch bending.

A thick, heavy sound on your instrument may not carry as well as a leaner, well balanced tone.

Try the following experiment: Pick a middle register note, hold it out. As it is sustained, bend it, make it sharper and flatter. Go to the extreme both ways—almost to the point where the next harmonic appears. Do this a few times, to get the feel of it. Finally do the same thing more slowly, reach both extremes one time, then stop at the point near the middle of the note that sounds best to your ear. The point that sounds best to you is where that note should always be played. I have found, in my teaching, that the point arrived at by the student is invariably a slighter firmer point than where the note is usually played. It now tends to be a leaner sound, less flabby, more effective. The pitch is not important. If you adopt a leaner overall embouchure and it is all consistently sharper, then all that has to be done is to pull out the tuning slide a bit.

The sound may not be the one you habitually have produced, but consider, given a multiple of choices, you picked it in preference to your usual tone! It is possible to be too tight as well as too loose. Eternal vigilance!

In a prior article we looked briefly at how William R. Brophy in his Technical Studies for Solving Special Problems on the Horn used pitch bending to open up the sound in the lower register. To quote this resource again, he explains how to best bend pitches.

The pitch change is accomplished by opening up the oral cavity and throat, but a slight downward and forward movement of the jaw if necessary, and by some slight relaxation of the embouchure, though a minimum amount of lip change is desirable. Do not help the pitch change by closing the bell with the right hand.

Strive to match the tone quality of the “bent” not to that of the “real” note. Be sure that the lowered pitch is supported with the same amount and intensity of air as the starting note.

Two other notable sources to briefly highlight:

  • Frøydis Ree Wekre in Thoughts on Playing the Horn Well suggests doing pitch bends as being “useful for intonation” and they also increase “the strength of the muscles inside the mouthpiece.”
  • Douglas Hill notes that pitch bending is a “wonderful low-range study” in Collected Thoughts on Teaching and Learning, Creativity, and Horn Performance.

Pitch bending relates strongly to pitch centering, and I would highly recommend besides the related exercises in The Brass Gym as an additional resource my own article, “Placing Pitch ‘In the Pocket,'” which was published in The Horn Call some years back. A version of this article may be found in Horn Articles Online, which points to some additional useful resources on the topic from William C. Robinson. My article begins

Proper pitch placement is certainly an issue of concern for horn players. Many less experienced players play high on the pitch, and as a result need to pull their main tuning slides out a great deal. Most fine players, however, don’t need to pull their horns down nearly so far. In reflection I realize that over the course of my own studies my pitch certainly dropped; I needed to pull my horn out less as I advanced in my playing abilities. This was not something that I intentionally set out to do and no teacher told me that I needed to pull out less, but I did over the years learn how to place the pitch better. To play well with the best possible tone you need to place pitch correctly. Two keys to learning how to describe and achieve proper pitch placement recently fell into place for me while working on a recital.

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