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

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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