Thursday, August 20, 2009

F Horn

The community band and the Presbyterian ensemble are both on hiatus, so for the past month I've been exploring the F horn using the Balanced Embouchure approach, sticking with written notes mostly from the Bb below middle C to the C an octave up when it comes to repertoire. The Kenwood Players will be performing in two country churches, one this Sunday and another the next, so I've been working on the alto lines of the old time hymns taken down several steps and put in flat keys. Also working up the alto lines in the small pieces from Handel's Water Music  and Music for the Royal Fireworks that have been a part of the learning materials since the beginning.

The F horn is so much more forgiving in its core range than the Bb, at least for me. Even though you can make most of the notes on either horn, they feel slightly different on the lips. The closest thing to it is how you can make the same note on the low E or the A string on a guitar using different frets. The vibrations are the same frequency, but on the E string and F horn they feel fatter, thicker, broader. 

Somehow that extra heft of the vibration makes the note easier to work with on the F horn. It's an exaggeration, but the F horn feels like comfortable tennis shoes and the Bb horn feels like ever so slightly tight dress shoes. Working on these alto lines on the F feels great because good intonation and tone come much more easily, and my endurance is much better. And when my lips do give out, it's a slow loss of control, whereas on high notes on the Bb horn the loss of control can be sudden.

One reason I'm posting on this is because it changed my mind on an issue brought about by the unsettledness of the horn world. There's no agreement among educators on how to start students on the horn. Some say on the F, some say on the Bb, some say on a double and some say on a 3/4 size double. 

Given that concert band music wants the horn high in it's register, I'd thought the Bb horn would be the way to go, but now I'm not so sure. The comfort of playing in mid range on the F horn is allowing me to feel and work with my embouchure in a way not possible on the Bb.

The problem might not be the horn, but the music. 


  1. Hi Lyle

    You're discovering the key principle: "Do whatever works for you."

    We are all different. I play mainly on the Bb side because I find it easier to do so with my particular combination of embouchure, mouthpiece and horn.

    If you find it more comfortable and better overall to play the mid range of the F horn, then you should have absolutely no hesitation in making it your preferred side for that range. But you should have facility in the fingerings for both sides so that you can easily change from one to the other for a passage which doesn't fall easily under the fingers for your normally preferred side.

    Also, I would recommend that you don't have any hard & fast rules about the changeover point when you move to the Bb side in the upper register. Having the facility to select the appropriate side at will means that you can avoid those awkward transitions when a tricky passage extends both sides of the break. Such a passage might be tricky either because it is fast so changing thumb valve partway through isn't practicable, or because it is slurred and changing thumb valve position means that the slur isn't all that clean.

  2. Jonathan - Thanks for the comment (and welcome back from the Fringe). Especially appreciate the trigger comments. For me it's not just the thumb movement, but the subtle embouchure switch I want to avoid in passages.

    Another thing about the F horn I noticed today playing in a small country church is that it seems to have more of that amazing blend all the other sounds together effect the horn seems to have in ensembles. We were an Eb tuba, trombone, horn and alto sax with percussion playing old time hymns in four parts. Every now and then the blend was terrifically good and my sense is the Bb horn wouldn't have been quite as good in the mix.

  3. Hi Lyle
    I must admit I haven't noticed any particular embouchure change between F and Bb side for myself.

    When speaking of the problems of slurring using the trigger I was thinking of the fact that a very long new length of tubing has to be set in vibration when you change between Bb and F side. The time taken makes the slur seem less than clean to me, so I try and avoid changing side in slurred passages.

  4. Jonathan - Thanks for the clarification, it's very helpful. As for the embouchure change, it might be better stated as the different feel the lips have of the vibration, even though they're in the same configuration. As a beginner, like to eliminate as many variables as possible. The other thing is I started at age 55 having never played a brass instrument, so my experience is bound to be an outlier in some ways.