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Why on Earth Does My French Horn Section Sound Like That?

by CPO Earl Powers (Former Navy Band Member), with contributions from SCPO David Kolo, CPO Eric Moore (Ret.), and PO1 Suzanne R. Tiedeman

  • Introduction
  • Technical Considerations
  • Balance and Blend
  • Stopped Horn and Mutes
  • Section Cohesion and Placement

Introduction

 

This article is based on a clinic given at the 1997 Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic by the United States Navy Band Horn Section. Each section member contributed equally to the content of the clinic, and our goal was to present information to band directors on helping their horn section play together better. The original clinic was oriented around musical examples played by the quartet, with short discussions preceding each example. In this article, I will try to capture the essence of the discussion and musical examples in words.

 

In thinking about what makes four or more young French horn players sound good playing together, a number of issues must be considered. Foremost among these is the pitch and accuracy of each individual in relation to the pitch and accuracy of everyone else. One must also consider the balance of four related but oftentimes unique parts, and how each player blends into the larger section "sound" in terms of his or her individual sound concepts. A third issue to consider is leadership. Good leadership from an experienced player can be a huge asset for a conductor, freeing up valuable rehearsal time by allowing students to conduct sectionals and help the other section members prepare their parts before rehearsals.

 

I will address how to look at new scores with an eye toward knowing what your French horn section is capable of playing and how to evaluate and fix extreme register problems. I will also discuss mutes, ensemble placement, and the more peculiar aspects of the instrument.

 

 

Technical Considerations

 

In assessing the needs of young French horn players, one must first come to understand the peculiarities of the instrument itself and how it differs from other brass instruments. The French horn is an instrument built for its sound, not for overall efficiency. It is a long instrument (16 feet) in comparison to its compact size, and has the smallest initial bore size of all the brass instruments. This disparity creates more resistance, or back pressure, that must be overcome by the student. The large bell size also adds resistance and weight to the instrument.

 

Rotary valves are another unique aspect of the instrument. Rotary valves are generally more sluggish than piston valves, using indirect action as opposed to the direct action of piston valves. They also create 90-degree turns in the air stream, which again, increases resistance. To further confuse the issue, a double horn has two "sides," an F side and a Bb side, each with its own set of fingerings. For this reason, it often takes students longer to learn fingerings on the horn than it does on other brass instruments.

 

Learn more about rotary valves in 'Rotary Valve Maintenance'.

 

One final issue to consider is that the horn itself faces the "wrong" way. The bell faces down and to the back of the player, forcing players to play louder, more on top of the beat, and with clearer articulation to achieve the same results as bell-front brass instruments.

 

Horn Overtone seriesWith all this information, though, there still remains one important question. Why do horn players miss so many notes? Even after understanding the issues in the previous discussion, there is yet another prime culprit for the missed notes and lack of endurance. This "culprit" is actually the overtone series. The overall range of the horn can exceed four octaves, from concert F more than an octave below the bass staff to the concert Bb above the treble staff. While most composers don't usually utilize the full range of the horn, the "average" range of the horn, from concert Bb to concert c2, lies mostly in the upper end of the overtone series for each partial, from the 3rd to the 10th overtone. Each note, then, is substantially higher in the overtone series on the horn than on other brass instruments. This means that the notes are closer together, harder to hit accurately, and more troublesome for endurance.

 

 

Balance and Blend

 

But enough of the excuses! There is hope! Despite the difficulties we face as horn players, we can overcome the idiosyncrasies of the instrument. One of the biggest challenges, however, is playing well together with other horn players. More than in any other section of the band, balance and blend are critical in the horn section. Oftentimes, addressing the issues of balance and blend eliminates what appear to be other problems, especially pitch problems.

 

There are three points to cover when talking about balance and blend. First, one must address style and articulation. How long or short should the notes be played? Is everyone playing them the same way? Are there accents to be observed? Is the section of music a chorale, or a march? Secondly, how does each part fit into the whole? Addressing balance problems oftentimes fixes pitch problems automatically. For instance, in a chorale, if one part predominates over the others, especially an inner part, the whole section will sound out of tune. The melody and bass should predominate, and the inner voices support them. Sometimes the melody is too soft and one of the inner voices too loud. Thirdly, the blend of the section is critical. Does one player stick out with a different sound quality or timbre? Does one player have a different color, either brighter or darker, than everyone else does? Horn players often constrict the airflow by tensing the neck or holding the horn at an awkward angle, which constricts airflow. Many young horn players also do not use enough diaphragm support. Addressing these issues specifically may clear up a lot of problems.

 

When looking at new scores, it is important first to look at the range. Is it too high for your players? Are there unison passages at the top of the staff? Is the tessitura consistently high? These are just a few of the questions to ask. If there are high unison passages, a good fix is to ask the second and fourth players to play it down an octave. The reason for this is two-fold: First, with fewer players playing high, the chances for a missed note decrease. Second, powerful support of a line one octave lower actually helps project the top line over the ensemble and out to the audience. If the tessitura is consistently high, one solution is to have the first and third players stop playing on longer notes, and have the second and fourth players stop playing in some other passages. This gives two players at a time a little rest and in the end gives everyone in the section better endurance. These same ideas can apply to passages in the extreme lower register. Each player has his or her own strengths and weaknesses, and judicial use of alternating can often help alleviate extreme register problems.

 

 

Stopped Horn and Mutes

 

Horn Mutes

One of the biggest enigmas of the French horn is the mute. There are literally dozens of different horn mutes available today, but they all fall into two broad categories: straight mute and stop mute. Use of the straight mute is marked as "muted," "bouché," "mit Dämpfer," or "gedämpft." The best kind to buy is conical, tunable, and non-transposing. Plastic mutes are best avoided. Straight mutes are made in all price ranges and can be purchased through local music stores or through catalog sources. It is a good idea, especially on mutes for younger players, to attach a leather cord or strap to the large end of the mute. This cord can then be placed over the wrist and the mute can dangle at the player's side when not in use. This "safety" has prevented many a delicate moment in concert from being interrupted by the loud clank of a mute falling to the floor! The biggest problem when using a mute is underplaying the dynamics. Increase the dynamic level by two steps and tongue harder and cleaner than when not using a mute.

 

Stopped horn is usually confusing for both music teachers and young players alike. The process is actually far easier to perform than one might expect. However, many people have received misinformation concerning stopped horn and do not teach it properly. Stopped horn can be achieved in two different ways, either by use of a brass transposing mute, or by use of the right hand. Using either method, a tight seal is obtained, and a unique, "brassy" sound is achieved. Stopped horn is notated by "+," "cuivré," "stopped," or "gestopft." By achieving the correct, mostly airtight seal, one actually raises the pitch by 1/2 step. Thus, if one is playing an open G on the second line of the treble staff, putting a brass mute in the bell or achieving a tight seal with the hand actually produces a G#. So in order to sound a G, one must transpose 1/2 step lower and finger an F#. A brass stop mute facilitates this process greatly. When using the right hand, one must be careful to achieve an appropriately tight seal. Using the proper hand position described above, bring the heel of the palm closer and closer towards the bell. Note that the pitch of the note initially goes lower, until a tight seal is achieved and the pitch suddenly jumps up and is 1/2 step above the note being fingered. This is why it is necessary to transpose down 1/2 step to sound the correct note. Students should become proficient using either method to achieve stopped horn. Often there is too little time to use the mute, and the right hand must be used. Again, as with using a straight mute, play two dynamic levels louder and tongue harder and cleaner.

 

 

Section Cohesion and Placement

 

One oft-overlooked issue in relation to better horn sections is that of leadership. Strong leadership by older and more proficient players can alleviate many of the problems that have been thus far discussed, and can also give you more class time to deal with other issues. A horn section is like a table with four legs. Each leg is critical to the foundation of the table. If one leg is weak, the whole table suffers. Each player in the section has an equal amount of responsibility in achieving a strong section. A music teacher can then add another level beyond this responsibility: authority. Give authority to your principal player to fix problems that you hear. Set the standards and identify the problems. Ask this student to lead sectionals. Ask each student in the section to contribute and actively participate in the section. This can lead to greater section unity and better section sound.

 

Another great tool to promote section unity, depth, and cohesiveness is to rotate players on different parts, including principal if there are enough strong players. This helps each student to accept the authority of the position.

 

One last issue to raise is the placement of the horn section in the ensemble. The two important factors to consider are projection and distortion. As discussed earlier, the horn player is at a distinct disadvantage in that the bell faces the wrong direction. The sound travels into walls, curtains, or just empty space rather than out to the audience where we want the sound to go. No one would intentionally put trombones or trumpets facing a curtain or wall, yet how many times do we leave our horn section to languish in that exact scenario? The challenge, then, is to help your players overcome this liability by strategic ensemble placement. One solution is to place the horns on the outside of the row to the left of the conductor, so that the bells actually face more or less toward the audience. Another option is to place Plexiglas baffles behind each player's bell. This causes the sound to reflect more directly out to the audience. One scenario to avoid is placing the horn section directly in front of the trombones or trumpets. The vibrations of sound emanating from these instruments directly interfere with the production of sound on the French horn when these sound waves clash somewhere between the music stands. Baffles can alleviate this problem somewhat, but the best solution is to not place your horns in front of trumpet and trombones. There are many variations on these ideas. Each ensemble situation is unique and it is important to carefully consider the placement of your horn section. These are general guidelines that may be useful in your quest for perfect placement of your horn section.

 

Playing the French horn can be one of the most rewarding and challenging experiences of a young player's musical life. Many of the challenges stem from not understanding the instrument, or more damaging, being taught incorrect habits and techniques by a well-meaning, albeit uninformed, music instructor. With proper instruction and encouragement, even the beginning student can make wonderful sounds on the instrument. It is our hope that the information presented here can help players of all levels have more fun and find more satisfaction playing the French horn.