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Why is the French horn so hard to play?
The French horn is widely considered to be the most difficult brass instrument to play. Proficiency on any musical instrument is a challenging endeavor, as each one presents its own travails and complexities. However, there are reasons found in the acoustical properties of the horn that distinguish it from the other members of the brass family.
The modern-day double French horn is actually a combination of two horns (F, Bb) that share a common mouthpipe and bell. The Bb horn is nine feet of tubing, which is as long as a trombone if it were stretched out. The open F horn is twelve feet of coiled tubing, about the same length as an F tuba.
By utilizing the horn’s four valves and all the various combinations of those valves, the player is able to produce all the notes of the chromatic scale. In addition to engaging the valves, horn players must be able to play at least ten different notes using each valve combination. This is accomplished by adjusting their lip muscles (embouchure), tongue position, and air column.
Because the partials (available notes in the harmonic series) are so close together in the third octave, the horn’s most comfortable range, it is fairly easy to miss or “crack” a note. Conversely, the partials that occur in the trumpet’s most comfortable range are comparatively more spread out, allowing for a bit better accuracy and more control.
Another reason for the horn being difficult to play lies in the fact that it has the widest range of all the brass instruments: nearly as high as a trumpet and almost as low as a tuba. Additionally, the horn mouthpiece is small and deep, requiring fine muscle control and embouchure development. The mouthpipe is long and slender, creating more resistance for the player to overcome.
Because the horn faces backwards–as opposed to the other wind instruments–the horn player must work extra hard to balance and blend with the other members of the wind instrument family.
Even with its unique challenges, playing the French horn is well worth the time, effort, and discipline. Mastering any musical instrument allows the player to enrich their own life as well as others’!