Hornmasters on the Low Range, Part I: Older Resources

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Finally in our Hornmasters series we get to the topic of the low range of the horn and changes in the embouchure from register to register. A big topic of real concern to many horn players, it is actually one not discussed in much detail in older horn texts. Perhaps it was because solutions to low range problems tend to be individualized, but maybe also because the authors were more focused on high horn playing.

Farkas in The Art of French Horn Playing gets right to it in noting that

The most common difficulty in playing the lower octave seems to be the one of producing the notes powerfully enough. The cure is, of course, much loud practice in this register. These lowest notes have to actually be “broken in”.

Curiously, other than offering a few exercises Farkas offers little else of a specific nature as to how to technically approach the low register except in the context of changes to the embouchure from the high to the low range. He felt that there should be little noticeable change, and he especially wanted players to avoid any

…obvious contortion of the facial expression, sometimes visible all the way across a large auditorium. Most of us feel the need for getting some of the lip out of the mouthpiece when we approach the very low notes. This is a necessary process in obtaining the quite large opening needed for these slow vibrations. This process of getting the lip out of the mouthpiece can be done subtly or crudely. The wrong method is used by the player who lets this desire to change the lip position accumulate as he descends, and then suddenly, when only a few notes from the bottom of the range, makes a tremendous facial grimace in an effort to get his lips into a comfortable playing position. By all means make this change to a comfortable lip setting, but do it gradually, note by note, so that the change is made subtly, with no disturbance to any note.

He adds that this type of gradual change should take place over the full range of the horn; he does not advocate for any type of “break” in the embouchure. This is an entire topic totally missing from his discussion; clearly recent MRI horn studies show that among elite horn players the jaw drops and goes forward in the range below the staff. Perhaps part of his “breaking in” process was finding that best position, but his text does not elaborate.

Gunther Schuller in Horn Technique does not address the issues of low range tone production directly but he does address two related issues in his section of notes for composers and conductors. One issue is that the low range does not project as well as the high range, as confirmed by VU meter decibel readings. The other issue of note is low range notation in horn parts. Schuller is in favor writing in treble clef down to written low C and of the continued use of “old notation” bass clef.

If notes below F [concert] are used, I personally prefer the so-called ‘old method’ of using the bass clef. Perhaps some day there will be a universally accepted standard bass clef notation. From every point of view, this is to be desired. But in this transitional period in which both methods are still in use, the composer can assure himself of an unequivocal bass class clef notation by using the old method in conjunction with the above mentioned suggestion to use the treble clef down to F.

Milan Yancich in A Practical Guide to French Horn Playing recognized the importance of working on the low range, and points to a technical issue, that of jaw and lip position.

The octave from middle C downward is the difficult register for the majority of horn players. As a rule an adjustment of the jaw and lip (changing the lip) is necessary when entering this range of the horn. Most beginning horn players avoid practicing this part of the range because of the problems they encounter in that register. It is surprising how many young players who have studied the horn for several years cannot even read the ledger lines below the staff. To be able to enter this register and produce a natural sound without distorting the jaw or lip requires time and patience.

William C. Robinson offers a low register drill in An Illustrated Advanced Method for French Horn Playing, and with it notes that

The low register should never be neglected and should be practiced regularly each day. Extremely low tones cannot be well-played without adequate embouchure relaxation; proper daily practice will develop this “controlled relaxation”.

He also notes with his scale exercises that

At some point in the lower octave a “break” in the response may occur. Certain tones may not “speak” with equal ease of response and some may fail to respond at all…. It may be necessary to lower the jaw and move it forward slightly in the low register.

And that is exactly what the MRI horn studies confirm, a combination of lowering the jaw and swinging it forward is critical.

Fred Fox was concerned with the vowel position of the tongue in Essentials of Brass Playing. The low range vowel sounds will be large but

There remains another factor that has to be watched for. It is possible to use the “awww” tongue position for the lowest notes and still not be right! It is possible to say “awww” with the back of the tongue up near the palate, or to say the same “awww” with the back of the tongue down. …be sure that on the very low notes, where the largest “awww” is needed, that the back of the tongue is down, and not near the roof of the mouth.

This quote of Fox is great advice. “Awww” is potentially the ideal low range vowel, it gets your mouth open and tongue down in the back, but not everyone will say it in this manner. Be aware: it is possible to say “awww” with a vowel position that is not good for low playing.

Harry Berv has a few brief notes about the low range in A Creative Approach to the French Horn.

In going to the lower register, the embouchure muscles relax, enlarging the aperture and reducing the intensity of the airstream….

Attacks in the low register, of course, will always be more difficult to produce than in the middle or upper register. In the low register, the embouchure is more open or relaxed; therefore, the tongue action is slower and the air pressure is not as great.

The first of the ranges addressed by William R. Brophy in Technical Studies for Solving Special Problems on the Horn is the low range. He notes

The lowest two octaves of the horn (from C just below the staff to the pedal tones of the Bb horn) is probably the most neglected register of the instrument…. young players see little if any need to develop these notes.

It is a valuable range to have under control, however, for two reasons. First, a serious student will some day, sooner or later, need command of these notes when he is confronted with them in music of a more difficult nature. Secondly, and perhaps even more important, learning to “open up” these low tones, developing the ability to play them with a full, free, characteristic horn sound, helps in “opening up” the middle and, to a large extent, the upper registers.

The clue to playing in the lowest register correctly is, of course, relaxation—relaxation particularly of the embouchure and of the neck and throat muscles. This is accomplished by practicing these notes forte, using more air than one might think necessary for the low note, and playing with as full and free a sound as possible with an unrestricted sensation in the air stream.

As to specifics in the exercises, he suggests (correctly!) that “A slight dropping of the lower jaw, and, perhaps a slight forward movement of the jaw may be helpful.” The cheeks should not puff out and the corners remain firm. Brophy highlights this central point as well: “Do not change the position of the mouthpiece on the lips.”

To this I will add, that there is a danger in over-relaxing the lips. What you need ideally is a good “awww” formation of the tongue but the lips firm enough to keep the pictch up so things won’t sag flat.

Barry Tuckwell in Playing the Horn has a brief note about breaks in the embouchure. He feels they should be avoided, but I am not certain authors use the term “break” in the same way. Most would say a break has only to do with changing jaw position by range, not mouthpiece placement; Tuckwell seems to be arguing against a break that has more than one mouthpiece placement..

The horn has an enormous range, and with such a small mouthpiece the lower register can be a problem. If there is a break in the playing range (and this is not unusual), one should try to overcome it by practising over it. A two-embouchure technique is obviously defective; there are so many passages in the repertoire that slur over three octaves.

In Practical Hints on Playing the French Horn David Bushouse correctly notes that the low embouchure needs to be fairly open and not too relaxed.

Low C, and lower notes, can be played with a full tone easily after the student learns to keep the jaw very open, the corners in a normal puckered position, and the lips open but firm enough to center the tone. Notice that this embouchure for low C is very similar to the embouchure required for C two octaves higher, but more open and relaxed.

The weak area in the low range for horn players is the octave from [written] middle C to low C. Notes above and below may respond freely while part or all of this octave will remain difficult to tongue or to play loudly. The embouchure formation required for this range is that same as that required for lower notes. If the jaw only is opened, then the pitch will go flat. If the lips only are relaxed, the tone will be very muddy and pinched. Therefore, open the jaw, keep the tongue down with taw or toe for a syllable, and keep a round opening with a well-puckered formation. Also, it is helpful to slur when developing tone, as the tongue is very disruptive when approaching limits of range, either high or low.

In short it was, honestly, not a topic addressed in much depth in older resources, but the quotes above certainly give some direction. In part II of this article I will point to some of the newer resources on the topic that present some new ideas, and close with a few final thoughts.

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