Hornmasters on Trills, Part I: Farkas


One skill that for many horn players is a source of fear is lip trilling. A great trill is an absolute requirement for artistic performance of many of our best concertos and is today considered to be something any fine horn player will have mastered.

Back in 1956 they may have been considered a bit more of a luxury, but Farkas certainly wanted horn players to learn this skill. For Farkas a fine trill was closely related to development of lip flexibility of the type seen in many exercises in The Art of French Horn Playing.

There is a common belief among hornists that only the player with a very flexible lip can accomplish a good lip trill, and certainly this seems borne out in fact by the unusually flexible lips which invariably belong to the player who does trill well. But can it be that we are “putting the cart before the horse?” I believe we are, I am firmly convinced that trills and flexibility are usually found together because the act of learning to trill, then finally trilling, is the very thing that gives an embouchure this unusual flexibility, which will come from no other form of practice.

It is for attaining this increased facility, rather than for the sake of the trill itself, that I recommend mastering it.

One first thing Farkas does is present how to arrive at proper fingerings for lip trills. The keys are that you should be able to play both notes on the same fingering and that the fingering chosen be a relatively short fingering if possible.

On the technical side of trills, Farkas felt there were no secrets.

Although there is a certain knack to lip-trilling, there are no freakish tricks employed. Do not resort to chin wiggling, horn shaking, or gargling in the back of the throat to get the trill. An authentic lip trill is made exactly like a slow slur between similar notes, and the only knack required is the one of speed.

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His primary exercise is to start slowly and to gradually speed up the trill to full speed. He did offer three major “aids” to help with trilling.

Aid 1—Use the tongue to make a pronounced oo-ee motion from the lower to the higher note. The effect is a rapid oo-ee-oo-ee-oo-ee at the exact speed desired for the trill….

Aid 2—Practice often to obtain an immediate trill, that is, one which trills full speed right from the start. There is some danger of learning to depend too much on the slow “preparation” of trills simply because it is the usual way of practicing them….

Aid 3—This next aid is probably the most important of all in obtaining speed. Try to cultivate the feeling that the lip is “walking the fence” between the two notes being trilled…. This aid, when coupled with the oo-ee action of the tongue, described as in aid number 1, compromises the real knack of producing a lip trill as nearly as it can be described in words.

At this point I would offer a bit of brief commentary, now updated for 2016 with reference to the MRI horn videos. In the past my feeling was that Aid 1 above has led some students astray. I felt quite confident that if you could see my tongue when I trill you would not note any additional motion; my perception was that my tongue remained completely still, with the additional note that if you were to see my face you would see it is moving a fair amount. Which does not particularly concern me. My concern in relation to Aid 1 was that your focus could be on learning how to wiggle your tongue as though it is a key to learning how to trill. I am still a fan of fast flexibility studies, these will cross-train your trills more effectively than almost any dedicated trill exercise you can find. But … actually Farkas is correct, there is a slight movement of the tongue visible in the MRI studies, and likely my toungue makes this motion but I just can’t really perceive it. So certainly give the oo-ee idea a try, Farkas was on the right track.

With that digression, when we return we will have more ideas on learning the trill from master horn teachers of the past.

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