Full disclosure: like so many other horn players of my age, my earliest transposition experiences in high school consisted of assignments from the Kopprasch book played in various keys. However, being a somewhat clever, yet lazy student, I quickly discovered that I could write the note names under the pitches and then slightly erase them, just before my private lesson. They were still visible to me, but not to my teacher. He never did figure out what I was doing; I think he was just amazed at my ability to transpose!
So my relationship with transposition was founded on deceit, which can never end well. When I entered college as a horn major at California State University Long Beach (CSULB), I won a position in the university orchestra. I decided it was time to grow up, put on my “big girl pants” and actually learn to transpose.
I went back to my old friend, Mr. Kopprasch, and this time I did the work.
During my time at CSULB, I studied with Fred Fox and also James Decker. Fred provided a wealth of information on fundamentals, much of which I still use today in my playing and teaching. Jim Decker was the teacher from whom I learned the vast majority of my orchestral repertoire and I am forever grateful for his wisdom and guidance.
The second “run-in” I had with transposition occurred when Mr. Decker assigned me the famous B Horn solo from Brahms Symphony #2. In those days, I used the excerpt books written by Max Pottag, “French Horn Passages”. In his book that particular solo was printed on two staves, with the Horn in B part on the top and the transposed Horn in F on the bottom. Mr. Decker made it clear that I should learn the original B Horn notation, but of course, I practiced the F part. When I returned the following week for my lesson, I felt confident and rather cocky about my ability to perform the solo. However, just before I began to play, Mr. Decker pulled a black permanent pen out of his pocket. Much to my horror, he proceeded to cross out the entire transposed part! Sitting in stunned silence, face bright red, I finally managed to mutter sheepishly, “I’m going to need another week on this one.”
Even though my experience with transposition started out shakily, it has ultimately become one of my favorite techniques to teach young students. Below are some tips that I have learned over the years to help students learn the art of transposition on the horn…
START EARLY: Even beginners can grasp the fundamental concept of transposition. When they have mastered a short song or exercise, have them play it again starting on a different note. At this early stage the teacher need not mention the words “transposition” or “key signature”. Keep it simple and fun by suggesting, “Let’s play this song, but starting on three different notes!“
LIP SLUR TRAINING: Using the descending valve combination pattern (0, 2, 1, 12, 23, 13, 123) on the open 12 foot F horn, explain to your students that each time a lever is depressed it lengthens the horn. Conversely, the Bb side (thumb lever) of the horn is shorter, approximately 9 feet long. By using an ascending valve combination pattern (T13, T23, T12, T1, T2, T0) to shorten the horn, higher keys may be achieved. In essence, when we play lip slurs in this fashion, we are using our valves to transpose.
HORN HISTORY: Since transposition is a result of the very early hornists playing natural/hand horns of different lengths, take time to share a brief lesson on the history and development of the horn. If you expect your students to learn to transpose you must explain to them the reason for needing this skill. It is not good enough to tell them, “Well, I had to learn how to transpose so you should have to learn too.”
HOME BASE: Make “Horn in F” your home base. All transpositions will relate to Horn in F. For example, if you are transposing to Eb Horn, it’s a whole step below F Horn. Therefore, the key signature also drops down a whole step.
KNOW YOUR SCALES: Scales are the building blocks of musical melodies. In addition to developing technique and providing knowledge of the range of the horn and ear training, scales also help the player adjust to different keys in transposition. Scales and arpeggios all 12 Major and minor keys will provide a solid foundation for transposition.
I hope you’ve found this article helpful. Feel free to share it, and leave questions and comments below!