Be part of the SOLUTION, not the PROBLEM – Solving Common Issues of Young Horn Players - Houghton Horns

Be part of the SOLUTION, not the PROBLEM – Solving Common Issues of Young Horn Players

PROBLEM: Students have difficulty playing in the upper register.


  1. Embouchure. Make sure your students are following these three embouchure guidelines: mouthpiece placement (2/3 top lip, 1/3 bottom lip), corners firm and forward, and keeping a flat chin. There are two muscle groups, corners and chin, that are working in two different directions simultaneously. While ascending it is very important for horn players to resist the urge to pull back the corners into a “smile” and to maintain a flat chin. A poor embouchure can have lasting effects on the ability of a student to have a successful high register.
  2. Chromatics. Playing upward chromatically rather than incorporating interval skips is more pedagogically sound when desiring high range expansion. Allow the sound to dictate how high a student goes in an exercise or scale.
  3. Glissandos. Sliding evenly through the harmonic series on the mouthpiece and horn will help lay the foundation for tone, flexibility, and increased range. Encourage your students to keep the middle part of the embouchure soft, thereby gliding smoothly through the partials and maintaining the integrity of the buzz.


PROBLEM: Low range technique is not introduced early enough, creating possible issues in the future.


Students need to explore the notes below middle C and into the bass clef within the first 3-6 months of playing. Unfortunately, most beginning method books do not contain information and/or exercises that would help develop a proficient low register. The bottom teeth should begin shifting down and forward between middle C and the fourth space G in bass clef. When this is done properly it will open up the oral cavity and position the embouchure for access to strong, resonant low notes. As the bottom teeth shift, make sure to have the student retain firm contact on the lower lip, not allowing the lips to push away or “pooch”. Too often I have heard educators say, “Open up for low notes!” This is only partially true and can be confusing for the student. Admittedly, the teeth should open wider, but the lips must remain close enough together to vibrate. When articulating in the pedal range, the tip of the tongue must also adjust by striking lower on the back of the top teeth, using the syllable “toe” or “tho”.


PROBLEM: Students may develop posture issues.


Incorrect leadpipe angle is responsible for a myriad of posture and embouchure problems. The leadpipe must always be angled slightly downward and aligned with the teeth. In order to preserve this correct angle, some students, depending on height and physical build, will find it necessary to play with the bell on the leg while others will need to play off the leg. Another common issue is students who rest the bell too far forward on their leg. By doing this they are not only adopting an incorrect angle, but they are also creating excess pressure on the top lip. This can be remedied by sliding their right leg behind the chair leg. Or another option would be for that student to play with the bell off the leg. For very small students, sometimes placing the bell directly on the edge of the chair may be the best way to maintain the correct leadpipe angle.


PROBLEM: Students don’t understand the function of the right hand.


When discussing right-hand position it is helpful to imagine that the bell is a clock face. For younger players, I recommend the hand resting in a 12-1 o’clock position, which helps with balance and comfort. Horn players should think of their hand as being an extension of the bell, helping to focus the air column as it leaves the horn. It’s important to stress to students to use a very flat hand (think karate-chop.) The index finger should also be far enough into the bell to align with the outside bracket. As a private teacher, I start beginners playing with no hand in the bell for the first couple of months. Removing this variable from the equation helps focus on the more important issues of embouchure, posture, and sound production. As a student advances, they should adopt a more accepted right-hand position, the standard being between 2-5 o’clock on the imaginary clock face.


PROBLEM: Horn players struggle with accuracy.


The pursuit of accuracy on the horn is a universal one among all horn players. Because the partials lie so close together in the third octave (in the horn’s most comfortable range) it is fairly easy to miss or crack a note. Beginners can be taught to use the thumb valve (if they play a double horn) to find middle C by alternately pressing down and lifting up the thumb valve. If the pitch changes, they are not on middle C. If the pitch stays the same, middle C has been located. Then that C becomes a sort of home base and the student is able to “walk” up or down to find their desired starting pitch. It is a welcome reference point in the midst of all those partials!

Ear training is an essential tool for developing accuracy on any instrument, and for the horn player it is an absolute necessity. Playing easy tunes by ear (ie. Christmas songs, school songs, TV show themes) should be encouraged very early. This Suzuki-like approach helps the student have a deeper knowledge of their instrument.

Another strategy to improve students’ accuracy is to develop a “performance” attitude in a “practice” environment. Teachers can provide opportunities for students to sharpen their focus and concentration by offering activities such as a “The Accuracy Game” (see who can play the farthest in the music without missing a note) or “Show-Off Fridays” (students perform a piece of their own choosing).


I hope that you find some of these solutions to common problems helpful as you teach your horn students. If you have any other questions or specific concerns about how you might teach horn more effectively, please email me at:

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