Some Thoughts on Horn Playing for Band Directors

“We only have one thing to sell on the horn. That is the unique and beautiful sound which is particularly the horn. Anything else we try to do, there are countless other instruments that can do it more easily and more securely without the difficulties of the horn.”
James Chambers
Principal Horn, The New York Philharmonic

The purpose of this essay is help band directors who are not hornists understand how to teach the horn. While there are myths and urban legends surrounding the horn as well as legitimate differences in opinion, my statements are born of many years of public school teaching and professional playing. Other hornists may disagree; it is, after all, a big world.

When Young Horn Players Should Begin
Over the years, many of my playing ideals have remained the same or grown but some of my teaching ideas have been changed entirely by my teaching experiences.
As a young horn player who was teaching privately, I was convinced that horn players should not start on other instruments. Now having taught public school many years and seen many frustrated students quit the instrument, my opinion has changed.
First, the horn should not be the student’s first instrument. Most beginners will feel frustrated, confused, and ignored in the typical beginning band class. Students with previous musical experience (maybe piano or violin instruction) have a better chance of success. But what’s the point. The horn is too big for the average 4-6 grade student to hold correctly and you have more than enough to do without teaching students who will need very different instruction from the rest of the class. Beginning band music mostly does not require horns. Sure we all know students who did well in spite of us. Nevertheless, it seems good to give the student the chance to succeed with the others before moving to the horn.
Instead, consider the horn, as you would the double reeds, an instrument to be offered to the best students in the second year. For that matter, I think the saxes and tuba should also be taught the second year, but that’s not the subject of this paper.
Who do you want to change to the horn? First consider the child who really loves the sound of the horn and wants to change. Second choose a very successful flute or clarinet player; they make wonderful horn players, there are usually plenty of them, and the embouchure requires little change. Euphonium players work well, too.
Here’s where I get to challenge a common practice. Do not change trumpet players. The horn and the trumpet are not the same. It will take a long time for the trumpet embouchure to adapt to the horn (in some cases, it never happens quite right) and the horn sound rarely develops the breadth needed. In my college brass class, it was said that one should look for trumpet players with range problems. There could not possibly be worse advice. The horn has a 4-5 octave range and the first notes are usually in the third octave. The trumpet has a 3 octave range at best and the first notes are usually in the second octave. Range problems on the trumpet will be worse on the horn.

Mouthpiece Placement
The common suggestion in books on brass playing is to place the mouthpiece about two thirds on the upper lip and one third on the lower. This is a good place to start for most brass instruments although some trumpet players may object. We have all seen the brass player who succeeds well in spite of an (apparently) “wrong” embouchure. The fact is that we are all very individual and although we can control the instrument and the mouthpiece, the third part of the interface (our unique facial structure) does not always work as expected.
That having been said, in my opinion, the most important part of mouthpiece placement for the horn is to get all of the upper lip inside the rim. For many players, this means the lower rim will sit just inside the red or meaty part of the lower lip, a position known as “setting in” or by it’s German name “einsetzen”.
At this point it is necessary to correct a false impression. Philip Farkas, in his book on horn playing, shows a picture of what he took to be einsetzen. The player is shown with the lip rolled out so that the lower rim of the mouthpiece is on the inside of the lip. Given Mr. Farkas’ esteemed career, I suppose there may be some historical warrant for that position with which I am not familiar, however that is NOT what modern horn players mean when they refer to setting in. Two of the four embouchures shown in Mr. Farkas’ book are set in the lip. Look for the lower rim of the mouthpiece to be just inside the line of the lower lip.
Again, the most single important embouchure characteristic is to have all of the upper lip (that’s where the sound comes from) inside the mouthpiece. Encourage the student to keep the corners of the mouth pulled down, the chin flat and pointed, the teeth well apart and the oral cavity long.

On the Leg or Off
Well, here’s one folks will fight over. The classic (as in hand horn) position is with the bell off the leg. The same position seems to be favored in Europe, by soloists (who often play standing), and among college instructors (who tend to be soloists). The modern double horn is not a hand horn (or a hand horn with added valves). It is a different instrument with a different sound. In the early 1900s it became common for American horn players to rest the bell on the leg and most of the books suggest that position.
Players with the bell held free (off the leg) tend to play horns with smaller bell throats and get a brighter sound. When used poorly, the bell held free of the leg also may produce a brittle, blaring sound.
Players with the bell on the leg tend to play horns with larger bell throats and want a darker sound. However, this position can also produce a muffled, tubby sound. It is important that the bell be pointed away from the body to prevent stuffiness. To play with the bell on the leg the right hand position also usually needs to be changed. More about that in the next section.
The great east coast horn sections (NY, Cleveland, and Philadelphia) are good examples of hornists who play (mostly) on the leg as is the classic “Hollywood” sound. Boston and San Francisco as well as many European and smaller American orchestras play predominately with the bell held free. Dale Clevenger in Chicago plays both ways depending on the music.
I play on the leg about 95% of the time. Sometimes I will lift the bell for a different sound, to be more comfortable in a chair that doesn’t suit me, or just a change during a long rehearsal. The important part is to use the position that allows the best posture for the player’s body type. Taller or long-waisted players may want to hold the bell free in order to sit correctly. Shorter players may need a block under the right foot to attain the correct posture if they want to hold the bell on the leg. Posture is more important than being committed to one position or another.
Holding the bell off the leg means the weight of the horn is supported by the little finger of the left hand. To free up the left hand, a horn needs to be modified with the addition of a “duck’s foot” or “flipper” which is a device that moves support of the horn to the front of the hand by the index finger. They are available from Osmun’s at as well as other places. Another possibility is the addition of a strap for the left hand. The strap is my choice. Although maybe not as elegant as the duck’s foot, I think it is more comfortable and spreads the weight of the horn over a larger area. Mine was designed by Hans Clebsch (a member of the Cleveland Orchestra horn section). It can be seen at . Finally there is a kind of end pin for the horn designed by English hornist Pip Eastop who is a member of the faculty of the Royal College of Music. The best version is made by Paxman. Go to Paxman's website and you will find it toward the bottom of the accessories page.

The Right Hand in the Bell
The right hand is in the bell for three reasons:
  1. It changes the sound of the instrument.
  2. It helps with intonation.
  3. It changes the horn acoustically. Some notes, particularly those above the staff, are much more responsive and “slot” better with hand in the bell.
The classic horn position is the one passed down from the hand horn players. It is best described as the “handshake” position and is the one in (almost) all of the books on horn playing. It is essential for hornists who are standing and helps civilize the sound of a horn with the bell held off the leg.
Students who hold the bell on the leg need to open the bell up more than the “handshake” position allows. The “handshake” position tends to push the sound into the player’s body and allow it to be muffled. The best option is the one used by sections in NY, Cleveland, and Philadelphia. Place the hand with the palm up on the bottom of the bell. This will project the sound away from the body. Although I have never seen this position in a book, it is used by many players and taught by many teachers.
Young students who have trouble holding the horn because of their size can be successful by holding the bell with the back of the hand against the top of the bell. This allows them to learn to use the right hand and still support the instrument. This position should be abandoned as soon as the student has grown large enough to hold the horn properly.
After the invention of valves (during the 1800s) there was a movement to remove the hand from the bell. That proved to not be a useful way of playing the horn and was abandoned. However many young students will still try it. Directors should not allow students to play with the hand out of the bell.
One final thought. The right hand changes both the timbre and the pitch of the horn. Adjust the pitch by pushing the hand into the bell (to flatten the pitch) or sliding it out. Do not use the heel of the hand to adjust pitch alone because it will also change the timbre. To change the timbre, open or close the heel of the hand SLIGHTLY. This will also change the pitch so adjust accordingly. Big changes are not needed. Small adjustments have big effects.