Hornmasters on the Low Range, Part II: More Recent Resources

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In part I of this series on the low range, quotations from a number of older horn texts were presented that in brief give an overview of some of the most frequently made suggestions for low range improvement. But what might also have been noted by readers is that no one older source is particularly comprehensive on the topic. That was left for later publications to address.

In this series our goal is to highlight older and newer publications on the horn, with typically longer quotations from some of the older sources. In deference to the publishers and authors of newer sources however, quotations have been more sparse, and will be in this article as well. The purpose being to point you to those resources that you might explore them more fully yourself, as each one has more to offer.

Frøydis Ree Wekre in Thoughts on Playing the Horn Well offers a lot of insights and practical solutions to low range production issues. I would love to quote extensively from this text, but instead must point out it is still in print (available through McCoy’s Horn Library among others), and interested readers can track it down and read more. The following bullet points give some of the flavor.

  • In the category of dynamics, she notes that at extreme loud dynamics the low range requires a “big aperture and lots of air!” Also “Sometimes for special effect one can place the lower teeth under the mouthpiece,” a note I very much appreciated as I know my jaw goes into that position for very low notes. At extreme soft dynamics she notes “I have found that good contact (you may call it pressure) between the mouthpiece and the lower lip (teeth) is necessary for satisfying control,” another very important point to make.
  • In the category of articulations Wekre comments that in legato passages “Generosity of air is required” and that the “muscles can be somewhat relaxed.” In staccato “the lips need to be less relaxed, more firm, with less ‘flesh’ around the mouthpiece, and good contact with the lower teeth.” Firmness is important.
  • In the category of context, when going from high to low “speed is the key element; the change of facial muscle work can be quite drastic as long as it happens very quickly.” She notes also that she has found pivoting “(angling the horn somewhat up, putting more contact on the upper lip)” to be helpful. As to low to high a key is to “be as ready as possible for the next (ascending) notes.”

Another large topic is that of changes in the embouchure from register to register. Wekre has a most interesting discussion of the two major lines of thought on this topic. One approach is the “poker-face-concept” and the other is the “rubber-face-concept.”

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The “poker-face” theory according to Wekre “says that the player should find one position and one specific muscle tension which changes as little as possible while playing.” She points out that Farkas made statements in support of this theory in The Art of French Horn Playing.

The other extreme is the “rubber-face” approach, which Farkas discouraged. These players have

…a slightly different viewpoint. A quote from Dale Clevenger, principal horn of the Chicago Symphony, illustrates this more pragmatic view: “Just do what you have to do.”

I think the rubber face approach is one to embrace for many players, the problem is not too much movement, but rather too little. She has a thorough summary of this approach, which certainly is more aligned with my own personal approach. In summary Wekre notes that “Firmer muscles and less motion are needed when extremely precise attacks, extreme pianissimo, and extreme high range are called for” but also that “situations can come up where a little (controlled!) use of air in the cheeks can save the day for the sound or endurance.” In short, this approach is more creative and open and result oriented. “And maybe needless to say, in my own playing and teaching, I tend to use and recommend the dynamic approach much more than the static.”

David Kaslow in Living Dangerously with the Horn also has some good practical comments on the topic of the low range and breaking the embouchure. He points out that while an embouchure with no break may be possible, it is not the goal.

A beautiful musical line requires movement from the most resonant part of a note to the same part of the next. This movement frequently produces breaks in the embouchure with which, given sufficient practice, we can become comfortable. Players seeking beautiful tone often allow breaks in their embouchure, realizing that air, not the lips, produces their tone, and that their embouchure regulates, but is not, the air—just as a faucet regulates, but is not, the water.

So while that lines up with the “rubber-face” concept, Verne Reynolds in The Horn Handbook recommends generally that visible motion of the embouchure be kept to a minimum. However, into the low register Reynolds suggests keeping the embouchure as closed as possible but explains that a break is likely, because

… no two embouchures are exactly alike…. A few players are blessed with no discernable break. For others, the maneuvers described above will provide a smooth and reliable way to connect the registers, since the setting of the mouthpiece on the lips never changes. This takes practice. We do train the lower jaw and the corners muscles to control aperture size and tension. We do not have a separate embouchure setting for each register.

Douglas Hill also notes that a shift of jaw position is needed by most players in the low range Collected Thoughts on Teaching and Learning, Creativity, and Horn Performance.

Somewhere near the written G below middle C, most horn players must undergo a shift of jaw position. Here is where a protruding and dropped jaw often becomes necessary (as if you are singing your lowest pitch)…. Along with this shift of jaw (made as slight as possible), you will also notice, or need to create, an even larger vowel formation inside your mouth, moving from awe toward oh or uh as you descend into the lowest octave. These shifts will also require a visible ascending movement of the mouthpiece and mouthpipe. This will be necessary and quite natural because you must keep equal pressure on the lips that have shifted along with the jaw.

He offers a list of ways that the low embouchure may differ from the embouchure in the mid-range, which are elements of what this shift would entail. As to common problems,

The most common low range problems involve a pooking out of the lips. It is not exactly a pucker, but is more of a rolling out of the lips, based on largely an instinctual need to get to the inside of the bottom lip….

Another problem involves too little or no mouthpipe angle change, which results in too much pressure on the bottom lip as the jaw drops and projects forward. In the mid and upper registers, the top lip is the primary vibrator. In the low range the bottom lip becomes much more active. To exert extra pressure on the bottom lip in the low range is as problematic as too much pressure on the top lip in the high range. The unnecessary stresses against the lip eventually stifle the vibration while overly challenging one’s endurance.

Hill also warns against striving for a “tuba-like quality” to the sound in the lower two octaves, as the center of the best low horn sound is “brighter than a tuba but warmer than a trombone.” He also recommends a slightly more open hand position in the low range.

And of course many readers know there is an entire book on the topic by Randy Gardner, Mastering the Horn’s Low Register. This recent publication covers the topic very thoroughly with text, exercises, and extensive notes on major low horn excerpts. I have quoted from it briefly in a prior article, and would point readers to the full book for much more. It is available from International Opus.

As it is a bit of a hot button issue, I would also point toward this earlier article on breaking the embouchure, which includes a video and more discussion of the point. I would suggest that the vast majority of fine horn players have a break of some sort– but not a change of basic mouthpiece position, it is instead a break involving change of jaw position– and if you have trouble with low range production in general a break is a topic to explore.

To close, I would also briefly plug my initial low horn publication, Ultimate Low Horn (now out of print), and the successor E-publication, The Low Horn Boot Camp. I feel this is a very practical publication for the advancing horn player initially working out their low range. It is published by Horn Notes Edition.

When we return to the Hornmasters series the topic will be endurance.

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