Tips for Educators, and an Evolving Pedagogy

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Recently, as part of a session with brass colleagues at our AMEA all-state, I presented a session for music educators, “Tips to Improve your Horns.”

In preparation for this I went back to notes from a similar presentation about ten years ago, and was surprised how far my pedagogy has actually changed/evolved. One thing I especially value is physiological accuracy. Not that I did not value it before, but with more experience teaching it is clear to me things I used to say, while they seemed accurate enough, I would not say today. Preparing the session I also got out the last draft version of my “big book” project from 2011, there is a lot to change … I expect I will be doing some major editing on that again this summer.

In any case, for the session I was joined by my trombone colleague Brad Edwards and tuba colleague Deanna Swoboda, and we covered each of first four topics below plus we each had a “special” topic at the end. The notes I gave to attendees are below — hopefully useful to educators and my old students, who might note a thing or two different than I would have said in the past.

Topic 1: Holding the instrument; Posture

Players should bring the horn to their face in the place where it is naturally, without changing basic body position. This may require considering playing with the bell off the leg for taller players.

The right hand should be cupped slightly (“pay me”) and placed in the bell with the backs of the fingers touching the bell, leaving about 1 1/2 to 2 inches of opening between the palm of the hand and the bell. When held standing or off the leg, the horn should rest on the right thumb and first finger.

Topic 2: Breathing and air

We could wish that every brass player would naturally take a large breath, but many hornists do not take or use large breaths. Stated simply, just take a large breath in and start the music in one motion. It is a simple process and sometimes visualizations and explanations of how to breathe tie us in knots.

Topic 3: Embouchure

Standard horn mouthpiece placement is approximately 2/3 upper lip. Wet or moist lips are helpful in finding an ideal setting, as this practice allows the mouthpiece to settle into a natural placement without forcing the embouchure in any way. If you take a mouthpiece, wet your lips, and let the mouthpiece slide into place over the “hook” of the upper lip you will almost automatically obtain a good, natural mouthpiece placement for the horn, one that allows navigating the full range of the instrument.

[Noting, however, that this photo is of my own placement, my upper lip is a bit too heavy to fit as described above. There are exceptions to every rule.]

Adding one other element, jaw position is very important and is often neglected. The jaw should, speaking generally, be forward slightly from its position at rest in a high brass embouchure or a whole group of problems may arise. But, in the low range, the jaw drops.

Topic 4: Attack and tonguing

Besides the need for varied articulations to achieve different tonal results, an element of focus is that tongue placement in the mouth by register varies. In the high range I suggest more of a “tee” articulation, in the middle range “ta,” and in the low range more of a “toh” articulation. The same general oral cavity shapes are produced when whistling. Attempting to play in the high range with a low range articulation (or vice versa) will be a source of frustration for a player. Thinking “warm air” in the low range and “cool air” in the high may be of help.

Special topic: Stopped horn

The most ideal open right hand position is one that allows for a player to perform stopped and open notes by merely “closing the door” with the heel of the hand. The three steps are 1) close the bell tightly with the hand (as if holding water in the horn), 2) finger the note a half step below the printed note and 3) use only F horn (“thumb off”) fingerings. Bb horn fingerings on stopped horn will be quite sharp. Low stopped horn is very difficult; a brass stopping mute [at left in photo] has a better low range and more consistent tuning.