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How low should they go? A guide for educators of young horn players

clip art of a submarine

by Janet. B. Nye

clip art of a submarine

When should I start introducing low range?

This is a very important question. It is one of the reasons why Karen Houghton and I wrote Recipe for Success: A balanced curriculum for young horn players. After almost three decades of watching horn players developing low range, as well as struggling with low range development myself when I was younger, I believe strongly that correct low range setup should be introduced in the first 3-6 months of playing horn. Although beginners have a small range at that time, the habits they establish in their first year will help them successfully introduce the increased range over the next few years.

Is there a low embouchure and a high embouchure?

Most horn players have “breaks” in their playing as they navigate throughout the wide range of the instrument. A break descending into the low register is often created by a shift in the jaw, which changes the oral cavity to a more open position. However, although there are changes to the jaw position, the basic placement of the mouthpiece on the lips, as well as the firmness of corners, should ideally remain consistent throughout all ranges.

What do I tell my students to do?

Most professional horn players begin moving their bottom teeth forward sometime between written middle C and the G below it. This is beginner range; therefore, encourage beginners to begin shifting their jaw forward as they descend into that range right away. If you say nothing to them, they may naturally have success by “pooching” their lips out and pushing away from the mouthpiece, but this setting creates a potential struggle at a later date. They need to be encouraged to develop a taste for the jaw shift that does not come naturally at first, but leads down the pathway to success in low playing. Their bottom teeth should shift forward, combined with a flat chin and firm corners, which open the oral cavity. The lips should have a slight pucker (so the inside of the lips can vibrate). Many players also slightly pivot the horn leadpipe upwards (or tilt the head downwards) to keep even contact with the top and bottom teeth as the jaw moves into a new position. The leadpipe should always match the teeth in every range.

What are common problems students have when developing their low range?

1. Weak sound: As the jaw drops, it naturally moves away from the mouthpiece. This often creates “poochy” lips and a nasal sound as students push the mouthpiece away from their face. This is the most common problem I see. It is also challenging for students to play their notes powerfully in this position.

2. No sound: If the student has been taught (correctly) to bring their jaw forward, an airy sound or no sound may occur. The student could be turning their lips inward or simply keeping their corners and upper lip too high as the jaw drops and shifts forwards. Many students even attempt to lift their upper lip out of the mouthpiece to create lower notes. All of these motions result in the aperture being too open and the lips cannot vibrate.

3. Shaky sound: Many times students are blowing their air too fast to achieve success in the low range. If the note responds at all, it often has a quiver. The students have to learn to use a lot of warm air with an open oral cavity. Low notes require a large volume of air.

4. Scooped pitches: Another common problem is very loose corner muscles in the low register. This can sometimes produce range and even power but the notes often sound scooped and unstable. The student will also lack the efficiency needed to rapidly jump between the low and high range.

5. Poor start: If the student’s setup looks good but they keep missing the note from above or the start of the note sounds mushy, their articulation is possibly too high. The lower professionals play on horn, the lower our tongue touches our top teeth. For pedal notes, the tongue should actually be tonguing off the bottom of the top teeth in a “tho” position. It is even okay if the tongue touches the top lip in the process of tonguing as long as the motion is not excessively jarring to the shape of the tone.

What exercises are good for developing low range?

One of the best ways for beginners to work on low range is gradually slurring down one half step at a time. It is also important to practice playing loudly in the low range. The corners develop strength more quickly from handling large quantities of air. Also, bringing the bottom teeth slightly forward just below middle C brings a stability to the notes that allows the student to play louder. Although the actual shift point for each student will refine later, I believe that it is good not to let them go lower than A below middle C before they begin shifting the bottom teeth slightly forward (even sooner if they have an overbite). If they wait until they are too far below middle C to shift, it becomes more abrupt and awkward for them.

How low should my students be able to play the first few years?

Beginners should be encouraged to work down to a low C (second space of the bass clef) by the end of their first year of playing. Once students have learned to navigate the shift of their jaw into the low register, the difficult part is done and the pedal range can develop quickly after that. Most 2nd- and 3rd-year players should be able to play down to pedal G (below low C) and then high school students can work on reaching the fundamental pedal C as a goal.

What things could I do or say that might lead my students astray?

1. Never have them play below a low F in the first year.

2. Have them only play low and never encourage them to build their range upward (there’s a balance and they need to be working in both directions).

3. Tell them to loosen their lips or mouth.

4. Allow them to slide their mouthpiece up or down on their lips to play low.

5. Let them roll their lips out and push away from the mouthpiece even if they are getting the right notes.

6. Let them play low with a bunched chin or rolled-in lips.

Be diligent in teaching beginners how to play low correctly, and in a surprisingly short time your work will pay off and your students will be playing three octave scales.

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Why The F (horn)?

Grumpy Cat
WTF - Why the F Horn?

Now that I have your attention, let’s talk a little bit about the advantages of practicing on the “F” horn!

Historically, our modern-day horn is a descendent of the hunting/natural horn. The sound uttered on these early instruments was likely raucous and rustic (I’m being generous here). But, like other early instruments, the technique and artistry evolved.

Mozart wrote some of our most beloved horn concertos for his friend Leutgeb and the Eb Natural Horn. Practicing these concertos on the F horn (1st valve) can help us get in touch with our horn-playing “roots”, giving us a deeper appreciation for the rich history of the horn.

Acoustically, the “F” horn is the longer horn on our double horn (F/Bb) offering more resistance and available partials. The tone is thick, complex, and multi-dimensional and closer to what many players believe is an ideal horn tone.

By playing on the F side of the horn, we are required to focus air and embouchure more keenly in order to navigate through the resistance and closer partials. This, when done successfully, will translate into a greater ease of playing when we return to the double horn fingerings.

Also, playing lip slurs on the F horn is extremely important. Gliding smoothly and evenly through the harmonic series will help lay the foundation for maximum tone and flexibility.

Have I convinced you of the value of practicing on the F side yet? Keep reading…

As a private horn teacher for over forty years, I have discovered many tips that have helped myself and my students improve on the horn. One of these is regarding accuracy, the never-ending quest of every horn player on the planet! When one of my young students is dealing with accuracy and consistency issues (don’t we all?) I have them prepare part of a Kopprasch etude (or similar) using only F horn fingerings. By training their ear and embouchure to center notes on the F horn, I have noticed tremendous improvement in this area.

In summary, practicing on the “F” side of the horn helps us:

  1. Connect to the horn’s rich heritage
  2. Cultivate a warm, ideal tone
  3. Promote ease of playing
  4. Develop smooth, even slurs and greater flexibility
  5. Improve ear training and accuracy

So…

Why  The F horn not?

— Karen Houghton

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Follow These 3 Easy Steps to Supercharge Your Practice Sessions!

As musicians, we are accustomed to the constant expectations and pressures of practicing our instrument.  We put in the time, but are we getting the most out of our practice sessions?  It can be discouraging to put in the necessary time and hard work and not achieve the desired results.  Let’s take a step by step look at how to efficiently practice!

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For our approach, let’s use Etude #1 from 12 Etudes Brillantes, Op. 43 by Gallay, edited for horn by James Chambers, which can be found here.

cover of 12 Etudes Brillantes by Gallay ed Chambers

1.  Before you begin, make sure to have a practice plan.  What is your goal for the upcoming practice session?  Start with a broad goal and narrow it down.  Answer the following questions:

  • Which piece am I focusing on?  Etude #1 from 12 Etudes Brillantes by Gallay
  • What aspect of my playing am I focusing on?  Accuracy
  • Which measures am I focusing on? Pickups to measure 1 and the pickups to measure 3

Your practice will be much more efficient if you identify these 3 targets.  Remember that limiting your goal is a good thing.  If we were to say that we are working on Etude #1, Accuracy, for measures 1-48, (instead of the pickups to measure 1 and pickups to measure 3), this is not very focused.  We are playing other sections very accurately – we are choosing the specific part in the music that is not accurate.  Perhaps your accuracy is not the issue – there are other aspects to focus on, such as sound quality, intonation, or rhythm.

A screenshot of a cell phone Description automatically generated

2.  Next, identify what you are going to do to reach your specific goal.  This is where many younger students decide to play a section over and over again in hopes that the repetitions will make it better.  While this can work, it is not an efficient use of time.  Additionally, we have limited time to practice in our busy lives and limited endurance.  Part of planning a practice session is identifying tools you will use in order to reach your practice session goals.  Fill in the answer to the phrase, “I’m going to _____.”

  • I’m going to slow down the pickups to really hear and feel where the notes need to slot (7 notes).
  • I’m going to play 3 notes, then add a note at a time.  I will only add the next note when I am consistently accurate with my first 3, my first 4, etc.
  • I’m going to play these 7 notes all on the F side.
  • I’m going to _____ … There are many, many more possibilities and your private teacher is a great resource for efficient practice techniques.

3.  Guess what? – you may now pick up your horn and actually play!  Your practice plan has been established with a clear and concise goal that makes it possible to see and hear a result.  While it does take extra preparation and thought prior to beginning your practice session, it is absolutely crucial.  If you continue to practice in this manner, you will see results.

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Brief note:  As you focus on your practice session goal that is very specific, you will likely notice other aspects of the music that need attention.  Keep your focus on the specific goal that you established but take note of the other areas that need focus.  These can be specific goals for future practice sessions.

Happy horn playing! 📯

–Dr. Sally Podrebarac

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What Hetman Do I Need?

three bottles of Hetman in front of a blue fence
three bottles of Hetman in front of a blue fence

Brass instrument players, have you ever been confused by which type of Hetman your instrument needs? See our chart for French horn, trumpet, trombone, tuba, baritone, and euphonium.

If you have any questions about oiling your specific instrument, please do not hesitate to contact us at 817-993-6400 or [email protected].

As a technician, the Hetman products give me ease of application and so many choices: such a wide array to get the exact viscosity needed on any given part.

— Dennis Houghton, owner and master repair technician

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How to Shop for Pre-Owned Brass Instruments

Kacie Wright examining a pre-owned horn
Kacie Wright examining a pre-owned horn

For the budget-conscious musician, shopping pre-owned instruments can get you the same quality for a much lower price. But how do you know you’re choosing the right instrument? Here are some things to look for.

What condition is the instrument in?

Key points to examine on a brass instrument before purchase:

— Are there any dents or corrosion?

Not all spots are created equal. If the instrument is unlacquered brass, there will be brown fingerprints everywhere someone has touched it. This is a normal part of the oxidation process. Over the next couple of years, that horn will develop a dignified golden-brown patina.

If the instrument has red spots, that might be a sign of red rot, or it might simply be oxidation that managed to sneak under the lacquer. Consult a repair technician if you are concerned about the color of any spots on the instrument.

— Are the valves leaky?

Most reputable shops will be able to give you compression readings, which will tell you if there are any leaks too small for the human eye to see. Houghton Horns is happy to give you these readings on request, and we are in the process of posting them online for all of our instruments.

— Do the valves and slides move smoothly?

If an instrument has been sitting unplayed for months it might be a little sluggish until it’s oiled. But if lubricating the instrument doesn’t get things moving within a few minutes, there might be a problem.

Horn players can follow the instructions in the article How Do I Oil My French Horn?

— Has the instrument been regularly cleaned and taken care of?

If the horn has been sitting in the owner’s attic untouched for 20 years, even a thorough ultrasonic cleaning by your trusted repair shop might not be enough to return it to its original play condition. Ask how often the previous owner played it.

Authorized dealers and repair shops are a good place to look for refurbished instruments because they have a reputation for quality to uphold.

If you are buying from an individual, at the very least you should ask for receipts of any ultrasonic cleanings and repair work they have had done. Take it to your repair shop for a consultation during the trial period.

— Is there any sign of previous damage or repair work?

Once a brass instrument has been dented, even the world’s best repair technician can’t restore it to 100%. Smoothed-out dents and patches in the metal will change the resonance of the instrument.

— Is it free-blowing and easy to play?

There should be the proper amount of resistance. Ask yourself if you would be comfortable playing this instrument for hours at a time, or whether you’d be working yourself to death.

The upper register should be free and easy. The lower register should be rich and vibrant.

— Does it have unexpected intonation problems?

We’re not talking about the usual intonation trouble spots (such as low D, C#, and fourth space E for trumpet players). If you play a few scales and find some notes are weirdly out of tune, maybe pass on this instrument.

Houghton Horns can give you intonation readings on any instrument upon request, and we are working to post the readings for every one of our instruments on our website.

— Can you move flexibly between slurred notes?

Bring some sheet music you are very familiar with to try on the instrument. A new instrument should enhance your technique, not hamper it.

— Is it comfortable to play?

Can your hand reach all of the valves and pinky hook without strain? If they can’t, can anything on the instrument (pinky hook, flipper, etc.) be adjusted to fit your hand better? Can your teacher or a friend recommend a strap or grip that will make the instrument easier to hold?

If all else fails and you really love the instrument, your local repair shop may be able to move the pinky hook and other parts around to better fit your hand. If you want to go that route, be sure to factor that cost into the purchase price. But at any rate, don’t buy an instrument that will be painful to hold for hours on end.

Just because the instrument isn’t comfortable for you at first, that’s not necessarily a bad sign. A new instrument may take a few weeks to start feeling natural to you, especially if you are jumping up from a school horn to a more expensive one. Professional instruments require a higher volume of air and a higher degree of control than beginner instruments, and the step up can be difficult for less experienced players.

Bringing your teacher along to trial instruments with you, or FaceTiming them during the trial, may be helpful in deciding whether there is a genuine issue with the instrument, or whether it will grow more familiar to you with practice.

— Most importantly: Do you like the way it sounds?

Will you enjoy practicing with this instrument every day? Even if it may feel strange to your hands and lips until you get used to it, does it make you sound good?

There’s no rush

Spend plenty of time shopping around before you purchase. Try multiple instruments.

If a seller is too aggressive or too desperate to make the deal that same day, consider that a red flag. No seller who wanted a happy long-term relationship with their customers would rush them into making an unwise decision.

What happens if it’s not working out for you?

Read the terms and conditions before you buy. Legitimate sellers should offer:

— a trial period

— a return policy

— a warranty

If the seller insists that all sales are final, and you might not be able to contact them again if there is a problem with your instrument, don’t trust them with your money.

Is this instrument what you really need, or just cheap?

Five years from now, will you be happy you saved $500 buying from a stranger on Craigslist, if the slide sticks and the valves leak? A brass instrument is a considerable investment that should serve you well for years. As the old adage goes, if the price looks too good to be true, it probably is.

It’s better to buy the right instrument the first time than have to buy a second instrument soon after.

Don’t be afraid to walk away

Sometimes people get attached to an instrument before they find out it exceeds their budget, so they sign the contract anyway, to their later regret.Try saving up for a few months – if you still love that model three months later and can’t imagine playing anything else, that’s when you know you’ve made the perfect choice! Wherever possible, we recommend saving up and buying an instrument outright, because that will save you hundreds of dollars in interest. 

If a loan will be necessary, you can check out our financing options here. After you’ve set a tentative budget, you might also want to ask your personal bank for financing options, because a bank that already has a relationship with you might be willing to give you better terms than a bank that does not know you. Have an idea of how financing will affect your budget before you get too far into the shopping process.

Sometimes customers feel too embarrassed to tell the sales staff that a purchase is beyond their budget at the moment, and this leads them into unwise financial decisions. Don’t stress about telling the salesperson that you will need to save up before purchasing. If the business is legitimate, they have seen this happen a thousand times before and will be happy to say goodbye for now and check in with you later. If they get angry or pushy, you probably don’t want to be doing business with them anyway.

Other considerations

Don’t forget to factor shipping and sales tax into your budget when shopping. If you are shipping the instrument internationally, tariffs and customs duties may apply.

Pre-owned instruments often come with cases, but they are generally in poor condition. Don’t expect a 15-year-old factory case to keep your instrument safe in a serious accident. You may need a new case for a used instrument.

For sanitation reasons, we recommend tossing out any mouthpieces that come with pre-owned instruments. Even if your new-to-you instrument doesn’t come with a mouthpiece, many musicians prefer to change mouthpieces at the same time to better fit the instrument. You might want to add a new mouthpiece to your budget as well.

Once you add in sales tax, shipping, customs, a case, and a mouthpiece, a $3,500 trumpet could easily become $4,000. We recommend keep a spreadsheet in Excel or Google Drive where you can compare all of the various ancillary costs associated with the instruments you are considering.

Ready to start looking?

Okay, so you’ve got a spreadsheet set up and a new browser tab open? Check out instruments on our online shop or schedule an instrument trial appointment. Happy shopping!

— Kacie Wright

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Am I Using the Right Horn Mouthpiece?

Verus Marching Mouthpiece M1T

 

Verus French horn mouthpieces

Not sure if you need to change mouthpieces?  Read below for some indications that it’s time to change.

1. How long have I been playing on my current mouthpiece?  

If it has been a long time, chances are you can benefit from testing what else is out there.  Sometimes, we get stuck in a rut with our equipment.  Changing mouthpieces can drastically improve your sound and technique.  If you are a younger player and are still playing on the same mouthpiece you began on, you are likely ready for a different mouthpiece since you have made significant improvements in your playing over the past few years.  On the other end of the spectrum, if you are a seasoned player, your needs in a mouthpiece have changed over the years as you have grown and settled into your playing habits.

2. Does my mouthpiece feel uncomfortable after a long practice session? 

If the answer is yes, you might want to try a different material or a different inner diameter size.  The Houghton Horns mouthpiece rims in H-kote help immensely with increasing endurance and can be found here.  While it’s important to address endurance issues with a trusted teacher, your mouthpiece could be holding you back.  Generally speaking, if you play on a mouthpiece with an inner diameter size that is too large for you, you may tire quickly.  On the flip side, if you play with an inner diameter size that is too small for you, you may have flexibility issues and a less resonant sound.  Striking the balance between too large and too small for the inner diameter is no easy feat! If you schedule a mouthpiece appointment we’ll be happy to assist you in finding the correct inner diameter size for your embouchure.

It’s also important to note that inner diameter sizing may differ between different manufacturers and brands. Just because you are a 17.5 mm in a Schilke doesn’t automatically mean you’re a 17.5 mm in other brands. Depending on where you measure the inner diameter, you can come up with slightly different measurements. Keep this in mind as you try different brands and be open to trying different sizes.

3. Does my mouthpiece feel like it fits my embouchure?

Your mouthpiece should not feel uncomfortable or cause any pain.  As mentioned previously, there is no “one size fits all” mouthpiece — everyone has a different facial structure and embouchure.  Just because you see your friend or a respected performer playing on a certain model and size does not mean it is the best match for you.  Rim contour is an aspect of mouthpieces that impacts how the mouthpiece feels on your lips.  With many mouthpieces to choose from, we can help guide you to a rim contour that better suits your needs and your embouchure.  

4. Have I recently changed horns?  

If you have recently changed horns, your current mouthpiece might not be the right fit with your new horn.  Finding the right match between the player and horn is a tricky balance.  Don’t just assume that because your mouthpiece worked great on your other horn that it’s the best mouthpiece for your new horn.  We do recommend changing one variable at a time — if you have just purchased a horn, give yourself time to get used to it on your current mouthpiece before venturing out to different mouthpieces. Changing too many variables at once makes it difficult to interpret what is really happening with your equipment.

5. Am I looking for a different sound?  

You may be at a point in your playing that you are looking for a different sound.  Maybe you want a different timbre, more projection, more clarity of articulation.  Trying a different mouthpiece can help you achieve your sound goals in addition to practice.  Generally speaking, the Houghton Horns stainless steel underparts have a more direct, responsive quality while the brass underparts produce a warm and traditional sound.  Stainless steel is corrosion-resistant, hypoallergenic, lightweight, scratch-resistant, and more durable than raw, silver-plated, or gold-plated brass.  These underparts can be found here.  The decision between stainless steel and raw brass is a personal choice for players and we would love to hear your feedback!

6. What kind of ensemble am I playing in?  

We encourage players to create the sound they like best and enjoy.  However, many of us are in situations where we need to blend with a certain group of players.  You might be in a brass quintet, a woodwind quintet, or a symphony orchestra.  Perhaps you are primarily focused on your solo playing and blending with piano.  All of these ensembles will require you to blend with different instruments and people.  The reality for many horn players is that we need to be versatile and able to blend with a variety of groups.  Considering what type of group you are primarily playing with is important when choosing a mouthpiece.  If you have been using the same mouthpiece for a long time, but now have a different group you play with regularly, it might be time to reevaluate your mouthpiece.

7. Where am I doing most of my playing?  

The space in which we play will alter our sound.  While you might do most of your playing and practicing in a small practice room, consider where you do most of your performing.  Is it on a bigger stage that is lively and resonant, or does this stage have a dry sound?  These are questions to ask yourself as you consider your sound in your performance space.  Make sure your mouthpiece works for the venue in which you typically play.  If you have recently changed performance locations, ask a trusted colleague for their take on the venue’s acoustics.  If the acoustics are different than what you are accustomed to, consider changing mouthpieces.

8. How’s my mouthpiece shank fit? 

Sometimes a poor shank fit can affect the performance (flexibility, pitch and/or center) of your equipment. Every receiver is usually slightly different, and your shank should fit securely and snugly in the receiver, without wobbling or rocking when engaged. Depth of fit is also important, so you should generally look for a medium fit (ie: not too far in or too far out). Shank fit issues can also be exacerbated by combining the American (‘Morse’) shank taper with European receivers, or vice versa. Be sure that your mouthpiece shank taper correctly matches your horn’s receiver. If you’re unsure about the fit, feel free to contact us or even send a picture or video of your current setup. 

9. How’s the resistance on my current mouthpiece? 

Experimenting with mouthpiece resistance can aid in helping to achieve higher levels of performance. Does your mouthpiece ‘back-up’ in loud sustained dynamics or registers, or does it lack security and feel vague in soft dynamics? The feel of resistance (whether more open or more focused) is influenced by different cup, bore and backbore characteristics. Generally speaking, the resistance of a mouthpiece should act to temper or complement the instrument’s attributes. For example: large, free-blowing horns might be better matched with a smaller bore mouthpiece, and vice versa. When experimenting with resistance, bore size is a good place to start, and with all of our mouthpiece offerings, there are a myriad of bore size options from which to choose.

10. Most importantly, check with a trusted teacher! 

If your teacher has suggested a mouthpiece change, listen to his or her expertise.  Your teacher has a wealth of knowledge and knows your playing, including your strengths and weaknesses.  We are also here to help at Houghton Horns!  You can schedule a mouthpiece appointment here.  We are happy to listen and chat over webcam if you are unable to come in to the shop.  Having a second set of ears is very important!

Have fun trying new mouthpieces and exploring!  Every time you try a different mouthpiece, you will learn about your playing and your equipment.  Enjoy the process and let us know if you have any questions!

Houghton Horns is offering free shipping and free returns on all of our mouthpieces.  This is the perfect time to try out a different mouthpiece from the comfort of your home.

— 
Dr. Sally Podrebarac