Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Horn Diary

In this post Jonathan West talks about different kinds of horn tone. Back the weekend before Christmas I played horn in the community concert band's Christmas program on Saturday night and then in a cantata Sunday morning. It was a wonderful experience of the difference between the first tone Jonathan talks about (wind quintet and small ensembles), and the last (concert band).

In the community band I'm the only horn, with five trumpets, two trombones and three baritones. I generally play at least shade higher than the given dynamic when against the other brass, just to get some balance. Over the years I've discovered that a brassy tone can help being heard, and have been encouraged to play that way. The problem is I didn't take up horn to be able to make that sort of sound. I understand its place in the band arranger's palette, but feel trumpets can do brassy much better. 

The sound that appeals to me is more what Jonathan talks about first, that of the horn in a small ensemble. Since September I've been listening to a recording an ensemble Jonathan is in playing a wind quintet I wrote sometime back. Without consciously realizing it at first, hearing that tone of Jonathan's changed the sound I'm getting from the horn, and the cantata was a perfect piece of music to explore that tone.

Dave Wilken often says we make a mistake when we assign the reason for musical growth to a particular cause, because when we practice we're doing lots of things, not just the one thing we might be focused on at the time. I agree with that, but also feel that listening to my friend Susan's flute tone this summer and hearing Jonathan's horn tone on that recording both had a catalytic effect, as those aural experiences made me more aware of what I wanted on each of those instruments and, on a proprioceptive level, how to get there.

During this past semester I started playing "off the leg" and am enthused with the results.

When I started horn I used a Farkas very deep cup mouthpiece because I liked the tone. When I had my embouchure crisis and began working with Jeff Smiley's BE method I also switched to a Farkas medium cup mouthpiece. I didn't like the tone as well, but it was lots easier to play.

During the brief hiatus from band I've been switching to a Farkas medium deep cup. I instantly felt better able to lip pitches into tune, which I think is due to there being more lip inside the wider diameter, so there's more to work with. My hope is this mouthpiece will be something of a compromise between ease of playing and the tone I prefer.

I've been spending nearly all my playing time on the F horn, and have been enjoying not having to play 1st horn parts. In the past when band was in session, just trying to keep up with simply being able to play all the parts took most of my energy. These days my endurance and range are much better, and having become familiar with concert band writing, my hope is I can learn those parts much more quickly and then still have time and lip each day for chamber style music.


  1. Many musical improvements are as you describe. You are taking in a whole range of experiences, and processing them on a level in your mind that is a bit below conscious rational thought. Afterwards, you can identify certain influences that probably have helped, but there is no way of knowing just why it is that those influences were effective just now.

    I'm quite sure that my tone has in significant part been influenced by the fact that I frequently listened to the Dennis Brain recordings of the Mozart Horn Concertos when I was young. That became for me the authoritative tone colour to aim for, even before I realised that I should be aiming for anything in particular. And as a result, I try to keep some of that smoothness and lightness even when putting on the power in a solo passage in a Mahler symphony. I can do brassy, but I choose only to do so as a special effect when I think the musical occasion requires it.

  2. Jonathan - That first paragraph is very well put. And that phrase in the second, "that smoothness and lightness" is wonderful.

    (Your use of "buzzy" in your original post always throws me off, though, because of my associating the word with "buzzing the mouthpiece". Plus, talking about tone is very difficult, which is why an aural example like your listening to Dennis Brain is worth way more than a thousand words.)

    Just want to add down here that I'm pretty sure my starting to play off the leg was an unconscious attempt to move my tone more over to what you were up to in Timepiece. I know coincidence is not causation, but I can't think of any other reason why after all these years I thought to try holding the horn up right about then.

    In other horn news, it seems one of the C'ville horns will be joining the Orange band this semester. I won't believe it until I see (and hear) it, but that could change everything and be wonderfully helpful to my playing. Slipping in those lower harmony notes as a 2nd is more what I was doing in that cantata - plus, with two of us I wouldn't need to work as hard being heard against the other brass. No to mention not wearing myself out covering the higher range of 1st parts.