How many tools do you have in your toolbox?

A couple of recent conversations have led me to put pen to paper (sorta).  Whether it is in a lesson, or preparing for a concert we often have to sort through our horn player's toolbox to find solutions.  Lets equate tools to skills, now I am not talking about the basic technical skills of playing the horn, but something else.  Although I might argue that some of these skills should be common place, and that some have become common place in our times, sadly when I was a student some were not part of the curriculum.  That is not because of a lack of interest or resources, but purely because they were not considered absolutely necessary at the time.

Natural Horn

Wagner Tuba

Triple Horn

Contemporary techniques

I completed my Masters degree without any direct contact with any of these skills.  Contemporary techniques became important the last 2 years, but could have gone further if not for the restrictions of time.  I have to thank my teacher, Francis Orval, for instilling the love of contemporary music and the accompanying skills which I have been constantly expanding ever since.  Although Francis Orval loves the Natural horn, teaching it to me was not an option.  No instrument, and other playing priorities to fix made it impossible at the time.  I would argue that learning how to use the skills listed above will have an influence on everything you do and make you a better horn player.


Harmonic series


Hand techniques

Did you know, or spend time thinking about, that all natural horn techniques can be applied to everything else that you do. It is kind of like that quote that after Bach no new music has really been written. (jazz, rock, romantic, it's all there if you look hard enough)  If you understand the harmonic series then you apply that to fingerings and hand positions.  I am at best an amateur natural horn player.  I spend time trying to improve, but I don't have a lot of time.  I'm told that I don't need a lot of time just regular practice, but finding just 20 minutes of extra lip isn't easy.  I could find an hour, but my lip doesn't have an extra hour in it.

How many students are unaware of the basic tendancies of the valve combinations, dare to try alternate fingerings to improve the intonation of an interval, or alter hand position.  All these things are vital.  In today's vibrant contemporary music scene I can't imagine not being able to decipher a score without these tools in my toolbox.  The Ligeti Trio is standard repertoire these days, but even Ligeti felt it necessary to write in the harmonic series that you needed to use to play the "natural" sections of his score.  If I had had the chance to learn natural horn in my 20's I would have found the Ligeti much easier to learn in my 40's.

Why is Triple Horn and Wagner Tuba on this list?

In the early days triple horns were a true test of your ability to master alternate fingerings to find reasonable solutions.  Today's triple horns are amazing instruments without most of the compromises that their earlier brethren inherently required, but even so, handling three instruments leads to real investigation into alternatives which can only help you in your general playing.  Why does this sound so different on the high F side, why is the articulation so much better on the Bb side,  why does the low F side sound like a tug boat in this register, etc…  I am not a fan of the triple horn, but I accept that it is an important part of the horn playing culture.  

Wagner Tuba:  If you have spent any time with the Wagner Tuba you know that most of what I have written before applies to playing this fantastic instrument.  Learning the Wagern Tuba is an exercise in alternate fingerings.  If you were to compare a WT part with the same score played by a horn player very few of the fingerings would the same.  The other handicap for the WT player is that we can't use our hand to make fine adjustments, something we take for granted in our horn playing.  Harmonic series plays a big part in the WT.  Since many instruments do not have solid harmonics the  acoustic location of these harmonics make missing notes VERY easy.  The notes are just not where you expect them to be.  By using alternate fingerings you can attempt to recreate the appropriate location of the harmonics, but this leads to some tough choices. The last movement of Bruckner 7 is an excellent example.  It is not easy using a lot of alternate fingerings when leaping all over the place.  (But what a reward for that effort!)

Contemporary Techniques:

Understanding true hand stopping is vital.  (forget the stopping mute for a moment)  If you understand natural horn technique there is not a single stopping technique that should worry you.  Quarter tones/Micro tonality -  no problem, stopped or otherwise.  The combination of the right fingering choice, judicial placement of your thumb, and muscle tension in your hand make most everything possible.  This is just the tip of the iceberg, but you get the idea.

You don't need a triple horn to play contemporary music, but you can see that it does offer more options to achieve your goal.  I own one and have used 5 or 6 times in the last 8 years.  I own a natural horn, but have never played it professionally.  It has taught me so much about myself and my playing that I cannot believe that I went so long without learning how to play it.  I wish I owned a Wagner Tuba (my favorite), maybe someday...

Be open to what you can learn from these skills, and make sure that they are part of your tool box.

Does it really matter if I know who Philip Farkas was?

This past week a 19 year old minor league baseball player was asked to write a report about a famous Baltimore Oriole player Frank Robinson, because he didn’t know who he was, and what he had done for the team and baseball in general.

I am curious.  How many students know what the name Farkas on their mouthpiece means?  If you (gasp!) don’t own “The Art of French Horn Playing” have you heard of the author, and even if you do own it  do you know anything about the author?  How many students actually read the “forwards “ of these books?  If you live outside the US it is quite probable that unless you read english, that you don’t own this book and therefore haven’t heard of Mister Farkas (possibly the most important pedagogue of the last 100 years.  You say you play on a Geyer wrap horn, but do you know what that really means or who Mr. Geyer even was?  You get my point.

Here are some names.  How many do you really know anything about, or at least recognise?  Some are historical, pedagogical or orchestral, and some are very recent.







Frøydis Ree Werke



Aubrey Brain


















This list could be endless and filled with more historical figures, orchestra players, etude authors, more Americans, less Americans, etc…  I don’t think that you need to memorise books on the topic, but a working knowledge of these people, and many others would greatly enhance your understanding of what we do and why.  I am not saying that memorising facts about these people will make you a better horn player, or even a better person, but…

As musicians we are in constant contact with our past through the music we perform.  We investigate performance practice to use appropriate articulations in a Mozart concerto or a Beethoven symphony.  We learn how to interpret all the different markings in a Brahms symphony.  We say we like Dale Clevenger’s sound and then someone else says that they prefer the sound of James Chambers.  Why do you have a preference, and why are their sounds different, apart from being two different men from two different cities playing on completely different equipment. Why do some countries have a history of more vibrato use, and do they still have the same traditions today?  Have you asked your teacher why they play the instrument they do?  Do you know who your teacher studied with and why?

It is important to build respect for the past, and to understand our roots as horn players.  The growth of all art is an organic process.  We build the foundations of our playing on the backs of all these great people.  Take a moment and think about them and what they mean to us today.

© Bruce Richards 2012-2019