Playing Tips

Playing Tips

oath of the triple horn23 Playing Tips

In the original version of the Horn Notes Blog (before October of 2006) I included with every post a “Tip of the Day.” Although that format was dropped, the following are my favorite of these tips, only lightly edited and in the order originally presented. – – John Ericson

There is a point at the late undergrad or MM level if you are considering horn performance as a career when you really need to find a good horn. There are way too many good students out there struggling along on “Fischer Price” horns. Budget the purchase of a good professional horn into your education; it is something that you need sooner rather than later.

It always pays off to have your horn cleaned well at some point by a good professional brass repairman. On an older horn it is great to get the residual “crud” out that is building up and impacting the internal dimensions of your horn, and on a newer horn there can be residuals and imperfections left over from the production process that, when removed, can make great positive influence on the playing qualities of your horn.

Paraphrasing my teacher Verne Reynolds, practice building your loud dynamics because “you never know how loud some idiot, I mean, conductor, will ask you to play it.”

Every hornist should have in their hands the best horn they can find. Pros always have their eyes open to see if a better horn comes along and are not swayed by marketing ploys. If you are in doubt that the horn you play is professional quality or not, look around and see if actual full time professional hornists are playing your model of horn made in the era that yours was made. If they are not, it is not a professional quality horn.

It is essential to work on crescendos and diminuendos on long tones. They may be boring but if you don’t have great control of these you simply have no hope of playing great phrases.

Tubist Sam Pilafian is fond of saying you will never get better than your ear. He is correct; it is essential to develop your ear as hornists, push this aspect just as much as you push the development of your chops and air.

Always be willing to tweak the way you place yourself and the piano in the hall.

One thing that took me years to realize was that when I played in Nashville I got into the habit of playing many articulations somewhat long as our hall was so dry. Articulation styles of different teachers are very influenced by the halls they perform in (or performed in) professionally. At ASU I feel that a shorter, crisper articulation works better in our halls. Extending this further, in the average dry practice room you are not going to learn to play short enough for a good concert hall. What sounds extremely short in a small dry room may actually sound too long in a good hall.

To paraphrase something else Verne Reynolds used to say, a bland performance is a musical sin.

It is never cheating to use a descant horn for high exposed horn parts; it is instead a smart use of the tools available to you as a hornist. Although addressing the topic of the development of hand horn technique, this quote natural hornist Richard Seraphinoff is quite relevent–“job security has always been the mother of all invention.”

Students occasionally say to me that they did not have time to practice during the week. This is not the case and never is the case. The fact is that they did not make time to practice and chose to do something else instead. If something is important to you, you will make time for it.

Be sure that you are doing two things in your auditions. Play with great rhythm and also strive to play great, singing phrases. These two qualities will lift you above the crowd.

If you are interested enough in the horn to be reading this, and are not yet a member of the International Horn Society, join! Check out the IHS at

I was talking about articulations and mouthpieces with another horn teacher at a recent workshop and he told me that he had run into students in high school who had been suggested to use a C-1 mouthpiece and were having trouble. Of course they were! This is way too big for practically any player. I say this having been there and done that; perhaps every player needs to have the “big mouthpiece” phase at some point, but I am now way past my C-1 phase.

One of my friends recently recalled playing in an orchestra with Farkas after he retired in Bloomington, and of being very impressed by his off-beats. Yes, off-beats; phrases rose and fell musically, great articulations, etc. Can someone say this of your off-beats? Don’t just blat away, make music always.

I believe most if not all conductors believe in their heart of hearts at least that they have a “horn problem” in their orchestra (or band). Auditioning for any job–orchestral or college teaching–you need to be perceived as a part of the solution to that problem.

Another thing about conductors is that in general they have a preconceived notion that horn players drag. What to do as a player? My advice would be to play right on top of the beat the conductor is giving; on the whole this will lead to the least amount of comments from the podium to the horns. Remember: they think you will drag. It is better to be slightly ahead than slightly behind.

In any teaching or performing situation, be careful of your criticisms of your students or other players the first time they make a mistake, give it a chance to correct itself.

For a darker muted sound, use a black mute [OK, this is an April Fools tip].

This comes up quite often, how to lubricate a screw bell. I feel you are best off keeping the ring dry and clean of any oil product. What you want to use is dry graphite as the lubricant. Clean the ring completely, use a tissue to get it very clean and dry, and rub a pencil on the threads. This really works quite well.

Get the “memo” on mutes. If you are an advanced player you need a good “regular” (straight) mute (one that costs more than $19.95 online and not a plastic or aluminum one) and also a brass stopping mute. If on reading this you realize that you have not received the memo on mutes yet, consider it delivered now.

If you are a student looking at colleges I feel you are best off looking at programs with full time horn faculty. I know there are fine professional players who teach part time and do fine, but I would counter that if you needed a medical procedure done, would you go to a doctor that does that procedure practically every day or would you go to a doctor that only does that procedure one day a week?

Lots of horn players, way too many, seem to not know what each slide on their horn does, some to such an extent that they don’t even know which slide is the main slide. There is an easy way to figure it out; just take the slides out and see which notes they impact. Removing the main slide will make it so you can’t play any notes; removing an F horn tuning slide will make it so only the B-flat horn works, etc. Put some of your problem solving skills into it and learn what each slide does, don’t just guess at something this important.

Don’t be stuck on your one rim and one mouthpiece. It is always worth checking out a mouthpiece change, a change can make a huge difference.

One thing I can say with certainty is that I have never given a recital that all of my students attended. Why this is I don’t know; I would go to a recital given by my major professor. The tip being if you are a music student in college and your teacher gives a recital, be sure to go to it if you can, and, if you can’t, be sure they know why you have to miss it before the recital.

Think always toward longer range goals in your playing, not just toward working out what you need to play in the next performance.

When you want to improve as a player reading of books is important and can lead to critical insights. Don’t limit yourself to only reading books by horn players–there is a lot to be learned from study of resources intended originally for other brass instruments.