The Future of French Horn Playing

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One thought I have heard (and have repeated myself) is that this is a “golden age” for the French horn. Or is it?

Before getting to some thoughts on this topic, I would like to quote a passage from an article to set the context of the discussion, from, believe it or not, Model Railroader magazine. The horn is not my only interest (no!), and notably they recently passed their 1,000th issue (since 1934). One featured article in that special issue was “The Future of Model Railroading,” and under the topic of “barriers” we read that

There are two barriers to advancement in our hobby. Technological and manufacturing capability certainly is one, but it plays much less of a role than you might think. We already have the technology to produce some game-changing products and systems. I think the biggest thing holding the hobby back is complacency with the status quo. It’s a lack of demand for superior products. This isn’t my own gut opinion, but rather feedback I consistently hear from manufacturers and leaders in the hobby.

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Horn players are not usually so direct, but “complacency” and “lack of demand for superior products” are exactly our problems too. We won’t see the potentials of the future of the French horn until we address complacency and demand superior products. I have several examples in our French horn world that I want readers to consider.

One generally positive “real talk” topic would be the horns of today compared to the 1980s. Back then, honestly, a lot of horns used even by professionals were not real good. My two own major professors played horns a professional would never consider using today; Verne Reynolds at Eastman played a stock King Eroica (!) and Michael Hatfield at IU played a Lawson upgraded Holton 180 with a drilled-out Holton mouthpiece! Your only options back then were tired old Geyers and Kruspes (often with real issues — bad notes, bad intonation, bad ergonomics), factory horns by the likes of Conn and Holton (“sounds like a Holton” was not typically made as a positive comment), and also the very heavy and distinctive (but well made) Lawson horns, now off the market for some time. MANY grad students back then were playing Holtons and the like. We don’t see that today!

I recently purchased a Patterson Geyer, and frankly it was impossible to buy a horn of this quality level in the 1980s, with a beautiful sound and no funky notes! The technical advancement is that now many makers are capable of making horns far over the level of traditional factory horns. We have wonderful new options today, including even strong products from China. If you are a teacher still recommending that your students use horns and mouthpieces like people used in the 1980s you need open your eyes and take a good look at the world we are in now. Especially in the world of mouthpieces, it is SO much easier now to buy a mouthpiece that is vastly better than the options of the recent past. CNC lathes are wonderful machines, and when you have experienced the higher level products available now you really can’t go back to a generic mouthpiece.

But still, today we also have some of the worst horns and mouthpieces ever sold out there on the market. That there is a demand for the very cheap horn is understandable, but poorly made products undercut the entire horn community today. Students now really could all be playing horns and mouthpieces that are vastly better than were typically used 50 years ago. This is a huge problem. To move the horn forward we must all demand and expect better products! Closely related to that, teachers must be aware of how these new products will help their students play easier and better. Not all are aware.

Another type of product holding us back would be publications about horn playing. The Art of French Horn Playing is iconic and often referenced, but, objectively, it is very dated. While the warm-up may be OK, a surprising percentage of the content could easily be argued to be factually incorrect.

Let that last statement soak in for a second. It is a touchy subject, but one that experienced teachers know is true.

Too many people out there are very complacent in regard to horn reference materials and need to expect something that reflects recent advancements. Our understanding of the mechanics of horn playing really is vastly deeper now than it was in 1956. I wrote a LONG series of articles related to this very point, presented as the University of Horn Matters horn pedagogy course (it starts here). Maybe I was too subtle in it, and the series is probably too long. Based on the comments I read in the Horn People group (on Facebook) it is clear that old thinking dominates our horn world. I hope I have my students thinking deeper, but many people seem very complacent to just stick with old information. They don’t seem to even check Google to see if anything might have moved forward a tad.

For a specific example of this, I did a three-part video interview with Peter Iltis of the MRI horn studies, and while these studies are truly ground breaking and game-changing, the videos of that interview have really not had nearly the views they should have received by now. Curious about what you missed? More info here.

The only book to date to seriously make an attempt to use the MRI horn information to move horn pedagogy forward is the third edition of the Eli Epstein book. If you have not considered the implications of the MRI studies you need to! Curious to learn more? My review of his book is here.

A final big topic area I would like to point out, that the horn world is entirely too complacent about, is technical materials for horn study. Our typical etude materials are, you guessed it, dated and stuck in the 19th century. Of course, it seems like there are no options besides Kopprasch? Actually, there are surprisingly few choices from the past 90 years published for the horn, certainly not many at all that are easily purchased. I have attempted to fill this gap even myself with a series of contemporary etudes (an E-publication, more here), but the bottom line I have concluded is that it seems virtually impossible to get teachers to use new materials (or buy E-publications, either). It really is past time to give serious consideration to teaching from some different materials. In my own case, one possible solution I see is to make more use of contemporary solo horn literature, something I plan to explore in my teaching going forward.

One final specific example of complacency would be beginner methods for the horn. There is a huge need for something better, but my conclusion is that it probably won’t ever happen. Why? Because if you spend all the time to write and publish a great new beginning method, in the end, you will hardly sell enough copies to be worth your time. The market seems extremely complacent and happy enough using Pottag-Hovey or Rubank. They do get the job done — but seriously, some teachers need to wake up and demand superior products to teach from.

One supplemental publication you could try to use, if you dare to try to use something new with beginners, might be The Horn Player’s Songbook by Rose French. Have not heard of it? I talked to the author about it in this podcast.

Before I close, in the category of “breaking news” as I write this article, Jeffrey Agrell has a large new book just out that clearly is aimed, at least in part, at addressing the general topic of complacency with existing horn study materials. More on Horn Technique: A New Approach to an Old Instrument may be found here. It is time to move horn pedagogy forward. I hope to review this publication in the not too distant future.

So, what is our future? I do have hope, the potential for a lot of interesting and superior products for the horn is upon us, this really is a golden age! But there is not nearly enough awareness of the need, this is a huge problem. I know I will be exploring ways to promote recent advancements beyond the confines of Horn Matters, and in particular I personally want to explore further the entire topic of using technology better to solve problems in horn playing. How about you?